Friday, April 29, 2016

Define IT

A popular post from June 2010

by Annette Lyon

I didn't realize until I kept seeing the same thing cross my desk (or, um, monitor) literally dozens of times that one very common way of telling is often overlooked.

Here's the awesome news: this kind of telling is really easy to change into showing. (Easy is the kind of fix we all like, right?)

So what's the weak telling I'm talking about?

When the words THAT and IT are too vague.

Most of the time, sure, the reader will technically know what you're referring to, but if you'd just define IT or THAT, you'd be showing us rather than telling.

For example, you write:

I knew THAT hurt him.
Okay, so chances are we know, thanks to context, what THAT refers to. But what if you were to be more specific? Can you SHOW us?
Switch out THAT with what it refers to:
I knew my words hurt him.
Zing! So much more powerful.

Let's try another:
IT felt like family.
WHAT felt like family? Show us by defining IT:
Being with them felt like family.
Dinner that night felt like family.

And one more:
IT would make things easier.
WHAT would make things easier? Define IT:
Breaking off their relationship now would make things easier.

Simple yet so effective.
In rough drafts, most of us add those extra words without giving the issue much thought. No problem. But when you're going through revisions, try this: search for THIS, IT, and even THAT.
Not every instance will fall under this category, but of those that do, see how many you can replace with showing details. Be specific.
You don't want to get wordy, so there may be places where IT and THAT fit better.
But don't assume as much. Look at each case to see if defining those words with detail makes for a stronger sentence.
Trust me; it can pack a huge punch.
Wait. Try that again: Trust me; defining IT and THAT can pack a huge punch.
Yep. Much better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Types of Editing

A popular post from August 2010

By Heather Moore

I recently turned in a manuscript to my publisher. Although I’m thrilled to have completed another manuscript, I’m thinking of the editing process with some trepidation.

Once you have a publishing contract, you might think the publisher has forgotten about you for awhile. “When will I get to work with my editor?” you might ask. Be careful what you wish for. Although I have been lucky enough so far to have editors who’ve allowed fair give-and-take throughout the editing process, the editing process continues to be daunting.

When I finish my manuscript, I send out the book to several alpha readers on my own. When I get their comments back, I go through my manuscript and revise. So by the time I turn in the manuscript to my publisher, I feel I’m well into the editing process. Yet, from the publisher’s perspective, it has only begun.

Steps of editing that you might face (or look forward to):

Phase 1: General evaluations from the readers who were hired by your publisher to see if your manuscript is marketable and fits the line-up of the publisher.
Your Job: Revise according to suggestions and resubmit

Phase 2: Your assigned editor will read through book and make general comments. Sometimes this might come back very detailed or more overall plot/character/etc. issues.
Your Job: Revise, discuss, revise again, with editor

Phase 3: After both you and the editor are pleased with the book, the manuscript moves onto the copy editing stage (or line editing). My publisher uses two different copy editors for this stage
Your Job: Review copy edit, approve changes, or revise accordingly. This stage is really the last chance to change anything in your manuscript.

Phase 4:
Proofreading. Once the copyedits are finalized, the manuscript is transposed into book layout form. Also called the galley stage or the typeset version. My publisher uses two proofreaders to check formatting and look for typos or other errors.
Your Job: Some writers leave it up to the proofreader, but I like to print out a hard copy and, yes, painstakingly read through it again. During this stage it’s very hard to change more than a word or two since a sentence addition or deletion often changes the layout of the page and/or chapter.

The good news is that with all of these stages of editing, your book will get much stronger, much tighter, and become something to be proud of.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Perfect Pitch

A popular post from March 2010

By Julie Wright

I spent the better part of an hour trying to figure out how to embed this video into this post, and still can't do it. I hope I write better than I utilize the internet. I wasn't able to figure out how to bring the video to you, so you must go to the video.

This was a little gem I found on You Tube, and it portrays the things that I have personally witnessed writers do to poor agents and editors. It's a good reminder to those of you who might be going out and doing pitches anytime soon.

Friday, April 22, 2016

What's Your Book Called?

A popular post from September 2010

by Annette Lyon

This is probably the most common question I get from readers about whatever my current work in progress is.

I never have an answer for it. I used to, when the stack of rejection letters was growing.
But I no longer name my books as I write them, and I haven't for many years.

Why? For starters, authors rarely get to have any say in their titles.

That can come as a surprise to aspiring writers who spend hours concocting the perfect title and imagine it emblazoned on a stack of books at their favorite bookstore.

But the reality is that the marketing department gets to pick the title, and an author is extremely lucky to have any say at all. Just about every book I've submitted has hit shelves with a different title than I gave it.

I got close with book #3: the title I suggested had the word "house" in it. The final title was House on the Hill. To my utter shock, my 7th book kept the title I submitted it with, Band of Sisters. But I can't take credit for the title, because I'm terrible at coming up with them; my husband invented that one, and it worked.

I think most authors will be honest by admitting that there's a part of us that hates having so little control over the title. It's my baby; why can't I have a say in what it's called?

But then you have to remember the one and only purpose for a title: to get potential readers to take an interest and pick up the book. If the title does that, it's a good title, no matter how well it ties in.

