From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Friday, May 30, 2014

Paying Gigs, John Noble, and The Fault In Our Stars

I've recently started journaling again. I haven't written a journal in long hand since I was about twelve, but I bought a beautiful red notebook at Barnes and Noble and have had a great time. I started typing my journals years ago because typing is just so much faster and I get impatient. But jotting down a few notes with a pen every evening before bed has been really...well, therapeutic.

Can I just say, John Noble is amazing? He is completely mesmerizing. His voice is totally unique and I could listen to him talk all day. I also love real life with paranormal twist plots. Can you tell I've been watching Fringe?

I've been doing a lot of research lately on venues that pay authors. This includes blogs, ezines, magazines, etc. I've found a ton of great speculative fiction magazines, some great writing blogs, all sorts of great venues. After a bit more research I'll do a post all about it. Because I think whether we're working on making a living as a writer or just looking to supplement our income doing something we love, paying venues are a good thing to be aware of.

So, The Fault In Our Stars movie comes out this week and I am a little bit freaking out already. Roommate and I have tickets to the big Thursday night event, and I can't wait! I am prepared to sob my eyes out and love it.

Other than that, it's Friday. You know what that means?
Write on!

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Creative Writing Prompts and Where to Find Ideas

Finding ideas is one of the most frequent questions writers ask and are asked. So that's the question I wanted to start with in my new video tutorial series for writers.

I have a good time with video editing, and love talking about writing, so I thought I'd start a tutorial series for writers and see how it goes. I plan to talk about all sorts of things, from query letters to social media, from character studies to dialog. Check it out, let me know what you think.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

Monday, May 26, 2014

Yes But No And: How To Get Your Writing Unstuck

There's a rule of improv that I think I've mentioned before. There's really only one rule of improv, and it is to always say Yes, and...

I've been listening to a lot of the Writing Excuses podcast lately, and they often apply this rule to writing. With some slight expansion, this Yes But No And rule can really help when you're working on a scene and just can't figure out what comes next. Whether you're chugging along and the scene hits a dead end our your working on plotting and need to figure out what comes next, the Yes But No And Rule can help.

Let's do a couple examples. You're working on a scene: It's the middle of the night in the holding tent for circus elephants. A woman in a wedding dress runs in, looking for the map that is going to lead her to where her fiance, the Night Cartographer, has been taken. Then you get stuck. Think of the Yes/But. She finds the map (Yes), BUT the key is missing. Now you know what step she needs to take next me.

Another example. You're scene is two teenage boys at a chess tournament, and one boy has discovered that he can move the chess pieces with his mind. He gets kicked out of the tournament for cheating (No), AND the queen starts following him wherever he goes. Now you have the next conflict he has to deal with.

Basically this rule amounts to adding complication. Take whats happening and make it worse. If your character finds what they're looking for, give them something else they have to find. If something bad happens, something else bad happens too.

How would this work for the scene your working on now?

Sarah Allen

Friday, May 23, 2014

5 Beautiful Pieces of Art Made from Books

Here are some beautiful pieces created with books.

Aren't these beautiful? If you want to see more, here's my book art Pinterest boardWhich of these would you personally want to do the most?

Write on!

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What is Your Most Important Place?

Perhaps I need to start with a disclaimer of nostalgia. My family is quite nostalgic, and a lot of that is tied to places that mean a lot.

I used to think about this a lot (and for some reason its coming up again) because a lot of the formative, important places in my life are gone. 

Two of the houses we lived in in Utah are gone. The house we lived in during our two years in California (the one with dental tools in one of the basement windows...maybe that's its own post) is gone. My grandparents, both sets, have recently moved from the houses they've been in basically my whole life. Perhaps most strangely, my school, the one I went to from first grade to graduation (minus the stint in California), is now a tall office building. Although the field is still as weed-ridden and pockmarked as ever. 

Even though there is an element of melancholy in this line of thought, mostly its not a big deal. Really its the people around you that are important and form you, and good people are always there. However, its something I find interesting to think about, and as a writer, it might be valuable to look at how places shape us, and why. Both for ourselves and our characters.

Which all leads me to the question, what is your most important place? Perhaps the immediate answer to that question for most people is "home," but because my family never lived in one house for more than about two years, I have formative memories in lots of different "homes" and the neighborhood where three of those houses were and the people in that neighborhood constitutes "home" for me, rather than one specific place. In other words, maybe you do have one solid childhood home that is your important place, and maybe its something else. But dig deep, and think about why that place has become part of you, and which parts of you could be tied back to that place.

