Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NaNoWriMo Survival Guide

By MarcyKate Connolly

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Yes, November is almost here and that means it’s time to sharpen your pencils, break out a new batch of pens, and clean the crumbs off your keyboard for National Novel Writing Month!

Even if you’re not participating, you may recognize the signs. Do you know someone who:

  • has abnormally large dark circles under their eyes?
  • mutters about motivations?
  • whispers about plots?
  • grumbles about the voices?
  • furtively writes notes to his/herself?

Then you may know a NaNoWriMo-er. But don’t panic. Come December, it will pass, I promise.

If you are participating – good for you! 50,000 words is a long journey, but I’ve got some tips to help you make it through the month alive (and hopefully with all your interpersonal relationships intact).

1. Coffee. Or tea. Or any caffeinated beverage really. Remember that special combination from college that got you through those all-nighters before finals? Well, it’s time to bring out the big guns, baby, because you’re gonna need it!

2. Snacks. And lots of them. You need to write a minimum of 1,667 words per day. You don’t have time to run to the kitchen. You are like a bear hibernating for the winter (albeit, in your office/local cafe/whatever). Be one with the bear. Learn from the bear. Stock up now!

3. More Coffee. Snacks can make you sleepy. Sleep is for the weak. Combat that fatigue with more caffeine.

4. Do Not Get Distracted. By Facebook. Or hilarious Twitter feeds. Or dogs/children/significant others who need attention.

5. Don’t Alienate Everyone. Yes, this contradicts tip #4. But you need someone to bring you meals, don’t you? To refill your water? To cheer on your progress? To celebrate with you when you cross the finish line? Don’t worry, you only need to select one friend or family member to be nice to during the month of November. The rest can wait until December 1st.

6. (You guessed it) Coffee. You may as well attach your coffee maker to an IV drip. That way you don’t have to leave your desk.

So, how do YOU NaNo? Share your secrets for success 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, October 29, 2012

You Might Have a Bad Prologue If ...

by R.C. Lewis

If you lurk around writing/publishing sites or follow such people on Twitter, you'll see a couple (hundred) comments on the evils of prologues. And they can be evil. I used to spend a lot of time on an online slushpile of a site. I've seen a lot of unpublished manuscripts, and I think I only ever saw a handful of prologues where I said, "Oh, yeah. That works. That's a keeper."

People wiser than I have posted on the topic (including FTWA's own Jemi Fraser a few months back), but I never let that stop me. So here's a Jeff Foxworthy-style (but probably not as entertaining) list. Read it over, take a good look at your prologue, and try to be honest about whether it fits any of these criteria.



  • ... you only wrote the prologue because EVERY book in your genre has one. Every single one. Not one out there that doesn't in the whole wide world. Well, except those over there. They don't count.
  • ... you only wrote the prologue because you're completely enamored with the idea of prologues. You love them. The books you worship most and aspire to be like have them, so clearly you must have a prologue so your books can be just like the oh-so-awesome works of [fill in the blank].

  • ... your reader feels like they were walking to an important appointment and got held up by a chatterbox in the hallway who won't let them go until they've heard all about the stapler that keeps disappearing from the copy room. In other words, they feel like they're being held up from the real story. (Even a prologue should feel like part of the 'real' story.)

  • ... your reader feels compelled to take notes on all the names of characters, their vital stats, and how they interrelate, only to find out none of them will show up again in the next 80,000 words.

  • ... your reader learns something through the prologue that the main character is ignorant of until the third-to-last page of the novel, and spends the whole novel screaming, "No, you idiot! He's your FATHER!" (Or equivalent.) Letting the reader be in the know when the MC isn't can be cool. It can also be seriously frustrating. Fine line to tread.

  • ... your reader gets annoyed because they already have a long-winded, boring history teacher, and it's no fun in real life, so even worse during pleasure reading, thank you very much!

  • ... you could avoid all of the above with three well-placed sentences rather than the prologue, but you can't see that because you're utterly certain that your novel REQUIRES a prologue to work.

This doesn't mean all prologues are evil and bad and smelly and gross. Plenty of published books have them. They got past an editor's desk that way for a reason. Are you sure you likewise qualify?

Really sure?

If so, go ahead. Just remember, every time we assume we're one of the exceptions, we're taking a risk.

Can anyone add to the You Might Have a Bad Prologue If... list? I'm sure there are things I missed.

R.C. Lewis teaches math by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. Her YA sci-fi novel Stitching Snow will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. Meanwhile, you can find her at Crossing the Helix and on Twitter (@RC_Lewis).

Friday, October 26, 2012

Being Good Enough

by Riley Redgate

I used to run Cross Country in high school. As such, I can say with authority that it is a painful sport. If you don't feel terrible at some point during your run, odds are you're not running hard enough, or so the coach will tell you. "Pain is weakness leaving the body! Hrrrgh!"

