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Description—How to Make Readers Fall In & Never Escape

Sidewalk chalk art near Regent’s Canal in London.

Sidewalk chalk art near Regent’s Canal in London.

Today we’re going to address a topic that—GASP—I don’t believe we’ve ever covered in almost 800 blogs. Namely because it is a tricky one to address. We’re going to talk about description. For those who never use description or very sparse description? Don’t fret. That’s just your voice. Readers like me who looooove description will probably gravitate to other books and that is OKAY.

Personally, I’m not a fan of austere modern houses with stainless steel everything and weird chairs no human could sit in and most cats would avoid, but? There are plenty of people who dig it. I also don’t like a lot of knick-knacks and clutter. Makes me want to start cleaning.

Same with books. Not too little or too much. Yeah, I’m Literary Goldilocks.

Plain fact? We can’t please everyone. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice. BUT, if you are a writer who does like description, maybe I can offer some tips to make it stronger.

Avoid “Police Sketch” Description 

Er?

Er?

I assume most of you have watched TV. A witness is asked to give a description of the mugger, murderer, whatever. Well, he was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes. Very muscular.

She was short, blonde and fit.

The reason I (as an editor) don’t care for this kind of description is a good writer is a wordsmith and we should be able to describe characters better than someone who’s been at the wrong end of a purse-snatching. Is there anything wrong with this description? Nah. Just it’s something anyone can do. It isn’t anything unique.

Avoid the “Weather Report” or “Google Maps”Description

Weather can be vital and even its own character (which we will get to). But putting in weather just to tell us it’s a hot sunny day? Again, surface. Same with describing a location. Cities, streets, stores can come alive with the right description.

Avoid “Info-Dump” Description

I was really bad about this when I was new. I described everything in a room. I believed the reader needed to know all the positions of the furniture, what was on the bookshelves and end tables, the colors of the walls, just to “get” what I was talking about. They didn’t need all that and likely lost interest in the point I was trying to make anyway.

I didn’t give my readers enough credit and most of that information was for me anyway. Novels are for the reader not for us, which is important to remember and easy to forget.

Good description doesn’t automatically mean MORE description ;) .

What Makes GOOD Description?

Again, this is subjective, but I read…a LOT. I need a 12 Step Program for the sheer number of books I buy. Since I dig description, I often highlight it when it’s done WELL (which is why I cannot check out books from the library or EVER yell at Spawn for coloring in books). The common denominator I see in great description is it delves beyond the surface and evokes some kind of feeling.

In this post, I’m merely giving some of MY favorite examples (from many different genres). I recommend that, if you want to use description, go to those stories that spoke to YOU. Those highlighted spots can be telling about your voice, preference and style. You don’t need to copy, but you can deconstruct how the author did something WELL. And likely, if you are a fan of that kind of writing, others are too and you might share the same kind of readers.

Characters

One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. He describes people in a way that instantly evokes a visceral resonse. Sure there is a tad of physical description, but not much. Most is left out and yet we SEE these people.

For instance, Rot and Ruin (which is a YA series about our world 12 years after the Zombie Apocalypse. A teenage boy is the protagonist and my entire family is now INHALING this series, too).

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This is a scene in the first book when the young protagonist Benny goes to hang out with his zombie-hunting hero, Charlie Matthias:

“It was a 1967 Pontiac LeMans Ragtop. Bloodred and so souped-up that she’d outrun any damn thing on the road. And I do mean damned thing.”

That’s how Charlie Matthias always described his car. Then, he’d give a big braying horselaugh, because no matter how many times he said it, he thought it was the funniest joke ever. People tended to laugh with him rather than at the actual joke, because Charlie had a 72-inch chest and 24-inch biceps, and his sweat was a soup of testosterone, anabolic steroids, and Jack Daniels… (Page, 24)

In this example, other than the size of Charlie’s muscles, we get very little literal description. Everything in this is “feeling oriented.” We get a real sense of who Charlie is and who he might be. As a zombie-hunter, he seems the epitome of who we’d want taking out the undead, but there is an undercurrent of tension that makes us (readers) uneasy.

To me, this is far more powerful than:

Zombie-Hunter Charlie Matthais was well over six-feet tall with bulging muscles and wild red hair. (Zzzzzzzzz. Btw, I have no idea what color C.M.’s hair is, but did I really need to know?)

For the Literary Folks: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men:

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(Sheriff Bell) came across a hawk dead in the road. He saw the feathers move in the wind. He pulled over and got out and walked back and squatted on his boot heels and looked at it. He raised one dead wing and let it fall again. Cold yellow eye dead to the blue vault above them.

It was a big red tail. He picked it up by one wing and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high power poles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing in on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it (Page 44-45).

In this story, a good lawman is after a soulless criminal who is nothing short of pure evil. This above description is important. The red tail hawk is a parallel of Bell. Bell is also a hunter who’s in danger of being so caught in the pursuit, it could get him killed. Even though the lawman is tracking a criminal, he takes time to honor a fallen hunter even though it’s “only” a bird, something the psychopathic antagonist, who has NO VALUE for any life, would ever do.

