Ten years ago, I got the call…well actually it was an e-mail, that every writer hopes for. The one telling you a publisher would like to offer you a contract for your book. I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for The Wild Rose Press. I told Rhonda when I contacted her about interviewing her, I’ll always be thankful to her for giving me my first break and making my dream come true.
To celebrate my tenth anniversary of being a published author, here’s my interview with Rhonda who is also president of the company too…
This Writer’s Life (TWL)-For readers who don’t already know a lot about The Wild Rose Press can you give us some background about when you got started.
Rhonda Penders (RP)-The Wild Rose Press was started in May 2006 by RJ Morris and myself. We were both published authors and also critique partners. When…
For the time being, I have given up pantsing. It’s only been successful for me with a handful of short stories (around the 5K mark). With longer books, I end up with first drafts that either go unfinished and languish in a drawer somewhere, or first drafts that are a pile of mush, plot-wise, and require massive rewrites.
Earlier this year, as I worked on Goblins and Grimoires, I was thrilled with my word counts. But I had no plan, and the result was a manuscript that needs a complete rewrite. I think the mess that was that novella was a tipping point. I didn’t realize it, but I needed a different way.
If I’m being completely honest, I’m still trying to find my way out of a writing dry spell. But I do know that I don’t want to write unusable first drafts. They don’t have to be perfect, but they have to at least make sense.
So I’ve gone back to studying story structure, especially Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. Armed with a couple of beat sheets—one based on Brooks’ thoughts on structure, another for romance writers and based on Blake Snyder’s work—I’m trying to move forward with a new story. (Note: Both beat sheets were created by the talented Jami Gold and are available at her website.)
I think part of it is that structure doesn’t come naturally to me. I come from a background in poetry, and poetic structure isn’t plot structure. I also have a background in magazine writing, and that’s more of a get-everything-on-the-page-and-cut-and-paste deal. But fiction? Fiction is its own beast, and I have to find a way to grapple with structure that doesn’t lead to massive page-one rewrites.
I’m starting small. A few years ago, I started a holiday-themed short story, Under the Mistletoe’s Spell. I only managed to write an opening scene, and figured the story was just for dabbling. But a few days ago I had a brainstorm—lightning and everything. What if the story wasn’t a contemporary paranormal, but a historical fantasy setting? Add in a Regency-inspired fantasy world and two characters with high stakes, and that could be one smoking holiday fantasy romance. And since the holiday season is upon us, what better time to pen a Yule-inspired tale?
Tonight I plan to gather my beat sheets and the rough synopsis I’ve written and start hammering away, working the story into a structure that hits all the right plot points at all the right moments. This is an experiment. If it works, this method will definitely help, especially with longer stories. And since this is a shorter work, it should be a good place to experiment with story structure.
I’d like to dedicate the next few weeks to finishing a first draft of this story. I keep hopping from story to story, idea to idea, with nothing really sticking. And that’s not really usual for me. Usually I settle in and finish a draft (even if it’s awful—and some have been awful. Not all, of course, but some).
So this is an experiment. Let’s see if it works. If it does, it could go a long way to helping me plot my stories before I begin them.
Do something writing-related every day, seven days a week: journal, write a poem, take notes on a story, read a writing book, brainstorm, etc. Saturday: Read a chapter in Finding Water by Julia Cameron and did corresponding exercises. Sunday: Brief brainstorming session with hubby. Monday: Wrote 921 words in Under the Mistletoe’s Spell, along with a rough synopsis. Tuesday: Created two beat sheets for Under the Mistletoe’s Spell.
Reconnect with my spiritual practice. I wrote a couple of brief Pagan songs, so progress on this front. And I’m starting to realize that much of my poetry has a strong spiritual basis, so any poetry I write is very much connected to this goal.
Start a regular yoga practice. No progress to report.
At least twice a week, explore another creative outlet, anything from scrapbooking to cooking to home decorating or Feng Shui. Nothing yet.
What about you? How do you handle story structure? Does it come naturally, or is it an area you’ve grappled with? Any hints, tips, or tricks?
It’s no secret. Writing the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of a book is hard. I read a lot of book beginnings, not just because I read a lot of books but because, as a Kindle user with a seemingly endless number of books available at the press of a button, I read a lot of samples. Some of them grab me right away. Others are strong but start slower. Still others don’t appeal to me, so I set them aside.
