Friday, August 30

How Not To Begin A Story

How Not To Begin A Story

There are many blogs that give good advice on the art and craft of writing. They have wonderful articles on story structure, finding your voice, sentence construction, admonishments to eschew weak verbs in favor of strong ones, as well as dire warnings against the ever-present danger of giving in to adverb use.

In my opinion, one of the best blogs is Jane Friedman: writing, reading and publishing in the digital age. (Of course Jane Friedman's blog is about a great many things.)

Anyway, enough of that. Let's talk about what's gotten me so darn excited!

K.M. Weiland wrote a post for Jane Friedman and it's one of the best posts on story openings I've read, so I wanted to both share it with you and encourage you to head on over to Jane Friedman's blog and read it for yourself. The title is: 4 Big Pitfalls in Story Openings.

Also, K.M. Weiland has come out with a book on story structure: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. I bought it right after I finished the article, I'm sure it'll be worth the $2.99. I'd spend more than that on a coffee!

4 Ways Not To Start A Story

When I was a kid, I think I was five, I decided I'd tell my father a story. I think it went something like this:
I got up this morning and I dressed myself but my shoes weren't right so mommy helped me and then I walked to school and then I saw Michele in the playground and we talked and then the bell rang and then ...
It was horrible.

One thing that was missing was ...

1. Suspense: Raise a question with your very first sentence.

I've talked about this before, but the first sentence--the very first sentence!--of your story should raise a question in the readers mind.

Humans are suckers for wanting a question answered. This is used against us in dozens of ways every day.

You've probably seen those TV commercials where a huckster asks: "How much do you think you'd have to pay for this mop in the store? Well, I'm going to throw in another mop. That's right. How much would you'd pay for this now? I'll give it to you for the low, low, price of ..."

Humans can be manipulated in a number of ways. As Lee Child mentioned, sports shows try to retain viewer attention across commercial breaks by asking a sports question before the break. The idea is that viewers, even if they don't care about the question or answer, will be more likely to stick around.

Raising a question in the readers mind in that very first sentence is vitally important. (Also, answering it at the end of the book is equally important. If you don't, there will be howls of protest.)

K.M. Weiland points out that the strength of this technique can be diluted in a number of ways:

a. Don't withhold the protagonist's name.

K.M. Weiland writes:
Award-winning author Linda Yezak explains, “[N]ameless, faceless characters don’t usually draw readers into the story. In other words, get your readers to bond with your characters early … [by letting] the reader know who they are.”

b. Don't make readers guess about the age of the protagonist.

You don't have to be precise, but readers want to have a ballpark idea of the protagonist's age.

c. Give your readers at least one peek into your protagonist's personality early on.

K.M. Weiland writes that this could be his:

- occupation
- a prominent personality trait
- a defining action

d. Don't make your readers guess about where the scene is taking place.

K.M. Weiland writes:
"Don’t leave your characters exploring a white room. Readers need to know if the scene is taking place in a café, a forest, a bedroom, or an airplane."

e. Make it clear who the other characters in the scene are.

When you introduce a character at least give the name of the character. I'm talking about major characters here, not characters that appear for a few sentences and then disappear. Some readers expect a character to stay around if you give them a name.

K.M. Weiland has three more points, but I think this post is long enough! I'll continue on Monday.

Fabulous Writing Resource: Roy Peter Clark on iTunes (FREE!)

I've included this link in my Twitter feed, but I wanted to share it with you here as well. Roy Peter Clark has put up a number of short audio files with fabulous tips on how to strengthen your writing.

This is the kind of thing I wish I'd listened to when it was just starting out.

Roy Peter Clark on iTunes: Roy's Writing Tools.

PS: My apologies. I pressed a mysterious key combo--I have no idea what it was!--and inadvertently published a draft of this post. I'm sorry for any confusion that caused.

Photo credit: "untitled" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, August 28

A Writer's Voice: What It Is And How To Develop Yours

A Writer's Voice: What It Is And How To Develop Yours

A few days ago Elizabeth Craig--a writer I admire not only for her prose but also for her writing on writing--posted an article, Telling a Story in Our Own Voice, about how to develop your voice. That's what I'd like to talk about today.

First of all, what the heck is a writer's voice? What do we mean when we use that term?

What is a writer's voice?

One of the best, and most profane, discussions of a writer's voice comes from Chuck Wendig's blog, Terribleminds (adult language -->): 25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice. Interestingly, Chuck Wendig's writing is a wonderful demonstration of voice in action.

No one writes like Chuck Wendig.

Why? He has a unique voice. I know that "unique" doesn't admit of qualification--something is unique or it isn't--but I really want to say that Chuck is amazingly, extravagantly, unique. And that's part of his voice, part of his (if I may put it like this) identity as a writer.

Once someone tried to fake a blurb from Chuck Wendig. It didn't go over. Anyone who read Chuck Wendig could tell he hadn't written it. Why? It didn't have his voice. Similarly, that's how Stephen King was identified with Richard Bachman. They had the same voice and a writer's voice is unique.

