Friday, September 30, 2011

Writer Burn-Out

by Darke Conteur

It's something writers don't talk about. That deep, depressing hole of miserable that feels worse than any writer's block. You look at the blank screen in front of you, and nothing comes to mind. No words or ideas. Not one thought. It isn't that you can't write, but more that you don't want to. You have no energy, no inspiration, and no amount of excitement creeps into your life when you open a Word file. This isn't just in your mind, but for some, it's a physical condition as well.

For whatever reason, many writers have battled a case of Burn-Out. For some, it can last a few days, others, a lot longer. I know of two writers in the last few years who developed a bad case of Burn-Out. One decided she would retire from the writing world for good, perhaps unsatisfied with her accomplishments and not wanting to continue spending energy on what she saw as a fruitless task. I was sad to see her leave. Reading her blog entries was an exciting look into her world. She blogged about the good and bad about the conferences she'd attended and been a part of, and it sounded like she was here to stay. The announcement of her departure was right out of left field.

The other writer, after announcing his writing retirement, started a new creative project, but not in writing. It was still connected to what he loved to do, he just wasn't writing. It took a few months of him putting his energy into this other project before his itch to write returned. When it did, he was more excited than ever about his work.

Writer Burn-Out is nothing to be ashamed of. It isn't a sign that you're weak or don't have what it takes. Generally, I find it's just the opposite. It can be overwhelming to learn all that is needed to become a writer. The stress from wanting to get it right can be debilitating, especially if the words aren’t coming and you keep reading about other writers having incredible writing days. The important thing to remember is, you're not alone. You're not the first to experience this, and you won't be the last. No one is going to think any less of you if you drop everything and walk away. Sometimes that's what's needed. Do what YOU need to do to get yourself through this. Don't worry, your story will always be there, and the writing community will always be here to welcome you back.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name

by Calista Taylor

Choosing a pen name is often a choice dictated by a variety of factors, but like most decisions that deal with building a platform and a brand, it's not only personal but business.

I first decided that I would need a pen name when I started writing steampunk. My real name has more of a chick lit feel to it, but worse, there's a porn star with the same name. As a result, the chances of googling my name and finding ME instead of the popular G-string starlet would be slim to none. Not a great way to be easily accessible to readers.

With the decision made to choose a pen name, I quickly came up with a checklist.

  • Google Hits—When choosing a name, put the first and last name in quotes and google it. I like the number to be under 1000 hits (or close to it). That guarantees that by the time you're well into your platform building, you'll have taken over that name, so that when someone googles it, they'll primarily get your website, your Twitter/Facebook account, or your blog.
  • An Available Domain—You'll likely want to put up a website to help promote yourself, and since it's likely you'll write more than one book, it's best if you put your website in your name, rather than your book title. Having that domain be available is a huge plus, though there are ways around it, like adding "author" to your name. Not great, but still an option, if you have your heart set on a particular name.
  • How easy is the name to remember? Pronounce? Spell?—This is HUGE. If no one will be able to remember it, say it, spell it, then it's probably not a great choice.
  • Does it suit the genre you'll be writing?—This deals with not only the feel of the name (sounding too modern when you write historicals, etc), but also with whether the name sounds too male/female when it's a genre that's dominated by a particular sex. For example, writing romance with a name that sounds male may turn off some readers.
  • Does the name sound like a joke?—Picking a name that sounds too fake (often done to fit the genre to an extreme) can be a turn off. Remember—this is still a business venture so naming yourself Luscious Fantastique just because you write erotica or Vampira Nightshade because you write paranormals probably isn't a wise move.
  • Is the name already being used by someone else?—A porn star (lol)? An actor/actress? Another author? Is it too close in the way it sounds to another author?
Whatever name you choose, I highly recommend using it for your Twitter account (both the user name and the @name), because each tweet gives that name another hit on Google. This means that before long, when someone googles your pen name, they will get you, or one of your tweets. This will of course lead to your Twitter account, which should also have a link to your website, blog or books, making it fairly simple for any readers to find you.

My favorite place to look for names is, hands down, the Baby Names section on Parents Connect (though the recent addition of video to the site is making me crazy). They offer a cool feature that allows you to find names with a similar feel to a particular name, or names that sound similar. This becomes useful if you really like a name but can't use it because it has high hits on Google, or doesn't meet one of the other criteria. Now you can easily find a different one that "feels" the same.

I hope this list will help, if you're considering pen names. Have you already chosen a pen name or plan on using one? What were your criteria?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Straddling Genres

by Jemi Fraser

So, you've written, rewritten, edited and polished your novel. You've written a synopsis and a query letter. Everything shines so brightly you need sunglasses to glimpse at it.

But let's have a closer look at that line in the query that says...

MY AWESOME BOOK is a science fiction historical western with a twist of fantasy, a romance that will make you glad you're alive, nonstop thrills and a villain who uses his victims for zombie experiments.

Yeah. No one's going to write it that badly, but a lot of people write books that cross into multiple genres. (And we're not going to discuss the age groupings today—that's a whole 'nother story!) So, what do you do?

Many stories have elements of a variety of genres. I've read many novels that cross into at least 3 genres and I like to write genre jumpers myself. But we shouldn't list all of those elements in the query letter.

