Friday, June 29, 2012

What Are You Reading?

by Matt Sinclair

“What are you reading?”

It’s a question I ask people all the time—and not always when they have a book or e-reader in front of them. I haven’t conducted a doctoral study on the subject, but I believe that intelligent people read regularly. I’m aware, however, that there’s a dangerous tautology involved in that statement. Does it imply that people who don’t read regularly are not intelligent? No, though some might infer it, regardless.

But when I ask the question of a writer, every once in a while I receive a shocking answer. “I’m not reading anything right now. I’m writing. I don’t want anything to influence my story.”

I worry about such writers. They don’t seem to realize where the muse comes from and how she must be fed. A well-nourished muse inspires thoughts and dreams that might smack of something familiar but are also spiced up with an innovation that you can claim to be your own. Go ahead, take a shoulder ride like you did when you were little. It really helps you gain a new perspective.

Now, if the reason you’re not reading is because you’re writing and you simply have no other time to read, well, I get it. Trust me, as the father of twin three-year-olds, I totally get it. But I think it’s important to try to get your reading in, too.

I suppose it’s hard to call it “reading for pleasure.” People like us understand how and why stories are structured in a certain way. We see the seams more easily than other readers or recognize symbols and metaphors that border on the cliché that other readers think of as oh so clever. But we must strive to never lose our ability to enjoy the pure thrill of new writing that causes us to think new thoughts. Even when we’re writing.

You’re entitled to disagree. But from what I’ve seen, successful writers tend to be voracious, omnivorous readers, making some of the most obscure tomes dog-eared from repeated page-turning.

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed established authors include lists of what they were reading while writing the novel I was holding in my somewhat ink-stained hands. While I suspect such things are inspired by lawyers or marketing departments (or both) to cover fannies and assuage readers’ varied interests, the sheer volume of books, published and unpublished, that some of these authors consume while writing their own should be enough to quell the fears of unpublished writers and enable them to enjoy their teetering piles of “to be read” books at bedside.

What’s behind that fear? I can’t say for sure, but I think part of it is the idea that somehow a basic premise of a popular contemporary work will overwhelm their own story. Still, I suspect J.K. Rowling was familiar with Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings trilogy before she conjured up Harry Potter. For all I know, she might even have re-watched or reread them. But then again, she didn’t really have to. The similar tales of an unexpected hero, guided in part by a magical, mystical mentor are rooted in story archetype.

As most writers know, at their root modern stories are retellings of ancient tales: a quest, love lost and found, youth coming of age, an unlikely hero overcoming the seemingly invincible, a mixture involving several or even all of these elements.

And you think that you’re going to be swayed in your story because you read within the same genre at that time? You believe that people will see the magic sneakers your character wears or enchanted guitar he plays will be recognized as just another ring of power or light saber or cloak of invisibility? Suit yourself. Personally, I think my imagination can only benefit from frequent exercise.

Keep reading my friends. Your muse will be glad you did.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, recently published a short story anthology called Spring Fevers, which is available through Smashwords, Amazon, and in print via CreateSpace. It includes stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette. He also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Do You Want to Know a Secret? Do You Promise Not to Tell?

by Riley Redgate

Back when I took acting classes, one character-building activity in particular stuck with me: the Secret. The goal of the Secret was simple and self-explanatory: Come up with a secret for your character, something the character never says onstage or even references subtly. Tell no one what the secret is. Harbor the secret. Supposedly, this helps breathe inner life into your performance.

But I always felt like the point of the Secret wasn't to give the character inner life, but to create a semantic attachment between actor and character. Similarly, what I love about creating characters' backgrounds in writing is that it makes me feel like the character and I are getting to know each other. Yeah, a significant portion of what I craft for my characters never makes it "onscreen"—but since such a vital portion of writing consists of nailing a character's voice, every little bit I can do to connect to them seems to help. It's not that I'm furthering the character so much as furthering my ability to communicate who he/she is.

Which brings me to the larger issue: What happens when your character's Secret is actually your Secret? And how much of an author's life seeps into the creation of a novel? I know some writers who base entire characters off people they know in real life. (I have been known to borrow a characteristic here and there, but I've never had a specific friend/family-member/enemy/what-have-you from my personal life in mind when I've come up with characters.) Of course, there are "easter eggs" lying around here and there—something in a line of dialogue will be a reference to a thought I had while driving to school, or there'll be some loosely adapted translation from a foreign language for a character's name. Nothing too major, though.

Interestingly enough, a fellow writer once told me about one of her easter eggs before I read her novel—and that knowledge ended up ruining the character for me, because every time I read one of his lines, I was like, "THIS DUDE IS BASED ON SOMEONE I KNOW." It was sort of uncomfortable. And invasive-feeling.

However, when another friend told me one of his character's secrets—a secret relevant only to the character, nothing drawn from my friend's real life—it didn't bother me at all. I felt like it maintained the illusion, and actually assisted it, instead of destroying it. It seemed like he'd applied the acting activity, and it'd worked.

