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December 2016

5 Tips for Setting Smart Writing Resolutions this New Year

I get the impression that most folks  feel a bit cynical towards New Years resolutions. We’ve all made ’em. We’ve all broken them. They’re just another opportunity to feel like a failure.

But I’m an ever-bigger advocate of trying & failing as a means of growth, and particularly when it comes to writing. Besides, we all need goals to know where we’re driving so we don’t end up wondering aimlessly, getting lost & giving up.

So why not take the opportunity at the start of a brand new, fresh, unspoilt  year to set down some goals & projects for yourself as a writer?

**Just to be clear, goals are the destination you’re heading for. Projects are the steps you take to get there, so the goals you set should determine the projects you prioritise (try saying that five times fast!!).

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How to set smart goals… for writing or for life
  • Write them down! seriously. Don’t skip this step. Get yourself a writing journal (a sort of catch-all for your thoughts, plans, sketches), a diary or a wall calendar & get those goals down in ink! You might keep the by your bedside or post them up by your desk so that you’re daily reminded of where you’re shooting.
  • Think BIG PICTURE right down to daily details. Start by listing your big dreams. I’m talking lifetime goals, such as establishing a steady writing career. Then narrow it down to this year’s goals, ie. I will submit my manuscript, edit that first book I abandoned & attend a literature festival. Next, zero in on your monthly goals, and finally, make a daily to-do list at the start of each morning. Review these goals regularly to stay on track.
  • Make them measurable. By measureable I mean give yourself timelines for every project & look for someone to keep you accountable if you struggle with deadlines (Bri & I can’t imagine what that’s like… ahem). Also, give yourself specific, measureble daily goals, ie. Bri plans to write 6 hours/ wk. That’s specific & attainable, which leads me on to the next tip…
  • Be realistic. How often do you kick yourself at the end of a day because you only got one of the twenty items on your to-do list done? Chances are, you’re setting the bar unrealistically high, and if you continue, you’ll continue to set yourself up for failure. Be realistic about what you can attain this year, this month and in the next day. And be specific – don’t make the goal “I will be the next J.K. Rowling” but rather “I will submit my manuscript to twenty agents this month.” Make sure your goals are specific, attainable and actionable (ie. the gaol should spark a series of projects you can actually do to get you there – write a cover letter, research agents, etc.).
  • But aim high! Whilst you don’t want to set the bar for Superman & Wonder Woman, you should also take care not to underestimate yourself. If you’ve got big dreams as a writer, don’t wait until Someday to start making things happen. Make this – 2017 – the year you put in the hard work and start seeing the fruits of your labour. Make this the year you look back on as the moment you embraced yourself as writer!

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I’ve made sure to practice what I’m preaching today in my own writing journal (still need to buy a 2017 diary & wall calendar!).

My annual goals include:

  1. Hook an agent (via submitting my most recent manuscript)
  2. Have fully plotted books 3-5 of my ongoing series
  3. Write the WW2- set book idea I’ve been mulling over

That means that my monthly goals will include projects towards those ends:

  1. Read through the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook to pin down the best agents to approach
  2. Re-read my notes for the series to remember my overarching plan
  3. spend X amount of time in the library each week researching WW2 resources & contact a history writer who specialises my area of interest

And of course those will be broken down into bit-sized chunks each new day which makes the BIG goals less intimidating & more doable!

Bri & I have set some New Years goals for this blog which I had intended to share in this relevant post. But I’ll spare you those just now for the sake of sending you off to scribble down your own exciting goals & projects! We’d love to hear about them!!!

Happy New Years from the Sippit Sisters! 

Book Review: The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst

Sophie is a normal girl except she is unable to dream. Ever. To make matters worse, her parents collect, distill, and sell dreams, so Sophie is surrounded by beakers of fantastic dreams, beckoning to her. Her parents give her two rules when it comes to the dreams: she is to stay in her room when dream buyers come, and she is to never, ever, drink a dream.

She breaks the second rule when she is six years old, plunging into someone’s nightmare about a furry tentacled monster. Sophie makes friends with the monster in the dream, but when she wakes up, she finds she has brought the monster into the real world.

The breaking of the second rule resulted in Sophie gaining a best friend and learning of a fascinating but terrifying power. But the breaking of the second rule six years later turns her life upside down. Her parents disappear, the shop is destroyed, and kids start to vanish. Now Sophie, Monster, two kids who may or may not be her friends, and a herd of ninja bunnies have to unravel a mystery, save some lives, and stop nightmares from becoming real.

I truly loved this book; it was a lot of fun. Sophie and Monster make a great team and they have a lot of support from an engaging cast of humans and non-humans. it had some twists, it pulled out some tears, and had me reading the ending several times because it was so perfect.

