Writing Advice

Reader Expectations: Blessings or Curses?

24 July 2015

From author Elle Casey:

If you know me, you know I write in several genres. At last count, those included urban fantasy, romance, thriller/suspense, paranormal, action-adventure, dystopian, and hard science fiction-space opera. The hard sci-fi was new for me as of last month. It’s a genre I enjoy as a fan of TV, film, and novels (Dune was my first!), but had never experienced as a writer.

So far I’ve published one sci-fi novel (Drifters’ Alliance, Book 1) and a short story prequel to that series (Winner Takes All), which is scheduled for release on August 24th as part of an anthology titled Dark Beyond the Stars.  I’ve really enjoyed stretching my wings and trying this new thang. I love space battles! Pew-pew!

I’ve also realized something important about myself and my job as a writer, and because this new discovery is kind of slowing me down and holding me back from writing my next book (by clogging up my brain), I figured I’d blog about it. Generally speaking, when I write something down in the blogosphere, it gets it out of my head and allows me a clear path ahead. And right now, my brain is completely clouded and jammed up with the specter of … duh-duh-duh-duuuhhhh … Reader Expectations.

. . . .

Once you write a book, if it’s good enough and all the planets and stars have aligned (meaning you get some kind of online exposure somewhere, be it via a retailer and/or an influential blogger), you gain a following of readers looking forward to your next release. And those readers will naturally have some expectations concerning that next release. For example, they’ll want your next book to be similar in tone and style, similar in length (or longer if possible), and capable of evoking the same kind of emotional responses the previous one did. Fair enough, right? That’s cool.  I’m down. I’m a reader too. I toootally get it.

When there are just a few expectant readers out there, it’s somewhat easy to make them happy. After I wrote one book, I had maybe three people who bothered to email me and tell me what they were hoping to see in the next book (and one of them was my mother). I was happy to accommodate any of those requests that made sense for the next story, and I did my best to write the second book with as much passion and focus as I had the first. Reader expectations in small doses like that were invigorating!

. . . .

The problem with reader expectations for me at this point, really, is twofold: First, because there are so many, they constantly conflict with one another; and second, because of that first point, they eventually make it very difficult for me to write anything at all.

I’ll give you an example of the first situation, a phenomenon you can verify by reading the reviews on any of my books. For the same book, I’ve heard from readers that :

  • the story is too long, and the story is too short,
  • the girl should have gone with boy #1, and the girl should have gone with boy #2,
  • a girl of this age would never do what my character did, and my character acted exactly as a girl of this age would,
  • I didn’t resolve the main conflict, and the main conflict was completely resolved
  • people don’t say in real life what my characters say, and my characters are so real they practically jump off the page,
  • I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I’m a frigging genius,
  • series suck, and series are awesome,
  • cliffhangers suck, and cliffhangers are awesome,
  • characters shouldn’t swear (because it’s not nice to read in a book), and characters should swear (because real people swear and characters in books should act real).

Link to the rest at Elle Casey and thanks to Noelle for the tip.

Here’s a link to Elle Casey’s books

Author Epiphany: I Film-Track My Novels

23 July 2015

From author Sarah McCoy via Writer Unboxed:

Epiphany Part 1 arrived in my living room as my husband griped at another Turner Classic Movie marathon Friday night.

“But it’s Katharine Hepburn!” I balked. “One of the greatest character actors ever!”

I’m addicted to old movies. Black and whites make me swoon and don’t even get me started on Technicolor.

My husband merely shook his head. “I’ll never understand why you like these when it takes an act of God to get you to the theater for a new release.”

“Because these aren’t movies about surly Teddy bears or Tom Cruise sprinting from danger again,” I argued. “These are mini-time capsules. From the costumes and scenery to the plotlines and cultural messages— I’m gathering history details. Educational entertainment!”

And the second I said it, I realized, yes, that’s exactly it. It’s the same in my reading and writing. Not only am I a historical fiction devotee, but I also advocate for the past teaching us something in the present. My preference is for stories that make me think back about how it was, as a catalyst to change how it is. It’s why I write contemporary-historical dual narratives like my latest release The Mapmaker’s Children. I appreciate being entertained and educated without the didacticism of a classroom. I like feeling my time has been well invested in things that enrich my perspective and enable me to speak intelligently on a topic I may not have known prior.

. . . .