I started to wonder, though—if my first friend hadn't told me a thing, would I even have noticed? Would I have enjoyed reading that character just as much as the character in Novel #2? Many writers look down on blatant authorial self-insertion, but as long as there's that barrier between author and reader, does it really matter? Technically, doesn't all writing (and acting, for that matter) involve a degree of self-insertion, assuming we're writing (or acting) from a place of sympathy? Dark and scary questions indeed.

Of course, the question would eventually become this: if the author relies on self-insertion, will he/she ever be able to write an entirely different main character, a character who isn't him/herself? And heck, I've got to admit, when an author has an obscenely long series of books, I sort of start to wonder if they've forgotten how to write in any other character's voice.

Do you think that self-insertion, if unknown to the reader, is acceptable? Do you draw directly from real-life experiences (or people) when you write? Are your characters' secrets their own, or yours?

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Haste Makes Waste

by Sophie Perinot

“... the race is not to the swift”

Ecclesiastes 9:11

I am not ordinarily the bible-quoting type. This bit of Ecclesiastes, however, addresses a problem I’ve been seeing a lot lately. On-line writing communities have been overrun by the hasty. Perhaps it was always this way and I just failed to notice it. Perhaps technology has made us less patient even as it makes it easier to act instantly on our impulse to share what we’ve written. Whatever the reason, most of the advice I’ve doled out in the last couple of weeks can be boiled down to this—“slow down!”

I remember completing my first manuscript. It was a spectacular feeling. As you type your last words you can’t imagine any better feeling. But there ARE better feelings to come—like the feeling of signing with an agent, and the feeling of inking your name on a publishing contract. If you rush to take a newly minted manuscript to market you will not get to feel those bigger highs. You may turn your beloved tome (the one you’ve poured your heart and months or years of your life into) into nothing more than a pile of waste-paper.

Here are a few things to remember in your heady rush to share what you’ve written:

1) If your manuscript is not done agents don’t want to hear about it. You’d think this would go without saying. You’d be wrong. Just last week someone asked about querying an unfinished manuscript in an on-line forum. Fact: getting an agent is a long shot—as in single-digit percentage long shot. Why would an agent who receives hundreds of query letters a week EVER ask to see an incomplete manuscript? Even if the premise is brilliant there is no guarantee—until the book is done and the agent can read it—that the execution will live up to it. “Ah,” you say, “but the agent won’t know my book isn’t finished. Querying takes a while and while my letter is sitting on all those laptops I’ll wrap up the writing and editing.”

ACK! If you were here I would stab you with my letter opener (yes, I still have one.). First off, it is not uncommon to get a quick response to a gripping query pitching a concept that seems highly saleable. Second ...

2) The first time you think you are done with your book you are SO NOT DONE! In fact, the second time you think you are “done” you probably aren’t either. It’s not just YOU, it’s every debut writer. I could have sworn my first manuscript was done after I’d edited it twice and received feedback from a couple of beta readers. Boy was I wrong. It took three additional critique partner reviews, the removal of several sub-plots and the clipping of over 30,000 words (yeah that’s right 30k+) before I was actually done. In this market—with publishing in flux and publishers feeling risk adverse—your manuscript had better be spit-shined and nearly flawless before anyone who matters has a look at it. Every time you send out your manuscript prematurely you are wasting an agent name from your list.

“But,” you say, “I thought my agent would offer editorial suggestions and, eventually, the editor at my publishing house will as well.” Very true (notice how I am putting the letter opener back in the pencil cup). When you sign with an agent you are often standing on the tip of the revisions iceberg. But cutting corners in your personal edits on the theory you can make all the improvements at once is a mistake. You can’t get to the next round of edits without this one. Editing is a part of writing—often the biggest part. Your attitude towards it needs to be “early and often.”

When you finally have your manuscript edited to perfection, you are set to query. But again, hold your horses ...

3) Easing into the query process gives you the best chance of querying successfully. Remember how you thought you were done with your manuscript and you weren’t (see last point)? Well, chances are when you mail/email those first query letters out you’ll discover your letter isn’t ready either. There is really only one way to gauge whether your query letter is in good shape—see if it gets requests. If your letter isn’t up to the job it is better to find that out after you’ve sent twenty letters than two hundred. Send a couple of ten-letter trial batches out to a mix of agents from your A & B lists. Wait until you’ve got responses (or 2-3 weeks have passed at which point you count the non-responders as “not interested”) and if your rate-of-request isn’t in the 10% to 20% range revise your query. Repeat. The time to send out query letters as quickly as your mouse-hand can click is once your letter is topping the 20% request-rate mark.

You are going to meet with a lot of rejection on the way to being agented and/or published. Everybody does. If rejection makes you impatient, you stand a good chance of selling yourself and your manuscript short. Remind yourself again and again ...

4) How quickly people can read your book is NOT the ONLY goal to consider. As writers we want an audience. As writers with completed, polished manuscripts we want an audience NOW (now, now, now! do you hear me?). After months of editing and weeks (or months) of querying nearly every writer has the following thought: “I don’t care who publishes my book or how many people read it, I just want somebody other than my mother to see it.” Before the rise of self-publishing this thought wasn’t particularly dangerous because, unless you were going the vanity route, there was no easy way to just “get the book out there.” Now you (the writer) need to impose your own cooling off period and make certain you understand your personal goals for your book. Ask yourself, HOW BIG do you want your audience to be? Will you be content if two-dozen people read your book in the first year? If two hundred people do? How about two thousand? Ten thousand?

