Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Importance of Books

I feel blessed that my parents made a point to read to me from birth. I learned to read at a young age, and have had a lifelong love affair with books. Books are of the utmost importance to society as well as to individuals.

Books preserve history. How much would we know of the past without the literary works and historical records that survived into modern times? They give us a glimpse into societies that are long gone. Fiction can provide us with many of the details of everyday life that official paperwork, such as governmental documents, cannot provide. It tells us what people ate, how they spent their leisure time, and what values were important.

Books help us learn. When many people think of books and education, they think of their textbooks from school or outdated encyclopedias. However, there is a wide world of nonfiction out there to educate us on every subject imaginable. When I want information on something new, it only takes a trip to the public library. Books spread ideas and philosophy, from Plato to Wittgenstein and everyone in between.

Books take us to places we may never have the chance to visit. In books, I can walk the plains of Middle Earth, comb the forests of Narnia, or explore the secret passages of the Hogwarts castle. I can visit the polar icecaps, the Great Wall, or the Egyptian Pyramids. Whether real or fantasy, books can be my own personal travel agent and whisk me around the world.

Books engage our imagination. When we watch movies or television, we are given the entire scene in front of our eyes. When we read, however, we get to picture the characters and the scenes. We get to fill in the details and daydream. Books allow us to be the director. They provide us entertainment and joy.

Many people seem to do their reading solely on the internet nowadays. However, I will always enjoy the comfort of a good book. They are easier on my eyes and I can curl up in front of the fireplace with one on cool winter nights. I love bookstores and libraries, and could spend days there. Books are like an old friend that I can always go back to.

The written word was one of the major advancements leading towards modern civilization. Without it, where would we be today?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Resources for Fantasy Writers

A writer's world will influence the stories that they write. The books they read, people they meet, and places they visit will provide details that color the narrative. Fantasy writing is no different. Fantasy writers can benefit by taking advantage of the many resources available to them. A variety of books can help them craft the perfect story.

Pay attention to the people around you, especially when it comes to dialogue. Listening to the natural rhythms of speech patterns can help you learn to develop realistic characters. Every character should have their own unique voice, so begin to notice what is unique about the people you encounter.

No matter what you enjoy writing, it is important to read as much as possible. One of the best ways to learn about a particular genre is to immerse yourself in it. Study the books that you read rather than just becoming immersed in the plot. Seek out new fantasy authors to see how they have created their stories. What do you love about them? What do you hate? What ideas seem to be overdone? How does the writer develop the characters and plot? Knowing what is already out there can help inspire you to do something new and different with your writing.

A quick Google search can bring up a variety of other resources. From manuscript guidelines to name generators, there is something out there for everyone. One of my favorite places to start is with the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America:
http://www.sfwa.org/writing/

There are many books out there on the subject of fantasy writing, but a handful of them particularly stand out to me. Here are my top four choices that fantasy writers should have on their bookshelves:

1. "How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy" by Orson Scott Card
Card's book, like his writing, is geared more towards Science Fiction, but I believe that fantasy writers can get just as much out of this book. Card is especially helpful in the topics of world building and character development. Make sure that your fantasy world has rules!

2. "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel" by Diana Wynne Jones
This is one of the most hilarious books on fantasy cliches that you can get. I recommend it to fantasy readers and writers alike! It is structured in the form of the encyclopedia and uses humor and wit to make its point. Any writer who wants to avoid writing the same cliches that have plagued fantasy in the past should make sure this is a part of their collection.

3. "The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference"
This book is from the editors of the Writer's Digest Books, and contains chapter ranging from "Magic" to "Dress and Costume" to "Anatomy of a Castle." While it can work to create your own world with its unique rules, you may reach more readers by using some of the conventions of the genre. Rules are meant to be broken, but you have to know what the rules are first. This book can help you determine how authors traditionally use fantastical elements.

4. "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White
While not specifically on fantasy writing, every author should have a style guide in their reference collection. No matter what genre you write, proper grammar is important. Have this reference on hand! A good dictionary and thesaurus can also help, although alternatives are readily available online.

The most important thing in any type of writing is practice. Continue to write, rewrite, and get critiques on your work. This is the best way to develop your skills and style. Writing fantasy well takes time and patience, but it is a rewarding pursuit.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Finding the Right Literary Agent for You

Finding the right literary agent can make all the difference in your publishing process. It is important to spend time preparing before entering into a business relationship with an agent. Luckily, the internet provides easy access to information about most agents and can simplify your search and evaluation process.