Instead, as writers, we have to ask ourselves where the book is going to sit when (not if!) it hits the shelves of our favourite bookstores. There are no sections for science fiction westerns, never mind one with all of the other genres included in that summary above. So, head on back to the basics to decide.

Think about the hook in your query and the pitch you've created for when you meet those agents in the elevators (although I'm guessing a lot of agents take the stairs these days). You've probably already found the niche for your story. You've probably identified it in the pitch and the hook.

If your pitch/hook talks about the romance, that's what it'll be. If it's all about those magical elements or the paranormal abilities, it's under the speculative fiction umbrella. You can be more specific here (paranormal, urban fantasy, steampunk...) if you like.

In some cases, you might want to have a couple of different query letters. Let's pretend you've written a fantasy with a strong element of romance. If you're querying agents who represent romance, call it a romantic fantasy. If you're querying agents who focus on fantasy, call it a fantasy and show in the query that it is a romance, or call it a fantasy with a splash of romance. Remember you don't need to reveal every twist and turn in your query letter. The letter's job is to represent your book honestly and get the agent to want to read more. So focus on the aspects each agent is looking for.

Keep it simple. Limit it to a genre that shows up on a shelf in a bookstore. And personalize it for the agent. Then cross those fingers and press Send. Good luck!

Friday, September 23, 2011

I, Editor

by Robert K. Lewis

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

As I finished up the latest draft of my current novel, I got to thinking about my editing process and how it’s changed and morphed over the years. I first have a confession to make: I’m fascinated by editing. Love it, really. There is this one moment that I’ll always remember as a writer. I was sitting at a table in Caffe Trieste in North Beach, pouring over a printed-out copy of my book, and as I worked, I suddenly realized that I’d turned a corner in my writing process because I now hated first drafts and had fallen in love with the editing of the draft. After all, first drafts are only there to be edited.

So, since it’s a topic near and dear to my heart, I thought I would talk about how I edit, and how I’ve heard other people do their editing.

The first time I go back to edit, I’m looking at the big picture (which is very Sol Stein, btw). What are the big changes that need to happen? Where does the story sag? Where is it strong? What plot choices work? Which do not? I will at this point make a cover sheet for each chapter, listing what characters appear, along with a brief overview of what’s going on. I then lay the ENTIRE book out on the floor of my office. Here’s what it looks like.

Yes. It’s a mess at this point, and it’s ALL on the table as far as I’m concerned. I’m married to NONE of it. I’ll rearrange chapters, take a part from one chapter and move it to where I think it would work better. I’ll toss entire chapters or storylines. By color-coding the characters (Hey, I’m a visual guy, what can I say?), I get a very good idea of when and where they pop up. This is the big work. The heavy lifting.

After I’ve done the next draft, I then add looking at the language and sentences into the mix. Here is where I will probably start at page one and work through to the end. I’m trying at this time to get a sense of the rhythm of the book. I’m still, at this point, staying loose and fluid with it all, ready to go back to the heavy lifting if necessary, or maybe follow up with a weak thread that needs reweaving, or even starting to look at word repetitions that piss me off, etc.

I may do a couple drafts this way, working from the beginning to the end, honing as I go. It’s laborious, yeah, but… this is the way I work. And really, since I love to write, it doesn’t feel nearly as laborious as it sounds. I love the journey, you know? Your mileage will vary, natch.

From here, I then become a miner of sorts, delving further and further down, really focusing in at the sentence level. Here I’m trying to make EVERY sentence sing. Seriously, if you think you can get away with a few bad ones, well… have you ever NOT noticed the turd in the swimming pool? Exactly. That’s how those sentences will stand out, trust me. Every.Sentence.MUST.Sing.

When am I done? Ah, well that’s the question that every writer asks, and none really know the answer to. Me? I just feel it, inside. I just know that it’s time for me to let the book go.

And so, here some tips that I’ve come across over the years that I want share with you. I’m sure that some of them, or maybe all of them, are known to you, but that’s okay. Maybe it’ll just reinforce your own way of doing things. I’d love to hear about how you do your editing!

1. Be flexible. When you’re just starting out at writing, you have a tendency to treat every word as sacred, every plot choice as carved in stone. This is natural. It takes some guts to admit that you were wrong. I have to tell you though, that in that first draft you just completed? It’s a 100% certainty you were wrong, probably in many, many places.

2. As I mentioned earlier, in the early stages, make a cover sheet for each chapter listing the characters and plot movement. Find a color-coding system that works for you. If it’s at all possible, lay the book out on the floor to get “the big picture”. Doing this helped me to see that one character in my latest had entirely dropped out of the book early in the second act, only to reappear late in the third. That led me to re-evaluate the need for that character, and also got me pondering other possibilities for that character.

3. Work from the macro, to the micro. This is Sol Stein’s advice, and it’s certainly good enough for me (see my rec of his book below). Be brave in the early stages. Toss what you love, fix what you hate.

4. When you’ve moved to the sentence level edits, read your book in reverse order, from the last page to the first. The problem with editing is that we KNOW the story, and get carried away with it. This leads to missing key issues and errors. However, reading it in reverse page order will help with fixing bad sentences and grammar. It takes the ego out of the equation.

