Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Step Off the Gas

Anyone who writes has been there: All your work in building three-dimensional characters, compelling settings and a taut story arc has led to a moment where your story will undergo a seismic emotional shift. You're about to build in the reward for the readers who pick this book up. It's going to be great.

You have one job here, and it's one of the toughest chores writers face: You need to get out of the way. Step off the gas and cool down that prose.

Wait, what?

Let's think about this in cinematic terms. One of my favorite movies is Heat, the 1995 cops-and-thieves flick starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. The crucial scene in that movie occurs when DeNiro's high-end crime team tries to take down a bank as Pacino and the LAPD bear down on them. The background music falls away. Faces get bigger in the frame. You can hear breathing amid a hail of bullets and see palpable fear. And every time I watch that scene, my pulse quickens and my nerves are set on edge.

A similar thing happens in well-written books. Obviously, the cinematic advantage of actual pictures is lost, but the rest of the powering down is there. Exposition is cast aside. Sentences become shorter and more powerful. Dialogue is raw and direct.

When I need to be reminded of this -- and that's often -- I pick up Of Mice and Men and read the final scene, as George comes to terms with the awful thing he must do to protect Lenny, and himself.

In the preceding pages, John Steinbeck gave us characters we care about, a setting we can see clearly in our mind's eye, a reason to be fearful for all the hopes and plans that these men desperately hatched. We need no more from him; he gets out of the way and lets us have the moment.

If it's good enough for Steinbeck, it's good enough for all of us.


Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and is a finalist for a 2010 High Plains Book Award. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at CraigLancaster.net.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Whom is the Person Which I Know?

Recently Craig Lancaster wrote about pet peeves and whether we really should be holding onto them so tightly. I’m guilty of dozens of peeves and have bitten my tongue blue trying to be polite to my family who are equally guilty of misusing my peeves; sometimes deliberately. Craig’s post reminded me that we had some Ask the Editor questions about the proper use of who, whom, which, and that. These are some of my favourites, so, even though these were answered in the comments of that post, I thought I’d add my little memory tricks for determining the proper use of these words in context.

Who and Whom

Quick fix: 

Switch "who" and "whom" with "he" and "him" - if you can use “him” then you can use “whom”, in most cases.

"He is the author. I like him."
"He is the author whom I like."

It seems "whom" is falling away from general use. What do you think? Should we stop using it altogether, or should we try to preserve its use?

Who and That

Quick fix:

“Who” for people, “That” for things and animals.

More explanation:

This one is easy. “Who” is always used for people. “That” is always used for things or animals. Use “that” every time you would refer to something as “it”.

You would never ask a person “What are you?” when you mean “Who are you?”

Which and That

Quick fix:

“That” clause is important. “Which” clause is extra? (Remember, “Which” has an extra “H”.)

"Here is the bus that goes to the city."
"Here is the bus, which has a new engine, that goes to the city."

More explanation:

“That” is used to add a clause to a sentence where all the information is necessary for clarity. “Which” is used to add extra information in a clause that could be left out of the sentence, and still make sense. So if you can leave it out, use “which”.

Elle Carter Neal is the author of the middle grade fantasy The Convoluted Key (first in the Draconian Rules series), the picture book I Own All the Blue, and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin (first in the Grounded series). She is the editor of Angela Brazil's 1910 book The Nicest Girl in the School. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at ElleCarterNeal.com.

Photo by Amanda Meryle Photography

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Riding the Wave of a Changing Industry

This is a participation post. Please read it and comment because a number of us need some input.

We writers know that our solitary work often requires months, or even years, to complete. But that’s not the end. Instead, it’s another beginning, for we must then deal with editors, designers, agents, publishers or printers, marketing…and the Internet. Sometimes we may wonder whether the end result is worth all the hassle.

In decades past, the publishing model pretty much followed procedures and trends of the big houses. Editing and marketing were handled by publishers, and writers were nurtured along the road to success. Of course, some vanity houses did exist, but their wares were viewed as inferior and unworthy of note.

Today, we have a very different scene. Technology has opened doors to previously unavailable options, and Kindle (et al.) has turned the reading world upside down. This is good, right? Yes! It’s great for those who surf the Web and grasp with ease the intricacies of perusing sites and uploading and downloading and posting and linking, etc. However, the answer is also "no." Or perhaps that should be “I’m not so sure” for the rest of us who find all things technological far distant from the parameters of our comfort zones. How do I know this? I live there. (Yes, I was born before computer chips became standard equipment in children’s brains.)

As I write this post, I’m wondering how to insert links to information you might find useful. Why? My affinity is great for writers who long to create wonderful books, and I see the parallels in all our work lives. Yet I come from a time of manual typewriters and simple, straightforward directions on how to make that tool create a presentable manuscript. (Don’t forget the White-Out!) But alas, those days are gone.

New innovations have risen on the horizon and traveled across the sky to high noon. Nostalgia aside, they aren’t bad, just different, and confusing to some of us. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other visionaries changed our world, and that world remains in flux—so much so that new technologies stream over that horizon in constant, mind-boggling array. And I shake my head and wonder if I will ever be “fluent” in the language of the Internet.

So how do you ride the wave of our changing industry? What technology has made the biggest difference in your writing career? Are you able to grow and branch out as new options become available? Or are you intimidated—as I often am—by new terms, new techniques, and new publishing paths to follow?

Linda Lane writes novels and heads up a high-powered editing team. She herself has edited 2 award-winning books and been on the team that edited a book that was accepted this spring for nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. You can visit her Web sites at http://www.penandswordpublishers.com/ and http://www.denvereditor.com/. She loves to help new writers find their voice and hone their skills, but she also treasures the opportunity to work with more experienced writers who want to take their work to the next level.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

The Plot That Swam Away

The goal of a fiction writer is to engage the reader in the emotional life of a character who will face the thing we humans fear most: change. Even if your character wants this change—even if she is excited by it—readers expect part of her will also fear it. To take us on the full ride you need to constantly apply new pressures that create a catalyst for change, and then let us in on that change in glorious detail.