Part of that “Show, don’t tell” thing ;). We don’t get a description of what Bell looks like, but through action, we know who he IS.

If you are into the “Less-Is-More-Description” here’s an example from Daniel Suarez’s cyber-thriller Daemon:

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Merrit stopped short and turned to glare at the man—a federal bureaucrat type, late twenties. The kind of person you forgot even while you were looking at him (Page 242)

Short, sweet and we all know this kind of person. We fill in the blanks and it’s emotive (or rather non-emotive, which is the point).

Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump

For the sake of time, we’ll bundle three into one. Depp does a fabulous job of weaving weather, setting, and information in a tight cord of emotion. This selection is from Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town.

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The protagonist, Spandau, is a P.I. is following a Hollywood agent to a movie set to meet a client who’s being blackmailed:

Spandau smoked, and thought the city gliding past was much like an overexposed film, too much light, all depth burned away and sacrificed. All concrete and asphalt, a thousand square miles of man-made griddle on which to fry for our sins. Then, you turn a corner and there’s a burst of crimson bougainvillea redeeming an otherwise ugly chunk of concrete building. Or a line of tall palm trees, still majestic and still stubbornly refusing to die, stubbornly sprouting green at the tops of thick dying stalks, guarding a side street of bungalows constructed at a time when L.A. was still the Land of Milk and Honey….There was a beauty still there, sometimes, beneath all the corruption, like the face of an actress long past her prime, when the outline of an old loveliness can still be glimpsed through the desperate layers of pancake and eyeliner. (page 23)

In this description, we get more than a play-by-play of the L.A. streets he passes. Additionally, I feel the description is very telling about the character. Note the contrasting biblical references or even the tension inside the character. He hates this place, but can still see the loveliness that tears at him and keeps him there, keeps him coming back.

The description is an extension of the feel of the city—no depth, manmade, hardened, lost (but still something beautiful worth staying for).

Note the description is processed through the feelings and backstory of the character. Instead of sounding like a travel brochure, there is emotional flavor adding depth. We pretty much know the weather—bright and hot. We experience the place rather than just “seeing” it in a boring “and then he turned on this street and then that street” fashion.

The description also shows us Spandau is likely an excellent detective—he sees more than the surface and instinctively searches deeper.

Again, description–how to do it, how much, how little—is subjective.

But, I believe that good description can make the difference in a caricature verses a “person” or “place” so real we’re sad to say good-bye when the book ends. Also, I hope I’ve given examples of how we can describe a character or a place without “describing” it.

Are we describing with the same depth as any literate person with a laptop could do? Or are we digging below skin and into marrow?

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself skimming description and didn’t know why? Do you highlight great description, too? Or are you a minimalist? There aren’t any wrong answers, btw. Who are some of your favorite authors who ROCKS description? What are maybe some tips/thoughts you have that takes description from blasé to beautiful?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Winner of JUNE’S COMMENT CONTEST: Linda Maye Adams. Please send your 5000 word WORD doc to kristen at wana intl dot com in an attachment, please. Or, if you prefer, you can send a 500 word synopsis or 300 word query letter. Your choice which one. Congratulations!!!! Thanks for being part of the discussion that makes this blog so much FUN.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

THIS SATURDAY is my  Antagonist Class  PINKIE-SWEAR!JULY 5th). Use WANA15 for $15 off. This class will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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101 Comments

Rejection, Reinvention & Do-Overs—What YOU Need to Know About E-Books

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Waaayyyy back in the Dark Ages of Publishing, I queried many, many…*sigh* many agents, only to be rejected. Then, I pitched a social media book for writers…and they laughed in my face. Social media is a fad. Authors only need a good book. Yup. Well, these are the same folks who are now requiring an author to have a strong social media platform and most won’t so much as look at a book if they can’t google an author’s name and have it show up (and show something vibrant and interesting).

Had it not been for the indie/e-book revolution, my first #1 best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, and my second #1 best-selling book Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer, and now my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World would never have existed (let alone dominated the top three slots in multiple categories).

Thank you WANA and INDIE PUBLISHERS! *shout-out to Bob Mayer, Jen Talty & Cool Gus Publishing who took a chance on my first two books*

Aside from me (being a niche author), there were many traditionally authors who had extensive backlists (full of mega-successful books) who would have never made another dime off that work (and a lot are now making six and seven figures). There were also many authors who’d been rejected for years, who finally forged their own paths using e-books. Look up Romance Author Theresa Ragan. Theresa sold SO many books, that when NY came calling? She turned them down.

I wonder if she sent them a rejection letter with “does not fit my needs”? Hmmm, perhaps I should ask next time I see her :D.

There are also authors like John Locke who used e-book success to garner sweet publishing deals. Why am I mentioning this stuff? Because no matter what kind of author we are—traditional, indie, self-published? E-books are important. 

Yes, even if we traditionally publish. Right now NY can produce a book (maybe two) in a year. That’s a lifetime in the Digital World. What better way to keep fans excited than by publishing backstory, short stories, deleted scenes, stories involving supporting characters? This helps keep readers passionate so when your book is on the shelves? They are SO THERE.

