Author, Editor, Publisher, Coach

Tag: Fiction Writing (Page 2 of 4)

Hey, who doesn’t like awards?

Come on, we all love awards. Face it: nothing beats recognition from your peers for a job well done.

 These days, many organizations water down awards by giving them to everyone who participates, apparently making the point that if you have a pulse, you’re a winner. Okay, okay… I’ll not go down that road.

Still, we know a real award when we see it, usually because there are many entrants and few winners.

And so, I am pleased to announce that Kimberly Kinrade, one of our authors with Evolved Publishing, has won a Forward National Literature Award. If you go to that link and scroll down to the Second Place finishers, under Drama, you’ll find her book, Forbidden Mind.

I’m happy to say that I participated in that project as editor. The story is all hers, of course, but I made my own modest contribution. Fun! Gosh, awards are cool.

We’ve established Evolved Publishing around a few core philosophies, one of which is simple and unwavering: Quality Matters! I’d say Kimberly’s award is evidence that we’re on the right track.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Trying to Cash In on the Social Media Madness

How shall readers connect with those who write, and with their material? And how shall authors build a following?

It hardly matters what you do for a living, or which hobbies interest you, or which sports teams or movie stars or musical acts or authors you like—a social media presence is pretty much a given in modern life. Unless you live in under a rock, or you’re a seasoned citizen who never quite got the hang of them dang computer contraptions (in which case you’re not reading this anyway), you have at the very least a Facebook or Twitter account.

We communicate through the internet. That’s just the world we live in. Even if you only use it to “keep in touch” with that long lost brother who last phoned you in 1992, and who, on those rare occasions when he sees you, has to snap his fingers and scratch his head and say, “What was your name again?”

Yet it’s moved well beyond that. The internet is increasingly where we do business. We look for work on the internet, or seek potential new hires for our company. We study on the internet, or catch up with the news. And yep, we buy and sell on the internet.

Never has that been more evident than in the world of books. EBooks are revolutionizing the way we read and write. If you’re a booklover, you’re already finding old-fashioned bookstores harder to find—a trend that will continue. EBooks and eReaders are here to stay, and to that, brothers and sisters, I say, “Amen!”

For an author like me, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I must now spend a lot of my time not writing, but reaching out to readers. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the opportunity to communicate with those who like my work. I do. I mean, seriously, what author doesn’t want to hear from readers how his work has affected their lives?

Nonetheless, it’s more work—another ball we must juggle… or ten.

It means I must not only embrace the new technologies, I must also educate myself on their proper use. Opinions vary so widely on how best to do this, it seems largely a matter of trial and error for most. However, some folks have already established some expertise in this arena, and they can help you. One of those is Dan Zarrella, whose blog I heartily recommend.

For readers, the new market also considerably changes the dynamics. If you want to keep up with what authors are offering, to remain apace of all that’s happening in the world of books you love, you’ll have to stay tuned-in to various online activities. One of the communities that’s most geared towards readers’ needs is Goodreads. Here, not only can you discover what’s new in the world of books, you can also find out what other readers—potentially millions of them—think about specific books, and engage with them in an interactive community. If you’re a true booklover, you need to be on Goodreads. And I say that not as an author, but as a fellow reader.

You can also peruse reviews at the big eBook retailers such as Amazon (for their Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (for their Nook).

Naturally, where readers go, writers must go. It’s not that we’re stalking readers, it’s just that… well… okay, we’re stalking readers. Really, we just want readers to know about our work. How else can they make an informed decision about whether or not to buy it?

I’ve set up my own Goodreads Author’s Page, as well as a Publisher’s Page for Evolved Publishing, our indie publishing business. I have an Amazon Author’s Page too. Yes, I have a presence at social media sites everywhere (well, seems like everywhere). As an author, I can’t escape it.

Then, of course, there’s this blog, which provides a more detailed and more personal forum to connect with folks. All part of doing business in the 21st century.

Yet what is enough? What is too much? Should I drive, drive, drive people to buy my books, constantly hammering them over the head? Pfft! Like that won’t send readers running to the hills! As a reader myself, I hate that kind of constant barrage.

No, I think a softer approach is required, a gentle touch—followed by huge portions of patience and perseverance. I’ll be talking about the “Soft Sell” in an upcoming blog post, so please stay tuned.

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The Gnashing of Teeth, the Wailing of Souls: Emerging Authors Struggle to Find Their Way

If you follow many blogs by authors and aspiring authors, you see the extensive conflict, both internal and external. Do legacy publishers still offer the “grand dream?” Is self-publishing the way to go? Could it be that indie publishers provide the best alternative in this new environment? Opinions run hot and heavy, and debate can become quite animated.

