The first thing I ask a writer I’m working with is, “Who are your writing inspirations and then the second is who are you reading now?” For me, I get inspiration from many different authors and always have a stack of at least 3 books that I’m currently reading. I have inspirations for style, content, character development, actions scenes, suspense building… And I try to read from pretty much every genre and topic out there. I’m a writer, so I need to immerse myself in writing. And I expect this from other writers.
For the record, I don’t count those abridged versions from apps like Blinkist. While these types of things are great for learning the content, it’s not the same for learning how to write. Audio books are okay, but not for learning the actual art of writing. You can learn about content and structure from audio-books, but there’s something to be said about looking at the words. The sentence structures. The turns of phrase.
If you can’t tell me your writing inspiration, I’m going to ask you to think about it and get back to me before I will work with you. If you don’t read, I’ll tell you to read. Writers are readers first. And if you tell me you don’t want to read other peoples’ works because you will get them mixed up with your writing, I will run screaming into the night.
Because God forbid you get a little bit of Neil Gaiman mixed up into your book with no discernible plot line. Or Ernest Hemingway comes in to help you with your comma splices and your train of thought going off to Mars.
I cannot work with you if you refuse to read because another author will impede upon your “originality”.
I’m going to let you in on a secret of the writing industry. There is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing left that is an original idea. In fact, there is no such thing as truly original in anything that is creative, whether invention, writing, interior design, or painting, and I’d even go as far as to say in other areas like science and business.
Why? Because everything has already been done.
You can’t pitch a story to me that I haven’t already been pitched. You have an unknown farm boy that saves a princess with the help of a harry giant and a smelly thief? Well, I just gave you the basic plot of both Star Wars and The Princess Bride.
Everything that we do is based on the work that has been done by people before us.
So, if everything has been done, then how can you be creative? Creativity isn’t about coming up with something entirely new; it’s about taking things that came before and combining them in new, creative ways.
The farm boy motif has been around for thousands and thousands of years. His storyline started probably around the agricultural revolution. Oral storytelling + agricultural revolution + mom wanting to tell farm boy son adventure stories at night.
George Lucas knew this storyline and took it. He said, what happens if we mix space travel and Buddhist philosophy into the farm boy plot? Well, you get a big payday for Disney. I would argue, as would every creative mind I can think of, that the wider you read, or the more input you take in, the more creative you can be.
When you are looking for an agent, the way they ask for new books and authors shows that they understand this idea. They want the Princess Bride but for middle grades and with a farm girl that saves the prince (which, by the way, would be a lot of the books by Tamora Pierce). One of my favorite series that’s getting turned into a movie this fall is Artemis Fowl. It’s the same book that’s been written a billion times: kid finds fairies. But Eoin Colfer asked what no one else ever did. What happens if the kid is a billionaire evil genius? Now, wouldn’t you want to know what an evil genius 12-year-old with a billion dollars to spend and no parents would need fairies for…
So, there you go. Do you want to push your creativity with writing to the next level? Go to the library and ask the librarian what her favorite modern book, kids’ book, and old book are. Read all three and then combine into a wacky plot line or a short story. Or even some mixed media art piece.
I’m serious. Go to the library now. Then let me know what you’re reading and any fun ideas that come from it. Some will not work. Some may be fun. And some might spark the greatest novel of the century. But you won’t know until you read and try.
I hear a lot lately about how I’ve gone silent. I’d apologize, but I’m not going to because 2019 has kicked me so many times that I’ve been unable to get up. I could give you a laundry list of terrible things that have happened to me – like a tree root in my main sewer line – but events over the last 3 weeks make them all seem like silly little fruit flies circling a rotten banana.
What’s worse than me ending up in the hospital?
The worst thing that could possibly happen to any parent or any kind of parent. Period. You know what I mean.
Saturday March 30th, I was at the grocery store when my husband called me in a panic. My friend Melia, whom Ana had been teaching Portuguese to on Saturday mornings, stopped by to see if Ana was okay. “She’s late for our lesson.”
