Archive for category Writing Tips

Five Warning Signs Your Story Needs Revision

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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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60 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

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.

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*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

Commitment is the Cure–From “Aspiring” Writer to Professional Author

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Tim Simpson.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Tim Simpson.

It’s been amazing and terrifying to watch the changes in our industry just over the past six years. For generations, there was only a handful of items a writer needed to do. Write a book. Query. Get an agent. Land a deal. Hopefully continue writing more books. Though this was far simpler, there was a horrific failure rate and most writers never saw their works in print.

In The Digital Age, we live in an exciting time. E-books have offered new life to many works that were simply a bad investment in the paper-based world (novellas, epic fantasy, poetry). Yet, with new opportunity comes new responsibilities.

We must understand the business side of our business. And, as someone who teaches at many conferences, I know that until recently it has been rare to find an in-person conference that offers training outside the old paradigm.

I’ve been to conferences with all NY agents, only a class or two on social media, nothing about formatting or indie or book covers. This leaves a majority of writers ill-prepared for anything other than a traditional path (but this IS improving).

Yet, as we watch the trends, we are seeing that even authors who traditionally publish are still pursuing other paths as well to 1) increase income harnessing the power of combined sales and 2) maintain fan excitement 3) broaden/strengthen the platform.

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As it stands, NY is limited to putting out a book, maybe two per year. Also, bookstores only have so much shelf space (which is negotiated by an agent/sales team). Due to the new mega-bookstore model, stores like B&N make more money off items other than books. Go into any B&N and the entire front of the store is filled with Nooks and Nook accessories (instead of books).

Additionally, they only can offer discounts by stocking only so many books and for a short period of time. This means authors with backlists generally will only have the most recent title for sale, unless they happen to be one of the big names (J.K. Rowling).

Writing now has merged art with entrepreneurship. We are essentially beginning a business (even if we choose traditional). Any successful business has a business plan. Also, we must invest in ourselves and our dream. There are a number of hard truths.

Regular People BELIEVE Writing is EASY

The average person out there has no concept of how hard it is to write a book. They think we sit and play with imaginary friends all day, which we do, but making those friends cooperate can be nothing short of a nightmare. Readers only see the final product. They only see what took months or years to complete. There is also this mistaken notion that because we have command of our native tongue, that writing a book/novel is only a matter of sitting down and writing.

Image with Twig the Fairy

Image with Twig the Fairy

Yes, butt-in-chair can be the greatest challenge, but developing dimensional characters takes profound understanding of human nature and psychology. Then we have to create realistic and interesting dialogue. Add in enough description and detail to build the world without boring the reader. We have to maintain tension on every page, know how to balance scenes and sequels, understand narrative structure and on and on and on.

But, it is this misguided perception that writing is easy that can derail us.

Forget What Other People Think

Often we are afraid to take risks because we fear failure. Yet, any true success is birthed from risk. We can’t think about what other people think or 1) we’ll quit 2) we’ll slack off 3) we’ll listen to bad advice.

Screen Shot 2012-03-28 at 11.56.15 AM

Everyone has an opinion. One way humans show love is by offering “advice.” This is fine, but we have to mature enough and grab hold of what we want so tightly that we can allow other people the right to be wrong.

When I started writing, my family didn’t talk to me for two years. I even had a church elder laugh and tell me essentially that I had a better chance of being abducted by terrorists than being successful as a writer. Other family members felt I should go to law school. For a time, I listened. I even took the LSAT and gained entrance to law school.

But, I remember standing there with my acceptance letter and I had to make a choice. Did I really want to be a lawyer? NO.

Thing is, other people can give advice, and often they do this from genuine care and concern, but remember…

Only YOU will pay the price.

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

When we allow others to talk us into “real jobs”, they won’t be the ones who die a slow death every day. They won’t be the ones who throw up every day on the way to work (been there). They won’t be the one with a broken heart, an empty life and a mental spiral of what-ifs that keep them awake at night.

Commitment is the Cure

Lately, we have been talking about WANACon, which is coming up next weekend and today is the last day to use the code Valentine for $15 off. It’s an affordable way to learn from top industry experts, learn about ALL kinds of publishing—self-pub, indie, traditional—social media, branding, craft, platform-building and all for a reasonable price and from HOME. New York Times and USA Today Best-Selling Author Shirley Jump will be the keynote and agent pitch sessions are available. We have over 20 presentations from top professionals.

WANACon is largely volunteer because I was living of Ramen my first conference. Even though it was local, it still cost me over $300 and a lot of driving. I wanted to offer something for those who might be on a budget or have time or geographic challenges.

Yet, here’s the thing. Do I want you to come to WANACon? Yes, we have a lot of fun and it will spoil you. Regular conferences are costly and a physical beating (especially for introverts). Most conferences also will charge extra for recordings and we provide them for free because we want you to succeed.

BUT, I don’t care if you go to WANACon or some other conference. Just go to a conference. Commit. Attend/ join RWA (Romance Writers of America) even if you don’t write romance. Surround yourself with what you want to be. Connect and learn from professionals.

