Friday, March 24, 2017

Whose Point of View?

A popular post from January 2008

By Heather Moore

In a recent manuscript, I came to a dead stop at a particular scene. But it was not just an ordinary scene—it was the climax of the entire novel.

In this scene, a man is burned to death for his religious beliefs. He is given the chance to recount his teachings, but refuses. Therefore, the punishment is death by fire.

I wondered if the scene would be stronger in the man’s point of view . . . or in the man’s wife’s point of view.

Would it be more compelling for us to know the thoughts of a man who’s taking his last breath and knowing he’s going to die? Is it more compelling to “feel” the pain of fire with him as he’s consumed?

OR is it more compelling to watch with his wife as her husband is brutally tortured? Do we want to know her intimate emotions, experience her undoubted grief and horror? To hear her thoughts of loss and anguish?

The way I answered this question was: Who has the most to lose?

Then I posted it on a blog and received excellent feedback. Everyone agreed. The wife had the most to lose. So the death scene should be in her POV.

When you are writing in multiple view points (3rd person in my case), the rule of thumb for selecting POV is to take a look at the character who experiences the most change, or is highly affected, or who has the most to lose in the scene.

Then you'll have your answer.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

This Year, Go Big or Go Home

A popular post from January 2014

by Annette Lyon

Last month, as I have for well over a decade, I attended another Christmas dance recital to watch my daughter light up on stage. As usual, her grace performing (this time ballet) didn't disappoint.

A different dance number jumped out at me for a different reason, however. Most likely, it jumped out at every member of the audience: a hip-hop piece. The number was well choreographed, and the star dancer, a sixth grade black boy, stayed front and center, and for good reason. He was nothing short of jaw-droppingly amazing.

Every move he made was powerful and precise. He exuded joy and energy and attitude and got the audience excited, returning his energy a thousand-fold.

The few times my eyes strayed from him, I regretted it.

Why? The other hip-hop dancers on stage with him weren't anywhere in the realm of his league, for starters. But that in and of itself wasn't the problem. The real problem was that the other dancers didn't seem to be trying at all

In dance speak, they were marking the routine rather than dancing full out, as if they were afraid of looking stupid doing the moves, so, hey, I'll do them small and weak, and maybe no one will notice.

To be honest, the other dancers looked almost embarrassed to be up there. Surely they knew they weren't as good as the star, but by not doing their best, by not going full out, they looked even worse. Their movements looked sloppy and weak. They looked unsure and had so little energy that as an audience member, I found watching them to be total yawn fest. At least, when I wasn't cringing.

Worst of all, I made the discovery that when hip hop is performed halfway, it does look really, really silly, which I can almost guarantee was the dancers' (and, I'd wager, every artist's) worst fear. Do it halfway, and you'll look ridiculous. Do it full-out, and you're on to something.

As I sat in the audience, it dawned on me that writing is somewhat the same way.

Writing and putting your work out for an audience can be downright terrifying. But you can't play into that fear. If a writer backs away from being as strong and powerful and in control of their work as they can and should be, that is the moment when the work looks sloppy, weak, and chaotic. It's as if the writer wasn't at the helm, had no idea what to do next, and simply hoped no one noticed the missteps.

And yes, there will be times a writer is unsure. We have all taken risks in our work (or we should have). We all have grown, so we've all had our weaker moments, and will continue as we (hopefully) keep growing. The risks that have the best shot of working are the ones we commit to: the ones we write full-out. The minute we start marking a risk or a new technique, hoping no one will notice we're unsure and scared? That is the moment our work looks sloppy and weak.

Watching that hip-hop routine, I thought back to times where I've seen writers who have poured their souls into their work, even into a first draft, when maybe they weren't entirely at the skill level they wanted to be at. But they were trying with everything in their souls. The result: riveting and exciting writing anyway. As a reader, I find myself forgiving errors or weak spots because I see the passion and power that lies behind the writing. On the flip side, I'm far more likely to give up on prose that happens to be free of typos but lacks any heart.

