Book Review: Seeking Unseen, by Kat Heckenbach

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since this book was released. Released in 2012, that makes it seven years to be exact. I haven’t done justice to some of my writing friends by putting off reading their books, but I’ve recently made a commitment not only to read more, but to purpose to read more of those books I should have made time for long ago.

Finding AngelKat’s books are at the top of my list, as someone who has poured a lot into me professionally. I read and reviewed the first book in her Toch Island series, Finding Angel, way back in 2013. This morning, (having reread Angel over the summer) I finally finished the second book. I’ll have to put a book or two between this one and the third, but I’m determined to finish this series within the next few months.

I’ve also been notoriously critical in most of my reviews. Since 2013, I’ve sort of mellowed in this department. I reread my review of Angel and cringed a little. Maybe I was too critical. Upon my second reading, I’ll gladly take most of that back. Continue reading “Book Review: Seeking Unseen, by Kat Heckenbach”

Dear Anne #8 – Words Are Your Trade

Dear Anne,

I realized this week that it has been a month since I’ve written, and for that I want to apologize. I’m sure you understand how crazy summer can be sometimes, even though it’s supposed to be “vacation” time. Ha!

Right now you’re starting back to high school and you’re getting ready for your Sweet 16 party. How did this happen? You make me feel old. Maybe I am. But I won’t admit it for another two years.

As you’re getting back into daily social interactions with your teenage friends, I wanted to write this letter to remind you of something very important. If you’re going to be a writer, you must embrace the fact that words are your trade. You are to become an expert at the manipulation and proper construction of words and sentences.

Have you been watching the Olympics? I have. I’m struck with this one simple fact: when an athlete keys in on who they are as an athlete, they train insanely in their chosen discipline. The announcers revealed that rhythmic gymnasts train ten hours a day, six days a week. Katie Ledecky gets up at 4am to begin her training day, putting in about eight and a half miles of swimming. Every. Day.

These athletes have embraced that thing that makes them an athlete, so they train at that thing excessively.

Words are what make you a writer. They are your tools, your friends, and sometimes your worst enemies. But without words you could never be a writer. You should thrive on words, exercise your words, train your words, and embrace words in all their complexity and mood swings. Because words are your trade.

You are an athlete of words.

darth grammarWhat does that mean? Listen to the way you speak, listen to the way others speak, and improve your words. Practice saying things the right way, rather than flippant teen-speech. When texting or posting on Facebook, write your words all the way instead of abbreviations. Vulgarity in speech could never compare to the power of a cleverly crafted comeback.

Also, listen to your English teacher intently. Absorb all you can about the construction of words into complex sentences. Understand how words interact with each other and how subtle meanings can change based on the nuances of grammatical structure. You don’t have to make English your favorite subject, but you should take it seriously.

Expand your vocabulary. Always look for new words to add to your arsenal. Make a thesaurus your best friend. But don’t just add more weapons, understand how they work and when to use them. Words are powerful and fun, but not all words are appropriate in every situation. Learn what words to use and when.

I’m not saying you have to be a perfect speller. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade. I’m not saying become a grammar nazi. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade.

Words are your trade. Learn words. Embrace words. Use words properly. Become an expert with words. Train with words as if you were training for an Olympics for word-smiths.

And if I see lol or jk or idk or anything like that in any of your stories, I may just crawl through the computer, forget the fact that you’re about to be sixteen, and make you stand in the corner until you apologize.

Respect words.

-odk

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Planes, trains, automobiles, and feet: My Realm Makers adventure

For the first time since it began, though I remember being a part of some of the conversations that led up to its founding, I finally had the opportunity to attend Realm Makers. Realm Makers is a writer’s conference, the only one of its kind in the world, that is specifically for Christian speculative fiction. Speculative, if you don’t know, includes things like sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal. Also, not every writer who attends actually writes for the Christian market, but it most certainly is a conference where writers of the Christian faith get to spend time growing and learning with one another.

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My adventure must be told in two parts:  the actual conference and my travel adventure.