Take, for example, evolution—that's some serious change. When the fish first flopped onto land he didn't grow feet and hop around to commune with others of his kind that very day. The reader wouldn't buy that anyway; she knows how things work. Growing appendages was a process and the reader wants in on it. What did the fish notice first? How did it feel—did it hurt?

The reader will empathize with the fish as he faces his perceived disfigurement, relate with his abandonment by his fellow fishes, feel dizzy with him as he gets used to breathing all that fresh air, worry for him as he explores the dangers and rewards of his new place in the food chain, root for him as he experiments with the legs, and applaud him when he learns new ways to attract mates to perpetuate the change in the species. If you detail the adaptation of your fish through a series of emotional turning points, you will continue to involve your reader in the tale.

But in order for him to adapt, you must find a way to keep that fish on land (this is often referred to as crucible of story). If you let him swim away, the story has stalled.

This really annoys your reader.

Turning away from the challenge of change is normal and human, and if you’ve critiqued any number of manuscripts you know that writers try to use it as a plot complication all the time. There are inherent dangers in doing this, though. It often comes across as a delay tactic more than a complication, for one thing. And your protagonist may come across as weak—your book’s inciting incident set that challenge and we kept reading because we believed your character was strong enough to accept it; to dive back in the pond now has the feel of negating the entire purpose of your book.

Here are a few suggestions to help keep your plot from swimming away from you.

Even God rested on the seventh day. Instead of having your protagonist turn from his challenge, think in terms of rest. Try to figure out a way that your supporting cast (man, animal, or nature) could provide a diversion that could restore your protagonist’s spirit.

Show that “going back” is impossible. Your character might turn back and try to once again swim with the fish, and it might temporarily restore his spirit, but what about those leg buds? He realizes he is forever changed and must return to his path.

Keep the heat on and the crucible clamped. Your reader knows that in the world of story, as in life, considerable pressure is needed to effect change. Your character knows that, too, and despite reservations has reported for duty. Don't let either of them down by failing to provide the pressures needed to push your character, again and again, into the plot. Identify the need that creates the crucible for your story and then find ways to turn up the heat and create urgency.

In a former post, Patricia Stoltey told us how to identify sections that drag down a narrative. Turning from the goal is another one of these. Once you have let readers into the emotional life of this fish, we who fear the change in our own lives want to see this fish prevail! We want to know that while growing new legs might hurt, we can endure it—and find meaning and even hope beyond the pain.

Slow down at each emotional turning point and let your reader in on the evolution. This is not the kind of detail that drags down your narrative—this is the relevant detail your reader wanted when she picked up your book.

She’ll not only thank you; she might just find new legs of her own on which to stand.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist for 19 years, she now writes literary women's fiction.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Nose Knows

A friend recently called to share a special moment with me. She had just gotten a whiff of a sweet smell that immediately made her think of her grandmother who had talcum powder that smelled like a sweet gardenia. My friend recalled childhood visits to her grandmother during which she would sneak away to sniff grandma's talc. "And of course the powder on my nose gave me away."

My friend, who says she is not a writer, but has written some of the most powerful poetry I have read, thought I would be interested in her little moment as an illustration of how to ground a character in a scene. We are urged to use all the senses to accomplish this, and we often mention smells. We have a character react to the odors of food cooking as they enter a restaurant. Or we have a character notice the tangy odor of salt by the sea. But how often do we go deeper to the memory the smell evokes? Or how often do we make an association to a pleasant, or not so pleasant, occurrence in the character's life?

Take for instance, the smell of baby powder or baby shampoo. Most of the time it is used to evoke that sense of awe and wonder of being a parent, but think of how memorable a moment in a story could be if the smell reminds a woman of the baby she lost.

The various odors of food often have pleasant associations, too. But what about the sour smell of garlic and onions on the breath of a rapist or murderer? That would be a detail not quickly forgotten by a reader.

What about you? How do you use smells in your writing? Can you think of ways to turn the ordinary reaction to an odor into something not so ordinary?

When I am editing I always remind my clients that we write the ordinary in the first draft - just getting things down on paper - and the extraordinary comes with careful thought about how we can turn things on end.

Posted by Maryann Miller, who has been on both sides of the editing table and appreciates a good editor. Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her editing services and her books. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play farmer on her little ranch in East Texas.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Release Your Peeves

I pay the bills as a newspaper copy editor. This is an altogether different creature from a book editor. Those of us who punch daily deadlines are the short-order cooks of the publishing world; we read and edit reams of copy in a compressed window of time.

In many ways, the pressure-cooker aspects of the job lend themselves to the cultivation of pet peeves -- little word burrs under our saddle that we automatically change to something more palatable (to us, if to no one else). But copy editors aren't alone in this tendency. Anyone who spends time pushing words -- writers and editors -- ends up adopting some of these needy pets. It's all well and good until a few pets become an unmanageable zoo that detracts from the more important aspects of job.

Here, then, are some common peeves that often require too much care and feeding to be worthwhile:

Split infinitives: In the 1994 film Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes) rather pedantically points out that a TV show's question contains a split infinitive (an adverb between the "to" and the verb). Van Doren was wrong, and so was your uptight teacher, Miss Thistlebottom. Split infinitives are perfectly acceptable, and in many uses are preferable to the alternative. So split away. The Chicago Manual of Style would approve.

While we're splitting ...: Many editors inveigh against split verb phrases (e.g., "will eagerly await"). Such a stance tilts at windmills. Writers, trust your ear on this one: In general, the best place for an adverb is where it sounds best. The Grammar Girl says it's OK.

Ending a sentence with a preposition: If you can find a more elegant solution, by all means pursue it. But, please, don't perform painful grammatical gymnastics to avoid it. Winston Churchill, at least according to lore, has your back on this one.

I've stoked the fire. It's your turn to add fuel. What peeves do you hold close? Which ones do you want to let go?

Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and is a finalist for a 2010 High Plains Book Award. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at CraigLancaster.net.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Words to Think About From A to V

Here is a list of some important and interesting words for writers to think about, know and use. Have fun!

ACTION: Action and plot grow out of compelling, interesting characters. Suspense, action, and conflict are what keep the reader interested. Action is presenting the real life evidence through characters, by showing, not telling the story.

BEATS: Beats can be the little bits of action interspersed through a scene, especially in dialogue. For example:
“I don’t even want to go there,” I said.
He laid a hand on my arm. “You want me to drive?”

CONSONANCE: Is the close repetition of the same consonants of stressed syllables, especially at the end of words, with differing vowel sounds. Example: Boat and Night.

DISSONANCE: Is a mingling or union of harsh, inharmonious sounds that are grating to the ear. Often used to create a disturbing or tumultuous atmosphere or confusion or bewilderment in poetry.

EUPHONY: Is the harmony or beauty of a sound that provides a pleasing effect to the ear. It is achieved not only by the selection of individual word sounds, but also by their relationship in the repetition, proximity, and flow of sound patterns.

FLASHBACK: A window to your character’s past. A flashback gives you a way to “show” your character’s past through a scene without “telling” the story through narration. Be very careful in using these so it doesn’t “bump” the reader out of the action & story flow while you are explaining what happened sometime in the past. It can be passive. Keep it very brief and try to use a sense to trigger the memory, e.g. a smell or a sound, etc.

HOMOPHONE: Is a word that has the same in sound as another word, but different spelling and meaning. (For example: Pair as in set of two, and pear as in edible fruit.)

METAPHOR: An analogy between two objects or ideas when you say one item IS another. For example: “Then it was there alongside, the locomotive a sudden tornado, black, huge, screaming…” A SIMILE is saying something is LIKE another: “The bird’s wings were blue as the sky.”

ONOMATOPOEIA: Words that imitate sounds, or any word whose sound is suggestive of its meaning. Using words like a musical instrument to create a specific sound. For example: the words “Splash” or “Plop.”

PARADOX: Is a statement that contains seemingly contradictory elements or appears contradictory to common sense, yet can be true when viewed from another angle. A good character trait to experiment with.

STORY LINE: The plot of a book, film, or dramatic work.

THEME: An idea, point of view, or perception expressed as a phrase, proposition, or question. The root or core of what is expressed.

VISION: A mental image produced by imagination. How someone sees or conceives of something. Discernment or perception; intelligent foresight. The mystical experience of seeing as if with the eyes of characters within your writing.

A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series. The sequel, Follow the Dream will be released this fall.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Finding the Right Writers Conference -- Fall Events

In my March 26th post, I listed a sampling of upcoming conferences through August 2010. This month I’m taking a look at conferences scheduled for September through December. The list is representative of events across the country available to help you improve your writing skills and get feedback from editors and agents.

You can find more information at Shaw Guides. For a series of informative articles about conferences from Writer's Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino, check out the Writers Conference category of his blog archives.

The focus of these conferences is writing. Pitch sessions are available at several. All of the information for each conference or workshop can be found at its official website. Click on the conference name and follow the link.


Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference
Denver, Colorado
September 10-12, 2010

Alaska Writers Guild Workshop
Anchorage, Alaska
September 11-12, 2010

Wrangling with Writing 2010
Tucson, Arizona
September 24-26, 2010


SinC Into Great Writing 2010
San Francisco, California
The day before Bouchercon 2010 begins
October 13, 2010

South Carolina Annual Writers Conference
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
October 22-24, 2010

Florida Writers Association Conference
Lake Mary, Florida
October 22-24, 2010


Sanibel Island Writers Conference
Sanibel Island, Florida
November 4-7, 2010

I’ve attended the Colorado Gold Conference many times and can vouch for the great programs and workshops there. If anyone has additional feedback on the other conferences, please let us know. Do you have a favorite writers' conference to add? If so, please give us a link with your comment.


Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting new authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Writing in 140: Writing Is...

“Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.” ~ J. P. Donleavy

Perhaps, but writing is also turning one’s worst moments into great reads for readers and personal understanding for the writer. I’ve written many stories that began from a “worst moment” in my life. Because writing has always been so cathartic to me, it seemed natural that I would weave my real-life angst into creative fodder. In writing stories, I can explore the whys and hows of my situation through characters, allowing me to take a step back from the situation and see things from another perspective. Every good story starts with a conflict, and if I can develop a story that satisfies readers while working through my “worst moments,” then to me that’s a win-win situation.

What is writing to you?

Writing in 140 is my attempt to say something somewhat relevant about writing in 140 words or less.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell is now available for purchase. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, promoting her debut project, writing screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Insta-Poll: Is The Bedeviling In The Details?

What are the most common errors you see when line-editing manuscripts?

I've been a copy editor for the last 10 of my 23 years in newspapering, and recently I've been keeping loose track of the kinds of errors I spot in the news copy I read five nights a week. Tell us how often these kind of mistakes pop up in your own red-pen adventures.

In no particular order (and leaving out typos because spellcheck usually identifies those, and often they're mistakes of speed-typing rather than deliberate ignorance):

Sentence-Smoosh Syndrome. Example: "The sergeant, who found the car to be stolen, attempted to pull it over, but the man refused to stop, and a pursuit began, going down Auto Center Way, onto Kitsap Way, and eventually to Chico Way." I realize that in fiction, long sentences can convey a certain intense dramatic flow or sense of unrelenting action. But it takes a high degree of skill to keep from losing a reader by cramming too many thoughts into one cerebral bite. Too much of this bite is certain to spill down the reader's cerebral shirt.

Proper-Noun Pinches. This may be a pet peeve more than an objective rule, but I believe that phrasing like "Joe Friday met with county commissioners" when you mean to convey "Joe met Friday with county commissioners" is clearly the enemy of clarity.

