From Sarah, With Joy

Sarah Allen on the craft, business, and joy of being a writer.

Writing tips every Monday

Story time every Thursday

Monday, September 15, 2014

Top 7 Mistakes That Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional

Writing is subjective enough.

So many important decisions that influence our careers depend on if an assistant got the right coffee that morning, or the timing of editors moving from one house to another, or a magazine editors daughter laughing at your story, or a myriad of other subjective things all out of our control. In many ways we writers are constantly subject to the whims of peoples moods and tastes. An editor or agent looking for say, historical romance, still needs to like our historical romance.

So what can we poor writers do when so much is out of our control? I think one aspect of dealing with that is acknowledging that in many ways this is an endurance game, and that those who stick with it will succeed in the end. However, the other aspect of all this is focusing on the elements we can control.

That means our writing.

When we submit to an agent or editor or anyone for that matter, we may not be able to control what kind of day they're having, or whether they prefer werewolves to vampires, but we can make our submission as clean as possible. We can stand out from many other submissions by sending prose that is polished to a shine and absolutely professional.

And we do that by avoiding several key mistakes that will make our writing look amateurish. Keeping these errors out of our writing can help us convince those agents and editors that we are serious writers, regardless what side of the bed they woke up on that morning.

1. Getting creative with the dialog tags. I'm pretty sure this isn't new to anybody, but it's definitely one of the biggest red flags. I know that as a reader I get a little eye-rolly when people are "bellowing loudly" and "exclaiming vehemently" and "vowing solemnly." Stick with said. Maybe sprinkled with the occasional asked. And if you really, really want to mix it up, maybe use a whisper. But the basic rule of thumb: just plain said.

2. Using exclamation points. In regular prose, the basic rule of thumb is "No Exclamation Points." Just no. Occasionally...strong emphasis on occasionally...they can be useful within dialog. Outside of that, they tend to read as a bit comic kampy. Bang! Womp! Pow! If you're feeling the need to use exclamation points for emphasis, there's a good chance that's a symptom of week prose that might not be bearing the emphasis on its own. Don't get me started on interrobangs...

3. Overuse of adverbs. Before you roll your eyes at yet another someone telling you to avoid adverbs at all costs, just hear me out. I'm not one of those who think of adverbs as pure poison, the smallest dose of which can kill a pet project in its infancy. No, I think every word has its use. Including adverbs. The issue is when you get attached. People often say to avoid too many adverbs because they are too strong, but I think it's just the opposite. Some writers tend to rely on adverbs to show the scene, when really they are some of the weakest descriptors of all, unless used carefully. It's like with exclamation points--mixing it up can lead to stronger writing.

5. Sentence length never varies. Words and sentences have rhythm. Like singing a line of song. Readers get into a set pace. That pace gets old very fast. But if you're conscious of that rhythm, you can take advantage by changing it up. Write short sentences. Then write sentences that wander, that meander, that add to your prose a little bit of syncopation. The change in pace will move your reader forward and keep them interested. That's how you look professional.

6. Switching point-of-view. Otherwise known as head hopping. This can make things very confusing for your reader, and make your writing appear unprofessional. This is when you're in a scene with your point of view character, let's call her Betty, and your secondary character, Martha. If we're in this scene and suddenly we get:
"These croissants are delicious," Martha lied. She knew Betty couldn't cook to save her life.
than suddenly we're in Martha's head, seeing what she thinks. We've hopped from Betty's head to Martha's. Switched point-of-view. An automatic red-flag of unprofessionalism.

7. Using cliche phrases. There's not much to say about this one. And no quicker way, really, to know all the phrases to avoid than just by doing lots and lots of reading. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any phrase you remember hearing before. Saying a character is "cold as ice" doesn't really say anything anymore. Saying a characters eyes are "blue like the ocean" will generally just make your reader roll theirs. Then suddenly all hell will break loose.