My imagination is much like my stomach. Everything I put into it influences its state of being. It craves hearty nutrition and aches at too much sugar. It has violent, allergic reactions to certain fare and appreciates recipes with a long tradition of excellence. Simply stated: I am what I put in me. And I prefer to put in Little Women with Katharine Hepburn.

. . . .

Since the blog specifically requested songs, I thought I’d share my classic film-track for The Mapmaker’s Children with you, Unboxed Writer friends. I’m listing them by year because it’s impossible for me to order by preference. All are outstanding movies that I highly recommend.

1) The Littlest Rebel (1935)

Signature Shirley Temple. I grew up loving all her films. It’s because of her that I donned my first set of tap shoes and didn’t mind that I had a Rambutan hairstyle for much of my childhood. This is Shirley’s nod to the Civil War. She sits on Abe Lincoln’s lap while he comforts her on her Confederate “Di-ddy’s” plight. Just give in to the sweetness. It’s Shirley.

. . . .

3) Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Errol Flynn is stationed in the Kansas Territory during John Brown’s bloody crusade against slavery and falls in love with the railroad man’s daughter Olivia de Havilland. Ronald Regan (yes, our 40th president!) plays George Custer. It’s a winner.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Here’s a link to Sarah McCoy’s books

The tortured artist myth: how creativity really works

19 July 2015

From The Irish Times:

The only way to make any kind of real art, apparently, is to suffer for it. This is how a real artist lives, or so I’ve been taught. The artist as a black hole of despair, spinning art out of a state of destruction, passion and reckless abandon. A self-hating creative, driven by an unquenchable need to make masterpieces and then burn out, like a dying star.

It’s a sexy concept. Thousands of books have been written about Van Gogh’s ear, Marilyn Monroe’s death and Billie Holiday’s heroin addiction. Slinky starlets wear T-shirts portraying Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse, members of the famed 27 club – the age at which all of them died. Like most myths it’s an attractive idea to buy into.

But that’s exactly what it is: a myth. A concept we’ve invented to turn people who create into demigods. As a result the idea of one of us lowly ones making art, or even attempting to, seems absurd.

How could I possibly write, or act, or dance? If I’ve come from a nice home, with supportive, loving parents, and a relatively comfortable start in life, where do I begin? Do I have permission to make art? Or will everything I make be too pleasant and insipid? According to the trope, I have no great depths to plumb, no searing pain I can mine for inspiration, not even a touch of childhood trauma. How dare I even begin to think that I have anything great worth saying?

. . . .

There is rarely any discussion of the minutiae of daily life as an artist, dancer or writer. About the empty blank page, or the first line in a script to be read out loud. The tiny, terrifying steps it takes to begin, reshape and then present any type of creation to a casually dismissive world. But each of those tiny steps is where the joy lives – the strangely challenging joy that convinces us to search for the next change in pitch, to sit for hours waiting for the right word to arrive, to repeat a page of lines out loud over and over until something about it clicks and then flows. It’s that moment that gives you the momentum to push forward, further into discovery.

Some days it comes more easily, some days it doesn’t come at all. Those days are where the famed torture lurks. But the decision to keep searching, not the suffering, is what makes an artist. It’s not as seductive as a concept, the artist as hard worker, but it’s more approachable, more doable, than the artist as inspired genius.

Link to the rest at The Irish Times

The Complete List of Creative Distractions and Defenses Against Them

12 July 2015

From Writer Unboxed:

I have been asking writers about their biggest challenges in managing their daily lives and finding time to write. Their top answer: distractions.

So I thought that, in order to understand the problem, I would catalog every distraction known to writers. Then, in the post below, turn this into a guide. If you are a writer hoping to overcome distractions, all you need to do is simply memorize this list, and learn to avoid the key triggers that turn each of these items into distractions.

Okay, here goes. The Complete List of Creative Distractions and Defenses Against Them.

Distraction: Cat Videos

  • Definition: Amazing, lovely, cute, wonderful cat videos. Is there anything more amaz…. No wait. They are evil, evil distractions. These perfect little cute… ACK! BAD! DISTRACTION!!!
  • Defense: Become an evil soul with a heart of pure stone. That is the only way to avoid the majestic beauty of adorable, cute… ACK! STOP!!!!