Publishing can feel a little like THIS...

Publishing can feel a little like THIS…

I want to encourage you to take true professional steps that transition a dream into a reality. Invest in your domain name (the NAME that will be on your books). Commit to building a platform or blogging. Platforms capable of driving sales can’t be bought or POOF out of the ether. They take time and some money.

NY will not represent an author with no platform. Most agencies will google an author and if they can’t find us? Game over. Come back when we have a platform. If we go indie or self-pub? We’re dead without a platform.

The publishing world of today offers a much better chance for success, but we have to be educated and have a plan of action. We need to invest in that dream. I can’t tell you the difference my first conference made in how I viewed my career choice and even myself.

Perception is REALITY

The world thinks most writers are just wannabes typing away at a Starbucks. Why? Because a lot of us do that. I did. In the beginning, I didn’t take myself seriously. Why would others? But, when we commit and invest, this is when we change and others often do, too.

Image via Tumblr

Image via Tumblr

If you met someone who claimed to be an artist, but they simply carried around a notebook and drew cool pictures, we’d think one thing. But, what if we talked to them and realized they had a web site with their work, that they’d worked an extra job to train with professional artists?

Someone who sings in the shower or in the church choir is one thing. But what about the person who gives up every extra hobby to take voice lessons and record their songs? Or a chef who creates beautiful dishes for people at home, but then later takes out a loan to start a catering business?

Our level of commitment is a reflection of our passion and our genuine desire to do this thing for real. 

This is February. Most of us are struggling with the New Year’s Resolutions. We all do. But whether you attend a conference a professional workshop, take classes, begin building your platform, make that shift. Otherwise, our “dream” will remain an intangible. Sacrificing time and money, risking failure, ignoring naysayers, these are the things that separate the “aspiring writer” from the “pre-published author.”

Regardless of what you write, which path you choose, which conference you attend, we support you 1000%. It’s why WANA works so hard to offer you all the tools for success: classes, conferences, WANACommons (for blog images you can use worry-free), WANATribe (social network for writers), #MyWANA and Facebook’s WANA group. We want you to have education, encouragement, resources, and a support network. The rest is in the doing ;).

As a gift, we have a free recording of Gabriela Pereira’s “How To Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference.” Use this for WANACon or any conference of your choosing. You can sign up for WANACon HERE and use the code Valentine for $15 off.

What are your thoughts? Have you been bombarded with naysayers and dream stealers? Is it hard to believe that your writing is a “real job”? I know I still struggle with that, too. What are your biggest challenges, fears? What are some of your successes? Share and inspire us!

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of February, 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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71 Comments

Setbacks, Success, Excuses, Oh MY! The Truth About Publishing & Myths About Muses

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Much of any kind of success is related to attitude. We can’t control the weather, the future of publishing, the global economic conditions, but we can control our attitude. To be successful at anything, there are a few core principles we should embrace and work on every day. These are muscles of character.

We have peace, joy, patience, self-discipline. Those things are already inside of us. However, we must choose to work on them and do our part to strengthen these “character muscles” to enjoy their benefits.

Ignore Happiness and Strive for Joy

I don’t care for the word “happy” or “happiness” because it’s tethered to other words like “happening” and “happenstance.” Happiness is one of those things that’s easy dictated by what is happening. Joy, however, is a constant and something we can choose.

If you’ve been writing any length of time, you know there can be some dark times. Negative people, poor results, rejection, failure, setbacks, etc. I’ve written works so complicated I needed a team of sherpas to find my original idea (and my own butt).

It’s easy to be miserable when life or our art isn’t cooperating. It’s hard to choose to remain peaceful and continue pressing with a positive attitude. Yet, the more we exercise peace, joy and self-discipline, the stronger they become, and *sigh* resistance is what makes them grow. Resistance can be a good thing if we remember to keep it in a positive perspective.

Okay, this book turned out to be a mess, but can I fix it? Can I learn from it?

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

Keep going. This is why it’s always so crucial to keep moving. If we stand too long and fixate on things we can’t control, we can become paralyzed and end up doing nothing at all.

Feelings Lie

I’ve talked about this before, but many lessons bear repeating. Feelings are great. They are useful, but they are liars and self-centered. Feelings can be affected by weather, hormones, stress, a washing machine that’s broken down (TWO TIMES NOW), lack of sleep, allergies, and on and on. If we wait until we feel like doing something, we’re setting ourselves up to live life strapped to Hell’s Tilt-A-Whirl.

As writers, we like to talk about “being visited by our muse” but the tough reality is the muse is about as reliable as a Russian compact car. Sure, enjoy it when she comes and hangs out, but the muse is flaky and prone to see something shiny and disappear for days or weeks. “Science” shows that one way to catch our muse is to ignore her. Muses are related to cats and few things make the muse want to shower love like when we sit at a keyboard working without her.

Just ignore the glitter she leaves in your keyboard.

