Friday, June 24, 2016

Where's the Engine?

A popular post from June 2011

by Annette Lyon

It's an interesting conundrum: great writing in a delightful manuscript, laugh out loud scenes, great showing, awesome characters . . .

but no conflict.

Clean writing on a small scale can get you only so far. I learned this the hard way when a professor read a short story of mine and proclaimed the writing to be excellent but the story to need a lot of work.

To a great extent, the things that needed fixing were big picture issues, like motivation and, yes, conflict.

Conflict is the engine that drives a story. Without conflict, all we have is a series of events. As delightful as those events may be, eventually the reader will get bored and set the book aside if the characters are driving blissfully along without speed bumps and road blocks.

This goes back, on some level, to the two sides of the writer.

First is the storyteller. This is the more common side to have it seems. Someone has a great story but doesn't know how to get it out. As an editor, that's relatively easy to fix and teach.

The second side is the wordsmith, and in some ways, it's the harder side to be on if you lack the other: you can create great writing, but you can't tell a story effectively. In other words, the writing itself is great, but the structure is weak. Wordsmithing is harder to teach (and impossible to edit).

Is your story lacking an engine? Here are a few clues that your story may be struggling with structure and conflict:
  • Most of the time, stuff happens to your character that they react to, instead of your character being proactive.
  • The story is pleasant, but there's no urgent problem, at least in a significant stretch of pages.
  • The stakes aren't high enough. The reader isn't worried for the characters right now.
  • The conflict, such as it is, could be resolved with a 2-minute conversation.
  • The original conflict is resolved, but we're still here, and any new conflicts we run into are short-lived and/or easily overcome.
Even if you're a "panster" (a writer who goes in blind, without pre-planning), your story needs structure. That could mean going back to add lots of conflict, structure, and plot points in future revisions.

Open your document to any page. Read that page and the one or two that come after. Then ask: Do we care? Is the heat hot enough for my character? Are the stakes high enough (does my character have enough to lose)? Why should your reader keep turning pages?

If you can't answer those questions, beef up that conflict. Study story structure. Revise.

It's work, but it'll be worth it in the end, because you'll be giving a reader a great experience they'll not soon forget . . . rather than a simple, pleasant tale they can set aside and forget to pick back up.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Defining Markets

A popular post from August 2011

by Annette Lyon

Knowing who your readers are is crucial. Your readers define your market and genre. Market and genre define where your book will be shelved (or indexed online) and therefore how potential readers will find you.

It also defines how you write your book.

Below are some basic genres and markets. The descriptions are very much generalized, but they'll at least give you an idea of how the publishing industry breaks things up.

Early Chapter Books
These are books young readers cut their teeth on. They're longer than picture books (but will still have some pictures), have larger fonts, and stick to pretty simple story lines. Books in this market include everything from the Arthur chapter books to the Frog and Toad series, Junie B. Jones, The Magic Tree House books, and so forth.

Middle Grade
Much longer books, few if any illustrations. Focused on emerging readers who can handle more complex stories and characters. Themes aren't too intense, and the protagonists are usually early teens. Middle grade has quite a range, from Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dear Dumb Diary to more complex books like the Fablehaven series, Percy Jackson, and the Deltora Quest series, along with the early Harry Potter books. (As Harry ages, so does his market. The later books are clearly Young Adult.)

Young Adult
Older teens are the main characters, and with that, we get more difficult and complex stories and themes. That can mean more violence and other content (language, drugs, innuendo, etc.), but it doesn't have to. Often YA means longer books. Examples include The Hunger Games, My Fair Godmother, and The Maze Runner.

This is a huge umbrella that covers several genres. In the most basic terms, "Speculative" means science fiction and fantasy. It can also include paranormal, horror, and other "otherworldly" stories. Within speculative you'll find sub-genres like dystopian, post-apocalyptic, high fantasy, low fantasy, and more. If you're writing here, you'll need to do research so you know what's out there and where you fit. Examples: Ender's Game, I Am Not a Serial Killer, and Mistborn.

The cardinal rule: the couple must end up together in a committed relationship. That doesn't mean we need to see an engagement or a wedding, but they need to be together, essentially "happily ever after."