Distraction: Real Cats and Dogs and other Pets

  • Definition: In moments of weakness, we allow these wild creatures into our lives. One moment you are a writing machine, the next moment, you spend all of your time coddling this filthy, wild creature. “Oh, just a little more rubbing on the tummy… Oooooh yes, you are such a good puppy. Yes you are! Yes you are!” It’s sickening, really.
  • Defense: Open the back door. When the animal leaves, close back door. Put in ear plugs and get back to writing.

Distraction: Education

  • Definition: Remember when your parents trapped you into a concrete building for the first 18 years of your life? Then how you got back at them by wasting tens of thousands of dollars doing keg stands instead of going to class? Yes, that is the education I am talking about.
  • Defense: Do I really care what year Isaac Newton invented gravity? Or how to properly subjugate an adjective in a paragraph? I mean, really? Education is a sham. A giant ruse developed by whichever political party you dislike the most. Education, in all its forms, should be avoided. Like the plaque.

. . . .

Distraction: Health

  • Definition: All. This. Pressure. To FitBit my life. To eat right and exercise because it provides longer life, resistance to disease, more energy, and better rest.
  • Defense: Let me ask you this: Does Hemingway care about his health? Answer: No. Why? Because he’s dead. Simple fact. If you want to be like Hemingway, face facts that the only thing that matters is how you are remembered. Working out, eating well, any meaningful exposure to fresh air or sunlight — these are all extravagances that only selfish writers seek out. The only thing that matters is if, in 80 years, people create little images with quotes from you on them that they can share on Facebook. That is all that matters.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

11 July 2015

From National Public Radio:

Why do you do what you do? What is the engine that keeps you up late at night or gets you going in the morning? Where is your happy place? What stands between you and your ultimate dream?

Heavy questions. One researcher believes that writing down the answers can be decisive for students.

He co-authored a paper that demonstrates a startling effect: nearly erasing the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap for 700 students over the course of two years with a short written exercise in setting goals.

Jordan Peterson teaches in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. For decades, he has been fascinated by the effects of writing on organizing thoughts and emotions.

. . . .

“The act of writing is more powerful than people think,” Peterson says.

Most people grapple at some time or another with free-floating anxiety that saps energy and increases stress. Through written reflection, you may realize that a certain unpleasant feeling ties back to, say, a difficult interaction with your mother. That type of insight, research has shown, can help locate, ground and ultimately resolve the emotion and the associated stress.

At the same time, “goal-setting theory” holds that writing down concrete, specific goals and strategies can help people overcome obstacles and achieve.

. . . .

Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as “grit” or “growth mindset” or “executive functioning.”

Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.

Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts “past authoring” and “future authoring.”

“It completely turned my life around,” says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson’s course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson’s main research assistants.

. . . .

At the Rotterdam school, minorities generally underperformed the majority by more than a third, earning on average eight fewer credits their first year and four fewer credits their second year. But for minority students who had done this set of writing exercises, that gap dropped to five credits the first year and to just one-fourth of one credit in the second year.

. . . .

Peterson believes that formal goal-setting can especially help minority students overcome what’s often called “stereotype threat,” or, in other words, to reject the damaging belief that generalizations about ethnic-group academic performance will apply to them personally.

Link to the rest at National Public Radio and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

3 Secrets of Sentence Length Power

5 July 2015

From JohnKrone.com:

1.Sentence length in stories, effect absorption of the lines. Sentence length in ads affect sales. Sentence length in blogs, affect opt-ins and return visitors. Here’s why.

Readers have a limited amount of “working memory” to comprehend each sentence.  Children or adults have the similar memory limitations. We all do.  So most readers regardless of what they’re reading, prefer short sentences.

The “Optimal Recognition Point” ORP, is a specific point in each word that our eye seeks, for that word recognition. Our eye then moves to the next word. The eye movement is called a “saccade”. This process continues until our eye encounters the period. At this point, it assembles the words to form a meaning of the sentence.

. . . .

Since readers have a limited amount of working memory, and they must store the sentence contents until they reach the period, it creates a length limit.  Inside the readers brain. They can’t help it. So what happens when we exceed the length limit?

Memory decay. The meaning of the sentence starts to diminish.

. . . .

2. Surveyed readers preferred 8 words in a sentence.

Here’s  a surprise though. Most writers average 17 words per sentence.  Here’s a good way to remember how expression size affects the reading experience. Imagine I give you a math problem (7 x 15) + (2 x 4 ) = what?

The way you read a math problem is similar to how a reader tries to find the point in a sentence.   The meaning or the “point”, is what they’re after.  No meaning can be concluded until the end of the sentence is reached.