Life Doesn’t Stop for Dreams

Discernment is another area all of us should seek to grow. It’s easy to go to extremes. I’m guilty. I work until I am half-dead, then need a week to recover. That is just dumb. Hey, I’m getting better. The truly tough part about discernment is it’s related to maturity, meaning we can only gain either by making a LOT of mistakes and doing a lot of things wrong. We learn to be balanced by getting a taste of being unbalanced.

If we aren’t failing, then we aren’t doing anything interesting.

And, at this rate, my life is truly FASCINATING :D.

Life goes on even when we write. Kids get sick, spouses lose jobs, taxes have to be paid, and on an on and on. There is only one right time to begin writing. NOW. Even if it’s just a little bit. It’s good for us to at least start. “Starting” helps us develop intuition and know when feelings are just messing with us.

As an example, I worked out almost every day through my pregnancy with The Spawn. And I will preface this with telling you that I was not a disciplined person AT ALL at the time. I did most things when I was in the “mood.” So I made myself a promise when I got pregnant that I would go to the gym and walk five minutes on the treadmill. If, after five minutes, I still felt miserable, it was okay to quit.

In ten months of being pregnant, I only quit a handful of times. Most of the time, the getting going was enough to burn away the “feelings” and then I felt BETTER for having set foot in the gym.

Writing can be the same. Just vow to write a few words or read so many chapters of a critical book (craft, research, fiction, etc.). Baby steps are steps and they add up and, over time, develop the character of a professional.

I know when I was new I loooooved excuses. I still make them, though not as often. The night before last, we had yet another ice storm. And yes, the Yankees all laugh, but I don’t own any warm clothes. You can’t buy them here. Texans are unaccustomed to cold and don’t think of things the same way as people used to wintery weather.

Anyway, it was time for bed and I went to let Pippa out for one last bathroom break. I knew the lower steps had iced, but because of the shadows and icy fog, I was unaware the top of the porch had iced as well. When I turned to let her inside, both feet flew out from under me in cartoonish fashion and I landed, quite literally on my head. Thankfully this is the toughest part of my body.

Actual image of Kristen's Guardian Angel

Actual image of Kristen’s Guardian Angel

Anyway, the point of this is I have learned (to be more careful in ice). But yesterday I rested. I couldn’t move my head and felt like I’d been beaten. But there was a time I would have just kept on going like some idiotic Energizer Bunny. There was also a time, I would have taken a hard bump on the noggin and then taken off two weeks because my neck hurt. Whiiiineee.

It’s that whole discernment thing.

Diagram of Kristen's Epic Stupidity

Diagram of Kristen’s Epic Stupidity

Yes, today I’m sore. My neck and back are stiff, but life continues. The house needed to be cleaned and the blog needed to be written and I still have work to do. And I am certain my future will have all kinds of challenges (so will yours), but the point is that, if we wait for a challenge-free-life to begin writing or to continue writing, we’ll be writing from the afterlife.

You could also be writing from the afterlife if you are dumb enough not to look for ICE.

But the lesson here is people who’ve been hit in the head make better bloggers…

Wait, that wasn’t my point. Well, I’ve forgotten it. The key thing to remember is the largest part of winning is simply showing up. We will always find excuses. Excuses are easy, but costly. Choose to focus on what we can control. Choose to have joy. Choose to be peaceful despite the storms, because storms will always be there. Step a foot out. Getting started is often most of the battle.

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with making excuses? Hey, we are human, we all do. What ways do you help keep yourself accountable? Do you make excuses because your tendency is to put others ahead of yourself? Are you afraid of failure or even success? Do you beat yourself up over baby steps and forget that they DO count?

Make sure to check the announcements below, because WANA has put together some seriously cool FREE stuff to help you in your writing journey.

I love hearing from you!

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

ANNOUNCEMENTS, AGENTS & FREE STUFF:

Thinking about attending #WANACon or already signed up?

TONIGHT check out a FREE presentation by one of WANACon’s presenters, Gabriela Pereira, on: “How to Get the Most Out of A Conference.”

- To join the presentation, go to WANA International’s site at 8PM Eastern (New York) time / 5pm Pacific (Seattle) time.
– On the right sidebar, select “WANACon Open House – Feb 12, 2014″ from the drop-down box under “Conference Hall A”.
– Enter your name and the password “welcome”, and then click “Join.”

Click here to ADD THIS EVENT to your Google calendar.

The Open House starts one hour earlier if you want to work out tech gremlins, check out the classroom, or visit with others.

Join us at WANACon (THE global virtual writing conference) on February 21 & 22, use promo code “Valentine” for $15 off the registration fee this week. Three agents covering almost every fiction category are also taking pitches in private, virtual, webcam & audio-capable meeting rooms.

And if you sign up, REMEMBER to enter the Rafflecopter this week for your chance to win a refund of your conference registration fee!

