Thursday, May 9

How To Write A Terrific Review

How To Write A Terrific Review

Writer Victoria Grefer talks about how to write a fantabulous review.

What To Include

1. Is this a genre you normally read?

My go-to example for this is of a scifi aficionado reading a romance. It could be the best romance ever written but, chances are, the review would still be scathing.

Or, another example, if a reader only enjoyed mainstream or literary books they might think it was too predictable for words that the murderer was apprehended at the end of your murder mystery, but that's not a legitimate criticism. Sure, it could be a criticism of the genre but to leave the murder unsolved would have readers howling for your blood. (And murder mystery readers are a clever bunch, so you don't want that. ;)

2. Plot summary

Victoria writes,
Personally, I love reviews that include a short plot summary. One that avoids spoilers but describes the overall tone and the concept of the story in a way that’s a little different from the book’s official description.

3. Areas for improvement

Anything can be improved upon. What were some of the weak points? Perhaps list one or two. How did they affect your reading experience? Was it an I-wanted-to-throw-the-book-across-the-room moment or did it engender only mild irritation?

4. What you loved and why

I like it when reviews end on a positive note. Was there a character you especially liked? Was there something, some aspect of the book, you thought worked particularly well?

I've just touched on Victoria's fascinating article, I'd encourage you to read it for yourself: What every prospective reader (and every writer) loves in a review.

What do you like to see in a review of your work? Of other author's work?

Other articles you might like:

- 4 Tips On How To Find A Genre To Write In
- Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books
- Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice

Photo credit: "Me at Eva b" by flossyflotsam under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

4 Tips On How To Find A Genre To Write In

4 Tips On How To Find A Genre To Write In

Writing a story is great.

Writing a story that sells is even better.

The quality of a book obviously influences how well it will sell. Is it riddled with grammatical errors? Does it have narrative drive? Are the characters three dimensional? Do they have goals? Do they have something to win or lose? Are they likable or at least possible to identify with?

But the quality of a book isn't the ultimate arbiter of sales. Though I read and enjoyed Dan Brown's, The Da Vinci Code, no one would suggest it was a better book than, say, Ernest Hemingway's, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and yet it sold more copies by orders of magnitude.

Part of the task of a writer--a writer who seeks to earn their living from their scribbles--is to write a great story, the other, equally important part, is to sell the story.

Finding An Audience

As soon as one mentions selling it brings up the question of audience. Who do we want to sell our story to? Who would be interested?

In her article What I Learned from Thomas Edison and Steven Soderbergh and How it Applies to Novelists, Julianna Baggott recounts the story of Thomas Edison's first invention, a vote calculator, and how it failed because there was no demand for it. It was a wonderful piece of machinery that did exactly what Edison expected of it, but no one wanted it so it was a commercial failure.

I think writers have it a bit easier.

We have all heard this advice countless times before: write it, make your story as good (within reason) as you can, and as long as you love the story, it will sell. To someone. At some point.

But it would seem to make sense to at least have a certain audience in mind before one sets pen to paper. As Russell Blake holds (point #11), know your audience before you write your book:

Read a fair amount of the genre, look at the reviews of your competitors, of the bestsellers in your genre. Figure out your audience before you start writing. (Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books, My Paraphrase)

How To Pick A Genre To Write In

1. Write what you love

I'm probably the worst person to give this advice, I love reading murder mysteries but haven't written a single one. And I love experimenting and often write in quirky genres. But (as I remind myself constantly) there's nothing wrong with writing for the market.  One just has to find a popular genre that holds one's interest.

Don't misunderstand, I think stretching oneself as a writer is both good and necessary; if we aren't growing we're devolving, atrophying. BUT the rent must get paid and there's nothing wrong with picking a popular genre to write a book in.

Recently I've done a number of posts on how many authors write as much as 3,000 (or more!) words a day and maintain this frenetic pace. I think that a big part of the key to success as a midlist writer is to find one, two or (possibly) three genres you like to read, genres you understand, and then familiarize yourself with what is expected.

2. Understand the conventions of the genres you write in

Deny your readers what they expect (that the crime will get solved, that the lovers will live together in bliss for the rest of their natural, or unnatural, lives, and so on) and no matter the technical merits of your book there'll be hell to pay.

I'm not talking about a formula, not exactly, but (for instance) a romance writer isn't going to get far unless she understands that sometimes readers insist on a "happy ever after" (HEA) ending.

3. Short is good

One of the keys to indie success is to produce new work quickly and regularly. Judging from what Nathan Lowell and Russell Blake have said, novels do better than novellas, but in the interest of producing a lot of work quickly you might not want to choose a genre, such as high fantasy, where readers are used to 120,000 word tomes!

Also, I've found that it takes me much more time to revise a 80k manuscript than it does a 60k one. The longer work requires a more complex story and with a more complex story more things can go wrong.

4. Make a long term commitment

This is related to point 1, pick a genre you love. Another point that Nathan Lowell and Russell Blake agree on is that writing books in series helps to build an audience. Russell Blake went so far as to say that books in a series sold four times better than his standalone books.