And the fun thing about it is that it never gets easier. Soreness is part of the territory, no matter how fast or slow you are. If you run three straight 8-minute miles and you feel like you're going to drop dead afterward, great. Keep running hard, and maybe soon you'll be able to run three straight 7-minute miles. And then you'll have the privilege of ... still feeling like you're going to drop dead afterward.

Now, although writing rarely involves physical agony (erm, or so one would hope), the process is virtually the same. An eternal uphill battle. How so, you ask? Writers themselves are works in progress. We are never a finished product. We, and our writing styles, are always learning, evolving, transforming. We will always be able to improve, which is one of the reasons the process is so exciting. It's never the same thing twice.

The similarities don't end there. Most writers are constantly barraged with the pressure to measure their success by other people's reactions. Will agents like my book? they wonder. (Heck, will they even like my query letter?) How about publishers? How about reviewers? How about (gulp) the reading public at large?

But the most important question should always be, Do I like my own book? Just as a new PR (personal record) is the thing cross-country runners aim for, as writers, we should first aim for our best possible personal effort. I mean, let's be real: If every runner held him or herself to the standards of an Olympian, 1) there would be a hell of a lot more injuries out there, and 2) they would only ever feel bad about themselves.

I am not Tirunesh Dibaba, the 5k gold medalist. She is shorter than me, lighter than me, and built differently. I will never be her. I will never run three miles in fifteen minutes. Aspiring to be her is pointless. And similarly, writers can't poison their own mindsets by wanting nothing but to be the next Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Bill Shakespeare. That road leads nowhere—and it is a depressing one to run.

We've all heard Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare are "great." But since we won't ever become them—since we can't measure how good we are by other people—how do we know when we're good enough? For each of us, what is "good enough"?

Well, achievement is not a spectrum or a sliding scale for all of humanity. Good enough is and always will be your personal best. Your life. Your PR.

Here's hoping you break your record!

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.

(P.S. Sorry that this post is oddly late in the day, regular FTWA readers! I posted it in the wee hours of the morning and the Blogger gods promptly decided to consume it.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don’t Turn Being Published Into a Fairy-Tale

by Sophie Perinot

“And they all lived happily ever after.”  How many times have we heard or read those words since childhood?  There is a lively debate about whether traditional fairy-tales are good for kids (and particularly for girls who get demoted to rescuee in many of them), but what about writers, particularly unpublished ones?

It seems to me—and I know A LOT of writers—that many writers walking the trail towards their first book deal (aka the “death march”) idealize being published.  They view the writer who has snagged a contract with a Major House and whose books sit on shelves at Barnes & Noble’s nationwide as Cinderella after the wedding.  No more nasty stepsisters, no more cleaning up after everybody—publication is the tiara, the ball gown, the bright lights, the always-agreeable handsome royal husband.  Talk about a recipe for disappointment.

There is a reason fairy-tales end where they do (as Stephen Sondheim so cleverly illustrated in his musical Into the Woods with an eye-opening second act that begins just after ‘happily ever after”).  Our ideal is just somebody else’s everyday reality with all the work, worry success and failure that entails.  This is true in any profession—no matter how satisfying—and certainly in publishing.  My first novel has been out for seven months.  I am not going to lie, being published is better than not being published and also marks a significant personal goal reached.  BUT my life post-publication has more in common with my life pre-publication than the as-yet-unpublished might like to think; only it is far more hectic.

If you are as yet unrepresented and/or unpublished you are writing a book, polishing it and spit-shining your pitch.  And you are waiting—on tenterhooks—to hear the opinion of agents in the query process (or, if you are repped, your own personal agent in the review process) and/or *gulp* publishers (if you are out on submission).  Well guess what, I am writing a new book and polishing it.  There is no guarantee it will be acceptable to my agent and/or publisher.  Even authors with multi-book deals have to please the gate-keepers again and again.  A second (or third, or fifth) time author doesn’t get to just turn in whatever he/she wants and say “this is my book”—unless he/she has the market power of say JK Rowling.  And on top of getting “what’s next” ready to submit (doubtless to be followed by rounds of edits with both agent and editor in turn) I am promoting book one, putting miles on my car and taking years off my life (hey, those promotion hours have to come from somewhere don’t they).

I am NOT complaining—nobody likes “poor me” especially from the published.  What I am saying is it is a damn good thing I had a realistic view of what publication would and wouldn’t mean in the big picture of my writing career and my life.  If I’d thought I’d wake up as Cinderella post ball I would probably be deeply depressed right now.

Here’s my advice for those who want to face the morning after the ball feeling content and hopeful rather than suicidal:

1) Start your publishing journey with an education and a realistic view—this is a career path not the yellow-brick road.  There is no Emerald City of publishing and if there was the wizard would probably be some shyster from the state fair.  Success in this business is personal and it is a moving target.  If you want hit it you’d better be smart.