5. I’ve also found that ping-ponging around the book from chapter to chapter (chapter 3, then go and do chapter 37, etc.) helps you stay out of the book and enables you to better see how a chapter is flowing, how it begins, how it ends, etc. Doing this led me to discover that most of my lead-off sentences were almost identical, and I always ended a chapter with a single line of dialog. This technique is just another way to keep you OUT of the story and focused on plot, characters, and sentences.

6. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough: read your story aloud to yourself. It all sounds great, in our head. This is natural, as these are OUR words. WE created them. However, when you read your book out loud, THEN you get the sentences that are laborious, the ones that will trip you up, cause you to go back and read them again. And hey, if they trip YOU up, and you created them? Then they’ll most definitely trip up someone who bought your book.

If you don’t listen to anything I’ve said here, please at least listen to #6. It’s really a great help. And it’s not like you have to be all Shakespeare and stuff, either. You can say it softly to yourself, at your desk. Sure, your spouse or partner or whatever might think you’re crazy, but you’re a writer, yeah? You’re already crazy!

To end, I want to give you a list of what I feel are some of the best books out there on editing your own work. This is not the end-all of lists, by no means. If you know of a book on editing that rocked your world, let us know in the comments!

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King This has to be at the top of the list. Simply put, the best one out there on the topic.

Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, by Claire Kehrwald Cook A much more academic feel than Browne and King’s book. This one is more like taking a class in editing your work, and that just ain’t a bad thing.

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell Chock full of examples and strategic tips. Short, and too the point.

Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein I always find a way to recommend this book, whenever and wherever I can. It deals with the entire writing process, however part VI of this wonderful book deals with revision, and Stein gives you an awesome way to edit your novel, rather than just starting at page one every time you start a new draft. For myself, there’s a part of me that likes starting at page one sometimes, knowing there’s a lot of hard work ahead. But, I’m a masochist that way.

Heck, I’m a writer, right?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

So, What Did You Think?

By Matt Sinclair

We writers can be a funny bunch. We all want an honest, no-holds-barred critique of our work. "Come on," we say, "I'm an adult. I can handle it." What is it about masochism that's so darned appealing?

But what about the manuscript that makes a reader want to say "This is the most God awful bit of tripe I've ever wasted my time reading! Kill it! Burn it! Do anything to destroy it and the synapses that fired these thoughts through your mind to begin with!"

I'm glad that I've never been on the receiving end of such a diatribe, and I don't know anyone who has been—or at least has admitted it. But we probably have all read works we thought were terrible—and we were right. It's also possible such pieces were written by people we know and respect.

The challenge is offering the asked-for "honest" criticism. Make no mistake, this is a delicate situation. I suspect the vast majority of FTWA readers understand that there's a difference between "honest" and "constructive" critisism, and just because a writer might make the wrong word choice in the type of criticism he asks for, we as early readers should err on the side of being constructive—even when it really is God awful tripe. It's fine to tell writers the writing misses the mark, but it's more helpful to show how far off the mark they are. Did it at least hit the target or did the dart get stuck in the wall a foot and a half away? Was the humor so sophomoric that you wouldn't share it with a high school junior? Show where, where, and where the story derailed.

Being an early reader for a writer is not for the faint of heart. As much fun as it might be to discover an unpolished jewel, it's quite possible what you hold in your hands is a clod of coprolite that needs to be in a pressure cooker for another millennium or so. Indeed, I'd argue it is more important today than it was even a year ago to quell an eager writer's willingness to share the work with everyone. The world of readers is at risk of terrible "books" in the guise of poorly-if-at-all-edited manuscripts with undeveloped characters and unexplored worlds, hackneyed themes, and language that would offend the ears of a Neanderthal. Make no mistake, the emergence of e-publishing is an important turning point in the careers of talented authors whose backlist was lost, forgotten, or unnoticed. But not all authors meet that "talented" level.

(Then again, American Idol reject William Hung released not one but three albums.)

Jokes and snarky remarks aside, being asked to read and critique a colleague's early version is truly an honor, and it's important to respect the person and the work. Writers who have not shared their work with others before are nervous and are looking not only for honesty but validation that their efforts have not been in vain. But if you accept the responsibility and find the work wanting, it is not only appropriate to say so, I'd argue it is imperative. How you do so, however, requires some tact.

So the basics: Is the manuscript riddled with spelling errors? Say so. If you find them pockmarking the manuscript for the first five pages, it's ok to put it aside and tell the person, "I'll read it after you've fixed the spelling mistakes. This isn't close to ready to being sent to an agent."

"Oh, but I'm a terrible speller," says the wannabe writer. That excuse is no more acceptable than a mechanic saying his hands sweat too much to use tools.

Is the grammatical structure more flimsy than a sand castle? Show your friend what needs to be done or where he can find out how to write properly. "But I thought that's what an editor is for," he says. This person has no idea what an editor does and is incapable of learning it yet. Perhaps he will in time. Be careful but firm. Some people will never get it. But these people typically are not readers much less writers.

What about those manuscripts that were readable but required you to sift through random point-of-view shifts and waffling tenses to find a story worth exploring? There's hope for this colleague. He might not be quite ready yet, but if he keeps putting the time in, he might get to the point where the work can be shared with an agent.

In the meantime, share what you know to help this friend understand that there are no guarantees in writing. Finishing a first draft does not mean you have a best-seller on your hands. Gaining representation does not mean your work will find a publisher, and being published does not equal fame much less fortune.

