Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Another Already?

A popular post from February 2010

by Annette Lyon

After “What are you calling it?” one of the most-asked questions I get about my writing is, “So have you started anything new since your last book?”

The answer often shocks people, because often it’s not that I’ve started something new; I’ve finished something else, have turned it in, and am working on yet another project.

The reaction: “But your book just came out!”

Well, sure. But the timeline of publishing is nothing if not crazy. You don't turn in a manuscript and then see the actual book on shelves a few weeks later.

An example: I turned in the manuscript for my cookbook on October 6, 2009.

I was promptly asked many times if readers could buy the cookbook as Christmas gifts . . . in 2009. As in, two months later.

Not. A. Chance.

(This Christmas, 2010, sure you can. It's out now.)

The book was accepted quite quickly (within a month, I think). It went to editing, and then we had weeks of photo shoots and layout and design and proofing. Books with lots of illustrations and color are often printed in China, and shipping is often by boat.

Such was the case here.

That meant for the book to reach shelves in October (if you're doing the math, that's a year since submission), the book had to reach the Chinese printer in MAY.

And that's a fast turnaround as the book industry goes.

My novels usually take even longer. Even an established author with a publisher may have to wait months to get an acceptance. Then they wait more months to begin revisions. Then they do editing. Then proofing. Then they wait for typesetting, and they proof galleys. Each of those steps can take weeks or months.

And then, of course, the book needs to be printed and shipped to the warehouse and then distributed to stores, which takes more time.

One difference with novels is that they generally aren't sent to China. Most of mine have been printed in Canada, which is a bit quicker than China, but you still have to factor in a couple months for printing and shipping. (This isn't like running to Kinko's.)

So it's not at all uncommon for a book to take anywhere from 9 months (a QUICK turnaround) to 2+ years to reach shelves or anywhere in between. Release dates can be moved up or back (or both, back and forth, until it's finalized, which is maddening; the author psyche has a hard time handling changes like that).

Sometimes the release time is simply a marketing decision: we can't have two similar books with the same release date, or they'll cannibalize one another's sales. We want this new author to have a decent shot, and if they're released the same time as a best-seller, they may fade into the crowd. Or, this book will be great for Mother's Day/Christmas/other holiday so let's save it for when people shop for gifts.

The delay feels a little weird at times. You work hard to promote a book you wrote at least a year ago, when you've been living and breathing (and very excited about) at least one totally different book during that entire time (and are likely researching or drafting a third).

The moral: If and when you get a contract, keep writing. If you don't, readers will have to wait several years before they see your next book!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Writing a Plot Summary

A popular post from February 2010

By Josi S. Kilpack

As with many elements of writing, a Plot Summary has different definitions. Some people use as an alternative title for a synopsis, other people think of it as the back liner of a book, however, most agents and editors (the people usually requesting Plot Summaries) typically want a quick and dirty explanation about the book. That's it. It does not require the same structure and chronology as a synopsis, but is not meant to ask a lot of questions or come across as "inviting" as a back liner, which is essentially written for promotional purposes. A Plot Summary is just that, a summary of the plot. It is usually short (100-300 words) and while it doesn't necessarily tell the ending, it doesn't simply ask question after question either.

So, how do you write it? Here are some tips:

1) How would you describe your book to someone else? What are the essential elements of your story you want them to know? This is similar to what people call your 'elevator speech', which is based on the idea that if you found yourself in an elevator with the agent/editor/publisher you wanted for your book, how would you tell them your book description between floors--realizing this might be the only chance you have to get their attention? Lucky you gets to write this down rather than be expected to come up with it at a moment's notice.

2)  Be sure to include the essential elements of a novel: Character, conflict, climax. Conclusion, another foundational element, isn't necessary to include in a plot summary because people don't read for the conclusion, they read for character, conflict and climax.

3) Leave out the middle of your story. Most of the time, the middle of any book is about the character getting into and out of trouble. It certainly has it's place in a novel, but for a plot summary it takes away the "punch" therefore should be carefully considered when you're summarizing your events.

4) Keep it tight. Keep your Plot Summary to less than 300--150 words is an average size. You don't need to tell the story chronologically, or get caught up replaying any specific scenes, just overview.

5) Don't be seduced by "Why."  Focus on the who, how, when and where, not the why as that requires details you simply don't have room to include. Of course some why is necessary, but don't let it take the focus.

6) Keep the goal in mind. You are trying to capture and keep their attention only long enough for them to decide if they want to read more. You are NOT telling the story, just telling what it's about. The more focused you can keep it, the better you will meet the expectations of the person who requested your plot summary in the first place.

7) Include author/work information. Be sure the important information about you and the book is included with your plot summary. Typically this is done at the top of the page in the left hand side.

I've included a few plot summaries I found to illustrate how they are often done, you can find more examples on, via book reviews, or through any other online bookselling company:

Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
YA Despotic 
(insert novel word count)

In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war, to be replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year, two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal intimidation of the subjugated districts, the televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem as the 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors, literally, with all citizens required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss's young sister, Prim, is selected as the mining distric's female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta, the son of the town baker who seems to have all the fighting skills of a lump of bread dough, will be pitted against bigger, stronger representatives who have trained for this their whole lives.
(145 words)

Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck
Historical fiction
(insert novel word count)

Two cousins who had grown up together set off to make their fame and fortune. they begin working on a farm where mischievous things go on. One thing that happens is George finds his cousin in trouble when he killed the bosses sons wife. George sends his cousin off to the woods, to hide. George and the other men go out on a man hunt to find his cousin. In the end, George ends up killing his cousin to save his life.
(82 words)

Ramona Quimby Age 8
Beverly Cleary
Middle grade
(insert novel word count)

  “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” is about a girl in third grade. She started school with a surprise gift from her dad, only to have it stolen by a boy she called “Yard Ape.” One day at lunch she tried to be cool and show off for her friends by cracking an egg on her head and found herself in a big mess. When flu season hit she learned how awful it felt to throw up in class. As time goes on, Ramona and her family solve their problems, and learn to be more caring for each other. They also learn to be more considerate for each other when time alone is needed.
(113 words)

Happy writing!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Show Not Tell Homework

A popular post from February 2010

by Annette Lyon

I'm stealing from myself today. I thought some of the material from the creative writing class I taught last week might be useful for Writing on the Wall readers.

We talked about the old adage, "Show not tell" and how to apply that in your writing.

What I didn't know early on in my writing journey is that there are lots of ways to show. Had someone explained it to me clearly, I could have been spared a lot of grief (and likely, rejections).

Showing Scenes
Sometimes we need a mini scene to see and learn that this character is a workaholic or this one is a computer genius or that one is a great chef. Put your characters into the moment and let us watch them do their thing.

Let us see that Phil is the only person in the company who can find and fix the bug in the program. We'll figure out that he's the smart computer dude.

Alternately, if someone has a personality trait, a scene revealing that trait is far more effective than just telling us the person is kind or loud or simply a jerk. In other words, give the reader a scene where the character is interacting with others and behaving in a kind way or being loud or treating others like a jerk.

In other words, give your reader the breadcrumbs (the clues) and assume they're smart enough to figure out that this behavior in this scene means that Ashley is a snob. But you never ever used the word, "snob."

This does a couple of things: your reader isn't talked down to (you're assuming they're smart) and you're making the story alive. You're breathing life into the characters.

In other words, you're showing, not telling.

I did an entire post some time ago about specificity. In short, it's a micro way of showing. In these cases, we don't need an entire scene or even a paragraph here. Sometimes all you'll do is replace a single word with one or two more specific ones.

A bird didn't fly overhead; a seagull did.

A car didn't drive pull into the driveway, but a yellow Jeep did.

Your character isn't enjoying a great meal; he can't get enough of the 3-cheese lasagna and garlic bread.

The more specific you are, the more your reader can be immersed in the story.

Sensory Details
Sensory details are another great way to show. They put the reader right in the same location with your POV character. The reader experiences the same thing vicariously because you made it so real.

Imagine a specific location: say parking garage, a hospital, or a cemetery.

What do you notice about it besides things you see?

Smell: The parking garage might smell of oil, the hospital of disinfectant, and the cemetery like freshly cut grass or flowers.