We write stories; that's our specialty. We aren't nearly so good at selling them. On the other hand, the marketing department specializes in selling books and knowing what kind of title grabs interest. They have entire meetings devoted to picking titles.

Since the publisher is the one footing the bills for editing, design, marketing, printing, shipping, and other costs associated with my book, it's only fair that they get to pick the title that will give the book its best shot. They have a vested interest in seeing the book do well, so they'll pick a title they think will get the final product off the shelf and out the bookstore doors.

That said, I still dislike the title of my first book. When my editor informed me that it would be called Lost Without You
(now available in e-reader format on Kindle and Smashwords!), I sent her an email in hopes she could clarify what in the world the title had to do with my story.

Basically: nothing. It's just a romantic-sounding title.

Since it didn't even almost fit the story or my characters, I added a line of dialogue in the final scene so the title would both make some sense as well as reflect what I felt was the entire point of the book. (Which, by the way, wasn't the romance.)

Side note: I've had many readers tell me they had no clue why it was called that until they reached the added line. Glad I made that change!

Aside from the fact that I know whatever title I pick won't be used, there is another reason I no longer use working titles for my projects: It's emotionally and mentally tough to rename your baby.

With Lost Without You it took me a good year to be able to refer to the book by name. For months it was just, "my book." (That worked at the time, since it was my only one so far.) Since my stories always become such a part of me, it feels like an appendage gets cut off when they're renamed.

Instead of giving them working titles, I refer to my books by a significant element in them, like a character (
House on the Hill was my "Lizzy" book), part of the setting (At the Journey's End was my "Honeymoon Trail" book), or the topic (Band of Sisters was my "military wives" book.)

The good news is that my publisher now asks for at least five title suggestions, along with lists of significant locations, objects, ideas, words, etc. so the marketing folks can have a better idea of what's inside the pages, and then attach a more-fitting title.

I love that it gives me some input in the process, and I must admit that all of my other titles rock; they fit the books
and are catchy enough to grasp a reader's attention.

Even better, with each one, I haven't had to call them my second, third, fourth, and so on, while getting used to them. Without batting an eye, I've been able to call my babies by their final titles even before they're in print.

Next up: my cookbook, which the marketing department brilliantly titled Chocolate Never Faileth.

I never in a million years would have come up with that, but readers are clamoring for the book weeks before it's on shelves.

See? Those marketing people really do know what they're doing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Time to Please

A popular post from January 2011

by Annette Lyon

After yesterday's inspiring and fun post from Julie, today's topic will sound downright dry. Maybe even wrong. She made some fantastic points about loving what you do and that if you aren't having fun, if you aren't writing for yourself, it'll show.

And yet.

There is a time to write to please. Learning how to do literary acrobatics can be useful and profitable.

But I'd better back up. First of all, know that I'm not talking about fiction here. Everything Julie said applies to fiction, and I say a big, "amen!" to her post.

Today I'm talking about freelance non-fiction.

While I'm a novelist, first and foremost, I make twice as much from freelance work each year as I do in royalties, split pretty evenly between editing work and other freelance writing projects. (I'd like to think some day that will change, but most writers who make a living at it earn more on non-fiction than on novels, alas.)

In this economy, the extra money has been useful. When a child comes to you with dreams in their eyes to join a school team and perform, the last thing I want to do is squelch that with, "Uh, sorry, but we can't pay for it." So I continue to wear three hats: novelist, editor, freelance writer.

With one of my first freelance writing gigs more than a decade ago, I also got one of my most valuable educations. Fortunately, the editor who'd hired me was willing to teach me (and rehire me, because I'd learned from her lesson).

I finished and sent off an article she'd requested, pleased with how it turned out. It was published with a completely different opening. Several phrases and words were changed rather dramatically. My gut reaction was annoyance; I knew full well that everything I'd written was grammatically correct and just fine.

But with a second reading, I clued in: What I'd sent in didn't match the voice of the publication. Their voice was far less formal that I'd written the piece, more like good buddies having a chat. I studied the final version and realized that if I wanted to keep writing for them, I'd have to learn to write in that voice, stat.

Writing that way was hard; their voice was so specific, and it didn't come naturally to me. (Ironically, when done right, the voice came across as easy and breezy, but each word was wrenched out of me.) But I did learn. The result: I was hired again for several other projects for about two years, when the editor changed jobs.

I was lucky; not everyone would be willing to train a newbie. I knew that. So moving forward, I studied magazines in a different way, looking for length of pieces, voice, evergreen topics, angles, the advertisers, and much more. Even if I never wanted to pitch to a particular magazine I was reading, I still tried coming up with article ideas, just for practice. And it's paid off.

Recently, the lesson of writing for an audience/boss was hammered home again, in a good way. I was hired by a company to write technical scripts. (That alone is funny to me; there's a reason I freak out when the printer fails and I cry out, "Honneeeeeey!")

They gave me two trial scripts. Before starting, I read the company's style guide, which took a couple of hours all by itself. (And whoa, what a style guide it was! SO specific on phrasing and terminology and usage . . .) I researched my tail off on the topics and worked hard on those trial scripts to make them as close to what the company was looking for as I could.

When they came back edited, a comment said, "Wow. I don't think I've ever seen a trial script so clean!"

I was promptly asked how much work I could handle a week.