I'm going to answer my own question, but I worry that this answer feels like I'm showing you what I see as a beautiful Van Gogh portrait, when a lot of people just see stick figures. And the thing is, I think it's actually both. People and places are complicated, and places are important to some people and incredibly unimportant to another, but neither is invalid.

With that said, I would actually say that the place most important to me is Disneyland. Especially since my school is gone and since my family is not living in the house I most consider Home. Some of my earliest memories are in Disneyland, which gives it more longevity for me than any house I've ever lived in. This is the place, more then any other, where my family is all together. This is the place where the people in my family who have a very hard time putting regular life away have learned how to do that and just be together. This is the place, no matter how different each member of my family is, we all have in common. This is the place we anticipate for months and regret leaving until we can anticipate it again. 

And the thing is, people assume that the memories at your Most Important Place, especially at Disneyland, are superficially happy. And that's definitely not the case. Yes, most of the important memories are things like eating funnel cake while we save seats for Fantasmic or watching my teenage brothers dance down the street like the big dorks they are while music plays, or my brother seeing how loose he can get his seat belt on Tower of Terror without getting caught. (He got caught. Don't try it). But some of my families tensest moments have happened here too. Those moments are just as important in and of themselves, and also because they throw into relief the happy moments and make them so bright they almost hurt to look at. 

Now its your turn to tell me. What is your most important place?

Sarah Allen

Monday, May 19, 2014

What I learned from watching Leverage

I recently finished going through all five seasons of the show Leverage. And guys, I had such a fun time.

The word 'delightful' can't be used to describe a lot of the shows today, but it works here. Leverage is just so much fun. Leverage is about a team of "thieves" who come to the aid of those being taken advantage of who are not in a position to help themselves. Basically, they steal back what has been stolen, in a bit of a Robin Hood type role.

Here's the thing about this show. There is one thing they did incredibly well, and one thing they didn't do so well.

What they did absolutely wonderfully is character. Each character is wonderfully developed, and all the actors do such a great job bringing the characters to life. They are well enough developed that when things happen you know exactly how each character is going to react and then they do and its hilarious. Their interactions are very well crafted, and a blast to watch.

The issue with Leverage is the occasionally unbelievable plots. Often things happen that do not seem realistic even within the realm of the wacky show. Or the stories work out in ways that keep you from suspending your disbelief.

The thing is, even when the plots seem unbelievable, the characters are so delightful and fun to watch that it almost doesn't matter. People enjoyed the show just based on the characters. However, I think the show would have been more successful if the plots had been dealt with more gracefully.

Lesson to be learned? People will stick around for well-crafted characters. Putting that character in a believable story is the magic formula.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Writing Short Stories and Making Pictures

To add some tools to our writers tool belt, I wanted to highlight two great blog posts from the last week.

Modern internet browsers are accustomed to two things: short text, and images. Friends will often send me links to articles and fan-fiction and such, and I often don't have the patience for long text on a computer screen. I'm used to quick, often bullet-pointed blog posts. I spend quite a bit of time on Tumblr, which is very image based. And I'm a true internet child, because when I get to long textual posts, I usually just scroll past.

I'm not trying to pass a value judgement on this browsing culture. I think there are good things about it and bad things about it, but its important to be aware of our cultural psychology and how we can best participate in that conversation and introduce people to ourselves and our books.

And we do that with short writing and images.

So, first, here is a post from the consistently wise Anne R. Allen giving 12 reasons to write short stories. If you think short fiction isn't worth your time, Anne will change your mind. Each reason she gives is reason enough to work on short stories. After writing books, I submit that short stories are the best way writers can build their careers, and Anne will tell you why.

As far as images, here is a great list of image resources from Author Marketing Experts. I would also add PicMonkey or iPiccy. I know we writers don't work in images, we work in words, but I am a firm believer in expanding our venues and skills as much as possible. These resources will help you do that with images, even for those of us with no artistic skill to speak of.

Hope these resources help. Write on!

Sarah Allen

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Most Important Thing For Your First Paragraph

One of the most interesting (and terrifying) parts of the recent Las Vegas Writers Conference was a panel they did during Friday lunch. Before the conference, attendees could send in an anonymous first page to be read during the panel. The agents would listen and then raise their hand at the point where they would stop reading. Then they would give feedback.

You can see how this would be invaluable.

Of course I submitted a first page, and it went over decently well. Only half the agents raised their hands, which is good, and the other half all raised their hands at the exact same spot. Which, of course, meant I really, really needed to take a close look at that spot.

That spot was a descriptive paragraph.

