Archive for category Writing

Everybody Arcs! How to Use Emotional Growth to Propel the Story and Capture the Reader

Because the Scarletts of the world get THINGS DONE....

Because the Scarletts of the world get THINGS DONE….

I’ve heard people say some books (or genres) are plot-driven and others are character-driven. My POV? This is a fallacy. All good books are character-driven and plot is what makes that possible. Characters have to make us give a hoot about the plot. If we don’t like or empathize with the characters, we don’t care about their problems.

Conversely, plot is the delivery mechanism and crucible for character (even in literary fiction). Characters can only be as strong as the opposition they face. Weak problems=weak characters. In a nutshell, character and plot can’t be easily separated.

For instance, in the Pulitzer-Winning The Road, the plot is simple. Man and Boy must make it to the ocean. Yet, since this piece is literary, the plot goal is subordinate to character goal.

It is less important that Man and Boy make it to the ocean than how they make it to the ocean. The world has been obliterated, killing every living thing other than humans. Many have returned to the animal state, resorting to cannibalism to survive. The question in The Road is less “Will they make it to the ocean?” and more “How will they make it to the ocean?” If they resort to snacking on people, they fail.

The Road

The Road

But I will say that while plot is great, characters are what (who) we remember. We have to be able to empathize. We want to love them, hate them, root for them and watch them fail, then overcome that failure. As the late Blake Snyder said, “Everybody arcs!”

Often, this is the trick with series and why early books generally are more popular. Once our main character evolves, we are left with three choices:

1) Have plot create a new flaw in the protagonist.

2) Peel back another flaw that was already there, but hidden by a more visible flaw.

3) Protagonist can serve as a static character who drives growth in other characters.

Whether we are writing a standalone or a series, character growth is pivotal to good writing. I believe one of the reasons humans are a story people is that we fear change. Often, we see our own flaws and have NO IDEA how to correct them, how to get unstuck. We can feel defeated. Yet, through narrative, we watch protagonists become heroes and, unlike life, there’s full resolution. We can see some slice of ourselves in stories and it helps us change or at least maintain hope that change is possible.

Tools

I highly, highly recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus and Positive Trait Thesaurus (and add in The Emotion Thesaurus to assist in execution). These books are awesome at helping us see how characters should grow organically. What I love about these books is Angela and Becca show positives of the negatives and negatives of the positives.

For instance, a flaky character can be annoying, unreliable and unpredictable. BUT since this character is unpredictable, she can be very useful because she’s unconventional. She can add comic relief (Phoebe Buffet from Friends) or even tension (Riggs from Lethal Weapon).

Both thesauri show behaviors, attitudes and examples which can make writing life MUCH easier. The Emotion Thesaurus gives us ways to show not tell to express these traits and keeps us from beating up the same descriptions (hearts hammering, hearts beating, hearts thumping, etc.)

How I Use These FABULOUS TOOLS

There is no one right way to write a book. What I did was read a lot of methods, tried them, took what worked and what didn’t and then cobbled my own. But here’s a peek into MY process and the process I encourage students to begin with.

Since I’m writing a trilogy, I needed to look at who my character was in Book One. In Book One, Romi is very loyal and innocent which is ultimately what lands her in trouble. She blindly trusts because she sees only the good in others and ignores or writes off red flags. By the end of Book One, she’s been through a MAJOR crucible and crawled through hell. To survive the Big Boss Battle, she has to kill or be killed. The person she has to kill is a person she cares about and trusted.

My pitch for Book One is Legally Blonde meets Killing Floor.

And my protagonist is a person who, at the beginning of the story, couldn’t step on a bug let alone take a human life. This final action changes her irreparably and damages her innocence.

So, in Book One, my protagonist evolves from Green Pea Pollyanna to Hero Willing to Do What It Takes to Do the Right Thing.

Ah, but doing the right thing has a price. In Book Two, I can’t have her be the same person as Book One or she isn’t believable. Book Two, she’s flipped to the other side of the loyal-trusting-innocent coin and is two steps away from wearing a tin foil hat. Now she questions everything and can never relax. Everybody lies, is her motto. She no longer talks to just anyone, questions everything and is controlling and isolated (but for very good and sympathetic reasons).

Yet, let’s glance at The Positive Trait Thesaurus and I’ll shorten for brevity’s sake.

Book One: Romi Lachlann

Positive: Innocent characters are pure and trusting. They take people at face value and want to believe the good. Easy characters to like and protect.

Negative: In their determination to only see the good, innocent characters may not view the world and other people as they really are, which puts them at a disadvantage.

When we look at this character’s personality, plotting becomes easier. We can also clearly see her Achilles Heel. She needs to be betrayed by someone she trusts blindly and be able to act in a way that is completely contrary to her nature. Also, by knowing who she is (in the beginning) it’s simpler to see who to cast as the antagonist and even allies. She needs allies who challenge her willingness to swallow whatever story she’s fed and help her toughen up.

The core antagonist has to be someone she never sees coming.

When we glance at The Negative Trait Thesaurus, we see that the dark side of Innocent is Childish.

Positive: Innocent and naive. Like children, they are teachable and adapt quickly.

We can use this positive attribute for the protagonist when we look at the proposed solution in The Negative Trait Thesaurus.

Overcoming The Trait as a Major Flaw: A character can defeat his immaturity by growing up. For some, this will mean encountering trials that force them to mature in a short period of time. Other characters will have to face past demons that are keeping them enslaved in this childish state.

This gives me guideposts as to what Book One must accomplish. Romi is tossed head-first into BIG TROUBLE and most of that trouble involves facing a past she believed she left behind when she ran away from home. The story problem forces her to go back to the place she vowed she’d never return.

I could leave my first novel alone. It’s complete. All books (even in a series) should be able to stand alone.

Romi arcs from innocent and blindly trusting person to a determined fighter. But, I wanted the challenge of trying a trilogy, so I have to repeat the process all over again. What is the opposite of Innocent? Resourceful. What is the dark side of resourceful? Paranoid.

And thus I repeat the process. Who is she in the beginning? Who do I need her to grow to be by the end? She can’t live in a hole hiding and terrified of dying. Something has to push her past her fears to face that she’s regressed into an unhealthy existence. Something has to make her rise above her fear and restore her faith. 

There will be residue of that innocent-loyal person, but it now has a hardened shell as a defense mechanism. The “thing” that lures her out of hiding is likely tethered to her core nature. Being uber-paranoid isn’t who she truly is. It’s a coping mechanism, a protection.

Remember, in the beginning, I said one plot problem can create a new character problem. Like cogs in a wheel these arcs propel narrative and drive growth and change.

Also, remember that no character is only ONE of these attributes. Strong characters are a unique blending or we end up with caricatures. An innocent character can also be loyal and funny (Elle Woods in Legally Blonde) or they can be isolated and fearful (Edward Scissorhands).

Favorite Story Example

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings

I love Lord of the Rings probably more than is healthy. I loved the arc of the Hobbits. Sauron never saw Hobbits as particularly useful (they didn’t get a ring) and he never perceived them as any sort of threat. Yet, it is their innocence that becomes Sauron’s ultimate undoing.

Unlike the other races, Hobbits are not as susceptible to the Ring of Power’s sway because of their innocence and inherent goodness. But, in the first book (or movie) their naiveté nearly gets them and all their allies killed.

***Um, cooking bacon on a mountain while EVIL DEAD KINGS are chasing them and trying to KILL them?

The Hobbits must toughen up and lose some of that innocence…but not all of it. If they lose all of it, the Ring of Power will never be destroyed and Sauron wins. Yet, my favorite scene in all cinematic history (which makes me cry EVERY time) is the end of Return of the King. We see the once childlike Hobbits around a pub table, silent, sharing a drink and we see what they sacrificed to not only save the world, but preserve the inherent goodness of their people.

While the other Hobbits dance and laugh and drink in the background, these warriors are quiet and somber. They likely have PTSD and are trying to recapture what they’ve lost, but can never regain. They will never again see the world as they did before that first day leaving The Shire. It is tragic and beautiful all in the span of a few moments.

I hope this gives you some new ideas of how to create dimensional characters. When we know who our characters are (protagonists and antagonists) and where we need them to be/grow, plotting is far simpler.

What are your thoughts? Have you used these books? Maybe used them in a different way? What are some of your favorite character arcs? Do you dislike super-perfect characters?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ;) . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

 

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43 Comments

Starting the Story “In the Action”—Understanding “In Medias Res”

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Last week I gave FIVE editor tips to help you guys know if you needed revision. One of the most CONFUSING mistakes (in my POV) is the notion of “Starting with too much action.” I know all of us have heard the “Start in the action” “You have to HOOK” and so we devise car chases, bombs, funerals, etc. in hopes that we will engage a reader.

Before we start, I will add a caveat. Genre might affect the first pages of your novel. In a thriller, mystery, mystery-thriller or suspense, it is common to begin with a body or a terrible act.

In The DaVinci Code, we begin with a horrible murder in an art museum.

BUT, this scene is often NOT a scene with the protagonist. When it comes to the protagonist, we need to begin in what is called in medias res.

The first scene with the protagonist in The DaVinci Code involves the hero at a lecture, which is interrupted by a problem.