You can certainly write stories where the couple doesn't get together. Such books sell well, but they're in a different genre (women's fiction or literary fiction). They cannot wear the label of "Romance."

Romance isn't all "bodice-rippers." It's a huge market (the best-selling genre by a mile). Included are category romances and stand-alone titles (find out which you write) and levels of "heat" from "sweet" (where the hero and heroine do no more than kiss) up to the really spicy (which can border on erotica) and everything in between. Examples of Romance writers: Danielle Steele, Georgette Heyer.

In the same vein, a mystery must have the crime (usually a murder) solved by the end, or it's simply not a mystery. This genre has a big range of sub-genres, including culinary and cozy mysteries on one end and hard-boiled, intense (and possibly graphic) stuff on the other. As with Romance, if you violate genre conventions, you're going to end up with ticked off readers. Example: anything by Agatha Christie.

In some ways, a thriller is the reverse of a mystery. In a mystery, we're trying to piece together clues to figure out who did it. In a thriller, we usually have a clue as to who the bad guy is, and we're trying to escape them or stop them from doing something horrible. Examples: The Hunt for Red October, The Da Vinci Code.

Women's Fiction
Somewhat of a broad term that encompasses literature that's often seen in book clubs. Features women and issues they face, but isn't Romance by genre terms. Examples: The Poisonwood Bible, The Help.

Of course, this is in no way an exhaustive list of genres or markets. In many cases, age-group markets are combined with genres, so you can end up with Young Adult Romance (most titles by Janette Rallison's books), Middle Grade Speculative (Percy Jackson), Young Adult Paranormal Romance (Twilight), and so forth.

Know your market and genre and then read it. Learn the ropes. Learn what's been done, learn what the readers expect. Learn the rules and which ones you can break (and why). Figure out what's old and what you can offer that's fresh.

Then get back to the keyboard and write!

Monday, June 20, 2016

"I'm a Bit Stubborn"

A popular post from October 2011

by Annette Lyon

Writing, whether it's your occupation, hobby, or passion, brings with it challenges that I believe are unique to the creative arts.

Among them is an intense connection to your work, almost as if your words are an extension of yourself, your heart, your very being.

That can pose a huge problem, but here are two of the most common ways:

1) You are too afraid to get feedback.
It's very hard to put your work out there for other people to see, then ask them for an opinion, especially since writing can be so subjective. It's like someone telling you your baby is ugly, and it's all your fault.

2) You refuse to accept feedback.
Yes, writing is subjective . . . to a point. But when alpha/beta readers, critique partners, and editors continue to return with similar feedback (this is confusing, show this, the pace is lagging, whatever), maybe there's really a problem.

Maybe you can really improve.

A truth for success in writing: being pig-headed gets you absolutely nowhere.

Those writers who seek help, who are open to suggestion and change, who recognize that maybe they aren't yet ready to put up a shelf for their incoming Pulitzer, who continually strive to improve: those are the writers who will eventually succeed.

I recently met a man who is an aspiring writer and actor. As we talked, it became clear that the main reason he hasn't found any success in either endeavor is that he refuses to seek or accept feedback.

With his writing, he simply will not let others so much as suggest he add a comma. No one is allowed to give criticism of any kind (editors and writing teachers are "full of themselves," you see). He has no industry connections at all, and therefore doesn't understand how the industry works. He doesn't take time for his craft. He simply expects success to land in his lap.

As we talked, he explained that he can't stand being told what to do. "I'm a bit stubborn," he admitted, as if that's an admirable quality.

Stubbornness can be a good thing; to some extent, it's what helped me get as far as I have in my career. I'm stubborn enough to not give up.

But that's not the kind of stubborn he was talking about. He refuses feedback, suggestions, change, and any hint that he maybe he'd get further by going about doing things differently.

Yet he asked my advice about how to improve, succeed, and find industry connections. I had a sneaking suspicion that he didn't really want to hear what I was going to say.

First I asked, "Have you been to any writing conferences?"

"Oh, no. I don't have time for conferences or any of that stuff."

Since we'd met all of ten minutes earlier, I might have been too bold in my response, but it slipped out anyway: "Then you don't have time to be a writer."