 That creates a potential problem, if we lose site of that fact. Because they don’t know where it’s going, they must store the whole line while they read.  They must store the entire sentence in their “working memory” until they reach the period.  A long sentence is like a long math problem. (8 x 13) + ((55 x 5) *18) + (79 – 26) = what?  The longer the problem the more overwhelming it becomes to the brain. There’s actually a term for it, micro stress.

Link to the rest at JohnKrone.com and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

The Difference Between Mistakes and Failure

27 June 2015

From author Laura Drake:

I am not an old soul. I am a klutz and a fairly slow learner. I bumble through life, making almost every mistake possible before finding the right way.  People (most notably, my long-suffering parents) tried to explain things to me. But that’s apparently not how I learn. And I don’t think I’m alone.

This used to make me feel like a failure. But it doesn’t anymore.

. . . .

Do you remember when you were little? If you don’t, observe a child who is preschool age, attempting something new to them. They try, make mistakes, learn, and move on. They don’t beat themselves up, because they seem to know instinctively that making mistakes is how you learn. Do you, as an adult, fault them for that? Of course not! You explain, and demonstrate and encourage, until they get it, or decide it isn’t for them, and they move on to try the next thing.

. . . .

But something happens around the golden years of junior high (yes, that’s sarcasm). Peer opinion becomes a red-hot pressure cooker. It’s no longer okay to make mistakes. We look around and decide we’re behind—everyone around us has it together, and we never got the manual. We watch adults, observing their competence and confidence.

So you start racing, trying to catch up. You don’t take chances anymore, because you may make a mistake. And everyone will find out that you are clueless. You stick to things you know. You don’t try new things, because you can’t take the chance that you might not be good at them.

. . . .

Somewhere around forty, I gave up looking for the manual. I accepted my ‘process’. I’m always going to stumble through life, making mistakes. I relaxed when I realized that my whole life is an experiment.

. . . .

Mistakes aren’t failure.

Each mistake I make brings me closer to the correct conclusion. Mistakes are an essential part of learning!

. . . .

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Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Here’s a link to Laura Drake’s books

New Struggles in Self-Publishing

24 June 2015

From author Dave Farland:

I hesitate to mention problems with self-publishing. In some genres, such as romance or self-help books, the industry is doing great. But for those who are trying to sell fiction, it seems that the markets are contracting, and it appears that things will go from bad to worse.

If you’ve been self-publishing for the past few years, you probably remember the good old days. For example, a few years ago I put my novel The Golden Queen up as a free e-book for a week and forgot about it. I was going to mention on my social media what I had done, but seriously got busy with something else. Three days later, I got an email from someone who said, “Why don’t you take your free e-book down and let someone else have a shot at the #1 spot.” I’d given away 15,000 copies in three days, and had sold thousands of dollars in inventory on the other two books in the series.

. . . .

With e-books, you can’t sell them unless you can advertise them. Of course, the folks at Amazon try to set their rates at about $1.70 a click on their advertisements. If every potential buyer who clicked on an advertisement actually bought a book, that would be a good deal. But in most cases, fewer than 1 in 10 people who click on a book ad will actually buy the book. Unfortunately, in my studies, Facebook ads don’t pay for themselves, and neither do any other kinds of ads that are sold online. That’s why we don’t see a lot of ads for books from major publishers online.

. . . .

Let’s say that you put your new book up for sale on Amazon. You tell all your friends and family, and get folks to announce it to their friends. You do a big blog party and get blogs up on twenty sites besides your own. Your book comes out … and it’s a blip on Amazon’s radar.

Amazon has lots of other books for sale. You’re a little blip. How do they know to promote your book?

Well, they have to look for independent verification. So they look at the number of reviews that you have on Amazon and on Goodreads. They try to make sure that the reviews are from real buyers instead of sock puppets. They look at the ratings given to the book in the form of stars, and then they decide whether to begin cross-promoting your book.

If you’ve got a book that has a high velocity of sales and an extremely high customer satisfaction rating, they’ll help promote your book, and that can be a great thing.

But here’s the problem: The people who get the highest velocity of sales almost always already have a pretty good customer base. They’ve got say 50,000 fans. If you’re a brand new author, you might have a great book, but you very likely don’t have 50,000 fans. So even if you do get picked up for promotion, you won’t get promoted heavily or for very long.