This year the conference was held on the campus of Villanova University just outside of Philadelphia, PA. The conference was awesome and the keynote speaker was Thomas Locke. But perhaps the most meaningful thing to me was finally getting to meet in person many friends that I’ve known for years but have never met in person. Authors such as Kat Heckenbach, Kristen Stieffel, Ralene Burke, Becky Minor, Randy Streu, Kerry Neitz, Avily Jerome, Heather Titus, and many others that I may not be able to remember right now. (Sorry!) I also got to meet many authors that I’ve gotten to know more recently online.

The weirdest thing, though, was that people I didn’t know at all from the writing community actually recognized my name. It was both humbling and honoring to know that on some level I’ve had a positive influence on the development of these young writers.

I was invited to be on two panels. One was a panel on self-publishing. I felt a little out of place because Splashdown Books isn’t really self-publishing though they’ve changed to a hybrid publishing style very similar. The audience, though, really just wanted to know about marketing for self-publishers…to which I told them simply that I was really bad at marketing.

On the other hand, the paranormal/horror panel I sat on was tons of fun. We could have discussed the subject for several hours if we’d had the time. It was also inspiring to know that I had things to say to those attending that they actually wanted to hear about.

chuckAttendees were also encouraged to dress in costume for the awards banquet. I was a Nerd Herder, from the TV show Chuck. In a room full of nerds, this costume was too obscure. Only a handful of people actually recognized it. Most people had to have the show meticulously explained to them, because they hadn’t even heard of it. (How is that possible, people!?)

Finally, most productive and fun for me was the time I spent volunteering to be an appointment timer for writers pitching to the publishers and agents at the conference. I enjoyed it so much that I did extra time, sending one young author back to the conference. I got to encourage and calm nervous writers who had never pitched to someone before and I got to have meaningful conversations with the publishers and agents during the in-between times.

I may or may not have successfully accidentally pitched to one of the publishers a book I wasn’t planning on writing at all for about a year and a half. I may or may not have successfully purposefully pitched my non-fiction book to an agent in less than five minutes. Requests for both. (Got to write one of them first. Ha!)

Well, enough about the conference. What you really want to hear about…what you NEED to hear about…is the adventure that was my travels.

It all started months ago when I booked my flight. I booked a cheap flight…I had a budget. My flight plan sent me from Charlotte to Newark, NJ by plane and required me to transfer to an Amtrak train to take me to Philly. From there I would take the regional rail line, right out of the train station, that would take me directly to the campus of Villanova University.

Sounds fun, right? You might be tempted to think so. Leg 1 – driving to the airport – was fine. Uneventful. Leg 2 – flying to Newark – was also fine. Uneventful. But then things begin to get weird.

Leg 3 required the transfer to the train. The Newark airport has an inter-rail system to transport passengers from the airport to the train station. At the pen-ultimate stop of the inter-rail train, the doors opened and a lady began to yell at everyone to get off, cross the platform, and get on the opposite train. We were all confused, but we complied. The original inter-train left.

We waited. The doors never closed. The new train never left. Another one showed up on the original rail opposite us. And then the lady started yelling at us to get off, cross the platform, and get on the other one. Again. Thoroughly confused, we were eventually herded back across the platform, back to where we started, and finally departed for the Amtrak station.

I’ll skip the ticketing confusion at the Amtrak station and then again at the Philly station when trying to get on the regional rail. Let’s just say train stations aren’t as organized and obviously signed as airports.

I hopped on the regional rail moments before it closed the doors. Yes! A break. I didn’t have to wait for another. But then it stopped two stops early. The conductor came on and said, “Last stop for this train. Everyone off.”

I was a mile away from my destination. I had no idea where I was. In hindsight, I should have just called a taxi. But I didn’t. I walked the last mile.

I was 15 minutes late for the cafeteria. The doors were locked. I was hungry, tired, frustrated, and sweaty. I just wanted to sit down and give up for the day. Finally, someone came out who worked there and she let me in. I begged the cafeteria manager for something, anything to eat. She pitied me and let me have the only thing she had available…a gluten free, dairy free, turkey sandwich from the cooler. I didn’t care. I was too hungry to care. As I was eating, the manager also brought me some chips and granola bars. She really did pity me. I must have looked horrible. Did I mention I missed my afternoon coffee?