After a slightly awkward pause, he said, "Yeah, I hear that. But . . ."

And he kept going on about how he's such a great writer and doesn't want (or need) to be told what to do.

When he heard about how many books I've published, he asked if I could connect him with friends in the industry to get him published.

My first reaction (which I didn't verbalize), was to list all the work I've done to reach the point I'm at. We're talking about close to two decades of hard, consistent work. Work I'm still doing. Success doesn't just happen.

I tried to explain that no one can help him in the way he wants. Even if I handed him my editor's cell phone number, it would do him no good. I can make suggestions and recommendations to industry friends (and I have).

Every so often the recommendation leads to a contract. In one case, the writer I passed the information on about had been actively working, hard, for years. It was a good fit, and I could whole-heartedly recommend them to my editor. It worked out only because the writer's skill, work ethic, and professionalism were already in place. They likely would have made it eventually without my putting a finger into the situation.

But I've made other recommendations that haven't ended up in a contract. I can suggest all I want, but in the end, I have zero control over what an editor or publisher does. I've been recommended by others too, but that guarantees nothing.

As the conversation went on, it became quite clear that he didn't know some of the most basic things about writing or publishing, things he could have picked up and learned with a simple Google search (or heck, by reading the archives right here).

I left the conversation guessing that whatever dreams he has will never become a reality because he refuses to be teachable.

If you hope to be published and have success, you need outside feedback (good luck ever publishing a novel if you refuse to be edited; your publisher will drop you like a hot potato).

I don't care if you think you're the best gift to literature since Shakespeare; you need to improve and learn what that means for your work.

You need to reach out and make the connections. Don't isolate yourself in a tower and think you know best when others can support you and help you thrive.

Don't think you have all the answers. I can guarantee that whoever you are, you don't.

Learn the ins and outs and expectations of what a writer does, how publishing works, and what that means for you personally.

If you're serious about writing, you'll never be in a place to sit on your laurels.

Don't look down your nose at someone who is suggesting that maybe this part of your story might work better if you revised. They just might know what they're talking about. And remember: they're trying to help you, not pull you down.

Bottom line: Learn what it means to be a professional. And then behave like one.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Writing Retreats

A popular post from Nov. 2011

by Annette Lyon

Last week, from Thursday afternoon through Sunday morning, I attended a writing retreat.

The group consisted of twenty writers. Under the direction and coordination of Danyelle Ferguson, we rented out a cabin in the mountains and wrote out hearts out. Imagine: a three-floor cabin virtually silent, save for the tapping of keyboards. We took breaks for meals. We had several competitions where we did 20-minute writing sprints, cranking out as many words as we could. There were door prizes, laughter, great talk, and lots and lots of words.

If memory serves, we wrote more than a combined 266,000 words. That's more than 5 NaNoWriMo books. The retreat overlapped with Precision Editing's own write-a-thon, so several attendees hunkered down to write even harder during that period.

Part of my personal success on the retreat (I ended up just shy of 26,000 words) was thanks to advance preparation.

A few things that helped:
  • A list of upcoming scenes with brief descriptions. And by "brief," I mean less than a sentence. I had 10 or so scenes planned out. That way, I could hop around and write whatever section hit my fancy (and jump to a brand new one when we started a sprint).
  • A novel in progress. I think that starting a manuscript from scratch at a retreat might be challenging. But by showing up with nearly half the book already written, I didn't have to flounder around, trying to find my characters' voices or what the major conflicts were. Instead, I hit the ground running.
  • Scrivener. This is my first attempt at writing with the software (which is now available for Windows, booyah). The program made the retreat really easy, because I could swap from one scene to the next with (literally) a click or two of the mouse. I stamped my scene cards on the program's cork board with labels like "To Do," "Partial Draft," "First Draft," "Revised Draft," and "Done."
  • Find your way to focus. Whether that's silence, music, or something else (chocolate?), use it.
  • Breaks. You can't write for twelve hours straight, several days in a row. Your (or, at least, my) brain can't handle it. Some attendees set timers for regular breaks. You'll be more productive with a few well-timed breaks than trying to plow through more words when your brain has turned to mush.
Every retreat is a bit different. Some may require attendees to take turns cooking. Others may include speakers (we had a set of speakers during lunch Friday) or workshops. And so on.

