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The single greatest challenge you will face in trying to accomplish anything great is FEAR. FEAR is nothing to be underestimated and we need to learn to manage it if we want to succeed. I remember being a kid and Dune was one of my favorite movies. At the age of ten I memorized Paul Atreides’ mantra:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
At the time I just thought it was a seriously cool movie line. It was only when I grew older that I began to truly understand how powerful these words were.
Fear IS the mind-killer. Remember last time we talked about how vital it is to make sure we have our heads in the right spot. Where the mind goes, the man follows and if we are scope-locked on all the stuff that overwhelms and terrifies us? We are doomed before we start. Our head is not in the game.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I find it so fascinating that Frank Herbert called it the “little-death” but isn’t it? Fear is not real. Fear is the work of imaginations and yet those small cracks are what can bring everything crashing down.
I will face my fear.
Words have tremendous power and we as writers are wise to appreciate this. We might be sinking into despair. We are anxious and can’t sleep. We can’t focus and so we say things like, “I am tired” or “I’m depressed” but by using these blanket statement copouts we are only feeding the very thing feeding on us. We need to face it. NAME IT.
It is okay to be afraid. It is okay to give that fear a name because until we know what it IS, we can’t fight back. What is the first thing any doctor does when we come into the ER? He finds the thing’s NAME. Sure our chest hurts and we are sweaty and dizzy and our blood pressure is wrong but that could be anything from cardiac arrest to a panic attack. NAMING what is going on is vital for any kind of treatment.
Do we really want a doctor cracking open our chest because we are having a panic attack? Conversely do we want the doctor to recommend yoga when we have a blocked artery?
I will permit my fear to pass over me and through me.
Feel the emotion. Don’t stuff it. No I don’t need a sandwich, a drink, a nap, a trip to the mall, or yet another pass through Facebook. I need to feel what is going on instead of self-medicating or avoiding it. It’s like a squall line. Just let it pass over and beyond.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Here is the deal, fear isn’t (often) real and even when it is? It isn’t permanent unless we permit it to stay. We will still be here.
So why do I talk about all of this? Because we have to face and conquer fear every single day and maybe you are experiencing symptoms of fear but you aren’t aware of it. Time to peer down that dark alley of the soul…
You Don’t Finish
I can raise my hand and attest I am guilty. I have too many things that I start and I don’t finish. Is this because I am lazy? Hardly. Is it because I don’t love what I do? Not at all. If I get really, really honest and make a list of all the things I have left undone, I can often see fear staring back at me.
A quick story to illustrate…
I remember being SO confident when I scored my mega-agent out of New York. He thought I was brilliant and fresh and my book was sheer genius. I was on CLOUD NINE and bulletproof. I was so sure that I’d have a book deal instantly because Russ was that powerful of an agent.
I remember when I signed with him talking on the phone and he said, “Okay, here is how it is going to go down. Once I get your proposal I am going to make a few calls and then things are going to happen very fast. Are you ready for this?”
GOD YES! Put me IN Coach!
So a month passes, then two, then six and all this time my confidence is leaking out like air from an overfilled balloon *Kristen’s ego makes long farting sound*. After a year and a half?
I had avoided talking to my agent because I just couldn’t bear being a failure. Finally, I had to do something so I emailed and he gave me the news I knew was coming but had avoided. NY didn’t want a social media book. They believed my teachings were the tip of the spear and were afraid of it.
And I know all of this sounds seriously weird because every publisher at the time was requiring social media for all of its authors. I had many long and grueling conversations with authors who are household names who’d come to me vexed out of their minds because their publishers wanted to know why they didn’t have a million FB fans. They were desperate for help.
But these same publishers that were requiring social media, didn’t want the manual.
I was crushed. I didn’t want to be self-published. I wanted to be legit. I wanted to be a Random Penguin but it wasn’t in the cards. So, I gathered what was left of my ego and self-published Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World because my ego was not as important as you guys’ futures.
But how long did I sit on that book?
Too long. Too long would be the answer.
