From Sarah, With Joy

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

New post every Monday

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Writing Lessons from SyFy's Face Off

One of my favorite reality shows--perhaps my very favorite--is Face Off on the SyFy channel. I wish it was more well-known because it is dang cool. In this show they make characters and creatures based on some quite awesome challenges, and it is incredible to see what they come up with. Not only do I find the show creatively inspiring, I definitely think there are some great lessons to be learned from it. Here are a few.

1. Concept First: One of the first things I noticed about the judging process and results is that the judges almost always favor concept over execution. In other words, if two people are on the chopping block and one of them had a cool concept but kinda botched the execution and the other person did an okay job with the making of their makeup but the concept was a fail, they always keep the one with the cool concept. I think this is because you can work with one, but not so much the other. If your story is good, you can work and get help making the writing smooth and pretty. But if you're story is blech, no amount of beautiful writing writing can save it. (Unless your name is Francis Scott Fitzgerald.) 

2. Community Rocks: My roommate often comments on how refreshing it is to watch a reality TV show in which all the contestants are friends and support and help each other. When one person is not going to be able to finish their mold before the day is out a couple other people come and help them. I've seen them take reference photos of each others tongues and ribs. In what other reality show do the people actually help each other? And I think there's a lot to be learned from that. Each book and story is so different that we really aren't in competition with each other, and how many of us read only one type of novel or buy only one book a year anyway? There's room for all of us on plenty of peoples shelves, and we'll all get there faster and happier when we help each other.

3. Critique Helps: Something you notice in most reality shows is that its listening to the mentors and judges feedback is 99% of the time the right decision. In Face Off they have a mentor walk through and give helpful advice and feedback on everybody's works in progress, and almost always the people who don't listen to the advice end up suffering for it. Those who listen still stay true to their vision, but external feedback from wise eyes actually helps them realize that vision more successfully. I like to think of Neil Gaiman's wise words about reader feedback: "Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

Anybody else watch Face Off? 

Write on!

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thoughts from Provo

On Friday my sister got back from her 18 month mission for the LDS Church in Indianapolis. I drove down to meet up with her in Provo and we were able to spend the week with each other and all our other Utah family and friends. It's been quite a non-stop, emotional, incredible, thought-provoking and nostalgic weekend. I have too many things bouncing around in my head to be able to focus in on one post topic, so I'm just going to thought vomit, if that's okay.

The level of nostalgia driving in to Provo was insane. This is my home town, and it's so weird to come back after being gone for a full 18 months. It's nice to see the mountains again. All these buildings I drove past all the time, all these streets I took. I spent this morning walking around BYU campus and that was maybe the weirdest thing of all. I walked around the top floor of the JFSB (the English department building) and past the offices of all my favorite professors, just to see their name plates by the door.

Weird things from my past are gone. My grandparents sold their house and moved about the same time my family moved to D.C., so my sister and I have been staying at their new place, which my Grandma has imbued with as much flair and personality as she had before. One of the biggest holes is Meridian, my school from first grade to graduation. The building was bulldozed actually only a couple years after I graduated, so it being gone isn't new, but its still looming. More than anywhere else that building was my second home. My family moved all over Utah Valley, never staying in one house for more than about two years, but there was always Meridian. Once I got to high school I stayed in that building from 7:30 early morning Seminary to sometimes 9 or 10 at night for drama rehearsal or basketball practice or getting ready for the upcoming creative writing competition deadlines. All of that--my whole Provo "world"-- no longer exists.

Which is neither good nor bad, I've decided. I miss certain things, but as I walked around my old campus today, I realized I needed to separate my desire to move forward with my education from my nostalgic desire to repeat the past. Learning from the past and getting momentum from it is good, but wallowing in it is not.

It's interesting how much being in my past makes me think about the future. I feel like Utah was one era for me, and I'm just now beginning the next one. All the things popping around in my head are for making this next era what I want it to be. I'm thinking about blog domains and social media all the time, and trying to make good progress on this new novel, and trying to teach myself and figure out the best strategies for submitting the old novels to agents, and how much easier certain things will feel when I finally find an agent, and all these things that I hope will build the future I want for myself. Hopefully a future as meaningful for me as my past has been.

