From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Slowing Down the Pace

When I speak, write, or drive, I have a habit of going too fast. I'm trying my best to slow things down, but sometimes it feels like, despite my best efforts, I still just end up with people who can't understand what I'm saying, an MS that doesn't flow, and traffic school.

As far as writing goes, how do I slow down the pace? I guess my habit is just getting from scene A to scene B, and I'm not good at the middle stuff that fleshes things out and makes it all flow. I typically go back and add more detailed description to try and help, but what else can I do? What do you do to round out scenes and fill in the in-between-scenes stuff?

Adding detail and description is one specific thing I've thought of to help pace my writing (again, let me know your other ideas), but I've tried to think of ways to counteract my break-the-speed-limit habit in a general way. Meditation. Daily gym-ing and veggie eating. Ambient nature sounds while I write. Telling myself its okay to slow the freak down .

I think its just going to take time and practice. Because a nice controlled pace is not my habit, I'm not even sure exactly how or what one specifically does to keep that pace in writing, so I could really, really use your advice and ideas. My hope is that once I work out how to slow things down, I'll be able to make it work for me better and better.

Of course, we don't want things too slow either. Then it's in danger of becoming dull. But there's a balance, and since I tend towards the speedy side, I thought I'd see if I can get your advice for pulling things back towards that balance.

Sarah Allen

Monday, October 24, 2011

Making the News

There's a technique or strategy that I've been talking about with my dad in terms of my social media job; but I think it could be very useful for writers too. I thought I'd get your ideas on how to really make it work.

The strategy is this: keep a list of journalists in your field from online journals and newspapers all over the country and then contact each of them with a story when it comes out. For us writers I guess that would mostly mean book reviewers or journalists in the publishing industry. This isn't groundbreaking stuff. In fact its pretty basic publicity. A good idea, but pretty basic.

So I'm wondering how we use the media to the best advantage. Getting published is news, certain levels of sales is news...but is that it? How do we keep the buzz going in the interim?

I suppose we're getting in to publicity stunt territory here, but maybe that's not so bad. Our first and foremost priority is to our craft, of course. That's as it should be. But we might as well do what we can for marketing, yeah? So what kinds of things can we boring, average, middle-of-the-WIP writers do to generate a little media buzz?

This is where I need your ideas. I've thought of a few: maybe organizing some kind of event, like a read-a-thon, book drive, or even a blogfest or some kind of online event. You could do some really awesome things, and the publicity would just be an added bonus. What other kinds of big-event, news story type things can you think of that we writers could generate ourselves?

There are two key points to this, I think: First, to keep whatever you do writing/book related so that the publicity generated is about you as a writer more than some random thing. Second, make sure you connect directly with the journalists on your list so they're aware of the story you have ready for them. From what I've heard, what with deadlines and being lazy, journalists love being spoon-fed.

Social media is fun, fantastic, and amazing for connecting directly with people. But as far as getting some real buzz going, I think this is probably one of the best strategies we have short of having some really good luck. Do you agree? Do you think this could work, and what ideas do you have to put the strategy into action? Or is it all too mercenary and vulgar in the first place?

Sarah Allen

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dichotomy is good

One of my favorite stories so far from the New Yorker '20 Under 40' collection is a story called 'The Warm Fuzzies' by Chris Adrian. Its hilarious and kind of genius. Its somewhat of a coming of age story about a girl in a large Christian family who go around and play Christian music in a family band and have a slew of foster kids that come through for short periods of time. The dichotomy in this story is that this young girl wants so badly to be obedient and good and love her family; however, she also has this voice in her head that says nasty things and mocks everyone around her. What she says out-loud and what her inner voice says are sometimes very different, and that's what makes this story so interesting.

I think that's the key to interesting characters, and particularly interesting dialog. There should always be a little bit more to what they're saying. We're drawn in. We want to know where the two voices really are different, and where they're actually not as different as they seem.

Don't we all feel like that sometimes? An inner dichotomy? Sometimes its not even that we're pulled in different directions necessarily, but that we've got some seemingly mismatched things inside our heads? I'm a good, active Mormon girl who grew up in Provo and went to BYU. I also have a thing for grunge rock, skulls and guys with long hair. I like puppies and pirates, David Archuletta and Nikki Sixx, Jane Austen and Steven King.

We all have weird, quirky combos like that. There's no reason they have to be mutually exclusive. I think its healthy and exciting to embrace all sides of our personality. It's what makes us us.

What are your interesting dichotomies?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What does your muse look like?

I'm giggling just thinking about this question. Not quite sure why.