This is how Chuck Wendig puts it in his blog post 25 Things:
"A writer’s voice is an incomprehensible and largely indefinable combo-pack of — well, of just about anything. Style, dialogue, tropes, themes, genres, sub-genres, ideas, characters, stereotypes, archetypes, word choice, grammatical violations, and so forth. Anybody who tells you that David Foster Wallace’s voice does not include his obsession with footnotes should be shoved into a cannon and fired into the mouth of a great white shark. Voice is not one thing. It is, in fact, the summation of a writer."

How Does A Writer Find Her Voice?

I know I've been talking a lot about Chuck Wendig, but I want to share one last thing from him since he gives one of the best pieces of advice on how to find one's voice I've read:
“Every author decides to go on a grand adventure one day, and that grand adventure is to find her voice. She leaves the comfort of her own wordsmithy and she traipses through many fictional worlds written by many writers and along the way she pokes through their writings to see if her voice is in there somewhere. She takes what she reads and she mimics their voices, taking little pieces of other authors with her in her mind and on the page.

Is her voice cynical? Optimistic? Short and curt, or long and breezy? She doesn’t know and so she reads and she writes and she lives life in an effort to find out.

This adventure takes as long as it takes, but one day the author tires of it and she comes home, empty-handed, still uncertain what her voice looks like or sounds like.

And there, at home, she discovers her voice is waiting. In fact, it’s been there all along.

Your voice is how you write when you’re not trying to find your voice. Your voice is the way you write, the way you talk. Your voice is who you are, what you believe, what themes you knowingly and unknowingly embrace.

Your voice is you. Search for it and you won’t find it. Stop looking and it’ll find you.”
That's from The Grand Adventure To Find Your Voice.

I think, though, that there are some things you can do, writing exercises, that can help one find their voice and that's what I'd like to talk about in this section.

Here are a few things you can do to help develop your voice:

1. Write

Yes, I know, that one is obvious.

Or is it?

Sometimes I think we feel there's no point in writing until we've found our voice; what would be the point? But writing, in the end, and writing a lot, is the only way to find the bloody thing.

I know, it can seem like a catch 22 but it's really not. There are many ways to practice writing, many ways to fill up your one million words.

- Blog
- Write short stories (I love short stories because they give you the thrill, the feel, the high, of finishing a story, of holding it in your sweaty sleep-deprived hands and knowing you did that.)
- Blog
- Write reviews
- Write letters to the editor
- Blog
- Write a book or a novella
- Write guest blogs

You get the idea.

2. Mimic other writers

Sounds crazy, I know. How could mimicking the voice of other writers help you find your own?

But one thing musicians do, when they're learning, is play the songs of other musicians over and over until they get a feel for the song. Or so I'm told.

Here's an exercise:

Day One

a. Pick a book. It should be written by someone whose writing you admire, and it should be one you've already read.

b. From the book you've chosen, select a scene. It should be a scene you thought was especially well written, a scene that made your heart twinge and you to think: I want to write like that. If it's a long scene, just select two or three pages from it.

c. Write out those two or three pages. If you normally write your first draft longhand, then write this out longhand, if you normally type your first draft, then type the pages.

Note: This is only for your edification so don't worry about copying out the pages. You can cross them out or delete them when you're finished. The important thing is the act of writing them out. As I wrote in another article (3 Steps To Better Prose), copying out the words gives you a feel for the writer's timing, their rhythm.

d. Write a few paragraphs that mimic the style of the writing you've just copied. For example, if the scene you wrote out was a love scene then write a love scene. If the scene took place on a boat crossing the Atlantic Ocean then yours should too. The idea is to write the scene again, mimicking the authors style.

Day Two

e. The next day, select another scene from the book you chose and repeat steps (b), (c) and (d), above.

Day Three

f. The next day, select another scene from the book you chose and repeat steps (b), (c) and (d), above. (No, this isn't a stutter.)

Day Four

g. Pick a new book and repeat the process from (a), above.

Repeat the above for about three months and you will have not only gone a step further in finding your own voice but you will have improved your prose in the process!

3. Use an exemplar

Elizabeth Spann Craig writes:
"One tip that I found:  once you’ve written a passage of your book in the voice you’re shooting for, print that portion out and keep it near you.  When you feel you’re sounding stilted again, reread the passage that you wrote. It can help to reorient you. (Telling a Story in Our Own Voice)"

4. Study your past work

In her article, Telling a Story in Our Own Voice, Elizabeth Craig gave links to other (truly wonderful) articles on finding your voice, one of which is Janice Hardy's post Can You Hear Me Now? Developing Your Voice.

Janice Hardy writes:
"If you're uncertain about your own voice, try studying your work, past and present. Look for common elements, pieces that feel like you, things you like about how you put together words. Study your word choice, how you arrange paragraphs, how you control pacing and flow. Find the parts that are you, and then develop those aspects."
By the way, both Janice Hardy (@janice_hardy) and Elizabeth Craig (@elizabethscraig) have wonderful twitter feeds. They regularly tweet links to helpful writing resources.

I'd like to leave you with two pieces of advice from Janice Hardy (this is still from her article, Can You Hear Me Now?):
Don't edit your voice out
We do terrible things to sentences to make them "correct." Writing isn't about grammatically correct sentences or having every period in exactly the same place. Sentence fragments, not using whom vs who properly, bad grammar -- all of these things bring our work to life. While you can't ignore the rules all the time, breaking them to achieve an effect is acceptable.