After that, everything was fine during the conference, even though I was 30 minutes late for the kick-off.

But then I had to travel home. My train left at 5:15 am from Philly to go back to Newark. And if you’re not on the platform for the train, they don’t wait on you. I wanted to be there with time to spare. So I got up at 3:30 and called an Uber at 4:00. I’ve never rode with Uber before and I had a great first experience!

But the driver almost hit a herd of deer in the middle of Lancaster Avenue on our way to downtown Philly. He said he had NEVER seen any deer on Lancaster Avenue before, and he’d lived there for 20 years. We found at least six that night. At least his brakes were fine.

Then we may or may not have driven through the middle of an active crime scene while driving through West Philly. Six police cars, no lights flashing, and a small crowd gathered around one particular part of the sidewalk…Just keep driving, just keep driving…

But I made it on time and the train to Newark was uneventful. The plane from Newark to Charlotte was also uneventful, though delayed 30 minutes because of weather. (Much better than one of my friends who had a 7 hour delay!) And I had my first experience with an over-the-top caricature of a stewardess. No one has the right to be that perky that early in the morning. No. One.

Finally, the drive back home was also uneventful, though by now I felt like a zombie. I made it with a little help from my friend Starbuck.

And that was the end of my Realm Makers adventure. It was good to be with my tribe. But it’s great to be home. Thanks to all my friends for an awesome time!

-odk

 

Dear Anne #5 – Basic Story Planning

Dear Anne,

I write this letter on basic story planning, because that’s what you need right now. We’ve had some conversations already on this very thing, so I want to give you some more basic tools to help you properly plan your story.

Simply put, you have to know your story before you can write your story. There are writers who construct a plot first and populate it with characters to act out that plot. There are writers who create characters first and then give them something to do. There are even writers who have something to say to the reader or society, and they create the plot and characters in order to say what they want to say.

I’ll talk about these three approaches in more detail later. But what I want you to know is no matter what the approach or which approach you naturally take, these writers all have the same thing in common…they have an idea of what they want to write before they write it.

Even “seat of the pantsers” (writers who write by the seat of their pants without detailed planning) have something in mind – a goal, certain characters, developments, or plot points – before they write. Writers like this are usually more character driven, and they KNOW their characters.

It may sound like knowing your story is a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than done.

First, let me restate what we discussed in chat. Create timelines. This works really well when getting to know your characters. The more you know about their past, the deeper the character becomes. Your readers may not always need to know this information…but YOU know it, and it’ll help shape the personality of your characters and even help to determine their actions and motivations.

Speaking of motivations…this is essential when working on your characters. What do they want? How are they going to get it? I don’t want to get too deep into character development (that’s another letter), but you can’t plan your story if you don’t know what your characters want to get out of the story.

Next, I want to say a word about outlining. I’m a big outliner. Some writers are not. Some writers think outlining is the only responsible way to write a story. To each his/her own. But I do think that some form of outline is necessary to create a balanced story without spending months or years on rewriting. Balance is absolutely necessary, and the writer who goes into a story without some kind of plan has a difficult time creating that balance from scratch. Often they write many many drafts, just to fix the story problems they could have worked out from the beginning with an outline.

That’s my opinion though. Other writers might argue with me. (And if they’re reading this, feel free to leave a comment with your planning method!)

However, my outlines are not incredibly detailed and they are fluid. In other words, I write one or two statements about what I want to happen in a chapter. But I am open and willing to let the story change if the story wants to change. Then I adjust my outline accordingly. There have been times when I had a clear outline early in the story, but I wasn’t sure about things later. I let the story tell me what to put in those places. (Kinda having that issue with current book at the moment.)

Writing a good story is like raising a child. A good parent guides their child in the right direction and teaches them the right way to live, but allows them become who the unique person they want to be. Guide your story. Teach it how to be a good story. But let it become what it wants to be.

However, the clearer and more detailed your outline, the faster you can write your story.

snowflakeFinally, I want to talk about snowflaking. This is a method of planning developed by the godfather of story planning, Randy Ingermanson. He developed what is known as the Snowflake Method, and even has software available to help you do it. You can find out all about it here – http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/.

