Who I am, and why I write

Welcome! My name is Erin Manning, and I write clean Young Adult fiction for ages 12 and up. I'm an avid reader and I've been...

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Preparing for Camp NaNoWriMo!

For the last few days, I've been getting ready for Camp NaNoWriMo, which begins on April 1. Are you writing something this April? If so, I highly recommend that you try Camp NaNo as a way of motivating yourself, connecting with other motivated writers, and enjoying this way of moving your current project along. 

As I've already said, I'll be writing book five in The Adventures of Ordinary Sam. This is the second time in two straight "NaNo" months that I'll be finishing a series! As I said back in November, it's bittersweet. 

In fact, I dreamed the other day that two of my main characters from my first series, Tales of Telmaja, had the magical Sand Stone from Ordinary Sam's world, and needed to do something extremely important with it. Unfortunately, one of my swashbuckling cats woke me at the crucial moment and I'll never know just how this crossover would have gone. But it occurred to me that the dream was logical given that I'm ending both sets of books just a few months apart from each other. 

I'm still sorting out some details for the plot of the last Ordinary Sam book. There are lots of things I need to wrap up and plenty of actions that need to be taken, but I'm struggling a bit with a few details, including the title of this final novel in the series. I have a feeling that whatever I choose may end up being a "working title" which may change before publication.

Beginning on Monday, I will use this blog to post brief updates of my writing progress and chat a little about writing topics I encounter along the way. Come along for the ride!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

No time like the present

"When did you start writing seriously? What made you start?"

Those are questions, I've noticed, that writers seem to get quite frequently. It's not surprising; writing as a craft, a hobby, a career, or an obsession is something that seems to non-writers to develop spontaneously. I think, in all honesty, that this is because to some degree or other everyone writes. Not everyone can draw or paint or sculpt; not everyone can excel at sports or music; not everyone will become a doctor or a lawyer. But most of us spend at least some time writing--yet many people find it an onerous chore, and wonder a little about people who assign themselves the equivalent of a three hundred page paper for fun on a regular basis.

Most writers will answer these questions truthfully, but in a lot of cases we're giving the questioner the condensed version. Casual conversations, quick interactions, and social media engagements don't allow for an in-depth answer. And yet these questions deserve some consideration.

My own answer starts the way many writers' answers do: I was a storyteller from a young age and wrote my first novella-length work beginning at age 15. Writing that little book was the first time I genuinely wished to be a writer someday, and many writers will point to a similar moment in their evolution.

Yet stopping there doesn't tell the whole story, because like most people I got away from writing for a while--at least, I got away from writing fiction. I was an English major in college; I wrote all the time, but I wrote long papers analyzing other people's writing. I rarely got to do anything creative in those years.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I was a married, stay-at-home, homeschooling mom of three wonderful daughters. I still told people I wanted to write someday. I still had notebooks with handwritten stories and scribbles of ideas for longer works. But I didn't have time; someday I would.

And then one day I had a conversation with an older woman. She was going to get back into art. Someday, she said.

I said, encouragingly, "Why not now?" It was a logical question: her children had been grown up and out of the house for years; her husband was slowly moving toward retirement; her time, from the perspective of a mom of three little girls very close in age, was clearly her own.

But she seemed startled by the question. "Oh, no. No, I can't," she said. And she listed all the reasons, which ranged from needing to take care of laundry and housework to her purely optional volunteer activities. "I'm much too busy," she said.

I pondered that later, when I was at home. It seemed to me that she was more afraid than busy, afraid to take up something that she'd put off all those years, afraid that it would be too difficult at her age to get back into something she had once loved, but had for so long neglected.

The thought frightened me. Would that happen to me, too? Would I wait until my youngest child was in college, or out of the house, or married with children to start writing again? And would I, then, use the excuse that I was much too busy too?

Then it hit me: I was already doing that. I truly had been too busy during the years when I had three tiny girls in diapers, but I was not that busy now. Our homeschooling days were relatively easy at their early grade levels. They had unstructured play time and still took afternoon naps. I, myself, wasn't too busy to write--it just felt that way.