Don't edit out the terms you naturally use
Regions have a voice all their own. If I say someone has a Southern accent, you know what I mean. They're from New Jersey? You hear it. If you have ways of saying things and those ways fit with your characters, use them.  
That's all for now, good writing!

Photo credit: "..." by seyed mostafa zamani under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, August 27

Writing Advice From Joyce Carol Oats & Stephen King

Writing Advice From Joyce Carol Oats & Stephen King

I love reading writing advice from authors I admire, authors like Joyce Carol Oates, professionals who have been writing for years and who kindly share their hard won wisdom with the rest of us.

For those of you who are a bit foggy on who Joyce Carol Oates is, here is a brief bio courtesy of Wikipedia:
Joyce Carol Oates (born June 16, 1938) is an American author. Oates published her first book in 1963 and has since published over forty novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She has won many awards for her writing, including the National Book Award, for her novel them (1969), two O. Henry Awards, and the National Humanities Medal. Her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
The following quotations are from: 10 Tips on Writing from Joyce Carol Oates. Ms. Oates recently tweeted the following writing advice.
"The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE."
What do you think? Personally I love writing first drafts--well, most of the time--what I loathe with a fiery passion is revising. But I do revise. For me, that's the work part.
"When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)"
"Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!"
I would add: But never on the first draft! I think of my first drafts as zero drafts where anything goes.

I can't resist sneaking in a quote from another of my literary heroes, Stephen King:
"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior. (On Writing)"
The above quotation was taken from The Adverb Is Not Your Friend: Stephen King on Simplicity of Style. A great article. If you are a new writer and haven't read Stephen King's On Writing you're missing out.

These quotations come from Brain Pickings, a gruesome name but a terrific blog. 

Good writing!

Photo credit: "Dream" by seyed mostafa zamani under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, August 22

Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down

Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down

Keeping in mind that rules are made to be broken, here are 3 tips from various pros on how to keep readers from putting your book down:

1. Lee Child: Ask a question and make people wait for the answer.

According to Zackary Petit's Writer's Digest article, Lee Child Debunks the Biggest Writing Myths, bestselling author Lee Child holds that suspense boils down to "asking a question and making people wait for the answer."

At ThrillerFest 2012, Lee Child said he believes that:
"[H]umans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued."

.  .  .  .

“The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end,” he said.

"When he’s crafting his books, Child doesn’t know the answer to his question, and he writes scene by scene—he’s just trying to answer the question as he goes through, and he keeps throwing different complications in that he’ll figure out later. And that very well may be the key to his sharp, bestselling prose.

“For me the end of a book is just as exciting as it is for a reader,” he said."
Lee Child expands on this method of building suspense in his New York Times article, A Simple Way To Build Suspense. Also, here is an engrossing read about how and why Lee Child became a writer. It's a short and well written biography: The Curious Case of Lee Child.

2.  David Farland: Front-load the conflict

David Farland, in his article Opening Strategies, suggests there are two main ways to create conflict.

One, which we've just read about, is to "create a mystery in the opening pages, taking perhaps a dozen chapters to reveal the main conflict".

The other is "to front-load the book, giving the reader a massive conflict on the opening page".

Great! But how do we do that?

3. Eileen Cook: Increase your conflict by turning conflict resolution techniques on their head

Eileen Cook, a fabulous writer and all around lovely person, wrote an article entitled, helpfully: 5 Ways To Increase Conflict. Here are a few of her tips:

a. Atmosphere: Pick a place that's uncomfortable for your characters

Eileen writes:
"In real life you want to choose the right environment to have a difficult conversation. You want to choose a place where the individual can focus on what you are saying and not instantly feel defensive or uncomfortable.  In fiction, try and have the conflict happen in the most uncomfortable place possible for your characters.

"Imagine a man telling his fiancé that he doesn’t think he can go through with the wedding. Now imagine him telling her in the back of the church just before the wedding, or worse yet, right after the ceremony, or as the flight takes off for their honeymoon."

b. The more the merrier: causing characters to clash

Add characters who will make an already conflict-ridden situation worse. Eileen gives us these questions:
- "Who does your character want on their side in an argument?"
- "Who is the person your character least wants to oppose?"
- "In the wedding example above it’s bad if the groom is in love with someone else, it’s worse if it’s the maid of honor, or her sister, or his best man."

c. Rather than focusing on what is said, focus on who said it and what they may have meant by it

In other words, just do the opposite of whatever a good conflict resolution manual tells you! Eileen gives this example:
"For example, there are two teen girls.  One finds out that the other went to a party with another group and didn’t tell her. What might she accuse her of? You don’t want to be my friend. You’re embarrassed by me."
How this applies to your manuscript: "Look at your manuscript, what meaning does your character put onto what is said/done? What can they accuse the person of?"

d. Push your character's triggers

What are your characters "hot buttons"? What will set her/him off? Get your characters to fight dirty, that's sure to increase conflict!

Eileen's exercise: "Look at your manuscript and make notes where the characters can have an “oh no you didn’t” moment."

Rather than focus on what your characters have in common, focus on what makes them different. Eileen writes: "If your character perceives giving ground means they lose something, they will fight to win rather than compromise."