If you want thousands of people to read your book then you probably want to pursue the sometimes glacially slow agent-to-major-publisher route. Now before everyone attacks me, I am not saying that self-published or small-press published books can’t reach thousands of people, I am just saying the odds are longer. If you rush to self-publish or publish with a small press and then are disappointed with the number of readers your book gets, there isn’t much you can do. You can “start over” and try for an agent and a deal with one of the big 6, but you will need a new manuscript to do that.

Let’s say you do decide to self-publish ...

5) Professional looking self-published books take time. You can decide to self-publish your book today and have it available on the internet tomorrow, but chances are it wouldn’t be well presented. Nor well promoted. If you are going to do everything yourself—editing, cover-design, layout, promotion, advertising—you are going to need a plan, and good plans take time. You will also want to invest time in the pre-publication process (design, editing) to maximize you chances of success.

Getting back to Ecclesiastes (I do like things tidy) people run races to WIN. The ultimate prize in writing is a published book with a significant fan-base—significant enough that you have pecuniary reasons for writing your next book. It takes slow, deliberative thought and action to reach that goal. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Behave accordingly.

Sophie Perinot is an author with Penguin’s New American Library (NAL). Her debut novel, The Sister Queens, is on sale now at bookstores (brick-and-mortar and virtual) everywhere. You can connect with Sophie at, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Weighing the Worth of Bios and Bylines

by Cat Woods

During an online discussion the other day, a fellow scribe stated he didn't usually submit to non-paying markets. I, on the other hand, have.

My first published gig was a short story. It earned me my biggest check in terms of time spent versus money earned and had the most circulation of any of my published works by ... oh ... a million or so readers. It did not, however, earn me a byline.

Over the years, I've written pro-bono for non-profits, hourly for businesses and per project for individuals. I've had poetry, short stories and articles published in newspapers, newsletters, magazines and online. Not everything I've written has earned me cash, nor have they earned me acclaim.

Yet, they are all satisfying in their own right.

To know if certain types of publications are worth your time and effort, you must first assess your writing goals. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here, only what works for you. Do you want money, recognition or an audience for your thoughts? What is your brand or envisioned brand?

Next, you must understand the different types of publications and what they have to offer you. Below is a simplified list of what that might look like.

  • Fee: I've seen rates as low as two cents per word, moving upward to $2 per page or $2,000 per project depending on the publisher and the type of submission. Fee publications may or may not offer bylines. Fee publications can include anything from a church anthology to a regional newspaper to reputable magazines and e-zines. They may also include contracted writing for publishing companies or businesses.
  • Byline Only: Non-profits or small presses often offer bylines and contributor copies in return for a well-written short story, article or poem.
  • E-Exposure: Newer to the playing field and harder to assess is the worth of publishing digitally. Blogs, e-newsletters and e-zines use a lot of material in a short time and are constantly searching for new voices to help promote themselves or satisfy reader appetites. In turn, writers usually garner a shout-out of some kind and a link back to their blog or website.

Obviously, the most attractive "sale" is the exchange of literary rights for money, a byline and exposure. But that doesn't mean we need to discount the other types as worthless or even worth less.

Sometimes simply sharing an idea is enough, even if we don't get credit for the way we state it. This type of publication cannot be used in a bio, per se. Unless we've garnered permission from the publisher who owns the works, we can't take credit for the words we've penned. We can, however, use the practice (and the cash) to further hone our writing skills or to buy a new pair of shoes to keep us inspired.

Building a platform? Writing nonfiction nearly always requires a solid platform and a stellar bio. You not only need credentials, but you also need exposure. Your platform must support you as THE ONE to write your topic. You must have a marketing plan that includes lots of name recognition and expertise in the area you wish to publish. In this respect, bylines can help tremendously, whether paid or unpaid.

To a certain degree, this name recognition is also important for fiction writers. Readers read via word of mouth. Get your name out often enough in connection with quality writing and a charming personality and sales of future projects are far easier to garner. You want your name at the top of the search engine page so potential readers can find you quickly and easily.

Cross-genre publishing? Some people will tell you to only focus on one genre or age group in all your publishing endeavors. I'm not completely sold on this, as I feel that all writing has worth in terms of sheer mechanics, and that learning to Cross-Train your Writing Brain can be beneficial across the board. I firmly believe that my start writing short stories has given me an edge when working on my shorter juvenile fiction. It's taught me to build robust characters in a teeny tiny word count. All valuable lessons for picture books and chapter books.

The flipside: it is difficult to cross-genre publish and doing so can take away from a writer's ultimate brand.

Which leads us to the question: To Bio or Not To Bio?

First, understand that unless you are writing nonfiction or building a freelance business to support the fam, you don't need a bio. Oh, they are nice to have and look impressive as that final paragraph on a query, but they are not essential to getting an agent or a publishing deal. In that respect, we need to be careful about the writing credits we slap into our bio sections.

