All posts by Amy Knepper

09Nov/15

Indispensable Writing Books: Your Screenplay Sucks!

your screenplay sucks

A few weeks ago, I pared down my home library to about 100 books. I donated the rest to my local library, including two boxes full of books on the writing craft. This book stayed. Why? Because it’s a complete guide to all the rookie mistakes you’ll make trying to tell a story.

Your Screenplay Sucks! is written for screenwriters, so there are quite a lot of notes on screenplay format, dealing with Hollywood executives, and crafting dialogue. Am I currently writing a screenplay? No. Is the advice in here still relevant to the novel I’m writing, and the non-fiction books I’ve already published? Absolutely.

This book is a checklist of 100 way to make your work better, from crafting characters, to doing your research, to writing yourself out of your own problems. It is as encouraging as it is painful. Akers does not pull any punches. In fact, the entire book is meant to discourage you from a writing career, because writing is awful and painful and writing to make money is a special level of hell.

If you’re still determined to write any kind of fiction (or even creative non-fiction), the pointers in this book will help guide that process. It helped me get some new ideas as I was outlining my current novel. I’ll pick it up again when I start editing the draft I’m writing. I will probably reference it again to make sure I’m not missing anything before I start looking into publishing.

If you want some quick and dirty tips to encourage you, frighten you, or challenge you to work harder, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book and keeping it handy as you go through the writing process. http://amzn.to/1kGUf8U (affiliate link)

#IndispensableWritingBooks

20May/15

Indispensable Writing Books: Stein on Writing

steinonwriting

I have a long list of books that have inspired me as a writer, but there’s only one that I turn to when I want to work harder. Many of the writing advice books out there are written in a friendly and encouraging tone. They want you to know that anyone can write a novel. You can do it in a month. It’s super easy! Try it!

Not Stein on Writing.

Stein is a professional editor and teacher who worked with some of the giants in literature. This book isn’t about how to become a writer. This book is about how to become a professional.

There are sections on perfecting your first paragraph, how to add suspense, how to create realistic dialogue, and how to find your secrets so you can write around them. Just about everything you’d want to know when writing a book is in here: how to create good characters, how to manage plot, how to engage a reader.

This is by no means an easy read. He uses many examples from classic literature, from his clients, and from his students. Each chapter could be a class in an MFA program, complete with challenges and assignments. Whenever I feel like I need practice, I sit down with this book and read another chapter. It usually hurts. It’s like having a masterclass with the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman, when you’ve just learned “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the violin.

If you really want to learn how to become a powerful writer, both of fiction and non-fiction, I highly recommend buying a copy of this book and reading it slowly, over and over, and practicing the advice. I’m not promising it will be a pleasant experience, but I do think it will be a fruitful one.

#IndispensableWritingBooks

19May/15

I Am Only a Conduit

I keep a series of sketchbooks as my writer’s notebooks, where I jot down thoughts and ideas and quotes. I have just a few more pages of notebook #8 before I’ll be breaking in a new book. One of the first things I write in each book is this summary of The Four Agreements.

four-agreements

It may not seem like a set of quotes related to writing, but for me this is fundamental. Decreasing the background baggage and learning to communicate more clearly makes it easier to be a better writer.

With regards to number 2, Don’t Take Anything Personally, I learned that one best from a sketch artist in the book An Illustrated Life (I can’t remember which artist in particular, but I loved that book!). He told a story about sharing his sketchbooks with anyone who asked to see them. Every person he ever shared with would look at his sketches, and then find a way to talk about themselves. He said he realized that people bring so much of themselves to the art that it’s not really “his” art once it’s done. I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing. I may be expressing one aspect of myself and my interests, but anyone who reads it is going to take what they need from it and ignore the rest.

I’m nothing more than a conduit.

29Apr/15

Indispensable Writing Books: The Artist’s Way

My friend Gregory Lynn from Tales From the Mad Monk has an ongoing series highlighting his favorite books on writing. He and I came up with the idea several weeks ago, and I’m finally sitting down and sharing mine. This is the first of several posts about my favorite books on writing.

artistsway

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron may not sound like a writing book, but this single woo-woo piece of spiritual self-help has been the most important book in my writing career. Why? Because before I read it, I hadn’t written a creative word in almost a decade.

The first time I went through it was with an online group of digital designers. I wanted to be a graphic artist at the time. By the time I’d sorted through all my feelings and heartaches and rejections, I realized that I really wanted to be a writer. I’ve since facilitated 3 different groups through this book.