Ana had been working late into many nights doing homework for all her AP classes (which, by the way, she had all high A’s in…) while also playing the Scarecrow in her school’s production of The Wiz. We assumed she was sleeping late. However, when my husband knocked on her door, she didn’t respond.
“She’s breathing,” he said. We called an ambulance, thinking maybe she'd had a seizure or was suffering from exhaustion. But we weren’t so lucky.
A couple of hours later, while my parents and I waited outside the trauma room at the hospital, the doctors told me Ana had suffered a catastrophic brain aneurysm and it was not survivable. I spent all week fighting the denial … healthy 17-year-old dancers aren’t supposed to just die … no sickness, no signs, just gone. While her biological family gathered from Brazil, she was kept on life support, but a week later, after testing confirmed brain death, she was taken off life support.
I keep expecting to see her cooking eggs in the morning, or dancing into the kitchen telling me, often way too loudly, about some new TV show or book she was obsessed with. It’s hard to let my exchange students go home, but this is a new feeling for me. I know I’ll never be able to fly to Brazil and have her show me around. She’ll never come back and be a boomerang student or go to American college. She was supposed to take the SAT Saturday; she wanted to go to an Ivy league school.
Ana wanted to be a writer. In many ways she reminded me of myself when I was a senior in high school. Too much ambition. A people pleaser. Always wanting to be a writer and _______ (teacher/psychologist/model/party planner/mother), because we always had to have a backup. Ana was just way more outgoing than I am. I was more of a wallflower. And I was never one for poetry.
Ana, however, was an extraordinary poet. Going through her stuff, I found lots of notebooks with poems in them. We had to confirm that these were her poems and not some famous Brazilian poet. Some were in Portuguese and some in English. They are exquisite and deserve to be read by the public, allowing Ana to achieve her dream of becoming a published author. It will take some time, especially with some translating having to happen, but I will keep everyone updated. And, if you want to donate to her memorial fund, which also includes publication of her poetry, you can check that out here.
She also made the front page of the city newspaper.
I get a slew of new clients at the beginning of the year. In fact, this morning, I opened my email and had 31 requests between New Year's Eve and New Year’s night. I had 13 more this morning. I obviously can’t work with that many people one on one. I referred them all to my new Query Letter Bootcamp class starting February, but I don’t think any one of them has signed up.
Some wanted complete one-on-one attention. A few even forbade me from working with others while they worked with me. Something about a conflict of interest? Yeah, sorry. I wouldn’t work with you anyway.
Others said that February was too late to query agents. They wanted to get to agents NOW. Guess what? Agents are just getting back to the office and their submissions are still closed. They’ve got a very long backup of emails from their vacation, and your query will either get sent to auto spam filter because they are closed, or get lost in the shuffle.
The last group will just never sign up for anything. I know this because it’s January first. It’s New Year’s resolutions. They hopped on the bandwagon and said, “This year is the year I write my book!” It’s like gym memberships. They make themselves feel good by taking the first steps, but when they find out how much work it really is, the willpower fails, and the resolution peters out.
Most of these writers probably won’t listen to me and be those much-maligned wannabes who still send an oddly worded two-sentence query letter that says, “I have a fantastic idea! When can I call to discuss it with you? Please sign this NDA before we proceed.” Or the exhausting five-page manifesto about their dystopian world and how they want a $100,000 advance to start writing.
You might think, given how annoying I find these New Year’s resolutions, that I’m not a fan of them. I like goals. I like big goals. Resolutions are important. And for many people, the start of a new year, a fresh year, is a time when it makes sense to start new goals. Personally, I make my goals and reevaluate quarterly.
But people often make grand, vague, or not-well-planned-out goals for New Year's. "Write a book" may be too vague and ambitious if you’ve never written one before. Maybe your goal should be to take a class on creative writing and outline your book. Or, if you really want to write that book this year, that should be your big goal for the entire year. I kid you not.
So, if you set a goal for writing your book this year, or if you’ve written it and want to get it published, here are some basic ideas to help you follow through, so you aren’t one of hundreds emailing me for help, but never get past emailing me.