Today, to talk about e-books and her own experience is Award-Winning Author (of TWENTY-SIX books) Amy Shojai…who happens to be a WANA International Instructor because I only want the best for you guys.

Take it away, Amy!

***

A few years ago, I had a high-profile agent, a spokesperson gig with a major pet products company, and a dozen award winning pet books published by “Noo Yawk” publishers. Oh, I worked my furry tail off for years to get there, but thought I’d finally arrived.

Before y’all decide to use my face on your personal dart board, you should know this: publishing went KER-FLOOEY!

I ended up back at square one. My agent couldn’t get a bite on any of my proposals. The spokesperson gig cancelled. My books got remaindered instead of renewed. All those backlist books, my retirement income (sob!), instead became dust bunny habitat under the bed.

Betcha you heard the booming echo of head-banging frustration where you lived. And you know what? “Noo Yawk” didn’t care. Tried a new agent and that didn’t work either. So I quit writing. I even took a real job . . .for about six months until I realized it doesn’t matter that “Noo Yawk” doesn’t care.

It only matters that I CARE.

Nobody cares more about YOU and your goals than YOU. So ya gotta be nice to you, treat you like royalty, and find ways to say “yes I can” instead of wallowing in “why I can’t.”

WHO ARE YOU, ANYWAY?

I am a writer. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am. But the “old Amy” no longer worked in the new world. Without an agent, I had nobody telling me “don’t bother, it won’t sell.” Without an editorial deadline, I had time to revise and update the latest, greatest information. And without that high-profile on-the-road gig, I could experiment with projects without concern it might hiss-off a sponsor.

So I reinvented myself first by kindle-izing my backlist books. That led to partnering with Jen Talty and Bob Mayer’s COOL GUS Publishing, creating my BLING, BITCHES & BLOOD blog (thank you Kristen!), voicing my own audio books, writing original titles and most recently a critically acclaimed dog-viewpoint THRILLERS WITH BITE series.

All because publishing went KER-FLOOEY. That’s a techie term. You have my permission to use it (I’m a writer, so I can make schtuff up).

BEYOND NaNoWriMo: KNOW YOUR OPTIONS

So, what does this have to do with you? Today there are fewer eyebrows raised toward hybrid/indie/self-pub authors than when I jumped off the digital cliff. The flood gates have opened.

Did you complete NaNoWriMo? Are you lined up at the starting gate, ready to pull the trigger on a spanking-new baby book?

Whether you plan to DIY Ebook, hire POD done, or choose a la carte services for cover design, publishing and more, LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES. Discover the options and make educated choices.

Because do-overs sucketh big time. This is why I am offering my:

EBOOK FOR WRITERS WEBINAR Dec. 7, 2-3:30 NY Time

Next Saturday, December 7, 2013, join my EBOOKS FOR WRITERS Webinar from 2-3:30 NY time for all the must-know options for publishing in today’s digital age. It’s only $40 (but you’ll get $10 off with the code GO INDIE). Register here.

No hotel, no travel, no makeup required! I love Webinars because I can wear jammies and have your cat or dog on my lap. The recording makes it possible to revisit the session later—especially helpful for those with a time conflict who live in, say, Australia. Or the wilds of Manhattan. And, if you aren’t yet ready to pull the trigger on your book, the session helps you figure out next steps when you ARE ready.

(Hint: Might be a cool early holiday gift for a writer in your life.)

The live Power Point presentation includes lots of SQUEEE! cute animal picture illustrations, answers your questions and gives you a life-preserver to keep you afloat as you dive off the self-publishing cliff. You will learn:
• Pros & Cons of Ebook Publishing compared to “Traditional”
• Options Available from DIY platforms to for-hire services
• Kinds of costs involved
• What you can (and should) do yourself
• What you should hire professionals to do
• Resources for helpful self-publishing software, editorial assistance and cover design help
• Practical step-by-step how-to “Kindle-ize” your manuscript
• Formatting tips for illustrations, covers, sidebars and table of contents
• Promotional must-knows including DO’s and DON’TS!
• Includes valuable links to further information, available as a down-load/handout.

I got to reinvent myself with help of others like Kristen Lamb who mentored me into creating a kick-ass BLING, BITCHES & BLOOD BLOG, so turn-about is fair play. Besides, it’s just the right thing to do. That’s one reason I jumped at the chance to guest here at Kristen’s amazing blog site. Good karma gets returned so find ways to pay-it-forward, let others know about the seminar (and discount code GO INDIE). You can thank me later ;).

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22 Comments

5 Ways Authors Abuse Their Facebook Profile Privileges

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Today, the fantabulous WANA International Instructor, Lisa Hall-Wilson is here to share to sage advice about Facebook. She knows ALL things about Facebook, which is why she not only teaches for WANA, but she manages our WANA International fan page. We don’t need to pay to promote and Lisa gets MAD traction on our fan page, so she is THE GAL to listen to in these matters.

Also, I have been a victim of many of these “marketing strategies” and they make me see RED. We know you guys are trying hard to be responsible professionals and there is a LOT of bad advice floating around out there. We have all oopsed, so don’t worry. But Lisa is here to set you straight and tell you the WANA Way…which works, btw ;).

Take it away, Lisa!

