February 23, 2020 • No Comments
Weekend coffee was well earned this time. These were catch-up days after doing a hard sprint of editing. Lots of email, answering questions from graphic artists, paying bills, cooking, and scheduling the release of a new series. Plus, lightly plotting the next project, which is a bit like flirting with pen and paper. The characters and I are doing a dance, but it’s not too serious yet.
At this moment, my desk looks almost sane. I know it won’t last, but I’ll enjoy the clean surface for today.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the level of administrative detail involved in being a writer. I spent an entire afternoon filling out copyright info on four books, which isn’t hard but does take time. I’m caught up filing applications for now, but too many of those jobs on a long list can give me brain freeze. I’ve been picking them off one by one in a bid for sanity, but I have a long way to go before my halo is sparkling.
Actual writing is more fun. Feedback from my alpha readers is arriving in my inbox, and that means more work before the book goes to a developmental editor. That’s tomorrow’s problem–tonight I’m making a birthday dinner. And eating a doughnut with my weekend coffee treat, because one has to grab the small pleasures as well as the big goals. That’s toffee-pecan icing, BTW. Check out Empire Donuts.
January 16, 2020 • 2 Comments
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence came out in 2012 and I bought it shortly thereafter. I read it/listened to the audiobook over Christmas 2019.
Yes, there is a gap between 2012 and 2019.
Hands up all you people who buy writing books without actually reading them! I’m a card-carrying member of your tribe! Maybe putting the books under my pillow at night will migrate the info to my brain? While I’m waiting for that to work, the bookshelf gathers vintage dust bunnies.
Ahem. This year, I will work through that overflowing shelf the non-magical way. I will read/watch one item approximately every week or so and discard the duds. To establish some accountability, I’ll review the ones worth hearing about.
Cron’s book was a great place to start.
I’ve been to enough writing workshops and conferences that I’ve heard a lot of advice before, but this was well worth my time. As the title suggests, Cron brings in principles of neuroscience to support the writing advice she offers, such as the brain’s tendency to filter out unnecessary information, its need to find causal connections, and its preference for specific image over abstract concept. These sections are presented in easily understood terms.
Beyond the brain science, the book contains good, no-nonsense craft instruction. It is not genre-specific, but refers to examples from literary fiction to potboilers. It also covers a gamut of topics in concise, carefully illustrated examples that ensure the reader can follow the lesson. At the end of each chapter is a summary of key concepts useful for editing.
Subjects include (among others): hooks, focus, emotion, character goals, conflict, payoffs, pacing, and backstory. The sections on reveals and backstory should be required reading. These pages alone could salvage many, many wall-bangers.
In my opinion, this book fills the need of the intermediate novelist—those who’ve got dialogue, setting, and plotting essentials under their belt already. This assumes comfort with those beginner basics and builds on that foundation to keep the reader constantly engaged.
I sincerely recommend this book.
While the audio version was competently narrated, I’m glad to have the hard copy for reference, particularly the checklists. Check out www.wiredforstory.com—Cron offers coaching, workshops, and resources. She also has a second book, Story Genius.
December 31, 2019 • 2 Comments
Some authors are posting dazzling lists of publications, and I heartily salute their accomplishments. I thought I would have a bumper crop of books, too, when this year started. Somehow, though, things changed along the way and the year didn’t end the way I thought. 2019 was a dumpster fire for a lot of people and, while I count myself lucky, I didn’t entirely escape the smoke. 2020 will be better.
What did I actually get in front of readers this year?
- In January, did a re-release of an older book that rounded out my 2018 goals.
- Released two books in box sets, hit the USA Today bestseller list for both, and then put them in the vault for later.
- Published an essay in an academic work.
- Wrote a short story that’s now a lead magnet.
- Got my extended print distribution onto Ingram Spark.
- By the end of this week, I’ll have finished a draft of a new, full length, first-in series.
I also investigated a lot of marketing courses, played with various ad platforms, and listened to many podcasts. That’s all hard to quantify as achievement, but it will serve me well in future.
Where did that get me?
I think it’s safe to say all authors want enthusiastic fans and financial freedom. It’s not an impossible dream, but it’s not an easy road. It requires groundwork such as intelligent branding, scheduling, and development of infrastructure like engaged newsletter lists, reader funnels, and social media. There are a thousand choices to consider, and dozens of platforms to learn. It’s all behind-the-scenes stuff readers don’t consciously notice and most authors despise unless they have an aptitude for business. However, it’s like gas for a car. It stinks, but you don’t go anywhere without it.