What are you looking for in a book opening? Here are a few things that I look for:
An interesting main character
I prefer them to be likeable and clever and think for themselves, but sometimes a character who starts out as unlikeable becomes likeable over the course of the book. But what I want is a well-drawn character that I like enough—or am intrigued enough by—to stick with their story for hundreds of pages.
I love Harry Potter right away because, despite the fact that the Dursleys treat him terribly, he still seems like a good person. He’s becoming a good person despite the way they treat him. We get a sense of that right away. We get a sense that he’s destined for so much more than living in the Cupboard Under the Stairs.
I want the writing to grab me immediately. Yasmine Galenorn opens her book “Dragon Wytch” with the following line:
“There was pixie dust in the air.”
It seems deceptively simple, but I kept reading because this opening got me thinking. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What does that mean? What’s going to happen? Are pixies in this world evil, mischievous, or sweet? How will the character react?
A good opening raises a question to which we must read on to find the answer. Charles Dickens opens his famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities” with this infamous line:
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
And we read on because, well, how can it be the best and the worst at the same time? We’re intrigued; we’re hooked.
We don’t want to spend twenty pages following a character around as they muse about the weather, chat with their friends, walk through the forest, or go to work. We want to be quickly plunged into the action, and an opening disturbance does just that.
That doesn’t mean we can’t open with a seemingly normal, everyday scene—a teenager waiting for the bus, a woman walking into the bookstore she owns, a man stepping off a train and onto the platform. But the opening disturbance needs to quickly follow. For example, the teenager waiting for the bus sees a ghost, the woman walking into her bookstore finds it ransacked, the man stepping off the train meets a stranger. Something happens that shakes up the main character’s everyday routine.
If I pick up a book and find three typos in the first five pages, I’m not likely to buy it. What if I purchase it and find the rest of the book riddled with typos? If we find a lot of typos up front, we’re less likely to feel that the book can deliver on the promise of being a page-turning or thought-provoking work of fiction. In short, typos are distracting; they pull us out of the story and back into our workaday lives.
I think if the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of a book have these things, we’re much more likely to read on. I don’t want to read twenty pages of the woman walking through her bookstore, opening boxes, dusting the shelves, counting the change in the cash register. I want something to happen. I want an old flame to walk in the door. I want the place to be turned upside-down. I want a vampire to slink out of the corner. Something. And if it’s something happening to a character who intrigues us and the story is written in an engaging way, we’re much more likely to keep reading.
Lastly, a midweek ROW80 check-in…
So, I’ve decided to set a goal of writing 3,000 words/week during the semester. I don’t want to burn myself out, and 3K seems like a word count I can manage and still find time for grading and class prep, etc.
So far this week I’ve written 1,479 words in “Chosen by Magic.”
I haven’t managed to read any chapters in a book on writing. Hopefully next week I can get back into that.
A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Click here to cheer on fellow participants.
What about you? What do you look for in a book opening? What hooks you and draws you into a story? And what is your favorite opening line to a book? Please share below!
Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received didn’t come out of a creative writing workshop. No, I learned it at the copy desk of my college newspaper, where I spent each Saturday hunched over pages with a colored pen, making news article polished and shiny and ready for the world. (UPDATE: I’m not bashing workshops here. The creative writing workshops I took as an undergrad and grad student have helped me immensely as a writer.)
We were reading over an article that featured a lot of background information. My college journalism professor—who also spent each Saturday hunched over those pages—told us not to give the background upfront. “Sprinkle it in,” he said.
When writing a first draft, we’re often tempted to put all the details in the first few chapters. This is well-intentioned—we want to ground the reader. But too much detail all at once is overwhelming. In later drafts, we can pare down large sections of exposition. And that’s where sprinkling comes in. What do we sprinkle? A few items immediately spring to mind:
We don’t need to know a character’s tragic past in the first chapter—often times, referencing that tragedy briefly will intrigue readers and keep them reading. There might be a Big Reveal, when a crucial memory/incident is shared, but most character details can be sprinkled.
This is especially true for those of us who write fantasy or science fiction—we need to share how magic or technology works, the rules of our world, geography, history, cultural details, etc. But readers don’t need to know all the ins and outs of our world—the size of the capital city, how a piece of technology works, the political structure of the society, or the rules of magic—all up front. We can share details as they’re needed to ground the reader, but in general, the less exposition in the first few chapters, the better.