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Lisa Hall-Wilson

I feel a bit like the soup nazi with this post – no Facebook for you! But some people seriously need a time out. It’s promote promote promote all the time in a one-channel informercial. Hands up – have you been a victim of these people?

I wrote this post for Jane Friedman on 5 reasons why you should use your Facebook Profile (not a Page) to build platform. What I need to make clear is that with freedom comes responsibility. There are key rules about Facebook etiquette that many are either unaware of or ignore.

Stop!

Using your Profile instead of a Page to build platform gives you the ability to spam people in a way Pages cannot. Pages cannot join groups or group conversations. Pages can’t comment on or post a Profile, they can’t send private messages to Profiles. Pages can’t force-add people to events. The list goes on. Just because you can, because Facebook doesn’t explicitly say it’s against the rules – doesn’t mean it’s not icky, annoying and spam

1. Do not post your own content on another’s Profile wall (timeline).

This is a pretty personal one cause this recently happened to me. First, if you goof on this one, apologize, remove the post and consider it a lesson learned. Don’t argue. This is considered personal space. Anything posted on my timeline is seen as endorsed by me. It’s akin to going to a friend’s jewelry party and bringing along samples to your own soap business and handing them out uninvited.

Great way to never get asked back.

If people are posting their content on your wall often, you can decide who can post on your timeline if necessary. I know some Indie authors who have been forced to do this because the spam is so bad.

2. Do Not Tag People in Unrelated Status Updates or Photos

What do I mean by unrelated? If I quote another blogger or author in a blog post, I might tag them. If they inspired that blog post, I might tag them. But I might not. And I’m not going to do it more than once or twice a year. If you’re just doing it to get noticed it’s considered spam.

For the love of cookie sprinkles….STOP.

I strongly recommend you turn on approvals for all tags. People can tag you in a photo or status update, this requires you to approve those before they show up on your timeline – because people use this to spam your friends but your friends might not realize you were spammed, which makes life seriously awk-ward.

3. Do not bomb conversations with blog links.

I see this all the time. Do not find a lively conversation thread and drop a link to your blog there. That hit and run tactic is super annoying and is spam. If you are an active participant in the conversation and you have a blog post that directly relates to the topic at hand, go ahead and share that link in the spirit of no-reciprocation-expected.

You’re sharing this because it adds value – no strings attached. Dropping a link into the conversation you’re not a part of is spam regardless of whether the post could remotely be relevant.

4. Do not create a group and force-add 2000 people.

Facebook will let you invite a ridiculous amount of people to an event or group. I get event invites all the time. Those can be annoying, but what’s worse is being force-added to a group that’s a 24/7 spam channel! You can go ahead and create a group where two or three people post links to their blogs and courses if you want to – but let people opt into that. I had to remove myself twice from the same group and finally clicked the box that says do not allow myself to be added again.

5.  Any story can be seen by friends and seen as an endorsement.

When you click like, comment or share something, you create a ‘story’ within the Facebook environment. When you share an update or link, it’s seen as an endorsement unless you add an editorial comment stating otherwise. However, what many people using their Profiles to build platform don’t realize is that your likes and comments can be shown to friends, and friends of friends depending. You can’t filter that.

You’re following an erotica author friend because you wanted to support her, even though you write children’s fiction. She posts an alluring pic of a near-naked man and you liked the pic – for whatever reason. You might not have liked the pic or the man, but wanted to support the author say.

Doesn’t matter.

At best Facebook could show that story (that you liked that content) to friends FB believes have similar interests. You have no control whether that shows up in someone’s news feed or their ticker or at all.

Something else to consider is that you can’t opt out of sponsored stories. Sometimes Facebook will recommend Pages to users and they will use your name and profile pic (all public content) by way of public endorsement to your friends. Someone can purchase a sponsored story ad and your face and name could be used to promote that Page.

We can complain all we want, that’s the price of admission. If you are using your Profile to build platform keep this in mind! I can’t stress this enough. Every action you take can spread a lot further than you intend. If you wouldn’t say it to your mother in her living room, don’t say it (or like it) on Facebook.

In the spirit of helping others share my Facebook happy, I started a group for writers who want to learn how to use Facebook the WANA way, not spam people, and build a healthy community or tribe. It’s a closed group so there’s a measure of privacy, but it means you’ll have to request to join. *psst – I’ll approve you.** I’ll post about updates and changes, and answer questions (within reason), but I really want this to be a safe place to ask questions and share experiences as well. Abusers will be removed!! :D

What annoying Facebook marketing tactics have you been the victim of? Share in the spirit of helping not shaming.

On Saturday, November 23, I’m teaching a webinar on Using A Facebook Profile To Build Platform. The cost is only $45, and we’ll look at how to set your privacy settings, friend lists, target posts, create a content strategy, how to brand yourself visually, best posting practices, and more. If you can’t make it sign up anyway. The webinar will be recorded and sent to all registrants.

I’m also offering this class as part of a very special WANA 2Fer. Marcy Kennedy is running her A Crash Course to Using Google+ to Build Your Author Platform the same day and we’re offering a discounted rate of $20 off for people who sign up for both. Click here to register for the 2Fer!

