From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Monday, October 26, 2015

Quality vs. Quantity: Can You Have Your Cake and Eat It Too?

One of the best things about being in an MFA program is that it is absolutely forcing me to learn, and to look all my writing habits straight on and determine with a clear head weather they are productive or not. There are a myriad of ways to do this, not just school, but I encourage you to find a way to put yourself in this situation. 

One thing this school situation has been forcing me to think about is quality versus quantity. (And I don't mean to dichotomize these two things--I definitely do NOT think they are mutually exclusive, but let me explain.)

So, I've been doing this writing thing for a long time, which means I've got a good chunk of stuff in the metaphorical drawers. I'm definitely not talking quality here, because much of my backlog is about as pretty as a baboons poop drawing, but its, ya know, there. I've even got a few novels handy, which are hopefully better than baboon poop.

In my efforts to make my creative writing workshops the most effective and beneficial I possibly can, I've been forced to make some decisions: do I focus on reworking old stuff, getting as much feedback on it as I can? Or do I put out something new?

The ideal answer to this question is obviously both. We want bright, polished trophy-winners, and actually an armful of them would be nice. But the thing is, I think we as authors tend to naturally fall somewhere on this spectrum of Rework to New, and each extreme comes with writerly downfalls. There are two extremes:

Stuck in a rut. If you've been working on the same piece for the last several years and are still workshopping it, it might be time to do some re-thinking. I mean, if this piece is one that you've totally flipped, and you're just getting the new version off the ground, that's one thing, but if you're niggling over the same things you've been angsting about for years and years, you might want to consider moving on before your writing partners feel tempted to duct-tape you to a chair and force you to watch them feed page after page of your glorious manuscript into a fiery furnace. If this piece isn't working, let it not work. Write something that does.

Pez-dispenser. Does anybody really like Pez's? The candy, I mean (the dispensers are pretty cool). They're just sort of meh. You can eat chalky brick after chalky brick, but it doesn't really do much for you. Don't be a writer like this. And I confess, this is the tendency I'm working against. It's so easy for me to put down a piece, get a little feedback on it, and then move on. It's like leaving the pot unpainted, or the cake unglazed. DO NOT LEAVE THE CAKE UNGLAZED. I have to consistently remind myself that no one particular piece is going to be my magic pill that makes everything happy happy rainbows of author fame and fortune. The true magic is in a long career of high quality stuff. That means taking time with each worthwhile piece and massaging it and doing whatever needs doing to help it reach its fullest potential. Don't leave that baby half done. Let it gestate until its heart beat is nice and strong. Don't let it live at home until you retire, either, but give it its needed care.

Okay, my metaphors are getting weird now, so its time for me to stop. Anyway, my point is that there is, as in all things, a need for balance. I'm working on not rushing--on taking a very serious look at the feedback I get, and looking very closely at each piece until I can really, truly hear it sing. It's like hitting a tuning-fork--you know when its got that right pitch. No piece will every be perfect, but its important to work with it until it has that music, and then to Let. It. Go.

I'm going to try to do both.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Tips For Creating an Engaging Author Website

People's lives are basically entirely online now, right? (Is there such a thing as offline anymore?) When you're trying to get peoples attention, websites are the new billboards. Except instead of large, evenly spaced and easily readable billboards you glance at as you drive down the freeway, now imagine literally millions of billboards all of different sizes crowding yours 100 layers deep plus there's a gigantic, enormous FACEBOOK billboard blocking out all the others anyway.

That's kinda how it is trying to get your author website noticed.

*Please note, also, that I'm largely talking about static websites now. This can apply to your blog, too, if it is your author website, but blogging is another topic all together.

Here are a few things you might have on your author website to keep people engaged and coming back.

1. Be a curator of good content. Whether its cat videos or book recommendations, if people know they can get their entertainment fix by coming to your website, they'll come back again and again. You don't have to do everything for everyone, but if you're a connoisseur of, for example, Anime, don't be afraid to show visitors to your website that cool new Japanese art you found.