Homonym Homicides. I can't tell you how many otherwise intelligent writers say things like "she acted on principal" when they obviously meant "principle." Or mistaking "affect" for "effect," or being painfully perplexed when picking among "peak," "peek" and "pique." To my mind, anybody who purports to practice the writing art ought to have mastered this piece of craft in their formative years. But it continues to be an enduring weakness for many professional writers who turn in otherwise clean copy.

Tense Tangles. This often goes hand in hand with overstuffed sentences. A typical meandering journey might see a writer start with past tense, take a left turn at the comma down Past Perfect Place, hang a U-ie at Conditional Corner and run a stop sign at Simple Present Street. And I'm not being a snob here: Even I struggle to this day with "lay" vs. 'lie." Really. I cannot tell a lay.

Hyphen Hellspawning. Some of these are errors and some are subjectively interpreted, and I come from the school of thought that sees hyphens as reading speed bumps except where clarity is directly threatened (and this has been the toughest part of my ongoing transition from an Associated Press style mindset to a Chicago Manual one). As such, I try to insert them only when necessary, or to ensure consistency (inconsistency, I find, is the hobgoblin of deadline-writing minds). Then again, sometimes a mistake is a mistake, and constructions such as "I met her six-weeks-ago" and "one of a kind human being" can't be bloodied enough with the tip of one's red pen.

So, what common errors do you run across in your own work? And how do you distinguish between errors and peeves?
By our new contributor, Jim Thomsen, who hasn't found a good picture or bio yet. :)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pushing Through Promotion

Less than a year ago, I appeared on this site and audaciously banged the drum for my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward. It was the first stop of a hastily thrown-together blog book tour, and as I look back on it, I realize that “hastily thrown-together” is an apt descriptor for much of my promotional efforts in those early days of the novel’s emergence.

So here I am, back in this cozy seat as I approach the January 2011 release of my second novel, The Summer Son. I’ve learned a lot about promotional work in the past several months – enough to know that I still have much more to learn. Here’s a short list of what I’m doing better this time around:

1. I have a much more robust, focused blog book tour planned: 10 stops instead of seven, at sites with established readerships that are good bets to be interested in my book.

2. I’m taking advantage of a slower rollout: Lining up blurbs, putting together mailing lists for ARCs, seeing if some buzz can be ignited. The current publishing landscape, which is increasingly putting more power into the hands of authors (a good thing), often lends itself to instant gratification, but there’s something to be said for the old-school simmer.

3. Taking care of my readers: I was fortunate that Edward was so well received; a year ago, I had prospective readers. Today, I have actual fans of my work. Their enthusiasm for it and willingness to tell their friends will do more for my books than I can on my own. I do my part to honor them by doing the best work I can and remaining in touch.

4. I’m blogging regularly: This one is still the toughest for me; with a full-time job and a Facebook habit that’s like heroin, I have to force myself to make time for it. But I can see the payoff in my better metrics, and I expect to enjoy even better results after I take Dani’s class in September. (Trade links with me, I beg of you!)

5. In an effort to highlight father-son stories (my new novel hinges on one) and to give other writers a promotional outlet, I launched a new site called Messages To Our Fathers. As pleased as I am with the basic idea, I think I may have miscalculated by not putting it under the auspices of my own blog, so there may soon be some rectifying. At any rate, I remain committed to highlighting other authors, so please consider me for your blog tour or guest post.

Promotion is hard work, harder than I ever imagined it would be. For every initiative that works well, a half-dozen fail miserably. Despite my over-reliance on the pronoun in this piece, I grow weary of the word “I.” I try not to lose momentum when a bookstore signing goes poorly or a radio interview is a mess because the host didn’t acquaint himself with the book. I find that I hungrily co-opt the best ideas from other writers. Romance writer B.J. Daniels told me that she has a snail-mail list several hundred addresses strong and sends each one a postcard to herald the arrival of a new book – and that the sell-through rate is fabulous. That one particularly appeals to me as it’s a throwback. It’s easy to lose oneself in a world driven by Facebook and Twitter, but sometimes, nothing beats a personal touch. With all credit to B.J., I’ll be stealing that idea.

So tell me, Blood-Red Pencil pushers: What are your best promotional practices? How do you keep going in the face of setbacks? I promise I won’t steal all of your ideas. Just the best ones.

Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and won the 2010 High Plains Book Award for best first book. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at CraigLancaster.net.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pros and Cons of Self-Pubbing

Even a few years ago, most professional writing advice doled out at conventions and forums said, “Never self-publish,” because it was seen as the mark of an amateur, a lunatic, or simply an impatient writer yet to put in the requisite years of craft.

Aside from that perception of “vanity publishing,” the commercial barriers were considerable. Even if you managed to print up hundreds of copies of your book, you had an uphill battle getting them into stores.

Technology has eliminated most of the barriers to entry. You can now upload a digital file and be “published” in minutes. There is no overhead and you actually have the chance to reach whatever audience you deserve, assuming you can find it.

For those who have used up the A-list of agents and the few publishers who will look at unagented manuscripts, it’s hard to argue against it. For those with out-of-print mass-market novels, it’s a no-brainer to seek a new audience and earn easy money for work already completed. Print-on-demand technology has even made paper books a reasonable option, with more small publishers and even a few of the bigger houses using it for limited runs.

So why should you even bother with a publisher anymore? After all, you can earn the bulk of the book’s revenue if you do it all yourself. But how much of “all” are you really qualified to do?

Can you find professional editing, a respectable graphic designer, and a publicist? Those are the primary advantages of New York, aside from the ability to give you a generous advance and put your books in stores. Of course, the level of attention your book gets will be directly proportional to both the publisher’s investment and the publisher’s sales outlook, which are almost always intimately connected.

Bookstores are always swapping out the inventory, so your book usually has between 30 days to a year to find a buyer, depending on format. After you’re removed, you’ve likely lost the rights to your own work and the project is dead for years, so you are losing both money and potential audience. That’s not an issue with self-publishing and digital publishing.