I was terrified of failing. I was terrified of being grouped in as “one of those self-published hacks” even though I knew (in my mind) that self-publishing was just as viable as legacy and in many ways MORE viable. My head and my heart just could not get on the same page because I was afraid.
So fast-forward a couple more years and I have finished this AMAZING romantic suspense. I send it to an agent friend and she loved it…but didn’t rep the genre. She told me the book was awesome and to just query publishers direct and she would handle the contract. I got rejected. Then a publisher accepted (then they were no longer financially solvent so I didn’t feel good about signing). Then another rejected. So about this point I am batting 500. 50% love the book and 50% don’t want it.
I couldn’t leave the book unpublished any longer even though it was tempting. All the voices were there.
You teach writing, so if your book sucks you are FINISHEEEEEED.
Why can’t you get a real publisher?
Maybe you should stick with social media.
And what did I do? Again, I sat on a great book…because I was afraid. I was afraid of failure, of you guys tossing digital tomatoes at my work. Even though I know there is NO way to write a perfect book. I have read reviews for every book I adored and thought was perfect and someone else hated it. I knew this. I know this. But I was still scared sh….. witless.
But I have learned that when I feel fear that 1) it is often BS and nothing to really be afraid of and 2) it is generally a good sign I am going in the right direction. So I made some more connections and now my book is with a new and amazing publisher who I think is a great fit. Maybe the book flops. I dunno. I won’t know until I put it out there.
I was afraid of failure but also afraid of success.
What if it does well and it is the only book in me? And I can’t do it AGAIN?
Yeah well we will cross that bridge when we get there.
So if you have things you are NOT finishing, ask yourself WHY? What are you afraid of? Then do it anyway.
You Fixate on What You Can’t Control
I can always tell when I am operating in a place of fear when I pay attention to what is on my mind. What am I constantly complaining about?
***Which first of all, ditch complaining. Complaining alone is a BIG RED FLAG something is wrong.
Often we will fixate on the things we can’t control at the expense of things we can because it offers us a handy excuse if everything craps the bed. If I spent my time moaning about how unfair it was NY didn’t want my book instead of hustling and figuring out how to unleash my book onto the world?
I’d still be complaining. Then, when I never published the book and my career as an expert withered and dried up, I would have someone to blame other than myself. I sure wouldn’t have the single most popular book on branding for authors.
Same with the fiction. I had a choice. Whine about the rejections and shelve the book and hide as a blogger or suck it up and step it up.
Well, I would have been a huge deal if only someone else had done X.
You Can’t Make a Decision
Here’s the deal. No decision is still a decision. But often when we are scared we hem and we haw and we fail to ever decide because deep down we know if we put it off long enough? Someone else WILL decide for us. Then, if it goes badly, we have an out.
Early in my writing journey I bounced from genre to genre to genre. Maybe I was a romance writer, no a thriller writer, no science fiction. Notice how this looks a lot like never finishing. Decide and commit. Do it afraid.
There are a lot more symptoms of fear but these are the three BIGGIES. Remember that nothing great is ever going to happen in your comfort zone. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is doing X in spite of fear.
This business is really really hard and it requires us being so vulnerable and it is super easy to get kicked in the confidence. Rejection sucks. It hurts. But failure isn’t permanent. Neither is success. All of this will pass over us and through us and…
ONLY WE WILL REMAIN.
A huge way to combat fear is like I said, we gotta name it. Then we need to make a decision and if it still scares us? Get help. If you are afraid your book is crap? Hire a pro to look at it, be honest and tell you how to fix it. Heck, email me kristen at wana intl dot com. If branding scares you? Take a class. Got a bunch listed below and anyone who has taken my classes will tell you I move heaven and earth to help you. I can be that big badass sister you need to help you sleep at night.
Get a mentor to guide you.
I have a handful of things on the business side of publishing that are freaking me out right now. Why? Because I don’t yet UNDERSTAND them. Bookbub? How does it work? So what did I do? I called in favors from people on-line, people I have served and asked, “Hey I am freaked out. Can you help a Sistah OUT?”
WE ARE NOT ALONE.
What are your thoughts? I have been struggling with confidence lately. Off my game, out of my groove. I know it is because I am doing and trying new things in new areas where I am NOT the sole reigning diva and that scares me. But I am here. We are here. We have each other.