Eileen's pointers:
- "What does your character stand to lose if they lose this conflict? What is at risk?"
- "Can you set up two characters with opposing goals?"
- "Do you have a character that wants two opposing things at the same time? I want the big promotion at work and I want to spend more time with my family."
Here's her parting advice:
"When in doubt, go big.  Drop a plane wing, add a zombie, have them realize that the two things they want most in the world can’t both be had at the same time.  Your characters may hate you for it, but readers will love it."
I've attended several of Eileen Cook's writing workshops and they are fabulous. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, think twice before you pass it up.

As Bugs Bunny says, "That's all folks!" Happy writing.

Photo credit: "STHLM #8" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Copyright 2.0.

Tuesday, August 20

10 Tips On How To Write A Book

10 Tips On How To Write A Book

A few days ago Delilah S. Dawson wrote a post on Chuck Wendig's blog, Terribleminds, about how she writes a book. It's awesome! I wish I'd read something like it when I was starting out.

Delilah concentrates on writing for traditional publishers but a large part of her post is applicable to indie's as well. Here's a few of the points that resonated with me.


How To Write A Book

What follows is loosely based on Delilah S. Dawson's excellent post 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition.


1. Writers write

This is less a 'how you do it' point than it is what to expect. Chances are, putting your posterior in a chair every day for several hours is not what you'll want to do. (Not to mention the back pain.)

There will usually be something more appealing to work on than writing. Even housework will begin to seem fun by comparison (at least, this has been my experience, and I loathe housework).

It helps to be disciplined, to make a schedule and stick to it. Neil Gaiman writes:
"If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.

"You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.

"The process of writing can be magical. … Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another." (Neil Gaiman on How Writers Learn and Why First Drafts Don’t Matter)
Whether you write when you first get up in the morning, after you get your first jolt of caffeine (my preferred time when I'm writing a first draft), or sometime else, the important thing is to set up a routine and stick to it.

2. Don't give up.

Even if it seems you're writing crap, keep writing.

When you come back and look at your work the next day, it won't be as bad as you thought. In fact, as Chuck Wendig recently said, it might be good (see his post (adult language -->): Yes, Virginia, You Can Totally Force Art).

Conversely, you'll have days where you think everything you write is brilliant. Unfortunately, chances are, the next day when you look at what you did you'll think it's simply average.

If you've never written a book before, the important thing is simply to finish the manuscript even if you know its destined to be lovingly interred under your bed. After all, it counts toward your 1,000,000 words.

Incidentally, if you haven't come across the idea that every writer has to write 1,000,000 words before they can produce a truly good book, here's a quotation from that master of the writers' craft, Ray Bradbury:
"The Muse must have shape. You will write a thousand words a day for ten or twenty years in order to try to give it shape, to learn enough about grammar and story construction so that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distorting the Muse." (Zen in the Art of Writing)
In order to write well we must first write. If that means we write badly then so be it. After all, one must write to have something to edit!
As I searched for the Ray Bradbury quotation, above, I came across a couple more:
"Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed." (Ray Bradbury) 
"The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything." (John Irving)

3. To write you must read

I can say from personal experience both that it's tempting to stop reading when you're writing--I've become a miser with time and try to squeeze minutes and seconds from my day any which way I can--and that eliminating your reading time is one of the worst things you could do.

Reading feeds you. When you write it's like your muse is running a marathon. She needs to be fed and one of the main ways that happens is through reading.

Also, though, one needs to take walks, meet people and enjoy the creative efforts of others. 

Another important function of reading is that it helps us learn to become better writers. Often I'll sense that something is lacking from a particular scene and, when I read, I'll have a revelation and understand what's missing from my own work. Delilah writes:
"It [reading] helps keep your mind nimble and constantly growing new neural connections. What the author did right, what they did wrong--your brain just soaks it up like Kraken rum in a sponge cake. Read other genres, read the popular books that you think probably suck just to see what makes them so appealing. Read nonfiction. Read writing books. When you’re getting ready to revise or query, read books similar to your own to finesse what makes yours special. But always be reading ..."

4. Finish what you start

I guarantee you that at some point when you're writing your book--this will probably happen more than once--you'll have an almost irresistible desire to start writing another story. You'll have a grand idea, a compelling concept will pop into your noggin, and it'll be so beautiful and wonderful that you'll want to abandon the plodding piece of so-and-so your current manuscript has morphed into and work on it.

As Admiral Ackbar said: It's a trap!

Yes, absolutely, write down the idea--I have an idea book where I write down story concepts--but then go back to your work in progress. Delilah writes:
"You’ll never learn anything if you don’t finish a book. At first, you might not know what your process is. Are you a plotter? Do you ride by the seat of your pants? Do you like Scrivener or longhand or writing on your bathtub wall in pig blood? You’ll never know what works until you’ve written one complete book. Your process might change later. But for now, focus on writing a really crappy first draft in whatever way appeals and don’t stop until the ride is over." 

5. First drafts are vomited up rather than written down 

I don't let anyone see my first drafts. They aren't pretty. 
I've begun to think of my first drafts as zero drafts. They give me a chance to wallow in an idea, seeing where it's going to lead. It gives me a starting place, a structure.

Delilah writes, and I agree 100%:
"Looking for a leg up on improving your writing at any point of this writing thing? Go read ON WRITING by Stephen King, which is a game changer and, for me, a life changer. Then read BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott. Then read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder."