So I started writing during the girls' nap times and afternoon play time. I wrote a 400-page sci-fi monstrosity that will never see the light of day. But we've all got a really bad book in us, and it's pretty good to get it out of the way right at the start.

I pondered my next project for a while. Then a friend told me about National Novel Writing Month and encouraged me to sign up. "Are you crazy?" I asked him. "We're six days into November already, and I have out-of-town company coming for Thanksgiving. I can't possibly write fifty thousand words!"

But later I thought: that's just another excuse. So I signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time. Twenty-four days later I had a 64,000 word first draft of a book that eventually became The Telmaj, the first book in my Tales of Telmaja series.

And now, thirteen years later, I've got fourteen self-published books, two completed manuscripts that will be published by years' end, and one book to write in April (I plan to write in July and November, too). I also have three more uncompleted monstrosities. These things happen. But I love it. I love writing; I love publishing; I love finding out that a reader has loved my books.

My answer to the questions "When did you start writing seriously? What made you start?" isn't going to be everyone's answer. Our lives are all as different as our works-in-progress. But if you're still hovering on the edge of that leap of faith that leads to the moment when you can finally say, "Yes, I'm a writer!" then let me encourage you to let go of all the "somedays" you can, and try to start right now. There really is no time like the present.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Are schools destroying your child's love of reading?

Because I write middle grade fiction, I have engaged in conversations from time to time with parents who have concerns about their children's reading habits--or lack thereof. While this is an ongoing concern for parents these days as so many other things are competing for children's attention, the saddest thing I hear from parents is that the way some schools approach reading is actually killing their child's love of books.

I have heard this from multiple parents in many states and many different types of schools. But the details of what's going on seem to be very similar.

First, some parents tell me that their children are only allowed to choose books at their reading level, as determined by Lexile (tm) scores. Many criticisms of the Lexile (tm) framework exist and should be considered carefully by discerning parents and educators. The bottom line is that the scores may not reflect the overall suitability of the book, or the child's actual reading ability; in addition, by tossing aside whole groups of books because they are suddenly "too easy" for a developing child you may be removing from the child all the books he or she is currently interested in, and replacing them with books he or she finds dull and uninteresting. The kids who are penalized the most by this system are the avid readers whose reading ability is far advanced for their ages; they may soon find themselves being handed books with subject matter and story lines far beyond their emotional level on the grounds that the lighthearted middle-school fiction they enjoy is too easy for them to read. 

Second, I have heard from some parents that their children's schools require their children to do a nightly reading assignment at home. Being required to read at home for twenty minutes each evening is not at all a bad thing (I would have loved such assignments as a child, as it would have given me permission to set aside the subjects I found more difficult in order to enjoy a good book). But the other part of the assignment almost always takes all the joy out of it: the child is expected to complete a reading log or journal detailing what he or she read, how many pages, etc., and sometimes to give a brief report on the day's reading. Here are a few examples of reading logs, if you haven't seen them.

Can you imagine anything that would strip the joy from getting to read your newest favorite book faster than this? Instead of finishing their homework and grabbing the book, the children must set a timer, make sure they've read for the required twenty minutes, record that reading session on whatever form or log the teacher requires, and then, in some cases, get a parent's signature to show that they have, in fact, completed their reading for the day. A world of adventure and imagination becomes an uninspiring bureaucratic task, dreaded and then completed like the dullest bit of regular homework.

Unfortunately, schools seem to be promoting a view of reading that diminishes it. The child must take standardized tests to determine his or her reading level; he or she is only permitted books at that level; he or she must then complete a daily reading task designed to turn a pleasurable activity into a chore. I think we can and should do better to teach our children to love books.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Kindle Unlimited readers, welcome!

Do you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited? If you do, you may be able to read all of my books for free! You can go to my Amazon Author page to find and download my books.

Not all self-published authors enroll their books in Kindle Unlimited, and I understand that. It doesn't work for everyone, especially if you're publishing ebooks only and want to distribute them in places other than Amazon. Since I publish print books as well as ebooks, this is less of a concern for me. I am happy for people to be able to read my books at the lowest cost possible.