Do you succumb to your fear too easily? Maybe spend too much time with distractions? Or complain and whine about stuff you can’t change? Hey we ALL do it. No shame here, my kiddos. Write down what you fear. Here, in the comments and we can bond.
I fear that none of what I do matters. That I am really not making a difference and I really didn’t earn any of my success. It was all a fluke or an accident and one day people are going to wake up and see I have no idea what I am doing.
There, got you started 😀 .
I love hearing from you!
And 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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
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One of the things I love about doing what I do is that I have the ability to connect so closely with you guys and speak on the topics that matter to you. Yesterday, a fellow writer shared an article from The Guardian, For me traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way. She wanted my take on what the author had to say.
For those who’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, I hope I’ve been really clear that I support all paths of publishing (vanity press doesn’t count).
All forms of publishing hold advantages and disadvantages and, as a business, we are wise to consider what form of publishing is best for our writing, our work, our goals, our personality, etc. But my goal has always been to educate writers so they are making wise decisions based off data, not just personal preferences.
We don’t self-publish because all our friends are doing it and we think we can make a million dollars fast cash. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t hold out for traditional out of some misguided idea that self-publishing/indie isn’t for “real” authors and that traditional publishers are somehow going to handhold us.
The author of this article has the right to publish as she sees fit. I am all for empowering authors and trust me, I know that self-publishing gets a bad rap for good reasons. I am not blind to all the book spam and authors who write ONE book and camp on top of it for the next five years selling to anyone who looks at them.
But there were some egregious errors in many of the article’s assertions that I’d like to address so that your decision is based of reality not an opinion piece. I won’t address them all today for the sake of brevity, but here were the major ones that jumped out at me.
Myth #1—Serious Novelists Don’t Self-Publish
Tell that to Hugh Howey, Bob Mayer, Barry Eisler, Joel Eisenberg, Vicki Hinze, Theresa Ragan and y’all get the point.
Myth #2—Self-Publish and ALL Time Will Be Spent Marketing Not Writing
Or maybe they’re doing it wrong?
Myth #3—If You Self-Publish You Will Act Like an Amway Rep Crossed with a Jehovah’s Witness
Many do, but that’s a choice not an inevitability.
Myth #4—Gatekeepers Know Best
LOL. Sure. Because Snookie’s It’s A Shore Thing was published for its literary value.
Myth #5—Private Apprenticeship is Better for Author Growth
Public feedback can be brutal and isn’t for everyone, but rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic in private isn’t necessarily a better, nobler path either.
Myth #6—Awards Are Everything
For some genres, perhaps. But can the literary world keep ignoring that some of the best works of our time are not coming from legacy presses?
Myth #7—To Look Pro in Self-Publishing You Spend a Fortune
Myth #8—Traditional Publishing Creates a Far Superior Product
Tell that to the romance authors who, for years, couldn’t expect that the cover would match their story. Pyramids on a romance set in the Highlands? It has happened.
Vonda McIntre (who is a brilliant Nebula Award Winning Author) has even posted some of the really awful covers her publisher (traditional) thought were a good idea. And, because she was a mere author and had no control over the covers? She had no say.
Myth #9—Self-Published Authors Can’t Make a Living
Many don’t. This job is not for everyone. But then again, most traditional authors would make more flipping burgers.
Myth #10—Amazon & Self-Publishing Have Destroyed Author Incomes
Definitely a NO. For the first time in history more authors are making a living wage than ever before. Mega-bookstores like Barnes & Noble did more to damage author incomes than almost any other factor. They almost single-handedly destroyed the bookstore ecosystem and many writers who were making a good living suddenly were forced to get a day job if they liked eating.
Refer to my post The Ugly Truth of Publishing.
Now that I pointed out the ten contentions I disagree with, I’d like to zoom in on this idea that traditional publishing is only for real writers and that self-publishing is for amateurs. Namely this quote from the article rubbed me the wrong way:
Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write).
