Writing Advice

How Not to Start a Novel: Four Things to Avoid on Page One

21 July 2014

From author Janice Hardy via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent’s or editor’s attention. Readers often read the first page or two to determine whether or not to read the novel. If those pages grab them, they’ll buy the book. If not, they’ll put it back on the shelf. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words.

Which is why those words need to capture the reader.

Common writing advice will tell you to “start with action,” but that doesn’t mean blow up a car or rob a bank—and this can actually hurt your opening not help if it.

What it really means is to start with something going on. It can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, something craved—the list is endless. But no matter what shape this “something” takes, there’s a sense that things are about to happen, and that it won’t be good for someone.

This sense of anticipation creates questions readers will want answers to. Why are the characters casing that playground? Who is that woman following them? What’s the deal with these two people arguing way too loudly?

However, one question you want to avoid is, “What’s going on?” A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking. They should be able to guess what’s going on, even if they’re not yet sure what it all means.

. . . .

Here are four common mistakes to avoid when crafting your open scene:

1. Having too much backstory and explanation.

Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.

They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.

Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.

Think of it like this: you walk into a party and some guy comes up to you and starts telling you all about his grandmother and how important she was to him, and how that’s affecting his current decision on whether or not to move to Baltimore and take this job he’s not sure s the right position for him. Are you intrigued? Odds are you’re looking for any excuse to get away from this bore.

To fix: Cut the backstory and look for ways to show how that backstory affects your character in that scene (If it doesn’t, that’s a big clue you don’t need to mention it at all). If it’s critical to know the protagonist is scared of dogs, don’t stop the story to explain how he was bitten when he was five, show him seeing a dog and being too scared to move. 

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Writing: How To Boost Your Productivity

20 July 2014

From ALLi:

A couple of years ago, I realized that if I was going to have any success as an indie author, I was going to have to step up my game in a big way.

. . . .

It took me five years to write the first book, nearly 10 to write the second, and five years to write my third book. I’d made a total of ten thousand dollars for my entire career. It was either make some changes or consider another career path.

At that point in the time—the summer of 2012—I noticed there was a key factor which was consistently helping indie authors hit the charts, build followings and make careers in their writing. What those key writers had in common was that they were prolific, some of them putting out novels every three or four months.

. . . .

[T]he one idea I came across was on the blog of sci-fi author Rachel Aaron, who wrote a blog entry titled “How I went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words A Day.”

. . . .

In her blog (she later published a book about it which you can find here), Rachel talks about what she says are three core requirements to be able to write quickly: knowledge, enthusiasm, and time.

  • The knowledge component is simple: instead of struggling through, trying to write on the fly, sit down and first and block out your scene. Know what you are going to write before you write it.
  • The second requirement, enthusiasm, is also simple: write what you feel passionately about. If you don’t want to write it, other people probably won’t want to read it.
  • Finally, time: she recommends finding the times of day, locations, etc. where you can write consistently.

. . . .

The first book I wrote after reconsidering my writing process – Just Remember to Breathe – was completed in 14 days. Admittedly it was a short novel: 73,000 words. It has also been, to date, my most successful novel, with over 100,000 copies sold in three languages.

. . . .

So here are a few brief tips on how I’ve been able to consistently manage this kind of pace:

  • Be passionate about your story and your characters.
  • Have a road map. Sometimes the story will go off course, and it’s good to follow your instincts there. But I keep my map handy, and it’s helpful when I need to regroup and figure out where a story went wrong.
  • For me, going to bed thinking about the story is critical. During my most productive periods, the last thing I do before bed is write the first couple of paragraphs of the next scene. That way, when I wake up, I am ready to go.
  • When I’m driving, I listen to my book playlists and think about the story..
  • Finally, and this is the big one, don’t force my way through when I get stuck. Instead, diagnose the problem, move back, fix it, and move on.

Link to the rest at ALLi

The writing life: lonely, but not alone

30 June 2014

From author Belinda Williams:

I’ve written before about how the writing path can be long one, but I was in touch with a fellow writer recently and the subject of loneliness came up. Specifically, the loneliness that often accompanies writing.