About Lisa Hall-Wilson

Lisa has been using Facebook since 2007, and has been a paid administrator, content creator, and consultant for more than three years. She manages Pages for non-profits and small businesses in Canada and the United States (including the MYWANA Facebook Page). She’s an award-winning freelance journalist, syndicated columnist, and fantasy author. You can find her hanging out on her Facebook profile.

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60 Comments

Author Success—The Laws of Sowing & Reaping

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Zechariah Judy

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Zechariah Judy

Life has many irrefutable truths. One? We get out of life what we put into it. We will get out of our writing what we invest. We cannot expect large returns from a social media platform if we rely on robots (automation) and connect randomly and half-heartedly. Social media is about relationships and being fair-weather friends has limited effectiveness.

Sure, there are flukes, people who run face-first into blind luck. But, one thing I’ve learned is the harder (and smarter) I work, the “luckier” I get ;).

When we take hold of a dream, we are assigned a sort of spiritual plot of land. Depending on the dream will depend on the plot. If we want to grow fresh peaches for our family, we don’t need a thousand acres. But, if we wish to make a living as a peach grower? We’ll have much more land and work ahead.

Same with writing. If our goal is to publish a memoir to hand down to our children, this is a different “plot” than if we desire to be a NY Times best-selling authors.

Some land is more fertile than others. If we grew up as children of famous authors, surrounded by other successful writers, then we have a reasonable head start. We “inherited” a grove and aren’t starting from scratch. Most of us are not so fortunate, so we need to start preparing our “land” early.

The Early Years

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Rene Schweitzke

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Rene Schweitzke

This is when we get our land and realize there are a ton of weeds, crappy soil and a zillion dead trees and trunks that need to be removed. There might even be some junk cars, scrap metal and old toilets that need to be hauled away. We need to form new habits. We need education, training and practice. We need to learn about branding and start building our platform.

When I left paper sales and decided to become a writer, I needed to learn the craft. I had bad habits. I put myself last on the list because writing wasn’t a “real job.” The early years is a lot of clearing away insecurity, fear, and even laziness. We learn to write even when we don’t “feel” like it and come to understand that simply showing up is a bigger deal than most people realize.

Sowing

This is when we start planting. We’ve cleared the fields and added missing nutrients to the soil. We put our butts in the seat and blogged even if the only comments we get are from the BuyCalvinKleinCheap sites:

“I so lick you’re blog. It changed my bruther’s life and bookmarking now.”

Blogging trains us to keep a professional pace. It trains us to show up and not be too dependent on others. Sure, it’s fun blogging now that I get 95 comments, but there were years I blogged to the ether. I didn’t do it for others. I did it for ME, to train me.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Jim Evans

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Jim Evans

Blogging is also the most resilient form of social media and one of the best investments of time when it comes to ROI (return on investment). No search engine will direct people to your witty tweet or clever Facebook post. Search engines WILL, however, start sending readers to your blog (if done properly). Also blogs can be harvested for books and promotion (and if you want to know how, my new book gives a step-by-step plan).

Sowing also involves research, plotting, writing, finishing then revising the book.

The Silent Years

After we’ve planted a lot of good stuff, it’s easy to get discouraged. We don’t plant a peach pit and a week later have a ten-foot-tall tree raining yummy peaches all over the ground. In fact, for a loooooong time, it will look like nothing is happening. It’s because that peach pit is germinating and putting down deep roots before much appears above the surface where we can see results.

We need deep roots to make it in this business, because high-winds and storms don’t stop because we want to write books (as I talked about in yesterday’s post). Did you know that the root system of any tree needs to be as wide if not wider than the span of the branches? What is below (unseen) must match (or even outmatch) what is above, or the tree will fall over and die with the first bad storm.

The Silent Years can be brutal and this is why most writers don’t make it. This is when we suffer a lot of angst. When people ask us what we do and we say we’re writers, we get replies like, “No, I meant what is your real job” or “Really? Where can I buy your book?” We must learn to brush off any insecurity and criticism and simply appreciate we’re growing, preparing for greater things ahead.

This is tough in a world addicted to instant gratification and an over-reliance on luck. Too many people want fruits with no roots (thanks, Joyce Meyer).

Reaping

If we keep pressing and don’t dig up our seeds to check if they really are growing (which is highly tempting), eventually we can reap what we’ve sown. Ah, but here is the catch. Back to my peach example. After a long wait and tender, patient care, we get a tree. YAY! Eventually, we see little tiny fruits popping out. AWESOME.

Not so fast.

The smart grower plucks off all the tiny green peaches. OH NO! Why? So the tree will bear more fruit and better fruit. For us? This could mean writing two or three bad books before we get a winner. It could mean multiple revisions. But, to gain more, we have to sacrifice.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Slgckgc

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Slgckgc

Harvest and Maintenance

In the beginning, we have a lot of back-breaking work. But, if we are patient and consistent we can finally reach a maintenance phase. Once the grove of peach trees is producing, we keep fertilizing, tending, and harvesting.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kathleen Dagostino

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kathleen Dagostino

An author platform is the same. In the beginning, we need to build traction. Yet, there will come a time when we can back off. We need to let the soil rest. We need to cycle in other crops. We need margin in life or we lose that creativity and passion that started us on our path to begin with.