Slight word of caution to the younger end of middle grade readers: there are some mildly disturbing scenes in the book. Nothing over the top, but it does get a little intense.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Tea: Sleepytime Vanilla

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone had a merry Christmas and holiday season. Though I’m house/goat sitting for a friend, I was able to get home for several hours for Christmas. I was joyfully reunited with my dog, who I hadn’t seen in three days. Oh yeah, and my human family too 🙂

We had fun exchanging gifts, watching movies, and playing games. Cleo got to destroy several chew toys, so she was happy. If you ever have a chance to play Telestrations, it a very fun, simple game. It had my entire family crying with laughter!

If you haven’t, take some time this holiday season just to have some fun. Spend time with family and friends, or take some alone time to recharge. The new year is going to be here before we know it, with those new resolutions we hope to keep and jus the general chaos of life. So if you can, take a break. Watch a move. Read a book. Eat some chocolate.

And think about some writing resolutions for the new year. Mez and I will let you know ours next week and how we plan on keeping them.

Happy last week of the year!

Revision Exercises: Making Every Word Count

It’s almost Christmas and I’m so excited! Here in Georgia, the weather is behaving like normal. In other words, it’s t-shirt weather! No such thing as a white Christmas for us, but that’s the way I like it.

The impending Christmas also means something else… the New Year approaches! Which equals my deadline of having my manuscript in decent shape. I’m getting there; I have an outline-summary-guideline thing that details my whole story…I just have to implement it. Much easier said than done.

Once that big edit is done so I have one continuous, complete story, I will use a lot of the exercises Mez talked about in her post last week to refine it a bit more. After that, it will be time for the line edit.

Ever done that? It’s fun.

For the first five hours.

After that, it’s tedious. Mind numbing. Requires total concentration while your mind screams for relief.

And when you think you can’t go any further without screaming, you realize you are only halfway done. If you are lucky.

If you are ready for the anticipated and dreaded line edit, here are some exercises to help you through it.

Exercise 1

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Use your search function. There are some words you can search for that can be cut because they are unnecessary or there are better words than can be used. Of course, this is one of those mind-numbing tasks. The first couple ones aren’t bad, but in a 50k-100k word novel, there are a lot of superfluous or weak words.

Here are some you can search:

  • That-you would be surprised how often you can just cut it.
  • Just-not an impressive word
  • ‘ly’-this will pull up a thousand words, but it’s a handy way to find adverbs that can be cut for stronger verbs
  • Very-another unimpressive word
  • Really-and there’s another word we use a lot!
  • Any words you find yourself using over and over

Here are two blogs with lots of words that can be cut. We can all search for problem words until our brains are liquefied!

Cutting Words-Revising by Wendy Sparrow

43 Words You Should Cut-Diana Urban

Exercise 2

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Read it out loud. Every word. Consciously. Listen to the way it sounds and note where it doesn’t flow right or is awkward. If you find yourself just reading and not paying sharp attention, take a break.

This is even better if you can have someone read it to you!

After you do these exercises, if you can look at your manuscript without cringing, do them again. Remember, once you do this, there is only one thing left to do.

Submit to an agent or publisher.

So keep editing until you can’t stand it anymore. Eventually, with a lot of luck and effort, it will be a real editor looking at your work!

Best Drinks for Winter Reading

We’ve asked about your favourite winter, Christmas-time reads. But of course this is a writers’ café, so naturally we want to know what it is you sip on whilst enjoying those snowy, wintery adventures.

Here are a just a few of our favourite warmer-uppers to have on hand whilst snuggling up with our favourite books or watching those Christmas classics…or revising our Novels from November…

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If you haven’t sorted it out, one of us (who isn’t Mez) is just a bit of a chocoholic. Bri is a tea junky most of the year ’round, but whenever we have our skype catch-ups during the winter months, she’s guarunteed to have either a chai latte or a giant-sized mug of hot chocolate on the go.

During our Writing Retreat in Lyme Regis last September (can you believe it’s already been 3 months?!), Bri hit the jackpot when she came across a tea shop selling these jars of chilli hot chocolate for a meagre £5! I’m just impressed she has any left! She must be saving that for a very special Christmas read… or maybe as a reward for finishing her second draft!

Also, I just love Bri’s fox cookie jar! Who wouldn’t want to stick your hand in that?

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Mez’s winter drink stash – those birchwood mugs were purchased at a Sami husky-breeding camp in Trømso, Norway (the Arctic Circle!). Winter drinks definitely taste best in those!