I hope these tips help, but first a reminder: writing rules are, to quote the inimitable Captain Barbosa, more actual guidelines. It is important to know the "rules," and follow them probably the vast majority of the time. That is how you make your writing professional. But to make your writing personal--to make it memorable to your readers--add your own style and flavor. Be you. And if that means tweaking a few of these rules every once in a while, then try it out. See if it works.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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  • Madcap Review: Madcap Review, a semiannual online journal of art and literature, will be accepting submissions for its second issue from September 1st to October 31st.
  • Allegro Poetry Magazine: Allegro Poetry Magazine seeks to publish the best contemporary poetry. Issue 1 will be published at the beginning of October and the editor is looking for poems on the theme “New”. Due Oct. 31.
  • The Great American Lit Mag: Online literary magazine Inaugural Issue! The Great American Lit Mag is looking for fearless and inventive fiction and poetry. We publish quarterly. Due Sep. 30.
  • Howl Magazine: Howl, edited by Deltona High School students, is currently seeking submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art for our brand new online literary magazine. Please feel free to send up to five poems or art and no more than one piece of prose at a time. Year-round.
  • Lunch Ticket Magazine: Literary magazine Lunch Ticket (Antioch University) is accepting submissions for its Winter/Spring 2015 issue. Submissions welcome in the following genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing for young people, visual art, and translation. Due Oct. 31.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Hidden Skeletons in Disneyland's Closet; or I See Dead Pirates

My family has been to Disneyland enough times that it has become somewhat of a multi-day Easter egg hunt. We own the book about all the "Hidden Mickeys." We've found the hidden Eeyore in the Indiana Jones ride. (He's in the room with the projector where Sallah is telling you all about the eyes of the idol and how to wear seat-belts. Look up behind the projector--a Cast Member can show you). We've learned that a pineapple float from the Dole Whip stand by the Tikki Room is maybe the best food ever made, and that the Haunted Mansion doesn't actually give out Death Certificates. (We tried. Several times.)

We learned something new this last trip. Something that is perhaps my favorite Disneyland tidbit yet.

In typical Walt "Make It Perfect" Disney fashion, when the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was originally constructed, they used actual skeletons. Actual. Skeletons. Of course in subsequent remodeling these actual dead pirates bodies were replaced with fake ones.

Except not all of them.

There is a remaining actual pirate skull. It's the one in the headboard in the captains quarters. And maybe it's just me but I think you can tell.

I know this probably says a little too much about my morbid side, but I think that's pretty awesome. And it's unfortunate that "Remains of a Loved One" is among the top items on the list of things not allowed in Disney parks, which makes me wonder how many people tried to spread the ashes of their loved one in the Rivers of America before Disney decided they had to make it against the rules, but I also have to acknowledge that the sentiment makes sense to me because if I was going to pick one place to be laid to rest it would be in the creepy banjo players cabin across from the Blue Bayou restaurant. (Can you imagine any better place to haunt? Sliding into the back of the boat of unsuspecting visitors, clamping your bony fingers over their terrified shoulders at just the right moment...*sigh* good times). 

But again, against the rules. But I imagine that Disneyland would be one of those strict but very kind parents. Like, say, hypothetically, if your brother in law accidentally brought a big old Swiss army knife in his backpack and then lost the backpack and had to go check at the lost and found and then had to choose whether to leave and take the knife home or let the Cast Member dispose of it, he would be escorted by security all the way off Disney property so he could take the knife back to the hotel and then given fast passes for everyone in the group. All hypothetical of course.

But it could mean, hypothetically, that there's a box somewhere with a bunch of confiscated knives and stink bombs and hand-cuffs and zip-ties (all things on the Not Allowed In the Parks list).

Because even this place's hidden skeletons are totally awesome.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

P.S. So this is a new thing we're going to try every Thursday. This will be our weekly Story-time, where we chat about interesting things, look at cool pictures, and mostly just tell funny stories. The Monday writing advice posts will remain exactly the same, and then we'll go a little more casual with these story-time posts every Thursday. Hopefully these provide fun reads as you gear up for the weekend :)

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Monday, September 8, 2014

How To Write In A New Genre (And 4 Reasons You Should)

One of my favorite things to do is venue research--finding places where I might place some words. In fact I have to be careful that browsing magazine listings doesn't take time away from actual writing. But I love to browse the calls for submission at NewPages or look at the awesome list of consumer magazines at Funds For Writers. Often writers will have a page on their website or blog that lists their publication credits, sometimes years and years back, and you can see all the magazines they've contributed to. Another great list of potential places to submit. One of my favorites, particularly for speculative fiction writers, is the website of Mary Robinette Kowal.

