Friday, September 28, 2012

Communicating With Your Editor

by Matt Sinclair

As some of you know, I not only write, I also work as an editor. It's how I make my living. My professional life deals with staff writers and the occasional freelancer--all nonfiction. Plus, as president and chief elephant officer of my publishing company, Elephant's Bookshelf Press, I am responsible for all the editorial and publishing of our (so far) anthologies.

Suffice it to say, I've been dealing with both sides of the editing desk for a long time. I remember an informational interview years ago with a friend's sister who was working at a magazine. This was back when email was new-fangled, the Internet was only making its presence known to the masses, and the World Wide Web didn't exist. The answer to one of the questions I asked during the interview remains in my mind to this day. Although how I phrased the exact question has faded over time, I basically asked what was the most important part of the editorial process. "Communication," she said, without batting an eye.

This summer, I had a few reminders of how important communication is to the partnership of writing. In one of my freelance jobs, I used to deal with a couple editors. This worked out well for me as it often enabled me to have multiples jobs spread out over several weeks. I was in the midst of revising a piece when I received an email from one of the editors, who let me know she was leaving to take another job. In the intervening transition, it turned out some information was lost. One of the pieces I'd been assigned was supposed to be longer than the original assignment. While it wasn't too hard to boost up the word count (and increase the amount on the invoice), it still translated to a bit of wasted time on my part and the editor who took over for the departing editor.

On another project, I was shocked to find what appeared to be a writer who was reluctant to make basic changes to the manuscript. Grammatical basics were emerging as a problem, leading me to wonder if it was a communication problem or something deeper. The copy editor on that assignment kept in regular contact with me about the progress, and things were eventually resolved, but it injected a bit of uncertainty to the editorial process.

The key message I want to convey is that, as solitary as writing might seem, it takes a partnership between writer and editor to deliver the best final product. To be honest, I think the new freedom of self- and independent publishing has left many writers forgetting or disregarding the value of that partnership. What is the most common criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey, for example? It could have used a good editor.

No matter how simple and carefree a scene might appear to the writer, it might confuse the editor, which means it probably would confuse most readers, too. Confusion can creep in from many directions. Whether the issue is about the essence of a story, the editorial process, or even whether your agent likes or dislikes your current manuscript, speak or email with your partner. Try not to assume someone is questioning your abilities as a writer, and if you're confused by the feedback you receive from an editor or agent or other member of your team (again, even self-publishers shouldn't be doing everything "alone"), ask questions.

You'll be glad you did.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which earlier this year published a short story anthology called Spring Fevers, available through Smashwords, Amazon, and in print via CreateSpace. EBP's latest anthology, The Fall, will be released in late October. Both anthologies include stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette; R.C. Lewis and Jean Oram also have stories that will be in The Fall. Matt blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Business Side of the Business Card

by Mindy McGinnis

I've been thinking a lot about swag lately. In fact I have so many thoughts on swag they overflowed out of this post onto another group blog I'm a part of - Book Pregnant. Check out my marketing post over there today and see what I came up with for my neat-o swag item for my debut. NOT A DROP TO DRINK is nearly ready for a cover, so I need to ask myself where I want to put it and what I want to put it on - along with any pertinent links and maybe a picture of my face. And yeah, I totally admit that when it comes time to put my Irish mug on something and ask people to love it, I do start to feel a bit... promotion-y.

But it's not an ugly face, so that helps. From a marketing standpoint, anyway.

Every conference I've ever been to involves the "swag bag." Literally. It's a tote (with author / store / publishing house names printed all over it) that's jam-packed with business cards, bookmarks, postcards, pens, keychains, band-aid dispensers (yes), mints with personalized wrapping, and any other thing the author / pub house could think of to get the average person's attention.

And when it's all in a big fat pile like that, you learn fast what works and what doesn't. Poor quality printing and pixelated jpegs stand out like a sixth finger when we all know there's only supposed to be five.