Just a hunch, but I'm thinking not all their first-time writers spent as much time studying their style guide. My extra effort paid off in spades. (And helped finance some Christmas presents and several other things.)

Booyah, people.

Lesson of the day: She who reads the style guide, does her research, and turns in the copy they're looking for, comes out on top.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Vilify Me

A popular post from October 2010

By Julie Wright

In a book I finished several months ago, I had an epiphany about villains. They don't think they're villains.

The evil cheerleader who picks on the ugly girl with glasses? She doesn't think she's evil. Maybe she's picking on the ugly girl because the ugly girl did something that hurt her when they were in grade school, and she's holding a grudge. In that case--according to the cheerleader, the ugly girl is the villain and is only getting what's deserved.

Let's consider Professor Snape in Harry Potter. He's the ultimate complex character. He's the bad guy, a constant thorn in Harry's side. And yet . . . he's also a sympathetic character. We feel sorry for him, we understand his motivations, and sometimes he's helping our protagonists achieve their goals. Sometimes he's doing things that good guys do.

So is he good or bad?

That depends on who you're asking. Harry would say Snape's the villain. Snape would call himself the hero. He made the hard choice, did what had to be done, and he did it all for the love of one woman. Isn't that heroic? Doesn't that deserve our approval? Or if not approval, at the very least, it deserves our understanding, and certainly doesn't deserve our censure.

In fact, all bad guys are the heroes of their own stories. They don't think of themselves as diabolically evil. They usually think of themselves as avengers of wrongs done to them. Or they're egomaniacs who really think the world would be better if they were in charge, and they can't figure out why everyone's trying to stop them.

This is important to remember when writing about bad guys--he usually has some strong motivating factor to act the way he does. A bad guy with the depth of the puddle isn't very interesting. Your hero is only as strong as his nemesis. You write a strong villain, and it will force your hero to step up to the plate and be equal and surpassing of that strength--because the hero has to win and he can't if the villain is stronger. But if you have a weak, two-dimensional bad guy, your hero will also be weak.

The best way to give characters complexity and therefore make them interesting is to avoid the "absolute" personality. No one is absolutely evil. No one is absolutely good. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

I truly believe that the very best humans are capable of horrible acts if given the right circumstances, and the very worst humans are capable of great kindness if given the right circumstances.

Keeping in mind that everyone has their reasons for the things they do will enrich your story and make sure that the characters stay in character. So now you know Snape is my favorite villain and why, who is yours?

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Different Kind of Rejection

A popular post from April 2012

By Josi S. Kilpack.

The kind of rejection I want to talk about today isn't from agents and editors; it isn't letters in the mail we open while holding our breath, or emails we stare at until we have the strength to read the body of the message. Those rejections suck. Really, really suck and if you're going to be a writer, you have to find some way to deal with those rejections. However, this post is about the rejection that sometimes comes from people you love and care about, people who may have cheered you on in the past, who may have even encouraged your toward your writing goal. These people might be friends, neighbors, siblings, parents, children, or even a spouse--the people you expect to be in your court, the people who are supportive of many other things in your life. But then you proclaim yourself to be a writer and things change.

Here are some examples--not necessarily writing related:

A very close friend of mine is also an entrepreneur. He's started numerous businesses in numerous industries for many years and has been very successful. A few years ago he was telling his mother about the new business he was starting and she stopped him and said, point blank, "I really hate hearing about your businesses, can't we talk about something else." It's been three years, and he hasn't talked about his work or his passion since.

One of my closest-girl friends was so excited for me when I wrote my first book. She was the first person, other than my husband and sister, that I dared tell about it and she was so encouraging to me . . . until I got a contract. We had moved to different homes by that time (we previously were neighbors) and so we saw each other less frequently, but when we spoke, she never brought up my book or asked about my writing. Not one time. At one point, around the time when my second book came out, we met up and I brought up my book that I was so excited about. I actually saw her face stiffen and her eyes narrow and after a "hmmm, that's nice" she launched into things about her kids. It was so blatant and so hurtful, but I never brought up my writing again, even though by this time it was a major force of my life.

Another friend of mine chose to pursue writing but her husband thought it was a waste of her time. He saw it as a hobby, and a time-consuming one at that, and does not want talk to her about, listen to story ideas, or read her work. At this point she's hopeful that when she gets a publishing contract, he'll be more supportive and he'll see her writing as a real thing, but for now it's a secret affair she works hard to keep under wraps.

Lastly, another friend--a writer--found the success he'd been working towards for years; a national contract. It didn't take long before he started noticing some of his writer-friends pulling away. Through the grapevine he heard of things some 'friends' said about his book, that it wasn't that good, or they didn't know why it was selling that well, and they stopped talking to him about their books and their careers. It was as though his success became a barrier between him and some of those people he thought would be on the first row of his cheering squad--people who had encouraged him when he was working toward his goal.

Obviously, there is an element of sadness in all of these examples. Because you're reading this, you understand what an innate part of yourself writing can be. When someone rejects our writing, it's nearly impossible not to take that personally--our words and our stories are a part of us. When the someone that rejects our writing is someone we care deeply about, it can be emotionally damaging. But what can we do?

