From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

5 Awesome Places to Find Story Ideas

We all need to fill our creative tanks every once in a while, right? Sometimes we get dry or blocked, and the ideas just don't flow. Here are five places to look when searching for those elusive ideas.

1. National Geographic: Besides just being one of the coolest organizations around, they are a surprisingly awesome place for story ideas. Stories come from people and cultures and histories and that's what National Geographic is all about. Take the studies and explorations from their web and magazine articles and spin off them and flesh them out and you've got a story.

2. Mythology, fairy tales and folklore: These are the Original stories. Every culture has their own folk tales, take the ones from your history and family and use them. Think of how many stories are based directly on Norse or Roman or Greek mythology (Percy Jackson anyone?) but it doesn't have to be direct. Just take them as a bouncing off point. My favorite is D'aulaires book of Greek Myths

3. People watching game: Go to a park or a store or a track or a movie theater or a football stadium (or Disneyland, my favorite people watching place ever) and pick someone and stare at them awkwardly I mean come up with a back story and history and relationships and see what sort of story you can develop around them.

4. Pinterest: Sort of similar to number three, but one of my favorite things in terms of brainstorming is filling up a character Pinterest board and then using the characters I've pulled from all over the web as a starting point. Here's my character board to start you off with a couple ideas.

5. Ask your parents or grandparents to tell you a story from their childhood. Or it's kind of fun to use a site like New Family Search to see where your ancestors were born, where they ended up, and imagine what brought them from one place to the other.

So there's some ideas. What else would you add to this list?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why Aren't Good Things Good for Everyone? (Or Why Isn't Everyone A Cumberbabe?)

So I've been thinking about something and it's sort of why doesn't everyone freak out at the thought of Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones but it's mostly more than that.

Do any of you remember that part in The Office where Pam is talking about how Jim's new girlfriend doesn't like her and she says something like "I just hate the thought of anyone not liking me. I mean, I think even the Taliban, that if they actually met me and got to know me they would like me." Sometimes I feel like that. Okay, all the time.

But with writing specifically, I think we always want all our work to be loved and adored by EVERYONE. I get to feeling like that and want everyone to know about my work and then I think of some of my favorite things and remember that even people who have read Wallace Stegner don't love him. I don't understand it, but it's the truth.

I guess it's just something I personally need a reminder of every once in a while, and it's something interesting to think about philosophically. Sherlock is Good. All the Little Live Things and Persuasion are Good. But not everybody loves them, which says a lot more about us as humans then it does about the books and art and shows and music. We are all different, and we all need to hear and feel different things at different times, and some things just click while some things don't. Maybe that isn't a novel idea, but it makes things look a little more beautiful.

So our job as writers is to reach those people who we connect with, and help them feel less lonely in the world. If we do our best work there will be plenty. I also think the best way to reach the largest audience is to write a wide variety. Focus on our contemporary novel, yes, but also write YA and picture books and middle grade and maybe romance and articles for magazines and a non-fiction book and maybe some personal essays and short stories too. Not just to get a wider audience, but to stretch ourselves as artists as well.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the day...yours?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How To Submit to Literary Magazines

Step 1: Write a story. This is not just the first, but the most important step. You're friends and writing group should have already gone over it, given you feedback, and put the piece through the ringer. It should be your best work.

Step 2: Research and read several literary magazines. Skip this step because you're too anxious to get your piece out there already.

Step 2b: Make a quick list of potential magazines using sites like NewPages, Poets&Writers, and maybe even the wikipedia lists of literary magazines that have been selected for Best American Short Stories, even though you know deep inside they're totally out of your league.

Step 3: Strictly follow the guidelines on each magazines website and submit.

Step 4: Eat chocolate to celebrate. Preferably a big bag of Rolos or white chocolate Lindor truffles.

Step 5: Check your email.

Step 6: Watch too many reruns of Frasier and Doctor Who.

Step 7: Sleep. Not really, because you're up checking your email all night on your iPhone.

Step 8: Wake up. And wonder why you haven't heard anything yet when its THE NEXT DAY ALREADY.

Step 9: Repeat steps 4-8 until you're five pounds heavier and the bags under your eyes look like purses.

Step 10: Work on other projects. In those moments when you can focus on something besides refreshing your email or checking your mailbox. This phase, along with number 1, should hopefully take up most of your time and energy, but we all know that some days that doesn't happen.

