Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Give me a Break!

A popular post from September 2011

By Josi Kilpack

Just like in real life, a "break" in a manuscript is a pause, a format-spoken note to your reader's subconscious telling them what to expect next. Using them correctly will give the right signal, and knowing the terms they are called by will help you better communicate to other industry people.

There are actually two types of Line Breaks, or at least two ways I have found them to be used. The definition I'm most familiar with is basically the hard return at the end of a line that starts a new paragraph. This type of break is used all the time in fiction, if we didn't use it we'd have one very long and confusing paragraph. The correct way to use a line break is to signal the end of a paragraph and to signal a new speaker in dialogue. For instance, you wouldn't format dialogue this way:

"But what about the dog? What are we going to do about that @#!*% dog?" her voice was rising in direct proportion to her frustration. "We'll sell it, or give it away. We can do it while the kids are at school and tell them it ran off." "Do you really think they'll fall for it?" "Trust me. I'll take them to ice cream and buy them a new Wii game. I doubt they'll even notice."

Without line breaks we have a hard time following the discussion which should read:

"But what about the dog? What are we going to do about that @#!*% dog?" her voice was rising in direct proportion to her frustration.
"We'll sell it, or give it away. We can do it while the kids are at school and tell them it ran off."
"Do you really think they'll fall for it?"
"Trust me. I'll take them to ice cream and buy them a new Wii game. I doubt they'll even notice."

The other way that the term line break is used is when you have a significant change but not a new chapter--I call these Hard Breaks to keep it clearer in my own head. A significant change is usually point of view or setting and it should be signaled to the reader by centering three asterisks *** between the last line of the previous text and the first line of "change". It is very important that you use three asterisks, not two and not four, and that it's centered. The typesetter uses this as a signal for their formatting so use it correctly in your manuscript. The important part to remember is that hard breaks should only be used for a significant change, which invites the question of whether or not the change should be the start of a new chapter instead of a hard break. I, personally, dislike hard breaks very much. I use them on occasion, but only if the significant change results in too short a chapter. I dislike reading books with lots of *** because though I'm being warned of the change, I question if it was really necessary. Specifically, when you are in one scene and the *** signals jumping between POV characters still in that scene I find it usually wasn't the best choice. I prefer that each scene belong to one POV character, usually the character who has the most to lose in that scene--but that is only my opinion and not an element of craft. Any time you use a hard break, ask yourself if it should be a new chapter. If the answer is no, make sure you really need to make the significant change. If the answer is yes, then be sure to format it correctly with three centered asterisks.

Sometimes, you'll see an extra line between paragraphs. This is typically referred to as a Soft Break but is sometimes called a Section Break as well. Often, the use of soft breaks is a style issue with individual writers and is used to signal a less-significant change. That means that you're in the same POV character, same setting, and the 'focus' of that portion of the plot is also the same. Most often, soft breaks work well to show that time has passed. Whenever it is used, you should question yourself to make sure it's necessary. Because it is such a strong visual cue to the reader, you want to make sure that you use it correctly.

The final break is a Page Break. A page break should only ever be used to start a new chapter, AND even that is questionable. Many editors and agents want the Chapters to be continuous and not break at the end of a page. If you do want to make a page break, don't simply hit the return key until you get to a new page. If you should add anything above those empty returns, they will push those returns down as well, throwing off your alignment. Instead, if using Word on a PC go to the end of the text in that chapter and then push the ctrl key and the enter key at the same time. On a Mac, press the apple key and the enter key located next to the apple key on the right side of the keyboard, not the return key. This will take you to the first line of the next page. You can also add breaks through the 'insert' drop down of the menu, but it's much easier to use the shortcut. Be sure to check submission guidelines to make sure that page breaks for new chapters are acceptable. If they don't say anything, then you can assume it's allowed.

Proper formatting is a cue to your editor that you know what you're doing and anything that increases their confidence in you is a very good thing. Happy Writing!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Time Warps

A popular post from 2011

by Annette Lyon

Throughout your story, time will pass. Story time, that is. (Even more time will pass as you write it, but that's another topic.)