Sound: In the parking garage, you'll likely hear fans blowing out the exhaust fumes, car engines, squealing tires, the click-click of high heels on the concrete and maybe even voices echoing. Depending on the area of the hospital, you could hear beeps of machines, announcements over the intercom, elevator doors, beds squeaking along the halls, TVs in patient rooms, and more. And the cemetery could be silent save for the breeze in the oak over there (we're being specific, right? So it's not a tree) or maybe there's the hum of cars on the street in the distance or a single mourner crying next to a headstone.

Feeling: This one can go a couple directions, both toward emotions (what's the overall FEEL of the place?) as well as the actual sense of feeling or touch. The parking garage may be cold, with dim lighting, and feel claustrophobic. The hospital could feel sterile (in more ways than one). A writer could describe pushing open a heavy door to see a patient, the hard mattress, the thin blankets. And since a cemetery is outside, what you feel would depend largely on the season (summer versus winter, rain or hail, a breeze or sweltering heat, etc.).

Taste: A sense writers often forget about. It's a powerful one, so I don't recommend using it all the time, but it's one to remember because it can pack such a great punch. Think through the locations and what someone might taste in them: the parking garage (even the flavor of a person's gum might taste different with the fumes in there), the hospital (oy, the food . . .), and the cemetery.

General rule of thumb: Try to use at least one other sense besides sight on every page. And change up which sense you're using: don't always use sound, which comes in second behind sight. Be creative: try for taste and smell too, and don't forget touch.

A Challenge:
Here's the homework I gave to my class this week. It's a great exercise to learn how to show rather than tell.

Write THREE showing paragraphs:
1) An emotion. But you aren't allowed to say what it is. (For example, show fear without ever using "afraid" or "scared" or anything like them.)

2) A location or setting. Don't ever name the location; we should be able to figure out where you are by the fantastic showing description.

3) An act. Show a character doing something. We should be able to know what it is without the act being named. (Examples: baking cookies, changing oil in the car, putting on makeup, mowing the lawn.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My Audience

A popular post from October 2009

By Julie Wright

Reviews are of the devil. No really. They are.

And I'm not just saying that bad reviews are of the devil. I think most reviews are. Don't get me wrong. I LOVE getting glowing reviews. Really. Love it! But I despise the evil reviews, the ones where someone who is NOT your target audience bemoans your story, characters, YOU. I've had reviews that have made me cry. I've also had reviews that made me feel like I was earth shatteringly amazing.

Both sides are a little jaded. And the emotional roller coaster that comes with reading your own reviews is not a safe place for most writers. The incredible highs and abysmal lows are things other, normal people get medicated for. Bi-polar anyone?

I think reviews are good (and necessary) for the reader, but not a benefit (for the most part) to the writer. Readers need reviews so they know what they want to read next. Writers don't need to know what is in their book. They wrote it. They already know.

Maybe you're different, but what happens to me when I read a bad review is akin to writer's block. I can't move. I can't think well enough to type. I feel this awful pit in my stomach that seems it might never go away. A bad review could set me off for a couple of hours, or a couple of days, depending on the review and the moody mood I'm in when I read it.

What happens when I read a good review is akin to writer's block. I can't move. I can't think well enough to type. I feel this insane euphoria as I bask in my own brilliance. A good review could set me off for a couple of hours, or a couple of days, depending on the review and the moody mood I'm in when I read it.

See what I mean? Of. The. Devil.

So what do I do to avoid this review roller coaster? Try not to read them—that is how I handle it. It might be a little head in the sand, but I feel emotionally unstable enough without other people projecting their admiration or scorn on me. I used to read them all the time, like a bizarre obsession. The great reviews sent me soaring. The bad reviews made me crawl under my covers with ice cream and a spoon. I can’t afford either extreme so I just don’t read them anymore.

I had a friend recently lamenting over three stars on their review. Three out of five stars isn’t bad though. It means the reader liked the book and might even recommend the book to others. It doesn’t mean they would pull the book out of their burning house if they only had time to save only one thing, but that they read the book and enjoyed it for what it was.

I’ve also come to conclude that I write to the people who love what I write. They are my audience. But not everyone will love what I write—and that is okay. I am not writing to everyone. I’m writing to my audience.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Scatter Plots

A popular post from August 2011

By Julie Wright

Last week I was sitting on the couch catching up on my reading and my daughter was doing her homework on the floor in front of me. She mumbled the phrase, "scatterplots."

I looked down because whatever she was saying had something to do with plots and that always catches my attention. Turns out she was doing math. She tried to explain scatter plots as being a bunch of points on a graph. She tried to explain what those points did or why anyone cared they were on a graph, but all I heard was blah blah blah. It was math. I do not get math at all.

But it did get me to thinking about a book I read last year that will remain nameless. If I were to give that book a one word summary, scatterplots would do quite nicely.

They were tons of various plots in this book, which is okay--a book with several subplots has depth and provides a richer reading experience. However, none of these were even remotely related. You almost felt side-swiped when a new one showed up. This was the sort of plot structure that left you scratching your head and saying, "What was that? Where did that come from?" And not in the tone that would indicate that the new element was cool or anything, but more a tone of, "I am returning this book to the bookstore and demanding a refund."

Wiki says that: a plot is all the events in a story particularly rendered toward the achievement of some particular artistic or emotional effect or general theme.

A plot answers all those why and what questions. And like I said, it's good to have a main plot and then several subplots because that layering adds depth to your manuscript. But the plots need to work together in a way that makes sense. Characters have to have motivation for moving along in a plot line.

And beware coincidence. coincidence is not your friend. I know that coincidence happens in reality (ask me to tell you about the story of my husband and I getting together sometime). Believe me; I know coincidence happens in reality, but it's a cheater tool in fiction unless you can masterfully hide it under motivation and circumstance.

Plot is the result of your characters, their conflicts, and the way they handle--or don't handle--their conflicts. For me plot works best when it is dictated by the character's choices, their wants, needs, fears, but then I am a character driven writer. Some people are plot driven writers, which means they are driven by the circumstances surrounding a character. But you don't want so many different plots that the character becomes imprisoned by them all. And you don't want all those plots to be so unconnected that the reader is rolling their eyes enough to make themselves dizzy. All the plots need to blend in a way that makes sense.

So how do you avoid scatterplots? How do you blend them together into something believable? I promise it is worth your time to watch the video. Dan Wells can show you the way:
Dan Wells on Plot Structure

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pay Attention. Remember.

A popular post from September 2011

by Annette Lyon

One of your main jobs as a writer is to keep your eyes and ears open, all the time. You never know what random bit of information you gleaned from a newscast, documentary, conversation, novel, or something else entirely, will be just the bit you need for a story.

At various times, the following pieces of information have proven useful in my work (whether that's reading, editing, or writing), all of which I've learned from paying attention as my life moves along.
  • Portuguese doesn't sound like Italian.
  • Some houses can't have basements because of a high water table.
  • You can't shoot the lock off a door.
  • The typical length of a picture book is 32 pages.
  • Bleeding arteries don't trickle or run; they pump in spurts.
  • Many Southern California apartments don't have heating.
  • In-N-Out Burgers has a minimal menu.
  • In the Salt Lake City Airport, arriving passengers come down an escalator to meet family.
  • Bruises turn yellow when they've almost healed.
  • Almost anything can be poisonous in the right amount.
  • If you break your nose, you may become nauseated from blood draining into your stomach.
  • A canyon near my home has a great running trail, and in the fall, the trail is surrounded by gold leaves.
  • The carpet in a local ICU has a swirly blue pattern.
  • A small rock, when thrown, can cause a cut big enough to need stitches.
  • A childhood friend's father used to sing silly songs in a voice mimicking Kermit the Frog.
I could go on and on. If you're a curious writer, you probably could too. That's a good thing.

As a writer, you should be constantly paying attention. An incomplete list of what that can mean:
  • Eavesdropping on public conversations.
  • Noticing smells.
  • Paying attention to sounds, both indoors and outdoors.
  • Taking note of colors: on the mountains, paint on the walls, clothing, hair, etc.
  • Mentally cataloging quirks of speech.
  • Thinking up ways to describe things (sights, sensations, etc.)
  • Watching professionals as they work, including their behaviors, choices, and vocabulary.
And so on.