One thing I've learned is that digital books aren't for everyone, and unfortunately children's books are an especially difficult thing to sell as digital media. I can't blame parents for being concerned about kid's screen use; it's a concern I share. But I think that ebooks are going to be an important part of the future of publishing. I was a voracious reader as a child, and if ebooks had been possible when I was young, I would have been so excited! The idea of being able to carry a hundred books to school or to the park or anywhere else I happened to be going would have amazed me. I often read during lunch or recess, and it was frustrating if I happened to finish my current book and have nothing else with me to read.

Still, whether or not their kids can have ebooks is a decision each parent must make. I hope, by making my ebooks available as inexpensively as possible, I can reach out to parents who may use Kindle Unlimited or occasional ebook purchases as a way of previewing a work to see if it is suitable for their child. I am happy to assist parents in any way I can, and I welcome questions from parents who would like to find out if my books are a good fit for their children.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

On motivation

Anyone who works on something creative and who does not have external deadlines will face, sooner or later, the problem of motivation. For me, as I've said before, NaNoWriMo and their events help me when it comes to writing a book. But editing is another story, and plotting/planning/prewriting is also something that's hard to do under a deadline. As for marketing and selling--it can be hard enough for an indie writer to figure out what to do, let alone when and how often to do those things that will bring attention to a book.

Even people who aren't writers, though, can sympathize with the struggle to create and set realistic goals and deadlines around seemingly endless and sometimes vague tasks. Moms at home, small business owners, students and many other people may find it hard to get things done in a timely manner. In many ways, the illusion of control we all try to create for ourselves can evaporate when we realize how difficult it is to adhere to a self-imposed deadline, or to accomplish complex tasks in the midst of the chaos of daily life.

The important thing about motivation to me is this: it's important not to fall into the trap of thinking that one day's failures will define a week, or one week's failures a month, or that one month's setbacks will set the tone for the whole year. We have a certain number of hours each day to try to accomplish some of those things on our long "to-do" lists, and just because one day isn't going as expected there's no reason to give up on the one hand, or to try to cram too much in the next day (leading to inevitable failure) on the other.

I try to accomplish a few simple writing-related tasks each day, but if things don't work out, I don't give up for the rest of the week. It's important to keep going.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Just for fun, a sneak peek

I didn't have a topic planned for today, so just for fun I thought I'd post a bit from the first chapter of my newest book, Wizard's Mischief: Flame. The book is still in the editing stages so what I post here may or may not make the final cut!

Note: Copyright is reserved on all my blog contents except those I don't own such as quotes or excerpts from other people's writing. I especially note that I am the copyright holder of the content posted below and reserve all rights to it.

“Rogan!” a voice behind me shouted.

I quickened my pace--not toward the shouting voice, but away from it. The dirt path beneath my racing feet was dusty; we hadn’t had rain in days, and thanks to Great Aunt Grinnie I knew I’d stay dry today, too. The shouting voice behind me was growing more distant; Cousin Calogera, Great Aunt Grinnie’s one unmarried daughter, wasn’t young enough or fast enough to catch up with me, even if she had been about thirty pounds lighter, which, of course, she wasn’t.

Freedom, in the shape of the dark tangled woods just ahead, loomed. I permitted myself a grin--not a small, tight-lipped sort of smugness, but a wide appreciation for the gift this good day was about to become. Unthinkingly, I risked a glance over my shoulder to make sure Cousin Calogera couldn’t reach me in time to stop me…

...and as I did, a tree root buckled up suddenly from the path in front of me, and I tripped and fell.

To be fair, it was at least the fourth or fifth tree root Cousin C. (you don’t mind if I call her that, right? It’s what I usually called her) had magically pulled up out of the ground and sent my way; but living among minor wizards has its benefits, and one of them is this: you learn to avoid the magic they send at you. With Cousin C., you only have to watch out for tree roots and other buried but living things. She can make a dandelion uproot itself in front of you as a distraction (hey, it worked when I was four) or trip you with tree roots or lace vines in your path, but once you know that’s what she does, it’s easy enough to avoid her little traps. All you have to do is keep your eyes on the ground in front of you. Which, of course, I had just failed to do.