Handling time can be tricky, and if it's done poorly, your reader may get confused, annoyed, and, quite possibly, put the story down. Here are the most common ways writers mishandle time that I see as an editor:

Back Story Dumps
This is one of the most common ways to mismanage time: dwelling on back story, especially in the first couple of chapters. Get to the now of the story right away. Give us whatever information we need from the past in small bites (usually later), and probably less back story than you think we need. We've talked about this one elsewhere, so we'll jump to the other time problems.

Flashbacks
While I'd never say you can't use a flashback (few writing rules are so solid you can actually say "never" to them), I would say to be wary of them and, when using them, learn to do so well.

A few flashback tips:

1) Make the transitions into and out of the flashback crystal clear so the reader can follow easily. We need to know where and when we are at all times.

2) Keep the flashbacks short and few. Lots of flashbacks aren't a story. You don't want your novel to get mired in what led up to this point; tell us what's happening now. That's where the current conflict (and therefore, what your reader will care about) lies.

3) Use flashbacks with a clear purpose, deliberately, when you've gone through other techniques and are sure that there's no other way to effectively accomplish what your story needs. Don't fall back on this technique as your default. Chances are, the easiest way to tell the story isn't going to be the most effective.

Flashbacks Within Flashbacks
Laugh if you will, but I do see this. A flashback all by itself has the potential for confusing the reader about what happened and when. Adding a second flashback inside the first is doubly confusing. If the second flashback includes time words like "two weeks ago," we have no idea what's going on; is that two weeks prior to the second flashback? Is the second flashback two weeks prior to the first? Or is this two weeks before the main story line? Confusing? You bet. It's also sloppy.

Rewinding.
This is when, for example, Scene A covers the time from 3 to 6PM, and then the writer goes on to write Scene B, but backs up in time and repeats some or most of what happened in scene A, only from a different POV.

Here's the problem: After reading scene A, which ends at 6PM, most readers (understandably, since in our lives, time moves forward) will assume the time is 6PM (or later).

Rewinding is jarring in the extreme. Readers expect time to flow one direction unless clearly told otherwise. So if that expectation is violated, the reader gets pulled out, has to reorient, and only then move forward. You've just given the reader the perfect chance to close the cover and walk away.

In one rewinding case I saw, two characters see one another for the second time. We first see the brief meeting from the man's point of view. He went on to have a pretty long scene with other events. So when the next scene began, from the woman's point of view, I assumed an hour or two (at least) had passed.

The scene read fine that way at first. But halfway through, the door opens, and she sees the man. I assumed this was their third meeting. It wasn't until a page or two later that I realized that oh, this is meeting #2, and we're seeing it for a second time.

Among the problems with this particular story: The second viewing didn't add a thing.

As with flashbacks, there's no hard and fast rule to avoid this technique, but I'd caution against it even more than with flashbacks.

Rewinding: A Caveat
As an editor, I have seen rewinding done well . . . a total of one time.

In that case, it worked for several reasons:

1) When we jumped from Character A to Character B, the section was labeled with the B character's name clearly identified as the POV character. I knew right away that we'd changed locations and POV, and when the time shifted too, I was ready for it.

2) Although we were reliving a time period, a significant amount of Character B's story didn't feature Character A at all. For the most part, we weren't seeing the same scenes, just the same time period.

3) During the moments where we were repeating a scene, we got a brand new perspective with new, important information. Both perspectives were crucial to the story.

4) We weren't ping ponging back and forth; each section was several chapters long, so we had a significant amount of time with each POV before swapping to the other.

In the first case (that didn't work), none of these items were present.
1) We simply moved to the next scene with no marker or header telling us where (or when!) we were.

2) We relived not only the same time period, but the exact same moment.

And the kicker:

3) The two characters' perspectives weren't different enough to add a single thing to the story.


A rule of thumb regarding POV:
Use the point of view of the character who has the most to lose in any given scene.

A corollary:
That means you can't pick two characters to use and then show the scene twice.

As an exercise, feel free to write both. Then see which is the most effective and choose the better scene. I can guarantee that one of the two will be better than the other. Use that.

Then throw the other one away.


Handling time in fiction, especially in something as lengthy as a novel, can be tricky. Avoid the pitfalls of back story dumps, flashbacks (plus flashbacks within flashbacks), and rewinding, and you'll have eliminated a lot of potholes, making your story much smoother reading.