Yes, business cards are fast, easy and cheap. Yes, pretty much everyone has them. So why do they continue to prevail? Exactly because they are fast, easy and cheap. When I want to direct someone to my blog do I want to just say the name of my blog and hope they remember it? Or take out a pen and scribble on a napkin and hope that 1) my writing is legible and 2) they don't mistake it for trash and throw it away later?

No, I really don't want to do that.

I want to hand them my card with the site on it and my other pertinent social media contacts (Twitter, Facebook, etc). Later they can find the site, bookmark it (or hey - follow me!) and then toss the card. Not a loss to me - I spent .08 on it and I already got my return if they visited the site. And if they couldn't give less of a crap about me or my blog? They throw it away, and that's .08 I'll never see again. Not a huge loss.

Big swag items are fun - printed shirts, hats, totes, teddy bears, underwear (you know I want that for Writer,Writer Pants on Fire, right?), but in the end they're serving the same purpose as the card - drawing attention to me or my blog. And after the person has gone to the blog, they might be thinking, "Well, that's great and all, but now I've got this shirt / hat / underwear I'm never going to wear again..." Yet because they've met you, or perhaps because they are keenly aware that you went that extra mile and spent real money on your swag they feel guilty throwing it away... so they keep it.

And if they're anything like me, they kinda resent the teddy bear with your name on it that they can't quite bring themselves to pitch. I don't really want my name associated with resentment, or even guilt if they do indeed go ahead and toss the stuffed critter.

What are some of the most effective forms of swag you've seen? Do you think swag can have impact without being expensive?
Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, a post-apocalyptic survival tale, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, will be available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins in Fall 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the Thirteeners and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on Twitter & Facebook.

Monday, September 24, 2012

New Visions Writers Award

by J. Lea López

Here at FTWA we don't endorse or promote products, contests, services, etc. because... well, we just don't. We share resources and info that we personally find valuable, and that's generally the only reason we pass along links. However, we were recently contacted by our friends at Lee & Low Books, publishers of children's literature focusing on diversity, about a new award. Since we know they're legit and have such a great reputation in the kid lit world, we felt it was our duty to pass this info along to our readers. About
The New Visions Award, established this year, will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by an author of color. The Award winner will receive a cash grant of $1,000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. The deadline this year to submit manuscripts will be October 30, 2012.

We strive to give authors of color the chance to have their voices heard, so we are very excited to share this amazing opportunity for aspiring YA authors to break into publishing. The New Visions Award is modeled after our New Voices Award for picture books, which was established in 2000 and has led to the publication of many respected authors including Zetta Elliott, Don Tate, and Paula Yoo.
The award is for unpublished, unagented manuscripts in the genres listed above. For complete eligibility requirements and submission guidelines, please visit their web page.

And by all means, if you enter and win, let us know!

J. Lea López 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.

Friday, September 21, 2012

5 Easy Ways to Increase Your Blog's SEO for Writers

by Jean Oram

You may have heard the inspiring story behind our very own Calista Taylor's recently released Steampunk Your Wardrobe book. If not, the short version is she landed an agent because of her niche-focused blog about steampunk. Her agent, in turn, landed her a book deal within weeks.

When you read something like that you may have that completely natural reaction of "Why not me?"

I agree. Why not you as well?

Today I'm going to share some of the SEO tips I've learned in past few months so when folks Google brilliance it isn't someone else's that hits that first page of results--it'll be yours. But before we do, I need to you to pull out your honking, snorting laugh and pull your pants up a little higher. And if you wear glasses, you're going to need to tape them. That's right, we're getting our geek on.

First of all…

What Does SEO Stand For, What is SEO, and Why Does SEO Matter?

A lot of good questions in that heading. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. In other words, the little things you do when you blog or create a website so search engines can easily recognize your site and what it is about. This then helps increase your visibility and allows you to slowly work your way up to the first page of search results. Because honestly, how often does the average Joe sift deeper than the first page of results? (Not that often.)

SEO considers how search engines work, what people search for, the actual search terms or keywords typed into search engines and which search engines are preferred by their targeted audience.

Well said, Wikipedia.