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65 Comments

Journey from Aspiring Dreamer to Hardened Professional Author

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

One of the goals of this blog has always been to prepare new writers and develop professionals. In order to do this, I blog on any number of topics, ranging from social media to search engines, craft to family. Some posts are just to give you a laugh because Lord knows we always need more of those. Writers are human beings, and, if we focus only on one aspect of our growth, we can become unbalanced or even deformed.

When it comes to developing/ growing from that wide-eyed dreamer with a gift for words and transforming into a pro who can withstand the unrelenting crucible of this business, balance is vital. Why? I can tell you from experience that when we reach the mountain’s “summit”, the view is breathtaking…until we see the next mountain, the taller mountain. Oh, and to reach the top of that taller mountain, it means…

Another trip through the valley. *head desk*

Just Do It

I despise the term “aspiring writer.” We don’t “aspire” to get out of the chair. Either we sit or we stand. We choose and no one can make that decision but us. I prefer the term “pre-published” writer, because this makes us accountable and shifts our thinking. To continue the metaphor of mountain-climbing, there is a transition every climber goes through…from looking at pictures of people on top of Mt. Everest to making the decision to DO IT.

This person might be at the gym training, lifting weights, doing cardio, perhaps even learning to climb on walls and developing the strength, endurance and flexibility to climb a mountain. Training is key.

Image and quote courtesy of SEAL of Honor on Facebook.

Image and quote courtesy of SEAL of Honor on Facebook.

We can’t just buy a bunch of fancy gear and show up in Nepal unless we really want to DIE. Climbing a mountain is a lot like successfully publishing. There are no shortcuts. We can’t pay guides to do what we must do ourselves. Yes, sherpas are key, but they can’t make the climb for us. They are there to assist.

But we still must make the initial decision to go for it.

Then we train.

If We’re Comfortable We Aren’t Growing

I have never climbed a mountain, but I did live my teens and twenties like a Mountain Dew commercial (and feel that every time the weather changes). I used to rock climb and go bouldering. Bouldering is particularly terrifying because boulders are BIG and they are ROUND. Round is particularly terrifying because to comes with BLIND SPOTS.

Bouldering is used to hone skills for bigger climbs. It develops strength, callouses, flexibility, and teaches that sometimes we have to reach for what we can’t see.

The going up the boulder is scary enough, but the coming down? THAT’S when it gets truly terrifying. Look down? That’s when you see how far you could really fall, and since bouldering is done without ropes? Ouch. And though it might sound cliche…don’t look down. Another interesting part of bouldering is one must reach hands and feet into the unseen and trust you can grab hold.

Same with writing. We will have to reach into the unseen or remain stuck. We have to let go of one place to make it to the next and there are no guarantees, which is why it is important to…

Have a Network of Support

I’m sure there are lone writers out there who eat nails for breakfast and spit them out as mega-best-selling novels, but they’re rare. These guys remind me of free-soloing climbers. These climbers scale huge rock faces using strength and body position to stay on the rock without the use of ropes.

I did this once…and slid a good fifty feet down a rock face, bruising, cutting and scraping every exposed area of my body. In my opinion, there are two types of free-soloers…Grand Champion and Stuff on a Rock. After getting a taste of being Stuff on a Rock? Ropes were AWESOME from that point on. Ego wasn’t worth it.

Same in writing. It’s one of the reasons I created the WANA community on Facebook and #MyWANA on Twitter and even WANATribe (a social network for writers and creative professionals). We need help. We need ropes other writers to be there when we are scraped and bruised and even when we fall. Because if we don’t fall, then we really aren’t trying that hard.

If we have a system of support, then falls can be setbacks instead of catastrophes. Writing has historically been a lonely and solitary profession because of the nature of our world. Now? We can choose. Other writers can anchor us, be there to lift us.

We can return the favor. We can also learn from writers who’ve scaled this mountain before. We don’t have to reinvent a new path. The top of the mountain remains pretty much the same. No one cares how we get there, so long as we get there.

Does anyone question the team with the group shot on the top of K-2? Do they say, “Well, you slid at least twenty times and nearly fell into an ice cave. Oh and then there was that delay because of weather. And you had to have a team of sherpas to help you. Your summit doesn’t count.” No. Either we finish the book or we don’t. Whether it took ten revisions, or a hundred, no one cares.

All they care about is, did we summit FINISH?

The Air Gets Thinner The Higher We Climb

Sure the view is breathtaking, but nothing grows at the top of the mountain. No one can live there. The air is too thin, the terrain too unstable, the weather too brutal, and there’s no food at the top of the mountain.

Each work is it’s own climb. Maybe it’s a short story (boulder) to train for bigger things. But I feel many of us (and I was guilty, too) believe that we can live on the summit, that the summit means we have made it and it will somehow be easier. This is a lie. When you land an agent, it’s the beginning of a new mountain. When we finish a book or even make a best-seller list, it only makes way for a new mountain. No one stays at the top of a best-seller list indefinitely.

We can’t live there.

The summit of any endeavor should be savored and rejoiced, but it comes with the acceptance that now we have to climb back into the valley because the valley is for the living and the growing ;).