When querying agents for my juvenile literature, I DID NOT list my hot-between-the-sheets short story on my asset side. I didn't mention my articles on mental health or the lack thereof. I simply stated my membership in the SCBWI (a highly respected organization for juvenile literature) and let potential agents know that I was the contributing editor for a monthly newsletter for kids in the age range I was querying. Period. They didn't have to know that I'm an online editor for a high-circulation swine newsletter in the midwest.

Yet, all these credits have earned me something: either money, a byline or a bit more clout in the writing world.

Do you have an intended focus audience for your work, or are you still feeling your way around the publishing arena? If you have a publishing goal, how are you working toward reaching it? In which ways have you been side-tracked with other projects? Do these side-projects have worth in your journey? How do you feel about writing for "free?"

Curious minds want to know.

Cat Woods is but one of the names this writer publishes under. A short story in SPRING FEVERS, is Cat's most recent fiction credit. She hopes to have another one in the upcoming anthology, THE FALL. In the meantime, she has an article on pigs to write and a post to polish for her blog Words from the Woods.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Balancing Act

by MarcyKate Connolly

Most writers are not able to write full time. Most of us need to work a regular job in order to make a living, eat, have a roof over our heads, etc.

This can often lead to conflict in our daily lives. We need to go to work and do our jobs, whether they may be mundane or fun or a little bit of both, so we can support our writing habit. But sometimes the drive to do what we love, not what we must, can get in the way.

We want to write, but we need to work. If only writing could be our work ... So goes that slippery slope. Sound familiar?

It’s all too easy for our lives to lean too far in one direction and make us feel off-kilter and unhappy. Major work projects can take over our lives, making it seem like we’ll never get back to writing again. Never finish that project into which we’ve been pouring our souls.

Lack of balance can lead all too quickly to discouragement.

So, as the creative folks we are, we have to find ways to put things back in balance. Personally, I like to write on my commute since I have a half-hour train ride. That’s an hour of writing time each day that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I know others get up crazy early or never sleep (ahem, GUILTY) just so they can have a few more minutes living in their story-worlds.

Of course, this is not always easy. Sometimes, work or family or other real life demands are such that we just can’t devote that time on our commutes or lunch breaks or wee hours of the morning to writing. Lately I’ve found myself both working on the train and staying up late just in an attempt to get back on track from a project that massively derailed earlier this month.

Basically, life happens.

So if life happens to you in ways that make it difficult (or even nearly impossible) to get to your writing, don’t beat yourself up too much. I know we all hear the adage that writers must write every day (and in an ideal world, wouldn’t that be lovely?), but sometimes you need to set other things right before they can be balanced again. Sometimes you just have to take that time away, then come back refreshed, rejuvenated, and relieved to have your writing to transport you during that commute or lunch hour.

Maybe you’ll even appreciate it a little more than you did before.

How do you keep your writing life in balance with real life demands? Feel free to leave your tips in the comments!

MarcyKate Connolly writes young adult fiction and becomes a superhero when sufficiently caffeinated. When earthbound, she blogs at her website and ferrets out contests on Twitter.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Agent Research: QueryTracker

by Jemi Fraser

I'm getting closer to finishing up my WIP. I'm still in the polishing and shining stage, so I won't be querying for a while yet, but I've started researching agents. It's a fairly involved process, so I thought I'd take you through my procedure—which of course won't work for everyone—but it might give you some ideas of where to start.

There are a lot of fabulous agents out there. Many of them will be the perfect choice for you. How do you find them? In this post I talked a bit in general about AgentQuery, QueryTracker (QT) and Preditors and Editors. Today I'm going to focus a bit more specifically on QT and their searchable agent database today. Last time I checked, there were over 1000 agents listed. Obviously you need to narrow your search. QT allows you to narrow down the list by choosing the genre(s) of your story/stories. You can choose multiple categories to narrow down your search further.

I'll use my recent searches as an example. My story is a romance with a strong subplot of suspense/mystery. So, I chose fiction–romance, then fiction–mystery, fiction–suspense. I had 114 agents to search. When I searched romance only, I had 189 agents. Not a huge difference for me, but if you're planning on writing fantasy and thrillers for instance, it would be nice to know which agents rep both.

QT lists the agents in alphabetical order by last names. It shows if they accept email or snail mail queries or if there's an online form. Once you click on an agent's name, it gives you more information.

  • The overview tab lists the agency's website and the agent's personal blog and twitter if applicable. It also links to their information on AgentQuery, Preditors & Editors, Publishers Marketplace, AAR and sometimes interviews as well. There are a few agencies without an online presence, but these are included in the listings as well.
  • The comments tab shows comments by QT members who are willing to share who they queried and what the response was. It's easy to find out from this tab if the agent only responds if interested and what their form letters are like.
  • One tab shows the clients of the agent. This is really handy. Even though the agent might rep a wide variety of genres, you'll see quickly what they have sold. Some of the agents in my search sold almost exclusively nonfiction books. I would assume that's where their best contacts in the publishing world are. By checking out the clients, I also find out if the agent already reps someone who sells stories similar to the one I'm querying. That all helps me decide where the agent fits on my wishlist.
  • There is another tab for reports. This can show you how many queries the agent has received, in what genre, how they've responded ... Some of these features are exclusive to the premium membership.