Here are five easy tips that you can start using right away. Do note that if you are starting a brand new blog (or website) these things will reap you immediate rewards if used well and you remain consistent. (I’ve tested it.) If you have a long-standing blog that hasn't made the best use of SEO in the past, you may find it takes longer for this stuff to create an impact. (You have a pile of non-SEOized content diluting the SEOized stuff. And yeah, I tested that as well.)

1. Search Engines Love Fresh Content

The more you post on your blog, the more Google and other search engines crawl your site. The more they crawl, the more likely they are to find all your content and horde it in their little brains, bumping you up in their rankings, and bringing you closer to the first page of search engine results. There is a diminishing rate of returns though—and if you make use of the next few tips, fresh content isn’t going to make or break your blog.

So quit hyperventilating already. I promised easy.

2. Niche Content and SEO

Niche content has typically less competition. Usually, there are fewer searches conducted because it is a niche topic, however, the folks who do search out your niche are those who are interested. And interested readers typically spend longer on your site which leads to another bump up in your rankings.

So while it may seem smart to plaster your chick lit blog with “romance” and "fiction" and "book" keywords, be sure you keep honing down to your niche as well. Focus, focus, focus. It's okay if you spread out and talk about other things, but always bring it back to your niche. In other words, make every post about your niche--somehow. (And your niche can't simply be "writing" if you want to be anywhere near the first 20 pages in a search result.)

3. Keywords Increase Your SEO

Probably the biggest thing you can do for your blog or site relates to niche keywords. Find them. Use them. But don't abuse them. Your posts will read funny if you overuse keywords AND search engines will penalize you. 3-4 times in the body of a post for one keyword or keyword phrase is generally plenty. (If you want more info on where to use keywords for the best use of search engine optimization, I’ll run a post on my personal writing blog today as this post is already getting pretty long.)

Tip on finding the right keywords: Use Google's Keyword Tool (and if you use WordPress, use it in combination with Yoast’s SEO plugin—it rocks). Using Google’s Keyword Tool you can find the variations of keywords (and keyword phrases) people use when searching online as well as what the competition level is along with the number of searches conducted on Google per month.

Using Google's Keyword Tool for SEO: A screenshot
"Chick Lit Fiction" has low competition, but you know if folks are searching for this they are that audience. The number of monthly searches is rather low so this is a keyword phrase that you would want to use in conjunction with others.
Screenshot of Google's Keyword Tool for Romance Fiction
With this search you can see that "romance fiction"--a slightly larger niche than "chick lit fiction" still scores low for competition but has significantly more monthly searches on Google.

If you look at the screen shots, both "romance fiction" and "chick lit fiction" are low in terms of competition. That's good.

If you pop "SEO optimization" (redundant on the ‘optimization’, I know—but this is actually a very common search (Important tip: Use the keywords people actually use--not ones you think they should use)) into the tool you will find you have the same number of global monthly searches as "romance novels." (Not shown here.) However the competition is HIGH, not LOW for those 550,000 monthly searches. Low competition is GOOD. Good thing we aren't in the sharing SEO optimization tips business, eh?

Note: You’ll probably notice that there are fewer searches for your niche (eg: chick lit) than your main topic (eg. romance). This is good. Remember: These are the specific readers you want. And, of course, try to use both keywords to hit both bases!

4. Keywords in your URL for Greater SEO

Both Blogger and WordPress allow you to tweak your post’s slug (permalink). A slug is that unique bit of URL tacked on at the end of your site’s URL that correlates to a specific post or page. This is where you can cut extraneous words (such as: the, and, for) that mess up your SEO. Search engines look everywhere!

Example: You will notice this post's title is: 5 Easy Ways to Increase Your Blog's SEO for Writers. The slug/permalink is: tips-to-increase-blog-seo.html Notice the different keyword phrases I hit: "Increase your blog's SEO" and "SEO for writers" and "tips to increase blog SEO" as well as "increase blog SEO." I won't kid myself about hitting the first page of search results, but this will increase the likelihood that maybe it will pop up in someone's results. Someday. Maybe. (Remember the competition is high for this topic.)