But developing a thick skin and open ears helps dedicated writers make a living doing what they love. If you ask me, that's what it's really all about.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Blog Ate My Book

by Sophie Perinot

Once upon a time it would have been, “The dog ate my homework.” But today when something goes missing (or misses a deadline) the culprit is more likely sitting on an author’s desk (NO, not the cat) and the only growling it makes is the hum of that little fan inside that keeps it from overheating. The culprit is the computer, or more precisely the many things—facebook, twitter, blogging, games—we can do with it other than write our novels.

In this age of digital distractions it might seem sensible for a writer—especially one working on a draft that really should be further along—to “log out” completely for days or even weeks. Assuming for a moment that a writer had the self-discipline to do that (I am not certain I do), it may not be as prudent as it sounds at first blush.

Long absences from the virtual world are not in an author’s best interest. Being an active member of the on-line world is an enormous part of what generates buzz for books and recognition for their authors these days. It is hard to imagine a book or a writer being successful without being a genuine and active part of several social media and/or on-line writing communities.

So where do we draw the line? How do we stay “connected” but still manage the most important task facing us—producing polished and marketable manuscripts? If there were an easy answer I’d bottle it and sell it. The situation demands a balancing act worthy of a high-wire artist and I am currently perilously close to losing my footing and falling into the net (dear GOD I hope there is a net down there—I don’t see one).

It wasn’t always this way. I’ve long been a member of the AgentQuery community (which is how I met my marvelous co-bloggers her at FTWA). I spent a lot of time there. It began to feel like home. I’d pop over when I needed a break from drafting or editing and critique a couple of query letters, or see if I could answer the question of a fellow writer. Very manageable. Then I got involved with Twitter (perfect because 140 characters is more than enough of me for many people). I treated myself to “Twitter time” before my writing day began, on my lunch, and when I wound things down for the day. Still I was humming along. Heck I wrote, polished, and sold an entire manuscript without feeling (overly) harried (I mean, come on, don’t we always feel harried?).

But lately I am not making the progress that I’d like to on my WIP, and I always feel short of time and vaguely panicky. Part of this doubtless arises from the fact that I am also in the incipient stages of promoting my debut novel, but it’s more than that. I’ve always been great at juggling (another circus image—forgive me) but somewhere along the line I put too many balls in the air and one ball is a lot heavier than the others. When I sat down to work on this post it came to me in a flash. In my case, blogging is that heavy ball.

After I signed my book deal I started blogging here. Next came my personal blog. I like blogging because basically, I am VERY opinionated (something tells me you are NOT surprised). I also love reading dozens of writing-related blogs. They’ve taught me much of what I know about this business so I know blogs serve a valuable purpose. But blogging takes an enormous amount of time compared to most on-line community participation. A tweet is a quip; a facebook post can be a couple of sentences or a useful link. A blog requires topic selection, thoughtful analysis and a couple of hundred solid words in support of your argument.

So if blogging is such a huge time-suck, why do we do it?

I know why I started—conventional wisdom (and some publishers) says that a writer HAS to blog. It’s considered part of self-marketing and builds audience (aka sales).

I am beginning to consider this assertion more critically. Is it possible (*gasp*) that the amount of time writers lose to blogging is not counterbalanced by the number of new readers that our blogs deliver to us?

Some writers clearly think so. At a conference this past summer several well-established authors told me (as part of their very kind “advise the newbie” efforts) that if they had it to do all over again they would NOT start a blog. They insisted, quite earnestly, that a writer could get comparable marketing and publicity benefits while spending far less time by merely guest posting on the blogs of others (particularly around his/her release dates).

What do YOU think? If you are a writer who blogs do you believe it will build significant readership for your non-blog-writing? And if so, do you believe that based on evidence/experience or because that is the conventional wisdom? If you are a reader of novels, do you prefer writers who blog? Have you ever discovered a writer through his/her blog? Would you buy a book just because you read an author’s blog?

Me, I know something’s got to give in the next weeks and months if I want to finish this manuscript on deadline (and I have never missed a deadline in my life). I am not certain that “something” is blogging but I have my priorities—I am not going to let my blog eat my book. The book is my job. The blog may or may not be an effective part of developing an audience for my books. I am not certain. But there is one thing I AM certain of—no new book, no audience needed. So the minute I become convinced that blogging is interfering with my bread and butter it will become something I used to do and don’t do anymore.

Friday, September 16, 2011

And on the Seventh Day—Wait, I Mean Page!

by R.C. Lewis

Ah, the perks of being a novelist. Eyestrain. Carpal tunnel. Form rejections.

But it's the best, really! Those of us who know will suffer all that and more for the joy of bringing characters to life, torturing them because we can ... in worlds we create.

Talk about power.

Sometimes, though, we get carried away with that power. We name and define enough flora and fauna to fill the planet twice over. We develop a 700-year history of the monarchy. We formulate scientific theories to support complex technology that all runs on algae.

That's great. Fill reams of paper or gigabytes on your hard drive with every nuanced detail. Go for it.

The problem comes if we throw it at the reader ... all of it.

Don't get me wrong. I love a fully realized world. And I hate one that doesn't have enough detail, lacks internal consistency, and just doesn't feel real. But having that fleshed-out world as a foundation doesn't mean we have to spell it all out within the manuscript. If we do all the hard labor of working it out behind the scenes, it can seep naturally into the story.