If you're the curious type, you likely run a Google search for random things at random times. You wonder "what if" and "why" and you aren't satisfied with generic answers. You look up one thing online and end up staying there for an hour, following links as you learn a bunch of new things.

Instead of apologizing for being "weird," embrace the idiosyncrasy and fill up the well of detail that's inside you.

Why? Because when you're sitting at the keyboard, getting ready write, you need a well to draw from. Of course you don't need to know everything when you sit down. Far from it. You can always leave blanks to research and fill in later. (I do that all the time.)

But if you have been actively filling up your well with vivid images, sounds, smells, and ideas, your writing will flow out of your fingers quicker and smoother than it would otherwise. You'll find yourself making connections you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Your story will be richer.

If your well is empty, you'll have nothing to draw from.

So: Watch. Listen. Read.

Above all, pay attention and remember.

If you have heard about it yet, be sure to check out the newest writing podcast, specifically about middle-grade books. It's called Wordplay, and the three hosts are awesome: critique group member J. Scott Savage, New York Times best-selling writers James Dashner, and literary agent-turned novelist Nathan Bransford.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Alpha Readers and Beta Readers

A popular post from 2011

I was recently looking for beta readers for my most recent book when a friend of mine asked me if I had already used alpha readers. I blinked stupidly at her and told her I'd never heard the term. She explained what she meant and I realized that was basically what I used beta readers for--so we have a synonym issue; two words, same definition. Like child and kid (not the goat kind...moving on)

So, then I did a little research to see what the world at google-large thinks and here's what I found:

Alpha Reader:
*The first people to read the book, often while it's being written who help you craft the story as it develops.
*Someone who reads the book before anyone else in regard to how it works on an industry level, often a published author or expert in the genre your writing.

My comments: Well, I happen to have a writing group who helps me chapter by chapter so that means I have alpha readers--who knew? I've never used the second type of alpha reader. It sounds to me like an alpha reader would have to have some understanding of craft since they are either helping you develop the story or they are reading it as compared to other similar works. So here's my definition:

Alpha reader: Craft-savvy readers who either assist in the development of the book as it is being written, or can help with the industry-specific aspects when it is finished.

Beta Reader:
*Someone who will read the manuscript in its entirety after it's finished who will offer discerning advice on how to best prepare it for your editor.
*Not necessarily a professional editor
*Often has a specific focus, expertise, or experience.

My comments: This was my understanding of beta readers and I have a very good pool of them I alternate between for my books. I try not to overwhelm any of them by asking them to do every book because I'm writing 2+ a year. I also have a basic agreement that if they beta read for me, they get a free copy of the book AND I will reciprocate by being a beta reader for them. Some of my beta readers are writers, but not all of them. I find beta readers who are just 'readers' to be very helpful since they don't get caught up in line or craft things. That said, writers catch things that a reader never would so having a variety of perspectives is helpful. So here's my definition:

Beta Reader: Someone who reads the manuscript after its completed prior to submission who then gives feedback on the overall book based on their perspective.

A few more thoughts on beta readers:
*Have at least two. Unless your mother is Dr. Laura who will tell you the honest truth whether you like it or not, she should not be a beta reader.
*Too many beta readers can become obnoxious, you have to go through each of their feedback.
*If a beta reader doesn't give you useful feedback, consider them strongly before you send them another manuscipt.
*A good beta reader will help you identify things you couldn't see on your own.
*A great beta reader will give you suggestions on how to fix it.
*Every manuscript should go through beta readers before its submitted.

What did I miss?

Happy writing!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Help Me Focus!

A popular post from November 2011, very relevant today!

by Annette Lyon

First off: To all you NaNo-ers out there, keep pushing on this last day! Congratulations to all the winners out there; celebrate your accomplishment!

I have had a hard time focusing lately. That includes work on my writing, my editing, and even attention to housework and (worse!) to my family.

Many things can be blamed for it, among them the legitimate issues of ADD and chronic pain.

But life must go on. I need to write and edit. More, I need to make sure my family actually eats and has clean underwear.

I've found a some things to help, some of which don't make much sense at first glance. In hopes that some of them may help you, here's a list:

White Noise
Yes, Virginia, it really does help you focus. At least, it does for someone with ADD. My son (who inherited it from Mom, alas) discovered Simply Noise, which has several free options. The basic choices are all essentially what's known as "white noise" but which all sound slightly different. The variations are called white, pink, and brown noise.

Brown noise is my favorite (and my son's, too). I find myself able to focus on a project and get a lot more done in less time while listening to it.

The site also has other sounds, downloadable for a small fee, like ocean waves and a thunderstorm.

A To-do List
People who follow me on Facebook are aware of this one: I have a list of things I want to accomplish in a month. Yes, a month. Big-picture, yet concrete, goals are easier for me to handle than specific ones I have to get done today. With monthly goals, I can look at the list and decide what I can do now.

It's a hard-copy list in a notebook, so I have the bonus of using a bright orange Sharpie to cross out items as I do them.

Major sense of accomplishment!

I have a writer friend who has also become my accountability buddy. At the beginning of each month, we email one another our progress on last month's goals and our goals for the upcoming month.

This provides an outside source of accomplishment (getting ego strokes from someone outside my brain helps a ton), and it's also an extra motivation to reach the goals I sent her before. Saying, "Yeah, well, I totally dropped the ball on all my goals" isn't going to cut it.

Meeting with my critique group helps here too. I need to have pages to read when I show up, so I'd better write some.

Minimizing Distractions
For me, that means the Internet. I can sit at my computer with great intentions to do X, Y, and even Z on my to-do list. Then I check email, Twitter, Facebook, and news links, and next thing I know, I've blown two hours.

There's a reason a product exists where you pay for it to disable your Internet connection for determined periods so you can focus on your work.

At one point I wondered if a smart phone would help. (For years, I have a simple candy-bar style phone that did nothing fancier than text.) I figured that if I got online updates while away from my computer, I wouldn't feel as tied to it. Then, when I did sit down at my desk, maybe I'd get more work done.

It was just a theory. Until now. Due to a set of unforeseen circumstances, I got to open my Christmas present early: a shiny new iPhone.

It's done exactly what I predicted: I don't feel the same urge to sit at my desk just to make sure I don't miss something. My kitchen is cleaner than it has been in a while. I got more reading in today. And more writing in. And research. Oh, and I wrote this blog post.

I think this is the most I've accomplished in one day in, well, a really long time.

A Timer
One element I didn't expect to help me on my iPhone, but which has: setting alarms. I'll set it 30 minutes out, and suddenly I can stay on task. When the phone rings, I get to do something else, if whatever I'm doing feels hard. Or, on the flip side, if I have only X amount of minutes to accomplish such-and-such, I'll buckle down and work hard. Great tool, and one I'm sure I'll be using more.

What helps you focus?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Dear Author . . .

A popular post from October 2011

By Julie Wright

“I spent a bit of time perusing the Dear Author for the romance category boards over on Amazon. It was hilarious . . . until it wasn't.

I'm in the process of editing one of my earlier manuscripts that I've received my rights back from the publisher. I knew the writing was rough because I was young when I wrote the book and inexperienced as a writer. I had no idea how bad it truly was until I got two sentences into the edit.

Sad that it only took two sentences for me to start rolling my eyes. I actually would have been eye-rolling at the first four words except I was too shocked to be capable of the eye-roll.

I made a lot of mistakes in those first books, mistakes that would instigate the words, "Dear author . . . Please don't . . ."

It's important to remember your audience and to read enough in the genre in which you're writing so you understand the cliche's and sand-traps of that genre. Basically, what I'm saying is . . . learn your craft.

I was so glad to have been published with those first couple of books, so excited to be an "author," that I jumped in before I was ready. Was it a mistake? Maybe. Maybe I never would have published and worked to get better if I hadn't had those first books come out the way they did. Or maybe I would have kept writing until I grew in my craft and had a first book release that would have stunned the world. Who knows? Twelve novels later, I am a much different writer today than I was ten years ago. I hope to keep improving and growing and BECOMING.  For now, I am editing and eye-rolling. And paying close attention to notes like, "dear author . . ."

Feel free to peruse the Dear Author board on Amazon for yourself:

Dear Author . . .

And do you have any memos you wish you could say to authors in general? Things you wish they'd stop doing or do more of?                   