That means that whatever genre you write your book in it should be something you could envision making a long-term commitment to.

This is why I think it's a mistake to ever write in a particular genre solely for the money. Can you imagine being tied to a series that stretches to 20 or so books and absolutely hating it? This has happened to several well-known authors (Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot and Sir Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes).

What genre(s) do you read? What genre(s) do you write in?

Other articles you might like:

- Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books
- Is There Such A Thing As An Aspiring Writer?
- Writing Exercise: Flexing Your Verbs

Photo credit: "HPIM0567" by enigmachck1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, May 8

Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books

Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books

Who Is Russell Blake? 

This advice comes from Russell Blake. So, before we roll up our sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of advice giving and, perhaps, taking, let's see who this guy is. Russell writes:
By way of background, I write conspiracy-based action/adventure novels. I published my first novel on Amazon June, 2011. I published my 20th novel in April, 2013. My first month I sold about 7 books. In 2013, from the start of the year to today, May 7, I have sold just shy of 100K books, and look good to exceed 200K for the year by a decent margin. I do not sell books at .99, or $2.99, or $3.99. The vast majority of my titles are $5-$6. I lay this out there not to crow, but to establish why it might be worth considering my approach.
That means Russell has published 20 novels in 23 months. Wow. Just wow.

But, how much money has he made? Russell has sold 100k books at, say, $5 each. Let's say he gets 70% of that, so that's about $3.50 a book. $3.50 times 100k is $350,000. Divide that by 23 months and we get an average income of just over 15k a month. Nice!

Looks like Russell Blake knows what he's talking about, so let's check out what he has to say. How'd he sell 15k worth of books a month?

Russell Blake On How To Sell A LOT Of Books

1. Pick a genre you know and stick with it.

If you want to write different genres, use a pseudonym, and if you like, let your readers know that moniker is you. But stick to one name, one genre, because you're building your brand, and brand building is a function of clarity - clearly communicating what you do, and what your product is.

2. Write a series

Why? Because readers like series, and you want to give readers what they like. Or you won't sell as much. You can try stand-alone - I have - but my series outsell my stand-alone books 4 to 1. Once you have at least three books in the series, make the first one free. Make your money on the rest, but give readers a whole novel to decide whether they like you or not.
Also see: How to use the power of permanently free books to increase sales.

3. Write at least 3 novels a year: Momentum breeds success

Don't bother with short stories or novellas (40K or under) if you're writing fiction (non-fiction might do better) unless it's erotica or your name is Hugh. If fiction, write 60-90K installments in your series, and release them AT MINIMUM every four months. Every three months would be better. Every two, better still. Momentum breeds success, and readers have short memories. The current market is a hungry animal, and you need to feed it, or risk being forgotten by the time your next one releases.
That goes against what I had thought, that writing novels in series would be the most profitable because you would sell each book in the series and you'd get the revenue from bundling the books and selling them as a whole. Also, you can write a novella faster than a novel.

But, hey, there's no arguing with success, and Russell Blake has been very successful.

4. Read. A lot.

To write well, you need to read things that are well-written, and that serve to inspire you to greater heights or provide insight on how to improve your work in some way. You are what you eat. If you aren't reading a decent amount, start, because otherwise you're unlikely to write nearly as well as if you do.
I've never read a successful author talk about writing who didn't say this.

5. Write at least 1000 words a day

Allocate time every day to write, and be disciplined. I suggest minimum one hour per day, or 1000 words. I actually ignore that and shoot for 5000-7000 a day when writing a novel, but that's just my approach, and it's not for everyone. My point is that you must be disciplined about your writing and develop that muscle. If you don't make it a habit, you won't write enough to put out one novel every four months, and you'll already be way behind the curve.

6. Write 75%, Market 25%

I recommend a 75%/25% writing to marketing mix. So spend an hour writing every day, and fifteen-twenty minutes marketing (social media, blogging, interviews, message boards ...). Two hours writing, half hour to forty minutes marketing. And so on.
That's a sane approach. And if you want to market more you can, just write more.

7. Stay off the internet when you write

Set aside the writing time, and do only that. Leave placeholders for stuff you need to research later (XXX city is Y distance from ZZZ city, etc.). Stopping your writing to research breaks your momentum. Don't do it. Checking your e-mail, checking in with your facebook group, reading a tweet - none of these are going to write your book for you, so stop it already.

8. Get professional help to publish your books

Do pro covers. It's the first thing your potential readers will see. ... Get pro editing. You are asking people to pay for your product. They won't, and shouldn't, if you haven't ensured it is a pro product, which means it must be edited and proofread. If you're too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it ...

9. Have a great product description

After your cover, the product description has to sell the book. Don't give too much info, don't spell out the plot like it's a test. Give the high points that will interest a reader in knowing more.
Trying to summarize your story in one sentence can help with this.