Take your time to research potential agents before sending your query letter. There are many resources available to help you find the best match. Look for agents who not only claim to represent your genre, but who have actually made sales to quality publishing houses. The most important asset an agent has is contacts with editors. If they have successful sales to the top publishing houses in the past, it is more likely that those editors will take time to look at your book.

Avoid agents that charge reading or critique fees. Many of these people are not legitimate agents. When in doubt, try Googling the name of the agent with the word "scam" and see if anything comes up. It can be easy to spot a fake agent from the results of this search!

There are a large number of websites that can help you do your research. A few of my favorites are:

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/
The Absolute Write forums have a section called "Bewares and Background Check" where you can read about people's experiences with agents and publishers. This is a good place to start protecting yourself from scam agents.

http://www.agentquery.com/
Agent Query is one of the most thorough search engines and information centers for agents. You can search by genre to find a list of agents that represent similar books. Their writers section also has a large amount of information about how to write query letters and submit to agents.

http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/
Publishers Marketplace is the only paid service I would recommend to writers besides the Writers' Market Website. It is the best place to keep up to date on industry news and current sales.

http://www.nicholassparks.com/WritersCorner/Agent.html
Many authors have information for writers on their website, from personal experiences to tips. One of my favorites is the Writer's Corner at Nicholas Sparks' website. He has a large amount of information, including sample query letters.

If you receive an offer of representation, make sure to ask any questions you have. One of the major stumbling blocks many authors have is communication. Some agents rarely update their clients about the status of their book unless there is an offer or requested revisions. Feel free to ask questions about how often the agent updates their clients. Make a list of any concerns you have and don't be shy to ask. A quick Google search can help you find additional questions if you have trouble thinking of any.

Make sure to take your time with any contract that an agent sends you. It is important that the contract has a clause to terminate the relationship if it is not working for you or your agent. Most agents will negotiate their standard agreement if there are small points that you would like changed.

Remember that the professional relationship you have with your agent can make or break your book. Take the time to do your homework, and you will have much better odds of success!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Mistakes New Freelance Writers Make

Breaking into the world of freelance writing for magazines is daunting. With a little time and organization, new writers can avoid many of the common mistakes that plague their peers.

Develop an organizational system to keep track of your story ideas, queries, research, and notes. It does not need to be complicated, but it must work for your style. When you need to find the transcript from an interview, you should know exactly where to look. Create a workspace where you can find everything easily. Also, make sure to backup your work and keep hard copies of important documents.

Take time to study the markets that you are querying. Most public libraries will keep at least several months of magazine back issues. Spend some time reading the ones you want to write for. How is their magazine divided, and where would your idea best fit? Pay attention to the types of articles they print, the tone used and how long they are. You want your article to be targeted to the specific publication.

Keep for formatting simple. Use plain white paper, one-inch margins all around, and either Times New Roman or Courier for your font. It should be 12 pt. Your query letter should be structured as a basic business letter. Request submission guidelines from the magazine, and follow them even if they contradict the standard formatting. Submit in the manner the editors ask for. Even though you are a writer, this is not the arena to showcase your creativity. Keep it professional.

Query larger markets first. Many authors doubt their talent and spend far too long writing for free. If you want to make writing your business, you need to get paid for it. Try querying a national magazine if you have an idea that would fit them. You can always query local or start-up magazines later.

Read your contract carefully, and make sure to ask if there are any clauses that you have concerns about. Know exactly which rights the magazine wishes to purchase and which you retain. Many freelance writers make additional income by selling reprint rights or electronic rights to articles that magazines have purchased. As long as the magazine does not buy all rights you may be able to do this as well.

Get your article in before the deadline. This is crucial to your success. If you are consistently late with your submissions, editors are probably not going to use you for future assignments. However, if you send your articles in early (fully proofread and edited to the best of your ability), then you may find the magazine contacts you when they need a piece written.

If you have previously written for a publication and proved yourself, don't be afraid to negotiate a higher pay rate for your next piece. Far too many writers seem content to continue writing for low-paying publications or are afraid to ask for a pay increase. There are many freelancers out there who are paid $1 or more per word. Aim high!

If you are serious about pursuing freelancing as a career, I suggest picking up a copy of "Make a REAL LIVING as a Freelance Writer" by Jenna Glatzer. Glatzer is a contributing editor at Writer's Digest magazine and has written seventeen books and hundreds of articles. She explores many of the business aspects of freelance writing in remarkable detail in this book. The book deals with everything from dealing with interview subjects to communicating with your editor.