2019 was my trip to the gas station. I’m not done putting everything together, but I’m well on the way. Part of the process has been discovering what mix of marketing makes sense to me, given my time, money, and introvert tendencies. I’ll probably blog more. I’ll review craft resources. I’m also very interested in sharing some of the ingredients that go into world building, especially with the fantasy stuff. I think it’s going to be fun.
And 2020? I haven’t scheduled it all yet, but I’ll have a nice list of the year’s releases by next New Year’s Eve. I’ve put in the work to be ready.
October 10, 2019 • No Comments
Unfortunately, the income of most authors is not enough to sustain a mouse, much less a modern household in a large urban city. Without a doubt, this is the most common reason for the rise of the weekend warrior writer, who toils for pay five days a week and pounds on the keyboard during weekend hours. The disadvantages of this state are obvious—who doesn’t want to be a full-time writer rather than drudging for someone else? Plus, if one is serious about a writing career, the time commitment is equivalent to a second full-time job.
But there are also advantages to a double life.
- Some of us actually like our day jobs (or at least the benefits package)
- Part-time writers might have fewer titles under their belt, but they may have gained other useful busness skills.
- It’s far easier to let the imagination frolic when there’s less pressure to succeed.
- If writing to a niche market is your thing, financial security allows you the luxury of taking a creative risk. So, go ahead and write that book of your heart about vampire sheep conquering distant galaxies!
Whatever the trade-offs, we do what’s necessary to get words on the page. So here are some survival tips for writing around the edges of your day:
Organization is obviously important for any home business, whatever its nature. For us, this means breaking down writing, marketing, and production tasks into manageable bites and fitting them into our schedules. There are people who can squeeze in writing time in uncanny circumstances, but others get more mileage by blocking off set times for creation. The important point is to manage time in an intentional way. If I go with the flow my day is soon circling the drain.
I’ve experimented with an endless series of calendars and apps like Things 3 to corral my to-dos. I need something that offers repeating reminders (daily, weekly, or monthly) and groups tasks by project and type (writing, personal, household, etc.). The combo of ideal tools will vary with every person, but the basic goal is to avoid reinventing the to-list every morning. Ideally, your app fairies have that figured out before you roll out of bed. The less time spent puzzling over the day’s tasks, the more time can be devoted to actually crossing items off the list.
Know your peak productivity times. Some people can knock off a thousand words before breakfast. Others (like me) are night owls. Put your creative time where (and when) it counts. I might be able to schedule Tweets in the morning, but don’t ask me to make complete sentences, recognize faces, or handle anything sharp. Once, I actually put cat kibble in the coffee maker.
Be professional. Show up fully wherever you are. In other words, leave writing at home and work at work. Keep your deadlines and commitments, whatever hat you’re wearing. Bottom line: avoid emailing your manuscript to your boss by mistake.
Respect your muse. Writing can a hard business, with a ton of expectation placed on our creative selves. In particular, there is a lot of pressure to produce material quickly, which is especially hard when writing time is hard to get.
Deep breath! It is possible to get faster with practice. Solid plotting skills and a regular writing routine naturally increase the pace of book production. Drafting by dictation speeds things up for me, but it took months to produce something beyond stream of consciousness babble. Sadly, there is no magic software that makes you write a bestselling novel in two weeks. Believe me, I’ve tried them all!
Most of all, be patient with yourself. Weekend writers aren’t on a learning curve, we’re on a mandala, looping in and out and around everything else to pursue our path. We’re proof positive that there are plenty of ways to find success, even if it’s by the scenic route.
October 7, 2019 • No Comments
Editing advice is depressingly easy to come by, especially when our work in progress is circling the drain. That’s when the armchair editors come out to play, usually with a sympathetic shrug and sad eyes. Then they gingerly toe our story as if it were a roadkill raccoon.
Once we get past the impulse to bash those know-it-alls over the head, we are at the point of autopsy. That’s when we survey the wreckage with an ache in our chests, wondering whether to draw the sheet over our darling, or make one last heroic attempt at rescue.
I’ve had my fair share of emergency room moments. Deciding whether or not a book is salvageable is tough, but I’ve come up with a diagnostic test I use when I get to about the five-chapter mark, then half way, and then again at the end. This doesn’t cover every possible scenario (I’m always finding new ways to make a mess) but it does hit the probable pitfalls.