10. Make the first five pages amazing

You've got five pages to hook the reader, make those the best five pages you've ever written.

11. Know your audience before you write your book

Do a bit of market research and get to know your audience. Russell writes:
You do that by reading a fair amount in the genre, and by looking at the reviews of your competitors/the bestsellers in your genre. If you're writing for a genre that's 90% cat ladies, you need to know that going in. If mostly older males, know that too. Teen girls, ditto. Whatever your audience, figure it out before you start writing. Do a little research. It will pay dividends later.

12. Dream big

Turn your name into a brand. Russell writes:
As an example, Dan Brown is synonymous with a genre Umberto Eco pioneered with Foucault's Pendulum - the theology-based conspiracy treasure hunt. Nowadays, when readers try to articulate that, they say "it's a Dan Brown kind of book." You should live so long, but make that your goal.

13. Price competitively

Look at your genre. Where are most books priced? Are you undervaluing/underpricing your work? Price to sell, but don't go cheap, no matter what Locke or Hocking did years ago. Use low prices occasionally to move product, as promotional pricing. But price your product consistently with the rest of your peers. Over time, you can increase prices, if your product warrants it and your readership is willing to pay it. My advice here is don't price too low, or too high.

14. Always strive to improve. Always be learning.

15. As you get better, rewrite and republish your old work.

16. Keep in mind that each of your books could be a reader's first impression of you, so make each book your best.

17. When you write think like a writer but when you sell your books think like a business person

In the book selling business, saccharine bromides of "just go for it" and "follow your dream" are about as useful as a bowling ball to a fish. Writing is art and self-expression, something beautiful and intensely personal. Book selling is a commercial enterprise. Confuse the two, and you hurt any chances you have of success, if success to you means selling a bunch of books.

19. If you want to excel you have to do more and you can't give up

Look at what the average person does in their first year, and their second. That's average. It ain't pretty. If you want to be different than average in a good way, you need to do something better/different, and you need to make your own luck. Don't get bummed because you haven't been an overnight sensation. I sold $300 of novels in November, 2011, after six months of 15 hour days and seven releases. In December, 2011, I released five novels I'd been working on for months, to create a massive Xmas surge. I leaped to $1450. With a dozen books out. That's not exactly a ton for the big Xmas season. But I continued writing as though my work was in hot demand. And I kept investing in my product, losing money, until it turned the corner and I started making real money in Jan of 2012.

20. You have to promote your books

Book selling is a retail business, and retail businesses are promotions intense. You're only going to be as good as your last, and next, promotion. Promotions are a necessary fact of life in retail. You have to generate noise - the product won't do it by itself. There are millions of books out there. Yours are just more books. Figure out how to get some visibility. I won't advise you on how - there are plenty of 'experts' that will charge you $5 for a book on what worked two years ago. Simply put, it's constantly changing, so you need to experiment and push the envelope, share information with others and stay ahead of the curve. But if you aren't promoting, you're stalling. In business you're either shrinking, or growing. If you aren't promoting, chances are you aren't growing.
I think it's pretty uncontroversial that after you have 10 or so books out on the market it's a good idea to invest in some sort of promotion. Joe Konrath recommends and

21. Have a business plan

[E]valuate what it will likely take to get where you want to go, and then calculate what it will cost - in time, effort, money. If you can't afford whatever that is, then you either need to scale back your goal, or you need to increase what you're willing to invest of yourself and your resources. 

22. Be yourself

Your readers will spot insincerity and be turned off. Be yourself. There are billions of people in the world. No matter who you are or what you're like, there are going to be a few thousand like you; all you have to do is find them.

23. Keep records

Keep track of what worked and what didn't.

26. Write the next book

Having said all this, your best chance of making it is always writing your next book. You should always be working on the next one, and the next, and the next. Nobody ever succeeded by quitting. So if you're going to do this, do it, stop whining, suck it up, and get to work.
Excellent advice!

The material I've quoted comes from Russell Blake's post on the Kindle boards, How To Sell Loads of Books - My Approach. FYI, Russell also has a similar post up on his website: How To Sell Loads Of Books.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for talking about Russell Blake's post.

Other articles you might like:

- Is There Such A Thing As An Aspiring Writer?
- Creating The Perfect Sleuth
- Penelope Trunk Discusses Time Management

Photo credit: "Cheek" by daita under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Is There Such A Thing As An Aspiring Writer?

Is There Such A Thing As An Aspiring Writer?

I love this graphic.

Chuck's snickerdoodle of writerly goodness brings up an interesting topic. What is a writer?

What Is A Writer?

On the surface it's seems pretty easy: a writer is someone who writes. It doesn't matter if you've ever been published, it doesn't matter if you've sent any of your work out to be published. If you write, you're a writer.

Clearly, if a person never publishes they can't use the money from their work to support themselves so they're not a professional writer. But that's okay.

If you write, you're a writer.

Of course there are still things to figure out. For instance, what if I only write one day a week? What if I only write one day each month? Each year? What if I just intend to write and never get around to it?