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


A popular post from April 2012 

By Josi. S Kilpack

Last week I posted about time cues and Kurt Kammeyer brought up the point of chronology the comments. He made an excellent point and while my post focused on the more minute details of time, his point was big picture. We all know how important the big picture of things are so I thought I'd give a little time to that part of storytelling--the how and when things happen on a big picture level.

Kurt's comment reminded me of  a situation I found myself in several years ago. I was at the galley stage of my second book (galleys are the typeset pages of your book sent to the author by the publisher just before the book goes to press. It's the authors last chance to proofread the story before it becomes an actual book.) and was reading along with red pen in hand when I realized that my character had an appointment on Tuesday. No big deal except that it had been Tuesday a few pages ago. I went back and re-read; sure enough I had two Tuesdays in a row. I fixed this, but it required me to smoosh two days worth of events into one day, which mixed up some other days. The galleys were bleeding with arrows and margin notes that eventually made sense of my brain cramp. Once that was resolved I continued forward only to realize I had two Thursday's later on in the same week.

Fixing the Thursday-neurosis was trickier and required more arrows and margin notes, but also a handwritten page to slide into the galleys themselves. (There is a lesson here on having good editors that catch these things for you, but it was my book so it's ultimately my responsibility to have gotten it right). The final book was okay--my week was sufficiently fixed--but each time I reflect on this I'm surprised I didn't figure it out in my own revising. I should have, it's not as though it was hiding, but I didn't. However, I did learn from it and nowadays I'm much more careful about tracking my chronology as I write.

I'm sure there are multiple ways to do this, but here are a few ideas:

*Use an online calendar to map out events as they happen. Gmail calendars allow you to color code events, which you could do to specify characters, and the events are then easy to change should they need to be shifted around. I'm sure other online calendars would be equally easy to use. I'm not sure how this would work with multiple books, but I'm sure someone clever out there could figure it out.

*Spreadsheet calendar. I'm not so good with spreadsheets, but some people are whizzes and can do all kinds of cool coding and auto-fill options that seem as though they could give you similar flexibility and ease of use as the online calendar option. If you're not a whiz, look to make whizzy friends--maybe they can help you.

*Make notes at the top of each chapter as you write, showing the date and time (if it's important) so that as you go through your book you can see your chronology laid out before you. This method keeps it all in one place, so you can see your date and times as you write/revise. The drawback of this method is that it can require a lot of scrolling if you get lost in regard to your timeline.

*Use an old calendar or printable calendar to fill in events by hand. This is my preferred method. It helps me to have a physical calendar I can write on. I always use pencil (different colored pencils for different storylines/characters) so I can change things around but I like being able to line up the months and look as them as I'm typing my story.

*Make index cards for your chapters or your scenes, putting the date and time (if important) in a location on the card that's consistent. Again, use pencil so things can be re-arranged, but this can be another visual way to lay things out and see how they are happening. This is an especially useful method if a lot happens in a short period of time. You can have a card for each event, rather than trying to squish a dozen events into one tiny square on a calendar.

If you're dealing with multiple storylines or characters, keep in mind that their chronology needs to still work in one timeline. It's very distracting to your reader if they read about what Bob did on Wednesday, then what Sandra was doing on Monday. This can get very tricky to write, especially when events are happening simultaneously, but the closer you can stick to the actual order of events, the more clear things stay to  your reader--confusing your reader is BAD (Say that six times). It's sometimes more advantageous to skip a scene or chapter than to go back and forth chronologically.

As you revise your work, double check your timing on things. Calculate distances traveled and how long it will take, double check the time of day in certain scenes, for instance if they have a fight at dinner and eight hours later she's knocking on the door to talk to him, it's two o'clock in the morning. Afford reasonable amounts of time for your characters to do what they need to do, and make sure you have enough time and chronology cues to keep the reader subconsciously aware of the timeline--something they don't have to think about, but is woven through the story in such a way that it feels automatic from them and leads them along as smoothly as possible.

Happy Writing!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Taking a Critique, Part 2

A popular post from July 2011, continued.

by Annette Lyon

A few weeks ago, I posted about how to take a critique.

That post has a lot of important points, so if you haven't read it, do. Then come back.

Now for the next step: actively using a critique. I'll use the term editor below when referring to the person who did your critique. That could be a critique group member, beta reader, editor, or anyone else who is giving you feedback.

1) Before changing anything, do an initial pass.
Read through the entire edit quickly, without making any changes. You'll get a simple overview of what's ahead. Take stock of what's been changed, suggested, noted. Get a feel for what kinds of changes your editor sees for the book (or chapter or scene) as a whole. If you don't know your editor personally, this also helps to give you a feel for their personality.

2) Set it aside and take a deep breath.
If you're anything like me, even if you can take a critique because you've built up thick skin, you'll still get butterflies (or, say, nausea) opening up and reading an edit for the first time. That feeling may not subside (and it may get worse) after that initial pass. Sometimes setting the work aside for a bit (an hour, a day, a week, whatever it takes) lets you come back without the nerves but with a clearer, more objective view. Making changes is so much easier when your stomach isn't an emotional knot.

3) Attack the small stuff first.
That means addressing anything that you can change in short spurts, whether it's punctuation, grammar, and other line-editing stuff, or fixing somewhat bigger stuff, like showing this scene instead of telling it, upping the characterization in that scene, and so on.

4) When you find "big stuff," skip it. For now.
You'll be cruising along on your edit, with pages behind you, when you hit chapter nine and a big huge comment that you know is valid but is going to require some serious changes. The changes could mean rewriting entire sections or going through the entire manuscript to fix the same problem in multiple pages. Whatever it is, "big stuff" can be overwhelming. It can also be discouraging. With any luck, you won't have more than about ten or so "big stuff" issues.

5) THEN attack the hairy parts.
There's nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a lot of work done, whether it's manuscript pages or notes in an electronic file. Relish in the victory of finishing that "easy" pass (because even the easy pass isn't easy; it is work). Now go back and deal with the bigger stuff, one issue at a time, as your creative brain (and, let's face it, your emotional stress detector) can take them. If you get stuck, set the work aside again and think through the big issue you're facing to find the best way to address it. Don't rush big fixes.

6) Go over it again.
When you've addressed every note and change in the edit, do a final pass. You may catch new problems you've inadvertently inserted into the text through your changes (time lines, character or location details, overall consistency). Fix them as you come across them.

And while you're at it, be sure to enjoy reading through a cleaner, better version of your work.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

How to Take a Critique

A popular post from June 2011. 

by Annette Lyon

As many of our regular readers know, I've been part of a great critique group for a long time (since January of 2000). I've been published for 9 of those years, and I've been editing professionally for at least five of those. It's safe to say I've been on both sides of the "get your work torn apart" process.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for when you get feedback, whether it's from a beta reader, a critique group member, or an editor.

1) No matter what anyone says, it's still your book.
No one's opinion is law. Therefore: you don't have to change anything you don't want to.

Sometimes that realization is rather freeing.

It's also a pain in the neck, because things are so subjective in the arts. At times it would be nice to have a formula: X + Y = success! It's not quite like that.

That said:

2) Consider each piece of feedback seriously.
Even if you totally disagree with someone's suggestion about changing a section, don't dismiss the idea out of hand. Think about whether they have a valid point. Maybe their fix isn't the best idea, but their diagnosis is right on: something is indeed wrong with the section.

So maybe Mark wouldn't say what the editor suggested, but is there a chance his original dialog was flat or unmotivated? Is pace sagging here? Is that chapter confusing? Sometimes editors are great at spotting problems and suggesting solutions, but it's your job as the writer to figure out the best fix.

3) Don't argue, debate, or defend.
You've asked for (maybe even paid for!) an opinion. If you don't agree with it, fine. But insisting that your reader misread or misinterpreted your work, or insisting it must be this way or the reader is an idiot and missed this or that and here is why? That's not useful. (And it can be insulting; you asked for an opinion and got one.)

Okay, maybe the person is an idiot.

Or . . . maybe your reader missed a big point because you didn't write it effectively.

Figure out which it is, and, if necessary, get back to work. If getting an honest critique or edit stings too much and/or makes you want to whip out your defensive karate moves, there's a chance you're not ready for outside feedback quite yet.