On good days, my muse looks like this:

On bad days, my muse looks like this:

I have no explanations. That's just how it is, I guess.

Now I'm curious...what does your muse look like?

Sarah Allen

Monday, October 17, 2011

Whats age got to do with it?

I'm kind of obsessed with writers' age. Like, how old they were when they got published, and when they wrote their big masterpiece. That's why I get really into stuff like the New Yorker's '20 under 40' thing. I want to know if I'm making okay time, or if I'm really behind in relation to other writers out there.

Some examples:

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility at 36, Pride and Prejudice at 38, though I think she'd had them written for a decade or so before that.
Charlotte Bronte: 31 at publishing of Jane Eyre
George Eliot: Published at 40, Middlemarch at 52
J.K. Rowling: Published the first Harry Potter around 31.
Maureen Johnson: First published at 31.
Cormac McCarthy: 32
Amy Tan: 37
John Grisham: 34
Stephen King: 27
Stephanie Meyer: 32
Charles Dickens: 24
John Green: 28
Lois Lowry: 40 (The Giver, 56)
Judy Blume: 31
Nicholas Sparks: 31
Danielle Steel: 26
Amanda Hocking: 26
Louis Sachar: 24
Christopher Paolini: 19
Agatha Christie: 30
Nora Roberts: 31
Roald Dahl: 27
Mary Higgins Clark: 41

Ok, ok, I'll stop. I told you I'm obsessed. Its also fascinating to look at this list of the top fiction sellers of all time. It includes books in every language, which makes me want to see if I can get my hands on an English translation of the top Chinese, Japanese and French sellers. It would be interesting, I think.

Anyway. What's the point of all this? I'm not really sure. It seems like the magic age is early-thirties, which means I've got another decade or so. But I don't know. I'm so neurotic and I suppose freakishly competitive that people like that stupid Christopher Paolini make me feel a little behind. And I've only got a couple years if I'm gonna match pace with Dickens and Louis Sachar.

To be honest though, I don't think age really matters at all. Some of the best writers in the world didn't start till their fifties or sixties. And some people come out with something brilliant in their twenties or thirties and then never write again. Writing is so personal, and I think the timing of a writing career is too. I think what matters is where we go from here, wherever "here" is.


Sarah Allen

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Windowsills and Queen Victoria

I am not good at the whole sleeping thing. This is not new news. I've never in my life been good at it. It's mostly to do with my mind refusing to shut up. And so I've come to appreciate windowsills. After I've given up trying to sleep, or sometimes before I start trying, I open my window and sit and breath and let my brain run its course. It has become its own part of my nightly routine. This time of year is the best, when its cold but not frigid, and the air feels clean and your room and lungs feel cleaned out and then when you climb back under the blankets it feels nice and snuggly and warm.

I am good at watching movies. Tonight I watched Young Victoria. If you haven't seen it, you should. Emily blunt is beautiful. The movie is beautiful. Queen Victoria is inspiring, and there most definitely needs to be more Prince Albert's in this world.

I'm not quite sure what the connection is, except that I want me a Prince Albert and I really want me one of those Cavalier puppies, and as much awesome as there is in my life, and as much as I love it, sometimes I feel like there is a lot of waiting and waiting is hard, but it's made a little easier by things like windowsills. Victoria was strong, waited patiently for the future, worked hard in the present, and that seems a more than good enough example for me. We all have things we want, things we're waiting for, but in the meantime there is the moon and a windowsill.

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The 2 Levels of Plot: A Lesson from Up

Today I wanted to talk about a principle we've been discussing in the creative writing class. It actually really helps me understand better how to access a story, and make it relatable.

We've been looking at plot and story in two levels. The top level is the more overarching issue or problem, maybe the more abstract one, the larger one. The lower level is the day-to-day problem, the seemingly more mundane or less important one. It seems like approaching a story or character from the higher problem would be the best way to go, but actually its opposite. I'm sure there are a whole bunch of deep psychological reasons why, but as outsiders/readers we tend not to really care about the higher problem until we care about the character, and we care about the character through the day-to-day problem. Even if we do care about the larger issue, its just easier to get a specific hold on it when we've got a hold on the smaller issue.

To illustrate what I mean I'm gonna use one of the greatest characters ever created.

Russell's larger issue is that his family is somewhat absent. He's trying to do the best he can on his own, and doesn't get much attention. But this issue is only directly addressed a little bit, and only towards the end of the movie. We are introduced to and care more about Russell because of his day-to-day issue: he just wants his badge.