It got me thinking. It made me realise that it has never been a better time to be a writer. Sure, we still have to spend hours alone labouring over our manuscripts, but the concept of a writer being cut off from the rest of the world is as antiquated as this photo of an old typewriter. Here’s why:

Social media: I love social media, because it’s all about connecting people. In my time as a writer, most of the writers I’ve met have been online. Some of these have flourished into genuine friendships. At the very minimum, social media is a great place for sharing ideas and writing tips and I’ve learnt an incredible amount in the online and social media environment.
. . . .

Beta-readers are my cheer squad, my reality check and my sounding boards. I couldn’t do it without them! Whenever I feel like I’m alone, all I have to do is call up one of my beta-readers and after a a few minutes of discussing my latest project (yes, they’re genuinely interested!) I feel a sense of relief.

Link to the rest at Belinda Williams

You and Editors

26 June 2014

From author David Farland:

I got an email the other day from an unhappy writer who said that editors aren’t really editors anymore. He said that they’re just “choosers,” picking stories that need the least amount of fixing. Nobody edits.

I certainly see his argument. There are some incompetent editors. For example, I recently got an email from an author whose novel was rejected by a young editor because it was written in third person. She said, “Young adult novels are written in first person, not third!” The same editor wrote another rejection letter to another author saying, “You have adverbs in your manuscript. I would never publish a book with adverbs in it.”

. . . .

Let’s face it: traditionally, say thirty years ago, many editors weren’t formally trained. They often rose up from the secretarial pools, where they worked as slush readers. They may have had no training at all as a creative writer, or editor.

What they did have going for them was “literary sensibilities.” In other words, when they saw a story that moved them and they knew that it would touch other people, they had the good sense to buy it. Their literary sensibilities might have been their best qualification. A good eye is a gift. It can’t be trained into a critic.

. . . .

[T]hough I have worked with dozens of editors over the years, I probably have had more training than any of them. Does that mean that they weren’t helpful?

Not at all! A good editor brings his or her literary sensibilities to the table, along with their experience, which may indeed by quite vast. My editor at Tor, for example, has more experience as a book editor than anyone else in his field.

. . . .

Sometimes I will get letters from people who desperately want me to write their stories for them, or to teach them everything that they need to know to become a writer. I will usually respond by saying, “I really can’t do that.” There are just too many people who want to become writers without doing the work. I’m not a ghost writer, and I don’t have the time to be anyone’s tutor.

Editors will often feel the same. It’s not their job to go in and “fix” every manuscript. Indeed, most manuscripts can’t be fixed. Too often the authors will tell stories that are stale, where the basic concepts to the story make it so that the tale isn’t worth telling.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them

26 June 2014

From Writers Helping Writers:

I recently read a Huff Post psychology piece on Turning Negative Emotions Into Your Greatest Advantage and immediately saw how this could also apply to our characters.

. . . .

[N]egative emotions are not all bad. In fact, they are necessary to the human experience, and can spark a shift that leads to self growth.

. . . .

Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

. . . .

The big question: what is the catalyst? What causes him to take stock of the situation? What causes his self-reflection?

The answer is not surprising: EMOTION. Something the character FEELS causes him to stop, look within, and make a choice.

Let’s assume this isn’t a tragedy. If this moment had a math formula, it would look something like this:

Emotion + look within = change

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Writing Dystopias

21 June 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

The best dystopian settings arouse realistic fears in the reader. In other words, the author studies the world as it is today, and very often will look at social conditions and consider, “If this goes on, how will the world change?”

So, for example, in a book like 1984 we’re shown a world where Big Brother is always watching you, where history is instantly revised in order to support current government policies, where big government uses deception and propaganda to control the masses. Does it sound familiar at all?

When Orwell published the novel in 1949, he had seen how Hitler’s “big lie” campaigns had worked in Germany, and how the Soviets and other countries were controlling news broadcasts around the world.

To a certain degree, people in every society are constantly struggling to unravel their leader’s lies, so this kind of dystopia resonated with its readership.

. . . .

In the same way, if you look at The Hunger Games, you can see some ugly aspects of American society playing out. Certainly, the Hunger Games themselves echo the popular reality television shows likeSurvivor, where attractive men and women compete for a grand prize in a primitive location. The show is all about lust, betrayal, starvation, and competition.

Certainly in Hunger Games you don’t have to look far to see the comparisons to 1984, where a Big Brother character constantly watches and manipulates the masses, always on the verge of sending in his troops.