5. Links In Increase Your SEO

The more people linking to your blog whether on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, their own blog, blog rolls, or even in blog comments, the better. The more places that link to you, the more search engines say, "This stuff must be good, bump up their ranking." (Especially if the sites linking to you have high rankings.) So get your blog out there. When you leave comments on other people's blog, use the URL feature when you can. And try to link to the same URL every time--don't vary it.

Wow. That was a lot of info on SEO tips for you, my writing, blogging friends. I hope they help you out--and don't stress out about tip #1, okay? If you follow 2-5 you'll do just fine. And if you are looking for more ways to use keywords as well as find out what photos and videos can do for your blog’s SEO, be sure to pop over to my blog where I’ll share more SEO tips today.

So now that you've looked at your blog and its SEO from the write angle, what do you think? Are there some things you can do to increase your SEO? Have questions? Pop them in the comment section.

Jean Oram is a bit of a geek and has spent the week debating the payoffs of market share vs. SEO with her father--seriously one of the first guys to blog--ever. She likes to blog on her poorly optimized writing blog (she may work on that when she has time) as well as tweet, facebook, and some other stuff. If you aren't following her, you should. She shares good stuff you could easily use.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mind the Gap

by Stephen L. Duncan

One of the nice things about landing a book deal is that you’ll be afforded some time to bask in all the glory and excitement that has built up during the grudge of getting the darn thing published. Usually, it's enough time to foster a healthy and inevitably debilitating fear of your book being ‘Out There.' But it's also a good time to prepare for the madness of your book's release and your debut as an Author.

For me, that stretch of time is two years from contract to publication.

Did I hear a penny hit the floor somewhere out there? (BTW - where did that phrase come from? The penny dropped? Well, then, pick it up.)

So after you tell all the people that two years ago you drunkenly let in on your dirty, little book-writing secret (the same ones who, every day since, have been asking with only the hint of Schadenfreude, “Hey – what’s going on with your book?”) and once you’ve had a moment to reflect on what any of it means in the metaphorical sense, you might find that the days between contract and publication dwindle down both at a molasses creep and faster than Mario Andretti in a cocaine-powered Ferrari.

Slow because, TWO YEARS! And quick because if you’re like me, you’ll procrastinate during all of them, wake up on the eve of publication and realize you haven’t done squadoosh to prepare yourself for authordom.

A Lesson: Don’t be like me. There is a lot to do.

So what all needs to get done?  I’ll throw out a little of what I know. My agency, Dystel & Goderich, sent me a nice little ‘How To’ booklet on things that are helpful. Let’s discuss some of what I’ve ventured into.


Right. So, Facebook, Twitter, that Google thingy, Pinterest and tumblr. Those are the main ones, right? Am I missing any? I’ve opted into Facebook and Twitter with personal accounts. One of the stupid things I’ve managed to do is not open author accounts for both earlier in my quest for publication. Now, most of my friends and followers are following the wrong account. Another idiot move? I’m on the fence with my author name. I’m thinking about using S. L. Duncan to separate my legal career from my author career.

Some more advice: think ahead.

Pinterest and tumlr are both media-oriented social platforms. Lot’s of pictures, see? Videos, too! I haven’t figured out a decent way to incorporate either in a way that would draw attention to my books (Read: The Whole Point), but I can see them being very effective if my stories were more subject matter oriented. Like, if I had a book that was about pretzels, I might showcase the different knot styles. Like a Windsor. I think they do that. Or whatever. You get the point.


I started a blog and have failed miserably at keeping it up. But – TWO YEARS, right? I’ve got plenty of time. Still, it’s never too early to get a following. But what to write about? The old stand-by is the process of getting published. That’s cool, I suppose. The thing is, there are loads of authors with really good publishing blogs. What if I blogged about me? Boooooring. I’m not interesting for another two years. And even then…snooze.

Industry stuff? This is good, too, but again – lot’s of people are out there doing it and doing it well. L.L. Cool J style, I guess. And really, unless you’re in a position to be an actual journalist, you’re kinda just reposting stories from Galley Cat and Publishers Weekly.