I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year (although, for inspiration, I wore the hoodie I bought myself when I won last year), but it was a great kick-off for those doing it.

I got a ton accomplished on my WIP, and I had a great time getting there. If you ever get the chance to attend a retreat, I highly recommend it.

**Side note: Check out Larry Correia's plan for the ultimate Book Bomb at Amazon on Thursday, November 10th. Help us help Robison Wells!***

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Six Free Reference Books on How to Write

A popular post from November 2011 (be sure to check the links to make sure the book is still free)

By Julie Wright

We've been talking a lot on this blog about education. What price would you pay to write a GREAT book. We've talked about self editing, about taking the time to go to conferences and read books on writing. We've talked about being willing to fork over a few dollars so that you can LEARN.

But that's not what I'm going to talk about today.

I know Tuesday is almost over, but this is good news, and I was afraid to wait until next Tuesday because the opportunity might be gone.

Right now you can get SIX FREE books on how to write. Seriously. FREE. I've already downloaded mine onto my Kindle. If you don't have a Kindle, that's okay because you can download a PC Kindle app.

Here is the link to start building your reference library for


If you are at all serious about writing, then you need to learn your craft. This little gift takes all your excuses taken away. Take the time to download a few books that can help fine tune you from an adequate author to a great author.

Happy reading!

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Middle of Nowhere

A popular post from September 2011

I live in the literal middle of nowhere. Getting to my house is one of those experiences where you start out thinking about how fun the road trip is going to be. You take off with your snacks, and your drinks, and your awesome music you can sing along with. But once you leave the freeway and enter the highway, things feel less promising than they did when you took off. You're moving slower because the speed limits are so incredibly lamely LOW, and sometimes you get stuck behind semi trucks who make the lame low speed limit look like Nascar, and the scenery doesn't feel like it's changing. It's more of the same thing over and over and over. And sometimes you get stuck out there in the middle--due to cattle or sheep, or rolled semi trucks (it happens). Sometimes you get stuck for a long time and it totally bites because there isn't even any cell service.

People show up at my house and come panting in my living room and plopping down on my couch with great exclamations of how they NEVER thought they would get there.

I get them a drink and lament American highways with them because it's the right thing to do. It really is a long drive--necessary for me, but long.

Writing feels similar sometimes.

You get this great idea--this epic, amazing, you-can't-believe-the-idea-actually-came-to-you idea, and you take off, writing furiously. You've got your snacks, your drinks, your best writing music, and you are so excited about what you're working on, you can barely keep the grin off your face. You know that the ending of this work will be colossal, amazing. You're thrilled with how fantastic the destination of the end of your book will be for readers of all ages. You are going to change the world.

Until you find yourself in what feels like the two-lane-highway-stuck-behind-a-semi-truck part of your book.

Welcome. You've now reached the middle.

And you start to doubt.

Is this really where you wanted to go anyway? What's so great about reaching "the end?" Maybe that beginning was the mistake. Maybe you took a wrong turn somewhere . . .

So instead of writing, you rearrange your pen collection, get up for a different snack--you were sick of chips anyway and realize carrot sticks might be healthier. You punch some buttons on the remote control to see what might be on.You call your friends and see about going to a movie, but they're busy writing--jerks, and then you decide that health is overrated, and you wanted ice cream instead.

There are some things you can do to pass the semi--clear the flock off the road, and get back to the freeway that will take you where you want to go.

Are you bored? If you're bored, I promise, your reader is too. If that's the reason the middle's slowing down, then you might want to insert some action, some peril, something that incites your characters and your readers. Put them in danger, make the girl lose the guy, have the murderer strike again while the detective is still scrambling with clues. Make something happen that propels the action and the plot forward again.

Does your character not have clearly defined goals so your characters are kind of wandering around in the misty middles of nowhere because they're not sure what to do next? if this is the case, go back and find something your character desperately wants or is desperately passionate about. That is the goal. Keep them moving toward the goal, which will help move them away from the middle and closer to the end. Make sure the goal is big enough that the readers will care if the goal is achieved. If the quest is merely for a pint of ice cream--you might not be able to get the reader to follow the journey to the end. Make it riveting enough to hold your attention.