For me, sipping on something hot, spiced, chocolatey or mulled is definitely part of the winter reading experience. And I’ve got quite a few favourites to choose from, depending on the story of course!

For winter fairy stories like The Nutcracker or Twelve Dancing Princesses, I go for a wintery tea. My favourites are Bigelow’s Eggnog and Constant Comment, Twining’s Winter Spice and, my all time favourite tea which only comes out at Christmas time: Tazo JOY! Sadly, Tazo doesn’t distribute to the UK, but my dear friend (& our fellow tea oficionada) Katherine always snags a box or two for me to keep my supplies up. It really is Joy in a cup!

Here in London, it’s dark by 3.30pm this time of year. Then you really need something warm & bracing. That’s when I rely on a classic mug of dark hot coco with marshmallows & just a pinch of cinnamon. I also love Nespresso’s yummy Christmas blends that actually taste like Swiss desserts! 

So now you know what the Sippit Sisters are sipping throughout the festive days. Let us know what you’re mulling, mixing or topping with marshmallows this December!

Happy sipping, slurping & savouring!

The Other Side of Second Readers

Last Monday, Mez blogged about enlisting readers for your manuscript. It’s a scary but necessary process to get your rough draft to a clean, polished, finished manuscript, one of the goals of all writers.

I understand the fear of letting your story be viewed by others. Mez is the only person I can let read my stories without feeling as if I’m going to throw up. There are one or two others if I take deep breaths and give myself a pep talk, I can release my manuscript into their hands.

Because of that fear, I am going to talk about the other side of enlisting a second reader. In other words, what you should do or expect if someone hands you their manuscript to edit, especially if you aren’t a writer yourself.

Understand what an honor it is!

I don’t mean “Oh, I am gracing you with this manuscript in all its glory. Bow down before it!” More like, “Here is a piece of my soul I have slaved over. I entrust it into your hands.” You have been chosen!

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Okay, a little dramatic, but really not that far off. There may be a couple writers out there who believe every word they write is perfection, but most of us are at the other end of the spectrum. We are our harshest critics. The words we put on the page rarely come close to what we see in our heads and after the fifth, sixth, seventh (millionth) read through, we lose even more perspective. This character is unbelievable, the villain is laughable, the plot doesn’t make sense. No matter how much we edit, the manuscript never seems to live up to the writer’s expectations.

On the other hand, writers spend an enormous amount of time on our manuscripts. Hours and hours and hours. And when you spend that much time on something, it’s precious to you. All of those thousands of words come straight from our imaginations and, unless you are co-writing, is completely dependent on one person. In other words, writing is an intensely personal experience.

Basically, we writers are very proud of our work, but we simultaneously think it’s horrid.

Therefore, be kind!

Please realize if someone hands you a manuscript to read, they are giving you something they have worked long hard hours on and it is extremely precious.

Reading the story, handing it back with an “I enjoyed it,” and moving on can easily crush a writer’s spirit. Sure, that’s what most readers do when they finish a book, but you have been selected as a second reader! Be prepared to have an in-depth discussion of the story. And, I hate to say it, you may need to be the leader in the discussion if the writer isn’t used to sharing their story.

Find something to praise about the manuscript, even if it’s just that you are impressed they were able to complete it. Completing a manuscript is hard work!

But be honest!

I have read some of my manuscripts so many times I can quote parts. When writers get to that point, we get word blind. Not only that, these stories exist on paper and in our heads. It’s hard sometimes to know what information we’ve put on paper and what we haven’t. Something that makes sense to the writer may make no sense to the reader.

This means fresh eyes are extremely valuable. I have one reader I refuse to discuss details with so she reads the story cold (yes, that’s you, Peach!) and can therefore tell me if I explain things well enough. This is a tremendous help.

Take that to heart, second reader, you are valuable!

We need your honesty. Writers have fragile egos when it comes to our work, but we also understand it isn’t perfect. Skimming over the problems in the name of being kind isn’t helpful. If you feel you can’t be honest without hurting feelings, talk to the writer about it. Most of us can be reasoned with, especially when it comes to someone helping us out.

So how do you do this?

First, ask the writer what they are looking for from you.

  • General impressions
    • Characters you liked or didn’t like
    • Any questions you had at the end
    • Any parts that left you confused
    • Where you put it down
    • Parts that made you laugh, cry, get angry
  • Line Edit
    • Spelling and grammatical errors
    • Formatting errors
    • Awkward wording
    • Point of view, pacing, and other writing elements
    • As well as your general impressions

More than likely, if you are a writer or a very avid reader, you will naturally do at least a partial line edit. It’s hard to turn that part of your brain off when asked to edit. But if you aren’t a writer, never fear! Your general impressions of the book as a reader are extremely valuable.