The two issues are related. He wants his badge, but is having a little trouble with it because he's not getting much help from his dad. The little kid wanting his badge is something we can all understand, appreciate and relate to. Not only that, but it helps us get a specific understanding of the larger absent family issues.

So when you're stuck, when you have a minor case of writers block, one of the best ways I've found to get unstuck is to bring things back to the day-to-day problem. It keeps the reader involved in the story, and moves it forward. Then its amazing how naturally the story itself leads to connections with higher, deeper problems. And you end up with an interesting, relatable and well-rounded story.

What do you think? Do you agree? What are some of the day-to-day problems in your story?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

First Forays into Children's Book Publishing

My sister is an illustration major. And not just any illustration major. She is super, super talented. Seriously. She has a gift. I mean, look at that mouse.

So, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity here and asked her if she would be interested in working on some children's books together. She said yes, which makes me very excited. I've got some ideas floating around in my brain, and I'm gonna try and solidify them and let her do some illustrating while I keep working on The Novel, and that will be extra awesome because then I'll feel like I'm getting two things done at once.

Anyway, I'm wondering what the next steps would be after we get something put together. I've done research into regular publishing, and I'm wondering how different it is with kids picture books. I'll do some research into that, of course, but I'm wondering if my wise readers have any beginning advice for me, or recommendations of where to start.

Is it pretty much the same submit-to-agents process? Do we just submit the words and illustrations together, and is that the norm? Can I have an agent and publisher for children's publishers separate from my adult stuff and will there be issues with that?

Yeah. That's kind of what's going on right now. Advice or pointers in the right direction would be fabulous :)

Sarah Allen

p.s. My sister said if I posted this picture I had to include a disclaimer that the photo of it was low res and bad quality. Consider it disclaimed.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pen Names

I'm not planning on using a pen name. In fact, I plan on doing my best to defy the publishing industry and use my plain old name for everything I write, in every genre.

But. In the case of needing a pen name, such as competitions where they require one, I have one at the ready.

George Lewis.

George for George Eliot. Also for George Tate, my humanities professor from my Freshman year in college who my roommates all said I was like, and then when we were analyzing ourselves and coming up with boy names for each of us, because that's what college girls do, my boy name was George.

Lewis for the very obvious reason of C. S. Lewis.

So there is my carefully planned pen name that I have in my back pocket in case of emergencies.

What's yours?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, October 6, 2011

You know he's your mentor when...

Once upon a time there was a man named Mr. K. He was an English teacher at a small private school in a small college town in a very out-of-the-way state. He taught English to the eighth graders, ninth graders, tenth graders, eleventh graders, and twelfth graders, and he also sometimes taught stuff like improv and helped with drama. It was a very, very small school.

One young girl started at this small school in first grade, and after a brief stint in the comparatively very exotic Bay Area during fifth and sixth grade, came back to this small school in this small town in this out-of-the-way state and became one of Mr. K's students.

This young girl took English from Mr. K in eigth grade, and ninth grade, and tenth grade, and eleventh grade, and twelfth grade. She participated in such activities as reciting out-loud chimney sweeper poems from Victorian England and playing faux poker while the class studied The Virginian and borrowing his Kenneth, Shakespeare movies for, parties with her friends. He made her read Moby Dick. Not the whole class, just her.

Soon after this young girl graduated, three things happened:

1. This young girl became an English major at the university in that small college town.
2. Mr. K got a job as a headmaster at a cool new school.
3. The very small school closed down.

This young girl then graduated from the university with a, BA in English and aspirations of being a novelist, but soon realized she needed to eat too, and that diplomas in English did not pay very much, or taste very good either. After a chaotic, confusing and occasionally traumatic time, this not-so-young-as-she-once-was girl came to her senses and contacted her former high school English teacher at his cool new school and was relieved to hear that yes, indeed, he could use help in his creative writing class and sometimes Shakespeare too, as juggling teaching and administrative duties was rather...time-consuming.

(Note: The very small school also started back up about this time, with some administrative and financial changes that make for a bright and hopeful future, and they too were willing to hire this young girl. Now she teaches creative writing at cool new school on some afternoons, helps with preschool at very small school on the others, and does social media contracting in the mornings. With these powers combined, she can pay rent, and has after-school, evenings and nights to write the day away. She is happy.)

While she never expected to end up teaching (Her answer to "English major, huh? So are you gonna teach?" was always "No"), and really never expected to be teaching with Mr. K; despite a few disenchanted teens and snot-nosed tots; despite not knowing quite how to feel about going back to high school; she is having an absolute blast. The interesting thing, however, and the point of this long, rambling, self-indulgent story, is that in working with Mr. K, she is seeing just how much of an influence he has had on her life.