This gist of it is that you start small and build outward, the way a snowflake grows. First, write ONE sentence that accurately describes your story. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds! He even suggests spending an entire hour just on this one sentence.

Once you have your sentence, you then expand it into a single paragraph, of about five sentences long and covering all of the major developments. Next, you take these five sentences and you expand them into paragraphs. You’ll now have a page long summary of your story, broken into five sections, each ending with a major plot point or disaster. Then take each paragraph of this page and expand it into a full page, so that you have a 4-5 page summary of your story. From there, you’ll probably be ready to hammer out your first draft.

Ingermanson says it should take you about a week to do all of this, if you’re taking your time and really thinking it through. I do want to point out that if you read his instructions on it, you’ll see he breaks it down into four sections and I have suggested five. That’s because I use a 5-stage plot system that I’ll tell you about later.

The Snowflake Method also recommends you do this same kind of snowflaking for every major character. Start with a single sentence about the character, expand it to a paragraph, and then expand that to a page. You should include that character’s specific timeline and plot development, even if the reader never reads about it. In other words, describe the story briefly from THEIR point of view, even if that’s not how the final story will be written. Include important history, background, and training. Include the character’s goals and motivation in the story. You’ll need to do this for every protagonist and villain…any character that is important to your story.

I use a little bit of snowflaking, but I don’t do the entire Snowflake Method. I do the smaller story summaries, but I don’t go beyond the one page. Once I get my one page, I launch into my 5-stage plot system. I also do not do the detailed character writing, though a probably should. Those things don’t really work for me in my current books, but they might work for you.

And that’s really the whole trick to this. You NEED some kind of planning…whether it’s plot planning or character planning or some combination. But you have to find the planning methods that work best for YOU. What works now might not work later as you grow and learn as a writer. Keep trying and experimenting until you find that magic formula that is YOUR process, bearing in mind that as you mature in your career so will your process.

-odk

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Dear Anne #4 – The Right Tools for the Job

Dear Anne,

Have you ever tried to eat spaghetti with a spoon? Dig a hole with a rake? Hammer a nail with a screwdriver? Of course not. Maybe you could accomplish those feats with those tools, but if you want to do a job well and do it timely you have to use the right tool for the job.

This week I want to tell you about the right tools for writing. Some of these may be common sense to you and some of them may be new information, but they are all extremely valuable to writers. So I’m going to make a list for you to go through and acquire what you need for the projects you’re working on.

1. A good laptop. Maybe this goes without saying, but in today’s mobile environment some people are attempting to write on tablets and such. I don’t recommend this, mostly because you’re limited in your saving/backup capability and in your software options. If you don’t have a laptop, it’s time to get one.

2. Word processors. It’s tempting to write directly into a blog or to write only on paper, but don’t. Getting to know a good word processor is absolutely essential. Microsoft Word is by far the most popular and probably the strongest as far as features. It’s available on PC, Mac, Andriod, and iOS, so that you can continue working on you mobile devices when you need to. Corel WordPerfect is also an option, though not as popular and I don’t know much about it. (I use Word.) There’s also Libre Office and Open Office, both of which are free. Libre Office is probably the more powerful and frequently updated, though Open Office is more popular. Apple also has a word processor called Pages, which is powerful enough, but if you can get Word on Mac then you might as well use Word. You can even go through Google Drive (see below) and use their line of free word processing programs that are designed to work easily with their cloud server. Save everything in .doc or .docx files, and if you are trying to share with someone who doesn’t have MS Word, use .rtf (it’s a more universal file format.)

While we’re on the subject of word processors, if you don’t already know how to type properly or haven’t yet taken a keyboarding course in school, do it as soon as possible. Sometimes your writing speed may be limited to your typing speed, because your brain will certainly outrun your fingers. And that’s very frustrating at times.