We should carefully pick and choose details of the setting to share. The layout of a room might be important, for example, but the details of each oil painting on the walls can probably wait. We can avoid a lot of references to weather unless they’re clearly necessary. As with world-building details, readers need to feel grounded—they need sensory detail to draw them into the world we’ve created on the page—but the setting shouldn’t overwhelm the action. A few well-chosen details can go a long way, especially if they evoke one or more of the five senses.
Each detail should do more than one thing. For example, if we describe a character’s outfit, does her wardrobe reveal something about her character—her socioeconomic status, her personality, her career, how she sees herself, etc.? If we describe a character’s facial features, what do those features say about his personality or how he’s reacting to the events of the plot?
The key is never to overwhelm the reader with details. Instead, like my journalism professor said, we sprinkle those details throughout, interspersed with action and dialogue to create a page-turner.
Lastly, a midweek ROW80 check-in…
Finish a second draft of my novella “Good Old-Fashioned Magic.” Finished.
Write a first draft of a novella novelette. Finished—“Called by Magic,” 13K.
Start work on another novelette. Wrote 2,590 words. I had some problems with the second chapter, so I spent yesterday working those out before adding any new material.
Read a minimum of four books on the business or craft of writing. Four of four books read. Reading a fifth book, “Manuscript Makeover” by Elizabeth Lyon.
Check in on Twitter or Facebook daily. On track to meet this goal.
Blog two times per week. On track.
Comment on three to five blogs per day, Monday-Thursday. On track.
A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop.
As writers, we know we have to create characters our readers will love—even if that means creating characters our readers will love to hate. I think Dolores Umbridge in J.K. Rowling’s “The Order of the Phoenix” is a great character. That doesn’t mean I want to have tea with her (afraid she’ll slip me some of Snapes’s veritaserum). But I love reading about her.
Earlier this year, I blogged about creating villains that aren’t cardboard cutouts. But what about our protagonists? If readers are going to follow this person for hundreds of pages—or across multiple books, if we’re writing a series—hopefully that person is someone they enjoy reading about.
Here are a few must-have qualities that I admire in protagonists. Every reader is different, obviously, but these are the important ones for me.
No. 1: They’re clever.
One of my favorite characters is Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit.” Bilbo’s greatest quality is his cleverness. He constantly outwits the enemy. This characteristic is important because Bilbo lives in a world where brute strength often means victory. Thrust into those circumstances, Bilbo proves that cleverness and wit can win out in cases where brute strength fails. Jane Austen’s characters often have this cleverness. They know what they need to do to survive or thrive in the circumstances of their world. Cleverness is necessary whether our character is a tiny hobbit in a world full of warriors or a woman seeking security in Regency England.
No. 2: They’re active.
In every story, we’re basically heaving rocks at our characters. If they just stand there as the events of the story unfold, they won’t be very interesting to read about. Active characters respond to what’s happening to them in meaningful ways. Their actions and reactions drive the story from one plot point to the next. Their actions won’t initially solve the problem; in fact, plenty of times, they’ll just serve to make things worse for themselves. That’s all right—as long as they’re doing something.
No. 3: They’re loyal.
Okay, I confess to having a thing for reading about hobbits. I love Samwise in the Lord of the Rings books. Why? Because even though all Sam wants to do is stay in the Shire and marry Rosie Cottonwood, he follows Frodo on a journey to Mount Doom. When times get tough, he faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles to help Frodo complete his task. Loyalty is an often overlooked quality in our world, but it’s vital in our characters.
This loyalty can also be a source of conflict. What happens when someone close to the protagonist isn’t loyal? What happens if someone close to them isn’t worthy of their loyalty? What happens when someone to whom the protagonist is loyal asks them to do something that isn’t in line with their beliefs? How do they react when their values are challenged in this way? Are there other characters in the story who aren’t loyal who can serve as a foil for the main character?
No. 4: They don’t whine (much).
I once read a book in which the hero had been betrayed by people close to him. Initially, I felt sympathy. But halfway through the book, he was still whining—despite the fact that the world as he knew it was irrevocably changed and his life and others’ lives were hanging in the balance. I didn’t exactly expect him to be over this betrayal, but I wanted him to stop spending pages of the book droning on about it.