First, arguing doesn't work. If you set out to 'convince' someone who isn't supportive to be supportive, you will likely be disappointed with the results--it's like paying someone to take you to prom, you'll never think back on the night and feel like your date was there because he/she wanted to be. The entire experience will be tainted and even if you successfully get them to cheer you on, you'll always doubt their sincerity.

Second, people are entitled to their opinions. As much as we would love to have their support, and as dependent as we feel on their approval, they have the right to feel the way they feel. It might not be fair and it might really hurt us, but it's still their choice to do so. Each of us likely has opinions about someone else in our lives--maybe we hate a friend's wife, or our politics aren't the same, or we value something like education or marriage or fry sauce that someone else feels is superfluous. We are entitled to a difference of opinion on these things, just as other people are entitled to theirs.

Third, we are in charge of our own actions. Just as they get to choose how they feel, we get to choose how we respond and we are then accountable for our actions. We can react any way we want to--rage, tears, sarcasm, but we then own what comes next. We can not blame them for what we choose to do with our feelings about their treatment so choose wisely the best way to move forward in your relationship with them.

In the example about the entrepreneur friend, he could have chosen to tell his mother she was rude and that she was rejecting a big part of his life if she didn't want to hear about his businesses--he'd be right, it was rude and rejecting of her to be so dismissive. And then what? Perhaps some mother-son relationships could sustain that kind of conversation, but he didn't feel that his could. Their relationship was tenuous and he didn't want to lose what he had, so he shut up and though it's been hurtful, it's less hurtful than losing the relationship entirely. He chose to take what he could get and is content with his choice.

In my example with my friend I didn't have to make much of a choice on how to react, life has taken us different places and we no longer have much of a connection. Likely a big part of the distance between us is because my life became more and more focused on my writing, and she had already chosen not to be involved in that part. I didn't fight for our friendship, and I miss her, but I've made other friends that better understand what my writing means to me and I feel a 'whole' acceptance from them that she could not offer.

In the example of the husband and wife, she only writes when he's not home, she only goes to events or conferences that are held when he's going to be out of town or that are during the day so she's back home when he gets there. They don't talk about her books, ever. Now, in this case I would probably suggest that she be a bit more assertive than I was with my friend. Marriage is a complex and sacred relationship, and her husband owes her more support than he's giving, but, then, I don't understand the complexities of her relationship and maybe she's doing the just right thing. I don't, however, think her husband will change his mind when she gets a contract--more on that later--which means she'll have to make some more decisions if she reaches that point and realizes the problems are not solved.

And, finally, in regard to my friend who noticed walls go up when he became successful, he had other friends who did encourage and support his accomplishments. He also went on to develop freindships with other similarly-successful authors who helped fill the voids and, perhaps, had gone through the same struggle. There were no confrontations or battles with the previous friends who had a difficult time, he allowed to be where they were, but nurtured more encouraging relationships.

You'll notice there are some similar reactions in all of these examples--none of the people were confrontational with their detractors, none of them put up a fight, and none of their relationships turned around--at least not yet. There's a reason I included these situations instead of a dozen others I've seen or been a part of, and it goes back to the second point I made in regard to how to react to it. People are entitled to their opinions and if we make it a priority to change their mind, we will likely fail and make these relationships even more painful. What we need to do, instead, is the following:

1--Love them anyway within the sphere or your relationship. Understand that their lack of support likely has less to do with "you" and more to do with "them." Perhaps they're jealous, perhaps your writing and/or success makes them feel small, perhaps they are afraid your writing will take them away from you. Imagine, if this is the case, how hard this must then be for them. We all know that creating sympathy for our characters is important--imagine writing this 'person' sympathetically, think about what might be in the way for them in regard to accepting and supporting you, and love them anyway. If however, the relationships has always been ugly and unsupportive, perhaps you should be evaluating the relationship in it's entirety--I have no specific advice in regard to that. Find a good counselor :-)

2--Stand up for yourself. This doesn't mean putting on a face mask and confronting them, but it also doesn't mean completely hiding who you are to make them more comfortable. If it's someone in your own home you need support from, tell them you need it and set up ways they can support you such as respecting a certain space as your writing area, or specific times as your writing time. They might not like it, but if you don't respect what you do and find room for it it in your life, they never will either. This can be tricky--you don't want the paid-for-prom-date scenario--so just do one thing at a time and see where it takes you. I do know writers who have successfully changed these types of relationships, and it happened because the non-supporter finally realized how important the writing was to the person he/she loved. Don't try and ignore this part of who you are, but don't throw it in their faces either. This is especially important in marriage relationships, where people have promised to support one another--it's not inappropriate for you to pull the 'married' card on this, but do it in a loving way and see it as a growing experience.

3--Find relationships that do support you. And keep looking until you find them. They are there, I promise you they are, but they might not come from the people you're surrounded by when you start your journey--then again, they might. You may be able to make changes in long-standing relationships and make them more positive through this, but keep your eyes open for new freindships and professional relationships that can also nurture your writing.

4--Make sure you are supportive of the people around you. You could very well be an un-cheerleader for someone you love and not even know it. Take a look at your family and friends, your spouses and children--are you in the front row, cheering them on in their passions, or are you in the back corner, nurturing your own resentment and envy? If you are bitter, why? What is it about their choice that is so difficult for you? Do you see YOUR writing as more important than their goals or passions? If so, I challenge you to take the journey to identify what might be in your way of supporting them and see if you can't do better. Self-awareness is a valuable experience.