It’s not a quick and easy read that will instantly give you the button to push to make yourself rich and successful. It’s a difficult book. It requires work and thought. It requires you to dredge up really painful parts of your past, and sometimes that kind of work will make you sick. It will force you to quit sabotaging yourself, quit making excuses, and start doing things that you’re afraid of. In my case, I was afraid of putting myself out there as a writer. It took me many months to sort this out.

If you feel like you are blocked, or that you’re just not doing what you want to be doing, I highly recommend picking up this book. I also recommend trying to find people local to you who would commit to starting a group in person to go through it. Three of my groups were online. You can get away with a lot of cheating online. In-person groups will see through your excuses and, pardon my swearing, call you on your shit. My Artist’s Way tribe doesn’t let me get away with half-ass work anymore, because they know what I’m capable of and what I want to do. Sometimes, that’s even harder than just being a blocked creative.

the artists way by julia cameronSo if you’re still in the beginning phases and you’re still nervous about writing that first story, or you feel like you’ve plateaued in a writing career, pick up a copy of The Artist’s Way. Convince a friend to go through it with you. Say it’s a dumb experiment and it’s just for fun. Then see what breaks loose.

Happy writing!

19Mar/15

Congratulations! You’re in Sales, and You Didn’t Know It!

If you finished writing and publishing a book, and it was available to purchase, what would you do? I know some writers just let the books sit there and hope people will find them. But others try to get the word out: “I have a book! Buy my book!” Now that I have a couple of books out, I find myself in the position of trying to tell people about them. Even though my former career was in PR and Marketing, I am finding this a difficult task. I hate trying to sell myself. So I checked out a couple of books to see what I could learn.

First up is Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human. I checked it out based on the premise: that everyone is in sales in some way. We’re all trying to move others to listen to us, buy from us, or do things for us.

To Sell is Human

The first half of the book was incredibly slow. I almost didn’t finish it. Pink spends most of the time hammering on the idea of everyone being in sales. The best part of it, though, was a focus on how the information age has shifted roles.

Ten or fifteen years ago, there were people who had knowledge about things, and the only way to get that knowledge was to ask the experts. In person. Learn from them. Buy from them. Teachers, doctors, even used car salesmen had their areas of expertise that no one else could have without their training.

Enter the internet. Now, everyone has information at their fingertips. People can look you up and know in a heartbeat whether your product is good or whether they want to do business with you. The paradigm has shifted. You can’t use those slick marketing tricks to get people to buy anymore. You have to offer things in a different way.

When Pink gets to the actual ways of offering products, I started taking notes. I filled 3 pages in my notebook. This is where the good stuff is. This is where all the tips and ideas are that will help you become a better marketer and probably a better person. It has already changed how I plan to proceed with my next books.

He spends a lot of time talking about asking the right question. This is going to require a lot of practice on my part, because I’m so used to telling. This technique is all about listening.

Pink also offers six different types of pitches that you can use, and recommends preparing them several times until you get it nailed down the way you like it. I thought I’d heard all of it before, but I still liked the way he presented them. The six types are:

  1. The one-word pitch. (I’m not joking. One Single Word.)
  2. The question. This one is great for social media.
  3. The rhyming pitch.
  4. Subject Lines. (as in email or blog titles)
  5. Twitter. (140 characters or less, buddy)
  6. The Pixar Pitch. (tell a story)

You’ll also get a quick overview of how learning about Improv can help you with marketing.

This isn’t my favorite book by Pink, but my brain has been buzzing for the last two days since I finished reading it. There are some new ideas here, and I’m glad to have them.

If you’re trying to learn more about marketing, I highly recommend you check out this book and see if it doesn’t alter the way you think about your customers. Come back next week and tell me what you thought of it! I’d love to have someone to discuss it with.

18Mar/15

The Quote That Changed My Browsing Habits

I spent too much of last weekend doing what I sometimes do on the weekends: looking for original sources and documents to help someone understand why something they’ve posted on the internet is incorrect. It’s an illness for me. I’m the embodiment of the “someone is wrong on the internet” syndrome, especially when it involves people I know in real life who are talking to other people I know and care about. I hate misinformation. I hate it when people I know are being led astray, and possibly into danger.