3. A back-up system. Learn to back-up everything you do with a deep sense of urgency and paranoia, as if the whole world of computers is about to crash and eat all your work at any moment. Fortunately, there are several cloud based options that will do this automatically. Google Drive and Microsoft Onedrive can both be configured to run in the background of your computer and automatically save everything you do to the cloud. Add one of them. NOW. And put all of your writing folders in it. Both of these offer online editing of your documents and sync with their own word processors. You don’t have to use their word processors to back-up files, but if you’re going to edit them remotely or with a mobile device it helps. Dropbox is also an option, though it doesn’t offer as much space in a free account as the other two and doesn’t have any built-in editing capabilities. You may want to consider more than one back-up strategy, such as having everything auto-back-up to Onedrive, but once a week or so copy everything to Google or Dropbox. You may even want to keep a flash-drive or external hard drive nearby and periodically copy your material there, too.

20111128-gremlinParanoia. The computer gremlins want to eat everything.

4. Evernote/Onenote – Both of these programs are very similar. They are digital “notebook” systems. You can setup notebooks with sections and pages, just like you might do a three-ring binder. Evernote is free. Onenote is a Microsoft program and is built into Windows now, I think. Both work really well and have mobile versions for your tablet and phone. Onenote may have the edge organizationally and Evernote is a little simpler to use, though it’s not as touch friendly. They both sync online and you can access your notes from a computer anywhere anytime. Use these to keep track of your ideas and notes for projects, and you can update them with your phone on the go if some inspiration strikes. I use both, because I can’t decide which I like best. This is where I do all my pre-writing and brainstorming before I actually get started on a project, and it’s where I keep my ever-growing list of future book ideas. (These programs are also good for school notes or any other thing you want to keep organized digitally.)

Some writers find it easier to keep a small notebook and pen with them at all times to jot down ideas. That’s fine if you like that. But I still highly recommend that you take all those ideas and put them into one of these digital programs, because notebooks get messed up…and they’ll take your ideas with them. Notebooks have gremlins, too.

5. Scrivener (and other writing software) – This is a word processing system (I put it that way because it’s so much different than a standard word processor) designed specifically for writers,  especially those working on long projects. It breaks down each chapter or section you’re working on into different “pages” that can be tabbed through easily, so that you’re not scrolling forever like you would in Word. Each of these pages can be moved around if you decide to rearrange your document, without having to do complicated copy/pasting. Each page also has a place where you can put in a description of what’s in that chapter. There’s an outline function that lays it all out so you can see exactly what your project looks like. Scrivener also auto saves, so you don’t have to worry about it…you can just concentrate on writing. When your project is ready, you can export it as a single file in Word, where you can put the finishing touches on it.

scrivener screenshotI wrote my third and fourth books in Scrivener. I also wrote a non-fiction book that I hope to release in July, and I’m writing this series of letters to you with it! Here’s a screenshot. You can see the list of chapters in the working outline on the left. I may not write all of those you see, btw. This program is NOT where I’m keeping my future letter ideas. That would be in Onenote. (Notice also that both Google Drive and Onedrive are working in the bottom corner.)

This is certainly not the only software designed with writers in mind, but it’s really the only one I know and it’s what I use. Here’s a link to several others compared side-by-side – http://creative-writing-software-review.toptenreviews.com/; and here’s a link to the snowflake software (I’ll talk a little about snowflake later) http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/products/.

Most of these things will work best and shine with long projects that need a deeper level of organization. If you’re just doing short stories, then a regular word processor will do just fine.

6. Standard tools – It should go without saying that you need to have a good dictionary and thesaurus handy. If you’ve got internet access while you’re writing, then dictionary.com/thesaurus.com (two sides of the same site) are extremely helpful. I LOVE thesaurus.com. Along with this, I recommend getting a good baby name book for coming up with character names. (Scrivener and some of the other writing software have name generators built in.) Also get The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I haven’t had this one for long, but I instantly regretted NOT having it as soon as I got it. They have two other books, The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus (I have all three), but I think The Emotion Thesaurus should become a standard tool for every writer.

7. Writing space. This isn’t exactly something you get, but something you need to create. You’ll need to talk to your parents about this and get them on board if possible…I know you have a full house! But you need to be able to get away, to focus, and to have a creative writing space that helps inspire you to put words on the paper without distraction.

That’s it for now! Time to make sure you have all the right tools to help this writing journey go a little more smoothly. If you have any questions about how to actually use some of these things when you get them, we’ll discuss it in chat.

Until next week, go write something!

-odk

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