What are your thoughts? Have you ever metaphorically slid down a cliff on your face? What did you learn? Are you grateful for new challenges or overwhelmed?

***For some guidance and training regarding mountain climbing becoming successfully published, feel free to check the announcements below.

I love hearing from you!

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

ANNOUNCEMENTS, AGENTS & FREE STUFF:

Thinking about attending #WANACon or already signed up?

On Wednesday, check out a FREE presentation by one of WANACon’s presenters, Gabriela Pereira, on: “How to Get the Most Out of A Conference.”

- To join the presentation, go to WANA International’s site at 8PM Eastern (New York) time / 5pm Pacific (Seattle) time.
- On the right sidebar, select “WANACon Open House – Feb 12, 2014″ from the drop-down box under “Conference Hall A”.
- Enter your name and the password “welcome”, and then click “Join.”

Click here to ADD THIS EVENT to your Google calendar.

The Open House starts one hour earlier if you want to work out tech gremlins, check out the classroom, or visit with others.

Join us at WANACon (THE global virtual writing conference) on February 21 & 22, use promo code “Valentine” for $15 off the registration fee this week. Three agents covering almost every fiction category are also taking pitches in private, virtual, webcam & audio-capable meeting rooms.

And if you sign up, REMEMBER to enter the Rafflecopter this week for your chance to win a refund of your conference registration fee!

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43 Comments

The Devil’s In The Details II–Keep Research from Taking Over

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.54.49 PM

All right, we’ll do Research Part Duh, um Deux. Last time we talked about how research can take a book to the next level and I also vented about my personal bugaboos when it comes to guns. But here’s the thing, our target audience is likely to have bugaboos as well.

If we write military books, we want military people to like them. But, if we fail to research even basic stuff, we can turn them off. Same with thrillers, historical and even SCI-FI, etc.

Part of the reason for Star Trek’s success was that Roddenberry refused for ST technology to be made up willy-nilly. All technology and “science” had to be based around and grounded in some salient scientific theory….so you can thank Star Trek for automatic doors, cell phones, iPads, and science is still working on hot green women. Apparently there are only so many writers engineers can marry.

KIDDING! …I love you, Shawn. No I am not painting myself green…again.

But this is why my last post was called The DEVIL is in the Details. It’s a devil for sure. We want to have enough good detail that we don’t look like whackadoodles who just threw something together, but at the same time? People are there for a STORY, not Wikipedia.

As an example, I recently watched the Jack Reacher movie. Fun time. Now, there is NO WAY Reacher could have done some things (like the car chase scenes *rolls eyes*), BUT there were details that showed me Lee Child DID do his homework (preserving night-vision and I won’t spoil it). With a nice balance of great detail that was correct I could forgive and enjoy events that were highly improbable and simply enjoy the story for the brain candy it was.

So, some things to remember…

If We Wanted Reality We’d Watch the News

People DO look to fiction for escape. Our characters aren’t human, but need to be humanized. They do all the glorious things we’d do if we didn’t have laundry, a broken lawnmower and a day job, but we still need to be able to relate. Feel free to make your charters larger than life. THAT is what stories are for. Research just adds elements that can ground the reader and act as a counterpoint to all the surreality of the fiction.

Fiction Based on Reality Can Be Stronger

If we look to some of the greats, we see they based their “worlds” on reality. Tess Gerritson does this beautifully in her thrillers. If we look to some of the legends like Michael Crichton, we see WHY those stories had appeal. Dinosaurs remade from DNA captured by a primordial mosquito trapped in amber? Sentient nanites? Time travel through parallel multiverses? All ludicrous….yet plausible.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Andrea Laurel

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Andrea Laurel

We don’t need to always be accurate, but we can be plausible.

Detail Relates to Voice

Readers all have different preferences, which is great because writers all have different styles. Some readers (me) LOVE details. It’s one of the reasons I was a huge fan of Crichton and still love Dean Koontz. I adore detail expertly blended into the prose. Other readers? They hate it. They love bare bones and don’t care that they can read an entire book and never really know what the protagonist looks like. That gives me a twitch.

But this is why I hammer this point, “The world rewards finishers, not perfection.” We can finish a book, we cannot, however, make it perfect. Go to even the mega-authors and we will see one-star reviews. We can’t please everyone. Some people love quippy dialogue, others will hate it. Some love details, others want us to move forward or slow down or turn right.

Readers can be like driving with my mother in the back seat.

Some readers want blissfully unrealistic mind-candy. Others want complete plausibility. We see this in movies. My brother loooves uber-realistic gritty movies and doesn’t mind if everyone DIES at the end. These movies my brother adores make me want to drink heavily.

Everyone has different tastes, so what flavor are you offering?

Reality is Boring

Remember, people read for an escape. The characters and story are why they’re there. If they wanted pure facts, they could go read the FBI website or The NY Times. Thus, when I encourage research, it isn’t to bog your story down with being “real,” rather it’s so you can add elements that heighten “reality.”