4) A corollary: Just because something "really" is a certain way or "really" happened that way, doesn't mean it'll be believable.

For example: Some time ago, as I prepared to write a scene where a character dies, I read several first-person accounts from people who had loved ones die in similar circumstances. In my scene, I added the kinds of details that really happened to real people.

My critique group got hung up on a few of them because they didn't feel real.

What did I do? I could have insisted that "Some people really do go through it just like this." (And I could have proved it.)

Instead, I recognized that if those details pulled them out of the scene, if the moment didn't ring true, I needed to revise. I found other details (also real) that felt more true and familiar. The result was a much more powerful scene.

5) Don't go back to your editor to answer their "questions."
I put that in quotation marks, because if an editor writes notes like "Where are they?" or "What's the name of that museum?" or "I don't think such a building on that street exists, does it?" the editor is not really asking because they want an answer.

They're asking for the reader's benefit.

The editor is merely pointing out an issue for you as the writer to address: something is confusing, telly, unclear, or unbelievable. The question is a way for the editor to tell you that something isn't working. Questions give you, the writer, a direction to go.

I don't know of a single editor who ever waits for a client to send an email with, "Oh, by the way, the building you asked about is two blocks west of the City Bank on Main Street. It really exists. Here's a Google Map link to prove it."

(Thanks . . . that was totally keeping me up at night . . .)

In my experience, most editors are happy to clarify what they meant by a certain question if you aren't sure what the underlying issue is. But trust me; they aren't expecting you to answer those questions in any place except the actual manuscript, which the editor may never see again.

Answering a question (especially if it's one of those "See? I was right," issues) can rub the wrong way. Which leads to:

5) Resist correcting your editor.
We're human, so yes, we make mistakes, no matter how perfect we try to be. Whether it's a typo or fact we're off on . . . let it go. (Even if the mistake is phrased as a question, as in #4.)

Imagine this scenario (this exact situation hasn't happened, but it hearkens to real events): Your historical novel has a World War I battle and lists it as taking place in 1920. Your editor points out that the war had already ended by that point, with a note along the lines of, "WWI was over by then. I think the final battle was in 1919."

You recheck your facts and realize that whoops, the war was indeed over before 1920. But check it! The war ended in 1918, although the Treaty of Versailles wasn't signed until 1919.

Hah! Your editor was WRONG!

Sure, technically. But here's the deal: Your editor was correct in spotting your error. That's all that matters here. You were saved from looking bad. Returning with "Well, you were wrong too," won't elicit a thank you or warm fuzzies.

6) Have Reasonable Expectations. Or: Apply what you've learned. THEN come back.
Often, we editors get e-mails from clients saying that they learned so much from the 50 pages they had edited, whether it's about showing, exposition, dialog, or something else, and thank you!

We love that kind of feedback; helping writers to improve their work is what we're after.

Next step: apply what you've learned to the rest of the manuscript! Then ask for more editing.

Sometimes a writer wants to hand over 300 pages of a draft, pay for an edit, and end up with gold. That doesn't work. A single edit can take a manuscript only so many steps up. The better a piece is before an editor gets their hands on it, the higher level it'll be at the end of the edit. No matter how great the editor, coal cannot be turned into a diamond. Create a diamond, even in the rough, and the editor may be able to find the right cut and shape for it to sparkle!

This is, as we've mentioned on this blog before, why we often do manuscripts in chunks: it gives the writer the chance to learn from the edits of the early pages and apply those lessons so that later edits will be even more effective.

And finally, because it bears repeating:

No matter what anyone says, it's still your book.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Using Social Media Effectively

A popular post from February 2012 and still very relevant today. 

by Annette Lyon

Social media is here. And for better or worse, it's here to stay. Writers who hope to reach potential readers need to learn how to use it effectively.

What "effectively" means will be different for every writer. With more and more social media outlets popping up all the time, it's easy to feel daunted. (I have yet to learn much about Pinterest, because right now it's just one more thing.)

While social media is important to your platform, it carries a danger: You can easily spend so much time networking that you don't get around to writing.

So learn what you can about different social media sites. Decide what works best for you. Focus on those and leave the others behind. For example, if blogging is more than you think you can handle, then don't blog.

I personally blog (here and at my own blog), and I rely on Facebook and Twitter for much of my networking. When I do them right, they don't suck up much time from my day. I don't play games of Facebook, for example. I use it to keep in touch with friends and family as well as to keep in contact with readers.

I use Twitter for several things, among them, to keep up on the news. I follow several news streams, and I often find out about breaking news before it hits TV. I follow industry professionals like editors and agents. I follow other writers, great writing resources, topics that interest me, and so forth. I even follow some people simply because they're entertaining and make me laugh.

That's what I do when I hang out on Twitter and Facebook.

But what do I actually post on there?
I am no expert on social media, but I have learned several things along the way:

Content Is King.
If you have lame tweets ("I'm petting my cat"), no one will want to follow you. Watch other people's streams. see what interests you and figure out what parts of your life others might find interesting.

Share links to articles or other online content that you find interesting. This includes forwarding links or tweets from those you follow. Doing so creates good will with the person whose work you're sharing, and it gives your followers good content. Win-win.

Be real.
Followers can (and will) smell fake a mile away and unfollow/unfriend in a heartbeat.

Be social.
In other words, be part of the conversation. Reply to people, especially if they initiate contact. Add your personal commentary on topics you find interesting and relevant. Don't be an island.

Update live.
Some applications let you pre-schedule your tweets. As many people attach their Facebook status updates to their Twitter feeds, both get updated at the same time with no work from you.

That may be great for a few things, say reminding people you'll be on TV in ten minutes (you can't tweet that from the set or while driving), but in general, try to really be there behind the keyboard. Interact. This goes back to being REAL.

Do not post about religion and politics.
Really. Ever. Just don't go there.

Forget yourself and your work. Mostly.
Sure, you'd like the whole social media thing to result in sales. It could. But if you get sales from social media, it'll almost certainly be a secondary effect because first you created a relationship.

Keep this in mind: the relationship comes first. (See below.) Your work and sales come a very distant second.

In practical terms, this means that the vast majority of your updates should not be about your latest release. Constant tweets and status updates about "Get my first three chapters free!" or, "Buy my book! It's got lots of 5-star reviews!" become nothing but annoying noise. You'll quickly sound like a used-car salesman, and the unfollows will be huge.

Sure, go ahead and mention revisions or release dates. If they're the exception, not the rule, people will actually notice and care.

ABOVE ALL: Create relationships.
This doesn't mean you have to be everyone's best friend, but try to be kind and aware of who is out there, who is following, who is re-tweeting your stuff, and so forth. Be gracious.

A story as an example of what not to do:
Once I followed a writer on Twitter who immediately sent me a thank you in a direct message. Odd, I thought, but okay. Neat for her to thank all new followers. I guess.

But then her stream turned into lots of self-promotion, constant requests for re-tweets (but she didn't retweet anything unrelated to her), links to her latest posts, and little else. I unfollowed.

I don't remember exactly why, but later I followed her again, maybe trying to give her another shot. Right off, I got an almost identical direct message to the first, which was phrased as if we were meeting for the first time. She obviously didn't remember that I'd followed her before (or left comments on her blog or had any other contact).

To make matters worse, every few weeks, I got a notification that she was following me. Remember: you get notifications only for new followers. Meaning she'd followed and unfollowed me a number of times. I dug around and discovered that she had a bag of tricks for increasing her follower count. Among them was regularly using an app that let you drop followers who weren't valuable (however it determined that). She'd apparently dropped me and added me about six times, all while I followed and never dropped her.

This all left a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I've since unfollowed her and will not follow again.

And you can be darn sure I won't be buying her books or recommending her to anyone else.

I've had similar experiences on Facebook, with people making comments on my status or my wall with little more than, "Hey, check out my book!" In some cases, it's been phrased a bit more cleverly, like, "Who's your favorite wizard? You might find a new favorite in TITLE!" (Which is, of course, their book.)

If Twitter and Facebook are too much, don't stress it. But if you want to use them, learn how to use them effectively and then be real. Above all, don't be a used car salesman. Everyone hates those people, and we all run the other direction.