Some details do deserve to make the page and add to the narrative. Personally, there are a couple of situations where I feel it's worth the word count to detail things in.

It's News to Me. This is pretty typical in speculative fiction genres. The protagonist enters a new country/society/galaxy/dimension. Everything will be new, so some detailing is only natural. In these situations, I always ask myself what my MC would notice first, and what would get glossed over until they're in deeper.

It's a Matter of Life or Death. Okay, maybe not that extreme. But I'm talking about aspects of world-building that are pertinent—even critical—in that particular moment. Make sure the diversion into explanation or description is properly motivated.

I'm Right and You're Wrong. This can be a fun one. Character #1 says, "Let's do ____ to accomplish this goal." Character #2 says, "You're a moron, that'll never work!" #1: "Yes it will. If we ____, ____, and ____, then ____ will happen." #2: "No way. Nuh-uh. The ______ of the ____ will never ____ _____ _____ ...." And so on. Hopefully done more artfully than that, but you get the idea. When there are legitimate differing views on how something in the world operates, that can be a decent time to work in some specifics.

I'm sure there are other situations and a variety of factors that can play into how much is too much and what approach is best. Some genres expect world-building to be handled a particular way. Some readers can drink in pages of geography and political history, while others will skim (if they don't just give up on the book altogether).

And who says it's just the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum that world-builds? Historical fiction may call on a setting we have some passing familiarity with, but it has to make it real just the same. Just about any novel has to establish at least a microcosm of a fictional world.

For myself, the sign of great world-building is when I don't notice it happening. Whether through description, dialogue, or more subtle means, I experience it and live in the world.

Do you have pet-peeves when it comes to world-building? Tips for pulling it off smoothly? I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing Lessons from a Blogvel

by Cat Woods

First off, a Round-Robin Blogvel is a novel told chapter by chapter on various blogs over a period of time. Inevitably this means different authors with different writing styles and different perspectives. It also means a unique writing experience. And yet, the nuggets of wisdom I gathered while penning my chapter of THE SKELETON KEY are as common as punctuation marks in a WIP and can should be applied to any novel.

Characters are like exclamation points. Use them sparingly, but with confidence. As I read the early chapters of our blogvel, I quickly realized the cast of characters was very large. Each new writer would introduce a character or two, but never have the time in their mere 2,000 words to fully flesh them out or utilize them the way they were first envisioned. Over time, early characters were quickly forgotten. Worse yet was my natural inclination to dismiss newer introductions because I assumed they, too, would fade into the background. As the Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition) states: an exclamation point “should be used sparingly to be effective.” And so must our characters.

Details are like dashes. Grammar Girl informs us that dashes are used to add a bit of extra-ness (my word, not hers) into our writing. Details are important in world-building. They set the scene, describe our characters and place readers into our settings. However, too many dashes are akin to detail over-load. My favorite part of our blogvel was my fellow scribes' creativity and imagination. Yet with each new chapter came new descriptions to flesh out the new ideas. This was delightful in a chapter by chapter summer blogvel of fun, but would have been extremely distracting in a cohesive novel. Distracting and tiring for readers to sort through poetic prose to find important information pertinent to the outcome of the story.

Pacing is like a series of commas. Some sentences are quick and dirty and get right to the point. Others slow the reader down with the use of a tiny crescent comma. The genius of the comma is its ability to allow the reader a small break—a deep breath of air, a rearranging of thoughts or an emotional moment to gather one's self. Likewise, the ebb and flow of a manuscript relies on individual sentence structure, paragraph breaks and chapter endings. A good manuscript takes readers on a series of peaks and valleys before reaching the ultimate conflict and resolution. There is a cadence—or rhythm—to effective writing that dictates when conflict is introduced and when it is resolved. While reading through the chapters prior to writing mine, I hit a point that FELT climactic. I scurried to our chapter list and realized we had just as many chapters to write as had already been written. It was time for a comma.

While I slowed our story down, wrapping up key elements, tying together subplots and penning a satisfying finish all in a single chapter will fall to our last, brave writer. My advice: keep track of your story's pace and finish up old subplots as new ones are getting started. This will eliminate the need to write a massive wrap-up at the end.

Chapter ends are like ellipses. Over at Quick and Dirty Tips, Grammar Girl relates the story of how Charles Schulz used ellipses in his Peanuts cartoons to carry the reader from one frame to the next, much like our blogvel writers were called on to do with their chapters. Time is short, and commitment is long. Readers often do not have the ability to read a novel in one sitting. As writers, we are charged with capturing our readers' attention and drawing them so deeply into the story that the real world doesn't erase our efforts at storytelling altogether. Chapter breaks—with their hints of unresolved conflict and promises of heightened emotion/action—are crucial to this process.

Consistency is like a period. This plain-Jane punctuation mark is so unassuming as to almost disappear from our work. Very seldom do writers ever ponder on the use of a period. Nor do readers fret about its meaning—unless it's used improperly or missing altogether. In the same way, consistent writing comforts us. When written well, writing is all but invisible. Only the story remains. Yet, throw a third person chapter in the middle of a first person novel and watch how fast readers are pulled out of a story. Yep ... that fast. And while it may seem like I'm picking on my talented, energetic and amazingly fun fellow scribes, I only highlight this lesson because it is one I've seen in virtually every beta manuscript I've ever read. In other words, a lack of consistency is commonplace in WIPs no matter how experienced or talented a writer might be. First person to third person. Present tense mixed with past tense. Red eyes morphing to obsidian-like stones. Unique spelling—or should I say misspellings?—of names.