We can look at a person with a full head of hair and say, with confidence, "Not bald," and we can look at another person who lacks any hair and say, "Bald," but what about the in between cases? What about someone who has some hair but is follicly challenged?

I suppose the temptation is to call someone who likes the idea of writing, or perhaps of having written, but never gets around to actually writing, an aspiring writer. It's an inclusive term, it cheers a prospective penmonkey on and reinforces their desire to write while acknowledging it hasn't happened. Yet.

There Are Reasons Not To Write

That's how I take it, the graphic Chuck made, as a call to aspiring writers to get rid of the "aspiring" part of their self-definition and sit down, face their demons, and write.

A lot of writing isn't easy and it isn't fun. It's hard work. It's about bleeding on the page, about reaching inside yourself, looking at your demons, and then putting those most intimate parts of yourself on display for anyone to see and comment on.

When a person says they're an aspiring writer it means they want the afterglow of looking at the words birthed without going through the labor of producing them. They want the thrill of looking at their name on a book without the gut-wrenching terror of realizing their most intimate truths are available for perusal for the cost of a few dollars.

Sometimes I think writer's block is less a malady as it is a call to sanity.

And yet ... I can only remember one writer who ever retired. Many say they will--they threaten to, they dream about it--but most never do. There's something about the thrill of getting it right, of being able to communicate to someone else exactly what one intended. Of the transmission working and having just the effect one wanted.

But, really, much of the time writing is just putting one word after the other, even when it feels as though you're writing something as interesting as cardboard. It means writing, and finishing what you write, even when it doesn't feel glamorous, interesting, agonizing or exciting.

For great writing about writing, see Neil Gaiman's NaNoWriMo Pep Talk and his 8 rules of writing.

What about you? What do you think of the term "aspiring writer"? Is it a monstrosity of nomenclature or a useful term of inclusion?

Other articles you might like

- Writing Exercise: Flexing Your Verbs
- Chuck Wendig's 9 Tips For Writing A Million Words A Year
- How To Get Over A Destructive Critique

Photo credit: Chuck Wendig (aka Curious Spider) licensed this (see the top of the page) graphic (On "Aspiring" Writers...) under a Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic. This means that as long as you give Chuck credit for making it, don't make money off it, and don't change it, you can use it however you like.

Tuesday, May 7

Writing Exercise: Flexing Your Verbs

Writing Exercise: Flexing Your Verbs

Lately I've been doing a few writing exercises.

I'm going through my favorite books--books by Dashell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, but also newer ones. I love Laurrel Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures. I'll write out a passage I love then rewrite it attempting to use the author's voice.

Melissa Tudell in her article Energize Your Writing With This Easy Trick, advises writers to focus on using active verbs.

1. Be Direct

Avoid "to be" verbs like: is, am, are, was, were, be, being and been.

2. Use active verbs

Rather than use adjectives and adverbs to describe an action, use a strong verb. Here's Melissa's example:

Weak: He quickly poured a cup of coffee.
Strong: He dumped coffee into the mug.

It's interesting that the strong verb comes with a tradeoff. "Dumped" implies carelessness as well as speed.

3.  Let it all fly on your first draft

Debbie Maxwell Allen admonishes writers not to worry about strong verbs when writing their first draft.

She writes:
Sentences that use walked, sat, and thought pale in comparison to stalked, sprawled, and stewed. However, don't label yourself as a failure if strong verbs don't automatically show up in your manuscript. Adding stronger verbs is something you do in your rewriting.

The purpose of your first draft is to get the story on the page, in all it's unedited glory. Once you've got it down, you can analyze it for overuse of adverbs, adjectives, cliches--and wimpy verbs. (Pump Up Your Writing: Using Strong Verbs)
Debbie ends her article with a challenge:
Give it a try right now. Take a random page of your manuscript and highlight every verb on the page. Count how many are "plain vanilla" and substitute some stronger verbs. When you read it again, how much better is it?
I'm going to do that!

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig's 9 Tips For Writing A Million Words A Year
- Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice
- How To Get Over A Destructive Critique

Photo credit: "cute" by CarbonNYC under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Chuck Wendig's 9 Tips For Writing A Million Words A Year

Chuck Wendig's 9 Tips For Writing A Million Words A Year

In a post with a very un-Chuck-Wendig-like title, How To Maximize Your Word Count and Write More Every Day, Chuck talks about how to write a million words a year.

Like him.

Yep, that's right: 1,000,000 words.

Chuck writes: "I generally write about 3,000 brand new shiny so-fresh-and-so-clean words per day."

A few months ago Chuck wrote about how to take a slow and steady approach to writing a novel in a year, today he wrote about stepping up the pace and, as he put it, punting "that slow and steady approach right in the See You Next Thursday."