One thing this habit has done, besides necessitate more conscious and increased focus on my main projects, is encourage me to expand my literary horizons.

I've always been more of a contemporary writer. The short story I wrote in my eighth grade creative writing class was about a single mom seeing her son in her dead husbands cigarette scented leather jacket. (Not presumptuous at all, right?). I adored Chronicles of Narnia and Chronicles of Prydain, but most of my childhood reading was stuff like Walk Two Moons and The Great Brain and Cricket in Times Square.

My point is this: though my reading habits have grown and shifted, and though almost all my recent work is sort of a blend of contemporary and fantasy, I've never really written a hard sci-fi or high fantasy piece.

Some of the best opportunities and venues I've come across in my research are for hard sci-fi and high fantasy.

Which means I'm needing to stretch myself, if I want to participate in these opportunities. In fact, I'm working on a piece now that I hope to submit for consideration in a sci-fi anthology. It is definitely a challenge, but I feel like I am learning a lot, and seeing some great potential benefits.

So if you want to write in a genre you've never tried before, how do you do it? And why should you even try?

One of the most important tools for writing in a new genre is reading in that new genre. That is the best way to get the flavor and tone of the tradition you are joining. There are a lot of things about writing that one learns best through a sort of osmosis, and reading in a new genre can help you avoid cliches and pitfalls that might be specific to the genre you're trying out.

Try reading blogs from authors in the new genre. This, along with the reading, can be a sort of genre crash course. Author bloggers often talk about the ins and outs of their genre, and reading these posts can help you get some of the "insider" scoop. For example, if you want to try romance, reading the blogs of some established romance writers might help you figure out genre pillars romance readers expect, as well as cliches to avoid to help you stand out in a positive way.

Most of all, be you and have fun. In some ways, I feel like these strict genre delineations are a bit silly and can be the opposite of useful. I think what many of us write already has a little bit of this and a little bit of that. (This is why when query time comes around, it can be tempting to make the "It's a rom-com meets horror but also with cowboys and a dash of the paranormal" mistake.) The point is, we are all extremely unique, and its important to bring to the table what only you can bring to the table. Learn the genre, know the genre, then do it how only you do. Just go for it.

Okay though. This does kind of seem like a lot of work, right? And maybe a little intimidating. Definitely has been that way in my experience. So why do it? Why not just stick with our comfort zone?

1. Your overall writing will improve, including in your normal genre. Imagine someone at the gym who is really working on building those biceps. They work those biceps hard, and know all the best methods and tricks. The thing is, if they do nothing but work the biceps, they run the risk of stagnation. To help them progress, they should remember that it's all connected, and that their quest for perfect biceps can in fact be assisted by working other muscles like the triceps and deltoids.

Such is the case with genre, in my opinion. I have learned things in experimenting in new genres that I can most definitely take back and incorporate into the stuff I typically write. Here's a graphic that shows what I mean, and I think is a great place to start.

2. You will make new industry connections. Plain and simple. By, for example, submitting to genre magazines you wouldn't otherwise have submitted to, you will make those connections you might have missed out on. And those connections can lead to additional great opportunities, both in and outside of your regular genre.

3. You will broaden your writing resume. Writing in a multitude of genres gives us versatility and flexibility. We grow our street cred. Then when more opportunities come up that we want to pursue, we have the experience and even some word count to back it up. I may be in the beginnings of my hard SF journey now, but next time I see a great opportunity in that genre, I'll have that much more experience in my tool belt. I think most of us rather enjoy working in lots of genres, like we enjoy reading in lots of genres, so starting now and building up that broad resume can really get us off to a good start.

4. You will find new readers. Again, I think most of us typically read in a lot of genres. I mean, we may have a genre we gravitate to more often than others, but I think most of us mix it up every once in a while. And so do our readers. A reader who typically reads hard SF might very well also enjoy contemporary YA. In other words, even if a prospective reader discovers me through a science fiction magazine, that may help me grow my readership in the other genres. Same with anyone. If you typically write historical novels but then decide to submit a short story to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, the overlap could very well help you find more readers for your historical novels.