This statement is so far off-base I need this book…
I’m back and I can “literally even” so let’s go 😀
The Long and Short of Publishing
I know we are going through a lot of birthing pains right now and we still have ways to go, but a lot of the changes in publishing have been for the better. For years, traditional (legacy) publishers were the sole gatekeepers and this had a lot of disadvantages for authors and readers.
Because traditional publishing was taking on a large financial risk and had to also maintain high overhead, they obviously had to be picky about what works to publish. These works had to bring in a certain amount of ROI (return on investment). This devastated the literary landscape and drove many works to the brink of extinction.
For instance, in the 70s and 80s long epic works were all the rage. Readers actually liked a book so long you could take out a burglar with it. I mean, Clan of the Cave Bear could have been registered as a deadly weapon. But the thing is, paper is heavy so it is expensive to ship. It costs a lot more to print a long book (Duh).
Additionally, big thick paperbacks? Only fitting a few of those suckers on a shelf. Why sell three books for $9.99 when you can sell ten books for $7.99?
So, the trend became to cut works off after a certain word count. Many agents would take one look at a query and if the work was over 110,000 words? Forget it. It didn’t matter that it was the next Lord of the Rings.
They weren’t being mean, they simply knew that publishers were wanting shorter works because they could sell more of them and enjoy a higher profit.
But what if a story needed to be that long?
The other side also suffered. Short works. Pulp fiction got its start with the much-esteemed Charles Dickens and this form of storytelling really picked up traction in the early part of the 20th century. This type of fiction gave the general public access the larger-than-life stories with exotic and sexy characters. Pulp authors also made a really good living, some becoming among the richest people in the country.
We can thank pulp fiction for some of the greatest literary geniuses of our culture. Edgar Rice Burroughs almost single-handedly laid the foundation for today’s science fiction. Then we have Max Brand, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ray Bradbury.
With WWII we experienced paper rationing and the pulp magazine fell into decline as publishers opted for longer works with…a greater ROI. Notice how these changes really don’t have much to do with the skill of the writer and have more to do with paper costs, shipping costs and ROI.
The beauty of pulp fiction was how it connected to everyday people who normally would not have considered themselves “avid readers.”
As publishing became bigger and bigger business, it had less to do with the story and the quality of the writing and more to do with, “Can we sell this?” Again, this is simply wise business. A publisher might love a vampire book…but unfortunately they already had taken on three other vampire books and filled that quota for the year.
Many forms of writing were driven virtually to the point of extinction. Novellas, short stories, poetry, memoirs (unless your were famous), and epic works all suffered terribly. To extend the logic, their creators were driven almost to the point of extinction.
Because what if you happen to be an excellent pulp writer in a paradigm that has no outlet for that? What if your strength is epic length high fantasy that just can’t fit into under 150,000 words? Then just because a writer doesn’t fit into the current business model of legacy publishers she is less…talented? He isn’t a professional?
Remember Traditional Publishing is a BUSINESS
This notion that an author lacks skill or talent or has nothing worthwhile to offer unless the Legacy Gods deem approval ignores history. Most noteworthy?
John Kennedy Toole’s work A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously and went on to win the Pulitzer for Fiction. Though Toole’s work was praiseworthy in his lifetime, after facing rejection after rejection he took his own life.
Was it Toole’s work was substandard? Or did it have more to do with the business model of the publishing world and his work didn’t neatly fit in? Would Toole have continued to be a great voice in literature had other viable models of publishing been in existence?
African American Author Zora Neal Hurston was an anthropologist whose fiction was overlooked in her lifetime. Luckily for us the first wave of feminism catapulted her writing to success…after her death.
Often traditional publishing is hesitant to make waves because…they are a business.
Notice the massive uptick in LGBT fiction? Thank indie/self-publishing for much of that because these authors had the freedom to push boundaries and challenge social norms in a way that would have been virtually impossible for traditional publishing.
In fact, the success of many of these indies has allowed legacy presses to relax and realize just maybe there is an audience out there who’d love to have a voice, too (I.e. Barry Eisler writing anti-establishment, anti-war thrillers with a gay lead). Eisler left traditional because of the stories he believed needed a voice and he knew there would be an audience who shared those views, too. Indies are aware of cultural shifts and are risk-takers willing to explore them for good or bad.