Our characters should have issues and flaws and possibly even traumas or phobias. But if they spend more time whining than acting, we’re going to get annoyed—or worse, bored.
No. 5: They’re strong—even if they don’t know it.
This doesn’t have to be physical strength. It can be strength in the form of resilience or strength of character. Maybe our characters know martial arts, or maybe they’re just quick-thinking. Maybe they find hope in a situation that seems hopeless. Hopefully our main character will find their strength in the end—the strength to risk their heart for love, the strength to stand up for someone or something, or the strength to overcome the obstacles the story throws in their path.
Before I forget…My midweek ROW80 check-in
Finish the second draft of the novella I finished in Round 1, “Good Old-Fashioned Magic.” Not much progress to report. Continuing work on the first chapter.
2.) Read 4 books on the craft/business of writing.
This goal is already met for this round, but I’m rereading James Scott Bell’s “Revision and Self-Editing.”
3.) Social media:
Check in on Twitter daily. Took Monday off, met for Tuesday.
Comment on 3-5 blogs per day, Monday-Thursday. Met, except for Monday. I took the holiday off to spend time with family.
Blog 2 times a week. On track to meet this goal.
A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop!
Here’s my question for you: Who is your favorite character in a book, and why? What qualities do you admire in characters?
A couple years ago, I attended a seminar on using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for writing romance novels. While the MBTI yielded a great deal of useful information about my characters, I still felt like I needed a little more insight into my characters. Then, a friend of mine got me hooked on the Enneagram.
Unlike the MBTI, which types someone based on whether they’re an introvert or extravert (I or E), intuitive or sensing (N or S), thinking or feeling (T or F), or judging or perceiving (J or P), the Enneagram consists of nine different personality types, each numbered one through nine and with various labels, such as “The Reformer,” “The Helper,” or “The Peacemaker.” Knowing your type allows you insight into your deepest fears and desires, your key motivations, and, yes, your best and worst qualities. Within each type are various subtypes and variants and so forth, but it’s the type itself that can yield real insight into our characters—and ourselves.
Here’s what I think makes the Enneagram so useful for writers: It allows us to see who our characters can be at both their best and their worst. The Enneagram reveals our greatest motivations, our deepest fears and insecurities, how we may have experienced our childhoods, our patterns of self-sabotage, and, best of all, what we are capable of becoming if we can overcome those patterns. And all of this makes great fodder for understanding how our characters will behave over the course of the story and why they behave the way they behave.
Whether you’re writing a villain or a hero, whatever your protagonist’s walk of life, the Enneagram offers a deeper understanding into your character’s actions and reactions as the story unfolds. A character who’s a Six (The Loyalist), for example, might be highly suspicious and distrustful of a prospective love interest on page one, but the Enneagram can offer a path for her to overcome her suspicions, open her heart, and fall in love by the story’s end. And nothing ends the days of cookie-cutter bad guys better than understanding the inner workings of your villain’s mind.
Using the Enneagram to find out what makes a character tick
My latest villain, for example, is an Eight, The Challenger. Using the Enneagram as a tool to understand his motivations and early, formative experiences helped me to take him from generic bad guy to a fresh character with depth and his own take on the story’s events. It helps to know, for example, that many Eights felt they had to grow up early and learn to take care of themselves. As adults, they often feel a need to be in charge and in control and, while they make effective leaders and are often very successful, they can fall find it difficult to allow themselves to be vulnerable and, at their worst, can be abusive bullies. (It’s important to note that, in another story, I have a heroine who’s an Eight. There is both good and bad in each of the types.)
If you’re looking for ways to understand your characters—or yourself—I highly recommend checking out the Enneagram Institute’s website, which offers an introduction to the Enneagram, brief tests, and overviews of the nine types. Additional Enneagram tests are available at this site.
What about you? Do you do personality profiles for your characters? If so, which tools do you find most useful? Do you use the Enneagram, either in your characters’ lives or your own?
Recently, while researching the concept of voice in writing, I came across this blog post on The Adventurous Writer. One piece of advice the post offered was to “picture one specific reader and write to him or her.” The author suggests that as we write we imagine “one specific reader—one that [we’re] not trying to impress—and just communicating with her.” I love that—not impressing. Just communicating.
In public relations (my day job), we are always considering what we call “target audience.” At a staff meeting a couple years ago, we all gathered around a whiteboard and sketched out a vision of one—just one—of our target audience members. The exercise was meant to give us a concrete image of the person for whom we were writing.