Do you think its worth it to try writing in a new genre? What is your typical genre, and what others might you want to try?

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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  • Tennessee Williams Literary Festival Short Fiction ContestSubmit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. $25 entrance fee. Due Nov. 16.
  • Beecher's Magazine: Beecher’s Magazine, an annual print journal produced by graduate students at the University of Kansas, seeks inimitable poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art for its fifth anniversary issue. Due Feb. 14.
  • Pentimento: Pentimento, a literary magazine for the disability community, is accepting submissions for our Winter 2014/2015 issue. We publish disability-related essays, poetry, and fiction and artwork and photography by individuals with a disability. The writing topic for the Winter issue is “Romance,” and we’re seeking true stories regarding romance and disability. Due Sep. 30
  • The Last LineFrom the fine folks who bring you The First Line: We're going to try a little experiment. We've got a last line for you, and we want you to give us the story that ends there. We'll follow the same guidelines as The First Line (300-5,000 words), with the twist that all of your stories must end with the last line provided. Due Oct. 1
  • Building Red AnthologyWalrus Publishing, an independent press from St. Louis, Missouri, is now accepting submissions for our sci/fi anthology, Building Red-The Colonization of Mars. Due Nov. 1.


Monday, September 1, 2014

How To Use Your Hobbies To Build Your Author Platform

An "author platform" is at once an urgent and ambiguous term. We hear all the time about how important it is, and how building a marketing and publicity platform is second only in importance to the writing itself. We must write the most and the best that we can, but then we must find people to read that writing.

This raises two questions. First, how do we most successfully build that author platform, and second, how do we do it most efficiently, taking as little time as possible from the writing. One of the best answers I've come up with is to use aspects of our lives already in place. Kill two birds with one stone.

Use our hobbies.

I believe using our hobbies can both provide a way for us to build our author platforms, and a way for us to do it efficiently.

Here's a few ways I think we can do that.

1. Source for social media content: With smart phones, high quality pictures of basically anything are immediately shareable. And visual content is the king of modern social media. We writers typically think of posting stuff about writing on social media, but occasionally getting fun or quirky or personal can work wonders. And we want more than just our fellow writers in our audience, right? (Though our fellow writers are also incredibly important and valuable members of that audience.) So while you're out in your garden, or fixing a car, or painting, or playing guitar or chasing tornadoes or whatever it is you do, take a picture and share it. You might bring a smile to some faces.

2. Source for article ideas: Part of building a writer platform is being varied in our writing projects and gigs. Most of us write novels, but to build a platform we can add short stories, poetry, essays, scripts, and, of course, magazine articles. So if you do hair or make birthday cards or garden, that is the perfect place to start for magazine article topics. There are quite literally magazines on any topic. And here is a great place to start.

3. How-to tutorials: Tutorials are some of the most clickable and shareable content on the web, and if you have a special area of expertise, take advantage of it! Even if you have a writing blog, I don't think its bad to add a little variety to it once in a while. You can make a tutorial about planting tomatoes or sketching a dragon or making a frame out of an old book cover. I think these kind of posts will bring new readers to your audience. And don't forget to post a link on Pinterest. How-to's do particularly well over there.

4. Joining communities: Writers often reference author-specific communities, and those can be incredibly valuable. Other writers can be our mentors, guides, and biggest supporters. But if we're building a platform, and working to grow our audience, we would do best to expand to other groups as well. And this is where our hobbies can come in to play. Join an online gardening forum or gaming group. If you're interested in learning photography, maybe check out some community classes. Audition for a play at a local theater. These are all great opportunities to build your platform and grow your network. While talking with awesome people and making friends :)

5. Point of collaboration: So far we've mostly been talking about ways to incorporate our own hobbies into our platform building. But I think we can also build our author platforms by partnering up with others and utilizing their hobbies. For example, if you're not a photographer but have a friend who is, you could invite them to guest post on your blog about how to take great cover photos. Or perhaps you've always wanted to try your hand at writing songs, but aren't a musician. Maybe collaborate with a friend who plays the guitar, and another friend who likes to make music videos. I think in terms of building platform, two heads are definitely better than one.