I suppose this is one big reason I am puzzled a literary author would have so much against non-traditional publishing. Often it is literature that says what’s unpopular, that points out the pink elephant in the room. Literature is known for highlighting the lives and struggles of those groups who are largely ignored in the commercial realm.
Self-published authors have largely been responsible for many of the most beneficial changes in publishing history. Check out Why We Should All Hug a Self-Published/Indie Author.
Back to Business
Is Snookie’s A Shore Thing great writing? Or did the decision to publish this work have more to do with the fact that NY could capitalize on the popularity of a reality television show and, crunching the numbers, knew they could sell copies? Is 50 Shades of Grey a better book simply because a legacy press picked it up? Or did they pick it up because giving E.L. James a far wider distribution was a sound business decision?
What all of us have to remember is NY is not a non-profit organization; it’s a business driven by profit and loss. Sure, a lot of authors jump the gun to self-publish and they aren’t ready. Refer to 5 Mistakes Killing Self-Published Authors. But guess what? That is common in ALL business. There is a reason most restaurants don’t last a year 😉 .
Traditional publishing tests ONE thing…commercial viability. All across the arts from painting to music to writing, the greatest legends were very often overlooked by the establishment. From Picasso to Plath, genius is often not something that fits neatly into a P&L statement.
Traditional publishing is also not a meritocracy.
There are excellent writers who don’t make the cut for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. We all know of talented authors we love who, for whatever reason, aren’t selling like 50 Shades of Darker…and we die just a little inside knowing that.
But this notion that only “real” writers publish traditionally? Patently false. We will take some time to explore some of these other myths, but rest-assured the decision of how to publish and when to publish is far more complex than it may seem. Also, self-publishing has evolved quite a lot. Yes, it used to be the equivalent of cheap vanity press, but that is light years from today’s reality.
There are good and bad reasons for ALL forms of publishing, so do some homework. Also, remember sometimes we need to try things on. If they don’t fit? Um…change.
What are your thoughts? Are you a successful indie/hybrid/self-pub author who gets tired of this misconception that you are not a “real” writer? Have you felt undue pressure to self-publish? Are you a writer of really long or really short works and think maybe you might have a new home?
I LOVE hearing from you guys!
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.
I will announce March’s winner next post.
Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.
I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.
Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!
How and WHY are we using FREE!?
Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.
One reason we might be tempted to use a flashback is to explain or to expound to artificially prop up weak characterization or a weak plot (the training wheel flashback). This is what good editors will cut. Then there is the other way to use time and that is time as a literary device. This is when our going back in time is used intelligently to serve the forward momentum of the story.
Last time, we delved into the idea of a loop around (one form of flashback as a literary device). Sometimes we see a story that is smack in the action and then after the inciting incident the story shifts back in time until it catches up where we began then continues real-time.
I used the example of Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Live Nun. This is looping back in time as a literary device and I explained how this was done. So go HERE if you’d like to explore this method of storytelling.
Today we are going to look at parallel timelines.
What happens with a lot of new writers is that they simply see the surface. “Well, in X BOOK the author went back in time quite a lot, therefore flashbacks are AWESOME.” This is true on the surface, but if we dig down and look at WHY and HOW we see a bigger picture emerge. Some of our favorite books or TV shows or movies might appear to be just flipping back and forth in time, but if we can get an aerial shot, we see something more.
Often what the author is doing is running two timelines parallel. The present-day story is the superlative of the two and the reason is that the past has already happened. And when I say “present-day” I mean the most contemporary of the two timelines.
If a woman in The Great Depression is struggling to rebuild her life after losing the farm in the Dust Bowl and she does so by reading letters written by her grandmother during the Civil War, then the gal in the Great Depression’s decisions and thus the RESOLUTION to her struggle will be fed by the secondary timeline.
Unless she has a time-machine and THAT is a WHOLE ‘notha blog 😀 .
We will have the A Plot and the B Plot and the B Plot eventually merges and A finishes us out with a resolution.