2. Music/Playlists. DO NOT--I repeat, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES have music play as soon as someone enters your site. It is PURELY annoying. Nobody likes it. If I come to your website and it has music playing I will be gone faster than shampoo on Severus Snape's beautifully greasy head. That being said, people love music, and are no doubt inspired by it, as you are. So share the songs that secured that character in your head, or helped solve your voice problem. And change it up every once in a while too. People may come to appreciate your taste.

3. Book Club Info. You may do well to have a page on your website dedicated for book club organizers. This is where they can come to get answers to FAQs or even a handout made by you, the author. You may inspire someone to pick your book because you make it so friendly to do so.

4. Quizzes and Polls. Yeah, yeah, you may think all those Buzzfeed quizzes are annoying, but they sure get traction, don't they? You can use PlayBuzz or many other sites to create your own quiz. Let your readers know which character of yours they most resemble, or poll them to see which British Victorian novelist they like most. Whatever works for you.

5. Fan Slideshow. Its always great to see authors appreciating involvement from their fans. If you can, make a slideshow on your website of nice letters or fan art you receive. (With permission, of course.) That way fans feel like they are involved, and part of a community.

So what does this look like? For a beautifully designed author website, visit Meredith McCardle. (She has bios for all her characters too!) And for interactivity, Jody Hedlund has a website with many of the things listed here. She's a great lead to follow. (Her blog is great too!)

What makes you look twice at an author website? What makes you come back for more?

Write on!

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Literary vs. Popular: FIGHT TO THE DEATH!!

I've noticed some very interesting things in the last few weeks. MFA programs often get the reputation for being snobby, and condescending. Now, I haven't noticed that systemically at BYU. My professors are wonderful, and take my (and others) fantasy and speculative work just as seriously as anybody elses, and they're perfectly happy to let me do an MG or YA novel for my thesis. But a couple things happened to me on the same day that made me realize how strong this seeming battle is in people's minds, and I don't like it.

So, as I said, my professors are great. I mentioned in a previous blogpost, though, that there are definitely times when I feel a little intimidated, and to be completely honest its just a small handful of the other students that make me feel that way. So, in class one day, we were going over publishing and conferences and the professor asked one of the other students about a particular conference that he'd been to. The student said something like, "It was good, yeah, but it seemed more like, toward the popular side of things, not so much literary, you know what I mean?"

And then. Later that same night, I was volunteering at Leading Edge, the science fiction and fantasy magazine at BYU. (They're having a flash fiction contest right now, and you should totally submit, or just submit a short story anyway because they need good work. Like seriously, submit!). Anyway, these are such fantastic people, and I feel so comfortable and myself around them. We talked about Salt Lake ComicCon and Doctor Who and Brandon Sanderson, who teaches at BYU. One of the people there asked me what I was studying, and when I told him I was doing an MFA, he said, "MFA's don't really do anything for you. You should drop out and just write."

So. Here's my thing. I think each side has it about 50% correct. When people get snobby or hyper-literary about their writing, I want to say, "Well I won't see you on the New York Times Bestseller list anytime soon, will I?" And when spec writers say MFAs are pointless, I want to say, "You realize that Brandon Sanderson, the idol of so many in this room, has an MFA, right?"

It is vitally important in ANY story to 1) Tell a good story and 2) Tell it well.

Why do so many feel like those things are contradictory? It is so incredibly frustrating to me when literary writers look down on genre fiction, or when genre writers don't feel obligated to learn and practice their craft. Haven't we proven time and time again that genre fiction can be incredibly literary? *ahem* Ursula Le Guin *ahem*. Haven't we proven that literary fiction can spin a ripping good yarn? *ahem* Anthony Doerr *ahem*.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, a bit, because y'all are awesome and I'm sure you don't have too many disagreements with me here :) I'm also not saying one has to be genre to be popular, or has to get an MFA to write well. Neither of those things are remotely true, its just my particular situation. Anyway, it's just fun to rant about this every once in a while, isn't it? Especially when its so present in my current situation, more so than ever before. But its kidna funny, really, and I just smile and say, yes, I'm going to write YA supernatural, and yes, I'm going to get an MFA. Because both sides are important. You guys know this :)