Step 11: Get an email. Beware of heart attack. You will most likely be driving and checking your phone, so be careful and at least come to a red light before you read the email. You will most likely need a few minutes to breath before you look at it anyway.

Step 12: Get rejected.

Step 13: Eat chocolate.

Step 14: Watch too many reruns of Frasier and Doctor Who.

Step 15: Finish another story.

Step 16: Repeat. Until one day the email you get doesn't start with "Unfortunately" or "We're sorry to inform you," but rather, a personalized note about how fabulous your story is and how they would love to have it in the magazine. Because that day will come. Along with much screaming and squealing and jumping and dancing and hopefully not car wrecking.

And that, my friends, is how you submit to literary magazines.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Top 3 Resources for Setting

The age of the internet makes it all the easier to set a novel in a place you've never been. There are enough resources out there that you can flesh out the details and make it real. Not only that, but when you're low on ideas and need that extra spark, the internet can help you there as well. So here are my three favorite tools that I use when I'm working on setting.

1. Google Maps: So this is kind of an obvious one, but maybe its the most useful. You can get a close up picture of anywhere in the world, and in many places Street View lets you see as if you were standing right there on the road. The novel I'm working on is a bit of a road-trip novel, and it has been really helpful to be able to use Google Maps to sort of chart the trip and take it with my characters, and see exactly what they're seeing all along the way.

2. Pinterest: There are so, so many ways to use Pinterest. As a collection place for images, it is a natural resource for not just setting, but characters and any other creatively inspiring images you want to keep track of. But for setting specifically, you can collect images of the specific place you're using in your novel, or, how I like to do it, make a general "setting" board and collect intriguing images of places you might want to use later on. Here's my setting board to maybe get you started. Any of these places seem especially interesting to you?

3. Atlas Obscura: This is one of my favorite things on the internet. I could seriously sit for hours clicking through the "random place" button, over and over, seeing how many weird and interesting places there are all over the globe. Maybe your story isn't as crazy as some of these places, or maybe you don't want to set an entire novel in somewhere like the real life Flinstones Bedrock City, but it could sure add some yabba dabba doo! Okay, sorry, that was dumb :)

Anyway, those are the places I like to play when I'm trying to flesh out the setting for my novel. Do you guys use these too? What other resources do you like to use for helping with setting?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How do I know I don't suck?

Guys, it's one of those times. I know the key is persistence, and that hard work will eventually bring you sure success. I believe that.

But it's just been soooo looong

I need to just be whiny and self-indulgent today, if that's okay with you guys. You know how I feel, right? I have had this novel done for a while. I've been querying it for a while. Heck, I've been querying some of my short stories since I was a freshman in college. But the rejections keep piling in, and it feels like I have so little to show for all the effort.

I think my perspective is probably skewed here, and it probably isn't nearly as long, comparably, as it feels. Other writers much awesome than I have had to wait a lot longer than this for their success. Everybody has to put in the hours, that's just the way of it.

But after a while, the lack of success starts to wear on you and you start fearing that your book actually totally sucks, that you can't write, that you're a hack. I've been feeling like that lately. If my book was any good, shouldn't it have found success already? Part of me knows that's ridiculous, I mean, The Help, a completely fabulous  book, was submitted to fifty agents before it got accepted. That sort of helps, but it doesn't make me want to just be published already any less.

Rushing things is not a good idea either, I know that. If I really do suck then I definitely don't want to be out there until I suck less. On the other hand, I do believe in my characters and my story and I want them to be out in the world. But also, it's impossible to be objective about your own work, and what if you just suck?

Anyway. The thing to do when feeling this way is to do your best work on your current project, and that's what I'm trying to do. Hopefully it will just make success, when it does come, all the sweeter.

What do you do when confronted with these thoughts?

Sarah Allen

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Last Few Books You've Read

It's that time again! Time for me to ask you about the last few books you've read, the book you're reading now, and how you discovered them.

Let's see.

I just barely finished a book called Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. This was one interesting, unique read. It had first person, third person, and second person. You'd think that would be just too weird or too hard to follow, but I actually really liked this one. I discovered it because I wanted to read more Asian literature and so found the Man Asian Literary Prize on Wikipedia and this was the first one I found that was at the library.

I'm having trouble remembering because I also listen to audiobooks in the car (right now its The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) so I get them a bit mixed up. But I also recently read Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly which ended up being totally fabulous even though I didn't like the main character in the beginning. That one was a trusted recommendation.