So many writers seem to focus their reading and fact gathering nearly exclusively on the step just in front of them (e.g. querying).  But it is important to look ahead, educating yourself about the nuts and bolts of your corner of the industry as they apply to career writers not just newbies.  What kind of print runs are common in your genre? What are the bench marks that need to be met if you want to continue to be published (e.g. 60% sell through is a common one across a number of genres)? What type of money should you personally expect to spend on marketing your work, and what are current authors doing to market themselves successful?  If you don’t know what work is expected of a published author with a book to promote and deadlines to meet on a next book, you will find yourself at the starting line of a marathon (your publishing career) with no training or conditioning. Not good.

If you’ve done your homework then you can set realistic goals and meet them.  Just make sure you never let yourself be fooled into thinking that any one goal means you are done and you’ve “made it.”  Enjoy the journey because the journey is 99% of any career including being a published author.

2) Think of your agent as your partner not your savior.  That’s really how all those heroines should think of the handsome prince if they want their marriages to survive right?  You’ve wanted an agent for so long, and she/he makes you feel so talented (and you are), but after that first burst of post-signing excitement you have to be able to edit together and navigate the mine-field that is the submission process.

So don’t idealize your agent.  Allow her/him to tell you tough truths and be prepared to speak truth back.  Don’t have unrealistic expectations either.  Your agent is not your fairy-godmother because (repeat after me) this is not a fairy-tale.  She believes your book will sell but it might not (a full 50% of agented manuscripts from debut authors don’t).  If it doesn’t, don’t be too quick to blame your agent, bad mouth her, or fire her without some good, hard, rational thought first.  Finally, you do need to be prepared, should the necessity arise, to admit your non-fairy-tale marriage has gone sour.

3) Celebrate getting to the ball in grand style, but recognized the clock will strike midnight.  Whether you’ve just signed with an agent or penned your name on your first publishing contract, cheer, shout, have dinner out, buy yourself something nice.  But remember this is not the end of your journey—there is another act to come and you are going to face new hurdles.  When the clock strikes twelve and you have to take off the gown, put the work clothes back on and get down to business you don’t want to fall to pieces.

Bottomline:  view the publication of your first (or seventh) book as a plot point NOT “the end.”  You may be writing fiction, but your personal story will be anything but a fairy-tale and that’s a good thing.  After all, most fairy-tales have one-dimensional characters and unbelievable plot twists.  In real life, as in good writing, we should strive for more depth.

Sophie Perinot's debut novel, THE SISTER QUEENS, tells the story of two 13th century sisters who became the queens of England and France, but it is no fairy-tale.  You can find Sophie at home here, or on Facebook at her author page or the page for her novel.  She is also active on twitter.

Monday, October 22, 2012

3 More Great Twitter Hashtags

by Jemi Fraser

In my last post, I talked about 3 hashtags I enjoy using on Twitter. I asked what other hashtags you were using and got some terrific suggestions!

1. #10queriesin10tweets

Sara Megibow runs this one. Sara is an agent at Nelson Literary Agency and she is fabulous! Usually on Thursdays, Sara goes through 10 queries in her slushpile and tweets the genre and whether she's passing or requesting pages. She also includes her reason for her decision. It's amazing how many people query her with genres she doesn't represent. I don't think I've ever seen her have less than 2 or 3 in the 10 - sometimes as many as 5. Crazy. Not researching agents is a waste of everyone's time!

2. #1k1hr

I hadn't heard about this one before (thanks Viklit!). I've used word sprinting hashtags during NaNo before, but I hadn't used them elsewhere. I will from now on. Word sprints are a great way to get a boost in your word count. If you haven't used them before, you send out a tweet asking if anyone wants to sprint (use the hashtag!). When someone else is sprinting with you, it's great motivation to get those words down.

3. specific chats for genres and age categories and one for self pubbers

I think these were my first introduction to chats and hashtags. They are Awesome!


#indiechat - this one is great to meet writers who have chosen to self pub. They cover all kinds of great information and you get to meet all kinds of interesting people!

I don't know all of the writing chats (obviously!) but try a search with your genre combined with chat and see what pops up. I've learned a lot by participating in and lurking at these chats. These chats often move QUICKLY!! Using TweetChat is very helpful as it stays on the chat only. It also inserts the hashtag for you so you don't have to remember!

 I've got one more post on hashtags up my sleeve. What would you like to see on it? Do you use any of the ones I've mentioned today?

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

5 Ways to Silence Your Internal Editor

by Jean Oram

Have you ever had a nasty gremlin sitting on your shoulder telling you that you can't do it when you write? He's that little guy who wheezes in your ear, sharing not-so-sweet nothings like, "That's an adverb, followed by too many adjectives." Or "That makes no sense. Do you even know who this character is? You must SHOW their motivation." Or "That paragraph is too long." Or "A comma doesn't go there." Or "Spelled that wrong!" Or "Get a thesaurus, you've used that word three times."

Yeah, that internal editor can be a nasty little you-know-what when you are trying to get down a first draft. But he can also be worth his weight during edits.

So, what do you do when he keeps butting in while you are writing your first draft? What can you do? And you have to do something otherwise that nasty little gremlin will smother your muse in vile tar in five seconds flat, leaving you sobbing on your keyboard.