Two Mistakes Writers Make

One writer wants everything instantly. This writer wants a thriving platform and big books sales too early, and maybe resorts to shortcuts. They spray chemicals on green immature peaches (blogs/books) and try to pass off bitter, tasteless content to consumers. Or they just jump into the market too soon.

The other writer overworks the grove and production eventually suffers.

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Stoere Schrijfster.

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Stoere Schrijfster.

I’ve been guilty of both mistakes. When I wrote my first social media book, I failed to build a platform ahead of time. My first royalty check was dismal and made me cry for three days. I needed to dig in and keep cultivating.

Now? I need more margin. I’m cutting this blog back to two days a week. I’d rather give you guys two fabulous blogs and more books, classes, WANACons and consulting.

Right now, I’m blogging because I love it. It’s fun. But there are better ways I can serve you and help you learn and grow. We can get so in a habit of doing something, we fail to see when we can (and need to) stop overworking.

And this is a tricky blog to write, because I want to tell you there are times for the back-breaking-put-all-you-have-into-it-work. There are no shortcuts and this isn’t offering excuses. The marketplace is glutted with books and without a platform, our odds of success are better with scratch-off tickets. But I also want to impart on you, that there is also a time to back away. We need balance to maintain. I will still be working my tail off, just in different areas ;).

So what about you guys? Are you guilty of living too much with your accelerator pressed to the floorboard? Do you struggle with knowing where and what to let go of? Do you put everyone and everything ahead of yourself and your writing and it’s making your “creative field” suffer?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of November, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

I will announce October’s winner next week.

I’m offering my First Five Pages Class November 14th 8-9:30. The first five pages of any novel are the most critical and I will teach you how to hook hard and early and also how to spot bigger problems in your novel.

I’m also offering my Antagonist Class. The antagonist is the beating heart of the story. If you can’t seem to finish a book or a book isn’t selling or is getting rejected, this class can help tremendously. There are also upgrades where I work with you one-on-one to repair or even create your plot.

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87 Comments

Blog Hijack Part Deux – WANA Goings On

By Jay Donovan
Yes, it’s me again, Kristen’s Tech Guy. Kristen has family issues hitting her hard and has been nursing a loved one back to health. We’ll have to wait for a future blog post to learn if Nurse Kristen is more Florence Nightingale or Nurse Ratchet.

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NR

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In her seeming desperation, she handed me the keys to her blog. Again…

You’d have thought she’d have learned after I hijacked her site last time. Then again, knowing Kristen, she’s aware that I ‘sampled’ a couple glasses of wine while TechGirl and I made lasagna. Kristen’s call for help at an ungodly late hour is most likely a ploy Sun Tzu would be proud of.

Regardless, challenge accepted!

Actually, this is a fantastic chance to catch everyone up on the goings on in WANAville.

WC

First off, thanks to everyone who joined us for the October WANACon Writers Conference. We appreciate your trust in us and hope you had as good a time as we did. For those who couldn’t join us, the session recordings are available for On Demand viewing here.

The next WANACon will be Friday February 21st and Saturday February 22nd, (hopefully) far enough from the chaos of the holidays that a conference track on what to do next with your NaNoWriMo creation makes sense, and close enough to Valentine’s Day for one on writing romance.

Keep up with all the details by visiting WANACon.com or joining our mailing list.

WI
WANA Classes are going On Demand
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We’ve heard you. And finally the technology allows us to bring you an “On Demand” class experience that is good enough to receive the WANA… ->

We’re not moving away from live classes, but with busy WANAs all over the globe, we’re structuring classes to be more flexible for those who can’t attend live.

We’ll be adding dozens of classes by amazing instructors over the next few months. Click for our Current Class List or to join our mailing list.

And a shameless plug…

TS

Book Tours in Your PJs

On Friday, my company, TechSurgeons is adding an new Author ServiceVirtual Book Tours. They’ll use the same tech WANA uses for WANACon and live classes. At an introductory price of $50, you can rent a virtual room for 6 hours for you and up to 10 others at a time.  You’ll be able talk to your readers, share web cams, instant message with the shy ones, display PDFs of sample chapters, extras, and ‘out takes’ or whatever creative ideas you have. Contact me for more details.

WTRemember WANATribe, -the- private social media site by authors for authors.

We have Tribes for all genres and interests. And if you don’t see the one you want, you can create it. Joining and using WANATribe is free.

As a thank you prize for reading putting up with my post, here’s a video of (I believe) George Clooney and Brad Pitt dueling with a flamethrower and fire extinguisher.  Inside sources claimed this was filmed just before they went to their respective makeup artists.

Okay, that was mean. Here’s an amazingly cool video of the Ohio State band performing their “Hollywood Blockbuster” Show.
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Geek in His (un)Natural Habitat

Geek in His (un)Natural Habitat

Jay Donovan is the official WANA Tech Guy and takes care of all WANA’s technology needs. He’s writing an “Expansion Pack” on the proper use of pen names to supplement Kristen’s “Rise of the Machines” and should be working on it instead of hijacking blogs and talking about himself in third person, but where’s the fun in that?