Consider these issues before you pronounce time of deletion. Everything here can be fixed in a thorough edit.
One: Are your characters acting like real people?
I’ve read books where characters seem to experience a story in isolated episodes, as if they’ve had a brain wipe between page turns. It’s hard for the reader to engage with a protagonist in this detached state. Characters should come across as individuals with complete interior lives.
Take a moment and think about what it would be like to be your protagonist, an ordinary person, shoved into an exciting adventure. Imagine going through events as the chapter progresses as if it were happening to you. What does your character feel? Where in your body does that emotion show up? A clenched jaw? An aching stomach? How does your protagonist continue to function despite those emotions? Now put those feelings on top of the feelings from the last chapter, and the one before that. A writer needs the cumulative impact of all those layers to make character change realistic. It’s okay (and probably useful) for your protagonist to cope badly from time to time.
This is one of many reasons that it’s useful to construct a plot timeline. If your character’s parent is hit by a truck on Monday, they will still be reacting to the incident on Tuesday. It doesn’t hurt, when starting a fresh chapter, to make a few notes about the character’s state of mind going in. This is especially helpful if there are breaks between writing sessions and the material isn’t fresh in your mind.
Two: Are you keeping secrets?
This is related to the point above. I have occasionally questioned one writer or another about why a character does XYZ and been given a long monologue about the character’s thoughts, feelings, family dynamics, ambitions, grade school experience, etc. Note to author: it doesn’t count if I can’t read it on the page.
Check when you are revealing information, especially where it reinforces motivation. I know we’re all afraid of the infodump, but being coy is just as harmful. It annoys and confuses readers and frequently makes the characters appear to require strong psychiatric medication.
Three: Do you have the right amount of story for the length of your work?
A well-written story can come in any length, but sometimes that short story we think we’re writing turns out to be a surprise novel. That’s okay, as long as we don’t try to squish it back into a short story-sized container.
To figure out if your story is too short or too long for your chosen format, here are some questions to ask:
- Does every section (chapter, scene, or whatever unit you’re using) relate to the main conflict in terms of action, character, or theme?
- Does every section contain enough of its own conflict to be interesting?
- If you left the section out, would it matter to the overall story?
- Are any important events happening off stage? Does the event take more than two sentences to explain? If so, cut it out or …
- Would it raise the tension in the story to show those events on stage in real time?
- Can any other exposition be turned into action or at least a conversation?
- Is there enough rising action and setbacks to make us doubt the outcome of the story?
- Are all important character traits/relationships demonstrated on screen?
Four: Is your climax in the right place? Are the right people participating in it?
Go ahead, think about the sexual double entendre. It fits.
We all know the big finale should happen close to the end of the book. Romance has a climax for the exterior action (the villain is stopped) and then one for the interior conflict
(the romance receives its final test). I would argue that most character-driven work has this double climax in which the action resolves and then the protagonist(s) gain final insight. It’s the best way to iron in a satisfying character arc. Although there are always exceptions, to put these peaks too soon or in the wrong order can make for a less than satisfying end.
Also, please ensure the main character is a participant in the climax. Not an observer. Not hearing about it from a friend. Not using a peephole. They need to personally impact the outcome of events or the reader feels cheated for spending so much time with someone who clearly doesn’t matter.
Five: Do you have too much beginning?
This tends to be an issue with bigger books or series, but it can happen with short ones as well. This is a good moment to consider whether the overall work is the right size (see above) because the beginning sets the expectation of how the whole story will be paced. If you whitter on at a leisurely trot and then sprint through the last half, the book feels lopsided.
If you’re already at novel length but need five chapters of exposition to get out of the gate, the best advice I can give is to start with a corner of your universe and build out as you go. Give us ONLY what we need to make it through the first scene. Show us the mud, the castle, the village cow. We don’t actually need the name of the town to know what kind of place we’re in. If you need to add a little something for scene number two, then dribble it in when we get there, and so on. Consider that your character doesn’t think about his or her environment all at once. They’re dealing with what’s in front of them, just like we do when we walk out the front door.
Think about the reader experience like vacation travel. Once we’ve checked our luggage, seen the hotel room, and had something to eat, we’re ready to see the sights. That’s when it’s okay to start giving more detail, because the reader has some way to relate it to what they already know.