Have you got any good ideas? I’m hovering somewhere around a behind-the-scenes blog and the author’s life.

If you can, jump into one of these Author Commune type blogs, like From the Write Angle. It’s a great way to connect with other writers (and their followers) and the Kool-Aid is FANTASTIC! Matching Nikes, too! Another popular trend is to start is a debut blog with authors who are releasing their book in the same year. Because everyone knows 2014 authors are better than 2013 authors. Oh, snap. Come at me, bro!


If you’ve got nerd skills, use ‘em. I, on the other hand (and being a mere lowly dork), have trouble plugging electronic things into power sockets. A website, for me, is going to cost. Luckily, publishing houses like to shower their new authors with some spare scratch to pay for it all. Oh, wait. They don’t .

What I have done, while waiting to win a website from an unsuspecting digitally competent friend in a hand of Texas Cheat’em, is minimal but important. I’ve reserved website names.  See what I did there? All bags covered. As for character names - I’ll leave that to the publishing house’s prerogative.


Conferences. Writer conferences are good for meeting people and glad-handing. You might even grab a few readers. If your genre allows for it, comic book or fantasy conventions are very good ways to get your name out there.  There are big conferences and little ones. I’ve managed to squeeze into a panel or two at a local regional. You’d be surprised at the popularity of the literature tracks.

Right. So, what am I missing to get done during the gap years? (TWO YEARS!!!) Any ideas?

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, September 17, 2012

My Book Has Issues

by Riley Redgate

Once upon a time, there was an author who cared immensely about the world around her. She spent massive amounts of time studying societal problems and potential solutions for those problems.

One day, she thought to herself, Ah-ha! I've got it! I will write a book based on the damaging nature of the patriarchy! It will be set in high school, and every high schooler who finishes it will be five times more knowledgeable about feminism than they were when they started. It will be perfect.

The book was terrible.

The end.

Sorry, that was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Really, though - I feel like everyone I've spoken to has read That One Book that feels like this, has read That One Novel that seems crafted only to Teach The Reader a Lesson about Life and Educate Them about Problems of Which They May Previously Have Been Unaware. (Dear God, that capitalization went on far longer than intended. Oops.)

There's a good reason for this, obviously. Issues Books, in my opinion, are infinitely harder to pull off than books that don't involve anything large and societal. After all, unless the readers are completely buried in the character's head, their natural inclination will be to attribute facts set forth in a novel to the author's knowledge, not to the character. If there is a character who's a clear Voice of Wisdom in the book, for example, the reader will see through that character as if they were transparent; the reader will assume the author's using that Voice as a mouthpiece - unless the character is well-crafted enough to be completely opaque.

In other words, Issues Books have to be even more ingrained in their own worlds than regular books. The characters have to be even more set in stone and clearly defined, so that a transgendered or gay character doesn't turn into The Transgendered Character or The Gay Character. The dialogue, above all else, must remain natural and delve only rarely into the realm of sheer explanation. Otherwise it will feel like two people parroting facts at each other. It might even feel like non-fiction, or simply a flimsy attempt at fiction.

Don't get me wrong: I love reading about social issues, and I love that authors are trying to combat ignorance through fiction. I'll be the first to advocate an increase in published works that tackle problems like racism in the modern world, sexism, rape culture, oppression of the underprivileged, etc. - the idea of raising awareness of these problems via a novel is admirable.

But building a novel around an issue rather than plots and characters has only one way to go: downhill. When it comes to fiction, I'm always looking for someone to attach to, rather than something. When we as readers lose the perspective of the individual, with his/her individual motives and problems and objectives, we lose any reason to keep reading the novel as opposed to, say, an article about the issue in question.

Also, I don't know why someone would want to reduce a character to a mouthpiece. Because one of the most powerful abilities of a novel is to personalize large-scale matters. It draws the reader into a state of empathy. Reading about the life of one specific drug addict helps explain drug addiction in general because it provides a vivid example of the lifestyle; reading about one bullied gay teenager shows in one story the cruelty happening in a million instances. Character-based as it is, fiction humanizes what we've never witnessed, or what we don't understand, and to ignore that capability is to disregard the strength and power of fiction itself.