5 Ways to Silence Your Internal Editor

(Until You Need Him/Her)

1. Write.

Just keep writing. You have to show that gremlin who's boss--and that would be you, the writer. So keep writing. Eventually he'll get tired and drift off.

Learn to be okay with the fact that some of what you write is going to be garbage. If you keep writing, eventually you run out of garbage--plus oddly enough, over time it becomes less smelly. (Nice!) You can always edit it later, recycling some items, landfilling others, polishing hidden gems, etc., but if you don't have it down... what have you got to edit and polish? Nothin', darlin'.

How to Silence Your internal Editor. It's Okay to write coal. That's where diamonds begin.

2. Rules.

If it is a long list of writing rules that keeps you from doing well when putting down a draft, turn off your grammar and spell checker and write. You will have plenty of time to worry about commas and grammar later. Right now you need to get in the zone, stay there, and write. Plus, the more you write, write, write, the sooner all those rules will become second nature.

If you decide to focus on learning the rules while you write, consider focusing on one thing at a time--we don't want any exploded heads... brains are very difficult to clean off the upholstery.

3. Distraction.

Some writers find that if their gremlin doesn't have a day job, is a bit of an insomniac, and is always on snoopervision no matter what they do, they distract him. Try music. Talk radio so he doesn't get lonely. Or the TV so he picks up useful tidbits he can feed into your subconscious to be placed here and there in your story.

4. Play.

Let your Gremlin play. He's playful. He's bored. He's not going anywhere, so use him. Channel his energy into your internal Ways-I-Can-Improve drive. Challenge yourself in healthy ways. But remember, when he gets to be too much tell him to shut it. And be firm. Spank him if necessary. (I won't call social services, I promise.)

5. Research.

Send your internal editor gremlin out to do research. If he keeps harping on you about sensory information, let him loose on someone else's work. Let him soak up knowledge and apply it to your work--in edits. (Try and keep that nasty little guy out of your first draft.)

Good luck young grasshoppers. And whatever you do, keep your gremlin dry.

Now that you've looked at your internal editor/gremlin from the write angle, do you have any handy gremlin elimination tips? Share them in the comments section.

Jean Oram once kept her gremlin up late and let it have a bath. Things turned rather nasty. Her short story, which is about love and not about gremlins, will be published in The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse where she also served as a gremlin on the contributing author's shoulders (i.e. editor). You can find more writing tips from Jean on her blog. (Today's post is: 7 Words that Weaken Your Writing--don't miss it!).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How's Social Media Working for You?

by Matt Sinclair

This past weekend, I attended a nonfiction agent panel conducted by the New York Writers’ Workshop. These panels are done in coordination with the organization’s pitch weekends, where writers learn how to and then pitch their manuscripts directly to editors, which sounds like a great program, though I’ve not done it myself.

I've attended these panels before-- both for nonfiction and fiction-- and met several different agents, many of whom are household names in the households of aspiring authors. This time, the agents on the panel were Peter Rubie, CEO of Fine Print Literary Management; Katherine Fausset, an agent with Curtis Brown; Rita Rosenkranz head of the Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency; and Richard Florest, an agent with Rob Weisbach Creative Management.

The panels are great opportunities for writers in the NY area to get a sense of what these agents are looking for, and as Fausset said, you can slide mention of these workshops in your query letter as a small demonstration of your dedication to the craft and to answer the question about why you’re pitching your manuscript or proposal to the specific agent.

To be honest, this particular panel reiterated a lot of the basics that most of us have heard before, and I’m not going to go over them point-by-point. The good news is nonfiction is currently a strong market for writers, especially if you have built a strong platform. One tidbit I found particularly interesting that I wanted to share here: If you can show that your self-published book -- fiction or nonfiction -- sold at least 5,000 copies, your ability to succeed in an agent’s eyes goes up significantly. Of course, 10,000 is better, and they’re not saying that they’re going to rep that specific book that you self-pubbed, but they’d be willing to hear your pitch for the next book. But if your first book still had an audience to meet, then maybe they would pick it up. It’s not common, but it happens.

I also enjoyed the discussion of “community,” in other words, your reach on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But, as Rubie said, “No one knows yet how social media translates to sales.”

I spoke with Rubie after the panel and he explained that there really are no metrics to determine what a strong community means in terms of sales. Part of the problem is that things are changing so quickly that the value of something as a measuring tool is ephemeral. Basically, what worked last summer might have run its course by Thanksgiving. Moreover, followers don't translate to product moving out the door. You might have 1500 Twitter followers, for example, but it’s entirely possible that fewer than ten of them will buy your book.

To be honest, I'm starting to wonder if I, and most writers without major marketing teams behind them, are approaching social media the right way. I know Twitter is a great way to develop conversations with your audience, but I'm not sure it sells books. Facebook? I've found it invaluable to rebuilding friendships with those I went to school with. And I've met writers I wouldn't have met otherwise. I might even have sold a book or two, but probably not a lot of them. My blog? Let's just say it is in the midst of a rethink.