5--Write anyway. Even if you have to make adjustments or have limits with your writing in order to keep important relationships in tact, don't let someone else choose for you in regard to making writing fit into your life. Writing for most of us feels like a calling, a role we were designed to fill, find a way to fill it, even if no one thinks you should. If you don't have the support of the people who could make this easier for you, don't give up--find a way to make it work somehow, pray for guidance, continue to grow. While the husband-wife scenario related earlier is troublesome and easy to judge that the husband is a jerk-face, I very much admire the fact that the wife has kept writing anyway. THAT, more than anything else will likely be the factor that changes his view of her. She is being diligent, and I admire that very much.

If you haven't yet dealt with any of this, prepare yourself for it because I don't know a single writer who hasn't faced this at some point. Some 'rejections' are more intense than others, but I think all of us will have someone who otherwise loves us but is threatened by our writing in one way or another. It's a sad reality, but reality all the same and, as I stated, once this happens, it's up to us how to deal with it.

May we find those people who will always be on our front row and may we never be the un-cheerleader for someone else's accomplishment. I'd love to hear your stories and how you've dealt with it in the comments if you feel like sharing.

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Dear Good Luck Elsewhere . . .

A popular post from May 2011

By Julie Wright

Dear Good Luck Elsewhere . . .

As I’ve grown through the years as a writer and gone on to complete over a dozen books, I’ve glanced back at some of my rejection letters. Some of them are priceless—hilarity on a sheet of paper, some of them are painful, like walking ten miles on shattered glass on your hands and knees. Some are insightful and helped mold me into a better writer.

I was doing a school visit with author Jessica Day George, and we both shared horror stories of our rejection letter woes with the kids. It's a surreal moment when you sit up and pay attention to another person's story because it sounds so familiar--so much like your own.

Jessica talked about her first rejection letter, how she received the envelope and thought it was awfully skinny and small to be holding her huge advance check and the contract that would name her the most brilliant authoress ever born. And so it was with horror that she realized the itty bitty slip of paper that looked oddly like a sales receipt was really a rejection letter. Several rejection letters later she got a one that was a couple of pages of personal notation by the editor. usually if the editor sends a personal note, it means they saw some sort of spark they want to fan. They usually only take time out of their busy lives to give personal messages to writers with potential, but this particular message wasn't sent with thoughts of helping this young author improve. Jessica describes it as being like a scene from Mulan, "Dishonor on your house! Dishonor on your family! Dishonor on your cow! Dishonor, dishonor, dishonor . . ."

My first rejection letter said something like, "Dear Conrtibutor, We're sorry but your submission does not meet our publishing needs at this time." That was all that was written on the quarter sheet of paper. I wasn't even worth a whole sheet and the use of my name.

The worst letter I ever received during all the years of submitting was the one where the editor told me they hoped my main character would DIE of a drug overdose because she was THAT unlikeable.

That one letter sent me into a miserable pitiable absurd state of existance for about a year.

That book was later published by a different publisher and to this day, I still receive fan mail for it. I guess not everyone wants her to die of an overdose . . .

The letters are part of the business. They are a horrible part of the business, but a part none-the-less. If you keep at it, you'll find success. Elana Johnson who has her amazing debut book "Possession" releasing on June 7th received many such letters, the kinds where they call you dear author, or dear contributor, or they fail to address you by any such dignifying title at all. Her absolute success came because she refused to give up. Jessica Day George is the same way. They are amazing women. They've done amazing things, and it shows that they are strong and capable when they refused to let the letters that send a visceral ache through them get the better of them.

It is a part of what we do but sometimes you can laugh at the silliness of it. (Yes Marion Jensen . . . I just pulled out the silly word).

So . . . what's the worst/funniest/craziest letter YOU'VE ever received?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Getting It Right

A popular post from March 2011

by Annette Lyon

If we writers had to be an expert on everything we write about, we'd spend so much time on research that we'd never get anything written. The late Linda Shelley Whiting, a true historian, spent ten years researching the life of one man before she wrote a biography about him. If I'd taken the time to be that thorough, I'd still be working on my first historical novel.

I've said before that even though I've published four historical novels, I'm no a historian. Not even close. I love history. I love researching the past. But first and foremost, I'm a storyteller.

Whether you have a heavy amount of research in your story or not, chances are, your story will have elements you aren't 100% familiar with. It's your job to make sure those things ring true. A huge part of ringing true means getting into the head of your characters accurately, whether they're a different gender from you, from a different time period, or in a different occupation.

A tricky part: getting the small things right isn't always possible from reading up on a topic.

For example, if you're writing about a doctor, you'll need to know not only medicine but what it's like being that kind of doctor. No amount of reading medical literature will prepare you to write about what it feels like in the ER during a crisis. Only an ER doctor (or a nurse or an orderly) knows. Pick their brains.

Have a lawyer in your book? Better study up on life at a firm, and that means more than legal mumbo jumbo. It's the politics of who does what work, how hours are billed, what happens when clients don't pay, how often you really end up in court, who gets what bonus, the types of law firms out there and what kind your book needs, and more.