Chucks tips for writing a million words a year

1. Do your writing in the morning

Although I'm nowhere near as prolific as Chuck Wendig, I find this as well; I am by far the most productive in the morning. It's like those hours are magical. Chuck writes:
Writing in the morning has more potential than writing in the evening and here’s why: writing at the end of the day means the candle is burning down. The timer is ticking. You’re watching the horizon eat the sun and with it, the remaining hours before sweet, sweet slumber.
. . . .
Write at the end of the day, you’re racing the clock.

Write at the fore of the day, you own the clock.

2. Wake up an hour earlier

Like many writers, Chuck Wendig has a toddler and toddlers loudly and voraciously demand attention. Chuck finds that by getting up at 5 AM he can get half his word count done before the little guy gets up.


Whenever I get up early I, too, get a lot of extra work done. The trick for me is to make sure I get at least 7 hours of sleep. If I don't, I feel about as lucid as a hibernating cave bat.

3. Coffee

Coffee is good, just don't overdo it. If you do it won't work as well when you really need it.

4. Snatch time from life's thieving jaws and use it to write

I'm struck by how close Chuck's advice is to Kris Rusch's in her post, Habits. They both talk about snatching bits of time here and there. I suspect many professional writers who write in the neighborhood of a million words a year do this. Chuck writes:
If you’re going to write a lot, you’re going to need to feint and duck, stick and move, and reach in to grab fistfuls of time-flesh and use it for your own sinister purposes: in this case, writing. Got a lunch break? Write. Sitting at a long stop light? Take a few quick voice notes on your phone.

5. Schedules and deadlines

Chuck writes:
Having a schedule keeps me sane and helps me meet my writing goals. I toss all the projects I need to write into a spreadsheet. I calculate them by day how much I have to write to get ‘em done. I mark deadlines and potential start dates.
I have stress-dreams where I realize I've got a book due IN TWO HOURS.

I've begun keeping a running list of all the writing tasks I need to accomplish and I've found this lets me relax a bit. When I start to stress I just look at my list and convince myself I'm on track.

6.  Plan, prep, plot, scheme (/Outlining saves time)

Chuck Wendig writes: "I outline not because I like it but because I must."

Why "must"? Because writing 3,000 words a day takes time and if you know where your story is going you can save oodles of time.

That said, I think everyone is different. Myself, I'm like Chuck, I outline. It gives me jitters just thinking about beginning a book without an outline. Dean Wesley Smith, on the other hand, recently wrote a 70,000 word book in 10 days without an outline. He had no idea where he was going with the book, how it would end, until he was about halfway through. Chuck writes:
[I]f you start the day with a mission statement already in play thanks to an outline, you can jump in, eschew any planning the day might require, and just start writing. The goal is to give as much of your time to actually telling the story as you can.

7. Politely ask for the time you need

Asking for things that you need from the folks that you love often works.


Good luck with that.

8. Write with your internal editor gagged and shoved in a box

This was one of my favorite points. Chuck writes:
Editing as you go is a perfectly viable way to write.

It is not a perfectly viable way to write quickly and to maximize your word count.
Chuck Wendig points out that editing as you go will slow you down--and I agree--but I've also found that I usually end up changing things that shouldn't be changed because I lack perspective.

I need to finish the draft, warts and all, put it away for as long as I can stand then come back and edit it.

What does this mean for your internal editor?
[Y]ou need to shut your internal editor up. Elbow him in the throat and shove him in a duffel bag. Remind him his time will come. The editor always gets the last laugh.

9. Silence self-doubt with hollowpoint bullets packed with your indifference

This is my favorite point. Chuck writes:
You sit there and write and hate everything about what you’re doing and want to punch your characters, your paragraphs, your whole story, yourself.

Self-doubt is a sticky mud, indeed.

It will slow you down.
And if one is going to write a million words a year slow is bad.

So, how does one turn their self-doubt off?

Chuck writes:
The secret, actually, isn’t in the silencing of your self-doubt.

The secret is in ignoring it.

We’re not particularly smart about our own authorial worth while in the midst of writing something. We love what sucks and hate what works and at least for me, during writing a project my headspace starts to look like the back of my television: a thousand wires braided together .... Point is, you start to lose the sense of what feeling is moored to what part of your story. It’s all just a tangle of wires.

Your self-doubt just ain’t that ... effective. Or accurate.
. . . .
So, ignore it. It’s going to be there. Pretend you don’t hear it. Tune it out. It is rarely meaningful or efficient. It’s damn sure not helpful. ...

That’s maybe the biggest secret to writing a lot of words really, really fast: you need to blacken your self-doubt sensors with a boot and — say it with me –

An inspiring post!

One thing I loved about NaNoWriMo was the feeling of working together with other writers toward a common cause: each of us, individually, producing a 50,000 word manuscript in a month.

Perhaps one day there'll be a 5 o'clock club for overcaffinated writers who aspire to write one million words a year.

Do you have a tip on how to increase ones word count (other than 'Write more!')?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Get Over A Destructive Critique
- Writer Beware: Penguin And Author Solutions
- Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice

Photo credit: "Anything Goes" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, May 6

How To Get Over A Destructive Critique

How To Get Over A Destructive Critique

Have you ever quit writing for a period of time? Perhaps for years?