If you’ve written your book and are trying to find an agent, but you’re floundering with your query letter, can’t decipher agent feedback, have no idea where to find decent agents, or are terrified of the nitpicky process, check out my Agent Query Bootcamp class starting in February. It’s more affordable than working with me one on one, and you’ll have lifetime access to all the information there, so you can use it again and again for new batches of queries or even your next book.
And, as always, I’m available for consultations on books. Writer’s block happens, or sometimes we can’t clearly see the next steps to writing a book. I’m always here to help!
I apologize for the silence on the blog over the last couple of weeks; y’all have just been running me ragged helping with your query letters. First off, thank you so much for trusting me with this critical phase of your book baby.
Secondly, I’ve realized that I can’t help everyone who wants to work with me. I’m just one person. However, I really want to help everyone. So, while I will still offer the one-on-one packages, I’m also going to be offering, with the help of my wonderful editorial staff, a course on query letter writing.
The Agent Query Boot Camp will be an intensive, week-long course with videos, worksheets, and standardized formats for query letters and synopses. We’ll also throw in a consultation with me, editing, proofreading, and critiquing of your sample chapters.
We’ve got some great content being developed with topics on finding agents, common query pitfalls, how to write a synopsis that wows agents and ticks their boxes, how to pull agents in with your sample chapters, and much more.
While the course itself with the edits and the consultations will only last a week, you’ll have lifelong access to all the videos, letter formats, and worksheets.
Separately, the services would be worth $700, but I want to make sure it’s affordable for everyone who wants it, so I’m going to offer it at only $250 for the first class, which will start on January 7th. So, if you’ve been on the fence, now is the time to sign up! Next time I offer the class in February, the price will increase.
It used to be that self-published authors and publishing houses had a bad name, and I’m so glad that it’s changing. Part of that reason is the influx of technology that allows people to easily and cheaply publish their work. I have a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I think most self-published authors do. But my love or hate of Amazon is not why I am writing this post. I am writing it because I am so tired of vanity publishers ripping off self-published writers. We’ll cover in other posts about self-publishing options.
Hiring a ghostwriter can save you money and can most certainly save you time.
I have a client who should have had me write his book from scratch instead of editing it. It certainly would have been cheaper. By about half. I love all the mentality that everyone can write a book. It’s true: everyone can write a book. Behind all this hullabaloo, though, is an understanding: you have to hire a good editor.
I like to think that I don’t have prejudices about people groups, but as much as I try not to, I do. I’m not talking about plain old American racism here; I just have ideas from my experiences and the culture I belong to about the way certain groups behave. Sometimes they're positive prejudices, sometimes negative, and sometimes neither, really.
You might have grown up thinking that there are about 50 genres of books, but really, there are 3. We’ll call the rest of the genres, like sci-fi and mystery, sub-genres. So what are the three types?
In less than 24 hours, Ana, our new exchange student from Brazil, will be here. When Chuck and I first got Joop, we were a little naïve and didn’t know what we were getting into. By now, we’ve got more of a handle on things, but teens always find a way to throw you for a loop. Initially, we believed there were some rules we thought were kind of stupid, but have since decided were pretty amazing ideas. Some, we still think are stupid.…
The biggest rule we allowed Joop to break ended up being the rule that he wished he had been given. He says it’s one of his biggest regrets for the year.
Most exchange agencies suggest that you don’t allow your student to call home more than once a week and that they don’t talk to friends at home. As millennials, Chuck and I didn’t understand how this would even work with social media and technology.
To remove the temptation to call home more often, the agencies suggest that tech usage is strongly monitored and that phones, iPads, etc., are confiscated at night. At first, this seemed really strict! I mean, I get monitoring your kid's internet, but keeping them off social media, or preventing them from calling their significant other, or Snapchatting with friend groups, and then removing all tech from their rooms at night seemed mean.
Now that I’ve been doing this for a couple of years, I realize the wisdom behind this rule, which has less to do with internet safety than it does with helping the students acclimate faster to the American culture. As my community rep, Amy Ovalle, says, you can’t fully integrate into American culture if your mind is back at home. One of the biggest problems early on with exchange students is them staying up most of the night talking to friends and family back home.