Is one of your characters living on a dairy farm? Find out what that means, in specifics: tools, schedules, sights, sounds, smells. Someone who grew up on a farm might mention that when they walked the barn in the morning, mice scurried into piles of hay. Chances are, that kind of detail would never occur to a city slicker.

It's easy to let our personal world lenses do the work because we don't know what we don't know.

Like the time I wrote a scene with male character talking too much like a woman. Fortunately, a male member of my critique group pointed it out so I could fix it. We then razzed him about having his female lead constantly trying to get big tangles out of her hair with nothing but a comb. (Women know she'd need a pick or a brush.)

Profession and gender are biggies, but think of other life roles as well. I was pulled out a novel once when a mother didn't bat an eye when a perfect stranger (a big, threatening man) took her baby and walked off. She simply followed along. My mommy radar went crazy. No way would a mom roll over and let that happen. Not when her baby is on the line. I found out later that the author isn't a parent. Eureka.

Pregnancy is another experience I've had that some writers get wrong because they haven't lived it. Reading about it isn't enough, so when they try to write about a pregnant character, they miss the nuances of what it's really like. (No, if she's 9 months along, she probably won't be hopping off her bed and racing down the stairs.)

On the other hand, I've never been a competitive swimmer. I've never performed surgery. I've never driven a tractor. I've never been a teenage boy. I've never raced bikes. I've never had cancer (knock on wood . . .).

That's not to say I can't write about those things; I can . . . provided I do my research not only into the surface-level facts, but into what the lens of that kind of person/experience would be.

One great way to do that is by interviewing someone who has experienced that element before you write about it. Ask open-ended questions (ones that cannot be answered with "yes" or "no"). They encourage the other person to talk and give detailed answers. Record everything; you never know what tiny detail will turn out to be golden.

It's also useful to have them read your work after you've drafted it. They'll notice behavioral, setting, and other details you either got wrong of simply left out because you didn't know to include it.

This method was the best thing I could have done with my last novel. Since its publication, I've had readers, who have experienced the very thing I was writing about, contact me to confirm that I'd been through it myself, because there was "no way" I could have portrayed it so well without experiencing it firsthand.

(It's moments like those that you do the happy dance.)

The book is fiction. I didn't retell the stories of the women I interviewed. But I did rely on them to help me see the world through a new lens so I could tell my characters' stories. Looking back, I can say confidently that there's no way I could have written the story with any semblance of success without help. I didn't have the right lens on my own.

Another one of my books features a horse prominently in the story. Going in, I knew little to nothing about horses. I did a bunch of research myself but eventually turned to a friend who grew up with horses. She helped map out a few plot points, spotted errors, and suggested some changes. After she finished looking over it, I made revisions and handed it to yet another expert, who caught a few more things.

When you give your work to a "lens" reader, ask them to keep an eye out for details and behaviors that don't quite work. You can give a partial list of things to watch out for, but make sure they know it's not comprehensive; you don't want them missing something big because they were looking for vocabulary and totally missed that a pilot would never assume such-and-such.

Using outside readers won't guarantee that you'll be 100% correct, but it sure ups your odds of nailing a character's inner workings so they seem truly alive to your readers.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Power of Punctuation in Pacing

A popular post from May 2011. 

By Josi S. Kilpack

The pace of a novel essentially means the rate at which your story unfolds. For the reader, it's about how quickly the action builds in your story. For the writer, it's manipulating time so that you show and tell in the appropriate places and hold the reader's attention perfectly from one scene to another. A book that moves too slowly will lose reader interst, a book that moves to fast will overwhelm them.

Complex, compound, and complex-compound sentences slow down the pace of your writing and offers you the chance to develop your character, describe a scene, give sensory details, and allow your character (and reader) time to reflect, consider, plan, and prepare. Regardless of genre, some slower paced portions are necessary in every novel. Longer sentences give way to longer paragraphs, softer verb usage, and other things that keep things moving, but not so fast there there isn't time to contemplate.

Short, simple, punchier sentences, on the other hand, speed things up and keep the reader reading so fast that there isn't time to think so much. A fast pace is essential in action scenes and to create an emotional reaction from your reader. Shorter sentences give way to shorter paragraphs and crisp verbs that keep the impact high when you want to keep your reader glued to the page.

What pace is the right pace for your novel is determined by several factors: genre, market, character vs. plot driven, etc. How you manipulate the time, and subconsciously cue the reader as to how fast they should be reading, is often controlled by punctuation. Think of it in regard to driving, and how we are 'cued' by signs, signals, and other elements of the American roadways. Punctuation does the exact same thing for your reader:

Period = stop (full brake)
Comma = pause (slow brake before speeding back up)
Ellipsis  . . . = pause during continuation (rubbernecking)
Semicolon = longer pause (rolling through a stop sign)
Exclamation point = stop (yelled stop from the passenger--think about how many of those you can take before you smack someone upside the head :-)
Question mark = pause + prod (sharp turn--not a stop because the need for an answer creates a continuum)
Em-dash = pause + aside (slowing down to read a billboard) 

Understanding how a reader interprets these 'signals' allows you to better manipulate the time elements within your story and have it received the way you want it to be. For example:

Example #1:

The coldness of his body convinced her that he was dead and she waited to feel regret. Instead she only felt a long lost sense of freedom.