My trip here from Vegas was mostly in the dark. I finished one audiobook (The Cardturner by Louis Sachar=AMAZING) and didn't feel like putting in another, so instead I put in some music and thought. And I think my road trip here might feel a little like what dying will feel like. Its a long, dark trip and then you wake up at home. Not that Provo is Heaven or anything, just that when we get to where we're going, I think it will be very, very familiar.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Importance of Habits and Good Friends

I think in every area of our lives we have natural ebbs and flows. Some days we just wake up rested, the words come easy, or we're just in a good mood. Other days we're inexplicably grumpy, dinner burns, we're late for work, and the words wouldn't come out of us if we pulled them with a team of horses. And we have days everywhere in between.

Over the years I've noticed two things that become particularly important on those down days. These two things are the only things I've found that help at all in maintaining your forward momentum on those days when you really just feel like doing nothing but eating kettle corn and diet cream soda and watching an entire season of Project Runway.

Those two things are habits and good friends.

When the creative juices are simply not flowing, you can still use the momentum of habit to get a blog post done, post on social media, pitch an article to a magazine, query a few agents, and even write a couple paragraphs of your WIP. It's not those rare ideal days when we get 1000 words down with a snap, but its definite, measurable progress. If you know that every day when you get in from work, while dinner is in the oven its agent querying or article pitching time, you can use the habit to keep you moving forward. It's almost like muscle memory.

It's also very comforting to know that you're not going through the hard times alone. That they happen to all of us. And that is when good friends, especially other writer friends, are invaluable. Lately, my friends who support me and brainstorm with my and sympathize with me and tell me its all going to work out have been my saving grace. I hope all of you have IRL friends like that. If not, my email is in the contacts page :)

We all need to do our best to build our reservoire of good habits and good friends (which you do by being a good friend, of course) and may happy and productive days be ever on your horizon.

Sarah Allen

Friday, February 14, 2014

3 Ways Writers Can Use Images in Book Marketing

There's no point in denying it--we live in a glance-attention-span, image driven world. Because of the influx of information we receive daily, the amount of time we have to get someone's attention is ridiculously small. In many cases we have no more time than it takes for someone to glance at an image.

Basically, images are your most effective and efficient marketing tool. People simply expect them, and pictures are what people notice.

But we writers don't work in a visual medium. We use words. So how exactly do we take this modern picture-driven sensibility and make it work for us? Here are a few ways.

1. Magazine Cover Style: I talked a bit about this in a blog post a few weeks ago, but I think it's worth mentioning again. This strategy is best used in correlation with a blog. Basically all you have to do is take an image and create a text overlay as if you were making a magazine cover for your blog post or article. If that sounds difficult, don't worry. It's made pretty simple using sites like PicMonkey. I'm still fiddling around with this, learning how to do it better, and it can actually end up being pretty fun. This strategy works particularly well with sites like Facebook and Pinterest. Here's an example:

2. Poster Style: Even though we work with words, we can still find ways of making those words look pretty. There are lots of online tools that even do this for you. The principle of overlaying text on an image is the same, but instead of using it as a link to an article, this is more of a motivational or cool thing that can be spread around. Take your favorite quote and put it over a beautiful and appropriate image, or just make the words themselves look pretty. Again, there are lots of online tools to help you do this and lots of ways to go about it. Posters are even easier to spread on basically any social media site. Here's an example: 

3. Accompanying Story Style: One possible strategy is simply using the image as a jumping off point. Have you ever seen those pins on Pinterest with a paragraph story explanation? A news image with accompanying story on Facebook? This works because the image is the attention grabber, and if it does it's job, people will stop and pay attention to the story, which is where you as a writer can really shine, right? Find ways to use this. One of my favorite examples is the hilarious Tumblr blog "Yacht Cats." The internet already loves cats, and the images themselves are easily and quickly sharable. But then once you're attention is grabbed, you get down to the accompanying story and see how hilarious and witty and fun the writing itself is. Check it out, you'll see what I mean. And see if trying something similar might help you in your own online presence.

So there's that. Thoughts? Can you think of other ways writers might use images in book marketing?