Although the panel didn’t discuss this, it reminded me of the concept of “influencers,” which is a term used in advertising about the specific word-of-mouth folks who can really change people’s minds (Oprah being the most often-cited example, back when she still had a ratings-dominant television show.) Not everyone’s Oprah. But you probably have an influencer or two in your lists of followers. If you are the type of person who understands how to drill down into your twitter and Facebook following data, if you can quantify your audience that way, you might be able to drive home the potential audience for your book to an agent. More power to you. In fact, if you know how to do that well, I might want to chat with you…

Indeed, I'd like to hear from you on a few things. How is social media working for you? Do you have any real metrics for how it's helping you build your audience? Or do you use it for other purposes?

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

S(*)#$it You Don't Want—And S@#*it That You Do

by Mindy McGinnis

Too many authors think of self-promotion as the equivalent of a used car salesman. I can't tell you how often I've heard writers say they just don't feel comfortable pushing themselves—or their book—at people.

There's a neat little trick to get around that feeling of icky—give people something they already want and make the fact that it has your book, your links, or even your face on it just a useful sidebar. They get something free, you're giving away yourself without feeling pushy.

That sounds totally easy, right?


Not a Drop to Drink is fast approaching, which is exciting and intimidating at the same time. I need to start thinking about innovative ways to get my book out there, without rehashing the same stuff that everyone has seen a thousand times over.

There are options, sure. Pens, pencils, band-aid dispensers, t-shirts, personalized mints, postcards, bookmarks ... and everything else you've seen a dozen times and conditioned your mind to stop noticing. Drink is a genre-buster; I want something new and fresh.

Unfortunately the rest of the world has already discovered what I had originally wanted to do for DRINK—customized water bottle labels. How perfect is that for a book built around the idea that the world has run out of fresh water? However, I recently took an author branding class that addressed swag. One of the big rules for swag is that in order for it to be cost-effective it should be something that the recipient will use more than once, not toss away.

I don't know many people that use a water bottle more than once, but I think the simple idea of tying my book to the idea of a water bottle could have a heck of an impact. The obvious water message is an easy association, and even if they throw away the bottle I put my cover on, the next time they take a drink out of a bottle they might think ... "Oh hey! That book looked pretty cool. Too bad I threw the bottle away..." But with a name like Not a Drop to Drink they might be able to remember it in connection with water, and a Goodreads or Amazon search might just land them in my lap.

I don't see this working for bookmarks in the same way. Someone might think, upon seeing another bookmark, "Gee I wish I hadn't thrown away that other bookmark..." but unless the name of the advertised book was Not a Bookmark Remains I doubt their brain will be able to make the association leap for a good Google result.

And giving away water would hardly make me feel smarmy. Everyone needs it. Most people like it. It's very useful, and I have yet to meet someone allergic to it.

What do my fellow readers and writers think? Is there a magic swag item out there that you've always wished someone would put your brand on or that you've wanted to see handed out?

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut Not a Drop to Drink—a post-apocalyptic survival tale—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.

Friday, October 12, 2012

PSA: Don't Fancy Up Your Manuscript Formatting

by R.C. Lewis

Have you been to a restaurant or fast-food place with one of those Coca-Cola Freestyle machines yet? If you haven't, here's the basic idea:

You walk up to a soda dispenser that looks about one step removed from a replicator on Star Trek, complete with touch screen. You select your basic soda choice—say, Sprite—and are taken to a submenu where you can choose a flavor of Sprite—strawberry, peach, vanilla, and so on. Then you press the button, and your soda choice comes out of the machine's singular nozzle.

Pretty fancy, and the result is apparently over one hundred drink choices from one machine. Amazing what technology can do now, right?

Technology has done a lot for us as writers as well. Think back to the days when typewriters—maybe even one that incorporated corrective tape—was as fancy as it got. Think back to the early days of word processing software. Multiple fonts at our fingertips!

Now think of all the bells and whistles that come with a word processing program today. Do you even know what half the options in your latest version do? I sure don't.

While those soda machines are great for carbonation junkies, there are times when all you want is a Coke, plain and simple, and everything else is overkill. Likewise, as slick as some software features can be, they can actually make life more complicated if you're not careful.

I can't say what every agent or every editor or every book formatter will want. How you set up your manuscript depends largely on what you're going to do with it. However, in my own formatting efforts, a few things stood out that I think might be common headache-inducers. Some stem from using advanced options too much, others from too little.

Take these tips for what they're worth, but as always, specific submission guidelines trump all.

Do not use the TAB key or SPACEBAR to indent your paragraphs. Instead, use your word processor's automatic indent feature to create a first-line indent. (0.5" seems to be the standard.) This can usually be done either using the ruler toolbar above your document, or under the Format menu.