So however you write, whether it's sitting at the keyboard or curling up with a notebook and pen, don't hold back. Yes, you may have some missteps along the way; that's to be expected. Maybe you aren't (yet) as good as other writers you're "on stage" with.

But chances are, if you hold back, your work will only draw negative attention to itself, and you won't grow. You'll never reach that glorious point where the eyes are all on you, where people's jaws drop in awe and admiration at the feats you just pulled off.

And remember: Every time a writer steps on stage, he or she is writing all by themselves. We must write full out, every single time.

Is baring your soul, pouring your all into your work, easy? No. Unequivocally no. But I'm convinced that doing so is the only way to ever be great.

So for this new year, here's my challenge for a resolution:

Get in the game, all the way. Write full-out every time. Leave the fear on the wings of the stage.

When you write, be that amazing kid in the front who made the dance look cool and amazing and awesome instead of the ones in the back who made it look, well, silly.

In other words, go all the way. Go big, or go home.

(I don't really want you to go home. Just decide to go big!)


Monday, March 20, 2017

Writing Schedules

A popular post from March 2009

by Annette Lyon

Sometimes I listen to a great podcast called Writing Excuses, produced with writers Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells. It's a very helpful podcast with lots of good information, and I recommend listening to it. Some of what they discuss refers specifically to fantasy and science fiction, but most of it is applicable to any genre.

One of the episodes, however, had me snickering and giggling: the one about a writer's schedule.

All three of the guys who are part of the podcast are full-time writers. I suppose they've forgotten what being a part-time writer was like, because they said things like (paraphrasing here):

"If I'm going to get any writing done, I need at least a four-hour block."

I burst out laughing.

Most of my writing career has been spent as a stay-at-home mom with several small children. Finding a four-hour block for writing was something that existed only in the realm of fantasy. Heck, for years, a TWO-hour block was pretty much an impossibility.

I had to find a way to make time, to use small snippets here and there. I learned to think ahead so that when I did have 30 minutes to write, I could type fast and make the most of the short session I had. I got really good at finding pockets of time and using them efficiently.

I wrote several books and sold lots of articles this way.

I imagine the vast majority of writers are in the same boat. They don't have large swaths of time to warm up and get into the mood and wait for the muse to strike. Not if they want to produce anything, anyway.

And that's fine.

Rumor has it that John Grisham worked as a lawyer while writing his first book, a page or so at a time during his 30-minute lunch break. Other now-famous blockbuster writers did the same before they could quit their day jobs.

If writing is a priority, you can find the time, even when a four-block is totally unrealistic.

Some ways:

What can you cut out of your life? Something will have to go, because there are only 24 hours in a day. Maybe it's a hobby. Or TV time (can you skip a sitcom six nights a week? That's THREE hours of writing!). Or it might be something else.

What can you consolidate or do faster? For example, if you ran all your errands on one day instead of spreading them out all week, you might be able to find a little time on a day or two to hit the computer. Maybe you can take the bus to work and write during the commute.

Plan ahead. That means both with finding time and with planning your writing. One small example: if I plan dinner well ahead of schedule (even doing something in the crock pot) then I can save myself half an hour or more that can be spent writing.

Then, if during the day, I thought ahead to what scene I'll write during that half-hour period, I can get right to work and be productive.

When are you sitting around doing nothing? I've written entire scenes in the doctor's office, the dance class lobby, and more. Time otherwise lost to the ether was made productive.

"I want to write, but I just don't have the time," is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Writers don't have time dropped handily into their laps. They MAKE time. They carve it out. They hunt it down, tie it up, and suck out every drop.

One irony: now that my youngest child is in kindergarten and I actually have a regular two-hour block, I find that I'm less productive in small snatches. It's as if my brain has realized it doesn't have to focus and work so hard--it's got two whole hours! Let's relax!