Additional note:

To learn more about Twitter, how it works, and how to use it as a writer, see this interview with Christina Katz on the topic. She's also someone to follow: @TheWriterMama

A great resource for learning about social media, specifically for writers, is Kristen Lamb's We Are Not Alone: A Writer's Guide to Social Media. Follow her on Twitter: @KristenLambTX

Oh, and on Twitter I'm @AnnetteLyon.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Importance of Plot

A popular post from February 2013

by Julie Wright

I am a character driven writer. For me, everything starts with that one character who says something, or thinks something, or feels something huge. I am also what some have termed a discovery writer. Outlining is something I've tried, and failed, at doing.What's the point of writing it all down if you already know the ending?

My messy methods work for me. I have pages of scribbled notes tucked into filing cabinets and several pages more frantically typed into documents on my hard drive. Character sketches, dialogue lines, careers for my characters, ways to poison people, how to knock a guy out in one clean punch.

It's like the makings of a perfect dinner. All the ingredients are there waiting to be blended, molded, wrapped into something tasty.

Only there is no recipe.

As an aside, it's funny I'm making a food metaphor since I don't cook. EVER. I once told my husband I don't read recipes because they don't have a plot.

Which makes this even funnier because that is exactly what I wanted to talk about today. Plot. your recipe *is* your plot. It is how you blend your characters, dialogue, clever means of escape, cool careers, and settings.

An egg by itself is a little boring, but with the right ingredients and a good recipe, it can be pulled into an amazing creme brulee. That is what your plot does. It pulls all your ingredients together so they work.

I've done a lot of reading and editing lately, and I've found that the books that hook me immediately are the ones with a clear plot structure. They are the ones that immediately pose a major dramatic question. I keep turning pages because I MUST discover the answer. The books I've put down are the ones that meander all over the place. Sure they have several pairs of pretty words strung together, but that doesn't make them good stories. The ugly truth of writing is that at any point, the reader can say, "Meh, not interested."

The major dramatic question is what drives the story: Will the detective discover who the killer is before he strikes again? Will Earth survive the alien attack? Will the family who bought that new house be able to overcome the ghost who already resides there? Will Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy ever realize they love each other? (of course they will!)

Many genres have a "formula" to the big dramatic question. Romance is one of those genres that is very formulaic. There isn't anything wrong with that. It would kinda ruin the genre if it didn't. Imagine if you spent all that time with the couple and all their sexual tension and banter, and they didn't ever get together. You'd feel totally ripped off. What if the detective never finds the killer and he strikes again and again and again, but no one ever stops him? That's a crummy story.

So, it isn't about knowing the protagonist will eventually get what they want, it's about the how. it's the twists and turns, the missteps and failures.

Your protagonists must have things getting in the way of them getting what they want. They need to try and fail. They need to try and fail several times. A few years ago, I seriously read a 500+ page book about everything going right for the protagonist. The protagonist didn't have to overcome or grow in any way. I was judging a contest so there was no mercy. I couldn't put it down. In order to be a fair judge I had to read every. single. painful. word.

After the protagonist tries and fails, tries and fails, they get to the climax, that defining moment where it all comes together. Where the heroine finally kisses her hero and knows he belongs to her. Where the detective has finally stopped the killer and saved the next victim just in time.

Dan Wells taught an amazing class about plot structure. Go view it. (ignore the irritating music at the beginning and end.) He taught that  knowing where you want to end up helps you as a writer to discover how to get there. If you want your character to end one way, you need to start them at the polar opposite of where they end. If you want her to end with love, you need her to start with absolutely no prospects of love, destined to be a creepy, old cat lady who trips young lovers with her cane as they walk past her on the pier. Then you add plot twists. Places in the story that change who this character is.

Even if you're like me, a discovery writer, you need to know how you plan on the story ending, so that you can know how to start it accurately. You need to know the defining moments that help drive the story to that eventual ending.

So now I'm curious, What camp do you fit in: discovery writers or the outliners?

Friday, October 23, 2015

When Does a Metaphor Become a Metaphor Cliche?

A popular post from April 2012

By Josi S. Kilpack

I've heard it said that metaphor cliches are victims of their own success, that because they are SO good at what they do, they are bad. Make's sense, right? Yeah, it took me a minute too, so I'm going to try my best to explain it.

A metaphor is the epitome of show don't tell or figurative writing--it is using words (which typically 'tell) to 'show' something, often combining something commonly understood to whatever it is the writer wants to describe. For example instead of saying bright yellow coat you say "sunshine yellow coat" or instead of saying excruciatingly thin you say "spaghetti-noodle thin." You're using the commonality of one thing to 'show' the details of something else. You are saying something IS something else--the coat IS yellow, the girl IS thin. Some more complex metaphors are things like "She was laughter and sunshine," or "the night is thick with hatred."

A simile is similar (ha, punny) to a metaphor except that it uses "like" or "as" within it's description. So it might be "As yellow as sunshine" or "thin like a spaghetti noodle". You get a similar 'show', but you use 'like' or 'as' to help you make the point. You are saying something is MUCH LIKE something else. They can get complex as well, for instance "She made me feel as light as laughter and as bright as sunshine" or "the feeling of hatred was as thick as peanut butter" Now, there are some exceptions to the 'like/as' factor of similes, but I'm not going to get into that because I don't really get it. For me, understanding that if I use "like" or "as" in a comparison description, it's a simile.

Both metaphors and similes are wonderful things in fiction--they allow us to manipulate words and make them into pictures. They make our stories visual, which means we're engaging multiple senses and the more senses you can engage, the more real your story feels. So, we shall all agree that metaphors and similes are wonderful things.

Now that we are in agreement, let us move on like a Vegas bride the morning after, shall we?

A metaphor cliche, then, is a really, really good metaphor or simile that people like so much they have used it to death and therefore we no longer even think about what it means. For example "rail thin" when you hear that, what do you think about? Do you actually think about the rail of a chair, which is where the description came from? No, you just think thin. How about "Icing on the cake", for me, I just think of a frosted cake. What it actually means is adding something good to something that's already wonderful, but it's used so often that we kind of skim over it which means we don't end up with the visual after all which then defeats the purpose of having used the metaphor or simile.

It can be very difficult to see our own metaphor cliches. Typically, this isn't something you worry about too much in your first draft, but when you go back to your revision, be sure to take the time to note the metaphors and similes you've used and make sure they are doing their job, instead of lounging in the back of the room flirting with your muse and resting on their laurels of overuse. They continue to work well in dialogue, however, because we talk in cliches all the time.

A fun thing to do when you do in fact encounter these cliches, is to think of ways you can re-invent them. For instance, instead of "Fog as thick as pea soup" consider "Fog as thick as milk left on the counter for three days" or "Fog as thick as pond scum" or "Fog as thick as Aunt Harriet's  cold cream that hadn't worked as well as she'd hoped it would." Instead of "Thinking outside the box" you go with "Thinking outside the kiddie pool" or "Thinking outside the Congressional Hearing". Changing up a cliche is a fun play on the familiar and makes you look very clever.

So, in summary, we want our words to be OUR words, and we do that by holding them up to the light  and looking at them from every angle until we are content to put our name on it and claim it as our own.

And, although this post is about metaphor cliches, there are all kinds of other cliches--word choices we don't even think of the meaning of. Many of them are peppered throughout this post, but since I was focusing on metaphor cliches, I'm going to let them slide, just this once. :-)

Happy Writing!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Important Tips for Self-Editing

A popular post from October 2012

by Annette Lyon

I taught a class on self-editing at UVU's annual Book Academy conference. When I first got the assignment, I wondered if I could fill a whole hour.

Then I started taking notes on common things I regularly see in my freelance work. Next thing I knew, I was cramming information into the workshop, and we still had more to cover when it ended.

Below are just a few tips from that class. I may give more in the future.

Be Specific
I've talked about specificity here before. (Read that post! It's a good one, if I say so myself.) But it's a topic that needs mentioning again, because it's something we writers easily forget.

When Lisa Mangum, a senior editor at Deseret Book (and great novelist) heard I was teaching the self-editing class, she told me to make sure to mention specificity. But she didn't use that term.

Instead, she called it "strong nouns and verbs."

(I'd add strong adjectives to that list, with the caution to use them sparingly. Think of Mr. Keating's lesson on tired versus exhausted.)