I did.

I was a teenager and had written a story I was particularly proud of. I'm not sure why, after all these years the memory is vague, but I remember being pleased.

Then I made a mistake. As it turns out, a huge mistake.

I gave it to the wrong person to read and then I asked them for feedback.

It's not just that the feedback stung. It's not just that this person's list of things wrong with that story was as long as my arm, it's not just that they clearly felt resentful that I'd wasted their time. No, it was that my own judgement had been so far off, that I'd been proud of a story that was so clearly crap.

I hope you folks see the flaw in my thinking. I'd asked one person.

Yes, sure, that person had read most of what I wrote, but I failed to ask myself whether they could have had a bad day, whether they were going through something in their private life which might have made them a tad grumpy and irrational. Which, as it happens, they were.

But let's imagine that my critiquer had been having a great day and wasn't the least grumpy and gave the same devastating critique. In retrospect, what should I have done?

Ignore it.

Here's what I think: if anyone gives you a critique so scathing that, were you to take it seriously, you'd never want to put pen to paper again then ignore the critique! Do NOT take it seriously.

Even if you gave the story to 10 people and they all thought it was fit for nothing but lining bird cages that doesn't say anything bad about you as a writer. You liked the story, that's what counts. And, sure, there's probably something about the story that's personal to you that makes you love it, but that's not a bad thing. Save the story, cherish it. That one's for you.

Now move on and write the next story. Do it NOW! Right away.

I've only ridden a horse once, so I don't know from personal experience if it's true that after being thrown you have to get right back on, but I think if a person has a horrible experience with a story they have to write another one right away. But, please, be sure to give your new story to someone who isn't having a bad day and who seems genuinely happy to give you feedback.

Also, it can help to be clear about the kind of feedback you'd like as well as what you consider constructive as opposed to destructive criticism.

As long as you're writing you're getting better. Not writing never helped anyone become a better writer.

What to do if your story is given a devastating critique

1. Talk about it

Having friends is great, having friends who are writers is a must.

Embarking on a career as a writer without having a network of writing friends and acquaintances is like going on a deep sea voyage during hurricane season without lifeboats or a personal flotation devise.

2. Write about it

I think this is a great way to turn a bad experience around. Especially if you can sell your story. Turn your horrible experience into creative non-fiction and then send the piece out or indie publish it.

You might want to write a first draft and then let some time pass--weeks or even months--before you read it again. Make sure it's not a rant. (grin) Or, if it is, make sure it's a rant that would be entertaining to others.

Making money from the experience may not be the best revenge (Joe Konrath had a few tongue-in-cheek suggestions a while back) but it's still darn satisfying.

3. Learn from it

As I mentioned, often destructive criticism has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of your story and everything to do either with an agenda the poster has (some reviewers enjoy dumping on anything they perceive as indie), or the kind of day they're having.

Since you've read the critique the damage has been done so try to determine if there's anything you can learn from what the poster said.

Were they irritated because you'd used a mirror to describe a character? Were they perturbed that you didn't tell anyone your protagonist's name until well into the story? You don't have to change something just because a reader or three was upset about it, but sometimes the information can be useful.

Sometimes it makes one feel better to know why a critiquer had the negative reaction they did. "This story is a pile of crap" isn't helpful, "This story is a pile of crap because X" helps put the review in perspective.

4. Do NOT respond

Whatever you do, don't respond to the negative critique.

I once had a crank caller who I suspect was my ex-boyfriend. This person would call at all hours of the night, wake me up, then make gibbering noises into the phone.

At first I politely asked the caller to stop. Then I shouted. Then I used a loud whistle.

Nothing worked.

Then I stopped responding in any way and just hung up the phone and disconnected it from the wall for the rest of the night while I slept.

The calls stopped.

Responding to negative reviews just wastes your time--time that could be spent writing--and it can  make one look unprofessional.

5. Don't look

Don't look at your reviews.

(This point only applies to reviews on social media sites and retailers like

I know, I know, this is much easier said than done. We want to know what other folks thought of our work.

Actually, that's not true. We want to know that readers loved our books. Chances are most will but it's inevitable you'll get a bad review if you keep writing for any significant amount of time.

And you can't do anything about it. You can't respond to the reviewer (see point 4, above) so what's the point of looking?

If we write hoping for the approval of others we set readers up as our judges, which isn't how it should be. Yes, we want to share our stories with others--that's a big part of why I write--but I write primarily for myself.

If I think I've written a great story, if I had fun writing it, that's all I can ask. Of course I give it to my first reader, and I usually do another draft after that in response to their feedback (they seem to always catch something I missed) but, fundamentally, I write for myself.

6. Eat Chocolate

Chocolate is good. (grin)

Question: How do you get over a destructive critique?