6. When you finish your first book celebrate but don't send it out, not yet

Finishing your first book is a big deal. Treat yourself. Tell your friends. Go out and celebrate.
But all you have at this point is a first draft that needs a lot of polish. But, before you start editing, you need distance from your manuscript. You need to be able to read it with new eyes, and that'll take time.
How much time? Well, that depends on who you talk to. If I remember correctly, Stephen King says to give it 6 weeks. I'd say, if you can, give it at least a month. In the meantime, though, don't stop writing. Start on a short story or begin work on your next book.

7. Revise

You've set your manuscript aside for a few weeks, now you're starting on your first revision, your second draft.

Everyone's different, but I find it usually takes me (at least) twice as long to do my first revision as it does to write the first draft. Why? I'll let Delilah explain:
"Don’t read it like it’s your precious perfect baby darling. Read it like it’s your worst enemy’s magnum opus and your job is to expose its every tragic flaw. Are the characters flat? Does the dialog pop, or is the dialog just you using the characters’ mouths for your own assplaining? Is there purple prose? Does the action compel you to keep reading? Is there a satisfying story arc? Do you switch POV or tense? Because, honestly, I do that all the damn time. If you get bored reading it, so will your audience."
The first draft is just the beginning. The first draft is the easy part.

The first draft is where you get to pluck ideas out of your imagination and write them down, creating connections, dreaming up people and places and adventures. The second draft, on the other hand, is where things get real and you have to straighten hems and make sure everything is presentable and ready for company.

8. Polish

Don't stop with revision. Once you've got the big things figured out go through your manuscript again looking for anything that weakens it. (Here's a terrific article on the subject: Self-Editing for Everyone Part 4: The Weakeners.) Look for words you don't need, words that don't add anything to the meaning of your prose.

Although there's nothing wrong with adverbs in and of themselves, often adverbs are used in ways that bloat and weaken sentences. Stephen King has an excellent discussion of this in On Writing.

Also, I would suggest that you not only read the manuscript aloud to yourself but that you run it through a text-to-speech program that will read it back to you. When I hear my words read back to me I find a host of typos.

9. As other people for input 

Who you ask, how many people you ask, is up to you but you definitely need to give your manuscript to someone else to read.
Dean Wesley Smith, a professional writer with many years experience, gives his manuscripts to a first reader and then sends them off. Other people like running their manuscripts past their writing group.

Try out different things and find out what works for you. 

Also, if you can afford it, there are many excellent professional developmental editors who can help you make your manuscript stronger.

Here are some links to previous articles of mine on the editing and critiquing process:

10. Start writing your next story

After you've polished your story and have sent it out--whether you've published it yourself or sent it to traditional publishers--start on your next story!

Delilah S. Dawson's article, 25 Steps To Being A Traditionally Published Author, goes on to list the steps she took in her adventure to becoming a traditionally published author. It's a great article.
Happy writing!

Photo credit: "At Lands End" by Sharon Mollerus under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, August 18

A Publishing Checklist: What To Do When You Self Publish

A Publishing Checklist: How To Self Publish A Book

This month, one of my favorite mystery writers, Elizabeth Spann Craig, shared her checklist of things to do when she publishes a book: Release Activities for the Reluctant Promoter.

I was SO happy to read Elizabeth's post; I did the Scooby dance. I love checklists, I'm always forgetting something, and it never occurred to me to print out a publishing checklist and tack it to the back of my office door.

So, without further ado, here's Elizabeth's checklist for self published books. By the way, for your traditionally published authors, do head over to Elizabeth's blog, she has a checklist for you as well.

Elizabeth Craig's Indie Publishing Checklist


1. Upload your book to the online retail stores of your choice. For me, that means: Smashwords, Kobo and Kindle. Elizabeth Craig puts her book in Nook as well, but I let Smashwords take care of that for me.

2. Create a POD version of your book. Two great services for this are CreateSpace and Lightning Source.

3. I check Smashwords to make sure there were no issues with the upload and the meatgrinder didn't choke on my manuscript. I keep checking back until I see my book made it into their Premium Catalog.

4. Elizabeth Craig creates an audiobook version using Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX).


1. Update website.

Put a thumbnail of your cover up and link it to a book page on your website with a larger image and an excerpt from the book as well as links to everywhere folks can purchase a copy. If you get a great review, don't be shy about putting that up as well!

2. Update your social networks.

- Blog about your new release. This is one of the main reasons authors need to have blogs! It's a great way to let your readers know you've written another book.

- Tweet about it. Tweet your blog post and let all your Twitter followers know you've released a wonderful new book.

- Facebook. Elizabeth Craig posts a publication announcement on Facebook.

3. Amazon Author page. Don't forget to add your new publication to your list of books.

4. Goodreads. The wonderful folks at Goodreads will want to know about your latest book. (By the way, if you don't have an author account on Goodreads drop by their Author Program page and get one.)

5. LinkedIn. I don't use linked in, but if you do it's a good idea to update it.

6. Update bios. I haven't done this lately and probably should. Remember to keep your bios up to date, including the photo!

7. Tell your newsletter subscribers about your new book. Perhaps tell them a bit beforehand and offer them a promo code to either get free copies, sale copies or something cool like a mug or t-shirt.