It uses up too much energy, though. I have a lot of projects I want to work on. I have a wonderful family I want to spend time with. I really can’t afford to lose half a day to these educational hobbies of mine. And I’ve done it enough to know that it changes nothing. The friend will continue to share her incorrect stuff. Her friends will continue to agree, or disagree, because we all pretty much have our minds made up. And who likes to read original sources, besides me? I don’t know. I don’t think most people make it beyond headlines.

Shortly after getting offline on Saturday, I was flipping through one of my sketchbooks and came across a quote I’d written down several years ago. It’s by Solzhenitsyn and says, “Let the lie enter the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

Let the lie come into the world.

It seemed fitting for what I was working through at the time. Do I need to be there to fight every case of misinformation online? No. Nor do I want to be! That much combative, negative energy would destroy me.

Instead of trying to fight against all the things that I think are wrong, I’m going to try to adopt a new philosophy. I’m going to focus my energies on promoting the things I think are awesome instead, starting with a series of reviews of some of my all-time favorite books.

How are you using your online energy? Do you spend your time fighting and trying to correct others, or are you sharing those new and awesome things you always want to work on?

09Mar/15

When the Package is the Message

A family member called me today with a special request: she wanted to buy a copy of my book and have me autograph and send it to someone. I was more than happy to oblige, of course, so I wrote a short note in one of the books and was preparing to package it up. Then I wondered if I should also send a separate letter of some sort, something to encourage this person or say something extra. My husband walked in while I was pondering this, and after a moment, he started laughing.

“You don’t need to write a separate letter. You already wrote the letter. The letter is 200 pages long!”

I never really thought about my book that way, but I like it. I’ve always liked writing ridiculously long letters.

10Feb/15

Maybe What You Love is What You’re Already Doing

Back in December, I made a list of things I wanted to do in the new year. I pretend I don’t make resolutions, but I always make lists of new things I want to learn. This year, I decided, would be the year I learned to draw.

Somewhere in my brain is the idea that I’ve always wanted to learn to draw, and just never had the stars align in such a way that I could. Sure, I sketch things for fun, but I’m not a skilled artist by any means. So I decided I’d learn. I checked out books. I started a new sketchbook and gathered photos to inspire me. Since January 1, I’ve managed to draw on 3 pages.

In the meantime, I had to buy my daughter a new sketchbook over the weekend, because all of her sketchbooks were full.

You see, my daughter loves to draw. From the moment she could hold a crayon in her tiny fingers, she was drawing small villages on her walls, on paper, on her own skin. Drawing has always been her ideal form of self-expression. If she’s mad at me, she draws about it. If she loves something, she draws it. Today, I brought home some new tissue boxes, but she didn’t like the design. So she drew Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon on there.

The girl must draw half a dozen pictures every single day, and has for most of her 9 years of life. She fills several sketch books a year. FILLS them. Drawings of her toys. Drawings of characters she likes. Drawings of hipster cats with glasses and moustaches.

And then there’s my son. I always talk about wanting to learn how to code. But I don’t. He does. He gets an idea for an animation or a game, and he draws his plans and then he sits down in Scratch, and an hour or two or a week or two later, he has a thing he made that is awesome. Funny characters. Fully animated versions of cell division. Life cycles of plants. He’s been doing this for years.

So what am I doing during those times? I’m writing. If I’m not writing stories or books, I’m writing emails and journal entries. If I’m not reading fine literature, I’m reading the marketing copy on chewing gum. There have been a few days in the last few years that I haven’t written a single word. Maybe. I can’t tell you what days they were. I was probably quite cranky by the end of them.

Because I’m co-owner of one of the largest writing communities on Google+, I see a lot of new writers ask for advice. “I want to be a writer! How do I start?” I’ve seen veteran writers tell them flat out, “You will never write a novel if you aren’t already writing.” I thought that was really harsh. But I think I see it now. Sure, you can start anywhere, but unless you’re doing it every day because you can’t NOT do it, it’s always going to be that thing you want to learn and haven’t.

There’s a saying: “Do what you love and love what you do.” I always thought it was super cheesy. It’s probably the most wishy-washy piece of business advice I’ve ever read. But at the end of the day, it has an echo of the truth, I think. But maybe, instead of trying to love something, it’s more about finding out what you’re already doing. Because most likely, that’s the thing you actually love.

Image from workisnotajob.com

Image from workisnotajob.com

So, friends, what are the things you spend the most time doing or thinking about every day, even when you “should” be doing something else? What are the things that just come naturally to you?