Most of all, do not take rejections personally. Every serious writer has received stacks of them. It does not mean your story isn't good or that it won't find a home somewhere. It just wasn't what that particular editor was looking for. Review your query letter to see if it could be stronger and submit the story elsewhere. Don't forget to tailor it to the new market as needed!

Remember that this is a competitive field. Consider yourself a businessperson and develop a thick skin. Good luck!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

How to Write a Sestina

In my last post, I started talking about poetic techniques. I want to continue to share that love with you by talking about a format I love.  It's a lesser-known poetic form called a sestina.

Poetic forms with strict rules are a challenge, but writing these constructions is a great way to expand your skill as a writer. The sestina is a unique poetic structure that is a great challenge to writers. Though the form may seem intimidating, once you learn the basics you will find that composing sestinas is fun and rewarding.

Sestina Basics

Sestinas are formed by 39 lines, divided into seven stanzas. The first six stanzas are each composed of six lines while the last one only has three, and is a conclusion to the poem. Before you begin writing a sestina, you will need to decide on six words that will repeat throughout the poem.

Each stanza uses these same six words at the end of the six lines; however the order is changed in every stanza. The final stanza of three lines has two of your words per line - one in the middle and another at the end. Choose the six words that you intend to use before you begin writing the poem, and then structure the end words like this:

Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
Stanza 7: AB CD EF

Sestina Tips
  1. Choose end words that have multiple meanings. If you can use your words in different ways depending on the context of the stanza, your sestina will have more depth.
  2. Read sestinas to learn how to write them. Many poets have experimented with the sestina form. The poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote two famous sestinas, titled "Sestina" and "A Miracle For Breakfast" which are two very different versions of the form. Other good examples that can easily be found online include Rudyard Kipling's "Sestina of the Tramp-Royal" and Ezra Pound's "Sestina: Altaforte."
  3. In your first draft, list the number of the end word at the beginning of each line. This will help you organize your thoughts. If you compose on the computer, you can simply type the end words first and then fill in the rest of the poem.
  4. Do not worry about using a rhyme scheme in your sestina. Because of the changing order of the end words, it is difficult to come up with a consistent pattern. Focus your efforts on the form itself.
  5. Keep your language simple. It is complicated enough to create a coherent poem with specified words at the end of each line. Begin with basic word choice until you master the form.
  6. Practice as much as you can. As with any form of poetry, the more often you write it, the more comfortable you will become with the structure. Your first attempts may be poor, but those first steps will help you improve.

Writing structured poetry is rewarding. It is a personal challenge to create a poem that not only expresses genuine emotion, but does it in a tightly controlled format. Practice writing sestinas with these tips and you may find a new favorite poetic form.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Poetic Techniques for Free Verse

I haven't written about poetry much here, although I love to write it.  I love form and structure and finding the perfect word for the sound and rhythm I am looking for.  I write a lot of sonnets.

Poetry is a difficult genre to define, especially when speaking about works of free verse or vers libre. Free verse is a popular modern poetic form, especially for novice poets. The freedom of structure allows the writer to do as they like with their ideas. Though free verse poetry does not follow a strict rhyme scheme or meter like other poetic forms, there are still recognizable techniques that identify it as poetry.

Meter

Not all free verse is completely without meter. Cadenced free verse, for instance, was a form used frequently by Walt Whitman. In cadenced verse, there are rhythmic patterns but they are less structured than other poetic forms. If you are familiar with the different metrical feet, you may want to experiment with ordering them in new ways throughout your poem to give it a musical feel.

Rhyme

Rhyming may be used within the course of a free verse poem; however it is not used in as formal a manner as might be found in a sonnet. Internal rhymes that fall in the middle of a line may be a good choice. Or, more sporadic and random rhyme patterns can be used to accentuate certain words. This poetic technique does not have to be completely dismissed for a poem to be considered free verse.

Stanzas

Though there is no set way to break up lines and stanzas, many free verse writers still find ways to make the separations meaningful. Experiment with stanza breaks in your work to find the places where they make sense or strengthen your point. Written poetry is a visual experience for the reader, so you may want to consider the shape of the poem as a part of the form.

Alliteration

Free verse poets often take advantage of other literary devices in place of a rhyme scheme. Alliteration is one of the easiest techniques to identify, and a popular one to write. It is an easy technique to learn so it is accessible to all writers. Alliteration uses the repetition of the beginning sound in two or more words in a row. This string of like sounds will pull attention to the phrase and give it more impact.

Assonance and Consonance

A different kind of "rhyme" can be created by using assonance within your poem. Assonance is a poetic technique in which vowel sounds are repeated. A similar technique, consonance, repeats the sound of consonants during the course of the poem. These techniques do not make a hard rhyming sound, but give the free verse poem a sense of structure.