He was dead. Cold. She was free

*Both versions say the same thing, but in a different way and at a different rate. Neither is wrong, just different. they make a different kind of impact.

Example #2:

He watched his mother go about her morning routine and wondered how she would react to what he knew he had to tell her. Would she freak out? Would she calmly think it through? Or would she ignore it and pretend it hadn't happened at all. She made the coffee and her toast, offering both to him, but he couldn't eat. Not yet. Not until he finally came clean and changed her life forever.


"Do you want coffee?" Mom asked, looking over her shoulder with her eyebrows raised.
"No thanks," he said.
"Toast?" she continued.
"No," he said again. He didn't dare eat until this was over with.
Would she go through her usual routine tomorrow, he wondered? Or would she stay in bed, still trying to come to grips with everything. Would things ever be the same between them? It was impossible to know. He'd never had the power to hurt her this much.
"Mom?" he said.
"Yeah sweetie?"
"There's something I need to tell you."

*Again there is no right or wrong here, but dialogue naturally lends itself to a faster pace due to the short sentences and simple structures. Both examples still communicate pretty much the same thing, but the style is different and the punch is different. In the second one we feel a little more of an emotional reaction, in the first one we get a little more character development and longer processing time.

As I said, there are many things that influence pacing, punctuation is simply one of those tools. Play with it. Experiment. Create.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Common Dead Wood

A popular post from September 2010

by Annette Lyon

We tell clients (and writers at workshops) to cut dead wood from their work. Some pros go as far as to say you should always cut 10% of your final version, because that's how much dead wood you've likely got.

I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to list a specific percentage (some writers might be fine with 5%, while others should cut 20%), but dead wood is so easy to slip in and sometimes hard to find.

For the sake of illustrating what dead wood can look like, here are some examples. This is in no way an exhaustive list, because dead wood is like dust bunnies, hiding where you least expect it.

Stating the Obvious
A grin spread across her face.
He blinked his eyes.
She nodded her head.

Unless you're writing speculative fiction and your characters have mouths in a locations not on their faces, they can blink something besides their eyes, or they can nod a body part that isn't their head, don't add the body part. These aren't the only variations of this type of dead wood. ("John shrugged his shoulders" also comes to mind as freaking everywhere.)

Repetitive Words and Phrases
Dave drove to Maple Street, drove into the parking garage, and parked his car. He walked up to the street and walked over to Oak Street, three streets over, where he saw a red convertible parked by the curb.

You might not notice how many times you repeat certain words close together unless you read your work aloud and hear them.

Be sure your characters aren't repeating words in dialogue, either. Having Darlene use "quaint" could be a character quirk. Having four other characters use the same word in the same chapter is plain sloppy.

Same goes for actions and other descriptors. Make sure your characters aren't all constantly raising their eyebrows, feeling their hearts race, running fingers through their hair, or doing some other gesture. Change things up.

Lazy Verbs
90% of the time, plain old past tense is most effective. Adding a helping to be verb and -ing weakens the statement.

He was running as fast as he could before the bomb went off.
He ran as fast as he could before the bomb went off.

Unless you have a compelling reason to point out that two things are happening simultaneously (He was hiding the gun in the drawer as she walked in), don't use the helping-verb form. Keep it plain past tense. You might be able to find a stronger verb anyway.

(Instead of he was walking, how about he sauntered?)

Meaningless Words
This list could be huge. It contains words we add to sentences without adding punch or significant meaning. They include words like very, just, and really, which usually water down and tell instead of show.

For example, if she's very beautiful, SHOW her beauty to us. Or just say she's beautiful, because that single word will be more effective than a weak attempt at emphasizing it with very or really.

Another often-unneeded word is that. Yes, sometimes we need that to clarify which person or thing we're talking about, but often it's an extra piece of dead wood.

He called to tell her that their brother was in the hospital.
He called to tell her their brother was in the hospital.

Then there's the easily overlooked yet obvious (once it's pointed out): needless to say, umm, sure, and as far as I can tell.

A phrase to watch out for: THERE IS/ARE/WERE.
Again, no rule is in stone, but 90% of the time, if your sentence starts with THERE ARE or some variation, you've got a weak line and could make it stronger. Find what the real subject and verb are and start with them:

There were a lot of students disrupting class yesterday.
Lots of students disrupted class yesterday.

(Note that THERE IS and its cousins tend to use helping verbs, which by themselves are weak.)

Repeating yourself is surprisingly easy. I've seen things like true fact and famous celebrity. Don't laugh too hard; you might have done something similar without thinking! (I know I have.) Proof carefully.

Point of View Intrusion
This one's a personal peeve of mine: when we're clearly in a character's head, but instead of the author showing what the character sees, experiences, feels, hears, smells, thinks, or realizes, we're told that they do.

She realized the situation was hopeless.
The situation was hopeless.

He heard the phone ring.
The phone rang.

Now what, he thought.
Now what?
(For thoughts, if they're set aside as thoughts, we don't need to be told that's what they are.)

I'm sure you can find more types of dead wood. (Add them to the comments!)