Cousin C. was still way behind me. I could easily have leapt up and resumed my flight, but that wouldn’t be playing fair. I have a great belief in the importance of fair play. Great Aunt Grinnie thinks it’s because she and my late Great Uncle Gorry raised me to believe in being fair, but certain childhood memories of mine don’t seem to support that theory. In any case, I just sat there on the ground and waited for Cousin C. to catch up to me. She knew perfectly well that I would wait, too, and so she took her time.

When she did finally arrive, she was out of breath, panting heavily, her face twinkling with perspiration. Pausing in front of me, she put her hands on her hips in a gesture of exasperation that had been familiar to me since my toddler days. “Just what do you think you’re doing, Rogan Jems Brandle?”


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Camp NaNoWriMo is coming! And so is the last Ordinary Sam book.

If you've ever participated in the National Novel Writing Month events, you'll know that there are three main writing months: the NaNoWriMo event in November in which participants sign up to write at least 50,000 words of a novel, and the two Camp NaNo events in April and July, in which participants have a bit more leeway to decide what kind of project they plan to write and to set their own word goals.

For me, having three dedicated months of the year to join other writers in racing toward an arbitrary but fun deadline is the key to being able to complete first drafts. While I didn't always finish the whole draft in each month, I did meet my goals; at this point, though, I've learned that finishing the whole first draft of a novel-in-progress makes a huge difference in my ability to finish a writing project in a reasonable amount of time.

I always worked on my Tales of Telmaja books in November, so the first time I started an April writing project I wanted to work on something new. My series about a boy who is back in the real world after a year of adventures in a magical realm was an attempt to answer the question I always had about the kinds of books where kids would enter a wardrobe or cross a portal to a new and strange land: what happens when they come back, and life is just ordinary? I would come to find out that "Ordinary Sam" wasn't ordinary anymore, and that the collision between his everyday world of school and friends and the magic world of fearful Frights and evil Enchanters was going to change his life forever.

So for the last four Aprils I have followed Sam Oldfield as he discovers the truth about himself and the mysterious Sand Stone--and tries to balance a world full of homework and video games with a world full of magic and danger. This April, I will write the fifth and final book in The Adventures of Ordinary Sam.

It's bittersweet to leave a world and its characters behind, but writers almost never close the door completely. For now, though, Sam's story arc is reaching a natural conclusion, and I'm excited about getting started on that last book, the only one in the series which will, on the final page, contain the words: "The End."

Monday, March 18, 2019

Harry Potter and the untrustworthy author

Over the weekend, J.K. Rowling had the dubious honor of being the subject of a new Twitter meme. I won't link to any examples here, but the general idea was to poke fun at Rowling for once again "revealing" (or inventing) new details about the Harry Potter world nearly 12 years after the final book in the series was released.

Unfortunately, Rowling's habit of doing this sort of thing has been going on for quite some time. The immeasurable popularity of the series and her own incredible success has kept her in the spotlight, even if the spotlight has been intermittent at times. It's perfectly natural for eager readers of the Harry Potter series to ask Rowling questions about the books, but it's less natural for Rowling to use those questions as springboards to insert details that are not in the books.

Last week I wrote about both untrustworthy narrators and the reality that all first-person narrators should be trusted only to tell the story from their narrow point of view; a truly objective, impartial first-person narrator would be an inhuman creation (or just an example of really bad writing). J.K. Rowling is in danger, I think, of becoming a variation on this theme--the untrustworthy author, the author who conveniently deviates from her own text to add details, invent new realities, and insert things into her characters' lives and stories that could not be reasonably said to have been there before.

Can authors talk about their own books? I don't think it's impossible, but it has to be done well. If a reader cleverly puts together clues the author has embedded into the story, and asks the author to confirm his or her theory, the author is right to say, "Why, yes! You guessed what I intended there," or "Well, that's an interesting idea, but it's not quite what I meant." In either case, though, the theory has to be backed up by the text. If the book is silent about something, I don't think it's playing fair for the author to say it was there all along in some kind of mystic subtext.