It is our job, as writers, to create a seamless tale in which our readers can fall into and never emerge from until "the end"—no matter how many authors contribute to the storytelling.

So, dear readers, how have you challenged yourself as a writer? What lessons can be learned from stretching beyond our comfort zones? How do we learn to recognize our own weaknesses in the stories we tell?

If you're interested, you can pop on over and find out exactly what my weaknesses were when writing my chapter of The Skeleton Key.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Embrace the Awesome—Don't Be A Lit Bitch

by Mindy McGinnis

Confession time—I'm kinda a lit bitch.

You know the type—the ones that like to carry around obscure authors in trade paperback and read them in really public places. Yeah ... that's kinda me. Or at least, it used to be. I had a breakthrough session with my sister a few years ago, when I was a post-college grad with two shiny degrees in English Literature and Religion, reading Euripides in the backroom at Hallmark on my lunch break. (Sidenote: Yes, BBC worked at a Hallmark. No, we're not going to talk about it.) Meanwhile, big sis is clocking in as the chair of the English department at a rural school, and rollicking around in the YA market that is about to explode.

BBC'S Sister: You really should read this Harry Potter book sometime. It's pretty good.

BBC: Yeah, that's what I hear.

BBC'S Sister: No really. It's good.

BBC: Right, okay.

BBC's Sister: Stop blowing me off. You might actually like it.

BBC: Sorry, I've got some big person books to read.

BBC's Sister: You're just being pissy because it's super popular and you don't want to look like you've bought in to it.

BBC: You're just being pissy because I like to read books with words like "transubstantiation" and you don't know what that means.

Well, if any of you have sisters then you know that the conversation totally degenerated from there. For the record, I did not wizen to the awesome until ORDER OF THE PHOENIX was released, at which time I sullenly asked to borrow the series from big sis. We made a summer deal—she gave the smoldery hot and intelligent OUTLANDER series by Diana Gabaldon a shot, and I gave JK Rowling the time of day.

Uh, yeah. We spent the summer sprawled on beach towels untangling tiny plot details and discussing these amazingly talented authors whose backstory weaving is remarkable. We also both ate a lot of crow, but that's besides the point.

My next lesson. Lit Bitch status aside, the OUTLANDER series has had my heart since word one. Whenever anyone (adult) asks me for a book recommendation the conversation goes like this:

BBC: Alright, I'm going to talk to you about an awesome series, but you have to get past the first phrase out of my mouth without losing interest or mocking me.

Friend: Okay.

BBC: It's a time travel romance—

Friend: *eyes glaze over, nods politely* Okay

BBC: No seriously. Here, just take it. You have to promise me to read past page fifty before giving up.

Friend: Yeah sure. I'll give it a try. *gives it dubious glance, tucks it away into purse*


Friend: Hey, I'm bringing this back to you.

BBC: C'mon now—did you read past page fifty like you promised?

Friend: Er ... uh ... I'm done. *blushes* Can I get the sequel?

It's also true that the magic isn't always there for everyone. I haven't found a vampire attractive since Gary Oldman played one, but I'm old school like that. The point is—don't be a snotty snot face when it comes to your reading material, like I did. You might miss out on some awesome.

And the same goes for your writing. Are you cracking away at a piece of historical fiction that will need appendices, but there's an erotic paranormal romance lurking somewhere in your gray matter?

Hey, that's what pen names are for ;)

Friday, September 9, 2011

“Going FREE” on Amazon: Insane, Inspired Marketing From The Frontier of Self-Publishing

by Lucy Marsden

Note from Lucy:

Hi, Folks—

Today, rather than geeking-out about some aspect of craft or genre, I thought I’d shamelessly capitalize on the recent success of friend and fellow writer, Ruth Cardello. Since the release of her second self-published romance FOR LOVE OR LEGACY two weeks ago, Ruthie’s sales have been phenomenal—a circumstance that she ascribes, in part, to her decision to give away her first novel, MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE, for free.

Lots of authors on Amazon are giving away short stories and prequels, but the decision to make a first book free is still considered radical. Here’s Ruth herself, to answer questions about what going free with the first book seems to have done for her and other self-published authors:

Free? Are those authors crazy?

Yes, crazy smart.

Giving your first book away is the most powerful promotional tool you have to get your book into the hands of hundreds of thousands of new readers. People like FREE. The new generation of readers has an almost limitless selection of books to choose from. Plenty of good books get lost in the shuffle. To be read, your book will have to be “found.”

But, Ruth, I’m going to use coupons and strategically give them to romance groups as an incentive for people to read my book.

Coupons are wonderful, but how many are you going to give out? Twenty? Two hundred? A thousand? In the four months that MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE has been free on Amazon, about 200,000 people have downloaded it. Let’s be conservative and say that one fourth of those people liked it and will purchase book 2—that’s 50,000 people.