The stronger your nouns and verbs, the stronger your story will be. So the man didn't walk; he sauntered. The woman isn't driving a car; it's a Jeep. The path isn't lined with flowers, but with columbine.

Read the original post in the link above for a more detailed explanation and examples about specificity.

Cut the Dead Wood
This means repetitive words, ones that weak, or are in some other way unnecessary.

Here are a few examples of dead wood and how to trim it for crisp writing:

in order to = to
due to the fact that = because
a long period of time = a long time OR a long period
he nodded silently = he nodded (I dare you to nod loudly)
were going to = would
he knew that = he knew
all of the things = everything
the tragic drowning death =the tragic drowning (if someone drowns, we know they're dead)
her hair hung down = her hair hung (implies down)
she spoke with an impatient tone of voice = she spoke with an impatient tone (implies of voice) OR she spoke impatiently (But don't use too many adverbs. See below.)
they stood up = they stood

Sensory Duh Moments
This is another form of dead wood, one that's easy to overlook.

He nodded his head (as opposed to nodding his what, elbow?)
She blinked her eyes (as opposed to blinking her toe?)

And so on. I see this kind of dead wood with gestures, wiping tears, squinting, tasting, and more. If your character is using one of their five senses, great! Just don't be redundant in pointing out which one; we can figure it out.

Watch Your Adverbs
Here's another one Lisa asked me to mention, so take note of it.

Some people eschew all adverbs. I'm not in that camp. But I do believe that about 80% of the time, the narrative and dialog can and should do enough showing that we don't need an adverb for clarity. Look at your adverbs and ask yourself if there's a more powerful way to say the same thing without using them.

(Hint: Maybe you can use a stronger noun and/or a stronger verb.)

Last One for Today: Avoid Passive Voice
Yet another issue Lisa mentioned.

Contrary to popular belief, passive voice is not just any sentence with a word like was in it. A to-be verb (is, was, were, am, etc.) can signal passive voice, but not always. I've written about passive voice before as well, so if you're unsure what it is, go read that post.

One thing I'd add is that passive voice can be a great tool when it's intentionally used to obscure who did something or for a character to avoid blame. Before trying that, be sure you know what passive voice is and how to use it.

I'll delve into more self-editing tips another time. As always, don't panic about these things in the drafting stage. Let your muse carry you then. Later, when it's time to don the editing and revision cap, pull out your notes and apply these tips to strengthen your work.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What's in a Name?

A popular post from December 2012

by  Annette Lyon

Every writer has a unique way of coming up with names for their fiction, whether it's for characters, locations, or objects. This is particularly true with science fiction and fantasy, where we have different worlds, technology, magic systems, and more.

A great name can last through the ages, give multiple layers to a character, or, at the very least, create a specific effect you're looking for.

Some writers aren't subtle with using symbolic names. J. K. Rowling is famous for using Latin and other roots to hint at the personalities and world views of her characters. Draco Malfoy alone says a ton, with draco meaning dragon and mal being the prefix for bad (think malicious, malevolent, and so forth).

Suzanne Collins did the same with with many of the names in The Hunger Games series, although a bit more subtlety. For example, the boy who is a baker's son is Peeta. Say it aloud, and it sure sounds like a kind of bread (pita). I've seen entire articles based on picking apart the names in the series; you could spend all day at it.

Naming characters in this way has been popular for a very long time, but the manner it's done and accepted has changed. Charles Dickens is known for his totally outrageous character names, which tell you exactly what the person is like. (Think: Scrooge, Polly Toodle, Mr. Sloppy, Belle, and many more.)

Modern readers can appreciate Dickens, but they expect different things from modern books, so I wouldn't recommend being quite so overt with your names.

Using literary allusions often works well, especially biblical and mythological names. I have a story I plan to write with the main character named Diana, which I picked especially because of the connotations from Greek mythology.

The Matrix movie series used root words, including religious ones, a lot: Neo, Trinity, Sion, and Morpheus.

Even Twilight did it: The ugly duckling heroine is Bella (beautiful) Swan.

For my novel Band of Sisters, I had five main characters, all women, but of varying ages. I figured out their birth years and then searched online for names that were popular when they were born. So we have Nora, who is the oldest of the group, and Kim, the youngest, with Jessie, Brenda, and Marianne rounding out the middle years.

For my historical novels set in the 19th century, I loved going to cemeteries and looking at names from that era. I kept a notebook with me, and I jotted down names that were accurate to the time, first names in one column, and last names in another. I often picked character names by selecting items from each column.

I've been known to keep an eye out for name tags at stores and restaurants to get name ideas. Look in the phone book. Search online for lists of popular (and least popular) names. Be sure that the names you pick are relevant to the time your story is set.

And if you're writing a story set in the future or on an alternate world, be sure any name you invent has a spelling that gives the reader a fighting chance at pronouncing it right. Otherwise, they'll be pulled from the story over and over again.

Buy a baby name book and keep it on your writing shelf. It's a great place to look for ideas, as well as meanings of names. Even if you don't want to intentionally add meaning to a name, it's a good idea to check the meaning anyway, just in case the name you've selected has a meaning you don't want associated with the character.

You can also use sound and rhythm to name your characters. Hard-sounding letters such as D, K, G, V, and so on, sound more abrupt or harsh (think: Draco, Vader.), while other sounds, such as P, Sh, M, B, and short vowels automatically give a softer image to the reader's mind (think: Cinderella). Longer names tend to feel "softer" (Dumbledore, Huckleberry Finn).

I heard that J.K. Rowling wanted her hero to have a common-sounding name, and Harry worked for that. But say his full name, and you'll hear almost a trochaic rhythm, which uses two beats, the first of which is stressed: Harry Potter. (Or: HARR-y POTT-er)

For the poetry people out there, trochaic meter is the opposite of iambic, which is what Shakespeare used (a soft beat followed by a stressed beat: what LIGHT through YON-der WIN-dow BREAKS).

Whatever you do, take a lesson from me: be sure to run you name through your memory to be absolutely sure the name has no resemblance to a person from your past, because people will think it's intentional. Read my story about that in a post I did on my personal blog about the Hairy Ape Man.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Planning to Self-Publish? A Check List

A popular post from February 2013

by Annette Lyon

In the last couple of years, the publishing industry has seen a huge rise of e-books and the ability for any writer to publish their own work. This is both wonderful and awful.

It's wonderful because writers whose work is a square peg that doesn't necessarily fit the round hole of a traditional publisher can get their work out there for readers to find.

Bad, because any Tom, Dick, or Harry can publish so much virtual dross.

It's great because the gate keepers of agents and editors no longer keep writers out.

Yet they're no longer there to vet the quality, either.

The result is a huge spectrum of quality in indie e-books. In my experience, the most successful, and the highest quality, indie e-books tend to be by writers who already have years of experience and who likely have several traditionally published books already. (Not necessarily, but it's common.)

A big part of the reason for their success is that they have been writing a long time. They've learned the ropes through countless revisions. They know from experience how to take hard feedback. They've experienced the rejection/acceptance process, and (possibly most importantly) they've been professionally edited and proofed.

This doesn't mean that you can't have success with indie publishing if you can't check off all of those items. What it does mean, however, is to be careful if you plan to indie publish. Take your time. Don't rush it just to get your book online.

For starters, get lots and lots of feedback from trusted sources (tip: not Mom). When your story is as good as it can be, get it professionally edited. Consider doing both a content edit (the pace is sagging here; the MC's motivation doesn't make sense there, and so on) as well as a line edit (smoothing out the language, fixing grammar and punctuation). Make the needed changes, and then get proofed by several people, including at least one professional.

Even then, you're still not ready.

Get your book formatted correctly. You can find instructions online, or hire someone to do it for you. Some websites have very picky formatting rules, so be sure to follow them. Then send your book file to your personal e-reader and look at it to be sure the formatting isn't weird and distracting.

Be sure your file starts with the first page of the story. Don't clutter it with acknowledgments, explanations, or other content; for e-books, you'll want all of that stuff in the back. The reason is that readers typically sample e-books, and they may give your work only a click or two before dumping it. The one exception would be non-fiction or an anthology, both of which benefit from a table of contents at the front so readers can see what the book is about and use the links to jump to specific chapters.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, don't skimp on the cover art. Hire someone specifically trained in graphic design and book covers. Don't create your own cover with PhotoShop and stock photos unless you really truly know what you're doing. Even then, it's probably a good idea to hire someone who has a fresh set of eyes. Potential readers will be able to spot an unprofessional cover, and they won't buy the book.