In the end, I don't want to read an Issues Book. I want to read a book, and if it happens to involve Issues, so be it. But first make me care for the characters that populate the world, and for what happens to them. That's where the real strength in the story will lie.

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

Friday, September 14, 2012

Don't Stop Believing

by MarcyKate Connolly

If hope is the thing with feathers, then publishing is the cat that swallows it whole.

Writers face rejection at every single stage of the game, from crit partners and early readers to agents and editors. And even when they’ve surpassed all those hurdles, they still face it from readers. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like you just can’t win. Discouragement can easily tint your rose-colored glasses black.

But hope is important. It fuels our writing and our drive to keep teasing those words out of brains and onto the page. Without hope of success, what’s the point in attempting publication? There's some evidence of a correlation between hope and good health--I like to think there's a connection between hope and publishing success, too. Often the ones who make it are the ones who refuse to give up.

So sometimes, when the rejections seem to be piling up everywhere we look, we need to step back and recharge that hope. Everyone is different of course, but these are a few things that have always helped me keep hope alive:

1) Read about and cheer for other people’s success. Peruse the QueryTracker success stories for the most difficult journeys. If they can do it, why not you, too?

2) Join a critique group or writing community.  Might I suggest The non-writers in our lives can't fully understand the highs and lows of this business, no matter how hard they try. But others writers will. Just knowing you’re not alone can go a long way to lifting you out of the pits of despair. For me, finding like-minded writers to commiserate with along the journey has been critical factor in keeping me sane.

3) Write the next book. It’s never fun to think the book you love and are sending out to agents and editors right now won’t be The One. But getting excited about a new story and knowing that it will be there even if the active project doesn’t pan out is one of the best ways I've found to keep myself going.

4) Do something completely different. Go for a walk. Go to the museum. Spend the night with your best friends eating ice cream and laughing. Pursue those other hobbies that you love and that inspire you. Refreshing yourself can bring new ideas (and a better outlook) to your writing.

Got tips for staying hopeful? Share them 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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

3 Great Hashtags for Writers

by Jemi Fraser

Many writers have Twitter accounts and we use those accounts for all kinds of reasons. Calista Taylor did a great Twitter 101 post a while back.

Today, I thought I'd focus on 3 Twitter hashtags I find fun and useful.

1. #askagent

There are a LOT of agents and editors on Twitter and they often have impromptu chats under the #askagent hashtag. There are some variations on the theme (#askyaagent, #askeditor) as well. The #askagent chats aren't scheduled and the agents, editors and other publishing people who attend them vary. I keep an #askagent column open on Tweetdeck so I can catch the ones that happen when I'm available too. Sometimes there are rules about what not to ask ('trends' & 'what are you looking for?' come to mind), but generally it's an open chat. Another rule (and good manners) is to never pitch an agent or editor during a chat (or any time that is not a contest). I've learned a LOT from lurking and participating in these chats.

2. #editortips

Adrien-Luc Sanders is an editor at Entangled Publishing and he runs this hashtag. Many week nights at 7:00 p.m. EST he will post several editing tips. As an added bonus, he's hilarious. His Twitter handle is @smoulderingsea if you want to follow him (which I'd highly recommend). I keep this as an open column on my Tweetdeck too.

3. #amwriting

A lot of writers use this hashtag to connect with other writers. It's not a chat or an advice column, more of a communal meeting place for writers to chat, vent, share, ask for help/advice, and have some fun. Johanna Harness (@johannaharness) created the hashtag and the website that goes with it.

I'll do another post on other hashtags one day. Any ones you use regularly you'd like me to include? Do you use any of the three I've mentioned?

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

Monday, September 10, 2012

No Talking Heads

by Lucy Marsden

Talking Head Syndrome.