FREE made MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE visible. Four months after publication, it remains in the top 10 in the Contemporary Romance Amazon ranking. It’s still in the top 10 on iTunes. How much would you pay for this kind of visibility? Eight-hundred to one thousand people download the first book in my series every day. Let me repeat that, because if you’re still wondering if putting your book up for free is worth it, then you need to consider how my reading base is expanding every day from this one single promotion strategy: Eight hundred to one thousand new readers every day.

Do they all love me? No. Will they all return to buy book two? Hell, no. But if only a fraction do, I’m still making $300—$500 a day on the sale of my second book. Every day.

How long are you going to leave MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE up for FREE?

It’s up for the foreseeable future. For now, there is no reason for me to charge for it, since it continues to bring new readers to my other book.

I hear you, Ruth, but won’t putting my book up for 99 cents deliver the same impact?

My numbers suggest otherwise.

Four months ago, before I put the book up for FREE, I was selling one hundred books a day at 35% ($35/day sales). I was pretty happy with those numbers, and was a little nervous when MAID finally did go FREE. Some of that reticence dissipated, however, when almost instantly, 35,000 people downloaded it. I just released my second book in the series, FOR LOVE OR LEGACY, and it’s shot up the ranks with high sales. In fact, it’s only been on sale for slightly over two weeks, and I’ve already made about $7,000.


You might be right; this approach might not be for you. It’s only one of many promotional strategies that self-pubbed authors are experimenting with, and the bottom line is that if you want to make it in what has become the Wild Wild West of publishing, you need to keep yourself informed. That doesn’t mean that you have to follow my formula (which isn’t even mine ... it was already being discussed by various authors on blogs), but it does mean that you need to aggressively seek out what people are doing, and compare their results. The market is changing at a remarkable speed. Today’s best advice might not be relevant next month. That’s why writers should network and share. We can all benefit from helping each other out. We need to stay informed.

So, what happens if that well dries up and Amazon doesn’t match Smashword’s free pricing anymore?

It’s already getting harder to go FREE on Amazon, and the option may not be there in the future. For now, the gamble is paying off for some new authors. It’s a strategy that is still worth considering.

What do you think the next big promotional trend might be?

I don’t know; but if you find out first, email me at, and we’ll call it even.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Are You Writing?

by J. Lea Lopez

Recently I held a contest on my personal blog where I challenged participants to write a very short story that was sexy, but where no one got naked. I thought it would be a fun way to entice people to try writing something erotic without the embarrassment of actually having to write a sex scene, and also a good way to encourage some outside-the-box thinking by taking the “sex” out of sexy writing.

So why am I telling you this, especially since I already named a winner? Because it told me something about some of my fellow aspiring writers. I was surprised—shocked, even—by the number of people who scoffed at the idea of entering because I’ve never read/written erotica. That’s not my genre. Or I’m no good at those kinds of scenes. I can’t do that. And then the handful of entries I did get were mostly prefaced with statements like I’m sorry if it sucks and I know I won’t win. Does no one have confidence anymore? Or even a good sense of just for the hell of it fun?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having realistic expectations and being able to honestly assess our own talent. The last thing I want is for any of my writing friends to suffer from the same delusions that cause some people (you know which ones) to audition for American Idol and then throw a hissy when everyone laughs. But don’t you want to challenge yourself, ever? Don’t you want to branch out and try something completely different, if only for 1200 words that only a handful of people will ever read? (My blog isn’t the most highly-trafficked corner of the Web. It’s not like I asked anyone to submit their writing to the New Yorker.)

All career considerations and aspirations for wealth or fame aside—why are you writing? If not to stretch the limits—of the imagination, of a genre, of your own talent—then why?

One of my favorite and best English professors in college told our Creative Writing class that we should always be pushing the envelope. Always. He told us to write what we love and want to write, but push the envelope. That’s stuck with me over the years, and I think it’s something we should all be doing. Write a formulaic bodice-ripper for Harlequin if that’s what you want to do, but for goodness sake, push that envelope! Write the best damn bodice-ripper we’ve ever seen.

We always have an eye toward marketability and the like, because we do want to make a living at this writing gig. I’m not suggesting you expect your literary YA space opera about werewolves and vamps forming an alliance against the aliens from galaxy XSr429-6 to be an easy sell. But don’t just regurgitate the same stuff that’s been circulating for years, either. Oh, hell, you know what? If that literary YA space opera is what you are just aching to write – do it! Write the best damn literary YA space opera you can, and then strip it down and do it again. Learn the shortcomings of the genres you choose, and the weaknesses in your own ability, then fix them. Find ways to exploit your strengths. Write something in a genre or viewpoint you’re uncomfortable with, to see how it feels. Find what you can learn from the experience, trash the rest, and move on. But do it. Stop sabotaging yourself from the word go by filling your head with negative talk and doubt and do it.

Challenge yourself. Challenge your audience. Strive for the growth that comes from pushing the envelope.

Otherwise, why are you writing at all?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Novelist vs Screenwriter vs Playwright

by R.S. Mellette

I've written stage plays, screenplays (large and small) and novels with nearly the same success, and lack thereof, so I thought a comparison of how I feel about each might be useful. I have no doubt arguments will abound, which is a good thing. Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

THE STAGE: "Theatre is dead." That proclamation was made to me by the late, great, set designer, John Paoletti, as we met to discuss the set for a 99-seat production in Los Angeles. Such "Equity Waiver" plays are to theatre what garage bands are to Rock & Roll. This particular play had an all-star cast, so it was a great little garage band—but could only be considered professional by the quality of the work, not the dollars earned. Paoletti designed sets for theatre all over the country. As we talked about the production, he was drawing pieces for a play back in Chicago. He worked constantly. In any other profession his labor and skill would have made him a rich man, but he was far from it. This is what prompted him to say what he did. "Theatre is dead, and television killed it."