So if you accept that bookstores are vanishing, and the digital audience is growing, and most books end up with nothing but a single product page on Amazon anyway, then why should you give a publisher and the supporting cast 85 to 96 percent of your book’s income?

Simple. Your small cut of the publisher’s income may prove far more than you will ever make on your own. And if you are a bestseller, then you will still make far more money with a conventional deal.

If you know you will never be “good enough to be published,” and you have no patience to improve your craft, then you hardly have any reason not to be self-published. If you feel your work is so extreme or of such a niche market that no publisher will invest in it, then you, too, will probably want to self-publish. If you feel New York is a pretentious club where everything comes down to a secret handshake, then you’ll probably project that attitude in any submission and therefore New York is a waste of your time and theirs.

So, really, the only camp that even needs to struggle with the decision is the hard-working, aspiring midlist writer, one who dreams of a professional career. Going it alone is a hard road to wealth and success. But so is the other way.

These are philosophical debates that each writer must resolve to personal satisfaction, and which have no right or wrong answers. In the next installment, we’ll look at some of the publishing math—the kind with dollar signs in front of it.

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Scott Nicholson is embarking on a Kindle Giveaway Blog Tour from September through November to promote his 12 novels. He’s also giving away a Kindle 3 through his newsletter and a Pandora’s Box of e-books through his “hauntedcomputer” Twitter account. Details at www.hauntedcomputer.com/

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Designing The Real Alice: Art Meets Technology

Building a book like The Real Alice in Wonderland involves not only creativity and design skills, but an impressive array of technical knowledge in an evolving industry.

It sounds simplistic to say that a designer designing a book needs to remember that she is, ahem, designing a book, but it’s true—and it’s vital that the designer know not just that a book is being designed, but what kind of a book. Books demand design considerations that more typical designer projects—brochures, flyers, billboards, folders, even annual reports—don’t typically pose. Moreover, they’re not the sorts of things that any one is born knowing. Take, for example, the question of the gutter.

Every book has one. It’s the crevice in the center of the book where all the pages are bound together. In books like The Real Alice in Wonderland the binding method means that type and critical images must be positioned so that they end before the page disappears down into the gutter. The thicker the book, the deeper the crevice, and the wider the gutter needs to be for the type and images to look centered on the page. Unless, of course, the book has a “lay flat” binding, in which case the gutter virtually disappears, which alters the page design. See what I mean? Just knowing you’re building a book isn’t enough; you need to know what kind of book, too.

Be True To Your (Post Script) Type
Let’s return, for a moment, to the matter of type. When I was starting out designing on my little Macintosh Plus (state of the art 375 K disks, 3Mb hard drive, monochrome eight-inch monitor, or thereabouts), type was simple. We could use Times. Or we could use Helvetica, if we felt really funky and trendy. I myself went way out on a limb and used University Roman for my headers and subheads on a newsletter I did—and get this, I used rounded corners. It made such a splash that administrative assistants (which is what I was at the time) all over the region were using University Roman and rounded corners within a few short months.

If things had ended there designers’ lives would have been considerably simpler. But then we got the Adobe Library of Postscript fonts—thousands of type styles, available for just a few thousands of dollars. And then we got TruType Fonts, and then we got Bitstream fonts, and Lithos fonts, and Dingbats, and Wingdings, and then the IBM/PC people got fonts, too…

It was like the Renaissance. The only problem was that some of the fonts were designed for use with laser printers. Not postscript printers. The Linotronic machines used in pulling film in those days were postscript printers.

Easy peasy, right? Just use postscript fonts. Except that once the TruType and bitstream fonts were loaded it was often impossible to tell which were what. When a postscript printer encounters a non-postscript font it might manage to print it. Or it might give it the old college try and produce letters that look like they were designed by Atari. Or it might decide to choose a font of its own—and since the machines are by nature conservative this was almost always Times, Helvetica, or Courier—or (as just happened to me) it might decide, “Oh, what the heck,” throw up its hands and print nothing at all. (Word to the wise here: the Acrobat exporter for Illustrator Does Not Like the okina—the backwards apostrophe one sees in Hawaiian typesetting—and will frequently just eliminate it. As I just found out.)

Luckily the Open Type library happened, and typesetting is getting simpler again, as long as we designers stay away from our old fonts—the ones we’ve been hoarding and transferring from computer to computer for the last twenty years, because nobody's yet re-designed that font into the new Open Type format. And if occasionally we relapse and fall into our old TruType ways, well, then, sometimes we have to pay the price.

When Dropped Shadows Should Be Dropped
Drop shadows were the University Roman and rounded corners of about ten years ago. When the layout programs like Quark and InDesign started building them in it was like the Second Coming. Now, rather than laboriously creating a soft, feathered, drop shadow in Photoshop, importing it into our layout file, positioning it under the clipped image we were supposed to be shadowing, and applying esoteric overprint instructions on embedded file menus, we could create soft, feathered shadows with the touch of a button.

Most of the time, it worked. It worked so well that drop shadows showed up everywhere. And then embossing. And inner and outer glows. Design has its fads, just like any other industry. The problem is that sometimes those lovely, now easy, special effects interfere with the project as a whole. When a drop shadow is set too dark beside a dark element it’s hard to see what you’re looking at. Or, if the shadow gets too wide, and the variation in color is set wrong, you can end up with bands of color reminiscent of pants in the seventies, wrapped around your image. A style, I suppose, but not one to which most of us aspire.

In the end, building a book like The Real Alice successfully involves creativity, true, but it also involves an impressive range of skills in an ever-evolving industry. And it involves the sort of discipline that is by tradition Not Designery. It involves an enormous amount of research. It involves navigating complex art usage agreements. It involves book keeping on a level that boggles the mind. And if, in the end, if something occasionally slips, or defaults, or falls off the press, it’s a shame, but these things happen. I envy the Deborah Frano, who got to design this book.