An excellent example of this is the HBO series, True Detective. There is a tad bit of spoiler in this lesson, but not enough to ruin anything. I recommend watching and studying this series.
And I like using TV series because if we look at the TIME it takes to watch a full season and then cross-compare that with the TIME it takes to read a novel, the two are far more comparable than a movie and a book. Thus, I do recommend studying series to help with writing a novel because the intimacy with the characters and intricacy of the plot is much more relevant.
Anyway, Season One of True Detective has two timelines. The episode The Long Bright Dark starts us off and it involves two detectives (Rust Cohle and Martin Hart) being interviewed separately regarding a serial killer case they worked together back in 1995.
One might first be tempted to claim, “See! Look at all those flashbacks!” but hold up. WHY are we going back in time? We don’t have two detectives just talking about the Not So Good Old Days. If there was nothing important about the contemporary timeline, then our story would actually be SET in 1995.
The “present day” interview sessions would be contrived filler and likely meet a cutting room floor and for good reason. There is no POINT to them being there throughout unless we have a parallel timeline.
If there was nothing relevant in the present, we’d interview the cops and they’d tell an “I Remember When” story and not a very good one because that would actually KILL most of our suspense because we’d know, no matter what happened they LIVED to tell the tale. So I do recommend that if it is an I Remember When Story, try to maintain suspense.
***BTW, this is a MAJOR reason that prequels are a nightmare to write. We knew Obi Wan had to live to be in the New Hope so we weren’t ever worried.
For a parallel timeline story told in an I Remember When fashion, I recommend both the book and the movie The Green Mile.
In Stephen King’s The Green Mile there are TWO stories running in tandem. The contemporary story of an elderly gentleman in a nursing home who is being bullied intwined with the tale of a prison guard working death row. It isn’t until the end that we see HOW these stories fit together and WHY. The past takes up a lot of storytelling time, but it still is subordinate to the present. Eventually both timelines merge for the conclusion of the contemporary timeline (story) taking place in the nursing home.
What happened to John Coffee cannot be changed, but John Coffee changed Paul Edgecome and so the future is still mutable.
Back to True Detective…
True Detective is NOT an I Remember When story, it is a straightforward parallel timeline. There is a reason these men are being asked about the serial killer they hunted and caught back in the 90s. And the reason is, they didn’t get the right guy. They only stopped ONE bad dude in a nest of vipers and they failed to cut off the monster’s head. Women and children are still disappearing and being murdered (this is actually a turning point in the overall plot of the series).
Remember our litmus for going back in the past.
The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).
In the case of Cohle and Hart, the past is the reason they are in the interrogation room. A case they believed had been solved actually wasn’t and they nailed some low-level dirtbag and not the Big Kahuna. Being in that interrogation room eventually thrusts these two partners back to working together to finish what they started.
The reason we (the audience) are given a tour through the 90s is because all of this story is essential for uncovering the identity of the murderer and exposing a vast coverup (resolving the plot problem). It is also vital to see how these men were as young men, how they interacted, how they fought and why to fully appreciate the place they will eventually end up at the conclusion of the journey (resolving the character arc and story worthy problem).
We have to see the bitter, corrosive atheist Cohle and experience him to appreciate how this case eventually changes who he IS. We have to see the self-righteous and hypocritical (yet charming) Hart to appreciate the depth of character this case will create.
The parallel timelines are essential for us reconciling past and present both in story and character.
Thus, when you look at your favorite movies or shows or books, I recommend unpacking the WHY and the HOW so you can get a better glimpse of the magic this writer created.
A Quick Announcement: I ran into the first technical problem I’ve had in three years of running classes with my Log-Line Class (probably because my tech person went on vacation for the first time and wasn’t there to babysit me). We had class and an AWESOME time, but something went sideways with the recording. So I am holding it AGAIN July 8th to be able to get attendees that free recording.
The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE.
Now that I’ve announced that, what are your thoughts? Does the flashback seem clearer now that we are unpacking the various ways it is employed? Do you maybe see some of your favorite stories in a new light?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
I will announce JUNE’S WINNER next post!