Protag’s Goal: Complete lecture, sign some books and maybe have a nice dinner in Paris and go to bed early.

Antag’s Goal: Drop everything and come check out this crime scene. We need your expertise and you don’t have an option of declining.

Note the scene antagonist is not a bad guy but his agenda trumps what the protagonist wants.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

In medias res quite literally means “in the middle of things.” This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

Ah, but this is where we writers can get in trouble. I see writers beginning their novels with high-action gun battles, blowing up buildings, a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scene in a hospital or at a funeral, all in an effort to “hook the reader” by “starting in the middle of the action.” Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they are confused.

But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” than a high-speed chase through Monte Carlo as a bomb ticks down to the final seconds?

Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why this is melodrama and not in medias res.

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

For many centuries, there was a literary tendency to begin “in the early years” leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more “setting up” the story. The reader was privy to “why such and such character” became a whatever. There was a lot of heavy character development and explaining the why of things.

This, of course was fine, because in the 18th century, no writer was competing with television, movies or Facebook.

Thus, if a book was a thousand pages long, it just meant it must have been extra-awesome. Also, authors, back in the day, were often paid by the word, thus there was a lot of incentive to add extra fluff and detail, layer on the subplots and pad the manuscript more than a Freshman term paper. Writing lean hit the author in the piggy bank, so most authors lived by the motto, No adverb left behind.

Then Hemingway came on the scene and…well, let’s get back to my point.

In medias res was not employed by many early novelists. They started the book when the protagonist was in the womb (being facetious here) and their stories often took on epic proportions.

Modern writers can’t do this. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, so save the e-mails. Just trust me when I say that modern readers have been spoiled by Hollywood and iPhones. They are used to instant gratification, and most modern readers will not give us writers 15,000 words to get the the point.

These days, especially when readers are deluged with choices, our sample pages are more vital then ever. We need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

screen-shot-2012-03-27-at-6-17-32-pm

Example from Life

In medias res is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

Do we need to start in the years that Kristen was too young to go to Six Flags? How she would see her teenage cousins leave for a day of roller coasters and cry herself to sleep in her toddler bed for not getting to ride the roller coasters? How she vowed at four that she, too, would one day brave The Shock Wave?

Uh…no.

Do we start the story on the biggest loop of the roller coaster? The screams and terror mixed with glee?

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. If we blow up a building in scene one, do we later blow up two? Three?

So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure).

Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

In medias res means we start as close to the overall story problem as possible.

Beginning With Action

This term “action” is often misunderstood, so I hope I can clear it up. There are two components to fiction, the scene and the sequel. The scene is simple. Our character has a GOAL, then someone stands in the way of that goal (antagonist) and there is a setback (or a victory). Most often there will be setbacks because setbacks ratchet tension. The protagonist needs to be one step forward, ten steps back.

The sequel is the processing of some event/setback that just occurred. This is where our character can do some thinking, emotional processing or even discussing with others.

What new writers often do is they begin the book with the sequel, yet a sequel can only come as a result of a scene.

Scenes are action. The character is wanting, needing, doing something. This is a place where we as readers can empathize with the character and connect with the protagonist and begin to root for him or her.

For instance, Les Edgerton is a pal of mine and his book Hooked is the bible of beginnings. He was kind enough to look at the first chapter of my novel and…he SLAYED ME. But, the cool part about Les is he teaches WHY he kills what he kills.

Now, I thought I got into my “action” quickly. I began with my character, Romi, cooking half to death in a parking lot. She’s dreading the Unemployment Office. She is funny, self-deprecating and we do feel sorry for her.

Les chopped off ALL OF IT.

Though only about three pages, Les told me that I began my story in the wrong spot. He chastised me and told me that, while my writing was hysterical, it had to GO.

My actual story began when Romi pushes through the door to the Unemployment Office and realizes Angry Bird (what she’s named a dreadful bureaucrat who treats her like dirt) is working that day. She wants a job. She wants an ally, someone who will help and not judge her. What she gets is a roadblock.

We feel sympathy for her. Most of us know how badly it sucks to look for a job, and that the Unemployment Office is humbling and even humiliating. This is a small event, but one that pulls the reader to the side of my protagonist. Within five pages, she meets another setback.

She finds out she has been blackballed because she was engaged to a man who pulled an ENRON and stole over a half a billion dollars then vanished (and also wiped out all her bank accounts leaving her so broke she can’t even afford to eat).

She’s given a challenge. “Find your ex. Find the money or you will never work anywhere that doesn’t involve a toilet brush and being paid in cash.”

Thus, I hope you can see how the initial setback isn’t massive. It isn’t a funeral or a car crash. It’s gutting it through the front doors of the Unemployment Office and dealing with someone who is supposed to help, but who is sarcastic, rude and a tad cruel. The scene gives us time to empathize, yet it is interminably linked to the major story problem.

Protagonist’s Goal: Get a job before being evicted.

Antagonist’s Goal: Keep her from finding work to starve her into finding missing money.

When Romi enters the Unempolyment Office, she is hopeful this day will be different. She will find a job. She leaves ten steps back. Not only is she unable to find a job, but she never will and has no clue where the missing money is or even where to begin looking. She’s out of money and is out of options. She has to fall back to the ONE place she vowed she’d never return…home with her crazy trailer trash family who resents her for leaving home to go to college.

Also note, (again) that the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil. His father was one of the investors fleeced out of millions. He believes Romi knows where the money is, and he’s using what sway he has for “justice.” Problem is, Romi really is innocent.

I hope this has helped you guys understand what makes a great hook. Begin with a problem (scene), not THINKING (sequel). The problem doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, and if it is, make sure it’s something you can outdo later. Don’t have the biggest loop of your roller coaster at the front of the ride or everything else will be anticlimactic.

What are your thoughts? Any lightbulbs? Did this technique confuse you guys as much as it did me?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ;) . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

 

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52 Comments

Five Warning Signs Your Story Needs Revision

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 11.38.45 AM

Original image via Jenny Downing Flikr Creative Commons

We can have the best story ideas in the world, but to be blunt? There’s a lot to be said for delivery. While these problems might seem picky, there are some fundamental errors that can weaken the writing. If our writing loses power, this can become distressing or distracting to readers.

Many readers (not being editors or professional writers) might not be able to articulate specifically why they lost interest in a story, but often the answer is simple. It can be an accumulation of the small things. The little foxes spoil the vine.

Most of us make one or more of these errors, especially when we’re new. Hey, that’s called “being NEW.” No one is born with the natural ability to write brilliant, perfect novels coded into their DNA. It takes time and practice, so give yourself permission to make mistakes…then learn, suck it up and back to work.

It writes the words or it gets the hose *pets fluffy white dog*

To maybe make you guys feel better, I’ve written well over a million words in blogs and articles alone. I’ve also written three books, two novels and scads of short stories. As much as I have written—and EDITED—even I have to seek outside editors to look for these issues.

We ALL make these oopses. But, hopefully, this blog will give you a nice little checklist so you can clean up your own work as much as possible before handing it to a pro.

Not only will cleaning up these oopses make the editing process faster—because your editor can actually get to the MEAT of your work instead of being distracted by small errors—but the bill should be smaller because your editor can work faster because there are fewer problems to correct. Also, if you’re sending sample pages to an agent and he/she sees too many of these newbie blunders?

NEXT!

Oh, and a biggie? In The Digital Age, sample pages are the most POWERFUL tool we have for making a sale. Our first five pages can be the most important in the entire book ;) .

Today I’m again donning my editor’s hat to give you a peek into what red flags editors, agents (and even readers) see in those first five pages.

Red Flag #1

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision

Don’t even get me started about Jar Jar Binks.

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies (good ones, NOT the SW prequels). If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals.

Only name them if you plan on getting us attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Just don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

Red Flag #2

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Lola leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Fabio. She needed her twist-ties and lucky purple rabbit’s foot if she ever was going to defuse the bomb in time. Sweat ran into her eyes as she reached out for Malfio’s hand. They only had minutes before Juliette would be back and then it would all be over for Katy, Skipper and Mitzi.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

We don’t care. We (the readers) aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. On this blog, we’ve discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure (or might be trying to “reinvent it”).

Thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Red Flag #3

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts? Time for Revision

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Red Flag #4

Too much Physiology? Time for Revision

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more. Get a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus.

Red Flag #5

Too Many Evil Adverbs? REVISE!

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing and help you more easily spot what and where revision is needed.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. Hooked by Les Edgerton. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Buy these and study them.

You will thank me later.

(And, of course, for social media/branding help, there is my book *bats eyelashes* Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World).

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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).

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem ;) . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

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116 Comments

The Future of Fiction–From Tiny to Titanic, How to Claim Your Niche

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Last post, I talked about the increasing popularity of series, novellas, shorts and “episodic” writing. Of course, this assertion probably stirred panic in those writers who simply aren’t wired to write series. Personally, I would like to try writing a series, but we’ll see. I might be a stand-alone gal, too.

Let me offer a bit of comfort. The rule that we shouldn’t write to the market still holds true in this case. Just like we shouldn’t decide to write a Vampire-Post-Apacolyptic-Self-Help because those are hot, we shouldn’t take on shorts or series if they aren’t our thing.