It's a thing that I notice when I and other writers are bolting through a story, particularly if it's our style to do early drafts mostly in dialogue. It's line after line of conversation, with enough "said" in the mix so that we can tell which character is speaking, but too few of the action tags, facial expressions, tone of voice indicators, and internal dialogue tags necessary to convey the full impact of the words being spoken. In her fantastic Romance Writers of America presentation, Dialogue: It's More Than What You Say, author Julia Quinn puts it like this: "The first thing to remember, is that dialogue has two parts. There is the part between the quotation marks, or WHAT IS SAID, and there is the part outside the quotation marks, or HOW IT IS SAID."

We need both parts in order to really bring our dialogue home, so today's post is going to (briefly) touch on the tools we writers have at our disposal when crafting the "how" of dialogue.

I know the word is out on this one, but let me repeat it here for emphasis: Using the tagline "said"—rather than forcing our characters to squeak, mumble, hiss, or shout—is perfectly OK. In fact, it's generally preferable, since we know that readers don't "see" the tagline, and it makes for a smooth experience of reading dialogue.

Other Utterances
This isn't to say that characters should never squeak, mumble, hiss, or shout; these tags can add a lot of fun and flavor to our dialogue when used judiciously.

Ditto. If someone delivers a verbal stiletto sweetly, or answers cautiously, these are valid, useful ways to deliver the impact of the dialogue, as long as they aren't overdone. Overuse of adverbs can contribute to "telling" rather than "showing," but they're still nice to have in our toolbox. To reference Julia Quinn one more time: "Adverbs are not your friends, but there is no reason they can't be your casual acquaintances."

Action Tags and Body Language
Action tags are fantastic: they really help us to show, not tell. And if it's true that communication is mostly non-verbal, then it's doubly important for us to provide details about facial expressions, whether a character's posture is tense or relaxed, and the rate of someone's breathing.

Tone of Voice
Once it a while, is it as dry as the Sahara? Oily enough to lubricate a hinge? Excellent! Then this is one more way of delivering impact that also utilizes sensory input and our enjoyment of simile and metaphor—a bargain if there ever was one.

And Lastly, Internal Dialogue
When what we say out loud is juxtaposed with what we're thinking in the privacy of our heads, it's wonderful, so we shouldn't miss out on this opportunity to add a touch of irony and a splash of humor by utilizing internal dialogue as a counterpoint for what is spoken.

So there we have it. I want to wrap up this post by acknowledging that each writer will use these tools differently. The choices we make will be a reflection of our voices as writers, a reflection of the voices of our characters, and a reflection of the feel of a particular story. More important than any one approach to using these tools, is a growing sense of awareness of how these techniques work, and an increasing sense of confidence that we can employ them to create the results that we want. Please stop in and talk about the choices you make when writing dialogue—the tools you're comfortable using, and the tools you'd forgotten existed.

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, September 7, 2012

Know What You Want, But Leave Room for the Unexpected

by R.C. Lewis

We writers face a lot of choices. First person or third? Past tense or present? Happy tied-up ending or gut-wrenching cliffhanger? Sympathetic antagonist or irksome-but-fascinating protagonist (or both)?

And that's just the writing part.

Once the writing (and polishing) is done, what do we do? Query agents in the hope of signing with a large publisher? Submit to smaller publishers on our own? Dive straight into self-publishing?

So many choices. Pros and cons for each. Well-meaning people trying to pull us in either direction. It's enough to drive us around the bend, like we're not crazy enough as it is.

It certainly came close to breaking my brain. I had people ask why I was still toiling in the query trenches when I was in a pretty decent position to e-publish. I came close so many times, but kept saying to myself, "Just one more manuscript. I'll try querying just one more. Well, one more after that."

Looking back, I'm happy with my decisions and how they're working out. At the time, however, I frequently wondered if I was an idiot. If I was blind to the possibilities, getting too stuck on one path. But deep-down, I knew I wasn't. As I queried, I actively made plans. Not so much a Plan B as an alternate route.

I educated myself about the traditional publishing industry and the burgeoning world of self-publishing. I worked on strengthening skills I would need in either case. In the end, that helped me hold onto my sanity and my hope.