Jay’s company TechSurgeons LLC provides the geeky magic for WANACon and  WANA classes. TechSurgeons also hosts the WANAIntl.com & authorkristenlamb.com websites. He’d love to be your tech guy too.

Find him on Twitter at @jaytechdad or on Facebook

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30 Comments

Conflict—Giving LIFE to Your Fiction

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Bad decisions make GREAT fiction. I know it’s tough to not write about fully evolved/self-actualized characters, but those guys are B-O-R-I-N-G. We like to watch people grow, probably so we might glean some hint of how to grow, ourselves. The more messed up a character is? The more INTERESTING they become.

Come on! You know it.

If you were at a restaurant and had a choice of where to eavesdrop, would it be the couple talking about their plans for the week as a team baking cookies for the school? Or would it be the nasty breakup on Table 6?

If we don’t have conflict, the story falls flat. Everything comes too easily and that is a formula for a Snooze-Fest. I am SO HUMBLED and honored to be friends with THE LEGEND Les Edgerton. In his mind? NOTHING comes easily. Even if your protagonist just wants directions, she should get, “What? Do I look like Google Maps?” in response.

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, last week we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker and log-lines. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end.

The CORE ANTAGONIST (what I call the BBT) is responsible for creating the problem that 1) disrupts the protagonist’s life 2) forces change and growth 3) is in need of clear resolution by the end. No core problem and there is no clean way to end the book.

Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive. THIS is the point when the protagonist has CHANGED enough to become a HERO.

Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting (and a solid core problem). One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Via the Mel Brooks classic "Blazing Saddles"

Via the Mel Brooks classic “Blazing Saddles”

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence used to be quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up O_o.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies, car chases and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

The Many Faces of the Antagonist

There is ONE BBT. Sauron, Buffalo Bill, VIKI, Loki, Darla the Fish-Killer all create the core story problems the protagonists must resolve. Ah, but along the way, there should be conflict in EVERY scene. Conflict often will come from multiple directions. There will be the long-range conflict (I.e. drop evil ring into volcano in Mordor) and short-range conflict, which is very often generated by allies (run from angry pitch-fork-wielding-farmer because Merry and Pippin stole veggies).

The antagonist role can shift. It can be friends, family, coworkers, but these guys are not the CORE antagonist.

From the film, "I, Robot."

From the film, “I, Robot.”

For instance, in I, Robot, VIKI (the computer controlling all the robots) is the Big Boss Troublemaker. Yet, who generates much of the conflict? ALLIES who are acting as antagonists.

Whether it’s the protagonist’s grandmother, “Look, I won an evil robot in the lottery! See how well he handles a KNIFE? We’ve been cooking ALL DAY! Whee!” or his boss “What robots tried to kill you? The tunnel was clean and you’re imagining things. Gimme your badge,” poor Spooner CANNOT get a break.

The more the robots try to kill him, the more his allies protest and create roadblocks, generating conflict.

Even in literary works, there has to be external conflict. A book of navel-gazing is not literary. It’s navel-gazing. In the Pulitzer-Winning book and later Oscar-Winning movie The Hours each story is a manifestation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Mrs. Dalloway. And, if you watch the movie or read the book, it’s WAY better if you’ve actually read Mrs. Dalloway. 

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, "The Hours"

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, “The Hours”

Clarissa wants to help her former lover-friend who is ravaged by AIDS, but he refuses help and torments her by calling her Mrs. Dalloway (who was a woman searching for meaning). Mrs. Dalloway arranges the flowers and flitters around planning parties, but deep down believes she’s a non-entity.

Clarissa is the same. She has become what she fears and those around her only reinforce this insecurity. Clarissa can’t connect to her lover, her friend or her daughter and there are roadblocks at every turn.

One way we can ensure we have conflict is to use the Blake Snyder method. In each scene, ask “Protagonist wants X, but then….” Someone or something should stand in the way, and it is better if it’s someone. Remember all good characters have baggage and issues like real people. This is what will make your cast more than talking heads. I know it is counterintuitive, but this is why writing is HARD. Humans avoid conflict, but great writers dive straight for it.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What books or movies ratcheted the tension so high you thought your nerves might just snap?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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52 Comments

Fueling the Muse for NaNoWriMo—Part One

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 11.27.09 AM

Yesterday, we talked about fueling the muse to go the distance. For the professional writer, every month is NaNoWriMo, so there is NO BETTER indoctrination into this business. NaNo shapes us from hobbyists to pros, but we need to do some preparation if we want to be successful—finish 50,000 words and actually have something that can be revised into a real novel that others might part with money to read. Genre obviously will dictate the fuel required, but today we’ll explore one of my favorites.

Movies

Feel free to watch movies similar to your genre for some immersion, but this really isn’t what I’d encourage you to study.

Plot

Study plot points. Sit with a notebook and write out in one to three sentences:

Normal World

What was the character’s life like before it was interrupted by the BBT’s (CORE ANTAGONIST’S) agenda? I will use two divergent examples—World War Z and Steel Magnolias— to make my point and hopefully not spoil the more recent of the two. As far as Steel Magnolias? Y’all have had since 1989 to see it. Tough :P.