Make awesome!

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Can You Judge an Author's Fiction By Their Blog?

Sometimes I look back at old blog posts and find things that make me flinch. I've been doing this for a long time, which hopefully comes with some improvement, but I know I still have plenty of typos, grammar faux-pas and run-on sentences in my posts. My brain definitely knows the their/there/they're rule, but sometimes my hands don't. (And I admit, I didn't get the title for this post right the first time around).

Basically I just sometimes wonder, can mistakes on an authors blog be enough of a deterrent that people don't buy their books? (Got that "their" right the first time, btw).

In thinking about this I've been thinking about sort of the two ends of the blog quality spectrum.

On the one hand, there are some blogs out there of such poor quality that they're almost illegible. This is beyond spelling and grammar errors, this is confusing wording and very poor structure, so much so that you're not sure what exactly the blogger is even trying to say. Now, it seems like blogs like this would be an absolute deterrent, but in thinking about it, I actually don't think even that would be an authors final chance. Yes, it may take extra motivation for me to make the effort to go from such a blog to the authors books on Amazon, let's say, but I might--and the key here is free sample. For a blog like this, I definitely would not go from the blog to spending money. However I am not past being won over if and that's a HUGE if, they motivate me enough to spend the effort downloading a free sample to my iPad, which I would do with a very skeptical and wary eye. So not good chances, but still not last chances.

On the other hand are the types of bloggers we all aspire to be. These are the blogs we find, read one post and know already that it's worth our time to subscribe. The blogger continues to produce such valuable content that we come back consistently and eventually decide to put down effort and maybe even money towards their books. A sample often still comes first for ebooks (which is another reason why your first few chapters are crucial). But for the readers of a fabulous blog, there's not a lot of begging and convincing that needs to be done. The other thing I've noticed about this is that the blogs that are for me in this category are there not because of beautiful, poetic language (although they write very well). I pay attention to them because of consistent, relevant, and very well-organized content. That's a lesson we can take into account for our novels too.

We also need to take into account the fact that our novels undergo a much more intensive editing process (one would hope) than our blog posts do.

What do you think? Can you judge an author's fiction by their blog? Have you bought or not bought a writers book based on their blog?

Sarah Allen

Monday, February 10, 2014

Writing Challenge: The Pink People at The Bellagio

One of the absolute best things about living in Vegas is that the Bellagio is only 15 minutes away. Often on a Saturday afternoon I will go and check out whatever the new amazing exhibit is up in the gardens, and I'll stay for an hour or so and watch the fountains. I bring a notebook and jot down thoughts and ideas. 

I'm not the only one who sits in front of Bellagio fountains for an obnoxiously long period of time. There is always a varied assemblage of Batmen and Despicable Me Minions and showgirls and street magicians, and I have to admit, if I was going to be a busker, that's where I'd be too. But there is one that stands out. For the past couple months, every time I've gone, right in front of the center nook where I always stand is a man all in pink, his clothes frozen as if blowing in the wind, and he himself seems to be blown back, leaning impossibly on his heels. I haven't the faintest idea how he does it, but it is quite hilarious to watch people passing by, looking back, walking around him, some even going so far as to wave a hand under his rear to see if there's some invisible thing holding him up.

This last Saturday I took a Bellagio trip. I walked through the gardens and then went out to watch the fountains. I saw the familiar pink figure, but this time, it was a woman. She had star-shaped glasses and a pink pig-tail wig. She was in the exact same outfit otherwise (I'm pretty sure their ability to sit blown back like that has something to do with the pants, although I've seen them stand). Anyway, I had fun watching her and watching people watching her, like usual, and also had fun speculating about these two people. 

And now I pass that speculating off to you. Given these two characters, what would you specifically do with them? If you were writing their story, what would it be? I love seeing how other people develop their story ideas, and I'm intrigued to see what you come up with. So why not, right? Give it a shot.



Make awesome!

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Top 7 Podcasts for Writers

I've been gorging on podcasts lately. Mostly while I'm at work. I have felt so informed and entertained and inspired by these podcasts I just had to share, particularly because I really feel like podcasts are one of the best ways to keep the creative juices flowing throughout the day.