I had no argument against it. Still don't. But the skills of the stage, the lessons learned in front of a live audience night-after-night, are invaluable when it comes to film and television—where the artist may never hear or feel the audience's initial response to their work. In film, 1920 is ancient history. You're considered a scholar if you know what Thomas Edison might have to do with Steven Spielberg's success.

Theatre can trace her roots back to before God. An understanding of what moved an audience in ancient Egypt, or Greece, or what made Italians in the 16th Century laugh, or how Theatre survived the hard economic times of English reconstruction—and how these same human storytelling techniques have worked in our day—give a writer a deep pool of knowledge to work from. Damn the marketing people and their test screenings—a writer with a strong theatre background has 3,000+ years of research and feedback from billions of people to draw from. Better still if this writer has spent time on stage performing other writers' work. The best teacher is the instant feedback of a paying audience.

In writing for the stage you are capturing the power and majesty of the human voice, from kings to paupers, the supremacy of the words are yours to wield. Sure, you might write in a deus ex machine, but without the deity to speak from atop the device, the special effect isn't much good.

With minimal stage effects and limited settings, a playwright is forced to entertain and educate with nothing but words and the interaction of characters—but this is the basis of all writing, isn't it? The stage demands a higher level than books or film, and is the only medium that offers the immediacy of the moment. An actor speaks the words, the audience hears them, and the playwright is there to gauge the reaction. Quickly, the author learns what resonates and what doesn't. Soon, he or she can play the audience like a violin. Actors often say they can literally control how an audience breathes, but it is the writer that gave them the setting and words to exercise that power.

THE SCREEN: No critic or academic can speak intelligently about film if they haven't rolled up their sleeves and done the grunt work of production. If they haven't worked as a grip, a producer, or director, then they have no real idea of where the writer fits into the picture. The production crew see the writer as someone who lounges around with the director and producers, or who might talk to the cast from time-to-time. More often than not, they have no idea who the writer is at all. He, she or they might not ever come to the set. The director and producers, working with the cast, may make last minute tweaks to the script, and so the writer is seen as superfluous.

But a good producer or director knows what the writer has done. Months or years prior to production, they've been working together to turn blank paper into living, breathing characters in a real world. The author can be so cavalier on the set because their hard work was done long before anyone else had a job on this project. If the script started as speculative—written first and sold later—then the author has worked more hours on the film than anyone else has or will.

But if the screenwriter faces the blank page, he or she does not face a blank audience. They are writing for other professionals in the business for whom a shorthand has evolved.

Brad's studio apartment is as much of a wreck as his life.

That's all the writer needs to include to give those crew members who work so hard during production the picture of what they need to achieve.

Some writers find it hard to learn this shorthand, and I think their work suffers for it. They lack trust in their designers, directors and cast to do the detective work necessary to flush out the details of the world everyone is trying to create. The designers are going to read the entire script. They will know what kind of wreck Brad's life is, and can then apply their talents to reflecting this in the set. No spoon-feeding necessary, and by allowing more input from various sources, the finished product has a depth to it that a spelled out description might lack.

This type of writing, once mastered, can become a lot of fun. All the author need deal with are characters and story—the meat and potatoes. They have a cast, crew and editors to take care of the minutiae. The art of screenwriting is to use the least amount of words to make a clear image pop into the minds of trained, professional, readers—and to be able to make them all see a similar picture.

NOVELS: You're a control freak? You want to be the auteur? Forget about film, become a novelist. Here you are the art department, the cast, crew, editor, director and craft service person picking up the trash—and yet, if you are successful, you will still have to collaborate with editors, marketing people, agents, etc.

The novelist faces a blank page in both the creation and production of the work. All that can be assumed about the audience is that they can read the language that's on the page—and yet, the author has to put the same story into every reader's head. They have no soundtrack. No special effects. No magic of the theatre. Nothing between their brain and their audience's but the written word.

I can tell you, having made a feature film (on film) and written two novels, they are comparable in their tedium. An editor will work for sometimes an hour or more on a single cut of a film that flashes by in one 24th of a second and is never seen by the audience again. An author will do the same with a word in a sentence.

An animator once told me that cartoon characters must blink when they turn their heads, or they don't look real. A novelist once said, "If you use the word 'suddenly' then whatever follows, isn't."

With all of these differences, what I'm finding as I work in the three media is how they are becoming more similar. Modern novels require less description than their 18th-early 20th century counterparts. Perhaps it is because television has shown us so much of the world that the details of exotic locations or people are now common knowledge. Perhaps it's because we have so many ways to fill our free time, that a book had better cut to the chase or it will never compete with the explosions and spectacle of the big screen or video games. What theatre that has been successful lately has been based on movies—just as they used to be based on histories or commonly known tales.

No matter what medium a writer chooses to work in, they seek the same result—resonance. They must touch the audience in a way that it amplifies within them. That's the art of it, and it's the same for all. The craft is what will differ.

Thanks for reading.