Why bother? Whether I'm creating a layout for a print-on-demand book or formatting an eBook, I want to set the indents myself. Also, when going straight from Word document to e-reader, I've found tabs don't make it across, leaving paragraphs difficult to discern. And remember, many/most agents read manuscripts on e-readers.

Do not use any predefined Styles such as Heading 1, etc. Stick with the simplest formatting options to distinguish text: bold, italics, change the font size if you must.

Why not? This really depends on your manuscript's destination. If you're doing your own eBook formatting, disregard. Styles can be useful, and I'll assume you know what you're doing. However, if you're sending it to someone else to format, or submitting a short story to a magazine, etc., someone may have to clear ALL formatting and reapply the necessary parts (like italics) themselves in order to clear out hidden formatting codes that throw things off. And that leads to ...

Start the way you want to finish. Sure, you could write your whole story in 16-point Comic Sans, single-spaced with an extra space after each paragraph, and then go through and change it to standard manuscript format when you're ready to submit. I'm sure plenty of people do that and don't have any problems. But I don't recommend it. Type it in Times New Roman (okay, a few places like Courier, but most seem to agree with me that it's evil), 12-point, double-spaced with 1-inch margins from the get-go.

Why so fussy? Because just like that fancy soda machine, there are a lot of complicated inner workings hidden beneath the sleek exterior. You may think you changed everything, but in-between the line-break of one paragraph and the first letter of the next, there may still be a hidden formatting code. Maybe it won't cause any problems. But maybe when someone down the line has to transfer your text into a final product, that little hidden code will burst free from its invisible cage and devour all intended formatting in the story from that point on, insisting that its font is the right font or randomly bolding various sections of text, refusing the formatter's commands to adhere to the styles dictated in the final document.

Uh, yeah ... that may have happened to me recently.

I'll be honest. If you don't do these things, it's not the end of the world. Plenty of people don't, and people on the other end manage to fix it. But hey, we could all use fewer headaches, right?

Do you have any manuscript-formatting tips, tricks, or pet peeves?

R.C. Lewis teaches math by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. Her YA sci-fi novel Stitching Snow will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. Meanwhile, you can find her at Crossing the Helix and on Twitter (@RC_Lewis), where she may or may not be ranting about missing WordPerfect.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shelves? We Don't Need No Stinking Shelves

by R.S. Mellette

A lot of people are guessing about what the digital revolution will bring to the publishing industry, so why should I be any different?

One of the current catch phrases we hear in the industry is "What shelf would this book go on?" This forces an author who might have a mystery series, set in the future, with a teenaged hero in an adult world to have to state not only a single genre (mystery or sci-fi), but also an age group (YA or Adult).

But in the digital world, there are no shelves. This book can be listed as a Mystery AND Sci-Fi; YA AND Adult. It can be labled as simply Fiction and show up on a list based on sales.

How soon will it be before agents and editors stop saying, "I don't know what shelf this goes on," and start saying, "I only see one category for this MS." How many writers will be arguing that a certain sub-plot makes their book qualify as a Romance?

And what will this multi-labeling do to writing styles? If self-publishers begin to attach so many categories to their books in order to cross-promote, will the labels lose their meaning? How valuable then will independent bookstore owners be, when someone asks, "Can you help me find a good book?"

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Plot Like Christopher Columbus

by Stephen L. Duncan

In 1453, the Ottomans finally conquered Constantinople (not Istanbul) and so fell the safe land trade route that was the Silk Road from Europe to China and Southeast Asia.

Thus arose a need to reestablish the stream of commerce by nautical means.

Enter Christopher Columbus. With a comprehensive knowledge of trade winds and a negligent understanding of the size of the Earth, he blundered into the Bahamas on October 12th, 1492 and changed the world.

I like to think that, as writers, we all sometimes set out with expectations of where our words will take us and what we expect to find at the end of our journey, only to arrive at a completely different – and often better – destination. The Columbus connection is a natural and obvious notion, first because it's Columbus Day and I'm trying to be timely here, and second because writing a story is at its core simply about discovery. After all, are authors not also explorers?

Scenes, and even sometimes characters, often arrive because of a need in our story structure, much like the need of a route to the Indies set the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Santa Clara on their journey west. And surely like Columbus must have also prepared, we may plot and outline meticulously, detail every character and setting, and order scene after scene, trying to keep the story within our tightest limits of control. But how often does it seem that, while on our journey, the winds fill our sails and take us into unfamiliar waters and lead us to land not found on any of our maps?

Don’t be afraid of making these mistakes. I say let go and embrace the unpredictable whenever you feel the story steering away from you. Flesh them out and see where they take you. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Who knows? You might find gold. Happy Columbus Day!

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.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Editors Are Exactly Like Parents, Not Besties

by Cat Woods

Give me an E! Give me a D! Give me an I-T-O-R!

What's that spell?

Help. Yeah, that's right. Help of the most amazing kind.

Last week, Matt Sinclair talked about the partnership between writers and editors. He stated that solid communication was the key to a successful project. As a writer who has recently worked with several editors on three shorts stories and one novel, I'll expound on this idea from the writer's perspective.