Friday, February 5, 2016

When Are You Ready?

A popular post from July 2014

by Annette Lyon

Not long ago, I witnessed the following: 

A well-established, very successful writer, one who had moved from the traditional publishing world entirely to the indie side, was asked by a brand new, aspiring writer, when he would know his first book was ready to be published.

The veteran writer’s reply: “Put it up right away, as soon as you’re done with it. You’ll get better as time goes on, but why not earn money in the meantime?”

My reaction was pretty much stunned horror. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, some back story:

I have been actively writing and seeking publication for two solid decades. In that time, my writing has improved by a huge amount, from the sheer number of words and books and articles and posts I’ve written as well as by the feedback I’ve received from others.

Some of those people have been other writers, such as critique group members. Others are beta readers, who may be writers or who may simply be avid readers. Some of those people are professional editors at a publishing house, people who have pushed me to take a good book and make it even better.

One such editor kept returning my manuscript—which was already under contract—and insisted I try again on this one section. It was almost there, but not quite. She wanted the motivation to be stronger here, or the characterization to be stronger there. I rewrote and rewrote and pulled my hair out. The experience was monumentally frustrating, because I already had confidence in that book. I knew it wasn’t garbage. It was good.

Besides, this wasn’t close to the first book I’d written, or even close to the first one I’d published.

For that matter, I had been part of an intense critique group for about a decade at that point. My skill level had increased a ton by that point. It was tempting to tell her to back off and just send the book to press already.

But in the end, I am so glad she didn’t do that. I’m immensely grateful that she pushed me to make the book the best I could possibly make it. She helped me see where my blind spots where so I could fix them. She helped me make that book shine. And it was a Whitney Awards finalist in the very first year of the program.

Many years later, I’m still very proud of that book instead of being embarrassed about it.

(I still hate the cover, though. Dear marketing and graphics departments: What were you thinking?)

Hypothetical question: 
What would have happened if the industry had shifted earlier, making the siren song of self-publishing whisper in my ear back in 2007? I might well have thought that hey, it’s good enough, and put it up myself before that book was truly ready.

My first book hit shelves after eight intense years of working my tail off on a lot of manuscripts. I learned an enormous amount in that time.

So I cringe to think what I would have put out into the world as a writer if I’d had the ability to self-publish back when I started in 1994 as easily as I can in 2014.

I simply wasn’t ready back then. I hadn’t paid my dues to learn and grow and seek enough outside feedback.

Today, I’m grateful for the chance to self-publish; I’ve used the technology for several books and projects, and I have every intention of doing so again. It’s a wonderful tool, one with many, many perks that traditional publishing lacks.

But I also know that I’m stepping into those waters with a whole lot of experience under my belt. I know how to avoid landmines (largely by still getting outside feedback).

And this is why I cringe at the type of advice this author gave the beginning writer. I am a big advocate of independent/self-published books and their authors. I’m a hybrid writer myself—I do both traditional and self-publishing. It works for me and many others.

And yet. A huge stigma still exists about self-published books, and it’s not entirely unearned.

The stigma is based on the fact that very few books that are thrown up onto digital platform have gone through the amount of beta readers, drafts, and rounds of edits (including a professional edit!) that it needs. A lot of indie books are written by writers who are a long ways away from investing the 10,000 hours required to master their craft (or 100,000 or half a million hours, or however long; every individual will be different).

There is a time when it’s too soon to put your work out there. I’ve seen some self-published books by authors I can tell are talented and have the potential to do fantastic, wonderful things, but the book wasn’t ready. I've wanted to say, "Get to a critique group! Find a good editor! Get it proofed!" It's what  might have been. 

Instead of incubating it, revising it (again and again!) until it shines, the author uploaded the manuscript to make money on a half-baked book.

And that right there is the travesty.

If you have plans to self-publish, more power to you! So do I. It’s a fabulous train to be riding.

Just remember:

·         Take your time; don’t rush it.

·         Consider the next few years your apprenticeship: write several books with no intention of publishing them, just to learn how to craft a full story and how to finish a book.

·         Read up on the craft. Voraciously.

·         Read books in your genre. Voraciously. Look for what works, what doesn’t work, and figure out why.