Speaking of that premium membership, it's $25/year. The basic membership allows you to track your querying process for one project. Among other perks, the premium membership allows you to track 20 projects. When you're tracking project 2, it reminds you if you queried each agent with project 1 and how that turned out.

Now, as good as QT is, it's not enough. Once you've narrowed down the list of agents you're interested in querying, I'd suggest a few more steps.

Click through to the agency website and the agent's personal blog if she/he has one. You can find out a LOT of information this way. The lists of genres is sometimes a bit deceiving. As I said, I'm looking for agents who represent romance. By visiting the websites I eliminated at least a dozen agents who only want to see historical or paranormal romance and one who wants only multi-generational stories. Agents are busy people. I'd rather not waste their time querying for something they're not interested in. I'd rather focus on those agents who state they're looking for contemporary stories.

QT has a 'Notes' space where you can keep track of your thoughts about the agent. I use it to track those tidbits I might use to personalize my query when I do get to that stage.

There are a LOT more features on QT that I didn't mention. I'll do that in another post.

Any questions? Anything you'd like to see in that post? Have you used QT? What's your favourite part of it? Any other tips?

Jemi Fraser is an aspiring author of romantic mysteries. She blogs and tweets while searching for those HEAs.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Before You Can Bask in Acclaim, You Have to Earn It

by R.C. Lewis

I've blogged before about the difference between accomplishment and prestige, as well as where we as writers look for validation. More recently, I blogged about the problems of ungrounded "self-esteem". Today, I'm going to try to tie all that together.

And yes, it involves discussing both traditional publishing and self-publishing.

I'm all for being supportive and encouraging to people at every stage and on every path. It's critical. Tearing each other down? Not helpful. But that's not what this is about.

Recently, a fellow writer bemoaned the fact that self-published authors don't get the same respect and regard as traditionally published authors. I will concede that the moment the debut novel from either becomes available for purchase, this is true. More importantly, I'm going to claim that this is as it should be.

Here's why: It is dirt simple these days to self-publish. I could self-publish my old college essays right now, and it'd take me about ten minutes. The act of self-publishing in and of itself is not an impressive accomplishment.

Self-publishing successfully is NOT dirt simple. Those who succeed more than likely spent some time learning how to craft a story, edited and revised carefully (often investing in a professional edit), got a solid cover design, and educated themselves on effective marketing and publicity.

Half of the key is my ninth grade English teacher's favorite word. WORK.

The other half is evidence of that work being apparent for the world to see. That's where I see the key distinction between traditional and self-published authors.

While I firmly believe the best of self-published novels are on par with the top shelf of traditionally published, I'm just as convinced that the worst of self-publishing is far, far below the most dire novels released by the Big Six. (I know you think you've seen some truly awful books from the Big Six on the shelves. Trust me, they cannot possibly be as bad as some of the dregs I've had the misfortune of stumbling across in the world of self-publishing.) It's a wider range for the self-published, so when it shows up on the virtual shelves, it could be anything.

The moment a self-published book makes its debut is the moment it begins proving itself. A traditionally published book (in particular by a well-established house) has generally already proven itself to an agent, at least one editor, and an entire acquisitions team.

That doesn't make the book or author better by default. It doesn't make them 100% proven, either. I'd say it makes them halfway proven, and the rest is left to the reactions of readers and critics.

When a writer gets a traditional publishing deal, yes, I find it worthy of acclaim. Not just anyone can do it, so it is impressive.

Likewise, when a self-published author climbs the rankings and earns more than pocket change, I find that worthy of acclaim, too.

Many things are accomplishments—completing a novel is one of them, regardless of the path you choose to take. Some, however, are more prestigious than others. (See my earlier post.) As writers, we need to be mindful of when and where we seek our validation. And we need to remember that validation within ourselves is more important and more lasting than any external praise.

R.C. Lewis teaches math by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. You can find her at Crossing the Helix and on Twitter (@RC_Lewis).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

by Stephen L. Duncan

I had this whole post ready for you about the Writer’s Wall inspired by a fairly brutal editing session I had last week. No, not Writer’s Block; this is something totally different. Writer’s Block you suffer from. Writer’s Wall you crash into.

We’ll come back to it next time, once the bruises fade a little.

It’s a happy week and I’m in the mood to focus on something positive and Writer’s Wall, dear friends, is not something positive. Therefore, I'm calling an audible.

So this week I came across Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats' Twitter feed. On it, she has listed out, one post at a time, Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, as you might have guessed from my title. Probably not Official in the sense that these rule are laid out in some company policy manual somewhere, but there is wonderfully sound advice here that is definitely applicable to us hopeful scribes. If there is anything Pixar gets right, it's a great story.

Here Emma is in all her 140 character glory:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on—it'll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

And lastly, just to keep with the Pixar/quality of storytelling theme, here's a link to Kelly Flynn, my wife's cousin (and recent Ringling College of Art + Design graduate) with her amazing thesis film STONE COLD. The storytelling is brilliantly done and follows every rule above, hitting all the right notes (though she does not work for Pixar). I dare you not to smile.