In my purse right now, waiting to be started, is I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg. We'll see how it goes. This one I discovered because I really like the movie Fried Green Tomatoes so I figured I'd read something by the author of the book that movie is based on.

Your turn! What have you recently finished, or what are you reading now, and where did you discover it?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, May 16, 2013

7 Book Marketing Tips, Tricks and Ideas

So, here's the deal. I'm not a professional marketer or anything, and my degree was in English, not PR. However, I have been around the blogosphere long enough to have amassed quite an awesome collection of marketing savvy and advice from all the uber-wise bloggers out there. I'm still figuring out how to implement all these ideas, and every situation is unique, but I thought it would be fun and useful to go through my notebook and see how many things I've jotted down in the past while that I can collect in one post.

1. Use a spreadsheet for your social media: I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Keeping track of all your social media in one spreadsheet, and what you hope to accomplish on each site every day, hopefully simplifies things and reduces the stress and the pressure. It is much easier to be like, five blog comments, two tweets and one pin a day, rather than just AHHHH SOCIAL MEDIA!!!

2. Learn to make the algorithms work for you: So this is one I haven't even looked at yet, but it's true that algorithms can sell more books than social media can. A good place to start, and where I plan to start, is this blog post on The Creative Penn.

3. Give away something for Free: Free is a magic word when it comes to marketing. It doesn't have to be huge, maybe give away a free ebook for people who sign up for your newsletter or like your Facebook page. 

4. Treat your website like a Billboard: People are driving past billboards at 80 mph, and they're surfing the web at pretty much the same speed. You have approximately .6 seconds to grab someone's attention before they're out of there. Make your site beautiful and catchy, yes, but also make sure you have two things immediately clear. 1) Who you are, what you do, and 2) What you want them to do (i.e. books for sale, Facebook page likes, signing up for newsletter, etc.)

5. Narrow your focus: I recently changed the banner on my Facebook page to a quote from C.S. Lewis. I caught myself being hesitant about it at first, and I realized that it was because I was worried that someone would find my page and leave immediately because for one reason or another they had a big thing against Lewis. But then I thought, if they really dislike Lewis that much, then they're probably not going to like me much either. And for people who adore Lewis like me, it will be a point of kinship. Most people aren't going to care terribly much one way or the other anyway, but my point is that if you are, say, a Christian romance novelist, not only shouldn't you waste effort trying to put adds in like a hunting magazine, but also, narrowing your focus down to people who like the same things you do (like maybe C. S. Lewis) still leaves you with a huge audience. Who are more likely to pay attention to you anyway.

6. Listen, don't spam: Think of it this way. Have you ever bought the book of a Twitter friend? Is it because they DM'd you something like, "Hey! Thanks for following! Check out my book on Amazon, now only $.99!"? Uh, probably not. Did you buy their book because you've communicated a few times, bonded over Dr. Who and the drudgery of doing the dishes, and you know you like this person? Maybe...

7. 5 contacts a day: So, to have a really successful book you need more done than one person can do themselves, right? You need reviews and media buzz and maybe an award. It all seems intimidating and nearly impossible until you think of it as 5 contacts a day. If you're self-publishing then you're doing all the marketing yourself anyway, but even if you're traditionally published with a house publicist on your side, your efforts can still have huge pay-off. Send in your book to competitions, get in touch with newspaper book reviewers, bloggers, vloggers, conference organizers, magazine editors, book club leaders, etc.

What other marketing strategies do you employ? What has brought you the most success?

Sarah Allen

Monday, May 13, 2013

5 Things I Learned About Writing (And Life) From My Mom

Happy Mothers day yesterday. I hope it was a fabulous one.

So, there is kind of a lot to be said on Mothers Day. So much that it kind of feels easier to just say nothing at all, but we're gonna try. A lot of us do not come from what is normally called a "traditional" family background, and as someone who can't have kids, I do appreciate the thoughts I saw yesterday about celebrating moms of all kind--single moms, adopted moms, grandmothers, long-gone moms. There are moms who are in prison and moms who abandoned you and moms who gave you up for adoption and addicted moms. I guess my point is that no matter what type of mother you have, or what type of relationship you have with your mother, we are all shaped by our mothers more than we even think, and that includes writing. Today I wanted to talk about how I have become the type of writer that I am because of my mom.