Epics, Shorts, and Series are NOT New

What many people might miss is that epics and shorts are not new. With the advent of the nifty thingamajig—the “printing press”—pamphlets were all the rage back in the 1800s. In fact, if we look at early writing, we see two very divergent sizes. On the end of brevity? Ben Franklin Poor Man’s Almanac or even Sir Author Conan Doyle’s short stories. The deep end? The breathtakingly-long-and-detailed-OMG War and Peace by Tolstoy—which demonstrates clearly that, when an author is paid by the word, he will pad that sucker more than a freshman term paper.

Even Charles Dickens danced both sides of the length-spectrum. A Christmas Carol versus A Tale of Two Cities.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

In the early 20th century, pulp fiction was extremely popular. People loved short works that fit in a pocket, ergo, the term “pocket books.” But, as the traditional publishing model evolved and books became bigger business, publishers realized they could charge more money for a longer book. This didn’t mean the audience for short stories and novellas suddenly went away. It had more to do with a business model than reader preferences.

We see the same with epic high fantasy and science fiction. When I was a kid, books big enough to brain a burglar were hot. Um, Clan of the Cave Bear? Ah, but the publishers realized that long books presented a couple of problems.

First, if the word count got too big, the font was so small readers needed a microscope to read it. Secondly, a big fat honkin’ book took up a LOT of shelf space. Why would a publisher bank on FIVE 140,000 word books when they could encourage writers to limit word count and be able to shelve and sell TEN 70,000 word books?

But again, shelf space, cost of paper/shipping/shelving, profit-models didn’t mean that readers who loved 140,000 book died off or evaporated.

The Digital Paradigm Revival

When I began as a writer, agents were quick to turn down short stories, novellas, epics, poetry, etc. It wasn’t because there weren’t readers for these types of writing; it was that the profit simply wasn’t there in a paper-based-brick-and-mortar model. And, to be blunt, I can’t blame New York. I remember being a young whipper snapper inhaling Tolkien, but my eyes were better.

By the time I reached my adult years, reading 1200 pages with 9 font was far too grueling.

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Christian Guthier

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Christian Guthier

The e-reader has solved this problem. It’s made short works profitable. For those who are great at writing shorter works or serialized works, you can now access the audience that loves them and in a way that doesn’t automatically land you in the red.

For those who are strong at more epic fiction, now you can either publish one long book or break it into installments. I know I never would have been able to read Game of Thrones in paper without going BLIND. With my Kindle? I can now enjoy those super long adventures I adored in my youth.

Yes, there is a lot of chaos, confusion and growing pains as the publishing world shifts and grows and molts the old skin that no longer fits. In the midst of this, however, there is now room for more writers, more works, and more types of work, which should be very encouraging.

Also, writers can now enjoy far greater flexibility. Sure, if you want to publish traditionally, you can! But if you have the right contract, there is nothing stopping you from writing shorts or novellas or series or testing other genres in between books if you want to. Keep the fan fires burning in between.

There is ALWAYS an Audience

If you want to write stand-alones only? Great. Do it. That is your strength. Don’t feel that because series are hot you need to suddenly retool everything. There is just as much of an audience for the stand-alone as there is for the shorter or way longer stuff. The only difference is that publishing has been feeding your audience for the past couple decades, whereas those who liked super-short or uber-long had to read older books or look to magazines or e-zines.

If you DO, however, want to write a series, there are some fundamentals to ensure that your plot skeleton is strong and compelling. Plot is the delivery mechanism for character. Our characters can only be as strong as the problems they face.

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Last post I talked about loving Battlestar Galactica. I can SEE why this series is so iconic. Hubby and I went back and watched Caprica because we were interested in what happened before the Cylon revolt. How did the Cylons come to be? The first few episodes? LOVED them. Now? I can see why the series wasn’t renewed. The overall plot problem is too small and too weak. There is no impending threat, so the series, for me, is fizzling.

Also, without a BIG and COMPELLING story problem, the individual characters aren’t as strong. The pressure is weak, thus the characters are too. Instead of truly heroic feats, I am seeing more and more melodrama and getting to where I hate almost everyone. Why? Because in Battlestar Galactica characters did awful, bad and stupid things, but we could forgive them. They were running for their lives and staring into the face of extinction. The story PROBLEM permitted us to give them grace.

In Caprica there is no large problem so this makes the characters petty and unlikable. Also, in Battlestar Galactica we knew the log-line. The human race must destroy or evade the Cylons and find Earth before they are rendered extinct by their own creation.

The audience in ONE SENTENCE knows the story, whether it is three episodes or thirty. GOAL: Find Earth. Every setback that keeps Earth out of reach or dashes hope of even finding Earth or any hint Earth might not exist makes us nervous. It is true dramatic tension.

Caprica? Once I got an idea of how the Cylons came to be? I grew bored. There is NO imminent threat, no crucible, no idea of an overall problem in need of solving. Each episode is just “stuff happening.” It is breaking one of the core rules of a good series. Every episode should be able to stand alone. Every episode should have a clear smaller goal that is a step toward reaching the larger goal.

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

And, to be blunt, Caprica might simply be facing the problem most prequels have. We already know the end. We already know the Cylons will rebel and wage war and nearly wipe out humans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I watched Caprica because now I understand the Cylons more and the humans sorta deserved what they got. But, it is tough to have a ticking clock and a disaster to be averted when the audience already knows the humans will “lose.”

Whether we write short works, long works, in-between works, serialized or unserialized, the same “rules” apply. We’ll talk more later about how to write a strong series, but a great start no matter what kind of story—short, long, in-between, connected, unconnected—is to create a clear, compelling, story-worthy problem.

What are your thoughts? Do you have series that fizzled for you for the same reasons? There wasn’t a strong problem or a clear problem? Can you think of stories you loved versus ones that lost your interest because it devolved into confusion or melodrama? Are you contemplating a series? Why?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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).

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World.

 

 

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66 Comments

Why Series are Becoming Hot, Hot, HOT! How Dragging Out the Pain is Good for Your Readers

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

Every setback is an opportunity for an even greater comeback. I love these words. No idea who said it, but it rocks. Life has a way of being awesome, amazing, fantastic…and a ROYAL @$$whipping, too. Not only is this quote great to hold close to our chests when life has us on the spin-cycle, this is a FABULOUS mantra for writing memorable, epic stories.

Hubby and I just finished a marathon session of gorging ourselves on Battlestar Galactica and are now careening through Caprica because it is backstory for BSG. I refuse to watch any show that doesn’t have at least four seasons complete, namely because, if I like a new show? Apparently it spells its DEATH for the new showThus, I don’t like getting too attached. I wait, then inhale an entire season a day.

Don’t judge. I know you do it too O_o.

I feel that series, complex series, are actually the way of the future (and have felt this way since roughly 2004). There’s a fantastic book that explains why, called Everything That’s Bad for You is Good (and I strongly recommend it). In a nutshell, popular opinion seems to be that, as a society, we are getting DUMBER, spiraling toward an Idiocracy.

In the face of Honey Boo-Boo and The Bachelor, it’s tough to argue. But those shows are mindless brain junk food, and thus we’re comparing apples to oranges when we place them next to Breaking Bad or Walking Dead. Those other shows aren’t storytelling. Don’t tell The Real Harpies Housewives of the OC.

*shivers*

*shivers*

From Big Screen to Small Screen

When I was a kid, all the best actors (acting) were on the big screen. To see an actor go from movies to television was a clear sign they needed to stop doing drugs fire their agent their career was likely over. Television equaled death. Now? We see the opposite. I’ve all but given up on most movies. They bore me into a coma. Most are abysmally predictable or just showing off CGI skills instead of telling a great story. My opinion? Television is now where we are seeing the most successful stories and the most talent (been that way for a while).

Why is That?

Audiences, despite what people might want to believe, have become far more sophisticated. If we had a time-machine and could transport an avid TV fan of Gilligan’s Island to 2014 and sit him in front of Game of Thrones? His head would explode.

Boom.

Ugly.

Anyone got a squeegee?

Modern audiences love a complex plot, numerous story lines, and obscure references. We want a large cast to fall in love with or hate. 

We watch certain movies/shows over and over because there are jokes, innuendo or backstory we missed. Seinfeld is a great example. Every episode had its own plot and humor, but if one hadn’t watched the other shows there were a lot of jokes one simply would NOT get.

Shows like Seinfeld were revolutionary this way. It had never been done before. I Love Lucy was all contained to each episode. Every episode stood alone.

The greatest comedic writing out there is great primarily because of the obscure wink-wink-nod-nods to other iconic movies. For instance, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Scary Movie 5. But if you aren’t a horror fan, it won’t be nearly as funny. Same with Tropic Thunder. One has to have seen Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Tears of the Sun etc. in order to understand the movie and “get” the jokes.

The Simpsons, South Park and Pixar employ a similar tactic by threading pop culture references into the stories.

Finding Nemo has to be one of my all-time favorite movies. Now, The Spawn has loved this movie since he was two. There is a level of humor that renders a toddler a quivering puddle of giggles. But, at a higher level what adult hasn’t lost it in the Shark AA Fishaholics meeting scenes? A toddler has no concept of a Twelve-Step Program, and yet as adults? WE GET the reference and so it launches the humor over the top.