Stephen L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, the first book in The Revelation Saga, due in 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and on Twitter.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Getting Up To Speed

by Lucy Marsden

As a general rule, I write slowly.

This isn't entirely a bad thing; it tends to mean that what ends up on the page in terms of dialogue, action, and emotion pretty closely represents the eventual end-product, and that I can look forward to some actual fun during revisions.

If I ever bloody get there, that is.

So although I've accepted what is probably an innate tendency in my writing process, I am currently experimenting with approaches to increase the pace of my writing. I don't expect to become a speed-demon at the keyboard, but I do want to learn how to get my characters and my story on the page solidly in a first draft, and in a time-frame less reminiscent of a geological ice-age.

Here, in no particular order, is what I've discovered so far about pacing my writing:

1. I need to write every day, if I possibly can.

This isn't always do-able, but when it is, it helps hugely in maintaining the momentum of my writing. It takes a lot for me to finally get to the place where the outside world and my own internal flanneling fall away enough for me to really feel and hear my characters. It's at this point that I notice my writing begins to flow, and I know now that I'm able to re-establish that connection more quickly when I'm writing every day.

2. I need to allow myself to focus on dialogue first.

Dialogue is, apparently, how I lay down the bones of my characters and my story, and I know I'm lucky in that respect. But even if I gravitated to writing setting first, I've still learned that it would be in the best interests of my writing to honor this urge and start getting the story DOWN.

3. I need to trust that the other story elements CAN be addressed in the next draft. Really, they can.

This is a biggie. I'm a Craft wonk, and so I have an internal editor from Hell. She'd be an absolute peach if she'd just go hang out at a Starbucks somewhere with somebody else's book until I'm ready for revisions, but she worries about me so. Left to my own devices, she's pretty sure that I'm not going to be able to fully flesh out my scenes, and articulate every nuance of my characters if I don't do it RIGHT NOW. Frankly, I am still figuring out how to get enough on the page so that she's reassured, while keeping the story moving smartly forward. It helps that I've got a CP whose first drafts are also mostly dialogue, whose writing pace is healthy, and who I observe going back to add critical layers in later drafts. If other writers do this successfully, then I can trust myself to do it, too.

What have you folks found helpful in terms of pacing and productivity? How do you keep you internal editor at bay long enough to get your story delivered?

Lucy Marsden is a romance writer living in New England. When she’s not backstage at a magic show or crashing a physics picnic, she can be found knee-deep in the occult collection of some old library, or arguing hotly about Story.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Editorial Phone Call

by Mindy McGinnis

It's one of the days I've been living my life for, when the phone rings and it's an editor at Harper Collins, calling to talk over the edit letter I received earlier in the week. I am thrilled. In fact, I still get a little roll in my tummy when I get emails from my agent, I'm that new to the game.  So why can't I drum up a ton of enthusiasm and let my editor know how happy I am?

Because I have laryngitis, a double ear infection, and it's possible I may doze off in the middle of the conversation.

My life has always been this way, the huge moments are overshadowed by the mundane. So when I realized I was incapable of pitching my voice normally, I went ahead and dropped it an octave. I was operating right around Marlboro Man levels when my editor called and said, "Uh, Mindy?"

Yes, it's me. Although I sound like a generation-older male version of me. My editor is a humane person, and she offered to reschedule, which nearly sent me into paroxysms. The idea that an editor at Harper Collins was willing to rework her afternoon schedule because I had a sore throat was ... kind of unreal.

I guess it shouldn't have come as a surprise. I've learned over the course of the past year that my agent is a real human being, so why shouldn't my editor be as well? Maybe it's because the only real image of an editor that I have in my head is of Jack Warden as Mr. Tarkanian from The Great Muppet Caper. I picture doors slamming and employees hanging from the ceiling lights, trembling in fear.

It's easy to forget when you're in the trenches of querying, or the self-questioning hell of whether you're cut out for this gig or not, that agents and editors are real people. Yes, they are. Even the ones at the Big Six houses, my friends. I talked out my edit letter with my editor and never once felt like I had put my foot in it, screwed the pooch, or bought the farm.

After running a few ideas past her to air for an opinion her final word was, "You know your world, and I trust you to write it."

And that was music to my infected eardrums.


Mindy McGinnis is a school librarian and author whose debut Not a Drop to Drink is coming Fall 2013 from Katherine Tegen Books. She also wields a mean editing hatchet. When she's not avoiding writing her own bio, you can find her at her blog and on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Your Writing Repertoire: The Long and Short of It

by J. Lea Lopez

Most of us probably started off writing short stories, either on our own or as class assignments as kids. Some may still write short stories for our own enjoyment, or maybe to sell to magazines or for contests. But short stories are sort of the red-headed stepchild to the novelist, aren't they? Agents don't generally rep short story collections. They aren't the most lucrative market. (If you are looking for places to publish short stories, Duotrope is a great place to search.) I'm here to tell you that short stories may be more beneficial to you as a novelist than you think.

By now we all know that the digital side of publishing is a huge part of the market and that it's easier now than ever to put together your own eBook. Self-publishing is well within reach for all of us. (Agented authors with book deals may need to check with their publishers and read the fine print of their contracts before self-publishing anything, to avoid any fiasco like this one.) Any of us can self-publish a few singles, or a collection of short stories. This makes the short story a relatively quick and easy tool in your arsenal. Here are a few ways to use short stories to your advantage.