I’d applied this exercise to my day job with good results, but never to my fiction writing. I’m always so caught up in the characters, in the story. And maybe the idea of picturing my story being read by someone who wasn’t a member of my critique group was slightly overwhelming. My manuscript, suddenly a paperback plucked up by a curious reader or an e-book on the screen of somebody’s Nook. The idea is exhilarating, but also sort of terrifying—not unlike riding a roller coaster.
But lately in my writing practice, I’ve been spinning my wheels a bit. I can’t seem to muster up the old passion, so I’ve been turning to writing exercises to help me reenergize.
So here is my “one specific reader”—a concrete vision of a person to whom I am writing:
Lindsay, age 37, stay-at-home mom
Lindsay is married with two kids, both in elementary school. She’s a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, the type who enjoys waking up early and sipping coffee while watching mist curl over the mountains beyond her backyard. She finds beauty in small, everyday moments and is creative. Though she’s primarily a stay-at-home mom, she probably has a side business—or two—that allows her to make use of her artistic side. She vacations with her family in the mountains, where they go camping or rent a cabin. Once a year she tries to get away with her sister for a weekend in New England. She sometimes reads at night after the kids are in bed, but usually her reading time is in the morning, after the kids catch the school bus and while the laundry tumbles in the dryer. She has a busy life, so she looks for books that give her perspective—the “meaning of life stuff”—but she also wants adventure. She reads many different types of books, but she likes stories that give her a thrill and sense of wonder. She wants a story that can be both thought-provoking and entertaining.
The interesting thing is that, even in this brief exercise, I see my voice. I notice the things to which my mind’s eye is drawn, that blend of the everyday and the spiritual, the place where our daily lives intersect with the possibility for adventure and epiphany. I can also see my inner poet rearing her head–the alliteration and music in while…watching, mist…mountain, and beyond…backyard. The words have a soft, lilting music, and in that, I hear my voice.
I’m hoping that imagining “Lindsay” when I write or revise will give me a stronger sense of why I write, motivating me to pound out today’s word count—because somewhere out there, the Lindsays of the world are waiting.
I’d love to hear what other writers’ imagined readers look like. What about yours? Do you find this exercise helpful?
When I was working on revising and tightening the plot of my first paranormal romance novel, MADE OF SHADOWS, I read a lot of romantic suspense. Though most of the books I read didn’t have paranormal elements (but some did), I learned plenty from reading tightly written books that packed heat and romantic tension in with smoking guns and characters on the run from crazed killers hell-bent on revenge.
Talented authors of romantic suspense know how to create plots that interweave the development of the hero and heroine’s relationship with an action-packed mystery. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my favorite romantic suspense authors.
1.) “Start the story 10 seconds before all hell breaks loose.” –Mary Burton
When I attended a workshop on writing romantic suspense earlier this year, author Mary Burton offered plenty of tips on how to write a good novel in the genre. But it was this phrase that stood out to me the most because it applies to every genre. All was normal in Kansas until a twister whisked Dorothy off to Oz. Frodo was enjoying his uncle’s birthday party in the Shire until Gandalf showed up to inform him that he had to deliver an evil ring to the fires of Mount Doom. In each story, we might get a taste of the usual, but we’re immediately plunged into chaos.
2.) Be mean REALLY MEAN to your characters.
One of my professors in graduate school used to tell us to chase our characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them. We wouldn’t have fallen in love with Frodo and Sam if they’d stayed in the Shire. We love them because Tolkien put them through hell. We went along with them because we wanted to see them make it.
Except Tolkien, perhaps no one knows how to put characters through hell better than a romantic suspense author. Rebecca York is one of the best. By the end of her novels, her characters have been shot at, framed, abducted, or chased by the killer (or, in some cases, by the police or a government agency); they’ve witnessed crimes and narrowly escaped death. But it’s that ticking bomb that keeps readers turning the pages. Romantic suspense authors don’t just throw rocks at their characters. They set the tree and fire and then start heaving boulders. Regardless of genre, we always want the reader to be thinking, “How the heck are they going to get out of this one?”
3.) Let the characters drive the plot.