1. Goodreads Giveaway. Elizabeth Craig writes, "Once I’ve got CreateSpace live, [I] order copies for a Goodreads giveaway." This probably deserves another blog post and, of course, a link on your website.

2. I've mentioned this, above, but you could let your newsletter subscribers know in advance about your book coming out and perhaps have some sort of a giveaway.

3. Many authors find blog tours productive. If you don't have time for a blog tour, you can always write a few guest posts.

4. Some authors use Amazon's Select program to promote their books. I've written about that here and here.

As Elizabeth Craig says, the number one thing you need to do when releasing a book is keep writing!
Best of luck, may all your book releases be smooth. Cheers!

Photo credit: "London: Tower bridge and the Thames" by Caroline under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, August 14

The World's Top Earning Authors of 2013

The World's Top Earning Authors of 2013

Quick blog post today.

I'm in the middle of polishing a story that's almost ready to be sent off. The love-hate relationship I have with my manuscripts has veered over to the hate side of things and I just-want-to-get-the-bloody-thing-done! It's what comes from going over it about a billion times.

I used to feel guilty about hating my manuscript--the emotion only lasts for a while, after it has been out to door for about a week I'll love it again--until Stephen King admitted in, On Writing, that he sometimes hates his manuscripts too.

In any case, I'll leave you with what I call 'the dream list.' Personally, I'm hoping to be #17 one day. #1 would be great but then my life wouldn't be my own, I'd have to dress up and put on makeup to go to the corner store for milk! #17 has millions of dollars and anonymity. Kudos.

From Forbes: The World's Top-Earning Authors.

1. E.L. James, $95 million
2. James Patterson, $91 million
3. Suzanne Collins, $55 million
4. Bill O'Reilly, $28 million
5. Danielle Steel, $26 million
6. Jeff Kinney, $24 million
7. Janet Evanovich, $24 million
8. Nora Roberts, $23 million
9. Dan Brown, $22 million
10. Stephen King, $20 million
11. Dean Koontz, $20 million
12. John Grisham, $18 million
13. David Balacci, $15 million
14. Rick Riordan, $14 million
15. J.K. Rowling, $13 million
16. George R.R. Martin, $12 million

Photo credit: "Winter Meal" by Jan Tik under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, August 12

Amazon Sales Ranking Explained

Amazon Sales Ranking Explained

Theresa Ragan has written the most useful article I've read concerning what Amazon's sales ranking means: Sales Ranking Chart.

Theresa's entire article is well worth the read, but here is an excerpt:
Amazon Bestsellers Rank is the number you find beneath the Product Description. Every book on Amazon has an Amazon Bestsellers Rank. Click on any title and then scroll down until you see it.

March 2013 update: rankings have changed substantially in the past few months and I am making changes to reflect rankings and book sales as information is given to me.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 50,000 to 100,000 - selling close to 1 book a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 10,000 to 50,000 - selling 3 to 15 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 5,500 to 10,000 - selling 15 to 30 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 3,000 to 5,500 - selling 30 to 50 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 500 to 3,000 - selling 50 to 200 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 350 to 500 - selling 200 to 300 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 100 to 350 - selling 300 to 500 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 35 to 100 - selling 500 to 1,000 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank 10 to 35 - selling 1,000 to 2,000 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank of 5 to 10 - selling 2,000 to 4,000 books a day.

Amazon Best Seller Rank of 1 to 5 - selling 4,000+ books a day.
Once again, Theresa Ragan's article is: Sales Ranking Chart.

I came across Theresa's blog  because I've started reading The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing, a book she contributed to. So far it's been informative.

Photo credit: "verfremdeter lavendel" by fRandi-Shooters under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, August 11

Hugh Howey, Liliana Hart and Matthew Mather: How To Write And Sell Books

Hugh Howey, Liliana Hart and Matthew Mather: How To Write And Sell Books

Usually I write about how to create the best book one possibly can. Today I want to talk about how to sell the most books one possibly can.

As I've mentioned in other posts, I write under pen names (and, no, +John Ward, I'm not telling you what they are ;) but am now getting to the point that I need to start thinking about how to market them most effectively.

Today I'd like to share with you some of my research. I found it inspirational and thought you might too. Most of what follows is a potluck of opinions from successful authors. I hope that, as I have, you find something in the following to help you in your own journey as an indie author.

(The first two authors I look at were featured on a terrific blog I've just begun following from the Alliance of Independent Authors.)

Hugh Howey

"Hugh Howey is an American author, known for his popular series WOOL, which he independently published through's Kindle Direct Publishing system. (Wikipedia)"
The following interview is from: How I Do It: Super Successful Indie Authors Share Their Secrets. This week: Hugh Howey.

Hugh Howey's advice: "Write as if nobody will read it; publish as if everyone will read it."
What was the single best thing you ever did?
"I published. I made each work available, and then I moved on to the next story. I also didn't fall into the trap of falling in love with my first world or first set of characters. It's easy to write sequels for the rest of your life, when no one has read the first book. That leaves you forever marketing your weakest material. Instead, I wrote in a variety of genres and styles and for all ages. When something took off, I concentrated on that."
.  .  .  .
How do you get/stay in creative mode?
I don't wait for inspiration to strike. I sit down every day and work on my story. The creativity comes after you've got a nice sweat beading up on your brow. If you wait until you're in the mood, you'll never get anything done.