1. Relationships are the most important thing: I think if you took a survey, a much larger segment of the population will say they believe that relationships are the most important thing than actually think or behave as if they really are. My mom is not one of those people. She cannot think in any other way than this--aggressively so. If we are at the airport waiting to pick up my grandma and two older ladies look lost and ask where they might find a taxi, she will not just smile and say, honestly, she's not sure, like I would. She will say, I think I may have seen a sign on the lower level, let me just go check for you. We will not have left the airport before these ladies are taken care of. She is not okay, will not sleep, if she thinks one of her kids is in pain. So what does this have to do with writing? I think this has influenced the types of stories I am drawn to. I love more than anything the little moments that reveal the relationships between two characters--father and son moments in Gilead, the pining in Persuasion or Frasier, the unique understanding and friendship in Sherlock. In the show House, I watched much more for the moments between House and Wilson or House and Cuddy than any of the medical drama.

2. Effervescence: Someone in a blog interview once described my style as "effervescent" and asked where that came from and that was a no-brainer answer for me. It is hard for me to describe really how effervescent, how passionate, my mom is, but anyone who has met her even for a minute knows exactly what I mean. You can hear it in the timbre of her voice, especially when she is talking about a show she saw or a memory from the past or a hard time she's having with someone or when she's talking to her sisters. I have actually spent a long time thinking of how to describe her voice, and today at church I think I found the right metaphor. It is a lot like staring at the sun. You have to glance away every once in a while, for a moment sun-blind, but it is also this light by which you see everything else. And really, why live life any less than this?

3. Which details matter: I think we all get our aesthetic for detail from our parents. For me, it connects back to point number one. The details that matter matter because they mean something maybe sentimental, or more than they really are, to someone. Sneaking bites of brownie from the fridge downstairs, funnel cake at Disneyland, how she and my aunt used to dance to Billy Joel in the hall outside their older sisters bedroom door. Quoting Jim Carrey in The Grinch about twenty million times every Christmas. Maybe we can't explain why exactly the details that stick out to us stick out to us, but I know I got it in large part from my mom.

4. By your own bootstraps: My mom is not an excuse person. I've had siblings lose phone privileges because of bad grades. Every minute past curfew, without at least calling ahead, is a day grounded. If one of us gets ourselves into a hard situation we have to live with the consequences, she is not going to come in and "rescue" any of us. She will always be there to support us and help us, but we always have to put in the work. In writing it is the same. No one is going to hand us success, and we are not entitled to it, but it is guaranteed to anyone who puts in the time and the work.

5. Why art matters: My mom studied acting in college, and one of her professors once told her that good acting, putting yourself out there and showing that vulnerability to your audience, is an act of service. It is a way of putting an arm around a lonely soul, or giving a struggling person context and perspective to help them cope Books are just the same. I've said it many times before and I'll say it again (well, okay, C. S. Lewis said it): We read to know we're not alone.

I know everybody says they are the luckiest to have the mom they have, but I really do feel like it's as if I'm Jonas in The Giver and my mom is the difference between seeing the world with and without color. Color can be a turbulent, soul-shaking thing, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Me, my mom, my aunt and my grandma. 
This may be one of my favorite pictures ever.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Record one moment every day

TED talks always make one think. But I saw one a bit ago about a man who records one second of footage every day and makes it into longer videos and I've been thinking about it ever since. One second from every day. The idea is that this helps to remember things, remember your life, and take notice of the different things that happen every day.

I think a lot of times, for me at least, the days all blend together and you get to the end of one and think, nothing really happened today. I don't think that's the best way to go through life. Every day should be meaningful and important.

Obviously some days stick out a lot more than others. You are going to have more exciting things to record and report after a day at Disneyland than you would after a day of sitting home sick watching reruns of Friends.

The point though, and the reason I like this idea, is that it forces you to find something special and interesting even in the stay home on the couch days. It forces you to be observant of what's going on around you and notice the little interesting things. In fact, it may even inspire you to create something interesting, to go out and do something so you'll have an interesting part to your day.

And it doesn't have to be video recording. It can be jotting something in your notebook, putting a picture on instagram, blogging an interesting story, tweeting something funny you heard. A lot of us do these things already a lot of the time, but I think making a conscious effort to do it every day, and thinking of it in terms of recording an interesting or significant moment of your day, will make it stand out and feel that much more important. I don't think it even takes anything major to make this work. Something as simple as seeing a deer on your way home from work, or getting lunch at the new cafe down the street, or talking to someone interesting while you wait at the DMV.