These factors are why many of these movies (or series) are worth buying. We see something new every time we watch. We peel back a new layer, spot a new subplot, finally “get” that double entendre. We can rematch Battlestar Galactica with a fresh set of eyes and see new territory. 

Modern audiences are growing increasingly sophisticated and they long for the mental challenge of keeping up. One can watch BSG and have to recall some detail from ten episodes earlier. We LOVE the mental challenge and this is why the big screen won’t last for the adult audience. The main factor working against movies is TIME.

Most people are pushing it to sit through a three hour movie. A screenwriter, director can only do so much plot or character development in three hours or less. Compare this to a TV series with a hundred hours. We have the time to get to know more characters, more backstory, more subplots and our brains crave the challenge.

What does Twitter and Game of Thrones have in common?

There are 140 characters and everyone is pissed off :D . *bada bump snare*

Ah the Setback

I began this post with a killer quote and I want to use it to show why series are becoming hot, hot, HOT. With a series there is, bluntly, more time and more opportunities to 1) generate love and affection for a wide cast of characters and then 2) torture them then 3) wait for the comeback. Some of the finest series out there will wind your nerves so tightly you feel like you need a drink and a Xanax to get to sleep.

WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN? :O

Is Starbuck alive? Dead? Is she real? A Cylon? Ok, I can sleep WHEN I’M DEAD *clicks for “Next Episode”*

The same urges that drive viewers to lose an entire weekend or night of sleep dying to find out what happens on a show (or video game *cough* Gears of War) is the same phenomena that is driving series and novellas to greater popularity.

For Those Who Want to Write Stand-Alones

If series aren’t your thing. Don’t fret, but remember that every setback is an opportunity for an even greater comeback. The greater the setback the better the comeback. Fiction is the opposite of functional sanityNormal human beings seek to maintain peace and healthy relationships. Your job as good great superlative writers is to maim, torture, crush and kill. Find that shiny thing. Get the protagonist sooooooooo close they almost…have….can…touch…..the edges……..

….and then SMASH IT. SMASH IT, KILL IT….BUUUUURRRRRNNNN IT!

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Your readers will hate you, but it’s good for them. Do NOT protect your characters. Screw up their lives more than a meth-addicted multi-personality mother-in-law. Your characters NEED a crucible. No one wakes up and thinks, “Gee, maybe I have a pride problem. I should totally work on that.” NO! Instead of that promotion they know is in the bag, they get FIRED. Worse, they get blackballed. Worse, they have to apply for food stamps.

Worse, the person at the food stamp office is the very person they were horrifically RUDE to and now they need this person’s mercy. Do they get it? NO! ARE YOU HIGH? STOP BEING A SOFTIE. Do you want to be a WRITER? Then lose that soul and sense of decency (for a bit).

Take the food stamps away! Get them a job at McDonalds and they get fired from THAT TOO. IN THE RAIN!

Run over that character with an emotional panel van, then back over them, then run over them and repeat until they are a pile of GOO.

Gee, I wonder why people feel nervous around writers? :D

Ah, but once that character has withstood the tests…you as Author God then can give them a new shiny and a better shiny. Show them they shiny they wanted in the beginning was Fool’s Gold and let them earn the real deal.

And your readers will then forgive you for the torture.

Series are simply becoming more popular because there is an increased demand for entertainment and people are spoiled with a lot of variety. We are also masochists. Fiction shows us our ugliness, but unlike life? There is a resolution. And, that, my friends, is why we all love a great story.

What are your thoughts? Are you too easy on your characters? Do you have a tough time taking away the shiny? What TV series do you love and why? Are you losing interest in the big screen, too? What are some of your favorite characters from a series and that you might never have known intimately if it were a movie (um, SPIKE)? Do you agree/disagree that publishing is now favoring the series? Are you a series-gorger, too? Do you kill new shows if you like them?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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).

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World.

Winner for March’s  Contest–Aaron Davis. Please send your 5000 word Word document to kristen at wan a intl dot com or a 1250 word synopsis or 250 word query.

 

 

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118 Comments

Lessons from Oleander–The Dangers of Premature Editing

Please don't kill me.

Please don’t kill me.

I love to garden, but I am terrible at reading instructions, which means I am not going to read a How To book or gardening blogs, because I already have enough to read and this would steal time from my great joy…digging in the dirt. This means that, over the years, I’ve learned a lot through trial and error.

Code for : Killing Stuff

Almost five years ago, we bought our first home. We got a sweet deal on it, but it needed work. The yard was little more than mowed field. I couldn’t wait to get in and pretty it up. I slaved for hours in triple-digit Texas heat digging holes and clearing land for gardens. I’d always loved oleander and when I found them on sale at the local nursery, I was ecstatic. Normally, oleander this size were over $100 but I got each for less than $20. I planted one on each corner of the house and dreamed of how beautiful they’d be when they matured.

Then we had the most freakish, freezing winter in Texas history. I’d never even seen snow before and suddenly we were buried in eight inches of it.

The Canadians can all stop laughing now. You guys have things like PLOWS, SNOW SHOVELS, SNOW TIRES…and COATS.

Anyway, the oleanders that seemed to be doing okay during the mild fall were obliterated. When early spring came, I cleaned up all the dead stuff and dug out all the oleanders and threw them away. All except one because I ran out of energy.

Much to my horror, guess what sprouted once it got warmer?

My last remaining oleander. *sniffles*

To this day, I can’t look at that oleander without grieving the other four. I feel so foolish. What if I’d just been patient? What if I hadn’t been so quick to judge what was “dead”?

This is what premature editing can do to our story. When we start hacking away and digging stuff out too soon, we have no idea what treasures we might be tossing in the garbage. Never underestimate what your subconscious is capable of doing. Our subconscious mind is planting seeds along the way that can eventually sprout into ideas better than we imagined. Editing too soon can ruin that magic and toss it in a Hefty bag, just like my poor oleanders.

Tips to Avoid Premature Editing

Fast Draft

Candace Havens teaches a method called Fast Draft. You write the entire novel in a matter of two weeks. No stopping, no looking back. No editing. This is my preferred method, because I am notorious for editing stuff to death. In the novel I just finished, I forbade content editing. There were times I thought what I was writing was ridiculous. SHEER MADNESS. But, as I got closer to the end, I realized my subconscious was far smarter than I am. I ended up with a richer, deeper story that I never would have been able to consciously plot. Because I didn’t uproot those seeds of inspiration, I was finally able to watch them bloom into something far more remarkable.

Thus I challenge those of you who might have a tough time finishing. Give permission to simply WRITE. Your subconscious might have a miracle in store for you.

Limited Edit

Allow yourself to correct typos, punctuation and grammar ONLY. Anything else that you believe needs to be changed, make a note of it in a different color. Then keep moving forward.

I know this isn’t for everyone. Every time I talk about this topic, I get a half a dozen comments from people who just can’t bear to not edit. Of course, many of them don’t have finished books, either.

In the end, these are tips. You have to find what works for you. But I would at least give these methods a try. You can always slay the superfluous adverbs later ;).

What are your thoughts? Have you ever gotten overzealous and edited the heart out of a story and later regretted it? What tactics do you use to keep from editing too soon? Does editing early not bother you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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).

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World.

 

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120 Comments

How to Take Criticism Like a Pro

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller

One of the greatest blessings of being an author and teacher is I meet so many tremendous people. I feel we writers have a unique profession. It isn’t at all uncommon to see a seasoned author take time out of a crushing schedule to offer help, guidance and support to those who need it. I know of many game-changers, mentors who transformed my writing and my character. Les EdgertonCandace Havens, Bob Mayer, James Rollins, James Scott Bell, Allison Brennan are merely a few I can think of off the top of my head.

J.E. Fishman is another, and he offers a very unique perspective because he’s worked multiple sides of the industry. He was a former NYC literary agent, an editor for Doubleday and now he’s a novelist. His newest book A Danger to Himself and Others is masterfully written. I love books that make me pause, underline and dog-ear. As much as I think I know? I can always learn more. I make it a habit to study those who write better than I do.

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Today, J.E. Fishman is here to offer some of the best advice any of us can get when we’re new. If we’ve been around for awhile, we can always use a refresher. Writers do work an emotional, often isolated job, and it’s easy to forget to chew with our mouths closed be professional when so many of us are writing from beneath a pile of laundry and toys.

I hope this guest post blesses you as much as it has me…

Take it away!

J.E. Fishman

J.E. Fishman

We’re all amateurs at most things, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Maybe we shoot hoops after work or set up an easel in retirement. Perhaps we cook on weekends or spend the morning making an iMovie production of our summer vacation. We are neither professional basketball players nor professional painters nor chefs nor directors. We’re just having fun.

But what if we’re trying to achieve something more as writers? How do we get out of the bush leagues and behave more professionally?

Let’s start by acknowledging that amateurs often have conflicting priorities. They may allow foolish dreams to captivate them, for example, but they can’t always invest the hard work necessary to achieve those dreams. They frequently lean on raw talent when the greater challenge requires practicing craft. And with regard to criticism, they often have thin skin.

I’d like to talk about the thin skin part.

In my experience, professionals are not easily satisfied by their own work, whereas amateur writers take a degree of pride in their work that’s often not commensurate with the accomplishment. And if the person doing the criticizing is not a fellow writer, fuhgetaboutit!