Take notes.

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As you read the manuscript, take notes. They don’t have to be detailed or numerous. But anytime you are knocked out of the story world, make a note of where and why (and if you don’t know the why, no worries; talking it out with the writer might help).

If you find yourself so sucked into the story you don’t make any notes, let the writer know! It’s high praise. Then read it a second time and come up with something useful to tell her.

Reading a manuscript for a writer is hard. It takes time to do it right and you have to balance honesty and kindness unless you accidently trample a poor writer’s spirit. But it’s also an integral part of the writing process and we thank you for it!

And hey, have the writer get you a little something for all your work. Chocolate’s always good!

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Revision exercise: making every scene count

During the race against the clock that is Novel in November, you don’t have the luxury of crafting the perfect, compelling opening line for your book, much less for each & every scene!

But opening lines are important, as our closing ones  – not just the ones that make up your bookends, but the opening & closing of each scene in your story. It only takes one dull scene to lose a reader’s interest. So with that rather sobering thought in mind, here are some key things to think about as you revise your novel & brush up your scenes to make them as compelling & gripping for your reader as possible… not to mention full of variety whilst still coherent within your storyline… Easy, right? Heh…

First, let’s just take a second to consider the purpose of scenes, as we do, it might just be helpful to think of a favourite film & how each of its scenes progresses the story & the main characters along. Got your film? Great. Let’s think.

What are you trying to accomplish with your scenes?

Broadly speaking, each scene should do the following:

  • propel the story forward through actions
  • reveal something about your character through his/her reaction
  • set up upcoming scenes
  • Add a little something interesting to keep the reader intrigued

*Your story will likely involve both Action Scenes (dealing with a concrete objective, obstacles & an outcome)  & Reaction Scenes (zoning in on your character’s emotions & decisions about his circumstances), or a combo of the two.

Ingredients of scenes that count

  • Hook – Make sure there’s something on offer at the start of each scene that won’t let your reader put the book down.. something/somebody new? something unexpected? something just too interesting to look away from?
  • Tension – Remember, a story’s bare bones are your character’s objective or desire and the obstacles & conflicts keeping her from attaining it. Not every scene’s tension will reach nail-biting levels, and sometimes the tension will be internal & underlying. Just don’t let the flame go out!
  • Outcome or Decision – your scene needs some resolution to tell the reader we’re moving on, but the best way to ensure she moves along with you is to up the anti (leave your character in a worse tangle) right at the end of the scene

*Tips for building tension into your scenes

If you find your scenes getting off to slow starts, try fast-forwarding them right into the moment the main action kicks in. It might be your scenes getting swamped with long descriptions in the build up to the main objective. Cut to the chase! Summarise what’s happened to get your characters from A to B if necessary. (For example, at the end of scene A, my characters plan a secret rendezvous… much depends on their meeting. In scene B, we open with one character anxiously waiting for the other. I summarise her difficult journey getting to there, but we’re already in the thick of the action. The tension is high.)

So now you have the ingredients, it’s time to spice up your own scenes!

Exercise 1

Take a look at one of your scenes with a critical eye and see if you can clearly spot (1) POV character, (2) her objective, (3) obstacle to that objective & (4) the outcome.

Exercise 2

Go through your scenes one by one and play around with possible hooks. There’s more than one way to peel an apple here, so have fun experimenting! When you find one you like, keep it!

That’s just a start to the Craft behind scene shaping (because I’m still learning it!), but hopefully one that’ll get you moving right direction to making every scene count!

Happy revising! 

 

 

 

Top 10 Christmas-time Reads (or films)

Christmas is and always has been a season for Story – from tales of magical winter wonderlands in the far North to haunting ghost stories set in jolly old Victorian England… and of course the most wonderful story ever told of God coming to live and bring peace on earth in the form of a tiny baby born in a barn…

‘Tis also the season for traditions! No matter how old we get, we look forward to getting cozy by the Christmas tree and hearing the same old stories, whether from a tattered old book that’s weathered generations of Christmases or from the holiday classic movies played on the telly.

So, in the spirit of Story & tradition, Bri & I have put together a top 10 list of our combined holiday favourites (books & films). We hope you’ll share your own in the comments! 

So whether reading or watching, we wish you a very happy, story-filled Christmas!