Romantic suspense melds both a love story and a happily-ever-after ending with a sometimes gritty tale of crime and mayhem. They’re fulfilling the conventions and reader expectations of two genres simultaneously. It can’t be an easy task. It would be all too easy to let the writer take over and start steering the plot in the right direction.
But the most successful novels in this genre don’t allow the writer to force the story. Instead, the characters are behind the wheel, their steps and missteps fueling the plot. It’s their flaws that get them into messes (pride, stubbornness, a false sense of invincibility, a need for revenge). Only if the characters grow and evolve—learning to trust each other while overcoming their weaknesses and accepting their limitations along the way—can they make it through the situation in one piece. If we’re stuck on a particular plot point, sometimes it can help us to stop saying “What needs to happen?” and start saying “What would character X do in this situation?”
4.) Give your characters a higher purpose and deeper longing.
Characters in romantic suspense novels have a clear goal: catch the killer, diffuse the ticking bomb, or rescue a kidnapping victim. But while that’s their goal, it isn’t their motivation. We can find it easy to say, “What does my character want?” but harder to ask, “Why does he/she want it?” Talented romantic suspense authors know what drives their characters. They know that Sally became an FBI agent because her mother was murdered and the killer is still at large. They know that Tom, the rogue PI, is willing to help Sally because she reminds him of someone he once failed and offers him a shot at redemption. It’s not enough to diffuse the bomb or stop a serial killer; the characters need a deep-rooted longing that fuels their quest—even if they don’t recognize what truly motivates them.
5.) How to write a fast-paced, page-turner of a book.
Most romantic suspense novels aren’t 600-page tomes. Instead, they’re action-packed and tightly written. If you struggle with deciding which scenes to keep and which to delete, reading a handful of romantic suspense novels can offer guidance as to how to keep the plot moving. It would be easy for these characters to spend an entire chapter locked in a dingy hotel room plotting their next move, but something always happens that puts a snag in their plans, forcing the characters—and the plot—to move forward. Through reading romantic suspense, I’ve learned how to keep my characters moving.
What about you? What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned from your favorite authors?
One of the favorite questions to ask a college student is, “So, what’s your major?” This is usually followed by, “What are your plans after you graduate?”
With today’s talk about student-loan debt bubbles, high unemployment or under-employment rates for recent graduates, and the rising cost of a college education, the value of a college degree is under serious scrutiny. Combine this with the outcry for STEM-H degrees (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health), and, in the eyes of some, earning a degree in the liberal arts seems downright irresponsible and short-sighted. These days, if your answer to that first question is “English,” you’re bound to get a few eye rolls or sarcastic responses. I’ve even heard people go so far as to say that we shouldn’t give out federal loans to people majoring in the liberal arts, or that we should charge these students higher interest rates because they’re “higher risk” for defaulting on their loans. Bull.
Majoring in English does mean a lower expected salary than, say, electrical engineering. I know. I’m a communication/creative writing graduate married to a computer-science guy. But a degree in English doesn’t doom one to a life of poverty, bankruptcy, or defaulted student loans. Here are some rules to ensure you get the most out of your degree.
Rules for English majors:
Rule No. 1: Know the market.
Know what skills employers are looking for and what you can do with your degree. A mechanical engineering major generally goes on to become an engineer, but English is broader. You may find yourself double-majoring or choosing a minor to ensure you have the skills the market will require of you. Studying Melville is great, but don’t underestimate the value of knowing how to build a website, write a grant proposal, or pen an engaging feature article.
Don’t wait until you’re a senior. As soon as you declare your major, start doing research. Talk to your career services office, peruse the internet, seek out advice from professors or working professionals. If you’re in your last semester when you realize you don’t have the necessary skills, it’s going to be a bumpy road post-graduation.
Rule No. 2: Become tech-savvy.
When I taught PR writing, I always emphasized to my students the importance of becoming tech-savvy. Learning content-management systems, understanding at least basic HTML or CSS, and honing multimedia skills give you a leg up on those who only know how to write. Many jobs in journalism or public relations now require not only writing skills, but tech skills as well. Being an English major is no excuse for not learning these skills.
Rule No. 3: Beware excessive debt.
You’re an English major, so I’m assuming you are a creative, forward-thinking, analytical person capable of seeing the big picture. The average debt load for undergraduates is somewhere around $25,000 today. That’s reasonable. If you take out more than that for an English degree, you could be setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Many jobs in this field don’t pay much more than that for an annual starting salary. I highly recommend choosing your field of study based on your strengths and passions, but tempered with knowledge of your career outlook.