In short, both books play upon reader’s fears by echoing current problems.

. . . .

Some concepts are merely absurd. For example, you could write a dystopia in which giant carrot people are growing humans in hydroponic gardens. It might work as a comedy.

A story can easily move from sounding prophetic to becoming barely plausible to sounding absolutely stupid. It’s a sliding scale.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Eric for the tip.

“Get a Real Job” and Other Freelance Buzz Kills

10 June 2014

From All Indie Writers:

Ah, the joys of working as a freelance writer. You get to work from home, spend the day in your pajamas, have no boss looking over your shoulder, watch soaps in the middle of the afternoon, run errands whenever you feel like it, and to top it off everybody respects you. Yeah. And then you wake up.

It’s funny how non-freelancers have these idealistic views of what we do, isn’t it? So in honor of all of those folks who just don’t “get it,” and the freelancers who have to deal with them, I thought it might be fun to share some common buzz kills, often coming from those who know and love us the most.

Get a Real Job

A lot of people don’t seem to think we “work” if we’re a writer. This one comes in many versions. For me is was my mother handing me the job ads from the local paper whenever I visited her. She quit that after a few years when I finally (and literally) showed her the kind of money coming in. There were also the well-meaning relatives who would always ask if I found a new job yet when we’d see each other. Eventually those turned into “how is the business going?”

. . . .

Since You’ll be Home All Day….

This can come up a lot with some of my married freelance colleagues. Their partner sometimes acts like their job out of the home is more important or a bigger time commitment, and they assume the freelancer will handle things like cooking dinner and taking care of the house because they happen to be home all day. I’m lucky in that my husband doesn’t ever pull that crap with me.

Before getting married and moving to our current home, I lived very close to my mother and sister. At the time, they used to constantly ask me to run errands for them during the day (taking care of their pets, being available for contractors or deliveries for them, driving my sister to appointments, etc.). They figured since I was home all day, that meant I was available to do these things. They did eventually take the hint that working from home meant I needed to be in my own apartment to actually work, and they learned that I was very capable of saying “no” (and that last minute requests would probably get that response).

Link to the rest at All Indie Writers

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

21 May 2014

From The Jsomers.net Blog:

The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.

Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian:

example /igˈzampəl/, n. a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.

sport /spôrt/, n. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

magic /ˈmajik/, n. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

Here, words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.

Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced. A delightful word like “fustian” — delightful because of what it means, because of the way it looks and sounds, because it is unusual in regular speech but not so effete as to be unusable, is described, efficiently, as “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” Not only is this definition (as we’ll see in a minute) simplistic and basically wrong, it’s just not in the same class, English-wise, as “fustian.” The language is tin-eared and uninspired. It’s criminal: This is the place where all the words live and the writing’s no good.

. . . .

John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.

But where?

Link to the rest at The Jsomers.net Blog and thanks to Christian for the tip.

Lie Detector for Your Email

21 May 2014

From The Wall Street Journal:

“How can I tell if someone is lying to me online, or in a text or an email?”

Readers have been asking me about this issue a lot lately. In an age of online dating and constant emails, texts and social media, people write to tell me about communications that feel incomplete, disconnected or just a little off. Their gut is telling them something is wrong.

With so much room for ambiguity and misinterpretation, it’s hard to tell what is fact and what is fiction. This can happen when we are flirting with a stranger on an online dating site, as well as when we are messaging with a work manager or planning a family party with a sibling.

Experts say the vast majority of our interpersonal communication involves body language—gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. Take these intangibles away, as we do with digital messages, and we are left with far fewer clues as to what is really going on.

. . . .

Research shows people tend to be suspicious of information they receive online but override their suspicions and trust the information anyway. Experts call this our “truth bias.”

We often have powerful emotional reasons to believe what someone is telling us. We really want to believe the message from the cutie on the dating site is real. Ditto the text saying our spouse is working late.

. . . .

It is possible to catch people lying because they often are bad at it, says Tyler Cohen Wood, an intelligence officer and cyber branch chief at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Science and Technology Directorate, and author of a 2014 book titled “Catching the Catfishers: Disarm the Online Pretenders, Predators and Perpetrators Who Are Out to Ruin Your Life.

. . . .