Next year when she's in school all day, I'd better not end up saying I need a four-hour block to get anything done.

If I do, smack me back to reality.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Art of Dialogue: Building Relationships

A popular post July 2013

By Julie Wright
part four of four

It's time for the fourth tip of writing good dialogue. Remember that dialogue can do all of the four things I am going to mention here, but it has to do at least one of them in order to be of any use to your story.

Tip number four:



Alter relationships—either building or tearing down-- You can tell if people are falling in love or getting a divorce by the kind of conversation they’re having. Most of the time anyway.  One of my favorite lines in the movie Life as We Know It is right after the two main characters have a major fight. One of the secondary characters made a comment that, "If my ex-wife and I fought like that . . . we'd still be married." So although they were fighting, it was a fight filled with passion, one that led the viewing audience to believe that the couple was in love in spite of the cruelty they hurled at each other in the form of words.
What are your characters saying to one another? Are they shredding each other verbally? Is the popular girl standing out from the crowd by telling one of the unpopular girls that she looks cute? Is the soldier refusing an order from his commanding officer which will likely result in disciplinary action?
You can tell if your characters are becoming friends or determined enemies by their conversations.  The things we say to each other alters our relationships even when we aren’t meaning them to. An offhanded compliment may save one person's life while a random verbal dig at that same person might be what throws them over the edge and makes them overdose. Conversations are important.

In real life, people kind of shamble through their own sentences. They um and er a lot, they digress, interrupt themselves, and start over again with the ums and ers. It's hard to build a believable relationship in print with all that going on, so refine the dialogue to include only the important things.

Dialogue can do all of these things we've discussed over the month—reveal character, move the plot, set the tone, and alter relationships in one conversation, but it, at least, has to have one, otherwise the dialogue isn’t necessary.

 –It can also do one more thing. Dialogue can provide exposition and backstory…and you want to use this judiciously. Nothing will bore a reader faster than you using dialogue to tell your main character’s entire life story or telling the entire history of the world you’ve built through the character’s conversations. That being said, dialogue is a tool in which you can quickly (quickly being the key word here) give some additional information, such as back story so that you won’t end up with long, tedious passages of exposition.

Building relationships means the dialogue is necessary. It has earned it's right to be in your story. Like I said the last few weeks, if you have scenes of dialogue that aren't paying their rent by contributing to the book as a whole, then they need to be evicted. Squatters have no place in a good story. Make certain your dialogue is paying its rent. Make sure it is:
  • Moving the plot forward.
  • Setting the Tone
  • Revealing the character
  • Building relationships

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Art of Dialogue: Reveal the Character

A popular post from July 2013

By Julie Wright
part three of four

It's time for the third tip of writing good dialogue. Remember that dialogue can do all of the four things I am going to mention here, but it has to do at least one of them in order to be of any use to your story.

Tip number three:

Reveal the Character

We don’t learn about characters simply by what they do, or the exposition that is written; we can learn about them through what they say and just as important, how they say it. Some characters are quiet and reserved so every word they actually utter is like a gift. Think Phineas and Ferb. If Ferb ever says anything, you always pay more attention to it, because it hardly ever happens. You expect something profound and awesome to exit that guy's mouth.
Other characters say whatever pops into their heads. They're the non-filtered characters.  These people are annoying to most of the world. These are the people that you sometimes want to push off a cliff because you just need them to stop talking. I am a non-filtered conversationalist. Please don't push me off a cliff. I truly don't mean to be offensive. We are who we are . . .
Some people are opinionated. Some are conservative. Some people turn everything into a joke. Some people don’t even get jokes let alone tell them.

By using dialogue properly, we can SHOW a character who is a submissive kiss-up in the way he offers to do the Starbucks run when the boss mentions he needs a coffee. Or in the way the kiss-up walks in on his co-workers talking in the break room instead of working and insists he's going to tell the boss on all of them.  The author doesn't just tell the reader that Simon was a whiny, sniveling kiss-up. The dialogue shows it.