It wasn't just a descriptive paragraph, though. It was a descriptive paragraph after a descriptive paragraph. The agents said the writing and characterization was good, but there was too much description and not enough action. I went back and trimmed and rearranged, and I do think that feedback made the opening passages much better.

As I listened to some of the other entries, and saw which pages made all the agents raise their hands, and which kept all their attention, I noticed a few things. Often when I thought the writing was a little poor, the agents kept their hands down. When I thought something was weird, they kept their hands down.

Here's the key--the most important lesson I took from this panel. In your very first paragraph, a character must be doing something

The stories that kept the agents reading had action. Sometimes it was all action, and very little characterization, and the agents commented on that and said it needed work, but that they would read a little more. They told almost everyone to pair down the overwriting and focus on the action. There were even stories with as much description as mine, but it was more evenly spaced out and involved action.

To borrow terminology from Writing Excuses, one of my all-time favorite podcasts, your first paragraph--even your first sentence--does best when it features a protagonist who protags.

Right, now write!

Sarah Allen

Friday, May 9, 2014

Does This Bumper Make Me Look Fat?

I have a confession.

I am a very self-conscious driver. I am also incredibly impatient, and let's just say the combination adds up to a type of driving my brothers consistently mock me for. Which doesn't help the self-consciousness. You see a pattern here?

Another confession. I adore Las Vegas, and chose to move here for a reason. But to put it mildly, Las Vegas drivers are to road safety what matches, alcohol, dry brush, and outdoor cooking are to forest fires. And that is coming from a native Utahn. I feel like the drivers in Las Vegas have meshed perfectly the obliviousness of Utah drivers with the aggression of L.A. Don't even get me started on what happens on Vegas freeways when it rains. (You'd think they'd never seen rain before. Oh wait...)

All this is to say, on my half hour commutes to and from work, I am constantly torn between fear for my life and a stubborn, competitive self-consciousness that flares up whenever people go faster than me. The impatient, competitive side of me hates that one driver going slow enough to be annoying but too fast to easily pass. The self-conscious part of me is pretty sure I am that driver.

This internal dichotomy has created a habit of constantly checking my rear-view mirror, especially when I slow down. I'm pretty sure drivers are supposed to focus on the cars ahead of them, but I have become hyper-aware of the cars behind me. I am both terrified that every time I slow down the car behind me is going to ram my bumper, and paranoid of being that driver with a line up of cars behind me. I try and maintain a good distance between me and the car in front of me (I've had too many close calls with sudden slowing...oh Vegas freeways), but apparently this isn't aggressive enough because then cars will cut close in front of me and then I have to tap the breaks and then I have to check to make sure no ones going to ram me from behind and then spend the drive feeling self-conscious about being that annoying slow car you have to cut in front of.

Okay, maybe I'm seeing why my brothers tease me.

There is a bright side. Yes, I am ridiculously self-conscious about what the car behind me is thinking. But sometimes, the car behind me has a mustache.

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

6 Tricks to Make Your Sentences Shine (Part 2)

On Monday we talked about ways to polish up and beautify your sentences and we're going to continue that discussion today. I got these tips and ideas from the recent Las Vegas Writers Conference, and I'll give my caveat again: I'm sharing this advice because I personally found it helpful, but take what works for you and don't mess yourself up.

These tips focus mostly on our use of verbs. In many ways verbs are the most important part of our sentences, and these tips can hopefully help us jazz up our writing and make it more interesting.

4. Use stronger verbs. This is an oldie but a goodie. I'm sure we've all heard this before, but its important enough that I thought it bared repeating. It's simple and subtle but very effective. So:

Henry hit the table with his fist and walked out of the room.
Henry bashed the table with his fist and trudged out of the room.

With stronger verbs, we can more easily see the way Henry exited the room. And that's our goal, to put images in our readers minds.

5. Use linking verbs with caution. Here is a list of linking verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Also add to that had and has. Obviously we're going to need to make fairly frequent use of these verbs; I'm not saying we have to avoid them all together. They are simply an integral part of the English language. However, when we can find a way to avoid them, it's one of the most effective ways to spice up our sentences. So:

The old, gray house was known to be abandoned, and a habitat for bats and raccoons and maybe something more sinister.

We often heard the squeaks of bats and raccoons coming from the abandoned house on the corner, and occasionally noticed an unidentifiable moaning more sinister than creaky floor boards.

This is also a quick way to bring our sentences from passive to active voice.