And its not only the obvious stuff. She loves Taming of the Shrew because he loves Taming of the Shrew and she learned the play from him. But now she is discovering that they share opinions she didn't even know they shared. Like in movies; they are both freakishly obsessed with Up [moment of silence for Steve Jobs. I cringe to conceive of a Pixar-less world. Thanks Steve.] and The Kings Speech, which both came out after this young girl had left Mr. K's tutelage. But he'll use Up as an example of ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT character in the creative writing class, and then use Kings Speech in correlation with Henry IV, which makes this young girl want to stand up and shout "And I love that movie too!" By similar means, she has found out that they both share an affinity for random things like Alaska and Abraham Lincoln.

This young girl has ideas and opinions separate from Mr. K's, of course, and recognizes that nobody is perfect. Still, she is grateful for everything she has learned from him, and would be a very different person in a very different place without his mentorship. A person and place she would most definitely not want to be.

These are the people and experiences that shape us as writers. That shape our tone and voice and opinions about what constitutes good writing. Recognizing the influences helps us see the strengths and weaknesses we've accumulated from these influences, and therefore grow as writers. As people too.

Who are the Mr. K's in your life?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Its my special pen.

So I go through pen phases. I had a black bic one that I used for a long time, but then I lost it. Now I use the one I got from the bedside table at Days Inn.

I always take the pens from hotels. That's allowed, right? Sometimes I even leave notes on the notepad. Something sophisticated and non-creepy like, "I'm watching you," or "It was like that when we got here I promise." But I have pens from the Luxor, California Grand, Super 8, and a few others. When I lose one pen or it dries out, then I go to another one. I've probably got six pens in my ginormous green leather purse, but for some neurotic reason I'll dig through all of them to find the one I'm looking for. Right now, Days Inn. After that, who knows. Maybe Excalibur. That sounds cool just saying it. ("Hey, can I borrow a pen?" "I shall fetch Excalibur!")

Anyway, do you have any objects you sort of attach yourself too like some kind of totem or magic feather? Its habit for me, if I'm sitting for any length of time, to dig my notebook and my special pen out of my purse just to have them at the ready. Its good to have a special pen, especially when your current notebook is not so special. I used to have this gorgeous leather-bound black notebook that lasted me for years, but I eventually filled it, and now I'm on to this weird floppy dotted one that functions just fine, but I hope I can fill up fast. Then I'll get another cool leather one. Anyway. Special pens and special notebooks. Special words and special computers. I actually named my computer Baby. My car's name is Little Dorrit.

We writers are such special people.

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

3 Essential Questions Every Author Must Ask Themselves

I cannot take credit for these questions. They were part of the post by Wendy Lawson that I mentioned a while ago. However, I think they are incredibly valuable questions to ask, in terms of self-analysis, creativity, marketing, and lots of other things. I would like to discuss them a bit, and get your thoughts on how best to answer them.

1. Who am I as a writer?

This one covers a lot. I think it has to do with the kinds of things we write, yes, but also why we write in the first place, and what we hope to accomplish by adding to the overflowing mess of words already out there. Writing is not easy, so why do we do it? What is it that you wish everybody else understood? What kinds of stories seem to fill up your soul? Ok, so I'm just asking more questions here, but I think answering these smaller questions might help on the never-ending journey to discovering who we are as writers.

2. What is distinctive about my book?

The two main ways I can think to get answers to this question is to read, read, read, constantly, everything, read, and also, ask someone else. The more you read, the easier it is to place your book into a category. But sometimes it can still be hard to know what kind of story you're actually writing. That's when an outside reader can help you decide how to label your book. This will also help in marketing, if you can take the distinctive features of your book, whether that's in character, plot, setting, whatever, and use it in a more specific marketing niche.

3. Who are my readers?

This is sort of a follow-up to number 2. Once you decide what type of book you have, its easier to decide what sort of people read that kind of book. I mean, romance has a different target audience then say, horror. There is always overlap, of course, but defining a target readership can be the key to successful marketing and promotion. Discover who your readers are, and figure out lots of ways to reach them. I'm actually having a hard time on this one, because I feel like my current project is a mix of a few different things. I'll have to think about it some more, and maybe eventually get some outside opinions. Have you found any effective ways to figure out who your readers are?

I would love to hear your answers to these questions, if you have answers you're comfortable giving. I think that actually helps the rest of us in our own figuring out. Or if you have suggestions for how to answer these questions, that would be useful as well.

Happy writing!

Sarah Allen
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