Revealing the character through dialogue is an ultimate SHOW don't TELL kind of move. Don't tell us she hates her mom. Drop us in the middle of the fight and show her yelling at her mom--saying the sorts of things that prove her feelings. Don't tell us it hurt him to say goodbye. Show his voice cracking as he stumbles over the one word that changes everything for him.
We learn a lot about people during the course of conversation. Use this tool to help your reader better know your characters, and for your characters to better know each other. The more your reader knows your character, the more your reader can empathize and love that character which means they will stay with your character until the very end.

Revealing the character means the dialogue is necessary. It has earned it's right to be in your story. Like I said the last two weeks, if you have scenes of dialogue that aren't paying their rent by contributing to the book as a whole, then they need to be evicted. Squatters have no place in a good story. Make certain your dialogue is paying its rent. Make sure it is:
  • Moving the plot forward.
  • Setting the Tone
  • Revealing the character

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Art of Dialogue: Set the Tone

A popular post from July 2013

By Julie Wright
part two of four

It's time for the second tip of writing good dialogue. Remember that dialogue can do all of the four things I am going to mention here, but it has to do at least one of them in order to be of any use to your story.

Tip number Two:

Set the Tone
If it’s funny, or serious, or scary—you’ll know by the dialogue. Setting sets the tone, too, and is  completely important in writing, but a setting can’t exactly explain the tone of the book because the same setting can have multiple purposes.
So let's say our characters are at a funeral home. It’s just two of them, because no one else has arrived, or maybe no one else is coming. They're standing at the casket looking at the solemn repose of the deceased. That’s the setting.
But what will set the tone is the conversation—or lack of conversation—the two characters will have.
Maybe they’re brothers and it’s their father’s funeral. Maybe they hate each other because Dad loved one over the other. The setting says sad funeral, but the tone might be an angry war between brothers.
Or it could be two teenagers at the funeral of the science teacher who left them a clue to his murder. So they’re there to figure out who the murderer is. Their conversation and tone will be one of tension, intrigue, and anticipation. The tone is a who-dunnit.
Or it could be a couple of friends at the funeral of a roommate who was totally insane, and they’re there joking around about who gets his room and his Fender guitar. The tone would be a dark comedy.

Or maybe the characters are talking about cutting off the dead guy's head. Kind of weird, but hey, it happens. An ounce of preventuion and all that . . . As they cast a casual glance over their shoulders to see if anyone else is watching them cut off the head, the newly deceased's eyes pop open. Seeing that no one else is present, they move to the gruesome task of staking the undead at the same time the undead is working on making a snack of the two of them.  (I hate it when I wake up hungry). That tone of that scene would be horror/action.
The same setting can produce lots of different tones depending on what the characters say when they open their mouths.
Setting the tone means the dialogue is necessary. It has earned it's right to be in your story. Like I said last week, if you have scenes of dialogue that aren't paying their rent by contributing to the book as a whole, then they need to be evicted. Squatters have no place in a good story. Make certain your dialogue is paying its rent. Make sure it is:
  • Moving the plot forward.
  • Setting the Tone

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Art of Dialogue: Move the Plot Forward

A popular post from July 2013

By Julie Wright
part one of four

Dialogue is one of the most important parts of effective writing to me. It's one of my strengths in my writing, and so it's disappointing to me when it isn't a strength of other writers. I won't care if your commas are scattered like dandelion seeds on a manicured lawn, but I will sigh mightily if the dialogue doesn't work.

Sigh and likely put your book down.

So here is the first of four tips on what your dialogue should accomplish. The next three tips will come each Tuesday for the next three weeks. Remember that dialogue can do all of the four things, but it has to do at least one of them in order to be of any use to your story.