Days do sometimes feel the same, and blend in to each other. But I think keeping our eyes open and recording daily moments like this will stretch our writers eyes and leave us more open to creative inspiration. I'm going to try to do this every day, whether taking a picture or jotting down a story.

Do you think this is a worthwhile idea?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

While I've been Losing a War Against my Sinuses

I've been watching too much Criminal Minds. But how do you resist Mathew Gray Gubler, let alone Mandy Patinkin? We all know that grumpy old men are my absolute favorite, especially when they look like that. And the show is an excellent illustration of raising the stakes. I.e.: "We have forty-eight hours to do what the CIA couldn't do in four months."

Even though Sudafed does not really work for me (no cold medicine has EVER worked for me) it is still a little bit better than nothing. I've been eating vanilla ice cream because it is the only thing that sounds good. I have been watching American Idol with my mom (Candace better freaking win).

I have been looking up random bizarre creatures like the Barreleye fish. Kind of the weirdest thing I've ever seen. And see those two black things that look like eyes? THOSE ARE NOT HIS EYES. Those are actually his nostrils. The green orb things inside his clear head are the actual eyes. IS THAT NOT WEIRD?

What I have not been doing is writing. Or sleeping. But mostly writing. And that is a problem. Are any of you guys better at being productive at getting words down when your cheek bones feel like they're being boiled in hot mucus? I've tried a few times to be like "Sarah! Don't be a baby, just work," and that gets maybe a couple hundred words out of me but then nothing. My mind becomes mush. I guess its okay to take breaks every once in a while, and hopefully I'm just refueling my creative tank and can get back to business soon.

The other thing I've been thinking about, and I've mentioned this before, is self-publishing a very short short-story collection. Just pulling together some of the work I've done and putting it out myself. I still haven't decided if its a good idea. Thoughts?

And just, also, thank you guys. For sticking around and being so awesome and supportive. I have been in the waiting stage for so long now, and we may be there for a while yet, but I really really hope some good things happen very soon. Prayers and good thoughts for all of us, eh?

Sarah Allen

Monday, May 6, 2013

Challenges of a Twenty-Something Writer and How to Conquer Them

The lovely, fabulous and generous Julie Luek of 'A Thought Grows' has put together a great series on her blog. She's brought together a handful of writers, all at different ages and phases in our writing careers to talk about what each phase brings in terms of challenges, opportunities, experience, and learning.

Today I get to talk about being a newbie, at the beginning of a writing career. There are definite challenges that come with being a twenty-something writer, as there are at any age and phase, and I've put together a list of a few of the biggest ones. I've tried to suggest solutions to each challenge, but I'm also hoping those of you with more wisdom and experience than me can help even more. So everyone hop on over to Julie Luek's blog and see what you think.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Today and today and today

So the A-Z is done, and we had fun, right? So much fun. I actually like having letters guiding me as I decide what to write about. Otherwise it can end up being nebulous and vague.

But I'm going with that today. Nebulous and vague.

I am not a morning person.

I wish I was doing better at getting words down on my new novel. But I am about half-way done now, and it is coming. Slowly but surely. I hope I'll have a first draft done by...August?

I have been watching too much Criminal Minds. When I do I go to bed scared. But how can you resist Mandy Patinkin? I mean really?

Just keep going. That is what my life has been, and I suppose that's okay, that it's how life has to be for a while, in your twenties. I'm writing and building up my platform and writing more and submitting to contests and querying and writing more and I am going to be whiny and self-indulgent and say that I hope it starts paying off soon. I love doing all of it. I really do. I love writing, obviously, but also tweeting and blogging and querying. All of it makes me so happy. It'll be so nice when I can do that full time.

I am currently reading Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution. I have never had the same mixture of annoyance and fascination as I do with this book. The main character, Andi, is so angsty and entitled and repetitive and everyone around her is so incredibly melodramatic. a way its working? The story is so fabulous and engrossing and that story meshes with the melodrama and angst in a way that makes the melodrama and angst feel like they're moving forward, which makes them bearable and actually completely intriguing. Andi is not my favorite type of character, but I am having a really good and interesting time watching her walk around Paris.

One day an agent will want me. One day. I am so ready for that day.

Well, another 1000 words.

Sarah Allen
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