Here's the deal about editors: a good editor who shares your vision for a piece can strengthen your story in ways you never dreamed possible. As long as we understand that editors are not our friends.

Rather, editors are exactly like parents.

And just like parents, editors have a job to do. Namely, help us grow up and make something of ourselves. They cannot achieve this by sitting around youtube every night, eating pizza, painting toenails and gossiping about who wore what that day at school. Instead, they provide a set of rules to guide us toward our literary success. They are task masters, not besties.

Editors (like parents):

  • Withhold dessert until we've eaten all our veggies. It's all about a healthy balance. Do we use all five senses? Do we have too many or too few characters? Is the front end of our story too action-packed with the back end fizzling out? A best friend would likely sneak us a cookie when our parents weren't looking instead of making us suffer through canned asparagus.
  • Make us brush our teeth and shower. Editors force us to be presentable. Do people actually like our characters? Is the MC the strongest person in our novels, or does the fun-loving side-kick garner far more sympathy? Does our MC whine? Is he brute? Are they sensitive and strong and flawed and fun? In short, are they likable enough to carry reader interest through an entire story? Besties don't pay our dental bills. And as long as we don't stink too badly, they'll let us hang.
  • Demand that we speak respectfully. Oh yes, because even in writing, our dialogue can be off-putting. Editors will provide an unbiased reaction to our character interactions and demand that we don't abuse the power of language. They'll make sure that what our characters say is believable and pertinent. They'll also help us pinpoint where we might get a bit preachy. This is not something a bestie would do. As you probably remember, best friends can smack talk nearly as well as we can. 
  • Dictate that we clean our rooms. Editors will point out our piles of dirty laundry in the middle of the floor and will scavenge for those stray legos under the bed. They want our manuscripts clean and devoid of garbage that detracts from the writing itself: anything from typos to grammar to content and beyond. Not so, the besties. Because they like you and want you to like them, they may be more prone to shoving a toy behind the dresser than making us pick up every last marble off the floor.
"But what about my betas and critique partners?" you may be asking. "They are not parents, nor are they besties. Aren't they as good as editors?"

And that, my friends, is the question I pose to you.

Can beta readers provide the same quality of feedback that professional editors can? Is there a beta-reading threshold that can take a piece "only so far"? If you're a published--or soon to be published--author who has worked with both critique partners and professional editors, can you speak to us on the difference between the two?

Curious minds want to know.

Cat Woods has been editing her heart out this past year. Her short story, Annabelle, was published in SPRING FEVERS in February. Little League, another short, is due out on October 29th in the upcoming anthology THE FALL. When she's not editing, Cat parents her four kids (in the non-friend kind of way) and blogs at Words from the Woods.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Many Paths to Publication... And Sex? Baltimore Book Festival Recap

by J. Lea López

I had the pleasure of attending the 2012 Baltimore Book Festival this past weekend. I learned about the festival after our own Sophie Perinot announced she would be attending and speaking on a few panels there. After checking out the website, I knew I had to be there. It was part book sale, part street fair, and part writing conference that took place over three days. I was only able to attend Saturday and part of Sunday, but it was more than enough to know I'll likely attend again in future years. Today I'll be sharing with you some of my thoughts on two excellent panels.

There were a lot of great things going on at once, so I didn't make it to Sophie's women's fiction panel, but if you all know me, you'll know I couldn't possibly miss her panel about SEX! Okay, it was about sex and the historical fiction writer, but really.... it was about sex. I don't even write historical fiction, and I honestly don't read much of it, either. But this was a fun and informative panel. (Let me take a second to point something out: Sophie is such a sweetheart! And so funny!)

One of the panelists mentioned that there is a misconception that women's rights and women's roles in society have progressed in a linear manner throughout history, which isn't true. I admit I had the same impression until the panelists pointed out some of the aspects of ancient civilizations that show how women often had greater roles than we give them credit for. A few examples:

  • There's a theory that the royal bloodline passed through the females in ancient Egypt. So if you wanted to be Pharaoh one day, you'd better marry Pharaoh’s daughter.
  • In some societies/cultures, divorce was commonplace and not frowned upon. The wife could often take part or all of her dowry back if the couple split.
  • Women could own property, and ownership of it did not (always) immediately transfer to her husband when they married, or after her death if she died first.
  • Best of all, even though a husband may have practically owned his wife's body, there was this little thing called the marriage debt. Sex was a husband's duty and something he OWED his wife.

Yeah, you hear that, ladies? Bring that up next time your husband wants a sandwich! By which I obviously mean, Take that historically accurate information to heart next time you're writing some old-timey sex!

Look, it's Sophie! And her book!

The last panel I attended was on Sunday afternoon, about the many paths to publication. There were six authors on this panel, speaking about their experience with everything from self-publishing to ebook-only publishers and small presses, to the traditional agent route to publishing. Most of them had hands in two or all three publishing processes. It was refreshing to see a group of authors in agreement that there isn't one “right” path to publication and that one isn't necessarily better or worse than another. There are two main points that I took away from this panel that I think are useful.