Tip number one:

Move the Plot Forward
Dialogue is a place where your characters can learn new information that helps them deal with the conflicts they're experiencing.
  • This is where they make decisions about where to go from here.
  • This is where they argue, fall in love, declare war, ask for divorces, make peace. Basically, this is where we create tension and conflict.
  • This is where information is shared between characters that helps them understand if there is impending danger, or if the danger has moved on already. It helps build suspense.
  • This is where the reader comes to understand how the character fits into the plot they've been dropped into. It allows the character discovery opportunities.
  • This is where things happen because the characters say it’s happening.
Moving the plot forward means the dialogue is necessary. It has earned it's right to be in your story. I believe that writing is like owning an apartment complex. If you rent a few apartments out to people who aren't paying rent--you need to evict them so that you can maintain profitability and stay in business. If you have scenes of dialogue that aren't paying their rent by contributing to the book as a whole, then they need to be evicted. Squatters have no place in a good story. Nowhere is this more true than with dialogue. Make certain your dialogue is paying its rent. Make sure it is moving the plot forward.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Novellas, Novelettes, & Short Stories: What’s the Difference?

A popular post from Feb. 2014

by Annette Lyon

For about two years, I’ve been fortunate to be part of an anthology series. As of February 2014, we have put out six Timeless Romance Anthology collections, and will continue to do at least four a year. Each has been fun and challenging in its own way.

For those unfamiliar with the series, each collection has six stories, three by continuing contributors (PEG’s own Heather B. Moore, plus Sarah M. Eden, and yours truly). We select a theme and then look for three guest writers to join us who are established, published writers we know will produce a great story.

We have few rules, but the ones we have are written in stone: No story can go over 15,000 words, so the entire collection is no more than 90,000 words, not counting author bios and other back matter. Each anthology is roughly the length of a typical novel.

The other two rules: 
  • the stories must all follow the theme
  • they must all be sweet romances (read: clean romance, with nothing beyond kissing in them and no graphic violence, etc.).

 In today’s digital world, the experiment has proved to be a great success. We treat the collections as a professional endeavor, including hiring a talented graphic designer experienced in book covers. The stories all get professionally edited and formatted, and the final result has been fantastic—as has the response from readers, proving that there is indeed a market for sweet romance.

We recently made the first anthology (the WinterCollection, featuring historical stories set in the winter) available in paperback, and we’ll likely put more of the e-books into print as we move forward.

So why are am I talking about these stories? Because in today’s e-book world, we’re seeing the return of relics from the publishing past. There was a time—before the Internet and all of the many distractions it brings—when magazines and book publishers regularly published short stories, novelettes, and novellas.

Short stories lasted a bit longer than the other two, especially in magazines. I may be dating myself here, but I recall a time when teen magazines still included a short story in each issue. Novelettes and novellas pretty much went the way of the dinosaur decades ago, and a big part of the decline of those literary forms was the cost. With the printing, shipping, and other costs that mirror the costs of full-length novels, but with lower price points, novellas and novelettes simply couldn't make enough of a profit to stay viable. 

As for the space short stories used to take up in magazines: It was quickly replaced by other content, with the belief that "no one reads short stories anymore."

In the last few years, however, many people, from the Big 5 publishers in New York to self-published writers, have changed their tune. Formatting for e-books is inexpensive, and a lot of writers have learned to do it themselves. There are no costs for printing or shipping, and little to no cost for delivery. Plus, they can be produced far faster. In other words, they're profitable again.

As a result, many writers, including bestsellers, have contracts to write novellas, often as a prequel before a new book comes out, or to give hungry readers a taste as they wait a year between volumes in a series.

Anthologies are one the few places that never stopped publishing shorter fiction entirely. A lot of them were and are produced by fantasy or science fiction publishers, and getting into one was a great way for a writer hoping to publish novels to break into the market.

Anthologies are still a great way to get started and break in. At the 2013 League of UtahWriters conference, Paul Genesse taught a great class about short fiction. He's had success making a name for himself through contributing to many anthologies over the years, and while he’s admitted that you won’t get rich doing that, you will grow a readership and develop a name for yourself.