Are you an indie or self-publisher about to release your first novel? You've written a great book, have a nice cover, have carefully crafted your short blurb and product description, have been working on your social media presence and building a following, and have decided on a price you feel is both competitive and fair to you as the writer. But you might still be worried about how to better entice readers to buy your book–the one by an author they've never heard of—instead of, or in addition to, the latest release by one of their favorite, well-known authors. Readers can certainly "look inside" on Amazon and sample some of your writing that way. Or you could offer a little something else.

Our own Pete Morin took this approach before the release of his novel, Diary of a Small Fish. The month before he published Fish he released a free short story on Smashwords. I plan on using this same approach when I self-publish my first novel late this summer. A free short story or collection of shorts gives potential readers a way to read something of yours, from start to finish, and get a feel for whether they'd like to read more. Hopefully the answer is yes! And once they know you can satisfy their imaginations through an entire story arc, they won't be as hesitant to spend money on your novel. You're no longer an unknown to them. Some authors will offer the first book of a series for free, then charge for the rest, banking on this same theory that the free book will lead to more sales for the others. If, like me, you aren't writing a series, consider writing a short story or two to offer for free.

Between Books in a Series

YA author Elana Johnson's debut novel, Possession, was published in June of 2011. The sequel, Surrender, was released yesterday. During the year between the two books, Elana released two shorter stories related to the series. The first was an exclusive short story, available as a free download through her website, and the second was what she calls a "bridge story," which is an eBook exclusive. Both of these were her own ideas that she executed with her publisher's support. She explained to me via Twitter
The first one (Insider Information) was my idea. We needed their permission to use butterflies and ice on the cover. They liked what I was doing, and so we (me and agent) pitched the idea of a "bridge story" to them. They ran with that, and produced the second story (REGRET). So one is free (my self-pubbed one) and one is $1.99.
It's hard to tell for sure, but she believes "it seems to have worked a bit" in terms of keeping readers interested in the series and keeping up the excitement prior to the release of the second book. Elana shows that using short stories to renew and sustain interest in a series isn't for self-publishers alone. You can make it work with traditional publishing as well.

Bonus Material

Do you ever watch the deleted scenes or alternate endings from movies when you get the DVD? I do, when it's a movie I really enjoyed. Have you ever read a book and wanted to read more about the character's lives after the book was finished? Maybe you wanted to know more about some of their back story, stuff that wasn't really related to the novel itself. Or maybe you wondered how it would've turned out if a character had made this choice instead of that one.

You've wondered about it with books you've read. So why don't you write it for your own books?

If you've gotten good feedback that readers love your characters and your story, it's not too far-fetched to think they might enjoy some bonus material. Maybe you had to delete some scenes you liked but that didn't suit the novel for whatever reason. Or perhaps you've been dying to write an alternate ending. Or a short story about one of your characters as a child. There are a lot of possibilities there. If you're self-publishing, there's really no limit to what you can do. If you have a contract with a publisher, you'll need to work out what you can and can't do on your own, and what they would or wouldn't be willing to work with you on.

You may be a novelist, but don't discount the value short stories could add to your career. They can help you entice readers if you're relatively unknown, sustain the enthusiasm for your writing and characters between releases, and help you continue to satisfy readers even after they reach THE END.

Have you used short stories to complement your novels in these, or other, ways? Do you have any tips for others looking to use this technique?

J. Lea Lopez is a writer with a penchant for jello and a loathing for writing bios. Find her on Twitter or her blog, Jello World. She has had some short stories published, most recently in the Spring Fevers anthology.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Trends and Should You?

By Calista Taylor

I think we've all been there—you hear a certain genre or type of story/character is selling, so you debate whether or not you jump on the trend. It's hard to resist when you hear agents are all looking for a certain thing, and you know writing it could increase your odds of getting published. But should you?

Many say that by the time you're done writing to a trend, it'll likely have passed, or you'll just be one of many who had the same idea. Or that if it's not really a genre you know and love, then you likely won't do a good job at writing it. Honestly, I think both these points have merit.

So when should you jump on a trend and try your luck? I do believe that there are times when you can ride the wave, but the one thing to always remember, is that there's usually more than one wave. If one genre doesn't suit you, then look around. There's almost always something else coming on the horizon that could be a better fit.

Catch the Trend Early!!—There will certainly be times when you can see the wave just starting as a tiny swell, and there's a good chance you can catch a trend before most people take notice. It can be hard to do, especially if you're looking at books that have already sold and are doing well, since it can easily take up to two years to go from querying to getting a book published. By the time a book is a success, most publishers have moved on to what they think will be the next "big thing". An alternative is to self publish, since you can have the book out and in the hands of readers, as soon as you can write and edit your manuscript. Some indies will also have shorter lead times to publishing.

Should you?—The most important question is should you write a genre just because it's gaining popularity? If it is not a genre you read or write (or even like in some cases), then chances are you likely won't be successful at it. But if you're still determined, make sure to do your research—and by this I mean read the genre extensively. Also, try and find an alternative genre or sub-genre that might suit you better. Can you make use of a trend but carry it over to a genre you DO write?