·         Attend writing conferences and attend lots of workshops on the craft. Don’t just go to the marketing classes. You need to know your craft, first and foremost.

·         Get outside eyes looking at your work. Lots of them. You won’t agree with everything they say, and that’s fine; chance are, they won’t all be right. But chances are, they’ll be more right than wrong. And even if they tell you to fix something in a way you know won’t work, pay attention to the underlying diagnosis of the problem; they may be on to something.

·         Pay for professional services. That means editing and proofing (two VERY different skill sets), formatting (for e-books) or typesetting (for paper books), and cover art. If you aren’t trained specifically in graphic design and in creating book covers, don’t attempt to make your own. It’ll be obvious. I want indie authors to have all the success they deserve, and they have the best shot of that if they, quite simply, ignore that writer’s advice altogether.

Do NOT put up the first thing you’ve ever written and then just shrug, figuring you’ll put up better stuff when you’ve improved. You will have already besmirched your name and tainted any potential audience.

Sure, you may make some money in the meantime, but will you be proud of your books? 

Or will you be a bit embarrassed about them? 

Will you lose potential readers because they now assume you’re not a pro and don't take the craft seriously?

Make your start out of the gate the strongest it can be. Waiting is hard, but it’s so, so worth it, and it’s crucial if you want to be a successful writer, regardless of the publishing path you choose.

Stages of Editing

A popular post from May 2014

By Heather B. Moore

At the recent LDS Storymakers Writers Conference, I taught the class on Navigating the World of Revisions (without burning your manuscript to a crisp). No matter how many books you write or how many you have published, you will still have to go through editing. And it will be painful every time. Not that you won't see the value of it, but it's work--hard work.

Here is a run-down of what to expect when working with a traditional publisher. If you are self-publishing, you need to also mirror this editing process because you are now competing with the traditional publishers.

1. Beta Readers. When do you need Beta Readers? Always. Change up your beta readers with each manuscript. Customize to your subject matter. Vary your readers, ie another writer, someone knowledgeable in subject, someone who is a good technical editor, those in your target market, the most outspoken person in your book club.

2. Critique Groups: Pros: several opinions at once, motivational, accountability, great support system. Cons: time investment, give and take, differing visions and goals. 

3. Acquisition Editors: First to review query or manuscript and determines if manuscript is a possible fit. Rejection a high possibility at this stage. Sends to evaluators or next stage acquisitions. Usually is the contact person with author until book is accepted.


4. Content Editors (Developmental Editors): Once your book is under contract, you’ll be assigned an editor (in house or on contract). Developmental Editor focuses on structure, plot, characterization, conflict, pacing, etc. You are typically given 2-3 weeks to work on revisions. 

5. Copyediting: You’ll have 1 or 2 copyeditors go through your manuscript. Technical considerations, sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, consistency errors. Some publishers let you review the copyedits, some don’t.

6. Proofreading: Proofreaders look for errors and any formatting issues in the typeset version. I always ask for a chance to proofread as well. Then I double check that my corrections were put in correctly… Each stage of editing presents an opportunity for new errors to be made. 

7. Contract editors: In-house editors are those who work for the publisher, usually at their on-site location, for 40+ hours a week. They only have so many hours they can spend on each project. Contract editors are often used when there is a large line-up and the in-house editors are swamped. Contract editors are freelancers who may or may not have regular work from the publisher. They may be commissioned for any of the editing stages.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What a Character!

A popular post from June 2010

By Julie Wright

I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference with Barbara Hambly who is an amazing writer and someone in the audience asked her, “I’ve done all this research on this history and the way the people dress and how they talk and what they ate back then, and I know the history completely, but there’s just so much that I don’t know where to begin. Where do YOU begin when you’re writing a historical piece?”

Her answer was twenty shades of awesome. She said, “I begin where I begin on any of my books, with the character.”

So when you begin writing a book, no matter the genre, whether it be romance, science fiction, horror, historical . . . whatever—you need to remember to start with the character. Good characters make stories real to readers.

And in order to make your characters real, you must make them behave like real people. Give them their own history. The history or past that you give them will dictate what kind of friends they have, what kind of enemies they have, whether or not they are the type of person who will turn the other cheek or the type who will put a knife in the heart of their enemies. Know your character's past. Know their faults, their strengths, their weaknesses (which is not always to be considered a fault), their hopes, dreams, ambitions.