Let me give a hypothetical example: suppose a writer of a realistic novel creates a main character who strongly dislikes the color navy blue, because her mother made her wear an ugly navy blue prom dress. The navy dress becomes a symbol of the main character's uneasy relationship with her controlling mother. Later, the main character must hurry to her mother's side when her mother has been in a terrible accident. As she buys a plane ticket and rushes to pack a suitcase, she becomes frustrated with her jeans and bulky sweaters and the lack of room to pack when she has no idea how long she'll be away. So she runs to a nearby clothing store and purchases a travel suit--pants, skirt, jacket and dress in an easily packable travel knit material. The suit is navy blue.

If the author is asked about this, can she say that the navy suit, too, means something? Well, sure, and it could mean lots of things: the ongoing complexity of the relationship, the main character's desire to reconcile with her mother, the desire of the main character to be hidden and not criticized by her mother--she might even have purchased navy to avoid purchasing a suit in black that looked too much like something to wear to a funeral (but only if the black suit option was shown in the text). What the author could not do is declare that the navy suit reveals that the main character never got over being abandoned by her father for his new family--if that never came up before. The author can't just tack things on after the fact and then be surprised when readers object.

Authors create a kind of contract with readers, and that contract consists of the books themselves. It is, to me, a violation of that contract to shoehorn extraneous material into the texts when all the books are written.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Trusting the multiple first person narrators

Lots of children's books these days are written in the first person point-of-view. In fact, there's been a surge of books written in multiple first person, where the first person narrator is a different person in each chapter or each section of the book. When that is done well, as it is in Wilkie Collins' famous novel The Moonstone, it is incredibly enriching to the book. Unfortunately, many MG fiction writers have jumped on the "multiple first person narrator" bandwagon without being talented enough to make each voice sound different enough to be distinguishable. One might argue that five or six children in the fifth or sixth grade will speak similarly anyway, using the same slang terms and idioms as the other children in their school, and that's not entirely untrue. But the multiple first person narrator device loses most of its value when all the narrators sound alike, and you have to keep flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to try to figure out who is telling the story.

It's important to know who's telling the story, because it's important to know to what degree you can trust the narrator. Many children are taught in school these days to recognize an untrustworthy narrator as one specific kind of person--the narrator who is clearly lying or otherwise manipulating the reader. But as I learned in college literature classes, just  because a first person narrator is not an obviously untrustworthy narrator does not mean that we can take everything the narrator says as the objective truth. The reason for using a first person narrator at all is so the reader sees the events of the story unfold through the narrator's eyes--which means that everything the reader comes to know is coming to him or to her through the vision of the narrator.

And first person narrators are supposed to be individual people, with their own quirks, their own flaws, their own shortcomings, and their own blind spots. All of these things will impact the relative truthfulness of what the narrator chooses to tell the reader. The clues to what sort of person the narrator is are revealed with every word the narrator speaks--just as the more we get to know a person in real life, the more we are able to make decisions (sometimes accurately and sometimes incorrectly) about what kind of person our acquaintance or friend really is.

If a book is being told by one narrator, and you realize that the narrator is mostly truthful and accurate about events, but inclined to be vain, self-centered, and blind about his own desire to be recognized, you will quickly learn that when he says, "The basketball game on Tuesday night was pretty crowded," he's probably telling the truth; but if he adds, "I knew the whole team was looking up to me to lead us to victory, because our team captain is worthless," we know we need to take that statement with a very large grain of salt. A good writer will not leave us guessing for long; we will learn what is clearly true and what is being distorted through the lens of the narrator's personality.