Is there a single right answer? Okay, so that’s a rhetorical question. The world of publishing has opened up, offering authors more options than at any time in history, and that’s a trend still developing—there will be many more opportunities ahead.

LEGACY PUBLISHERS

The simple fact is that technology is driving the train—for everyone—pulling the traditional boxcar publishers kicking and screaming into new territory, and offering authors greater flexibility and market reach than ever. Legacy publishers, often referred to erroneously as “The Big 6,” still offer authors certain benefits. They pay advances, but those are getting smaller and smaller, especially for unproven authors. They offer editorial assistance, though many would argue that both quantity and quality has diminished in that area. They provide distribution access to bookstores around the country. And your agent—yes, you must have an agent—may provide access to worldwide markets through foreign sub-agents, and may provide inroads to sell your movie rights and audio book rights.

In other words, they’ve built their industry to provide you access to all the markets, the better for them to make money. So what’s the problem? Why not just stick with legacy publishers? Well, the odds of entry are stacked against you (How’s that for an understatement?). You could try for years, decades even, and never crack that bubble, and it may have nothing to do with the quality of your work. If you’re one of the lucky aspiring authors who actually wins that lottery, good for you. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Most authors don’t earn out their advances, meaning that whatever they receive as an advance is all they make on the print copy. They’ll likely earn less per print copy than they would from a self-published eBook. As for eBooks, publishers are paying a whopping 17.6% royalty to authors, on average, based on recent industry reporting. Yep. 17.6%. Some are talking about raising that now, to as high as (perhaps I should say as low as) 40% of profits. Additionally, the answer for most authors is, “No, they won’t likely market your book for you. They’ll expect you to carry that load.” Thus, you can expect to pay out of pocket to sell your book. Finally, don’t be surprised if, from the moment you sign with an agent to the moment your book appears on the store shelves, two years or more have vanished into history.

Authors in the traditional, legacy publishing industry have many mouths to feed: publisher, literary agent, distributors—each with all their employees, buildings and expenses. Thus the authors, creators of the works that are the reason those entities even exist, get a much smaller piece of the pie. That’s just how it is. Do the benefits they offer outweigh that concern?

In my experience in recent months, those most vociferously defending the legacy publishers are the ones presently invested in them in some way. Of course, I could say the same about the other publishing options.

SELF-PUBLISHING

It sure is easy these days. And cheap. If publishing time and cost are your only concerns, this is the way to go. A few days of studying and formatting, and you’re ready to upload your eBook and/or POD book. But wait! Has your book been professionally edited? Do you have a professional cover? Do you have a professional marketing plan in place to sell your book, or are you going to trust your fate to… well, fate? (Note: The preponderance of the word “professional” here is no accident.)

We used to refer to self-publishing as the Vanity Press, back when the primary option was a pay-in-advance printer. In those days, 99% of self-publishers lost money. Yep. Lost money. Thus, the “Vanity” tag—people self-published not to become professional authors, but to see a book on the shelf with their name on it, or to impress their family and friends and coworkers and neighbors who didn’t know any better.

Nowadays, one can create a print copy via a POD (Print-on-Demand) publisher, minimizing both the up-front expense and the likelihood of losing money (which is not to say the author will actually make much money on it). One can also create an eBook at virtually no expense (which is not to say the author will actually make much money on it). Hmm, I sense a trend here.

Is the new ease of self-publishing, and the better author royalties per copy sold, attracting better authors, luring them away from the traditional path? You’d better believe it. Sadly, it is also drawing all those folks who self-published sub-standard work just to see their name in lights—only more of them, now that it’s so cheap.

The truth is that I have a love/hate relationship with self-published authors. Those who disregard professional quality, for whatever reason, frustrate me. They devour my time and energy, and muddy up the waters where I intend to swim. Yet if you’re a self-pubber who does it right, who insists on quality from start to finish, I love you! Really, I do.

I’ve learned one thing, for sure: no group is more vociferous in defending their choices than self-pubbers. One must enter that maze of discussions with great caution, lest one unleash the very hounds of hell. Many of those debates are lively and interesting, but many of them (and please, let’s just be honest here) devolve into exercises in self-rationalization.