6. Avoid "Thinking" verbs. These are some of the verbs the workshop leader called "thinking" verbs: think, know, believe, want, desire, understand, realize, remembers, imagines, feel. Again, this is not to say we can never use these verbs. They are simple and common, which is why they are so often used, and also why we should be judicious ourselves in using them. Changing things up when we can will elevate our writing to something more beautiful. So:

I could feel the adrenaline dissipate, leaving exhaustion in its wake.

The adrenaline dissipated, leaving me too exhausted to do anything but collapse next to the fridge.

Again, this trick adds action and focus to the sentence, making it more attention-grabbing for the reader. 

Like I said, these tricks are not the be all and end all and should be used judiciously. Like pepper on a stake. Cook the way the works for you, but know that these spices are available to add flavor. 

The key here is to dig deep and see why these suggestions can be helpful in the first place. I believe it is because using these strategies tends to bring in more character and more action. They help you bring a person into your sentence and make them do something. And that is a very good thing. I'm working on these things as much as anybody, which is why the conference was so helpful for me. So keep character and action in mind, even when not using these particular little tricks, and your writing really will shine.

Any other tricks I should add to this list? Do you have tips for making your sentences work better?

Sarah Allen

Monday, May 5, 2014

6 Tricks to Make Your Sentences Shine (Part 1)

I told you I was going to give you some of the best advice I learned at the recent Las Vegas Writer's Conference. Here we go.

I went to two or three sessions dedicated specifically to helping us writers make our sentences more prettier. A lot of what they said is simple and practical and incredibly helpful.

A caveat first. This is the caveat that one of the workshop presenters gave, and I liked it a lot. He said that in giving this advice, there are three possible responses. You can read this advice and think, that's brilliant I'm totally going to use that! You can read it and think, this is all a load of crap, not helpful at all. Or you can read it and think, I like this, but I think I want to tweak it and use it this way that will work better for me. All of those answers are correct. Obviously I think this advice is helpful and good, or I wouldn't be sharing it, but if it messes you up or if you want to just use some of it or whatever, that is your prerogative. Take what you can use. This goes for basically any writing advice you read out there.

Okay. Enough of that. Here are the simple tricks I learned at the Writers Conference that can help make your sentences shine.

1. Build toward power. In your sentences, lead up to the big knock-out punch. Figure out which word is the power word in your sentence and put it at the end. For example:

Death has always been my biggest fear.
My biggest fear has always been death.

In this sentence, Death is the power word, and so you rearrange to put that power punch at the end. This keeps the flow, and your reader, moving forward.

2. Preposition Trick. Okay. Big grain of salt on this one. When the workshop teacher first gave us this rule, my immediate thought was dismissive. I thought, no way, that's too contrived. But after giving it more thought, I think this can actually, if used sparingly, be very helpful.

The trick is this: if you're worried your sentences are starting to sound like See Spot Run, then you can beautify and complexify them by starting your sentence with a preposition. Like I said, I think this can be very easily overdone, but I feel like I have the overly-simple problem, and so I've been seeing if I can find places where this can actually help. For example:

They ate pizza when they got home from soccer practice

By the time they got home from soccer practice a large pizza sat steaming on the table.

Again, be VERY careful with this rule, and in fact you may have the opposite problem of starting too many of your sentences with prepositions, in which case you can do the inverse to help. But if you want to add a little maturity to your writing, a sprinkle here and there of preposition can add a little summ'n summ'n.

3. Don't make laundry lists. This one is pretty simple. When we're describing something it's often tempting to just give a laundry list of adjectives. But that strategy is lazy and uninteresting. So:

Dan had large hands, hazzle-flecked eyes, and a cowlick in the middle of his forehead.


In one large hand Dan swung his baseball bat back and forth while he tried to slick down the wanton cowlick with the other.

Even if your laundry list is interesting, taking it out of laundry list format can help add action (i.e. interest) to your sentences.

Since this is already going on for so long, I'm breaking this into two parts. Come back on Wednesday for part 2!

Sarah Allen

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Prettiest Place in Sin City

When people ask me why I moved to Las Vegas, I want to take them here:

I've gone to the Bellagio to write and take pictures, but mostly just to people watch and think. It's nice to go from a city that mostly smells like smoke into a fresh garden. And it's an adventure to see what they are going to do next. They have new statues and new flower arrangements and sometimes birds and butterflies and it makes the Bellagio gardens one of my favorite places in the world. Then once you've walked through the gardens you get to go watch the fountains and if you stand close enough, feel the spray of water on your face. 

I'm not much for night life--in fact, I'd much rather sit at home with a good movie or book--which might appear to make Las Vegas a weird fit. But I love being able to take a quick drive onto the strip when I feel so inclined, and take it in. 

And then maybe use it in my next novel.

Sarah Allen
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