As an exercise, try to cut each sentence in one of your scenes by one word, minimum. You might be surprised at how much stronger the final result is, and how many great new images and verbs you come up with.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Using Trademarks in Fiction

A popular post from December 2010

by Annette Lyon
Writers often wonder whether they're allowed to use trademarks in their work, and if so, how to use them properly?
I'm no lawyer, so everything below is simply my understanding of what I've gleaned from articles on the topic, especially from Writer's Digest. (Don't have a subscription? GET ONE.)
First, Why Do Trademarks Matter?
If a company's trademarked name becomes a common noun, ANYONE can use it in advertising, calling their own product Jell-O or Hershey's or Betty Crocker, because the company's brand has lost its unique meaning tying it to a particular product.
When that happens, it's the kiss of death from a company's standpoint. Consider: If someone says they're wearing a Rolex, that means something. But what if "rolex" became a generic term for any watch? "Rolex" would no longer imply status or quality, and consumers might well forget that a specific company bears the name.
To prevent that kind of thing from happening, companies spend huge amounts of money in an effort to protect their trademarks. Those efforts include running ads begging writers to use trademarks properly, sending cease and desist letters to people/organizations abusing their trademarks, and more.
If a company has a paper trail proving they've worked to protect their trademark, they can sue another company trying to cash-in by unauthorized use of their brand.
As far as writers are concerned, two general rules apply with trademarks, one for non-fiction, and the other for fiction.
Trademarks in Non-fiction
In non-fiction, particularly with works like magazine and newspaper articles, trademarked products should be recognized as such.
Writers can do this two ways:
  • Simply add the trademark symbol after the name (Kleenex®)
  • Use the trademarked name as a name. That means it's capitalized and NOT used in place of a common noun (such as tissue). And include the word "brand" in the description: (Kleenex® brand tissue). Note that while the trademark symbol isn't required here (since you're being pretty clear that the brand is a brand) it can be safer to add the symbol anyway just so there's absolutely no confusion. This keeps the company happy and gives the writer added protection.
More examples (without the symbol, but showing brands as names along with common nouns):
  • Jell-O brand gelatin
  • Levi's brand jeans
  • Rollerblade brand in-line skates.

Trademarks in Fiction
Don't use the trademark symbol in fiction. It just doesn't happen, likely because the symbol would pull a reader out of the story world. Go ahead; use trademark names as much as you like.
Yes, companies still encourage fiction writers to use the generic term with their mark and the word brand, and if it works with your story, fine. But doing so can lead to seriously clunky fiction.
Imagine our hero Joe wearing Levi's brand jeans, riding a Harley-Davidson brand motorcycle and drinking a Coca-cola brand soda.
(Beautiful prose, no? Er . . .)
Rather: Joe wore Levi's, rode a Harley, and drank Coke.

Trying to protect a trademark can be a losing battle (yo-yo used to be a trademark, if you can believe it), and others are losing the fight (think Rollerblade, Chapstick, and Xerox), but if a company can prove that they've put forth the effort to protect their mark, and you didn't use it properly in your non-fiction piece, they can sue you for infringing on it.
They have to; if a company does not try to protect their mark, they have no recourse.

That means Brand Z can call their stuff Jell-O if the term is so common that it's lost brand meaning. If the Jell-O company hasn't gone out of their way to protect their mark, their hands are tied.

Bottom line:
Companies continue to push for proper trademark usage, and writers who work in non-fiction should try to respect the basic trademark rules of the industry.

But if your fictional character has cool wheels, you don't need to call it a Mustang-brand car.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Advice from a Pro

A popular post from February 2011.

By Julie Wright

I went to Life The Universe and Everything as a panelist at BYU this last week and got some great information. I thought I would highlight a few of the key things I took away from this conference.

*Fiction isn't fact, but it is truth. Fiction allows us each to see the truth based on our own experiences and frame of reference.

*All fiction is lies. Our jobs as authors is to make the lie plausible. This seems a direct contradiction to the first comment, but it's not--not really. It connects in pretty well.

*You cannot break the rules of writing until you know them, until you've practiced them, until you've earned the right to break them intelligently. -- Tracy Hickman I could not agree more. Don't get clever with tense if you don't understand tense. If you want to write, then learn the rules. Work on your craft. Breaking rules you don't understand isn't artistic, it's ignorant. Learn them.

*Where there is no story, humans create it. We think and exist in story format. --Tracy Hickman I considered all the times I've gone to tell someone anything, about an event, or a situation. I always speak in a story format. I set it up as a story. And it isn't just because I'm a writer. I've paid attention. Everyone does this. Story is undeniably linked to the human condition.

*It doesn't matter if you're published. Being published is nothing. It is everything to be read. --Tracy Hickman This is absolute truth. My first book was published by a very small press. I was published. It was exciting! But was a I read? no. No, not really. And looking back, I am glad I wasn't read. it was a first book. I was a very green author. I had no idea what the rules were. I had no idea about craft. I had a long way to go. Being published isn't really the goal of a writer. What we want is to be read. We want to enter that dialogue with the reader. We want the intimacy of pulling readers into worlds we created--even if we'll never meet those readers, even if we're separated from those readers by continents, or even centuries. What a writer really longs for its to be read. The best way to achieve that is to learn the craft and write well.