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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Real Alice: A Real Challenge

I was so intrigued by Maryann's review of The Real Alice in Wonderland, by C.M. Rubin, with Gabriella Rubin, and designed by C.M. Rubin and Deborah Frano, I had to see it for myself. Since I live in a town that’s long on grain elevators and short on bookstores I hied myself to Amazon, clicked once, and Alice was mine.

The book’s absolutely astounding collection of Victorian elements and memorabilia—and Alice artwork and memorabilia in particular, is a bit like a really well-stocked buffet—it’s hard to know what to dip into first. The opportunity to work with such a wealth of visually materials doesn’t come around often for most of book designers. And The Real Alice is absolutely cover to cover with the kind of images that make designers drool (but not on the art, please!).

Projects like this pose an interesting dilemma, because their creative richness demands a level of discipline that can sometimes make the designer feel like the lowest level of bean-counter. The very materials that would seem to demand innovation and creativity can become overwhelming if they are not balanced by ample white space, and above all, discipline.

All of which seems counter-intuitive. The temptation is to overload the book with wonderful images and Victoriana. But in the same way that Victorian society balanced itself—after a fashion—by offsetting stereotypically sentimental women with stereotypically stern and unbending men—the whimsy of Alice demands a framework to balance it.

When I was first starting out as a designer, my boss and I would look over all of the pictures and artwork we had available for a job—and then he would start sorting for each spread. “Let this be your hero,” he would say. Every page was a dance, leader and followers, Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane.

I cannot begin to imagine that process with a book like The Real Alice, where every image can make a case for its right to be Superman. Even worse would be the choice of what to leave out in order to maintain that all-important white space, without which the images become not jewels, but a confusing jumble.

The second element to consider in balancing such a visually rich book is text and accent font choices. Again, the diversity and abundance of the images would seem to require a calligraphic font, a script font, or a font derived from the typography of the period. And that’s not a bad idea for the accent fonts—the ones that appear in the callouts, on title pages, and in major headings. But using an extremely distinctive, ornate font in body copy and captions can defeat the very purpose of the book—showcasing the very beautiful artwork.

When my boss and I talked about what was going to be the “hero” on the page we considered fonts, too. We would decide if we needed something calligraphic and “sweet” to soften a too-spartan look, or something “structured,” to offset too much “sweetness.” And then we considered type sizes, how much leading we would leave between the lines, and how we would define the various typographic elements like headers, subheads, text heads, text, captions, call-outs, running heads…you get the idea. Everything needed a style, and the bigger the project, the more important it was to make those decisions early on, and to stick to them.

That’s where the discipline comes in on a book like The Real Alice, which already has all the “sweet” and “pretty” anyone could hope for. In order to allow readers to see and understand just how very remarkable the art is, type needs to be simple, clean, and consistently styled. Otherwise it becomes an intrusion—yet another element, vying for Superman status.

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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Reference Book Essentials

If you are reading this blog, you are probably comfortable with the internet. You may even consider yourself to be a techie. I love technology. I love blogs. I love FaceBook. I love GoodReads. I absolutely adore Wikipedia. Research has been made unimaginably faster and easier with the availability of online databases and websites. However, there are times when reaching for a good, old-fashioned, printed reference book, can be the fastest, most efficient way to get information. I’ve listed some of my favorites. These are not much further than an arm’s length from my computer when I’m writing. As you look at these, think about the books you have at your workstation. Share with us some of your favorite reference titles and how you use them. Remember the wise words of Groucho Marx, “Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”

You may be writing a piece of historical fiction and wonder if your character would be more likely to make a phone call or send a telegram. This source will give the dates these came into use. Maybe your short story is set in 1978 and you want the characters to be watching the World Cup finals. Look up who played and what the score was. This one volume tome is thick, but its 10x8 inch format makes it easy to hold, store and use. I like New York Times publications but any one volume encyclopedia could serve this purpose.

My current favorite is the ULTIMATE VISUAL DICTIONARY by DK Publishing, but Facts on File also puts out a good one. Visual dictionaries give details about items that would take a long time to locate on the internet, even for the most adept searcher. For example, if you are writing about a knight, a quick look at the visual dictionary will tell you the breathing slots in the helmet of his armor are called ventails. The part of the armor that covers his thigh is called the cuisse and the part covering the shin is the greave. You’ve now taken your reader to the Round Table in a few sentences, without scanning through the 1,930,000 hits that come up when you Google knights armor.

Should your character have the title Esquire? If your character had an audience with the Pope, where would it take place? These are questions, along with the more traditional manners questions, that will be answered by an etiquette guide. Though I love Miss Manners style and humor, I find Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt more complete and useful. Etiquette guides can be expensive, but they need to be replaced every few years, as customs and protocols change.

Even professional writers have our grammatical demons. Mine is who vs. whom. Currently in its 15th edition, the Chicago Manual of Style has long been the ultimate source for these questions. GARNER’S MODERN AMERICAN USAGE is also a good addition to a writer’s reference library, but Chicago is a must-have.

Tell me about the books you find most useful. Maybe I'll need a bigger bookshelf by my computer.

Jo Klemm has worked as a librarian since 1985, with the exception of the eight years she raised her three girls. She has worked in public, medical school, university, and community college libraries and is currently working at Tarrant County College in Arlington, Texas as a Public Services Librarian and doing coursework on a doctorate. In her spare time, she is a professional storyteller, focusing on western and Texas stories and Arthurian legends. The written and spoken word has always fascinated her and, though she embraces technology, she worries that it is moving us away from appreciation of the power of the written word. In her teaching, storytelling, and writing, she tries to inspire and empower students to learn from great authors, old and new, and to find their own voice on the page. Visit her at http://glassyeyedjo.blogspot.com.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Writing as an Art—Two Part Harmony

I just completed a substantive edit/copyedit/proofread for a first-time writer. The story, aimed at young adults, included an impressive roster of characters and a significant amount of action, suspense, and intrigue aimed at keeping readers glued to its pages. This author could no doubt spin a yarn around a campfire that would keep listeners on the edges of their camp stools. Unfortunately, this doesn’t equate to creating a powerful, compelling, tight story on paper (or the hard drive).