Even if the back story doesn't end up in the book, you as the author needs to know.

Remember to include the characters, thoughts, feelings and actions along with their dialogue, so you can paint a complete picture of that character for the reader, so that the reader cares, relates to, and feels invested in the character.

Your story is important, but a good story can be made great with an amazing character.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Making It to "The End"

A popular post from November 2011

by Annette Lyon

Earlier this week, I had the chance to speak to a high school creative writing class. One question I got:

What to do when you have several partial books, but keep running into road blocks, so you abandon the story and start another one?

This young woman had several partial books, but not one finished one. What to do?

Here's the advice I gave, plus a bit more (since I have more time here):

Two pieces of advice:

1) Read up on plot structure.
Chances are, the plot ran into a ditch because you don't know where it was supposed to go or how to steer it. That doesn't mean you have to outline everything, but it does mean understanding how plots work: their structure.

Some writing books I recommend:

Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham
This book pretty much blew my mind back when I first read it in about 2004. It's a great resource for teaching structure on a scene/sequel level. (If you don't know what a sequel is, you need this book.) It goes into scene questions and the possible answers, how to fix wrong turns, and how to find the crux of the story. Fantastic.

The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler
Another book that had my head spinning. But when I finally got my bearings, it proved immensely useful. It's actually a screenwriting book that uses the classic Hero's Journey as a model. Many people think the archetypal Hero's Journey belongs solidly in fantasy and science fiction, but not so.

The first book I drafted after reading this book (a historical romance) was the easiest book I've ever drafted. I often looked at the plot and pondered what was missing or how I could improve this or that based on archetypal characters and Hero's Journey elements. And I always found a solution.

Story, by Robert McKee
A couple of years ago at a writing conference I attended, I heard this book referred to over and over again, so I finally jotted down the title and author and ordered it.

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks
I've heard mixed reviews here, some people saying it's their new writing bible, while others say it's stuff they've already heard (the latter is generally from writer veterans).

Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder
Yet another screenwriting book. I've found that learning about story structure through film is easier to grasp than on a book level: you can watch a movie in a couple of hours and watch the elements unfold. It's also easier for writers to refer to movies and have a good chance that the readers have seen many of them and therefore understand the concepts. Another writing bible here.

Read Industry Blogs
When I first started writing in 1994, most people didn't have e-mail addresses, let alone access to the massive amounts of information available on the Internet today. Now, you can consult Dr. Google to learn just about anything.

Need to know how to craft a query letter? How advances and royalties work? The difference between genres and markets? The answers are a search away.

A few great blogs to get you started (be sure to check the archives for questions that may have already been answered):
Podcasts
Sometimes hearing it from the horse's mouth (from people already successful in the field) is more helpful than anything. Podcasts are typically short (15 to 30 minutes). I'll download several episodes to my iPod and listen as I clean house or drive.

Some particularly useful podcasts:
  • The Appendix (About to take a hiatus, but it's got a great archive. Also: I've been a guest a few times!)
  • Writing Excuses (With big-time writers like Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Taylor, and Mary Robinette Kowal)
  • Word Play (Especially for MG and YA writers, with Nathan Bransford, James Dashner, and J. Scott Savage)
2) My other piece of advice is to plant your behind in the chair and write.

There's nothing like actually finishing a manuscript, even if it's not the best. Coming to the end of a story is an accomplishment unlike any other, and it gives you the vision that yes, you can succeed. And do it again.

If you need a kick in the pants to keep yourself writing, order, read, highlight, and keep at your fingertips for further reading Steven Pressfield's The War of Art.

You'll thank me on that one.


Friday, January 29, 2016

The Fear

A popular post from February 2011

By Josi S. Kilpack

I had the chance to talk with a Humanities class at Utah State University on Thursday about being a writer. After the class, a handful of students came up to ask me some questions. We talked for about half an hour about their own personal journeys with writing, much of what we talked about was fear.

I'm afraid to let anyone read it.
I'm afraid that I'm not writing fast enough.
I'm afraid I'm wasting my time.
I'm afraid of being rejected.
I'm afraid of not knowing my ending when I start.