A really well-written multiple first person narrative is going to do the same thing on a much larger scale. In addition to the narrator I've already mentioned, we might have the basketball team captain, who reveals himself to be humble and kind but a bit forgetful and not all that trustworthy when it comes to the details of what happened when, for instance. We might also have the team captain's best friend who doesn't play sports, is logical and precise, but who is only moderately capable of relating what's going on as he's often absorbed in his own pursuits and finds the basketball team's bickering annoying and unrelatable. Other narrators will be similarly treated, so that we know who will tell us the objective truth and who will not. In a good story of this kind, no one will be telling the whole truth; everyone will be just a little blind to the whole story.

So if the story is about a disaster of a basketball game that puts the team's chance of making it to the State competition very slim, we will have to weigh each person's input to find out who was really to blame, what really happened, and what can be done to make things better in the future. Knowing how much to trust each narrator can get complicated, which is why multiple first person narration is not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


I've written about this before, but the push to include adult topics and content in books for middle schoolers is something I consider an unfortunate trend. Children develop both physically and emotionally at different rates, and what a mature reader might be able to handle may be far too much for a more innocent child.

Yet the book industry seems determined to push adult topics onto younger and younger kids. One popular middle-grade novel published this year is about two girls getting to know each other because their single gay dads fall in love and start dating. One of the girls casually mentions her surrogate mom, a topic many eight-year-olds are unaware of and would find confusing. Because this book is middle-grade fiction, though, it will be available in many libraries and classrooms for children that age to read.

At the same time, there's been a trend toward making MG fiction easy and unchallenging to read, in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. It's odd--books for 8-to 12-year-olds are delving into edgy topics, while the same books are often written at a cartoonishly easy level.

I'm a bit old-fashioned, I know. But I think that children should be challenged to read books that stretch their reading skills, improve their vocabularies, and fire their imaginations; I don't think it's necessary to challenge them to think about topics that even some adults these days are uneasy pondering.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Can Christian children read books about magic? Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about the use of magic as a symbol in children's book writing. My point was that some books which use magic in way that is both reminiscent of fairy tales and in which the magic merely stands for something else, such as power or courage, are not necessarily a problem for Christian children to read. It would be a shame, for instance, if parents forbade their children to read books of fairy tales simply because magic is used in them; the magic in fairy tales is not intended to reflect anything demonic, and the stories teach valuable lessons about faith, courage, and perseverance.

But today there are some writers, even writers of children's books, who take a different approach to magic. Whether they set their books in the real world or not, they use actual occult elements in their stories, and make the use of these elements either morally good or morally ambiguous. The characters may summon demons or practice forms of paganism that are recognizable and that real people have practiced in the real world.

Even if the writers don't go that far, they may use a kind of inversion in which the "dark, evil" magic the characters are supposed to avoid becomes acceptable for them. They may face misunderstandings or persecutions at the hands of other characters who insist that these kinds of dark magic, which may include killing people and other unsavory elements, is truly wrong--but the "heroes" of the story may categorize their opponents as being bigoted or biased against this dark and evil magic. It isn't too difficult to discern the agenda of the writers here, and parents should be cautious about letting their children read these kinds of books, not only for the use of magic, but because of the philosophy of situational ethics and the notion that power excuses the actions of the powerful by its very existence.

In the end, the only way to see if a book that contains magic is suitable for your child is to read it yourself. If that's not feasible, you can also read reviews of the book, ask others about it, and get to know the author to see if he or she is open about what he or she intends by using magic.

And if you have any questions for me, my contact information is on the main page of this blog! Feel free to email me.  

Monday, March 11, 2019

Can Christian children read books about magic? Part One

If you've peeked at this blog, you already know that I write books for children. One series I write, The Adventures of Ordinary Sam, centers around a boy named Sam Oldfield. As the first book, The Sand Stone, opens, Sam has already visited a magic land, bonded with a magic object, and taken up the fight to restore the rightful princess to her throne. As the series unfolds Sam will learn that his visit to Ebdyrza was not an accident, and that he has powers of his own.

Some Christian parents are uncomfortable with stories that contain magic elements. I am a practicing Catholic myself, and I understand these concerns. I'd like to spend some time this week talking a little bit about how to tell when magic is being used as a metaphor, and when writers veer into areas that might be problematic for a Christian child.