“The majority of people prefer to tell the truth,” says Ms. Cohen Wood. “That’s why when they are lying, the truth is going to leak out.”

There will be clues. To identify them, Ms. Cohen Woods suggests using a modified version of a law-enforcement technique known as statement analysis, which is a way to look for deception by analyzing a person’s words.

To begin with, pay attention to a person’s use of emphatic language. It doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is lying, but rather that he or she really wants you to believe what is being said. This is also the case when a person keeps saying the same thing over and over in slightly different ways. “They wouldn’t repeat it if it wasn’t important to them,” Ms. Cohen Wood says.

Look for language that distances the writer from the intended reader. In person, someone may unconsciously distance himself by crossing his arms in front of him. In writing, he can achieve this same effect by omitting personal pronouns and references to himself from a story.

Say he receives a text that says, “Hey I had a great time last night, did you?” He might reply, “Last night was fun.”

Another technique to watch out for is the unanswered question. You ask, and the other person hedges or changes the subject. Most likely, the person doesn’t like saying no, or doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. But he or she also may also be keeping something from you.

“This is all very subtle,” says Ms. Cohen Wood. “And it depends on the context.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

PG thought there might be some dialogue tips here.

Post Publishing Traumatic Stress Disorder? Really? Really.

17 May 2014

From Publishing Perspectives:

Last month, I had one of those Great Days as an author. I picked up a box of novels – my novels! – for the live show I was doing in Boulder, Colorado. The book’s plot and characters delighted me; the cover was adorable. Even the box was cute, in a book-bearing, cardboard-y way.

I drove my box of books home and set it on my kitchen counter. And then? Color me flummoxed. I couldn’t open the box.

. . . .

That’s when the flashbacks started.

Twelve years ago – true story – I went on a national book tour that didn’t exist, organized by a publicist who went AWOL while I traveled from non-event to non-event. It was a heartbreaking, soul-crushing, career-smushing experience that cost me my advance (I’d paid the publicist with it) and my relationship with my then-publisher (according to my then-agent).

Time to bounce back. Get moving! my brain said, when I got home to Brooklyn.

But my body disagreed. It stopped sleeping, dropped 30 lbs and developed a fear of sudden noises, along with every sleeping pill side effect you’ve seen advertised on TV. And then, yadda, yadda, I’m a performing novelist and songwriter in a northern Colorado town folks call The Brooklyn of Boulder.

That bad book tour was ancient history, my brain insisted. But my body disagreed, again. First came the flashbacks. Then, I started losing weight. I stopped sleeping…

. . . .

Let’s call it PPSTD: post publishing traumatic stress disorder. The name sounds funny. But it’s real. As in: serious.

Why? Because the human body is an equal-opportunity employer of something called survival mode. And survival mode comes in one size and one color – XXL Code Red. It’s the somatic version of Schiaparelli pink: a screaming, hot hue that may not suit all wearers, or occasions.

. . . .

How does PPSTD impact authors?

Kathleen Shaputis is an author in Seattle. In 2000, she got a book contract for a how-to book called Grandma Online. She writes:

I thought this was it, I would be able to be a full-time author. I was scheduled to be on CNN [...] My interview was scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001. I received a one-line email from the producer, “I guess you know we cancelled your interview.”

Which with all the chaos of 9/11 going on, he was sweet to even send that. I’ve had guilty feelings ever since. How can I be angry that my 90-day best window of getting my book out there was trashed when thousands of people lost their lives and their loved ones. I’ve since gone on to publish other books, but still flinch – what will happen this time?”

When we chat by phone, Shaputis sounds friendly and upbeat. But she says she’s still dealing what the personal and professional fall-out of 9/11.

“I’m not cured,” she says. “I’m not getting over it in all respects.”

. . . .

“As writers, we have too many voices in our heads,” she says. “With PTSD, you have to fight to get past one more demon to stay about the keyboard.”

. . . .

NYC author Judith Glynn’s experiences as a travel article writer inspired her first book. She reports feeling a stressful sense of loss after publishing it. That sense of loss motivated her to revisit an old manuscript. That manuscript became her second book.

“Now people are asking me what’s my next book?” she emails. “That’s stress, too, but one I can manage as I think about another book.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives and thanks to Eric for the tip.

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