If you plan on going to graduate school but already have a massive debt load, take a few years to work and pay it down. Take out the smallest amount of loans possible. You can cancel any excess awarded amounts beyond what you need for tuition and fees, room and board, and books. If you can work during the summer (even in addition to an internship), try to live off that money during the school year.
This advice goes for everybody, regardless of their major. Always borrow the minimum you’ll need. You’ll thank me later.
So, what can you do with an English degree?
Teach: No matter your major, you need to know the job market you’ll be entering. When I declared that I wanted to major in English, I encountered people who urged me to study education. Their reasoning? “There will always be a demand for teachers.” Except, in today’s economy, schools are cutting jobs, combining districts, and feeling the pinch. It’s hard to find a teaching job, especially in English.
If you want to become a college professor, by all means, go for it. But be prepared for a highly competitive job market. There are way more English Ph.D.s than there are tenure-track jobs. And being an adjunct doesn’t bring home very much bacon. I know; I’ve done it–fortunately, merely to supplement my income.
The bottom line? If you want to be an English teacher or professor, be prepared for a highly competitive workforce: lots of qualified candidates, few positions. If you want to be a professor, you have to publish, attend conferences, moderate or speak on panels, etc., etc. Work your butt off to be at the top of your field. Know that not everybody gets to teach Shakespeare or Dickens. If you go to grad school, choose fields of study based on what the market demand is, not just what you love.
As someone who has an M.F.A., I recommend some serious consideration before attending grad school. Remember that some of the best teachers worked in industry before they went on to earn an advanced degree. I’ve been fortunate to find a job that allows me to write. And I don’t have regrets about earning my master’s degree. I met wonderful people and had eye-opening, life-changing experiences. In short, I loved grad school. That degree taught me how to write, and I’m eternally grateful for it. But I’m not going to lie and say that everyone I know feels the same way.
Write: Yes, this is a valid career path–in ways that might surprise you.
The creative side: Very, very few people make a living from writing poetry. It’s easier to make money writing fiction because there’s greater demand, but the chances that you’ll leave college and become a best-selling author are about as high as me sprouting wings so I can fly to work. Most authors toil in another occupation for years before making enough money to pursue their passion. They work as teachers, as bankers, as engineers and scientists and on and on. Anyone pursuing a fiction career best have a back-up plan.
The technical side: However, there are other writing paths that are far more lucrative and easier to break into. English majors don’t have to limit themselves to literary analysis and perfecting metered verse. Make sure you load up on technical and professional writing courses. Companies need people to write everything from technical documents to marketing copy to web content to user manuals. The best people to explain how to use a software program aren’t often the people who designed it. Don’t underestimate the value of people who know how to convey complex or extremely technical information effectively and concisely.
If you want to write, build a portfolio. Show up at your college newspaper and join the staff. Do internships. Every organization needs communicators, whether it’s a nonprofit, a corporation, a university–even a political campaign. A summer internship at a daily newspaper, a magazine, or in corporate communications builds your resume and provides a glimpse into what organizations are looking for out of employees.
Learn as many forms of writing as possible. Write poems and short stories, by all means, but don’t stop there. Write news releases, feature articles, technical copy, web content. Play with learning to build a website. Take a course in multimedia. The more versatile you are, the better.
Other career paths you might choose:
Law (Caveat: You may need to double major or minor in a field like political science, history, etc.)
Business (Caveat: Again, a double major or minor may be necessary, but the skills you learn related to communication, analysis, and technical writing are in demand in many fields. Earning an M.B.A. is a pricey undertaking, so if you choose that route, have a plan.)
Library science (Caveat: Salaries in this field tend to be low and an M.L.S. is generally required.)
Public relations (Caveat: Many PR jobs require technical skills, such as understanding of social media marketing, web content management, or multimedia skills.)
Editing (In public relations, at a publishing house, a newspaper or magazine, etc. I work as an assistant editor for a university, so don’t rule out university administration as a career path.)
English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor (Caveat: May require specialized coursework, an advanced degree, or foreign-language skills.)
And just because it’s not listed here doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Majoring in English doesn’t doom you to life as a pauper. In the current economic climate, everyone, regardless of their major, needs to have a plan. If you’re studying English, what’s your plan? For those of you who’ve already been through college, what advice do you have for humanities majors?