But before you attempt to submit to a collection, be sure you know the varying lengths of the different forms. Today's readers aren’t yet that familiar with the terms, so if you self-publish a shorter work, the technical term won't be nearly as important as if you plan to submit your work to a contest, publisher, or anthology.

According to both Paul Genesse and SFWA, the following word counts are pretty standard in the industry: 

Short Fiction Word Counts
Short Story: under 7,500 words
Novelette: 7,500 words – 17,500 words
Novella: 17,500 words – 40,000 words

A few things to keep in mind with those numbers:

Middle-grade and early chapter books often fall below 40,000 words but don’t get the novella label, even though they're in that range. 

Word count is a far better guide to story length than page count, especially in fiction. Why? Word count per page can vary widely. For example, a page with mostly description will have many more words than a page with a lot of dialog, where a new paragraph starts every couple of lines, creating a lot of white space.

For example, the Timeless Romance Anthology stories, which typically run 13,000 to 15,000 words, will take up from 45 to 60 pages double-spaced in Word. That's a pretty broad page count for stories roughly the same word length.

As you can tell by the guidelines above, the TRA collections are technically made up of six novelettes per collection, yet in our book descriptions, we still call them novellas, because that’s the term readers are most familiar with. As novelette becomes a more familiar term to readers, we may use it.

So, you want to publish a novella/novelette/short story?
As with any potential market, be sure to research the submission guidelines and follow them exactly. Thinking you're the exception to the rule only shows you aren't a professional taking the job seriously.  

If it’s a contest, submit by the deadline or even before. Follow the format required. And, of course, know in advance if the market is open to submissions at all. (The Timeless Romance Anthologies are invitation only, for example.)

How do you write short fiction, anyway?
Actually writing short fiction is a very different animal from writing a full-length novel. For me, at least, it's been a wild but awesome ride learning how to create a good story in a small space. 

For that matter, it's a topic worthy of its own post another time.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Benefits of Writers Conferences

A popular post from March 2008

By Heather Moore

Writing can be a solitary activity. Well, we wish it is solitary--but there are many of life’s interruptions along the way (sometimes every three minutes it seems).

When I first started writing, I had no idea there were Writers Conferences. So when I joined my local writing chapter, I found I had a lot to learn. I had written two novels by the time I went to my first Writers Conference and this is what I learned:

1. Marketing—authors don’t just write, they market.
2. Agents—the first agent I met was in his early 20’s—this kid was going to accept or reject my very fine, mature work?
3. Self-publishing—an option I’d never thought of.
4. Vanity publishers—I met two at the conference. Glad I didn’t submit.
5. Shoes—dress to impress, but do so with comfortable shoes no matter what.
6. Advil—I’m glad I had some along. I wasn’t used to absorbing so much information in a two-day period.
7. Writing Contests—enter them if you can. It’s a great way to get feedback.
8. Networking—people that I met over seven years ago are still my friends.

Now that I have a few books published, and have attended half-a-dozen conferences, my advice is as follows:

1. Marketing—ask the published authors you meet what are the top three effective marketing tools they use.
2. Agents—make appointments with them if possible. Have a list of questions for them in addition to the manuscript you're pitching. Remember most agents find their clients through writers conferences or referrals.
3. Self-publishing—a more viable option for many. Learn from the experts first though, since there are many considerations.
4. Vanity publishers—still don’t submit.
5. Shoes—wear warm socks, too. The conference rooms can be very cold.
6. Excedrin—takes away the head ache faster.
7. Writing Contests—the feedback from an unbiased judge can be invaluable. But remember, it’s still subjective.
8. Networking—no matter how many books you have out, it's still important to network. Make new friends and pass on your own advice. The writing world is very small and can catch up with you fast. Also, volunteer to help at the next writer’s conference. Give back as much as you have received.

Most importantly, you come home with a head full of fresh ideas and re-energized to get back to writing. You realize that writing is not so solitary as you first thought.