Bri’s Top 5 Christmas stories

The Nightmare Before Christmas 

I love this movie for its epic weirdness. A skeleton in the midst of a midlife crisis. The boogeyman almost eats Santa. Halloween’s creepy version of Christmas. I watch this movie year round, but I especially love it this time of year.

two-ticketsTwo Tickets to the Christmas Ball by Donita K Paul

This is a cute novella by one of my favorite authors. It’s a sweet romance with a fantasy twist. There’s a strange dress shop run by some matchmaking women who are possibly wizards, there are some kittens, an evil sister and a sweet one, and a couple headed to the mysterious, invitation only, Christmas Ball.

 

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett  little-princess

Not exactly a holiday story, but it always makes me think of CHristmas. Sara goes from a rich little girl with an incredible imagination and much loved by her father to an orphan so poor she is literally starving with only her imagination to keep her going. She experiences a horrible Christmas and a good one. She is such a good hearted girl and the ending is so perfect it’s a great Christmas read.

 

The 101 Dalmations By Dodie Smith

Christmas is supposed to be a fun time filled with family and friends. What could be worse than having your 15 puppies stolen by an evil women intent on turning them into coats just days before Christmas?! This is just what happened to Pongo and Missus. Pongo and Missus leave their humans to search for their stolen puppies and hopefully, be home in time for Christmas!

 rudolf-2Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

I watch this movie every year for Christmas. Poor Rudolph, ostracized because of his glowing nose (which also gives off a rather piercing noise which I think is the real reason no wants to get near him). Even his father is ashamed of him and finally he can’t take it anymore and he runs away, meeting elves, miners, and even the abominable snowman!

Mez’s Top 5 Christmas Tales

How the Grinch Stole Christmas how-the-grinch-stole-christmas

Dr. Seuss captures the spirit of Christmas in the most creative, silly way in “The Grinch.” I read it AND watch the original animated version every year without fail, then go around the hose singing “Wahoo Dooray!” as I deck the halls of my flat. 

Little Women

Not strictly a Christmas story, but I love the chapter/ scene when the March girls decide to return the little treasures they’ve bought for themselves in order to buy Christmas gifts for Marmy. Then on Christmas Day, they bring their Christmas breakfast to the home of a poor widow to share around. It’s so festive & touching at the same time… and something about the Louisa May Alcott era just puts me in a Christmassy mood.

Little House in the Big Woods  big-woods-christmas

Laura Ingles Wilder’s stories are a fixed part of my childhood. So naturally, reading her Christmas memories have become part of my own Christmas traditions. I just love stepping back in time to the days when Christmas meant chopping firewood to heat your log cabin, making snow angels & getting peppermint sticks and cornhusk dolls in your stocking! Oh, and isn’t just magical when they make maple candy by tapping maple trees and pouring the hot syrup in swirly shapes onto cold snow?

A Christmas Carol

charles_dickens-a_christmas_carol-title_page-first_edition_1843It would hardly feel like Christmas without a nod to Dickens’ classic. I usually read at least the key scenes from the book each year (especially the happy ending!), but I insist on watching the Muppets’ version with Michael Caine as Scrooge & Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit. From the acting to the music and Victorian sets, it’s just the best!

 

Letters from Father Christmas

Few folks seem to know about this little gem of a book by J.R.R. Tolkien, even among his die-hardes fans! Perhaps that’s because he never meant to publish it. The book is in fact a collection of letters and drawings from the man himself – Father Christmas – to Tolkien’s four children. The paint such a fantastic wold of the North Pole & describe all the fun & scrapes F.C.’s number one helper, the North Polar Bear, gets into in the preparations for Christmas. And the pictures I do believe were made with magic! You really feel that you’re getting an exclusive peak into the North Pole when you read them. Lucky Tolkien children!

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We could go on… A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Nutcracker, Wind in the Willows… but we promised to stop at 1o… IT’S. SO. HARD.

Now over to you!

 

 

Foggy Nights

Every night, after I finish the night chores in the barn, I always make the two minute walk back to the house in the dark. It’s deep in the woods; there are no street lights, no neighbors. On some cloudy nights, I can see the reflection of the lights from the nearest town, over 15 miles away.

That walk is one of my favorite times of the day. Whether it’s a moonless night with the stars shining or a full moon so bright I can see every rock, I love it. Often I have to walk by sound. If I hear the gravel crunching under my feet, I was where I was supposed to be.

The only time it scares me are the windy nights. For some reason, the wind at night makes my skin crawl and I often race home, going so far as to use the flashlight on my phone. Freaking me out just thinking about it.

But my favorite nights are the foggy ones, like tonight. I love the way the forest looks at night with fog twisting around the trunks. I like how fog just makes things a little more mysterious, a step closer to an epic fantasy land. I get the same feeling when I stand on the seashore.

I would have taken a picture of the fog I walked through, but let’s face it: phone cameras don’t like the dark. So here are some ones I found!

 

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