I remember when, in the midst of finishing up my thesis (a labor of love), someone said that doing a creative thesis must be easy because it didn’t require any research.
What? I was floored. I’d done a lot of research for that manuscript, and I continue to. Even writing a fantasy novel requires research. I’ve studied everything from mythology to martial arts to swords to types of knots. But since I write urban fantasy that bridges our world and other worlds, much of my research is setting specific.
We can’t always write novels based in places we’ve lived. I love where I grew up (Western PA) and where I live now (Virginia), but I’m not prepared to base every story in those places. Sometimes, the story dictates a different setting.
When you create your own world, it’s coming from your head (or the creative ether, however you look at it), so you don’t have to worry which highway a character would take to get from point A to point B or how long the drive is. As long as your world is clear and consistent within a story or series, you’re good to go.
But place is a strong and emotional thing. It’s not just a matter of fact-checking. We form deep, emotional connections to places we love and live in, and those seemingly tiny details can draw readers out of a story if they’re not correct.
What kinds of details do we need to worry about when researching a setting?
Geography: It’s not the most exciting stuff, but we need to know the highways and byways. If your characters take Route 101 and there isn’t any such road in that region, people familiar with that place will know. The names of districts, famous landmarks, parks, rivers, etc. are important to people from the area (or who simply love that place), so doing research–even if it’s just a thorough use of Google Maps or Earth–is essential. Looking at pictures can also help you capture the essence of a place. The Shenandoah Valley and the Great Smokies feel and look different, for example.
Flora and fauna: I grew up in the country, so this kind of thing is important to me. I want to hear about the cherry blossoms, the daffodils, the white-tailed deer, the birdsongs, the coyote yelps, or the jack-o-pines. I highly recommend books like “The North American Wildlife Guide.” It’s helpful to know the range of a given species, for example. But we also need to know about things like the seasons (my hometown in PA frequently gets snow in late March and April; where a friend lives in New Mexico, it was 100 degrees last week) or the common types of birds, wildlife, and trees (lots of pines in one place, a plethora of birches in another).
Local flavor: I love to travel, and my favorite part is that every place has its own unique flair. I love tiny beach towns with their hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurants, big cities with everything to offer and their famous locales, college towns where even the license plates have school spirit. The setting should never overwhelm the story. (If we’re in San Francisco, you don’t have to shout it. Ubiquitous references to the Golden Gate Bridge aren’t necessary.) Subtle is necessary, but authenticity in tiny details is key. It’s everything from architecture (the houses in a Western PA mining town are not the same style you’d find in New Hampshire, for example) to roadways (PA is in an unending state of road construction) to food. Keep it authentic, but be sure to avoid cliches and stereotypes. If you’re going to go for colloquialisms, keep them subtle and remember that not everyone from a region uses them, or uses them frequently. (Personal disclaimer: My cousins used to knock my accent, so, though I’m proud of my heritage, I’m a bit sensitive about this subject.)
Making it up: It’s okay to make up a shop, a hotel, or a restaurant. A made-up street or address is useful to avoid using a real address. There’s nothing wrong with inventing a new-age shop or a burger joint to insert into your story, as long as it fits into that town.
The law: Every state (and country, if you’re going global) not only has its own unique flavor, but its own set of laws. Some states (or cities) are stricter about enforcing speed limits. Certain types of weapons are illegal in some states. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a law requiring bikers to wear motorcycle helmets, but many states do. Everything from traffic laws to marriage laws to statutes of limitations varies from one state to another. Legal intricacies mostly come into play if you’re writing suspense or a legal thriller, but knowing the law in your chosen location is important.
Tiny details: There are other details that require research. For example, in MADE OF SHADOWS, the heroine, Zoe, played rugby in college. I had to make sure that the school I chose as her alma mater actually had a women’s rugby team. (Not every school does.) If your character works in or has studied a specialized field, making sure that university actually offers the degree is a must. If your character has a specialization in ceramics, biomedical engineering, or Celtic studies, it’s best to make sure that university offers that degree program. If we goof on the minutiae, our readers might start to question other parts of the story.
So besides this wonderful thing called the Internet and our stacks of books, how do we ensure that we’re getting it right? Any suggestions? As for me, I might not be the most adventurous person out there, but I’m always game for a road trip.