I had no problem at first with Joop talking to his Dutch then-girlfriend almost every day. And often every day. But it wasn’t till after they broke up and he was no longer calling home all the time that his year here took off. He started football, made friends at the local school, felt better about America, and all around got better acclimated to American culture.
He now says he wishes he had tried to get into American culture more quickly and that he had spent less time talking with people back home. So I decided that the next time we had a student, I’d take their phone and not let them call home.
Because Leonie was sick, I never took her phone. Though I fear I still should have taken it. I’m not sure how much time she spent talking with people back home, adding to her mono with extreme homesickness. I fear the homesickness may have made the mono worse, and lying in bed texting her boyfriend may have been part of what reset her equilibrium to horizontal, so that whenever she stood up she’d get dizzy.
Our third teen was an American student, and she wasn’t allowed to have social media or her own technology. And the quick ease that she fit in with us proved my point. I know she was an American, but without access to social media or friends from home, she had to talk with us. She had to make friends here. So when Ana comes, her phone will be mine at night. And lucky for her, she doesn’t have a boyfriend back at home either.
Side note: I know this seems harsh, but exchange students, just break it off with your boyfriend or girlfriend at home. Otherwise, your heart will always be back home, and you won’t get the most out of your year. Live fully in the moment in America. In 10 months, you’ll go back home, so don’t waste a moment of it.
Smart phones and social media can quickly rob an exchange student of their time here. Most, almost all, of the students who come really do want to get into the American culture. They are here to become bicultural. As a social-media-loving, tech-savvy millennial, I know the near addictive draw of it all. I’m an ambitious, self-retrained 34-year-old woman, and I have a hard time putting my phone down, quite often. I know I shouldn’t be on my phone just before bed because it disrupts sleep patterns, but so often I find myself scrolling through Instagram or playing some mindless game 30 minutes after I should be asleep.
If I was 16, living in a new country, and homesick with the means to talk to those I miss the most in my hands 24/7, you bet I’d use it. Even if I knew it wasn’t good for me.
Some rules will still be bent, but this one will be strictly enforced this year. Y’all didn’t really believe I’d follow the letter of every single rule? Nah....
When Joop and I started our adventure, we tongue-in-cheek called it #JoopDoesAmerica. And it kind of stuck. Joop was doing all kinds of American stuff, trying American foods, and it was a funny hashtag. It was amusing.
It wasn’t until we came out with the book that someone pointed out the infamous – and what some would consider classic, if you can consider anything pornographic a classic – adult film called Debbie Does Dallas. Debbie never once crossed my mind when I was writing the book, filming the videos, or posting on Facebook. And because most of our audience was either conservative, young, or international, the link to her was never explored.
However, it became quite clear that most Americans over 30 did have that immediate reaction to the book. When it was videos staring an underage foreigner drinking Mountain Dew or eating potato chips, it was quite obvious nothing kinky was going on. But in the absence of videos or pictures, most Americans' minds went straight to the gutter.
Since everything was branded #JoopDoesAmerica, Joop and I made the decision to keep the name for the book. Initial sales were fine, but most of the sales were not in the US. Sales in the US, despite following marketing that almost always worked, plummeted after our initial fans bought it. Then they stopped altogether.
Then, about a month ago, I was flagged – by an American – for adult content. It was dismissed after a very brief inquiry, but I got the message: Joop Does America was too racy of a title for the American audience I was seeking to reach.
So, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks coming up with a new title and book cover that will convey the message of the book better to an American audience. I decided to use the catch phrase those of us who work with exchange students use … daily.
"It’s not better or worse, just different."
So here’s the new book cover and title: Just Different! The Art of Cultural Exchange.
To keep the #JoopDoesAmerica brand intact, I changed authors from me and Joop to #JoopDoesAmerica, which is me and Joop together. We’ll still be listed as the authors on Amazon, but the cover will have the brand instead of the people. Though, Joop will argue that he is the brand.
The new cover with the new title will be available only in ebook format later this week.
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.