To her credit, our inexperienced young writer wanted to learn her craft. She walked hand-in-hand with us as we reworked, rewrote, and recreated her book. During the first half of the story, we went over all our changes chapter by chapter. Unfortunately, the tight press date didn’t allow us to help her work through those processes herself, but despite that drawback, she presented us with an impressive rewrite of the ending that worked well and demonstrated writing skills we had not seen in the original version. Of course, it needed some editing, but she was learning from what we did and what we discussed.

This team effort resulted in a powerful, poignant story that began as a first attempt at novel. Even though the script needed significant help from the first sentence to the last, it was nearly perfect two part (writer, editor) harmony.

Not all writer/editor relationships are that harmonious. Some years ago, a man approached me about editing his manuscript. According to him, he had an agent waiting for it and a publisher in the wings. The story was worse than bad, and I spent considerable time whipping the first chapter into a cohesive, believable piece that might pass muster if presented to the right agent. To make a long story short, the author had a fit about the changes I suggested. He informed me that he liked his book in its present form, and he wouldn’t be needing any more of my editing services. He paid handsomely for the small amount of work I did, but I still felt a sadness. Editing isn’t all about the money. A good editor takes pride in doing a job well, in polishing a mediocre manuscript to a lustrous, marketable shine.

A couple years later, I saw that same book online. It had been self-published and was being promoted by the author himself. Apparently, the waiting agent and the publisher in the wings had second thoughts—no doubt after perusing the poorly written manuscript.

In this situation, no team work existed. The story might have had potential, but its neediness outweighed that potential so much that the author—who wasn’t about to let anybody show him how to write better—could never have placed it “as is” with any reputable agent/publisher. There was no teamwork, no two-part harmony to transform his book into a marketable work.

As a writer, have you found a harmonious relationship with an editor? What qualities do you look for in an editor when you know your story could be great, but you need a sharp editorial soul mate to make it happen? How important is “harmony” in the writer/editor relationship? What do you think? Or what has your experience been?
Linda Lane writes, edits, and publishes books. Her passion is teaching new writers how to hone their craft. You may contact her http://www.denvereditor.com/ 

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writers are Hookers

I used this title for my post because I wanted to get your attention. Writers have to grab the attention of readers.

Your opening words must reach out and grab readers fast or you'll lose them for sure. Sometimes a reader will stick with you for pages, maybe even chapters. But you can't count on it.

How do you choose a book in a bookstore? Read the back cover? Maybe scan the cover flap? Flip through the pages, checking the "white" to see if it contains mostly long, narrative writing or fast-paced dialogue? Read the opening paragraph?

Picture this: someone runs into the bookstore to grab a novel to read out on the beach or on a cruise. She hurries down the aisle, scanning book after book, reading the opening pages to see if it sounds interesting. Would your words reach out from the shelves and grab her?

Okay, let's back up a step. An agent (or editor), bone-tired and ready to call it quits after a long, depressing week, picks up a stack of manuscripts to take home for the weekend read. He sticks yours in among the 30 others. Will he open it, read the first page, the second, and not be able to put it down? Or will he read the first page, sigh, and fall asleep?

There are always exceptions, but readers (and agents and editors are readers, too) don't want to read pages or even paragraphs describing the weather or what a character is wearing or the bell tower (or whatever). If you put that in the opening sentences, it better be exceptional writing and intricate to the plot. The background story on the protagonist may be necessary to understand his arc, it may be essential to explain his actions, but is it essential to put it upfront? Is it worth losing readers? Could it be sprinkled in later?

Remember to start each scene--and your story as a whole--as close to the end as possible. A lot of times that means cutting the first chapter or maybe a whole chunk of pages. We write the first draft, then go back and realize the novel begins slowly because we've started the story way too early. We've given too much background or delayed the action. That means we haven't given the reader any reason to keep reading.

So many times when I’m editing for clients, I get well into the first chapter or even further into the book and I suddenly come across the opening. I’ll leave a comment like: This is where your story begins. The pages before that point are usually back story or a slow build-up. A lot of readers won’t get that far. They’ll quit and put the book back on the bookstore shelf.

And we really, really, want them to keep reading. To keep them turning pages you, the writer, must be…a hooker.
 Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tight Writing for Good Tweets

If anything can teach you the fine art of tight writing—saying the most with the least number of words—Twitter’s 140 character limit for tweets can.

Think in terms of a writing prompt, a little box to type in, a counter to keep you to the 140-character limit, and an audience as large as the number of followers you’ve accumulated.

Here’s an example:

Writing prompt: promote a new book release and take your tweeps (the Twitterers who follow you) to an online bookseller’s buy page.

Using the Little Pickle Press book, What Does It Mean to be Present? by Rana diOrio as an example, here’s the amazon.com url for the page to purchase the book:


The link has 110 characters. The title contains 33 characters. The author name is 11 characters long. We already have 154 characters to deal with even without additional text, spaces between words, punctuation, retweets, or the use of topic hashtags.

Here we go, step by step:

1. Use one of the url shortener websites to create a concise link for the amazon.com permalink. A permalink is the url for the precise page (a single book or a specific blog post) on a larger site (bookseller or blog). I use TinyURL! By adding their button to my toolbar, I can go to the page for which I’m creating a link, click on the TinyURL! button, and a new shortened url is created for me. For the amazon.com site mentioned above, my TinyURL! is:


There are other sites that provide a similar service.

2. In the Twitter “tweet” box, type the message you want to send, including the shortened url:

A new release from Little Pickle Press: What Does It Mean to be Present? by Rana diOrio. Buy it at amazon.com: http://tinyurl.com/2cm4bh6

This includes all of the information, but leaves only three characters for hashtag topics. Hashtags group tweets so followers and non-followers can locate information on their favorite subjects.