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Today we’re going to address a topic that—GASP—I don’t believe we’ve ever covered in almost 800 blogs. Namely because it is a tricky one to address. We’re going to talk about description. For those who never use description or very sparse description? Don’t fret. That’s just your voice. Readers like me who looooove description will probably gravitate to other books and that is OKAY.
Personally, I’m not a fan of austere modern houses with stainless steel everything and weird chairs no human could sit in and most cats would avoid, but? There are plenty of people who dig it. I also don’t like a lot of knick-knacks and clutter. Makes me want to start cleaning.
Same with books. Not too little or too much. Yeah, I’m Literary Goldilocks.
Plain fact? We can’t please everyone. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice. BUT, if you are a writer who does like description, maybe I can offer some tips to make it stronger.
Avoid “Police Sketch” Description
I assume most of you have watched TV. A witness is asked to give a description of the mugger, murderer, whatever. Well, he was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes. Very muscular.
She was short, blonde and fit.
The reason I (as an editor) don’t care for this kind of description is a good writer is a wordsmith and we should be able to describe characters better than someone who’s been at the wrong end of a purse-snatching. Is there anything wrong with this description? Nah. Just it’s something anyone can do. It isn’t anything unique.
Avoid the “Weather Report” or “Google Maps”Description
Weather can be vital and even its own character (which we will get to). But putting in weather just to tell us it’s a hot sunny day? Again, surface. Same with describing a location. Cities, streets, stores can come alive with the right description.
Avoid “Info-Dump” Description
I was really bad about this when I was new. I described everything in a room. I believed the reader needed to know all the positions of the furniture, what was on the bookshelves and end tables, the colors of the walls, just to “get” what I was talking about. They didn’t need all that and likely lost interest in the point I was trying to make anyway.
I didn’t give my readers enough credit and most of that information was for me anyway. Novels are for the reader not for us, which is important to remember and easy to forget.
Good description doesn’t automatically mean MORE description 😉 .
What Makes GOOD Description?
Again, this is subjective, but I read…a LOT. I need a 12 Step Program for the sheer number of books I buy. Since I dig description, I often highlight it when it’s done WELL (which is why I cannot check out books from the library or EVER yell at Spawn for coloring in books). The common denominator I see in great description is it delves beyond the surface and evokes some kind of feeling.
In this post, I’m merely giving some of MY favorite examples (from many different genres). I recommend that, if you want to use description, go to those stories that spoke to YOU. Those highlighted spots can be telling about your voice, preference and style. You don’t need to copy, but you can deconstruct how the author did something WELL. And likely, if you are a fan of that kind of writing, others are too and you might share the same kind of readers.
One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. He describes people in a way that instantly evokes a visceral resonse. Sure there is a tad of physical description, but not much. Most is left out and yet we SEE these people.
For instance, Rot and Ruin (which is a YA series about our world 12 years after the Zombie Apocalypse. A teenage boy is the protagonist and my entire family is now INHALING this series, too).
This is a scene in the first book when the young protagonist Benny goes to hang out with his zombie-hunting hero, Charlie Matthias:
“It was a 1967 Pontiac LeMans Ragtop. Bloodred and so souped-up that she’d outrun any damn thing on the road. And I do mean damned thing.”
That’s how Charlie Matthias always described his car. Then, he’d give a big braying horselaugh, because no matter how many times he said it, he thought it was the funniest joke ever. People tended to laugh with him rather than at the actual joke, because Charlie had a 72-inch chest and 24-inch biceps, and his sweat was a soup of testosterone, anabolic steroids, and Jack Daniels… (Page, 24)
In this example, other than the size of Charlie’s muscles, we get very little literal description. Everything in this is “feeling oriented.” We get a real sense of who Charlie is and who he might be. As a zombie-hunter, he seems the epitome of who we’d want taking out the undead, but there is an undercurrent of tension that makes us (readers) uneasy.
To me, this is far more powerful than:
Zombie-Hunter Charlie Matthais was well over six-feet tall with bulging muscles and wild red hair. (Zzzzzzzzz. Btw, I have no idea what color C.M.’s hair is, but did I really need to know?)