Keep it Fresh—If your story is fresh and different, then it will stand out whether you're writing to a trend or not.

Have you tried writing to a trend? Were you successful?

Calista Taylor is a romance writer and crafter when she's not making book covers or growing things in a bioreactor.

Friday, June 1, 2012

5 Reasons Why Writers Love Writers

by Jean Oram

In April, here on From the Write Angle, I shared some ways in which writers may not be showing each other the love (15 Reasons Other Writers Aren't Showing Your The Love--pet peeves) and ways to remedy that. While collecting pet peeves from other writers, I had a request to also share what we love about other writers.

There are many reasons to love other writers (12 of them are listed here), but for me, one of the main reasons is humanity. At the end of the day, we are just humans needing that connection and understanding. And by hanging out with other writers we receive that understanding, support, and vital connections.

Today's post is about sharing the love so get ready for the warm and fuzzies, because here it comes….

5 12 Reasons Writers Share the Love With Other Writers

1. Writers are a Generous Lot

Where else in the world would someone consistently take time off their own work or from their precious "passion" (i.e. writing) time to help others improve themselves (i.e critique)? Writers have a generosity in their hearts that causes them to reach out and help others who have been struck by the same passion.

And their blog contests… man, some writers spend a lot of money on prizes. (Why? 'Cause they love you, baby!)

How can you get in on the love? Share. Be generous with your time. Use 5-10% of your writing time to give back to other writers and be amazed at what happens!

2. Writers are Supportive

I can't count the number of times I've had other writers pull me up, dust me off, pat me on the back before pulling me back into the fray with an encouraging smile. I've never met such a supportive group. They even help each other publicize each other's books and of course buy a copy at full price when it is released. They even give each other glowing reviews.

How can you get in on the love? Find yourself a posse of writer friends possibly via #1 above. Support others and they will return in kind.

3. Writers Don't Get All Competitive, They Collaborate

Writers collaborate in an amazing number of ways. They critique each other's work, share information in their writing groups (online and off), help with cover designs and recommendations, shoot off contest information to each other, share hot agent information and the best way to approach them, etc.

Writers are an awesome group, but I mean, honestly. Who in their right mind shares awesome tidbits of information with their mega awesome writer friends who are also their competition? Yet we always make room for each other knowing that there is room for us all if we are good, good, good. (Sure, we may occasionally get a little green around the gills or hold off a day or two before sharing precious, hot, insider info with our friends--but not very often!)

We are in it for the good, and in it for the bad.

How can you get in on the love? Join a writers group. Collaborate, share, and suddenly, you will be someone in the know, who is lovely, helpful and suddenly getting a ton of love. (Can't say I didn't warn you.)

4. Writers are Imaginative, Passionate People Who "Get it"

I'm used to stumbling around the neighbourhood in my own little world. You know the song, "One of these things is not like the other." Yeah, that's me. So finding a group of people (through online writing groups) who think an adverb joke is funny, read like it is the key to their very existence, and are like, "Hell yeah!" when asked if a story about a kid ghost getting stuck in a wall might be cool, is like finding a personal piece of the good world here on earth.

How can you get in on the love? Hang out with other writers. You may find them in your family, in your local community, or hiding out online. Wherever you find them, connect. Laugh. Enjoy.

5. BONUS ROUND! Let's Hear it From Other Writers on Why Writers Rock!

(By the way, all of these kind writers shared their love and offered me these quotes to use when I posted a request over on the online writer's community AgentQuery Connect. That's right, they are sharing the love! Thanks, guys!)

SC_Author: Their kindness, their passion, and above all, their company when things get too dark.

Rick Pieters: The many voices from many places offering help and camaraderie, support and direction in a turbulent, ever-changing sea, recognizing that, no matter their level, they (we) are in the ark together. And some wicked good humor.

Caterina Torres: What I love about other writers is their passion to do what they love and making new friendships with people who like to talk about the same things I do.

Stephanie Diaz: I love their quirkiness and willingness to pour their soul into words.

Jeanne: The emotional support. Their passion for what they do despite mind-numbing rejections and disappointments. I think I admire my fellow writers for their ability to get up from the mat over and over again to play another match. (Is that a bad metaphor?)

Jemi Fraser: Their willingness to help and share their ups & downs openly! :)

Anya Harker: Because other writers know what you're going through -- they've been there. They get the agony of a failed query letter or the annoyances that come when your MC has her own ideas of what should happen next in the plot. They get deadlines: self-imposed or otherwise. More than that, they get the fact that writing is life and life is writing.

Revo: They taste just like chicken?

Now that you have looked at your fellow writers From the Write Angle, who you gonna love? Yeah, that's right. You gonna love those writerly dudes you hang with. But tell me, why do you love other writers? Who's made your day lately?

Jean Oram is a writer who tries to share the love as well as everything she pours into her brain on writing on her blog. She is also trying this whole platform building thing with her nonfiction manuscript at It's All Kid's You can find Jean Pinning, Tweeting, and Facebooking and .