3. Adding hashtags: One hashtag topic that might be useful for Rana’s book is #kidlit. We need a space in front of the hashtag, so a total of eight available characters are needed. Many twitterers who use #kidlit also use #scbwi (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Here’s the revised tweet:

New release by Little Pickle Press: What Does It Mean to be Present? by Rana diOrio. Buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/2cm4bh6 #kidlit #scbwi

Again, all of the information is there, but there’s only one blank space at the end. What if someone wants to manually retweet the message? A retweet sends the tweet out to a new set of followers, expanding the number of people who might read the message and follow the link to buy the book.

4. Leave room for manual retweets: You need to leave enough blank spaces to accommodate the letters RT plus the original Twitter ID plus two blank spaces. Using my Twitter ID (@PStoltey) as an example (and note I kept mine short), the original message needs to be shortened again:

New from Little Pickle Press: What Does It Mean to be Present? by Rana diOrio. Buy: http://tinyurl.com/2cm4bh6 #kidlit #scbwi

And the retweeted version would look like this:

RT @PStoltey New from Little Pickle Press: What Does It Mean to be Present? by Rana diOrio. Buy: http://tinyurl.com/2cm4bh6 #kidlit #scbwi

If the retweeting follower wants to add a message, he’ll have to revise your tweet himself. A better option is to write tighter in the first place.

5. Using abbreviations and shortened word forms. Although you can use some of the common text-style abbreviations, I prefer to omit articles and use standard abbreviations so non-texting followers know what I’m tweeting about. I would shorten the tweet to this:

New! Little Pickle Press: What Does It Mean to be Present? by Rana diOrio. http://tinyurl.com/2cm4bh6 #kidlit #scbwi

So the RT and added comment can look like this:

RT @PStoltey New! Little Pickle Press: What Does It Mean to be Present? by Rana diOrio. http://tinyurl.com/2cm4bh6 #kidlit #scbwi >Excellent

For additional information about using Twitter:

1. Scroll through the articles at Dani Greer’s Blog Book Tour blog

2. Read the recently updated articles by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows) at The Writer’s Guide to Twitter. Debbie includes a list of links to related sources about Twitter, many specifically for writers.


Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Word Play Time by Morgan Mandel

Word Play Time Again -
Writing doesn't always have to be serious. There are ways to make it fun and learn something in the process. That's where Word Play comes in. Today, like every 2nd Tuesday of the month, we at The Blood-Red Pencil do the Word Play thing.

I pick out some words and you figure out how to use them in sentences, or parts of a story. Some words  may look alike, but mean something different. Others sound alike, but are spelled differently and also have different meanings.

My first choice is DATE.

Date - Verb - Going out with someone you do or might care about - She's going out on a date with him?

Date - Noun - A time element - What date was that again?

Date - Noun - A fruit - That date is kind of sticky.

My second choice is ROLL, ROLE

Roll - Verb - She knows how to roll with the punches.

Roll - Noun - Are you really putting butter on that roll?

Roll - Adjective - He did not answer the roll call.

Role - Noun - You don't have to play that role with me.

Now it's your turn. Think up sentences, phrases or small paragraphs using as many of the chosen words in as many meanings as you can and put them in our comment section. Remember to include a link as to where we can find you, in case we really like what you write. Only one link, please.

Let the Word Play begin!

Morgan Mandel

Author of Killer Career

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Writing in 140: Advice for Writers from Writers

Since 1999, I've interviewed nearly 300 authors, from Carly Phillips to Daniel Black, from Bernice McFadden to M.J. Rose, and I always ask, "What advice would you give to writers looking to be published?"

In all the interviews, six pieces of advice seem to resonate:

1- Write from the heart
2- Support and inspire new authors
3- Don't follow trends
4- Don't write for riches
5- Promote. Promote. Promote.
6- Never give up

In other words, writers should be connected to their writing (1, 3, 4), pay it forward (2), know their work and find avenues to sell that work (1, 5), and remember the road is hard but there is light at the end of the writing journey (6).

What quickie advice would you offer to writers looking to be published?

Writing in 140 is my attempt to say something somewhat relevant about writing in 140 words or less.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell is now available for purchase. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, promoting her debut project, writing screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Act First, Explain Later

Gone are the days when fiction readers were willing to read pages of description and lead-up before being introduced to the characters and the plot. Readers, agents, and publishers today don’t have the time or patience to wade through pages of backstory and description, so you need to grab their interest right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”

Here are twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel more compelling:

1. Don't begin with a long description of the setting or with background information on your main character. Do begin with dialogue and action; then add any necessary backstory or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.

2. Don't start with a character other than your protagonist. Do introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph.

3. Don't start with a description of past events. DO jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible.

4. Don't start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s. Do start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the protagonist’s point of view for the whole first chapter, or most of it, and don’t change the point of view within a scene.

5. Don't delay letting your readers get to know your protagonist, or present her in a static, neutral (boring) situation. Do develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her, and start caring enough about her to keep reading.

6. Don't start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life. Do have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue. That’s more compelling than reading the thoughts of one person.

7. Don't start with your protagonist planning a trip, or traveling somewhere, in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene. Do start in media res — jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.

8. Don't introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages. Do limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less.

9. Don't leave the reader wondering what the characters look like. Do provide a description of each character as they’re introduced, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds.

10. Don't have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. This had been overdone. Do work in the description by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.

11. Don't wait too long to introduce the hero (love interest), in a romance or romantic suspense. Do introduce the hero by the end of chapter one.

12. Don't spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces. Do introduce the main conflict (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapter.

Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there).

In conclusion, here’s a little rule for writing compelling fiction:
Act first, exp
lain later.

Jodie Renner is a former English teacher and librarian with a master’s degree and a lifelong passion for reading, especially fiction. For the past several years, Jodie has been running her own freelance manuscript editing business, specializing in fiction. She is also the copy editor for two magazines. To find out more about Jodie and her business, please visit her website at http://www.jodierennerediting.com/

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