In World War Z, we meet a guy making breakfast for his family. He’s hung up some mysterious “old bad@$$ life” in order to be with his wife and kids.

In Steel Magnolias, we meet M’Lynn taking care of all the little details of her daughter’s wedding. She’s a Hover-Mother who takes care of the broken glasses, finds the right shade of pink nail polish, and stops Dad from shooting birds out of the trees. She’s a fixer and she’s in control.

Inciting Incident

This is the first hint of the BBT’s (Big Boss Troublemaker’s) agenda, the first tangible place it intersects with the protagonist’s life and causes disruption.

In World War Z, Jack and his family are in the car. He and his wife are on their way to take the kids to school when all hell breaks loose. It’s the first glimpse the protagonist sees of the looming threat, but aside from escaping with his family, he’s made no vested decision to get involved.

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In Steel Magnolias the Inciting Incident happens in the beauty shop when Shelby’s blood sugars drop dangerously low and she goes into convulsions. Mom tries to help and Shelby swats her away (a hint at her future defiance). This is the first time the audience has met the BBT (Death/Diabetes manifested in the proxy Shelby).

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Turning Points

Look for the major turning points in the movie. According to one of my FAVORITE craft books (Story Engineering) in Act One, the protagonist is running. He or she doesn’t know where exactly the conflict is coming from or precisely what IT is. Act Two, the protagonist is a Warrior. He or she has glimpsed the face of the BBT and fights back.

For instance, in World War Z, Jack knows it’s a virus creating “zombies” and he decides to return to the old job and fight. He agrees to search for Patient Zero in hopes they can find a cure.

In Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn shifts from Running (Here’s your orange juice. Have you checked your blood sugar?) to Warrior. Her daughter defies her and decides to get pregnant even though it could (and will) cost her life. Momma puts on full battle gear, determined to “control” her daughter’s fate. Diabetes has shifted from looming “controllable” threat to a ticking time bomb Mom still believes she can diffuse if she just tries hard enough.

Act Three, the protagonist shifts from Warrior to Hero.

Darkest Moment

This is right before the turning point to Act Three. This is where EVERYTHING is stripped away from the protagonist and it seems all is lost. The DM is the catalyst that shifts our protagonist from Warrior to Hero. Anyone else would give up the “fight” and go home, but not our protagonist.

In World War Z the protagonist is critically injured, he’s lost his family, outside help, and he’s faced with a crushing setback. There is no Patient Zero, at least no “clear” Patient Zero. It’s a dead end and it looks like time has just about run out for humankind.

In Steel Magnolias Shelby dies despite all of M’Lynn’s tireless efforts to control. She realizes she has no power. She never was in control and now she’s utterly lost.

Act Three/ Character Arc

How does the protagonist mentally shift over the course of the story? What was the critical flaw that would have held them back in the beginning, that would have made the protagonist “lose” if pitted against the BBT.

For Jack, he has to be willing to give up his family to save his family.

For M’Lynn, she has to admit she can’t control life or death in order to embrace the messiness of living.

How is the story problem resolved? 

Pay attention to the Big Boss Battle. How has the protagonist changed? What decisions do they make (or not make)?

What is the outcome? How is the world set “right”?

In World War Z, Jack’s sacrifice gives humanity a fighting chance. In Steele Magnolias we see little Jackson (biological grandson) running and picking up Easter eggs (there is NO mistake that this story is bookended by Easter). Resurrection through Jackson is what ultimately defeats Death. Shelby lives on through her little boy.

Dialogue

Great movies have great dialogue. Study it. How do characters talk? When I get submissions, one of the major problems I see is in dialogue. Coaching the reader, brain-holding, and people simply talking in ways that are unrealistic. For instance, most of us, when having a conversation, don’t sit and call each other by name.

“But, Bob, if Fifi goes base-jumping she could die.”

“Yes, Joe, but it’s Fifi’s life and if she want’s to be stuff on a rock, it’s her decision, not ours.”

“I agree, Bob, but I love Fifi.”

“Joe, then tell her. Fifi’s craving attention.”

*rolls eyes*

If you’re writing a military book, watch a pal play Call of Duty or Modern Warfare. Game designers use folks from Special Operations as consultants. They use DELTA Force, Green Berets, SEALS, etc for all the world-building, so why reinvent the wheel? Hollywood is notorious for getting this stuff dead WRONG, so if you want accurate military dialogue, games are better. Or, watch movies who’ve done their homework, not shoot-em-up brain candy flicks.

And for any military folks out there, I could NOT resist. No drinking fluids near keyboard while watching…

Setting

Movies are great for getting an idea of setting. Pay attention to the terrain and make notes.

Fill that muse to bursting and NaNo will be a LOT easier.

Another HUGE help for NaNo is a solid core story problem. I strongly recommend my antagonist class TONIGHT.

Anyway….

What are your thoughts? What are some things you do to prepare to write a novel? What movies have the best dialogue? Setting? Yes, I know I have ruined all movies for you. You will thank me later :P.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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45 Comments

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