What do they know, the tyro author tells himself. Or, if he’s rude, he says aloud, “What do you know?”

But this defensiveness is a sign of weakness. More important, it turns self-improvement — which is difficult enough in the best of times — into an insurmountable challenge.

Sure, the professional writer who can communicate the technical deficiencies of our work is worth heeding if we seek to improve. But the casual observer’s opinion is just as valuable. After all, most of our audience are just plain old readers, not writers.

Here’s something worth remembering: If we’re creating art, we owe our audience something, not the other way around.

A professional knows this because a professional lives and dies with it. Her skin may be thick or thin by inclination, but she forces herself to respond in certain ways toward criticism because she understands the stakes. To disappoint one audience member is potentially to disappoint all of them.

I was struck last month by a Chuck Wendig blog post in which he called out independent authors, challenging them not to publish amateurishly (“slush pile on display” were his words) — urging them to behave with professionalism, which is to say, to respect their audience. It got me thinking of the people I’ve worked with over the years as an editor and an agent and an author. Over time, you come to know a pro as much by her process as by the work she produces.

Some people think pros just work harder than everyone else. While it’s true that they often do, there are any number of other ways in which a professional distinguishes herself. Acceptance of criticism is among the most powerful. If we want people to take us seriously as a writer, we must take criticism like a pro does:

A pro respects roles. Your editor may or may not be a writer herself. In any case, it isn’t her job to rewrite your novel (unless you hired her specifically to do that, of course). The pro knows where her responsibilities lie.

A pro separates the work from himself — He pushes ego out of it. Even if we’re writing something very personal, we are not our work. The work is a form of communication. It is not what we are, but what we say. The pro doesn’t internalize criticism.

A pro seeks opportunities to learn from criticism. She knows that her art is not static, that a failure to grow with the craft will harm the next work. Every work becomes imperfect the moment it seeks expression. To learn as we go is a means of approaching that ever-elusive perfection.

A pro looks for the source of the problem, not easy fixes. He understands whose job it is to seek solutions. Hint: not the reader’s. Say the reader points to a given scene and asks of the protagonist, “Why’d he do that?” The facile answer might be, “Well, that guy was pointing a gun at him.” The writer here is telling himself that he only needs to clarify about the gun. But in fact, he must ask himself whether he needs to clarify the deeper character of the protagonist that would lead him to choose the action that’s been questioned.

A pro hears what is not said. The amateur too easily dismisses criticism that’s not expressed in the framework of how we think about our own craft. But the pro reads between the lines, asking herself what in the story caused the reader to have that reaction.

A pro accepts challenges. Not every item of criticism calls for a response within the work, but the default should never be a shrug of the shoulders. The pro understands that the path of least resistance, while tempting, rarely leads to great execution.

A pro never argues, never rebuts. The work should be all we ever need to convince anyone of anything. It stands alone. The pro knows that her work will eventually go out into the world defenseless. If a proper understanding of the work requires an off-the-page argument from the author, it’s already failed for that particular reader. There’s no point in discussing it further except perhaps by asking questions to learn.

A pro doesn’t belittle the messenger. Imagine if only architects were allowed to have opinions about the beauty (or utility) of a house. Don’t ever put down critical readers, even in your own mind. Respect your audience, and out of that respect will grow the potential for greatness.

Finally, a pro knows that all the aspects I’ve outlined here are aspirational. None of us is perfect at them — certainly not me. At times I have sniffed at criticisms, failed to read between the lines, not risen to the challenge.

Let’s face it, pro or amateur, criticism of our work always stirs up a measure of disappointment. That’s why we must train ourselves to respond as the pros we claim to be or aspire to be. In the age of specialization, people have high standards for the work of others. We must have those same high standards for ourselves.

****

*Applause* Thanks, J.E. I know all of this is tough to do. We are all works in progress. I know I am.

What about you guys? Are you struggling with leaving the role of the amateur? Are you actively seeking ways to toughen your skin? Or have you gotten to the point where you welcome the crucible? Were you always that way? I know I stared crying in my car after critique. Now? A beta can chop my work to the ground, burn it and then nuke it and I don’t take it personally. I LOVE that someone would take the time to give my work the “trial by fire” before the reviewers can. But, I was NOT always this way. I still struggle to remain this way.

I LOVE hearing from you!

J.E. Fishman, a former Doubleday editor and literary agent, is author of the wisecracking mystery Cadaver Blues, as well as thrillers The Dark Pool and Primacy. His Bomb Squad NYC series of police thrillers launches this month with A Danger to Himself and Others and Death March.

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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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172 Comments

Should Authors Have to “Market Themselves”?

"Crap. Revisions tore my hose. But I need to sell more books and 'market myself'…"

“Crap. Revisions tore my hose. But I need to sell more books and get out and ‘market myself’…”
Image via Darwin Bell, Flickr Creative Commons.

All right, don’t stone me, but I feel some of the marketing “buzz words” range from terrifying to annoying to outright offensive. For instance, every time I read “target your demographic” or “target your readers” I wonder if this comes with a Predator Drone or at least a laser sight.

I don’t know about you guys, but I get creeped out being “targeted.” It makes it seem we (seller and consumer) are opponents—one the cunning victor and the other the hapless dupe who landed in the marketing crosshairs.

But the one that’s gotten my hackles up over the past week or so is when writers are beating themselves up. They write things in my comments like, “I know need to try harder to market myself” or “It’s no longer about marketing my books, I have to market ME.”

NO.

If I’ve in any way contributed to this feeling, my deepest apologies. I hope this post will clear things up.

The Difference Between Market Norms and Social Norms

Two norms guide all commerce. Market norms are cold, driven by data. We pay the price on the tag. There’s no emotion, and no relationship. All purchases and exchange of goods and services is simple. We don’t go to buy a computer then are hurt because we thought Best Buy was our BFF and could have made us a sweeter deal.

Social norms guide relationships. If I open the door for you, I don’t hold out my hand expecting a tip. When I make dinner for Hubby, I don’t bring him a check with 20% gratuity factored in because I have to clean the kitchen, too. If Hubby paid me after fooling around, he might suddenly go mysteriously missing.

Transition

In the 1990s, as the TV-Industrial complex began to crumble, we saw more and more businesses blending market and social norms.

Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

For corporations, using social norms can be beneficial. If we (consumers) like a company, we are willing to pay higher prices and can have greater loyalty. BUT, this company has a much steeper obligation. Don’t call us family then exploit us. Not only will we complain, we will raze your brand to the ground on-line. Companies can’t have the benefits that go with harnessing social norms, then forget the greater responsibility.

Evolution of Commerce

In the olden days, we didn’t have a lot of choices. When I was a kid, if you wanted to buy a new TV, there were about three brands to choose from. There were also three kinds of spaghetti sauce. Most household cleansers were manufactured by the same company. Ma Bell issued a phone when you activated a line in your home. If my parents wanted a different phone or a newer phone or a phone repaired? They called the phone company.

Image courtesy of Clemson via Flickr Creative Commons.

Image courtesy of Clemson via Flickr Creative Commons.

And had THREE colors to choose from :D .

Yet, as markets opened up bringing increased competition, this presented a problem to The Big Guys who’d enjoyed gouging consumers who had no other place to go. Cheaper and even better options came along and the pseudo-monopolies began to crumble.

For instance, my husband has this COOL remote control car that can do speeds in excess of 55 mph and is extraordinarily maneuverable. When I was growing up, if you wanted a remote control car, you went to Radio Shack and took out a second mortgage on your house to buy one…and generally it worked once then died.

Remote control cars were The Great Class Divider—those who could afford one and then the rest of us.

Image courtesy of Gazanfarulla Khan via Flickr Creative Commons.

Image courtesy of Gazanfarulla Khan via Flickr Creative Commons.

Now? In 2014? I can’t believe Radio Shack is still around. Sometimes I think it’s only because we still have a population over age 70 who still shops there. My grandfather, who is almost 90, still goes there to buy batteries, proving old habits die hard.

Yet, as the years passed, emerging markets offered newer, better and cheaper options. We could have all colors of phones. CORDLESS phones. Eventually phones with an answering machine built in and then Caller ID. More and more features and bells and whistles for less and less money.

When the Internet arrived, this only exacerbated the problem. And, as computers became more affordable, Internet service did too. E-Commerce arrived. Consumers no longer wanted to browse the window of an electronics store when they could purchase on-line cheaper and get free shipping.

Thus, with the explosion of options, market norms became highly problematic. To rely completely on market norms is a race to the bottom of who can give away the most stuff and the best stuff for free. How can companies mitigate this?

Let Me Introduce “Social Norms”

When we had only a handful of choices for coffee, we bought the one mom did. We chose between caffeinated, decaf, and instant. Fast-forward 20 years.

In an endless sea of coffee choices, manufacturers didn’t want to compete on price if they didn’t have to. Thus we now pay more than double if a coffee is “Rainforest Friendly” or “Organic.” Our purchases have come to reflect our values. Case in point, the new Follow the Frog campaign:

Is it non-GMO? Gluten-free? Environmentally friendly? Recycled? Does the manufacturer donate a portion of profits to charities we support?

Even large companies are realizing Facebook can be an asset and that people don’t want endless spam and promotion. We want a company that includes us and represents our values. We are willing to pay more to those kinds of companies. We want to like who we buy from.