Make sure your antagonist has a clear goal too. No one is evil just for the sake of evil. They have things they want and are trying desperately to achieve.

I have a tendency to get lost in my manuscripts about page 60, and then again at page 120. But I've always found that it's because I've lost sight of the goal or failed to keep the action and plot moving. Middles don't have to feel like the boring nowheres they sometimes seem to be. Take the scenic route and turn your music up louder. And remember to have fun with it!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Myths and Validation

A popular post from August 2011

By Julie Wright

I read a quote that made me laugh and cry--or at least feel like crying.
"I have always believed that writing advertisements is the second most profitable form of writing. The first, of course, is ransom notes . . ." --Philip Dusenberry
As a mass communications major, I found that absolutely hilarious. As a novelist . . . well, it hurt a little, only because it is so dang true.

I've always known I had to go into an occupation that involved writing since I wasn't good for anything else. I wanted to be in advertising--wanted to win a Clio. I wanted to write ads so awesome they'd be played during the Super Bowl. And, to be completely base about the whole thing, I wanted to make a lot of money.

And then one day I finished my first novel. The moment of completion can only be likened unto Dr. Frankenstein with his monster. I'm pretty sure I cackled like a mad man scientist, and the manuscript felt very much alive. The novel had started as a side note for me--a way to prove to some idiot naysayer that I could write a novel, but at that moment, it was everything. The feeling was so immense, I knew I would have to do it again. I needed that feeling again.

Writing became my personal drug.

It would be another several years before I learned anything about really writing. It would be another decade before I was actually any good at it. And over that time I discovered a distinction between the emotional validation that comes with writing and the monetary validation.

I once believed that writing a novel and getting it published guaranteed you big royalty checks. For the most part, that isn't true. Sure there are exceptions, but I wasn't one of them. My first check was disappointing. Then I got with a bigger publisher and my checks started coming in with actual commas in them. That was pretty exciting and I realized I could actually make a living at this.

I know some people who support their families off of their writing. I know others who can't take their families to McDonalds on their royalty checks. I started writing for a niche market. I am successful in my niche market, but it's still a niche market. I knew that going in and of course I am branching out to those larger markets. But I've heard of other authors who are out there in their huge markets, and all the potential those markets have to offer, and they make less than I do.

So why keep doing it?

There is the other validation--the one that has nothing to do with dollar signs and everything to do with achieving something great. It has something to do with that buzz that comes when you reach the end of a draft--when you took nothing and made it something.

That validation is pretty intense. The emotions that come with it can be likened to the thrill of jumping off a cliff into a void and as you fall the void turns into mountain ranges or skyscrapers or castles. And you land safely in the middle of a murder mystery, or an epic fantasy, or a hilarious contemporary romance.

Dave Wolverton always tells people that a decent living can be made at writing, and I absolutely agree. but like anything it takes work. Unless you are that entirely rare fluke, it isn't going to be something that happens overnight. One of my best friends recently got a six figure deal and that was for North American rights only. he'll do great with foreign rights and movie rights. And I am thrilled for him. But he's worked his butt off for years to get to this place. Because of the work involved--a lot of people drop out. They can't handle the time it takes to write a GREAT manuscript versus the decent-enough manuscript. They can't handle the rejections. They can't handle the waiting. That is why that other form of validation is so important. Knowing why you're doing it, knowing that it takes time to get the draft right, to get that agent, to get that publisher and then to build your audience, knowing all that makes it easier to live in the mental and emotional validation versus the monetary one.

And it make it easier to laugh at jokes like this:

Three guys are sitting in a bar.

#1 "Yeah I make $80,000 a year for a living."
#2 "Cool. What do you do for a living?"
#1 "I'm a stockbroker. How much do you make?"
#2 "I should clear $65,000 this year."
#1 "What do you do?"
#2 "I'm an architect."
The third guy has been sitting quietly staring into his beer when the others turn to him.
#2. "So what about you? What do you make a year?"
#3 "$13,000."
#1 "Oh really? So what kind of books do you write?"

Know why you're doing it, and you'll live through the myths and make it to the validation. :)