Edit, edit, edit

All of the panelists mentioned quality editing several times in the hour-long discussion, expressing that it is very difficult to get the quality you want all on your own.

Kate Dolan said “Regardless of the path you take to publication, the editing is so important.” She stressed that you really need to get your book into the hands of someone who “can tell you what you don't want to hear.” She also mentioned that the quality of editing will vary, even between editors from the same house.

Christi Barth shared that she had one editor who made her remove all semi-colons from her manuscript because it was a “house rule” despite the fact that semi-colons are a perfectly legitimate form of punctuation.

Amy Villalba, who is self-publishing her novel, said that the editor she uses initially charged her $2.25/page. Six months later, due to increased demand, her rates had increased to $6/page. Because she was a repeat customer, she was able to get her down to less than $4/page. She estimated that you should budget $2,500 to $3,000 per book to get a good product out there. (That amount included editing and paid advertising on sites such as Kindle Nation Daily.)

Other panelists also mentioned bartering your own skills with other writers for editing (and other) services. Networking and simply being around other writerly types in order to learn and ask questions was another theme during the discussion.

There are reasons...

To self-publish. To seek an agent and a traditional book deal. Or a small press. Or an ebook-only publisher. In other words, there are reasons which validate each path. Self-publishing just because you don't want to deal with the “hassle” or process of querying an agent is not a good reason. And quite frankly, if you don't want to deal with that hassle, you likely won't enjoy the hassle of going it alone, either.

The biggest pro to self-publishing is also the biggest con: you have complete control over your project from beginning to end. Complete control means complete responsibility, even for the aspects you may not be comfortable doing yourself. So you pay someone to do it for you.

Publicity support varies. Eliza pointed out that while some small presses do have at least a little bit of publicity support, such as a publisher blog where authors can write posts, not all of them do. One small press she was with had no advertising or publicity at all. Traditional publishing often has more marketing and publicity support because they have the money to do so.

However, no one was suggesting that traditional publishing means the author can sit back and relax on the publicity front. I think we all know what the panelists stated: even with traditional publishing, authors are still expected to do as much as they can to get their name out there. Marketing and publicity will vary across big and small presses and is something else to take into consideration when blazing your path to publication.

Royalties. It's no secret that you can get the biggest royalty percentage with self-publishing, and the least with traditional publishing. But traditional publishing gives you a bigger amount up front, which can be great. Self-publishing pays you smaller increments, but more often. Small presses are somewhere in the middle. Different situations will work for different people.

The market. Megan Hart, who admittedly likes “a lot of people to take care of a lot of things for me” had an idea for a 10-part horror serial. She wanted to put a new one out each month. There isn't really a traditional place to go with that, but it's perfect for self-publishing. Christi talked about how, after not having much luck shopping a particular manuscript, she realized that it was a good book, just not for that market. “Sometimes publishers stick with tropes,” she said, and if your book doesn't fit into a particular trope at that time, you're out of luck. Not because you aren't a good writer, but because that publisher wants more vampires when you're querying zombies.

I have even more thoughts to share about the 2012 Baltimore Book Festival, including my experience at the erotica discussion and reading, so if you'd like to hear more, please join me at my personal blog.

Have you ever been to the Baltimore Book Festival or similar event near you? What was your experience?

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.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Not "Just" a Hobby

by R.S. Mellette

When I graduated from college with a BFA in Theatre I learned a new term, "Theatre Jock." I had spent four years inside of a theatre. With a BFA, I didn't even have to take a foreign language, a science, math, or anything outside of my major. Not only that, but all of my peers were in the same boat. None of us knew this, of course, because we spent most of our time with each other.

After graduation I was at a family reunion telling a story and found that my dad had to translate for me.

"Oh, it was terrible production," I said to some relatives about a play I'd been in. "They finished the set just before strike."

Everyone looked at me funny. Wouldn't it be a good thing to finish the set before going on strike? My dad stepped in. "'Strike' is when they tear the set down after the play is over."

Realization came to everyone. My relatives figured out what I was talking about, and I realized I was a Theatre Jock. Having learned all there is to know about the great and noble art of performance, I would now have to re-learn what it is to be a functioning member of society.

And as time went by, and I slaved away at my career, I realized that I had turned my hobby into my job. This left me with nowhere to turn when I needed to escape work. I found that I had to go out hobby hunting.

And, of course, finding a life outside of the Arts gave me a new angle to view my work. Instead of being an Artist trained to do Art, I became a person with an ability to observe and report on the human condition—of which I was an active member.

For some here, writing is a hobby. For others, published or not, it is a career track. Either way, a writer who only experiences writing doesn't have a lot to say. What gets you out from behind your computer? What opens your eyes? What excites that narrator in your head? What non-writing activity do you have in your life that makes your writing better?

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.