We gravitate to companies with a real person behind the tweets and posts. Smart companies are recognizing they need to keep a finger on the pulse of their social platforms.

When I was ready to throw the first Mac I bought through the closest Apple Store window, I tweeted about my frustration. Guess who replied? Guess who worked tirelessly to make sure I was happy?

Guess who now uses Apple almost exclusively and has become a VERY good customer?

Kristen Lamb, writing teacher, WANA

Yes, Hubby even downloaded a game for the CAT.

I was willing to pay more for a company that not only solved my problem, but actually seemed to care about it. When the HP I owned had issues (and I’d had several HPs over the course of a decade), HP ran me through and endless maze of chasing my own @$$ with confusing and impersonal on-line forms that went unanswered. They used the information to spam me instead of solving my problem.

In the end? I knew I’d pay more with Apple (and wouldn’t have any new clothes for at least five years), but I chose the company that made me feel they were on my side, that I was more than a number.

Back to the Eternal Question—Do Authors Have to Market Themselves?

We have to remember the distinction between a business and a human being. When humans start “marketing themselves” it drifts into Creepy Land. Bluntly, it makes me feel like I need fishnets, heels and a red light that hides my smile lines. Or maybe I need to take up juggling fire while wearing a costume and swallowing swords.

We strongly suspected Earl had a book for sale… Image courtesy of Rafael-Castillio via Flickr Creative Commons.

We strongly suspected Earl had a book for sale…
Image courtesy of Rafael-Castillio via Flickr Creative Commons.

Granted, all of us on some level “market ourselves.” When we apply for a corporate job, we know that we have to wear the right suit, the right smile and have the right answers in an interview if we want to land the job or promotion.

But what if we had a plan for “marketing ourselves” to make friends? A bullet-point reference to make others like us. Worse still, how ookie does it get when we actively put together a plan for people to like us so they will buy something from us?

Hey, Baby, you wanna date book?

Writers are not Geiko. We are not AFLAC or P&G or Apple. We are people. A company is a non-living thing striving to connect and be personable. Companies have always been in the goods and services business filling needs. Companies have always been driven by market norms and that’s never been a question of ethics.

When human interactions are driven by market norms? That’s called slavery and prostitution.

Writers are people. A person is a person. When I actively make a plan for people to like me so they will buy my book? I need a shower and counseling.

All Humans Have a Brand

My brand. Spongebob, Green Lantern and NERF---oh, and I write books, too.

My brand. Spongebob, Green Lantern and NERF—oh, and I write books, too.

Brand is merely what comes to mind when we think of a name. When I think of AT&T, I see red. It brings to mind hours of runaround with customer service and the half zillion times they have screwed up our bill (where we live we have no other option).

When it comes to people? They also have a brand. They could be our vegan friend who competes in triathlons or our zany friend who collects action figures and goes to ComicCon.

I don’t call Such-and-Such in an emergency because he’s a notorious flake. If I have a bad day, I call Thus-And-Such, because I know she is kind and will set down everything to let me cry.

I avoid Uncle Burney because all he talks about is baseball and is utterly oblivious to the fact that I am chewing my leg off to escape the conversation. On the other hand, I love Uncle Olaf, because he invites me to play video games with him. He laughs a lot and asks me about my writing…and cares about my answer.

We unfriend people on social media because they might be rude bullies who rant or complain non-stop. We gravitate to others because they make us laugh or are always positive. These people may or may not have a good or service for sale, but they DO have a brand.

When it comes to creating a “marketable author brand” I have zero interest in changing you beyond what would need to change in any normal social situation. Name-calling, negativity, bragging, self-centeredness, putting others down are not great habits for us to have in LIFE. Thus, we all need to ixnay them with social media or it WILL create a negative brand.

I understand some writers will have to press beyond being shy. But, being shy in our personal lives limits how much we can connect as well. I know. I used to have such bad social anxiety, the thought of talking to someone I didn’t know was enough to make me throw up in my shoes.

I attended five years of high school and five years of college and had no friends. If I didn’t want to be a loner all my life, I had to press past my profound fear of people to grow as a human being.

Self-Promotion 

We don’t like people who promote themselves in person. Why would we like them on-line? Granted, writers do have to strike a balance. I find we generally end up gravitating to extremes. Either writers blast non-stop deals, specials, contests and tours to tout their latest book or, the fact they have a book for sale is a Top Secret.

We need to find that balance. I was in Rotary for almost seven years. I knew who was a dentist, a surgeon, an accountant, or a veterinarian. I did business with them first because I knew them as people. They didn’t need to show up to our weekly meetings with flyers and coupons. They didn’t need to sit at lunch an pitch me how they were the best surgeon for removing suspicious moles.

The Two Basic Differences in a Regular Person Brand and an Author Brand

All this said, I will admit our brand is slightly different and I am going to use the word marketable extremely carefully. WANA isn’t here to slap your on-line personality in a short dress and digital body glitter.

Don’t come back until you’ve sold some books.

Yes, regular people have a brand, but most regular people don’t want to use that brand to sell books. Aside from being a nice human being, the crucial differences in a regular person’s “brand” and our “author brand” are:

Community is Part of Our Job

If a regular person disappears off Facebook for six months, it doesn’t matter. We as writers should have a goal of creating an authentic community, of creating relationships with those in our circles. Then, we are tasked with maintaining that community and hopefully growing it. If we only appear out of the ether when we have a book for sale, we become about as appealing as that cousin who never calls unless he needs bail money.

Authentic relationships will help us personally and professionally. We need a system of support. We also can be that support for others. Service is good for the soul and sound relationships are a two-way street. Book sales may or may not directly evolve from this, but it’s a better use of time than spamming victims from a purchased e-mail list.

Clarity is KEY

If a regular person wants to tweet using @I_LuvPandas, @LovelyKisses99 or @CarolinaChik, that’s fine. No one needs to know their name. Writers? If we are tweeting, blogging, whatever under a cutesy moniker? We’re wasting time. People cannot find our book if they don’t have OUR NAME.

The more layers of friction we add for others trying to find us/our books, the less likely we are to eventually make a sale. If I blog as Unicorn Fairy Hugs, tweet under @FairyGurl, am on Facebook under two or three different pen names, who can keep up with that?

People (readers) are pressed for time and will gravitate to those who don’t waste it.

When we use social media properly, our names become tied to our “brand.” In my case—social media for writers, craft, blogging, Star Wars, green juice, yoga, Gluten-Free, Lord of the Rings, The Spawn, zombies (notice my “author brand” is who I AM as a person as well).

But I’m not sitting around thinking, “Wow, I need a marketing strategy to market ME. I have to promote ME.” I’m simply doing what’s necessary to create genuine relationships. Beyond that? As a writer I have only two more necessities that distinguish my brand a) attendance b) coherence.

Same with you guys. Be present, be vested and be you. There will never be another ;) .

What are your thoughts? Does this notion of “marketing yourself” make you feel ookie, too? Does self-promotion give you hives? The creeps? Am I making too big a deal out of it? Have you bought books simply because you liked the author? Maybe it was even a book in a genre you never read? On the other side, have you avoided buying books from an author because you didn’t like them as a person? Have you ever had a business make you feel so good you were ever-loyal? Have you have a company you were loyal to take advantage of you and now you’re their best-worst advertising?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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)

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World

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143 Comments

Writing—So Easy a Caveman Can Do It

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

Recently a Facebook friend shared a post with me regarding Indie Musicians versus Indie Authors. It appears our culture has a fascination and reverence for the Indie Musician whereas Indie Authors face an immediate stigma. We authors have to continually prove ourselves, whereas musicians don’t (at least not in the same way). My friend seemed perplexed, but to me it’s very simple.

We’re not even going to address the flood of “bad” books. Many writers rush to publish before they’re ready, don’t secure proper editing, etc. But I feel the issue is deeper and it reflects one of the many challenges authors face and always will.

People give automatic respect to a musician because not everyone can play an instrument or sing. Simple. It’s clear that artist can do something many cannot.

As writers, we have an insidious enemy. People believe what we do is easy. If we are good writers, we make it look effortless. I recall being a kid watching the Olympics. The gymnasts made those handsprings look like nothing. Being four years old, I dove in…and broke my arm…twice (because I’m an overachiever that way).

The blunt truth is everyone has a story to tell. They do. Every life can be fascinating in the hands of a skilled author. Every idea can be masterful in the hands of a wordsmith. Ah, but the general public assumption is that the only thing standing between them and being J.K. Rowling is merely sitting down and finishing the story. Many believe that, because they’re literate and have command of their native language that they can do what we do.

Geiko Caveman.

Geiko Caveman.

Of course, this isn’t the case (as we know all too well). A trained author draws the reader into a world of magic where the audience doesn’t notice the wires and mirrors, only the floating woman. We blend plot arc and character arc to drive tension.

We must develop layered, dimensional “people” and blend in setting and world-building where it’s so integrated it’s probably unnoticed. In fact, if people do notice, likely that section needs edit. Great dialogue is a skill. Subtext, theme, and on and on.

Readers generally don’t appreciate how we’ve done this, they only know we’ve created this magic when they get lost in the book, when they can find no “good” place for a bookmark. This is one of the reasons I strongly caution novelists starting “writing blogs.”