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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Monday, September 21, 2015

If You Fangirl At People Everyday Clap Your Hands

So the other day I was at the car shop getting my front tires replaced. (ugggghhh amirite?) Anyway, there were two guys sitting across from me and one was wearing a Captain America shirt and the other was wearing a Superman shirt. So duh, of course, we got into an excellent conversation on Marvel vs DC, and the awesome Marvel movies that are coming out and how DC is doing its best to keep up and all that fun stuff. It was fun, because I often get this like, uh...calm down look from people but these guys were like, "Yeah! And Captain America Two was great!" and then I was all, "Sorta, but number one was so much better!" and they were like "And Ultron was kinda disappointing!" and then I said, "We just totally need Tom Hiddleston back to play like all the supervillains!" etc, etc.

I started my Poe class today asking if anyone had seen last nights season premiere of Downton Abbey (HAVE YOU? HAVE YOU?) and one guy said he hadn't, but was sort of familiar with it and then I went on about how he should totally watch like all of it except totally skip season 4 except for the last few episodes. When I got done talking my professor was just looking at his books and grinning. I tend to do that to people a lot. Then during class we were talking about one of Poe's stories and I said something and he said, "Like John Lock in LOST," and I was like "OMG I LOVE LOST CAN I WRITE ABOUT POE AND LOST IN MY FINAL PAPER," and he was like, "Well probably writing about Borges and LOST would be better" and I was like "OKAY I'LL DO THAT."

Anyway, I'll sit down know. Except THE NEW MUPPETS SHOW PREMIERES TONIGHT. So no. No I won't.

Write on!

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Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Learn from Award-Winning and Best-selling Authors Every Day

Isn't modern technology miraculous? We hear stories of friends going to a lecture of a New York Times bestselling author, or a friend running into a Pulitzer winner on the Subway. Imagine what we could learn if we were friends with these people, or could hear them speak!

Hey guess what. You can listen to writers like that every day, and its easy.

There are so many resources out there for listening and learning from amazing writers. Why should you spend time with these resources? Because it helps us other writers engage in the conversation. Maybe a throw away comment from one of these people will help you understand the publishing industry in a way you hadn't before. Maybe you'll hear a solution to a plot problem you're having. When you're doing dishes or driving in the car, these are some of the most productive things you can be listening to, in my opinion. This is as much for myself as anyone else.

So how do you listen to great writers every day? Well I can give you a start.

University reading series. Almost every university has a weekly or monthly reading series, where writers from all over come to present their work to students. Often these may not be writers you've heard of, but they have incredibly great talent, and great stories and advice to share. My university for example does a weekly reading series, and anybody can watch the recordings of those here.

The National Book Festival. When I lived out in DC, the National Book Festival was one of the greatest parts. And even though I haven't been able to go to it since, I've been able to watch any lecture from the festival that I'm interested in because they're all on YouTube. Seriously. You can watch Billy Collins or Lois Lowry or John Green or Steven Millhauser or Walter Dean Myers or so so many more. You can find the playlist for the 2014 festival here.

TED Talks. I've mentioned TED Talks several times on this blog and I'll continue doing it. It is such a great series of thought-provoking talks on subjects that probably haven't even registered before. And what could be better for a writer? Even though most of these talks aren't specifically about writing, or even given by novelists, many speakers are non-fiction writers talking about their ideas. And that can be a great thing for any writer.

The Writing Show and Other Podcasts.  There are a large number of great podcasts with great guest writers, but one of the my favorites is The Writing Show with Paula B. It was canceled almost three years ago, but the archive of episodes is a treasure trove of knowledge.

Because we're all continually educating ourselves as writers, right?

Write on!

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