Other articles you might like:

- Writer Beware: Penguin And Author Solutions
- Creating The Perfect Murderer
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover

Photo credit: "Galapagos Sea Lion's Baby Portrait" by A.Davey under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Writer Beware: Penguin And Author Solutions

Writer Beware: Penguin And Author Solutions

David Gaughran throws down the gauntlet in his excellent blog post The Author Exploitation Business. He writes:
[Being a writer is] a dream job, and like any profession with a horde of neophytes seeking to break in, there are plenty of sharks waiting to chew them to bits.

... [M]any organizations who claim to help writers, to respect them, to assist them along the path to publication are actually screwing them over.

Before the digital revolution made self-publishing viable on a wide scale, the dividing lines were easier to spot. Traditional publishers paid you if they wanted to buy the rights to your novel. Self-publishers were people who filled their garages with books and tried to hawk them at events. And vanity presses were the scammers, luring the unsuspecting with false promises and roundly condemned by self-publishers and traditional publishers alike.

Today it’s very different. The scammy vanity presses are owned by traditional publishers who are marketing them as the “easy” way to self-publish – when it’s nothing more than a horrifically expensive and terribly ineffective way to publish your work, guaranteed to kill your book’s chance of success stone dead, while emptying your bank account in the process.
The target for David's ire is Penguin, owners of the biggest shark out there: Author Solutions. His article is a must read for any writer.

Question: Have you ever had dealings with Author Solutions? If so, what was your experience?

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice
- Creating The Perfect Sleuth
- How Many Books Would You Have To Write To Quit Your Job?

Photo credit: "Robbery not allowed" by Arenamontanus under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, May 5

Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice

Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice

I love it when Chuck Wendig talks about writing.

Recently Chuck gave an interview to 52 Reviews in which he mused about how to find your voice and what talent is.

How To Find Your Voice

Chuck Wendig says:
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.

I think that's true for many areas of human endeavour, you won't find what you're looking for 'out there,' (wherever 'out there' is) only when you look within. (By the way, Chuck also talked about this on his blog.)

What Talent Is

Another quotable quote:
52 Reviews: Speaking of 'simply writing' do you prescribe to the notion that success as a writer is more a measure of effort and dedication than actual talent? Creativity, in and of itself, seems to be pretty easy to come by while the tenacity to commit to the act of actually creating seems to be much more scarce.

Wendig: Talent is a function of excess desire. You really, really want something bad enough, you tend to manifest a "talent" for it. While I'm sure there's some argument to be made for the expression of genetics, I think mostly it's just -- if you really like architecture and have the desire to create architecture, you're probably going to manifest the "talent" as an architect.

Dedication and effort then turn that desire and talent into craft and creation. At least, in a perfect world

Chuck's Books

Since he's so nice in giving us these tangy nuggets of wisdom, I want to mention that Chuck Wendig has 4 books coming out in the next couple of months. Here's Chuck's description:
First up: Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits. The gods fell to Earth. One man wants revenge on them for taking his family away from him. It involves various divine wangs and vaginas. No, really.

Next: The Blue Blazes. Which we have in part already talked about but hey, I'll entice with: mystical drugs! goblins! roller derby girl gangs! the criminal underworld! the mythic underworld! subterranean zombie town! charcuterie! family betrayal!

Then: Under the Empyrean Sky, which is my young adult novel in a sunny dustbowl cornpunk future where a scrappy scavenger named Cael finds a secret forbidden garden in a world where their floating Empyrean overlords only allow them to grow a bloodthirsty variant of corn. It's got young love and adventure and piss-blizzards and motorvators and an agricultural pro-farmer pro-food message nestled in all the trappings. John Hornor Jacobs called it Of Mice and Men meets Star Wars, which I quite like.

Finally! Beyond Dinocalypse, book two of the Spirit of the Century trilogy. Pulp heroes. Two-fisted jet-pack action. An apocalypse of psychic hive-mind dinosaurs. PROFESSORIAL APES IN KILTS.
Anyone who wants to read the first chapter of Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits, it's up at io9. Also, information about where Chuck's books are on sale, and other good stuff, is available over at Terribleminds.

Other articles you might like:

- Creating The Perfect Sleuth
- How Many Books Would You Have To Write To Quit Your Job?
- Advice For New Writers

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

Saturday, May 4

Creating The Perfect Sleuth

Creating The Perfect Sleuth

As I mentioned last time (Creating The Perfect Murderer) I'm interested in writing a particular kind of murder mystery, one that is unabashedly intended as entertainment.

With that in mind, what is the single most important thing about the hero? That his actions should entertain the reader. Ideally, the reader should be so closely identified with the sleuth that he/she feels vicariously heroic because of our sleuth's actions.

So, what traits should our hero possess?

1. The hero/sleuth should be dramatic.

Think about the character of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock. One of my favorite episodes is A Scandal in Belgravia (season two, episode one) when Sherlock is summoned to the palace wearing nothing but a bed sheet because he refused to put clothes on.

That's dramatic.