How do you prioritise?
I set goals. I want to write 2,000 words a day when I'm starting a draft. When I'm revising, I try to get through three chapters a day. When I'm editing, I aim for fifteen chapters a day. I often exceed my goals, but having them is what gets me cranking in the morning.

Liliana Hart

"Liliana Hart is a USA Today and New York Times Bestselling Author in both the mystery and romance genres. ...

"... Since self-publishing in June of 2011, she's sold more than a million ebooks all over the world. ...
The following interview is from: How I Do It: Super Successful Indie Authors Share Their Secrets. This week: Liliana Hart.
What's the secret of your success?
Hard work and having new books out on a consistent basis. I write all the time. Once you start self-publishing you have to constantly "feed the beast".

.  .  .  .

Did you get lucky? What happened?

… I honestly think if you keep putting out quality content with a professional package that you’re going to find success. Hard work pays off, and self-publishing is a lot of hard-work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love being in control of my career and being able to make changes if I need to.

Matthew Mather

"Matthew Mather  is the best-selling author of CyberStorm, recently acquired for film by 20th Century Fox, and the six-part hit series Atopia Chronicles. He is also a leading member of the world’s cybersecurity community who started out his career working at the McGill Center for Intelligent Machines. ("
Matthew Mather has developed a system for marketing his books, one he shared with readers for the first time earlier this month in his post: SHAKESPEARE system for helping authors figure out self-publishing.

Matthew Mather's SHAKESPEARE system for self-publishing

Where Hugh Howey and Liliana Hart talked about the key to producing novels, Matthew Mather is focused on marketing the finished product. Rather than stepping through his points one by one I'll let you read his excellent article for yourself and, instead, pick out what I thought were the highlights.

1. Make your protagonist someone your readers can like

MM writes:
"It is critical to create a character that you introduce readers to right away that they can empathize with. People read still primarily because they want to feel an emotional involvement with a character they meet in your writing. Keep this front and center of your mind when writing."

2. Get feedback

MM writes:
"Craigslist and other free online classified ads are the secret weapon for a new authors. It is incredibly difficult to get outside feedback when you are a new writer. My solution? Post an ad saying you’ll pay someone $10 or $20 to read your book and give you honest feedback. Note that this is not for line editing, but for high level feedback to make your story more engaging in an iterative process.

"Bonus: Get 20 people to read your book like this; these people will probably become your biggest promoters and will be happy to write reviews and Facebook and tweet your book when released.

"Free PR – When you release your book, create several press releases about different aspects of the book, what it is about, why people would like it. When you release each of the story segments, put these press releases up on the free press release websites. There are about a dozen high quality free release sites out there. Highlight that the short story that is free that week."

3. Focus on Amazon

MM writes:
"To start, focus only on Amazon. I’m not here to promote Amazon, but the first rule of entrepreneurism is to focus, focus, focus. The large majority of revenue in digital books comes from Amazon, with a small minority coming from all of the other players combined. So when you start, focus on Amazon by itself; getting reviews, getting up in the ranking. By only going on Amazon, you force people to buy from one place and thus drive up your rankings in this one spot. Once you have achieved some success there, expand to other platforms (FYI the easiest way to get on other platforms is just to use Smashwords)."

4. Use Amazon Select

MM writes:
"Use the Amazon Select Program: You can offer your book for $0 (free) for 5 days each 3 months. Used effectively, this is an extremely potent tool for reaching an audience. There are at least 40 websites I use to promote a “free weekend” for my books (email me for a list) – these sites are mostly specific to books that go free on Amazon Select and are mostly free to use for promotion.

"If you can plan it ahead of time, write out all of the parts of your serialized work ahead of time, and then each two weeks release one of them, promoting it on Amazon select for free and on the promotional websites. I can usually get 4000+ downloads of a free book when I do this."
The above is only a fraction of the advice Matthew Mather gives in his article. Worth the read.

All the best and happy writing! :-)

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, August 8

Harper's Bazaar Holds A Writing Contest

I don't usually announce writing contests, but this one is from Harper's Bazaar and includes a couple of unusual prizes. Here's the scoop:
"Harper's Bazaar, the luxury fashion magazine, is giving writers a chance to submit a short story in their freshly launched literary prize competition.

"Harper's is inviting both published and novice writers to enter a 3,000 word short story on the subject of 'Spring'. 

"The winning writer will have the fantastic once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have their story published in the May 2014 Harper's Bazaar issue and the privilege of choosing a first-edition book from Asprey's Fine and Rare Books Department to the value of £3,000. In addition, the lucky winner will enjoy a weeklong retreat at Eilean Shona House, on the 2,000-acre private island off the coast of Scotland."
A weeklong retreat on a private island off the coast of Scotland! That's my kind of writing retreat, though I'd doubt there would be much actual writing.

Before I leave, here's a bit more about the theme of the contest:
"The theme of inspiring literature is woven throughout the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar with a reprinted Virginia Woolf tale from the Bazaar archives, alongside a fashion piece by contemporary writer Margaret Atwood."
Where to submit your manuscript: Send your submission to Contest is closed on December 13, 2013.

