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!