Meanwhile, let’s say that a new author comes out with a traditionally published book in hardcover and it gets put on the New Release shelf at Barnes and Noble. Hundreds of thousands of book buyers will walk by the shelf and see it. That book has visibility that your book doesn’t. Indeed, if people like it, they can take a picture of the ISBN number and order the book as an e-book right away. That’s how many e-books are bought.

Of course, the big publishers charge more for your e-book than you would like, but Amazon respects that. In fact, their algorithms will place higher-priced books onto the bestseller lists above books that are sold above deep discount. Thus, if you put your book online for 99 cents and promote it widely, you might make lots of sales, but you won’t make traction onto the bestseller list.

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

Here’s a link to David Farland’s books

You Don’t Have to Get it Right the First Time

16 June 2015

From Writability:

Confession: sometimes, when one of my cross-posted onto tumblr posts explodes, I like to cruise through the comments and tags. It’s a fun and quick way to see what people think about the posts and the feedback has often been pretty thought-provoking.

The posts that get tumblr-happy are often craft posts. And the comments and tags, I’ve noticed, often include writers stressing out about trying to nail all of the writing tidbit dos and don’ts while drafting.

Except here’s the thing: with the exception of writing tips specifically geared for first drafting, most are not meant to be tackled while first drafting.

To clarify:

Things you should be focusing on while first drafting:

  1. Getting the story written.
  2. See #1

Things you don’t need to worry about while first drafting:

  1. Getting your opening right.
  2. Getting your middle right.
  3. Getting your ending right.
  4. Getting your characters right.
  5. Getting the worldbuilding right.
  6. Getting the sentence-level writing right.
  7. Getting the pacing right.
  8. Getting anything perfect the first time.

The truth is, the first draft is for you, the author.

Link to the rest at Writability and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

The Procrastination Doom Loop—and How to Break It

12 June 2015

From The Atlantic:

When I woke up this morning, I had one goal: Finish this article by 11 a.m.

So, predictably, by the time it was 10 a.m., I had made and consumed two cups of coffee, taken out the trash, cleaned my room while taking a deliberately slow approach to folding my shirts, gone on a walk outside to clear my head, had a thing of yogurt and fruit to reward the physical exertion, sent an email to my aunt and sister, read about 100 Tweets (favorited three; written and deleted one), despaired at my lack of progress, comforted myself by eating a second breakfast, opened several tabs from ESPN.com on my browser … and written absolutely nothing.

What’s the matter with me?* Nothing, according to research that conveniently justifies this sort of behavior to my editors.

. . . .

Productive people sometimes confuse the difference between reasonable delay and true procrastination. The former can be useful (“I’ll respond to this email when I have more time to write it”). The latter is, by definition, self-defeating (“I should respond to this email right now, and I have time, and my fingers are on the keys, and the Internet connection is perfectly strong, and nobody is asking me to do anything else, but I just … don’t … feel like it.”).

When scientists have studied procrastination, they’ve typically focused on how people are miserable at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, everybody recognizes, in the abstract, that it’s important to go to the dentist every few months. The pain is upfront and obvious—dental work is torture—and the rewards of cleaner teeth are often remote, so we allow the appointment to slip through our minds and off our calendars. Across several categories including dieting, saving money, and sending important emails, we constantly choose short and small rewards (whose benefits are dubious, but immediate) over longer and larger payouts (whose benefits are obvious, but distant).

In the last few years, however, scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotion. Procrastination “really has nothing to do with time-management,” Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told Psychological Science. “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

. . . .

]P]rocrastination happens for two basic reasons: (1) We delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task, and (2) We assume that our mood will change in the near future. See if you recognize any of these excuses…

  • If I take a nap now, I’ll have more focus later.
  • If I eat this cake now, that’ll be my cheat for the month, and I’ll have more willpower.
  • If I send a few Tweets now, my fingers will be used to typing sentences, which will make this article easier to write.
  • If I watch TV now, I’ll feel relaxed and more likely to call the doctor’s office tomorrow morning.

This approach isn’t merely self-defeating. It also creates a procrastination doom loop. Putting off an important task makes us feel anxious, guilty, and even ashamed, Eric Jaffe wrote. Anxiety, guilt, and shame make us less likely to have the emotional and cognitive energy to be productive. That makes us even less likely to begin the task, in the first place. Which makes us feel guilty. Which makes us less productive. And around we go.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

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