So here's what I think. We need to know what we want. I want to reach teen readers, and that's a big part of why I stuck with querying agents. At the same time, we have to be ready for unexpected opportunities.

Maybe we're set on traditional publishing, but something comes up that enables self-publishing to achieve certain goals we have.

Maybe we're set on going it alone, but a traditional opportunity arises.

Maybe we're set on one type of agent or publisher, but we get multiple offers and have to rethink our options. (A situation that manages to be simultaneously awesome and awful.)

In an age with so many options and opportunities, I think we need to be more careful than ever about words like "never" and "only." At the same time, we need to do lots of homework to ensure we make informed decisions.

Are you set on a solid course? Flailing in the face of too many choices? What key "musts" give you direction as you navigate through your writing career?

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, September 5, 2012

Why Does It Take So Long To Publish A Book, Anyway?

by Mindy McGinnis

Delivering that first book into the world is a lot like waiting for the baby to drop. You're tired, you're stressed out, and you're really, really sick of people asking you when it's going to happen.

Unfortunately, the gestational period for a book tends to be longer than nine months for most of us. In my case, Not a Drop to Drink won't be released until nearly two years after I signed my contract. Why?

Good question. There's actually a good answer.

Large houses plan their publishing lists far in advance. Smaller houses have a quicker turnaround time, so the gestational period of a book can vary widely house to house. Beyond that factor though, there's the step-by-step process that the author and editor go through, typically about a year in advance of publication date.

Revisions: This is a large-scale, big-picture, here-are-some-things-to-think-about letter from your editor, typically called the "edit letter." In my experience the revision involved a hard look at the timeline of the plot, getting certain plot-accelerating events to occur earlier in the narrative, and a restructuring of the first fifty or so pages came hand in hand with that. Other considerations at this stage are overall theme, narrative style, character development, etc. Your edit letter can be anywhere from 4-20 pages long, and the editor usually gives the author a fairly large time frame to work in, sometimes as long as six months. Also, once you do one revision, you're not necessarily done. Sometimes the author will go through several revisions.

Line Edits: Once the big picture is in a place the editor and author are both happy with, you move on to line edits. This is where the editor looks hard at details like lines of dialogue that don't necessarily ring true, little inconsistencies that weren't necessarily caught when doing revisions, and maybe even looking at scene and chapter breaks for better locations. Again, authors and editors usually go through more than one line edit, with a nice window of a few weeks.

Copy Edits: Now the book moves into the hands of the copyeditor, who checks for continuity—was your character wearing a red shirt at the beginning of the scene, but walked out of it wearing a blue one?—punctuation, spelling errors that slip by (a "he" when it needs to be "the"), sneaky homonyms (their, there, they're), and other little things that smart readers are going to catch. Copy editors are angels with red pens and sharp minds.

(Keep in mind not all houses go through the editing process in the same way. Some editors like to do line edits hand-in-hand with revisions. It varies.)

At this point the author might feel very much like a soon-to-be-mother hauling ass towards the finish line. We're ready for this to happen. We're ready to make the delivery. Please, I'm quite sick of gestating this thing in my (mind / uterus).

But ... too bad. You still have to go through first pass pages, the awesome fun of cover art (a process in and of itself) and marketing, finding authors (hopefully of your dreams) to blurb your book. The good news is that you're not in it alone. Much like giving birth, there are plenty of people who have been doing this for a long time, and they're here to walk you through this intimidating process.

I've only highlighted the first three phases of the editing process here, as I'm only that far myself. I don't feel qualified to speak further. But, as you can see my book is still only on the beginning of the road to publication, and I'm a year out.

I'm looking forward to the next year, the next phase. Seeing my cover develop through the fantastic art department over at Katherine Tegen is going to be a thrill, and all my debut author friends say holding their first pass pages in their hands and seeing their book—looking like a book!—is the WHAM! moment for them that really punches home that they're going to be an author.

I can't wait to feel like one too. :)

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut dystopian, Not a Drop to Drink, will be available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins Fall, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.