What does it mean to say that magic can be used as a metaphor? Elements of a story can be intended to be straightforward and literal, or they can be used as devices meant to represent something else. Even a story set in the real world may use metaphors: the main character might be afraid of some perfectly ordinary creature, for instance, but his fear might be meant to represent something deeper about his character, or give a clue to some mystery in his past, or some such thing.

Books that are not set in the real world use different kinds of metaphors (along with many other literary devices). Epic battles, alien races, advanced technologies, political power and wealth--any of these things might point to a deeper meaning.

The same thing is true for magic. In most books, magic is only a symbol. It can be a symbol for power, for creativity, for conflict, or for anything else the writer intends. In books written for children magic is often used as a symbol for the passage of the child to the adult world; in magic, the child learns responsibility and the danger of wielding power without carefully considering the consequences. These are real world lessons, but using magic as a framework for these lessons can help bring understanding to children who are dealing with the difficulties and confusions of early adolescence. 

But if magic is just a symbol, is it ever a problem? Can it sometimes be a symbol for evil, or for a morally ambiguous approach to the world? Anything that is symbolic in a book is up to the author--so, yes, magic can be a problematic symbol too (as can nearly anything else). How do you know when an author's use of magic is potentially not a good symbolic use? 

We'll get to that tomorrow.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Writing talk: daily goals

The phone rings. The writer, typing so fast her hands are a blur, ignores it until it stops. When it starts ringing again she snatches it impatiently. "What?"

She listens, murmuring assent. Then she says impatiently, "I told you I'd have it in by midnight tonight! How do you expect me to meet my deadline if you keep bothering me?"

She hangs up the phone, tosses it on her desk, and gets back to work, murmuring something about publishers and deadlines under her breath.

How many times have we seen scenes like that in movies or TV shows? The popular conception of a writer is of someone who is incapable of getting anything done on time without a publisher, an agent, and perhaps a sarcastic friend keeping her on track all the time.

And for some well-known, traditionally published writers this may be a true image. But every traditionally published writer started out as someone who was unpublished and unknown, and for indie writers there are never any deadlines that aren't self-imposed.

Whether you dream of getting a literary agent and a Big 5 publishing deal, or whether you are a self-published author, you will learn right away that the only way to complete a project is to make yourself do it. Though this would seem obvious, it's funny how many would-be or novice writers forget that the book they're dreaming of, plotting out, discussing on Twitter and pinning their hopes and dreams on will never exist if they don't manage to get around to writing it.

I have come to believe that the most effective way of completing a manuscript is to give yourself daily goals, especially daily word count goals. I find National Novel Writing Month and their two Camp Nano events to be the most efficient way of doing this, which is why I am presently able to write three full manuscripts ranging from 75,000 to just under 100,000 words each on an annual basis. That may sound like a lot, but I have met writers who are capable of producing that many words every month.

If the NaNoWriMo methods, or the months of April, July, and November, don't work for you, there are plenty of word count trackers available to help you record each day's efforts. The type of writing you are doing (fiction vs. nonfiction, prose vs. poetry, etc.) will determine what a realistic daily goal may be; in addition, some people find they can only write on weekends, while others can write during the week but not on weekends, and so on. It's important to set a daily goal that takes those things into consideration.

A daily goal is more than just a measure of how many words you produce. In a real sense it's a way of making a commitment to a writing project that goes beyond merely dreaming of writing a book. A dream, after all, is a pleasant escape, something we think we would like to do someday. But a goal is different, and a goal we can accomplish is often broken down into smaller steps. The person who dreams of vacationing in Europe won't get there by reading travel blogs and sighing over brochures; at some point, he will need to get a passport, figure out ticket prices, and save up the vacation time.

So if your desire to write a novel is more than a dream, you should seriously consider a self-imposed deadline and a daily word count goal. It might seem like an intimidating thing at first, but when you are holding your completed novel in your hands it will all seem worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Writing talk: character names

If you talk to a group of twelve writers, you will likely hear twelve different thoughts about the process of naming characters, ranging from "I hate it!" to "It's my favorite part of writing!" to "I have a file I've been saving for years of all my favorite names..."