Readers don’t care about structure, POV, word echoes, verb issues, or formatting unless we screw them up. Only other writers care about how we use our tools. Readers care about the finished product.

Why Do I Mention This?

Most of us will face mass opposition when making the decision to write for a living. People see so much writing all around them, they take it for granted.

Many years ago, I got my start as a technical writer and copy writer/editor. I remember an acquaintance making a snarky comment about how there was no money in writing and essentially it was all foolishness (he was a stock broker). I’d finally grown enough of a spine that I stood up to him.

Me: You watch movies and television I assume.

Jerk: Of course.

Me: And when you’re learning a software program, I assume you use the Help tools.

Jerk: Yes *strange face*

Me: And magazines? Articles? The news? I assume you enjoy those too.

Jerk: *getting quiet*

Me: Then there are commercials, textbooks and the Internet. I’d wager you use Google.

Jerk: What are you saying?

Me: Last I checked, the Internet involved a lot of words. No writing, and the Internet is just a super expensive picture book. And, perhaps I’m out of line, but I’d imagine someone wrote the screenplays to the shows and movies you enjoy. I can’t see Hollywood paying a hundred million dollars for actors to just “riff.” Someone wrote the instructions to put together your computer desk and wrote those textbooks you used to train you for your career. And I’d even go so far as to say someone wrote those novels you enjoy and the magazine and news articles you consume regularly. 

Jerk: *silence*

Humans have been so spoiled with writing for so many centuries, they frequently dismiss it. Centuries ago there was far more reverence for the writer, but this was in the days when most people were illiterate. Only a handful of special people had the time, money, education to write (or read).

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

The wonderful side of public education and widespread literacy is this means more readers. Yes, those early authors were legends, but most of us would cry if we had the same book sales. There was no such thing as selling millions of books.

Of course the dark side is that humans have a tendency to take things for granted. We all do it. We assume if we paid our bill, we’ll have power. If we call 911, someone will answer. If the roads are a mess, someone will repair them. And writing? Everyone can do that.

It’s easy.

Stand Firm to the Truth

We know what we do is anything but easy, but we must be vigilant against this widespread perception or it will lead to self-doubt, giving up, being hypercritical of our own work, or seeking to please everyone with our story.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog know I have a thing for little “sayings.” Often I put them on Post-It Notes to remind me. One of my go-to phrases is, If you cannot defeat them, distract them. 

I’ve been in writing groups where the writer took every last comment/criticism as if it were gospel. When we are new, most of us lack confidence. This can lead to the Book-By-Committee. We keep changing the plot, the characters, the dialogue because one person frowned (and we didn’t realize they merely had gas).

I’m 20,000 words into Book Two of a trilogy. I sent the first book out to trusted beta readers. Every beta reader loved the book…save one. Characters all the other readers enjoyed, the one beta despised. The main group loved the description, the human flaws, the layers of complex plot. The critical beta recommended tearing down and starting over.

Now, in “The Old Days” I would have ignored what nine people said to please ONE. I’d have cried and indulged in gratuitous self-pity and believed I could never write a novel. Woe is me. I’d have trashed the book and started over.

Now? Pfft. I have rhino skin. I’m beyond the point where I need hand-holding and ego-stroking (blogging will beat that out of you).

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Paul Hudson

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Paul Hudson

Are all this one beta’s comments bad or utterly misguided? Not at all. I took the detailed notes the beta gave and sent them to those who loved the book. I genuinely wanted the truth. “Hey, did you guys feel/see any of these things? Is a total rewrite something I should consider? I think many of the ‘problems’ can be fixed with a handful of sentences. But, if I need a complete tear-down, now is the time to tell me.”

I’ve written the Book-By-Committee and it is an ugly beast that pleases no one.

I recently picked up a piece of my early writing that was slayed by a well-meaning critique group. As a more mature writer and editor, I saw that they’d benevolently edited the life out of my work. They were injecting their genre, preferences, and voice onto my work. And I eagerly gobbled it down and rendered a solid piece of writing a soulless Frankenstein mess.

I used to be a pretty good novella.

I used to be a pretty good novella.

Critique and editing are critical, but we must handle with care. First, we need thick skin. Professionals should not have to be coddled and handheld. We can offer a thoughtful, articulated defense as to why we made certain decisions, but this is different from being defensive. One is the product of confidence and the other is the Goo of Doubt.

If all ten beta readers saw the same thing? Houston, we have a problem. One? I still should listen, but with care. If I don’t, I risk overworking a book trying to attain the unattainable—perfection.

I actually found it funny how this experience elucidated points I’ve been making lately. We can NEVER write a book everyone loves. We can’t. It was almost laughable looking at my edits. Lines of dialogue the others highlighted with “LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT!” were the same lines the critical beta advised I delete.

But, this is why we must stand firm and remain true. I could cry and go back and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and I will still have at least one person (likely more) who doesn’t like final product. This is why we must learn to keep pressing forward and ship.

Learn the Art of Discernment

Being a professional author cannot be a democracy where everyone has an equal vote (unless you just want to go crazy). In ways, we have to be more of a benevolent dictatorship. Learn to say, “I hear your concerns and I’ll take them under advisement.” Why? Because everyone has opinions and advice, but only we will live with the consequences.

Remember, If you cannot defeat them, distract them. Trying to write the book that all demographics will love is a fruitless endeavor. It’s a distraction which will lead to defeat. Keep writing. Failure isn’t bad, it’s the tuition we pay for success. Understand that the world can believe what we do is easy, but they have a right to be wrong. We know better. Choose which voices to listen to. Part of maturity is learning the art of discernment.

Be brave enough to hand your work to someone who might hate it. The one beta who didn’t like my book? Doesn’t read this genre, hates description and has vastly different preferences than I do for pleasure reading. I knew I’d get my literary @$$ handed to me when I passed it over. BUT, this beta picked up on things the others missed ;) .

Maybe I’m unwilling to completely burn the book to the ground and start over, but that doesn’t mean this beta didn’t point out areas that people who LOVE the genre missed. Areas that WILL make a far stronger book. Surrounding ourselves with yes-men doesn’t inspire growth. This is why rhino skin is SO valuable.

We can hand our work to someone we suspect will HATE it. But then we can sift through all the commentary and search for diamonds. If we’re too sensitive, we might miss that ONE comment that takes the book to a whole new level. Okay, this beta reader wanted to shoot 330 pages out of 331 in the face, BUT on Page 287? That’s a great point.

***And I am being hyperbolic. We should seek out those who will give our book the trial of fire, but we don’t have to hand it to people who will destroy our will to ever write again.***

Learn to select what applies and leave the rest on the table. Criticism, opinions and advice are like a giant buffet. We select what to put on our plate, then later we choose what we gobble down or throw away. This is true in writing and in life.

People might believe writers are all starving, broke deadbeats chain-smoking outside of coffee bars when they aren’t writing bad poetry. They have the right to be wrong. People can believe what we do is easy. Hey, it means we are doing our jobs well. Others will criticize, but we choose whether that drives us or distracts us.

And a BONUS FRIDAY FUNNY. Since we were talking about how humans naturally take so many things for granted, I hope you’ll take three minutes to reach out and help a person suffering with FWP:

What are your thoughts? Do you find that public perception that what we do is “easy” infects your attitude? Maybe it makes you insecure or overly self-critical? Have you struggled with critique, found yourself trying to please everyone? Did you make a mess out of your art? Have you learned discernment? Which voices to ignore? Are you brave enough to hand your book to someone you know will hate it in hope you can harvest that one good point? Or do you want to be a world-famous writer….so long as no one knows your real name and what you look like? :D

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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)

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World

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312 Comments

Suck It Up & Writer Up—Preparing for Greatness

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 9.58.49 AM

Social media doesn’t work. Blogging doesn’t sell books. We’ll have to put out massive amounts of time and effort for no pay-off. We’ll have to learn HTML and how to manipulate algorithms to succeed and this is all for nothing. If we blog, we must write Pulitzer-quality content, but don’t bother. No one will read it, anyway.

Social media and blogging are the most soul-sucking, life-draining tasks we’ll ever have to do as authors. Quit while you can. If you aren’t already a mega-best-selling author, no one will care about you, your work or your blog.

Feel inspired?

Unless off the grid traveling, I’m always engaged with social media. I keep my “finger” on the pulse of what’s happening in my platform. Over the weekend, a Twitter follower shared an article and asked me for my thoughts.

I won’t even bother linking to the article because my goal here isn’t to put anyone down. The author of the article clearly felt overwhelmed, exhausted and disillusioned and that’s par for the course in what we do.

I can appreciate how dreadful the writer who wrote this post must feel. In fact, I never wanted to be a social media expert. I wanted to write novels. But, early on, when attending conferences and reading blogs from experts, I could see where their advice was headed.

While these experts meant well and truly wanted to help, I believed their approach was more likely to turn writers into cutters than to sell truckloads of books. I knew social media would be the ultimate game-changer, so I put aside my fiction and set a new course.

Are They Wrong?

We can debate right and wrong all we want. I feel there are likely people who use algorithms, automation, promotion, contests, newsletters and technology and are very successful at it. But this isn’t a One Size Fits All World. There are millions of people who believe in living a vegan lifestyle and actively try to convert me.