What do you think? Are there other ways we can use our hobbies to help build our author platform?

Write on!

This week on social media:

 For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on FacebookTwitterGoogle+
YouTubePinterestTumblrGoodReads, and/or Instagram.

  • Death Where the Nights Are Long: Death Where the Nights are Long is an anthology of writing about the idea and experience of death in extreme lattitudes. Due Nov. 1
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul-Thanks to my Mom: We are collecting stories of thanks written by sons and daughters of all ages about their moms and stepmoms. Tell us what your mom has done for you and why you are grateful to her. Due Sep. 30
  • Brickplight: Brickplight exists to promote the exploration of unique identities through daring poetry. Due Oct. 25
  • Glassworks Magazine: Glassworks Magazine, a journal of literature and art publishing digitally and in print, seeks poetry, fiction, nonfiction, craft essays, art/photography, and new media (video, audio, multi-modal, etc.) for upcoming issues. Due Dec. 15
  • Little Patuxent ReviewLittle Patuxent Review is accepting submissions of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and artwork for the Winter 2015 Food issue. How many tongues can you access through the language of food? How many minutes could you commune with a family at a foreign table, supported with the language of food? Due Nov. 1


Monday, August 25, 2014

A Question for YOU

It's been a while since I've dedicated a post to getting feedback from you guys, and it's about time to do that again. I may ask some of the same questions, so I apologize to those of you who've been here long enough to answer some of these. But I would still very much love to hear your answer, even if its a repeat, and there are some new questions too.

This, for me, is one of the best ways I know to figure out how I can grow and improve as a writer on the internet. I want to know what you think, and what is most beneficial and interesting to you. Yes YOU. I would love to hear your answers to all or any of the following questions.

1. What blogs do you visit most? I basically want to know which blogs are your favorite (in addition to this one, of course ;) and I'm thinking that one of the best ways to gauge how helpful a blog is for you is to see how often you find yourself going back. So which blogs do you go back to again and again? Give me your top two or three, or more!

2. What book are you reading now, and how/where did you discover it?

3. How do you feel about the following on author blogs: Personal stories/essays, flash fiction, poetry, photo essay (ie. pics from the bloggers personal life and excursions) or "home-made" comics/illustrations (kinda like Hyperbole and a Half or Debbie Ohi).

4. Do you regularly watch any YouTube channels? If so, which ones?

5. Are you currently subscribed to any author newsletters?

6. What Reader do you use for reading blogs? Bloglovin? Feedly? FriendConnect? Something else? Or do you visit blogs one by one?

7. What is the number one thing you spend time doing on the internet? Facebook? Pinterest? Blog reading? Shopping? YouTube videos? Reading fan fic? Gaming?

8. Any ideas or suggested changes that you think would make this blog more useful, entertaining, or easier to read? Seriously, I can take it. If there's something you love from other blogs that you think could be incorporated here, let me know. If there's something here that bothers you, let me know. Any random thoughts? Let me know.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer any or all of these questions. I truly appreciate it, and want to hear as many ideas and perspectives as I can to make this blog the most helpful and entertaining for you that it can possibly be. Your feedback is always welcome and valued. Thanks again, I very much look forward to hearing what you have to say!

Write on!

Sarah Allen

This Week on Social Media:
For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on FacebookTwitterGoogle+
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  • University of Iowa Press: Two publication awards are given annually by University of Iowa Press for first collections of short fiction. Writers who have not published a book of fiction are eligible. Due Sep. 30.
  • The Filid Chapbook: The Filid Chapbook is looking for BLUE content. (The color, the music, the range of feeling—we're looking for explorations of the theme). We accept poetry, nonfiction, short fiction, visual art, and pretty well anything else that interests us. Due Sep. 26.
  • Clockhouse Magazine: Clockhouse, a literary journal published in partnership with Goddard College, seeks submissions from emerging and established writers for its 2015 issue. Clockhouse is devoted to a variety of genres, publishing fiction, poetry, memoir, creative nonfiction, and dramatic work. Due Dec. 1

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