If your character is in a prolonged gun battle, have him bring extra magazines or resort to taking weapons off bad guys. He can still be all Jason Statham, but just this tiny element of not having a “magic gun with limitless bullets” can help satisfy the picky reader.

One of my favorite examples is from the movie Safe House. Antagonist fires a gun next to rookie protagonist’s head to make a point. Protagonist then bleeds from the ear (likely a ruptured eardrum) and his hearing is severely impaired the next couple of scenes. But, he quickly recovers (which is very unlikely in reality), but it was a great detail that helped ground us, yet allowed all that followed which was highly “unrealistic” to feel more plausible. It’s an illusion, but an artfully crafted one (in my POV).

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Mr. Muggles.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Mr. Muggles.

Remember Belief is ALREADY Suspended

I have to remind myself of this CONSTANTLY. Resist the urge to explain. The second a reader picks up any book, reality is already suspended. All we have to do is to maintain the illusion. Facts, research, details, can enhance the illusion or shatter it. We don’t have to explain String Theory to use wormholes or give the precise instructions of how one actually makes a bomb (in fact the latter might be quite irresponsible). But a handful of the right information does help.

One of my favorite movies is The Avengers. Talk about the opposite of reality. But we accept The Hulk was created via an accident with gamma radiation, that Thor is a being from another part of a multiverse, that Captain America is the product of genetic tinkering and that Iron Man is the future of robotic technology. This is the “reality-unreality” part that allows us to watch NYC be leveled and not think about when FEMA will arrive.

Thus, when we choose to use any detail or research, make sure it enhances the story. You really don’t have to explain everything. We accept vampires, parallel universes and Warp 10. Just roll with it and know that details add magic when used “properly.” And I type “properly” because again, detail is often related to voice. 

Yet, I will say, as someone who’s edited countless works (over the course of 14 years) and who also happens to be a factophile (yes, I just made that up), that world-building, detail, description can be DIVAS. Details have to be managed, told they are pretty and maybe even be given flowers once in a while because they LOVE to upstage the story and characters.

Our job is to manage them and help them do their job, not stage a story coup.

What are your thoughts? Do you love a lot of intricate detail? Hate it? Do you love reading books where you learn about something completely new? Do you have any tricks, suggestions, tactics or observations about how to keep details balanced? What are your preferences?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

Winner will be announced on the next blog.

Announcement: WANACon still has some seats available, but they are filling up FAST. Enjoy a conference from home. All the talent, recordings included, and cootie-free (except your own kids). We have classes on craft, business, publishing, self-publishing, agents, editors, you name it. Sign up HERE. Perfect Valentines gift with ZERO calories :).

I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!

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71 Comments

The Devil’s in the Details–Taking Your Fiction to Higher Level

Screen shot 2012-01-23 at 10.41.44 AM

There are a few common reasons most of us become writers: 1) We are not normal. Let it go. The Normal Ship sailed long ago while we were bartering for a cheaper price on a t-shirt and souvenir shot glass 2) We hopefully like to read and probably need a 12 Step Program for our book habit 3) We are Masters of “Things Few Know and Fewer Care About” 4) We are  pathological liars born storytellers.

This aside, just because we are born to write doesn’t mean we’re any good, especially in the beginning. I use this analogy. We could see some gal at a club who can really dance. She has great moves. This doesn’t mean she’s automatically qualified to tour with Katy Perry. Training (lots of it) and practice (more of it) and discipline (whoa, crap, even MORE of that) is required to go pro.

Today I want to talk about a key aspect of what can make most fiction better, and what can even tank a decent story—research (or lack thereof). As they say, “The devil is in the details.”

I’ll illustrate with some of my personal bugaboos:

My husband is on a military shooting team. We shoot more than most people. A lot of fiction might involve use of guns, so here’s some basic advice.

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Just so you guys know, a “clip” goes in your hair and a “magazine” goes in your handgun or modern rifles (an M-1 takes a clip, but it’s from the earlier part of the 20th century). I recently read a book where even a gun expert in the story kept referring to “loading a clip” into a Glock and I wanted to scream. Additionally, the heroine “felt the metal” while gripping a Glock, which is interesting because a Glock is largely polymer (especially the grip), so that’s a hell of a trick. If she’s feeling metal? She has a jacked up grip.

***And for the record *shock face* there ARE more handguns in the world than Glocks (and better ones, but this is my opinion).***

There is NO SAFETY on a revolver. I once threw a book across the room put down a book because the author had her protagonist “putting the safety” on a revolver.

Hollywood can get away with magic guns that never run out of ammo. Writers? Guns run out of ammo. To this day I have a habit of counting rounds when watching movies or reading books.

“Bulletproof” vests, depending on the type, can take being shot by most handguns. YouTube has some cool videos. Some vests are slash-resistant, but unless a vest has ceramic or metal plates? Useless against a blade. A knife will penetrate. Vests are also vulnerable from the sides where there’s no protection (unless one is wearing a vest that offers side protection).