June 23, 2019 • No Comments
I do love this website – when I built it, I asked for a ton of features that the designers worked hard to provide. One key component is the Mooberry Book Manager (authors – if you’re building a website go get it). This allows me to add books as I please, update reviews and pub dates, and change covers as necessary. However, today I was adding books and discovered the latest update had exciting new features that changed the way it worked. Now it’s better and has more control over what appears where, except I had to figure it out. Mission accomplished and life is good but egad it took some poking and prodding.
February 17, 2019 • No Comments
Ever have one of those dreams where you wake up back in high school about to write a math test? You think you should know how to do the problems—and clearly the teacher does—but it’s all a bunch of squiggles on the page?
My first forays into indie publishing felt like that at first. I’d been traditionally published for a lot of years, but did that help me self-publish books? The answer is: some times more than others.
Even late adopters have been forced to respond to the changing face of publishing. Everyone has to be largely self-sufficient when it comes to marketing their work. Even if publishers want to do a good job promoting a book, they may not have the resources, agility, or access to the right tools. These days, it’s up to the author—however their book got published—to attract an audience.
But unless you’ve been taught to market, how do you know what to do? The same goes for formatting, finding covers, hiring editors, and all the myriad steps involved in putting a book out on your own. Remember that dream about an algebra exam?
I had to approach everything with the curiosity of a raw beginner, and I think I’ll keep that mindset for a long time. Wherever an author is along their publishing journey, it’s impossible to know everything because there are so many constantly moving parts. If I have any advice for someone transition from trad publishing to indie, it’s this: Be open, be willing, seek advice, and give yourself permission to push your boundaries. Above all, remember to have fun!
January 16, 2019 • No Comments
How to begin a book? Book beginnings tend to go two ways with me: either out of the gate like a shot or in a dithery fashion that means I begin chapter one about twenty times, erase it, make it chapter three, erase it, then go back to whatever it was I wrote the first time.
Some people would say that the latter method results from a failure to plot and/or I didn’t understand the story well enough. This might be true. Most of storytelling is a mysterious process and though people throw theories at it, I doubt it will ever become an exact science. The story might be stalled because my tea was the wrong temperature and/or one sock was inside out. More likely is that I used up my allotted number of story beginnings early on in my writing career, since I started ten stories for every one that I finished.
Half the theorists say the story should begin in the regular, everyday world of the protagonist. The other half advocate for a major explosion. One wonders about the protagonist’s propensity for bomb-making.
The best way to connect these dots (at least some of the time) is to consider that there is exterior action (incendiary vampires, or whatever action you are proposing) and interior action (whatever character growth the protagonist will undergo). What we’re looking for to launch the story is conflict. It could be the start of the action plot (kaboom!) or it could be a high point of conflict for the interior plot (or both, if you can make them realistically coincide).
I’ll throw my advice into the mix: If in doubt, start with the interior plot, but make it a big moment. Show the character sweating so we like that person but understand how he or she desperately needs to change.
Examples of a high-conflict interior plot opening could be a fight, the character getting fired, or the character doing something else high-risk. Whatever flaw they have, demonstrate it to the max. This makes a nice bookend with the end of the novel, where you can show them reacting a different way to the same situation. That’s a straightforward demonstration that they aren’t the same person they were at the start.
Chapter one: Billy gets in a bar fight
Chapter thirty-one: Having developed people skills, Billy de-escalates a similar situation.
This is a stupid-simple example, but you get the point. There is a difference between flashy and important. Billy might win NASCAR and that might make up the bulk of the exterior plot, but it’s important on a personal level that he is a functional human being so that he stays out of jail and weds Mary-Lou.
Put another way, remember that HIGH STAKES are important to open the story, but the HIGHEST stakes are those the protagonist carries inside them. If in doubt, start your story there.
November 25, 2018 • No Comments
I like order. One glance at my desk would make you think otherwise, but I geek out on diaries, lists, schedules, planners, and post-it notes. It is no surprise that the Black Friday sale I fell prey to was for social media scheduling software.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest…I suck at them all. It’s not that I don’t like spouting off in public. I just forget, get busy, chase squirrels and a week goes by in radio silence. Hence, I need an internet butler. He keeps things running while madam chases virtual butterflies. I still have to check up on things throughout the day, but my odds of success improve when I get to do the fun bits and the software does the heavy lifting.
We’ll see how this goes. It’s all part of my author business refit, which started with a new website and newsletter platform. Every improvement I’ve made has seemed a little overwhelming at first but ultimately made outreach to readers easier. Here’s hoping this works just as well!