06Jan/15

Beginning Again

I’m back to the fuss of a first draft again. It’s funny, because I have a little déjà vu about all the weird feelings I get when I start something new. I know I’ve felt exactly this anxious before, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it again.

I do have one great thing going for me this time: I know what my different drafts feel like. I’ve been through it enough times to know that I probably won’t have an actual structure until the third rewrite. Ugh. That sounds like so much work! Why can’t it be perfect the first time I write it?

At the same time, it’s fun right now. The first draft is so fun. There’s no voice to stick to, no locked-down POV, no chronological structure to limit my scenes. I can write about a thing that happened five years ago or something that will happen in two weeks. So what? I can describe a place that may or may not even show up in this book, just because the act of writing about it helps me see the world a little better. I can spend half the first draft with a character that doesn’t have a name, or a character that doesn’t even belong in this book.

I know it’s going to be like this in a few months when it’s time for the rewrite:

by Yusuf Toropov

 

… but for now, I’m having fun with it. It’s fun to be in a fantasy world again. I’ve been writing non-fiction for almost two years, so my only real fantasies were that I brushed my hair every day. Ha. Now, I get to talk to imaginary friends and travel a new world and find out all the secrets that only the characters know.

Have I mentioned it’s fun?

Ask me again in two weeks and I’ll tell you it’s a slog and that I want to tear my own eyes out. I know how this goes. I’ve done this before.

I found this quote in one of my writing/sketchbooks today. I thought it was apropos:

Todd Henry quote

 

 

What are you working on these days? Anything new and exciting?

 

22Nov/14

The Weight is Lifted

Five years ago, I watched a friend struggle with self-doubt and fear. She had written a novel. A good novel. She had edited that novel several times. She had been to workshops and conferences. She had an author website. But she never actually sent the manuscript to anyone.

There was a group of us, a “Creative Cluster” if you will, who met to talk about our projects and get encouraged and inspired. We started setting goals together. This friend set a deadline for herself to send the manuscript to an agent. She knew which agent. She had the manuscript. But somehow, she never sent it.

It’s five years later and she still never sent it.

Watching her go through that, I made a promise to myself: I would put a book out by the age of 35. I would not be in my late 40s, still wanting to be an author but too afraid to take the baby steps necessary.

That promise proved a heavy weight.

huge.5.29986

 

For the next three years, I wrote religiously. I wrote and read and studied and practiced. I wrote several novels, a few screenplays, a dozen short stories, and hundreds of pieces of flash fiction, but I didn’t feel like I was getting there. I had a few pieces published, and a lot more of them rejected, but I didn’t have a great novel in me.

I shifted gears to work on a project for a friend: I’d been mentoring several friends through the process of beginning homeschooling. Kind of a niche subject, but definitely a pet topic of mine. I started gathering all the essays I’d written and all my best advice to write a short book for my friend.

Within a few months, it became obvious that this little side project was going to get bigger. It had to be done right. I had to make it real. It was weird to me that I was writing nonfiction (and about homeschooling! Come on! I’m a spec fic writer!). But I kept keeping on.

While writing the 3rd draft, I turned 35. This was not supposed to happen. I was supposed to be a famous author by then! But I knew I was getting close, so I kept working. I hired an editor, which gave me a clear deadline. I started talking openly about working on the book with friends, who took it on themselves to watch my children so I could work. This was awesome.

Then I set to work on the self-publishing process. It took about 6 weeks, from edit to finish, but it felt like years. It was hard. I cried a lot. I got frustrated. I doubted myself. I loved myself. I hated the book. People read the book and loved the book, so I loved the book.

I’ve had no energy the last few weeks. I’ve felt clogged, honestly, like my brain wasn’t working right. I couldn’t sleep. I’d get up in the middle of the night to work on formatting or cover work or category research. I was ill. I didn’t care about food. I just obsessively worked at getting this freaking book out into the world.

Yesterday, I launched the book.

me with my book!

 

The most amazing thing of this whole process? I almost immediately felt human again. I had forgotten I’d been carrying the weight of that promise for five years. FIVE YEARS! And it’s over now. Yes, I have more books planned (specifically a middle-grade sci-fi that’s been on hold the last few months). But I’m really going to enjoy just being a person for a few months.

So, that’s my story. It was hard and scary and it sucked sometimes, but I can honestly say I did the best I was capable of at the time, and that’s a big thing to be able to say. So… yay me! That is all.