When someone is shot while wearing a bulletproof vest? It will hurt. A lot. The impact can bruise, break ribs and, if the bullet hits just right, could possibly stop a heart (especially if the person being shot has any kind of a heart murmur or arrhythmia). Yes, the vest stops the projectile, but there is still a shock wave that will be felt and partially absorbed by the body.

Gunfire, especially at close range, will impair or damage hearing. If your character or shoots a gun with no hearing protection or has a gun fired close to them, they could have a ruptured ear drum and deafness. At the least, they will hear ringing for a while (tinnitus lasting days weeks or even permanently). Voices will be muffled or distorted.

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The “caliber” of a bullet is based upon the inner diameter of the barrel and the size of the projectile the weapon can fire. For more, go HERE. Handguns and rifles have limitations in regards to caliber because, if we get too big? We no longer have a gun or rifle, we now have artillery. 

Years ago, in a writing group, a member was writing a futuristic thriller where he “made up” his own caliber handgun. There was no explaining to him he had a cannon and not a pistol.

I bring these up because many books—thrillers, suspense, etc.—have scenes involving guns. Regular people who don’t know these details might just breeze by, but people who DO know better will become agitated if we get these details wrong, but highly impressed when we get them right ;).

Enough about guns, because this could go on a while. Don’t get me started on silencers. But, to be fair, even I am not a gun expert. I am, however, married to one, so I ask him when I’m unsure.

Let’s talk about some more benefits of solid research.

Impress Fans

Research can add depth, texture and authenticity because it demonstrates we did our homework. Now, I know some things have to be fictionalized. If we were exactly precisely correct about every last detail, a book could be 10,000 pages long and put us all to sleep (I.e. working a crime scene). But it is important to separate what we’ve seen in movies and check out facts that could be urban legend.

Even small details that are correct are enough to impress regular readers and satisfy those who might be experts. Getting some small but important things correct often permits the reader to more easily suspend disbelief in other areas.

Enhances Character

One of the reasons I recommend profiling books and psychology books is that all humans have a distinctive personality profile. They will act according to that profile and need to be consistent or, when deviating, there needs to be a logical reason WHY. Also, the arc needs to make sense. Understanding a bit of psychology makes the writing richer, because we can then pair a protagonist with allies guaranteed to 1) agitate her 2) force him to change and grow.

When it comes to the antagonist, the personality profile is key to locating his Achilles heel. Every strength comes with a weakness. When it comes to the hero/heroine that weakness should be strengthened by personal growth or buttressed by allies.

Since all roads lead to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, I’ll give an example. Sauron is power-hungry and prideful. He wants to rule them all. What is his weakness? Pride. He never bothered giving the Hobbits a ring, probably because he didn’t think them worthy of controlling…yet Hobbits are who eventually destroy him, since their innocence is what makes them more resistant to the sway of the Ring of Power’s psychic manipulation.

On the other hand, the Hobbits’ strength is their innocence and naivety, but, without allies like Aragorn, they’d have died a third of the way through the first movie frying bacon on a mountain while being chased by evil dead kings. Allies and antagonists help shape the Hobbits’ character arcs organically. By the time they make it to Mount Doom, they still have enough innocence left to finish the journey and defeat Sauron, but are war-hardened and more equipped to venture into a seriously bad neighborhood.

Gives Options

Knowledge is power. The more we research, the more cool directions our story can go. Research is like a toolbox. Do we want to build a “house” with only a hammer and a screwdriver, or do we want everything from a nail-gun to a table-saw? Research can help us make those unpredictable plot turns and twists that thrill readers.

Research is necessary. In the Digital Age, there are some cool and innovative ways of doing this effectively and efficiently, which is why I am teaching how to do this in my World Building class at WANACon (Early Bird Pricing almost over, so sign up HERE).

Research can cause some problems, but that’s a topic for another time. What are your thoughts? Are you flypaper for “useless” trivia? Do you love research? Does it intimidate you? Have you read books or watched movies that made you want to scream because the creator abused suspension of disbelief? What are some of your favorite ways to research? Do you research to get a story idea or once you start?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!

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142 Comments

The Tips to Maximize Conflict in Your Novel

Kirk

Whenever I blog about craft, I’m coming from the perspective of a long-time editor. I do understand that the creation process is vastly different from the editing process. I know this because I’ve been on both sides. But, if you want to minimize revisions and rewrites, it helps to have some basic editorial skills in your toolbox.

Since many of you might want to pursue self-publishing, you’re wise to hire an outside editor. The cleaner the text, the lower the bill. Even if you want an agent or to traditionally publish, the tighter the writing, the better the odds your work will earn positive attention.

Line-edit is important and no longer my area of expertise. I put commas everywhere and pay other editors the move them where they need to be. Typos happen even to the best of us. Right now, I’m editing my almost 100,000 word mystery-thriller and *head desk*. We all need a good editor. In the past 12 months, I’ve written well over 600,000 words. Yet, even with all this practice? I oops. You will oops. It happens.