I did what I could to help alleviate the fears that each of these budding writers had and encourage them to move forward. On the way home I felt almost silly. I talked a good talk and I do hope I inspired them to work on what's holding them back, but I worry that I talked as though I have no more fears. I mean, I'm Published! I've arrived! I reached that goal! What do I have to be afraid of?

I'm afraid my current book is garbage.
I'm scared to death of Goodreads reviews.
I'm afraid all the stories are starting to sound like each other.
I'm afraid that my children will grow up to resent what my writing took from them.
I'm afraid my publisher will have a month of revisions for me.
I'm afraid my sales will go down.
I'm afraid that my lifestyle is adjusting to my current royalties and it won't last.
I'm afraid of the newer, younger, hipper writers doing such great stuff.
I'm terrified of ever having to find an agent.
I'm afraid of my publisher deciding they hate working with me.

I'm afraid that my writing isn't as good as it could be.
I'm afraid that I'm writing too fast.
I'm afraid that my current scene will end up being cut, wasting the hours I've spent on it.
I'm afraid of coming across as arrogant.
I'm afraid of writing blog posts that don't sound as good as everyone elses.
I'm afraid that one day I'll realize I hate writing.
I'm afraid that one day I'll run out of stories completely.
I'm afraid that my house will never be clean again.
I'm afraid that one day I won't be HERE and I'll miss it.
I'm afraid I'll never get THERE and I'll feel like a failure.
I'm scared that I'm at page 239 and don't know the ending.
I'm worried about finishing by my deadline.
I'm scared to ask my beta-readers to read another book.
I'm afraid that I haven't taken advantage of every opportunity out there.
I'm afraid my fears are holding me back.
I'm afraid of taking on anything new.
I'm afraid of not using my abilities in every way I can.

I know that fear is part of life, that overcoming our fears makes us stronger. But it doesn't feel that way when you're in it, when the fear is pressing down on you and you can't imagine opening the door to see what's standing behind it. I am afraid. Of many things. And yet I keep writing. Sometimes I wonder why. Sometimes I know the answer. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I'm so tired of it, and sometimes I feel like I'd shrivel up and die without it.

So why do I do it? Why do those students do it? Why do you do it? I think each of us are driven by different things, but I believe all those things tie back to something divine--some way in which our writing is meant to not only bless the lives of other people, but bless our lives as well. And I don't think that blessing for ourselves will be a published book on the shelf of a library. At least, not the biggest blessing. I believe that the blessing is in the hunt, the journey, the digging down within ourselves as we seek for that buried treasure. I think we'll find other things along the way--discipline, goal setting, learning, re-learning, friendships, teaching, lifting others, and lifting ourselves. I believe as we drop our chin and push through the storms of our own self-doubt, we will become stronger people, not just stronger writers. But I also believe that the fear will never entirely leave us. There will always be something to be afraid of--always. And sometimes we'll drown in it, even though we tell ourselves we're stronger than that. And sometimes we'll thrash about and swim for shore and make it out of the quagmire enough to see the distance we've covered.

Anytime we commit to pursue something akin to creation, something that will stand in our way. Because creating is divine, there will always be those influences determined to stop us, to leave us cowering in the corner, to have us giving in to the belief that there is just no way we can do it. I'm not going to tell you to embrace the fear, or stab it through the heart. You can't kill it. You can't ignore it entirely. The best you can do is move forward anyway, accepting that while you write your stories you are living your own. And your story will be fraught with difficulty and triumph, whimpering and song, success and failure. Accept it, and keep going, and be sure to take the time every now and again to look over your shoulder at the battle fields you've already passed through, count the enemy you have slain and then look into the eyes of the next one. Bit by bit, day by day, one sentence at a time. The fears you face now CAN stop you if you so choose, but understand that if you keep going and this fear eventually lies dead at your feet, another will rise up. Do not look at your writing as a solitary goal, rather see it for what it is--a journey that does not end until you throw up your hands and decide the game is over. It's all up to you. Every bit of it. Allow yourself to get stronger by writing despite the fears; putting yourself out there despite all the reasons you don't want to.

Now I'm afraid I've gone on too long about this...

Happy Writing.