His refusal to do something simple like getting dressed also beautifully illustrates his stubborn refusal to do anything he doesn't want to and so makes his eventual manipulation by The Lady all the more striking (pun intended).

2. The hero/sleuth should be interesting

This is, as they say, a 'no-brainer' and yet, sometimes, one can lose sight of it.

One thing that makes a character interesting is possessing contradictory character traits. For instance, Sherlock Holmes doesn't care about people, they're all morons as far as he's concerned, and yet he cares passionately for his friends. So much so that he would give his life for theirs.

3. He should live a life the reader will want to learn about

Again, this is pretty basic stuff, but how many of us have started a story off with a character waking up in their bed, looking out their window at the same old scenery and starting their same old, boring, day?

What? Just me? (blush) Okay, moving on ...

Maybe living an interesting life means the hero lives in a Park Avenue loft, or maybe it means he lives in a seedy tenement with a one-eyed cat who can tell when someone is lying.

I think the key is that the hero's life isn't ordinary. Something about it is striking, unexpected.

Whatever your setting, remember, if it doesn't interest you what are the chances it's going to interest a reader?

4. The hero/sleuth is courageous.

One thing that struck me about the Monk mysteries was how the screenwriters succeeded in demonstrating Monk's courage. Keep in mind that this is a character who is scared of milk.

The key is, it takes courage to face your demons, whatever they are, and Monk regularly chose to face his demons to preserve the things he cared about, whether that was walking through a rat infested sewer or risking his reputation and his chance to get back on the police force.

Threat to life and limb. Though temporarily overcoming a debilitating fear of milk is admirable, even tormented characters such as Monk need to, eventually, face a threat to either their life or the life of someone they care deeply about.

Or not. Sweeping comments like the above are almost always false. I think that demonstrating courage has more to do with facing one's demons, facing one's fears, and that doesn't require the threat of physical death.

5. The hero/sleuth is skilled at what they do

Whatever that may be. Sherlock Holmes is a detective who solves those cases he finds interesting and he's good at it. If he wasn't he'd just be a guy who thought too highly of himself. That would be boring.

Monk: It's a gift and a curse. His physical quirks--multiple obsessions and a phenomenal memory--ruin his life but they also make him great at solving crimes. If he wasn't great at solving crimes he'd just be a bundle of neurosis and there's nothing interesting or exceptional about that.

Your sleuth doesn't have to be a detective. For instance, Miss Marple was a little old lady in a small English village who knew everyone, noticed everything, had a wonderful memory and charming manners. Her skill: she was very good at finding analogies between the actions of those around her and events in village life, analogies that laid bare the killers heart. As soon as Miss Marple got the analogy right, she solved the crime.

If Miss Marple didn't solve the crime then she'd be what nearly everyone thought her to be: a doddering old lady. As it was, she was the embodiment of Nemesis.

6. The hero/sleuth has a special talent

I've said something about this in the points above, but it's worth focusing on. The special ability can be anything,

- a photographic memory (Sherlock Holmes, Monk),
- a lifetime of experience combined with a keen intellect (Miss Marple),
- the ability to mentally recreate a crime scene and live it from the killers point of view (Will Graham),
- the ability to use logic and psychology (his 'grey cells') to solve the puzzle of the crime (Hercule Poirot),
 - the ability to tell if a person is lying (multiple),
- a cool whip and the ability to use it (Indiana Jones),

And so on. But it doesn't have to be a 'cool' ability, it doesn't even have to be particularly useful. It can be something trivial like being able to eat more hot dogs than anyone.

The hero needs to be better than anyone else at something. If this something makes them seem clever and resourceful, so much the better.

7. The hero/sleuth has a deep wound

Any fully developed character will have a deep wound, but this wound plays a special role in the case of a hero/protagonist.

Previously I've talked about the main arc of a story and the secondary arc, let's call this the A and B stories, respectively. The B story generally is about the hero's inner landscape, her feelings, her dreams, her problems, her insecurities while the A story has to do with an external goal or object of desire. In many stories the B arc concludes when the hero confronts her deep wound and either heals it or is destroyed by it.

This isn't going to be a tragedy so my hero will confront her deep wound and heal it.

Here's the cool bit: the hero's deep wound is healed because of her willingness to sacrifice herself. Similarly, the villain/murderer's wound will never heal because he will never sacrifice himself, his happiness, for others.

In healing her deep wound, the hero discovers the key to attaining her external goal and victoriously closes out the A story.

Or something like that. ;)

I think I'll stop there for today. In the next post I'll talk more about the quirky characteristics our sleuth could/should have. For instance, have you noticed that many popular sleuths have been named after guns, have never been married, have no children, do not live in the suburbs and do not drive an ordinary car?


Question: Who is your favorite sleuth?

Other articles you might like:

- How Many Books Would You Have To Write To Quit Your Job?
- Advice For New Writers
- Donald Maass On Why Books Don't Sell
- 5 Rules For Writing A Murder Mystery: Keeping the Murderer Secret Until The End

Photo credit: "Universal Captain America" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.