Today, we’re going to talk about ways to up the tension and conflict. Conflict is what draws a reader in, what keeps them turning pages. When the conflict lags, so does the reader’s attention span. A good beta reader or content editor is a great ally for spotting these literary doldrums. I’m here to offer some guidance how be your own content editor before you pass your work onto another pair of eyes.

Tip #1—Perfect is Boring

Everyone has baggage and people who don’t aren’t the mettle of great fiction. Decisions are driven by life experiences good and bad (for fiction, bad experiences are more interesting). We don’t need to have a character who was beaten in foster care to have “issues.” We’ve all had our hearts broken, been betrayed, or even been around people who measure us against impossible standards.

A character can be impulsive because she came from a household that was far too structured. He can refuse to trust because his last job brought him in for a glowing quarterly review, only to fire him the next week. She can refuse to give in to love because she’s been self-sufficient so long she fears losing freedom.

Never underestimate the little things that can propel decisions (particularly bad ones). Many readers can’t relate to fifteen years of horrific sexual abuse, but they can easily relate to a parent, guardian or former love who was never pleased and withheld affection. They can connect to a character who’s deeply insecure because of being compared to a sibling.

I’m not saying we can’t have characters with nightmare backgrounds, but it isn’t mandatory. What is mandatory is that a character arc. If we begin with a fully actualized protagonist, then there is no way to grow, thus no crucible. The plot problem should be what fires away character flaws (refusing to be a team-player, unwillingness to trust, blind loyalty, etc.) and transforms a protagonist into a hero.

Tip #2—Some Personalities Naturally Clash

Every scene should have conflict. Conflict doesn’t need to be aggressive. Allies are often the best source of conflict in our arsenal. Think of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Captain Jack Sparrow isn’t the protagonist, but he creates a lot of tension because he’s utterly unpredictable. Allies never know if he’s going to sell them out to the bad guy, and often when he does, he comes to the rescue. He’s completely selfish, or is he?

If your protagonist is a paladin—embraces order and predictability, follows the rules, doesn’t like surprises—then a natural ally would be the maverick/loose cannon, the character who believes rules are “more guidelines.”

According to the Myers-Briggs, I score dead-even as an ENFP or INFP. While the MB jury is out as to whether I am an introvert or extrovert, I am off the charts on intuition. I make most of my decisions based off my gut. This gives my mom and brother—both ESTJs—a twitch. Why? We are polar opposites. I could care less about graphs, numbers and charts. My mantra?

There are lies, damn lies and statistics. ~Mark Twain

But? My mom, brother and yes, my husband, looooooove charts, Excel and bar graphs. Those closest to me process information and make decisions very differently than I do. This means, if I want them to be on the same page as I am? I have to write lists, show numbers, etc. Otherwise? We might as well be speaking two different languages. I speak the heart and they speak the head…and trust me when I say this has lead to a lot of conflict and misunderstandings.

Think Captain Kirk (all instincts) and Spock (all logic). We don’t need a ship of ticked off Klingons for all the tension. The dynamics between Kirk and Spock also propel the story and generate dramatic tension.

You're being highly illogical.

You’re being highly illogical.

If your character is a homebody? Pair her with a nomad. If he’s a rebel? Pair him with a rule-follower. You get the idea :D.

Tip #3—Nothing Worth Having Comes Easily

There is a difference between a “bad situation” and “conflict.” I recently beta read a book and part of my feedback was, “Everyone gets along too much.” Always run this simple litmus test:

“My character wants X, but then Y happens.”

It can be big stuff. Your character finds a key piece of evidence but then bad guys show and torch the place along with the proof of murder before a CSI team can get there. It can even be little stuff. Your protagonist needs to be able to unravel some problem and can’t think with noise, but one of her allies babbles like an idiot when nervous. Setbacks and roadblocks will intensify a story. Get your protagonist so close to what she wants she can taste it, then take it away.

Image via Pixar's movie "Finding Nemo"

Image via Pixar’s movie “Finding Nemo”

Also, by mixing big problems with small problems, you will be able to better control the pacing of a story. If everything is a fight scene or car chase, it not only wears out a reader, it can quickly get boring. That is actually my complaint with the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Great stories, but another sword fight? I could only watch Sparrow swinging from ropes so long before it became tedious.

Whenever I do content edit, these are some of the areas I hunt for. A victim writer might get comments like “Too perfect” “Okay, I’m asleep” “Nothing happening” “Why does everyone get along so well?” Yet, whenever you do your own revisions, these are areas you can easily fix yourself. Even I am slashing through my novel looking for the Doldrums of Nothing Happening.

Do you have personalities that just hit you like industrial sandpaper? Maybe you are highly organized, but have a sibling couldn’t find her own butt with a flashlight and Google Maps? Can you think of people you know, but there is conflict because you process information differently? Is your partner (spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.) a person you like, if they didn’t drive you NUTS?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!

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99 Comments

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