Imagery

Free verse poetry often takes advantage of metaphor, simile, and imagery. The poem should be vivid so that it does not read like a piece of prose that was broken up into lines. The language you choose should help the reader feel the emotions you are trying to convey. Use imagery that provides them with a sensory experience for the strongest effect.

If you enjoy writing free verse poetry, spend time reading other writers who utilized the format. Walt Whitman was one of the first English-speaking poets to write in free verse, and is an excellent place to begin. Emily Dickinson also has many free verse works in her collection. When you are reading the poems, stop to consider what defines them as poetry. What literary and poetic techniques do the authors employ in place of rhyme or meter?

Learning to write free verse poetry takes as much effort as the more formal poetic structures. In fact, because of the lack of a defined form, free verse can be more difficult to write. Try incorporating some of these poetic techniques into your next poem. They may help you express your ideas and emotions while still retaining a poetic feeling.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Five Books I Think Everyone Should Read

Ask any group of voracious readers to list the top five books everyone should read in their lifetime, and you are guaranteed a spirited debate. There are so many factors to consider that no two people will view the topic in the exact same way.

Personally, I like to include books that challenge the reader to think and learn. I want them to have positive messages, and promote tolerance and acceptance. And, of course, I want them to be interesting! So here we go, my five books that everyone should read in their lifetime:

1. A text from a religion OTHER than your own

That's right, I'm not just going to recommend the Bible since most people already have at least some familiarity with the stories. Whether you choose the Five Classics of Confucianism, the Qur'an of Islam, the Talmud of Judaism, or whatever else catches your interest, learn something new about an unfamiliar faith and culture. Try the Rigveda (one of the sacred texts of Hinduism). It is the oldest known religious text.

Most of these texts have surprising similarities and attempt to convey the same messages. Maybe if everyone took the time to learn a little bit about another faith, there would be less hate in the world.

2. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a student in high school, but decided to pick it up again as an adult and see what else I got from it. I would recommend that others do this as well! It also bears the distinction of being one of the few books whose film rendition is well done, if you absolutely can't bring yourself to read it again.

Lee manages to write a book that maintains the warmth and innocence of childhood, even though the themes range from racism to integrity. I quickly fell in love with Scout (and related to her tomboy nature).

It seems a shame that Lee never wrote another novel after publishing "To Kill a Mockingbird" because her contribution to the world was stunning. I would have loved to see what her second novel might have been like, even if it wasn't such a classic.

3. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

The Joad family had simple dreams. They wanted a home for their family and honest work. Steinbeck narrates their tale of the journey from Oklahoma to California in "The Grapes of Wrath." It captures the hopelessness of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. What I took away from the book was the fortitude of the Joad family - despite nearly impossible circumstances, they fought onward and did the best they could for the people around them.

If you enjoy Steinbeck and would like to pursue him further, my next suggestion would be to read "Cannery Row" which I debated adding to the list in place of "Grapes." I have never been disappointed by the time spent reading his work. Any would be a wonderful choice!

4. "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" by Richard Bach

My cousin gave me this book as a graduation present when I was 17. He said that it helped him through a difficult time in life and hoped that it would do the same for me. I have read this book often since then, and find that

Jonathan is a seagull who is frustrated by the limitations of his life. He wants something more out of his days, but this makes him unpopular among the other gulls and eventually he is exiled from the flock. However, he keeps working and improving himself. He keeps "working on love" as well.

5. "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

This is an interesting novel to read because it was originally printed in two-chapter installments in a British literary magazine. So, while it maintains coherence as a whole, every two chapters had to have a resolution of its own.

Dickens is another author who has never disappointed me. Following his main character, Pip, move from his humble roots to the world of upper class society, we watch him learn about gratitude and suffering. Pip places social advancement above most other things in his life, and lives to regret it.
As a bonus selection, I would recommend that everyone read one nonfiction book on a subject they know nothing about. What have you always wanted to learn but never took the time for? Whether you have an interest in discovering more about art, geology, astronomy, or philosophy, there are books out there geared towards beginners. Don't wait to learn something new.

There are many other authors who were close to making my list. They include George Orwell, William Shakespeare, Octavia Butler, Frank McCourt, Jane Austen, and Thomas Pynchon. I think I would have had a much easier time selecting a list of 25 books that everyone should read, simply because I have so many favorites that had to be excluded within this small space.

The world is filled with wonderful books - why not set a goal for yourself to read more of them? Grab your library card and explore the wonders!