Granted, I’ve never met a veggie I didn’t love, but the simple fact is I have so many food allergies this diet would kill me. I’m not particularly a meat-eater (Psst, Don’t tell the other Texans.) But, with horrible allergies to gluten, soy, legumes and most nuts? Going vegan is an option that would make me ill, weak, and leave me malnourished.

Does this mean all the vegans of the world are wrong? Well, that’s really not what we are here to discuss. It’s an anecdote to make my point.

Here’s another while we’re here.

In college, I had friend who had the same go-to-diet every time she gained weight. Stop eating, start smoking and drink lots of Dr. Pepper. Granted, it was tempting in those years to do The Marlboro-Dr. Pepper Diet, myself. I struggled with my weight despite many, many hours at the gym and eating healthy (I didn’t realize I was allergic to gluten and dairy and that’s why I remained “fluffy.”)

It was gut-wrenching to see her svelte and thin while I wore stretchy pants. But, deep down, I knew The Marlboro-Dr. Pepper Diet was flawed. It worked short-term, but I knew it would have long-term, devastating consequences.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Zoetnet

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Zoetnet

This is how I feel about social media. WANA is a balanced approach to social media that works with the strengths of a writer. I imagine most of you aren’t doing this “writing thing” until your dream job in high-pressure sales comes along. But WANA is not The Marlboro-Dr. Pepper Diet. You might not see big results for a long time, but your platform will be fun, healthy, and stable.

Thinking Long-Term

Recently, I’ve started the P90X program (I started it once before then gave myself EPIC tendonitis pushing a crappy mower and working in the yard). I had to stop and do yoga for about a year to allow my joints to heal enough to try again. Due to my food allergies, I already have a fabulous diet. In fact, when I went to the doctor a year ago at a Size 16 and 180 pounds, I brought my food journal and exercise journal for the previous six months.

The doctor was floored. Unless I was lying or had something hormonal going on (Thyroid?) someone with this lifestyle should NOT have been 5’3″ and 180 pounds.

I was working out, no alcohol, no sugar, GF, dairy-free, non-GMO, organic, no soy, good carbs and yet I was FIFTY pounds overweight. They did an extensive blood panel and I was textbook perfect health—aside from having three @$$es when I should have only had one. The doctors were puzzled  and so was I.

Knowing my history with food allergies, I cut out eggs and my weight began to drop. Then stopped. And there was another thing that disturbed me. I’ve always been someone who easily put on muscle, but I had no tone. NO muscle. Sure I was in a Size 6-8, but I was soft despite being active.

So, I revisited the P90X and, before starting, I calculated how many calories their plan wanted me to ingest.

2400 CALORIES? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND??????

But, I figured I’d done it my way long enough, why not try? For me, the biggest challenge has been the eating. What I’m eating is the same, just A LOT MORE and MUCH MORE FREQUENTLY. I’ve had my mind screaming, You’re eating too much! You’re going to be back at a Size 16! 

But, I tried it…and have lost roughly a pound a day. Also, I felt these lumps after a few days. OMG. Tumors? No, MUSCLES. I’m finally getting definition in my arms, shoulders and back.

And sure, 2400 calories is easy if we are eating garbage. But try getting 2400 calories of green veggies, lean protein, and limited complex carbs. Last night, I made my final chicken breast and kale and it was so hard to eat, because I’ve been in a bad habit of not eating enough.

But what do I want? Do I want to keep wearing a Medieval Torture Device (Spanx) to keep my tummy tucked in and back-fat smoothed down? Do I want to keep hiding my beefy arms under cardigans? Do I want to keep relying on caffeine for energy? No. So, in my mind, Suck it up, Buttercup.

Our bodies and our platforms reflect what we feed them and how often. Starvation and junk yield weak and ill. Thus, we always should ask, “What am I feeding my writing/platform?”

THIS?

THIS?

Or THIS?

Or THIS?

At first, it might not be easy. Just like clean-eating, it might take time for the digital “taste-buds” to catch up (and even crave) the wholesome stuff over the empty junk. This is a process.

Our Author Platform is a Living Thing

WANA platforms are designed to be organic and grow as you grow. They don’t rely on algorithms, automation or technology. They are immune to fads and work on any social site we choose. How?

Platforms cannot grow and thrive long-term on empty-calories automation and algorithms. We must be present and vested. There needs to be a human behind the tweets and posts. People sense automation and they either ignore it or resent it.

And sure, filling out a bunch of automation ahead of time seems easier, but it’s the digital equivalent of The Marlboro-Dr. Pepper Diet. Short-term we might feel spiffy, but later? BLURGH.

Once the short-term wears off, we’re left exhausted, worn out, angry, grumpy and eventually will fail to see results at all.

Want Your Blog to Grow? FEED IT FREQUENTLY

When P90X tells me to eat every 2-3 hours, it’s a hassle. I won’t lie. I’ve never been a breakfast-eater, probably because most breakfast foods were poison for so long (eggs, dairy, wheat). When I started this, I literally had to force myself to eat when I wasn’t hungry.

Good thing, though, is that P90X isn’t asking me to sit down to a seven-course meal 6 times a day. It can be three ounces of chicken and a cup of veggies, an apple, a protein bar, a handful of almonds. Small, meaningful meals regularly and consistently for long-term results.

The same can be said of blogging. In my book, I teach how to blog in a way that is very easy and will connect to readers. In fact, it can take as little as 15 minutes a day. Why? I’m not asking you to serve up an article worthy of The New York Times. I’m asking for the digital handful of almonds.

The same goes for any platform. We can tweet a handful of times a day, five days a week and that’s plenty. We can post two or three times a day during the week on Facebook. That’s plenty. Will we see earth-shattering results Week One? Likely not. But good choices over time accumulate into major results.

I love you guys and I sincerely want for you to succeed. Whether we like it or not, social media is our lifeline. It’s been one of the single largest factors for more authors earning money off their work. Thus, if we need this platform for long-term success, we need to feed it good stuff regularly for long-term health and fitness.

Writer Up—No One Can Do This FOR Us

Just like I can’t outsource my health and my body, we can’t outsource our platform. Promotional companies and PR firms simply no longer have the power they used to in a world ruled by Media Gate Keepers who stemmed information flow. Are they valuable? Sure, but we have to do the building first. They can’t do it for us.

I’d love to pay some gym bunny to do my workout for me. Can I pay her do the squats, crunches, stairs and burpees and magically my whittle my butt down to something bikini-worthy? Would that not be COOL? No work on my part, just fork out money and wait for RESULTS.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way at the gym or on-line.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Crossfit.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Crossfit.

We need to Writer Up and show up. And to continue the analogy, I wish I looked as awesome as those folks on my P90X DVDs. Sadly, I probably resemble a chain-smoking Water Buffalo with a hangover. I can’t do all the reps. I have to take it easy in places to avoid flaring up my tendonitis. Some moves? I can’t even use weights. It is a sad…sad……..sad sight.

It may be pitiful, but it isn’t permanent ;).

I don’t have to do all the reps and all the moves. I merely have to show up. So much of social media is simply showing up. That simple. But simple isn’t always easy. My early blogs were just as ugly as these early workouts. But, I kept showing up and it made me faster, leaner and stronger. Success in anything? We can’t pay for it or wait for it we must work for it.

Original image courtesy of Flickr Creatinve Commons, courtesy of Ali Samieivafa.

Original image courtesy of Flickr Creatinve Commons, courtesy of Ali Samieivafa.

There are NO Short-Cuts to ANY PLACE Worth Going

I’d love to come up with a “Social Media Shake-Weight.” You know, some goofy “fast-results” system I could sell for BIG cash. Unfortunately, I have a conscience and vested interest in your success as writers and as people. I can’t hand you a fancy algorithm or Guaranteed 20 Step Plan to be a NYTBSA. 

Why?

Because I know many of you possess the talent to take you over the moon, but it will be character that will keep you there. I’m not in the bottle-rocket business. I want to ignite stars that burn for generations.

Social media is more than selling books, it’s learning to forge relationships, be positive even when the world is caving in, showing up when you want to stay in bed, doing the work when no one notices any results and thinks we are fools. Social media, blogging and writing teach us patience, tenacity, flexibility, self-discipline and to keep pressing for what we say we want.

It would be easy to be a writer if all we had to do was finish a book and then hand cash to a promo team to make us zillionaires. But that isn’t reality. This business is tough. It weeds out the weak, the self-centered, the impatient, the undisciplined and those who are writing for the wrong reasons or who complain, whine and are unwilling to sacrifice. Yet, on the positive side, social media, blogging and writing rewards the faithful, the diligent, the committed, the humble, the giving and the kind.

In the end? We are not alone. Yes, we need a platform, but no one said you had to do it by yourself. That’s what WANA is all about.

What are your thoughts? Do you get overwhelmed? Do you think you need to do a lot of EVERYTHING and it’s leaving you burned out? Have you learned to be faithful with baby steps? I know I am still working on that. Do you feel pressured? Like nothing you do matters? Or, have you come to that place where you’re willing to Writer Up?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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)

For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World

March’s WINNER—Christina Delusions of Humor

Please e-mail me your 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wan a intl dot com. Or a synopsis (750 words MAX) or a query letter (250 words). Congratulations!

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