For the Literary Folks: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men:
(Sheriff Bell) came across a hawk dead in the road. He saw the feathers move in the wind. He pulled over and got out and walked back and squatted on his boot heels and looked at it. He raised one dead wing and let it fall again. Cold yellow eye dead to the blue vault above them.
It was a big red tail. He picked it up by one wing and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high power poles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing in on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it (Page 44-45).
In this story, a good lawman is after a soulless criminal who is nothing short of pure evil. This above description is important. The red tail hawk is a parallel of Bell. Bell is also a hunter who’s in danger of being so caught in the pursuit, it could get him killed. Even though the lawman is tracking a criminal, he takes time to honor a fallen hunter even though it’s “only” a bird, something the psychopathic antagonist, who has NO VALUE for any life, would ever do.
Part of that “Show, don’t tell” thing ;). We don’t get a description of what Bell looks like, but through action, we know who he IS.
If you are into the “Less-Is-More-Description” here’s an example from Daniel Suarez’s cyber-thriller Daemon:
Merrit stopped short and turned to glare at the man—a federal bureaucrat type, late twenties. The kind of person you forgot even while you were looking at him (Page 242)
Short, sweet and we all know this kind of person. We fill in the blanks and it’s emotive (or rather non-emotive, which is the point).
Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump
For the sake of time, we’ll bundle three into one. Depp does a fabulous job of weaving weather, setting, and information in a tight cord of emotion. This selection is from Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town.
The protagonist, Spandau, is a P.I. is following a Hollywood agent to a movie set to meet a client who’s being blackmailed:
Spandau smoked, and thought the city gliding past was much like an overexposed film, too much light, all depth burned away and sacrificed. All concrete and asphalt, a thousand square miles of man-made griddle on which to fry for our sins. Then, you turn a corner and there’s a burst of crimson bougainvillea redeeming an otherwise ugly chunk of concrete building. Or a line of tall palm trees, still majestic and still stubbornly refusing to die, stubbornly sprouting green at the tops of thick dying stalks, guarding a side street of bungalows constructed at a time when L.A. was still the Land of Milk and Honey….There was a beauty still there, sometimes, beneath all the corruption, like the face of an actress long past her prime, when the outline of an old loveliness can still be glimpsed through the desperate layers of pancake and eyeliner. (page 23)
In this description, we get more than a play-by-play of the L.A. streets he passes. Additionally, I feel the description is very telling about the character. Note the contrasting biblical references or even the tension inside the character. He hates this place, but can still see the loveliness that tears at him and keeps him there, keeps him coming back.
The description is an extension of the feel of the city—no depth, manmade, hardened, lost (but still something beautiful worth staying for).
Note the description is processed through the feelings and backstory of the character. Instead of sounding like a travel brochure, there is emotional flavor adding depth. We pretty much know the weather—bright and hot. We experience the place rather than just “seeing” it in a boring “and then he turned on this street and then that street” fashion.
The description also shows us Spandau is likely an excellent detective—he sees more than the surface and instinctively searches deeper.
Again, description–how to do it, how much, how little—is subjective.
But, I believe that good description can make the difference in a caricature verses a “person” or “place” so real we’re sad to say good-bye when the book ends. Also, I hope I’ve given examples of how we can describe a character or a place without “describing” it.
Are we describing with the same depth as any literate person with a laptop could do? Or are we digging below skin and into marrow?
What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself skimming description and didn’t know why? Do you highlight great description, too? Or are you a minimalist? There aren’t any wrong answers, btw. Who are some of your favorite authors who ROCKS description? What are maybe some tips/thoughts you have that takes description from blasé to beautiful?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Winner of JUNE’S COMMENT CONTEST: Linda Maye Adams. Please send your 5000 word WORD doc to kristen at wana intl dot com in an attachment, please. Or, if you prefer, you can send a 500 word synopsis or 300 word query letter. Your choice which one. Congratulations!!!! Thanks for being part of the discussion that makes this blog so much FUN.
THIS SATURDAY is my Antagonist Class PINKIE-SWEAR! ( JULY 5th). Use WANA15 for $15 off. This class will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.
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