Before finalizing your cover, look at it as a thumbnail. Can you still tell what image is? Can you still read the text? If you're too close to your project to be objective, ask someone else. Remember that potential readers will most likely see your cover as a thumbnail first, and bigger than that only if the thumbnail image has sparked their interest, making them click over to the larger image. Don't use a bunch of fonts; two is plenty. And make sure the font or fonts are professional looking and easily readable. So no Comic Sans or Papyrus.

Often, cover designers will put together a few mock-ups to get a feel for the direction you want to go. This a great chance to ask trusted industry friends and avid readers what they think: which mock-up draws them in? Which image is most intriguing? Which font style and/or placement is most pleasing to the eye?

To sum up: Take your time. Polish your work, using as much feedback as you can find. Get a professional edit or two. Have your book proofed by multiple people. Hire a cover designer to get a truly polished, professional look.

Need convincing on the cover issue? Spend some time scrolling through the Lousy Book Covers Tumblr.

That site will make you cringe and laugh. (Warning: some of the commentary has language and other content.) What's unfortunate in these cases is that most readers will never know if the story behind the cover is any good, because readers do judge books by their covers.

While the rule doesn't always hold, it often does: If a writer didn't care enough to put forth a professional-looking cover, they may not have cared enough to be sure the book is on a professional level either.

Give yourself and your book the best shot by doing it right.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Good Writers Use . . .

A popular post from November 2013

By Julie Wright

Good writers use pens. That's the advice from my tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Cowden. I know I shred this man a lot due to the fact that he singlehandedly tried to put a stop to the writing career dreams of my youth. But I thought of something he'd said all those years ago that struck me as weird today while I edited over some of the new pages I'd written. He said something to the effect of: "Good writers always write in pen because it shows they have the confidence and education to know that they will get it right the first time."
I wanted to be a confident and educated writer. I wanted to be a *good* writer most of all. I wrote with a pen from then on. My first three and a half books were written by hand and all in pen. I have a dozen notebooks filled with pen-scrawled words (and scratched out words and even scratched out pages). It's been years since my handwritten manuscript days, years since a pen was used for anything more than signing a book.
The computer is my new pen. Bless the smart people who created word processing.
Today, I deleted a whole lot. The deletes made the dialogue smooth, the narrative stronger. And I thought back to that day with Mr. Cowden. I thought back to how on some level I must have respected him as a teacher--must have believed his declaration that good writers use pens. Why else would I write with such an instrument for so many years after his class?
I declare my independence from such bad advice.
Why use a pen when a pencil is so obviously superior? A pencil comes with an editing device called an eraser. Good writers should use pencils. Because good writers know the importance of a good edit. It isn't about being arrogant the first time you put an idea down. It's about getting it right.
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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hitting the Top 100 Categories on Amazon

A popular post from March 2014

by Heather Moore

An alternate version of this post previously appeared on Eschler Editing Blog.

Once you have your most-excellent manuscript edited, cover designed, interior formatted into a mobi file, you are ready to upload to the Kindle platform on Amazon. When you load your book to Amazon, every word in your book becomes a searchable item. From the reviews, to the text, to the author bio. Also searchable is the book description and editorial reviews that can be added when you upload. This is why it’s important to select key words that will be repeated throughout each searchable entity. 

Before you choose your categories and key words, do some research on Amazon. Find out what categories bestselling books in your genre are listed under. Some will be very broad (fiction, romance, suspense), others will be very narrow (art, Italian hotel, Egyptian History). If you choose a narrow category, you’ll probably hit the Top 100 a day or two after your book is listed onto Amazon. With a broader category, you’ll be competing with other bestselling books in that same category.

This post will give you a quick overview of how metadata and categorizing works on Amazon, and how it can be a key sales tool for being a successful Amazon seller. Michael Alvear’s book is great at explaining how to use metadata effectively in the file creation process, and how to categorize in the upload process: Make A Killing On Kindle Without Blogging, Facebook Or Twitter: TheGuerilla Marketer's Guide To Selling Ebooks On Amazon.

In short:
What is Metadata: Metatags are search terms that readers use to find a book on a specific topic.

What is Categorizing: Done when the Kindle file is uploaded through KDP on Amazon. You can select 2 categories and 7 keywords that will help your book get categorized and positioned for selling on Amazon.

Do now: Put together a chart for your book as you research:
Example for my historical novel, ESTHER THE QUEEN:
Categories (Amazon allows 2 main categories. I prefer ‘non-fiction’ to capture Top 100. I might go in and tweak this from time to time as I watch sales.)
(I researched a similar genre book: The Red Tent)
*Biblical Studies—Old Testament
Genre(s) (Amazon gives you 7 categories to list. I may tweak this as well.)

Esther, Famous Queens, Adventure, Judaism, Biblical Fiction, Religious Historical Fiction, Christian Fiction

Metadata List

Action & Adventure; Religious Fiction; Queen Esther; King of Persia; Famous Queens; Biblical Queens; Famous Kings; Biblical Kings; Book of Esther; Judaism; Jewish Life; Jewish Exodus; Middle East; Biographical; The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran; Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff; The Red Tent by Anita Diamant; Biblical Fiction; Turkey; Mediterranean; Tombs

To explain the chart above. I looked for a bestselling Biblical novel to compare to mine. I found The Red Tent. These were the categories and rankings:
·  Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,612 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
A non-fiction book on Jewish Life:

I then went to Christian Books & Bibles, and checked out the books listed in the top 100. Then I clicked on those books to see what their rankings were. I slowly built a category list and decided where my book would best fit.

The Amazon page will also have “Other categories”

Look for Similar Items by Category

Other examples of books in Top 100 categories and their key words:

Sarah M. Eden’s, Seeking Persephone, with the $2.99 deal, its rank is here:
·  Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,594 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

Spring Vacation Anthology:
·  Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,219 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

Novella, Third Time’s the Charm:
·  Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,931 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

Heart of the Ocean:
·  Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #22,775 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

Other concepts recommended by Michael Alvear have to do with the Book Description and the Reviews. Every word in the description and a review becomes a searchable entity. In my Book Descriptions when I get a few great reviews, I’ll add them to the beginning of the description. Some recommend when you ask for a review to have the reviewer compare it to another best-selling book and use the Category words… this will become part of the Amazon algorithms.

Here is a Book Description example that uses key words in the description that will link the book to other authors and categories. I’ve bolded keywords that will help this book become categorized more effectively on Amazon. (Age, era, setting, genre, target audience, comparable authors, comparable books…)

Seven-year-old Helen Marie Heffner has a knack for getting into trouble, followed close behind by her older sister, Leona Mae. Whether it’s walking the barn beams like a tightrope, fooling the neighbor boys into thinking they’re being chased by a fiery jack-o-lantern, or making a mess rather than transferring a pattern for Mama’s Christmas surprise, Helen comes out the winner every time.

But life is not always fun and games in 1922 for this southern Indiana family. In the wake of the Depression of the previous two years, the girls and their mama are often left alone in Hancock’s Chapel while their papa travels to find work to keep the family finances alive. Lately, Mama’s been showing signs of not feeling well, and Helen is stuck at home, missing the entire school year while she recuperates from the rheumatic fever that struck her the year before. Mama fears the worst is about to happen. Everything from the barn owl, to the chicken thief, the stranger who passed by one evening to a poor neighbor-boy who falls into the ravine, all point to signs of trouble to come. And sure enough, it does.

Leona and Me, Helen Marie, a middle grade novel from A Small Town U.S.A. series, is hometown historical fiction in the style of Richard Peck (A Long Way from Chicago, The Teacher’s Funeral, Here Lies the Librarian) and Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie), with a touch of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie thrown in for good measure.

Categorizing is not a one-hit wonder method, but it’s an important marketing tool to use when selling on Amazon. You can change your categories and key words anytime, but know that it takes 2–3 days for them to become effective. When I change them, I wait a few weeks to see which lists are being hit. If I’m not happy with the results, then I can easily go back in and change them.