Unless you're that last person, though, chances are that you are going to end up like a lot of us in the middle of this problem: sometimes naming a character is easy and happens before the story begins, while other times you struggle and struggle to come up with a suitable name that captures, at least for you, the essence of who the character is or who he or she will become.

If you have the name right from the beginning, that's great--unless you just happen to read that a bestselling novel or a hit TV show in your genre has just made headlines, and a main character who isn't entirely unlike yours has the exact same name. You might not have to change the name anyway (though you might want to check copyright laws if you're unsure), but you will have to accept that everyone will think you named your character in honor or in imitation of the more well-known character, which can be annoying if you did no such thing.

Changing a name you already like isn't easy, but coming up with a name when you are drawing a blank can be even worse. You can see this character in your mind's eye; you have heard her brittle laugh or watched him make his way nervously across a room, but you can't quite come up with a name that fits. All the names you try seem dull, uninteresting, or wildly inappropriate--and yet the story can't move forward until you select a name.

Some writers will use placeholder names. I think this is a good idea if the search for the right name is interfering too much with your progress. Sooner or later, though, the character will need a name, and you will need to go someplace to find one.

Two of my favorite websites for naming purposes are Behind the Name and Fantasy Name Generator. The first, which is more of a straightforward name site, contains good information about the name's origins and meaning, has plenty of variations of common names, offers surnames as well, and has a fun Random Renamer page which can be especially useful if you just need a quick name for a side character. The Fantasy Name Generator site is an incredible resource for everything from character and place names to location names, planet names, ship names, star names, and so on. There are sections of this site that are more geared for role-players, cosplay, and fan fiction--the author of original fiction will want to stay away from those areas for the most part (though they might be helpful if your character has an obsession with a real-life TV show or video game).

In addition to these two sites there are many other character naming sites ranging from baby name registries to sites designed to help historical fiction writers choose realistic-sounding names for the era in which their story is set.

One final thing that can help is this: ask your friends in real life and on social media for advice! People are more than willing to weigh in and discuss their favorite names as well as names they strongly dislike, and this input can be very helpful to a writer who is stuck looking for that perfect name.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Where writers get our ideas

"But where do you get your ideas?"

Every writer, from the bestselling author of fiction for adults to the self-published children's book writer, gets that question from time to time. There are stories of how some famous authors of the past answered that question, often by joking that they purchased their ideas in bulk from popular stores.

The truth is that ideas for fiction are everywhere (presumably, non-fiction writers would say something similar, but I can only speak as a fiction writer). The best explanation I've heard says that every one of us passes by ideas for a good story every day, but the writer is the person who will notice most of them, and file at least a couple away for future use.

In one sense, writers of fiction retain that childlike imagination that drives young children to see fiction wherever they look (and, at times, to have trouble remembering what is fictional and what isn't). Spend an afternoon with a child between the ages of two to five, and you will see that imagination hard at work. Whole books full of ideas can unfold around a toddler who has an interesting toy and a place in which to play with it; and a mundane walk through a local park becomes a quest, a journey fraught with hidden dangers and potential opportunities for heroism.

As we grow up, we begin to lose this ability to a certain extent. We know the difference between the real world and the world of our imagination, and we also learn that spending too much time in our imaginary worlds may cost us in terms of social interaction or school accomplishments. For the writer of fiction, the years leading to adulthood do not erase the wonder of the imagination, but we do learn not to mutter plot ideas aloud or act our scenes from our stories where people can see or hear us (at least, most of the time).

But we do retain that connection, that bridge between what is real and what is imagined, and we make use of it on a fairly constant basis. So when story ideas appear in the real world, we see them, those of us who write fiction on a regular basis. Perhaps a news article sparks the imagination; perhaps a phone call awakens a memory of something that belongs in a novel; perhaps a simple shopping trip turns into a plot idea for a work-in-progress. It happens all the time, if you've gotten into the habit of dabbling in fiction.

One thing people who don't write fiction don't know is that finding the ideas is the easy part. It's what comes next that poses the real difficulties.