Length of manuscript: 3,000 words maximum.

I wish I had a webpage I could direct you to but I heard about this contest from an email Harper's Bazaar sent me. Best wishes!

Photo credit: Copyright © Harper's Bazaar. Used with permission.

Monday, August 5

4 Ways To Create A Strong Antagonist

4 Ways To Create A Strong Antagonist

Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story, is wonderful and I recommend it to anyone who asks: Which writing blogs should I follow?

Her recent post, 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist, is one that helped me make the antagonist of my work-in-progress more three-dimensional, more real. Today I'm going to talk about four points that helped make my story stronger.

Remember: a strong villain/antagonist will help you create a strong protagonist.

(See also: How To Build A Villain, by Jim Butcher)

4 Tips on how to create a strong antagonist:

1. Give the Antagonist a goal

Just like protagonists, antagonists have goals. They want things. They have ambitions and desires. These are the sorts of traits that make your characters jump off the page.

As Donald Maass has said a number of times: Antagonists are heroes of their own journey.

2. Make the antagonist similar to the protagonist

Antagonists and protagonists are often a lot alike except for one vital aspect.

For instance, in the BBC's take on Sherlock Holmes both Holmes and Moriarty are brilliant anti-social types but the key difference is that Sherlock is on the side of the angels. He has formed relationships with people, ordinary people like his roommate and best friend Watson and his landlady Mrs. Hudson. He would give his life for them and nearly does.

Which brings us to ...

3. Make the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist personal

Have the rivalry between the antagonist and protagonist hinge on something personal. As says:
The Protagonist catches bad guys for a living (usually at a rate of about one a week), but this time, the bad guy has decided that he doesn't like the protagonist. Instead of doing what any sensible psychopath would do and simply toss a grenade in the character's window, the psychopath takes creepy photos of the character's kids, abducts the character's wife, kicks the character's dog, and above all, leaves calling cards and clues to ensure that eventually he'll get caught. The bad guy (often a Big Bad) knows about the protagonist's Fatal Flaw and is more than willing to exploit it. (It's Personal)

4. Make the antagonist at least as complex as your protagonist

Janice Hardy writes:
To keep her from being a two-dimensional cliché, give your antagonist good traits as well as bad. Things that make her interesting and even give her a little redemption. This will help make her unpredictable if once in a while she acts not like a villain, but as a complex and understandable person. She doesn’t always do the bad thing.
These are only a few of the many wonderful points Janice covers in her article 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist.

Photo credit: "Untitled" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, August 3

Stephen King On What Makes An Opening Line Great

Stephen King On What Makes An Opening Line Great

"An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this," Stephen King.
Stephen King recently gave an interview in which he spoke about what qualities an opening line should have. It's a wonderful, and wonderfully informative, article, one I encourage you all to read: Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences.

Here are a few tips:

1. Open in the middle of action

King says:
We've all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader's interest. This is what we call a "hook," and it's true, to a point.

2. Give the reader information about the characters and the story

King writes:
This sentence from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:
"They threw me off the hay truck about noon."
Suddenly, you're right inside the story -- the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting -- and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody's riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He's a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who's going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.

3. A good first sentence introduces the reader to the writer's style

King writes:
In "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," we can see right away that we're not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There's not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you're holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing -- fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We're intrigued by the promise that we're just going to zoom.

4. A great first sentence introduces the reader to the writer's voice

King writes:
With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line. My favorite example is from Douglas Fairbairn's novel, Shoot, which begins with a confrontation in the woods. There are two groups of hunters from different parts of town. One gets shot accidentally, and over time tensions escalate. Later in the book, they meet again in the woods to wage war -- they re-enact Vietnam, essentially. And the story begins this way:
"This is what happened."
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It's flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we're dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I'll tell you the facts. I'll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there's an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.

A line like "This is what happened," doesn't actually say anything--there's zero action or context -- but it doesn't matter. It's a voice, and an invitation, that's very difficult for me to refuse. It's like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here's somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that's irresistible. It's why we read.

5. A good first line will give the writer a way to break into the story

King writes:
I don't have a lot of books where that opening line is poetry or beautiful. Sometimes it's perfectly workman-like. You try to find something that's going to offer that crucial way in, any way in, whatever it is as long as it works. This approach is closer to what worked for in my new book, Doctor Sleep. All I remember is wanting to leapfrog from the timeframe of The Shining into the present by talking about presidents, without using their names. The peanut farmer president, the actor president, the president who played the saxophone, and so on. The sentence is:
On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado's great resort hotels burned to the ground.
It's supposed to do three things. It sets you in time. It sets you in place. And it recalls the ending of the book -- though I don't know it will do much good for people who only saw the movie, because the hotel doesn't burn in the movie. This isn't grand or elegant -- it's a door-opener, it's a table-setter. I was able to take the motif -- chronicle a series of important events quickly by linking them to presidential administrations -- to set the stage and begin the story. There's nothing "big" here. It's just one of those gracenotes you try to put in there so that the narrative has a feeling of balance, and it helped me find my way in.
Although I've quoted extensively from  Joe Fassler's interview with Stephen King I have left out far more than I included. As in his book, On Writing, King gives practical, easy to understand, advice on the art and craft of writing. A must read.

Photo credit: "around and around" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.