So without further ado, here, in no particular order, are my top 7 podcasts for writers.

1. The Writing Show with Paula B: This was definitely my first podcast love. In college I spent basically a whole semester listening to this podcast while I did homework. Paula is wise and genuine and she gets some great tips and advice from the people she interviews.

2. K. M. Weiland's Podcast: This is a new one for me, but if you're looking for the nitty-gritty, grammar basic writing advice, this is the place to go. It is very informative and can help you get a good, solid grip on good sentence construction.

3. New Yorker Fiction Podcast: No getting around it, the New Yorker is the big guns. If you want a feel of the literary community, this might be a good place to go. I'll be honest, I think sometimes the language can be a bit academic and even hoity-toity, but often its just really interesting and inspiring.

4. Writing Excuses: This podcast is just plain fun, and particularly helpful for those writing science fiction and fantasy. It features a group of fun writers (including Brandon Sanderson) chatting about different aspects of writing. It's entertaining and short, because, as their motto goes, "You're in a hurry, and we're not that smart."

5. I Should Be Writing: This is definitely a writing podcast classic. You get all areas of writing covered here, from crafting tips to interviews to all sorts of awesomeness. Definitely worth subscribing too, and definitely worth digging through the archives.

6. The Q and A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith: Ok, when I discovered this podcast a few weeks ago, I spent every hour at work listening to it until I'd gone through the whole thing. This podcast is focused on screenplays, and basically entails hour long interviews with seriously amazing screenwriters (from movies you might recognized like, ya know, Frozen and Iron Man 3). I'm a little movie obsessed, which added to my enjoyment, but the lessons in here for writers of all kinds are not to be missed.

7. Welcome to Night Vale: Okay. Okay. Like, really guys, I can't express to you my level of admiration and obsession. This is the current podcast I'm blitzing through, and its gotten to the point where I'm badgering not only my roommate but my former roommates until they finally give in and try it out. And of course end up loving it. I mean, I can actually understand it not being everyone's style. But it is wacky, and amazing, and bizarre, and creepy, and profound, and please do yourself a favor and at least give it a shot, because if its something you like, its something that you will really like.

Any other podcasts you think I should add to this list? 

Sarah Allen

Monday, February 3, 2014

How Building A Writing Career Is Like Playing A Rigged Game of Mario Kart

So I'm not a huge gamer, and I'm definitely still in the Nintendo 64 age (because seriously, you don't get better than 64 Donkey Kong). But I definitely have some fond childhood memories playing games like Smash Brothers, Mario Party, and, of course, Mario Kart.

So how is book marketing like a rigged game of Mario Kart? I like having mental images and metaphors to explain and contextualize things, so bare with me for a second.

Imagine if in Mario Kart, the routes and winners were pre-determined. That in each race, the tracks were randomly selected, and there were only certain characters that could win depending on the track. Not just that, but that the "winning" characters changed all the time too.

Really frustrating, right? Of course. It feels futile to even play. But that's often how book marketing can feel. We often see certain books getting huge success in large part because they fit into the trend that happened to be the book "track" of the moment. Many are great books, many are not so great, I'm just saying it often comes down to luck.

However, when we try to change our characters--be the person that's winning all the races--then things change, and we still don't end up winning. It can feel like whatever we try isn't working.

So then, how do we deal with this?

I was always--ALWAYS--Yoshi. Yoshi's the bomb. Out of the two variables I've mentioned, character and track, there is one over which we have control. We can choose to be true to ourselves, stay with our character, stick to our guns. We can write the stories we feel passionate about. And the thing is, even though we don't have control over the track, and maybe we're having to run race after race on tracks where the predetermined winner is Princess Peach, eventually, our track will come. One day our character will be exactly where he needs to be. And if we've been trying to chase trends, we'll miss that shot.

Another thing. If you're a Yoshi running a race on a Princess Peach track, just because you know you can't come in first or even second place, you can still fight for as much as possible. You can fight for third or fourth place, rather than settling for last, and that will make you stronger and more prepared for when your track does come. And it will come.

So get ready--write the best books you can. Get set--keep plugging away on all the marketing you can do. And GO!

Sarah Allen
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