The professionals will rise to the top, in the end, and they will remain the exception to this general rule: Most self-published work is not very good. I know, here come all the screams and hollers from self-pubbers. Please note that I said “general” and “most.” Will it continue to be 99% bad, as in the past? I don’t know; maybe it’s just too early to tell. However, early indicators are not good. I’ve sampled about 150 books at sites like Amazon, Smashwords and BookieJar, and only 3 of those moved me to purchase. The rest were dull, poorly structured, or laced with errors—or all of the above. Of the 3 I purchased, 2 have proven disappointing. Let me say that the 150 I sampled were all from relative unknowns—authors still trying to find a market.

And so, if it seems as though I’m not supporting indie authors, it’s not for wont of trying. 3 out of 150. Not good.

INDIE PUBLISHERS / SMALL PRESS

First, I do not consider self-publishers “indie” publishers, even if they create a publishing label to publish their work (and only their work). I relate indie publishing to what we always called the small press—those who publish several authors, but who don’t meet sales numbers large enough to be called a major publishing house.

This, I think, is where a good number of authors will eventually go. Furthermore, I think bolder, fresher business models will continue to evolve to meet those authors’ needs.

However, as this is already a long piece (thanks for hanging in there), and because it’s such a complex subject all its own, I shall discuss this option in detail in the near future.

And yes, by way of disclaimer, I am one of the co-founders of Evolved Publishing, an indie publisher. More on that next time.

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Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: With Words as Paint and the Page as Canvas, Paint Us a Picture.

This is a continuation of my last post, though I focus on a slightly different element of SHOW, DON’T TELL.”  Those three little words constitute one of the High Commandments of effective writing.  It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Yet it requires commitment, determination, vigilance and inexhaustible effort.

We writers tend to get lazy with our prose as we rush through the first draft of a story.  We so focus on the plot, the characters, the setting, the central conflict and eventual resolution—a proper focus, of course—that we pay too little attention to the words.  If I may revisit a metaphor I use often: we so focus on the forest that we forget to enjoy the trees.

This, my fellow writer, is why the writing gods created self-editing, lest we fail to honor our covenant.  We have much to address in the self-editing process, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll focus on that one commandment: SHOW, DON’T TELL.”

We most engage a reader when we create for him a scene he can visualize, when we fire-up the film projector in his mind.  The longer our piece drags on without affording him the opportunity to exercise his mind’s eye, the likelier he is to set our story aside out of boredom.  Put another way, the reader should see not our words, but the images those words create.  Think of words as your paint and the keyboard as your brush, and paint a picture to compel the reader forward.

Simile and metaphor function as effective tools in this artistic pursuit, as they force the reader—if you’ve done your job well—to visualize your image and translate it to, or associate it with, the underlying, true meaning of your scene.  Symbols will also enhance this experience for the reader.  As a simple example, a gray, overcast day mired in a constant drizzle might highlight and heighten your character’s depression.

As is true of so many writers’ tools, you must use these to maximum effect, which not only means using them in the proper places, but also that you must not overuse them.  Too much of a good thing can be… well, not so good.  Give the reader a slice of chocolate cake as dessert, but don’t skip the meat and vegetables and force him to eat the entire cake at one sitting.  We writers mustn’t make our readers sick.

As a rule, the shorter your similes and metaphors, the more frequently you can employ them.  If you pop a quick, one-sentence simile into your story, you needn’t wait several pages to offer another.  On the other hand, if you just completed a three-page metaphor, you don’t want to jump into another metaphor on the next page.  Like all artists, you must apply a deft hand.  Let your instincts guide you initially, and let your editor, your writers’ group, or your trusted reviewer help you refine and polish it. I offer now a series of examples from pieces I’ve edited or reviewed.  As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.

TELL: He was by far the tallest person in the meeting room.  >>>>>  Note: First, the author started with the weak state-of-being verb.  Second, the author provided nothing to stretch the reader’s imagination, to engage his mind’s eye.  >>>>>  SHOW: He towered above the others in the meeting room as if they’d all skipped over from the local chapter of the Lollipop Guild.  >>>>>  Note: Did you just see that moment after Dorothy landed in Oz?  Perhaps you even heard their song.  In the end, you should have concluded that the character “was by far the tallest person in the meeting room.”

TELL: He walked slowly and without enthusiasm toward the door.  >>>>>  Note: The author fell into a typical lazy trap here.  Few adverbs are duller than slowly, quickly, loudly or quietly.  Remember the value of body language to express a character’s mood and mental state.  >>>>>  SHOW: His shoulders slumped and his face drooped, as he dragged his feet toward the door.

TELL: “What are you doing with these jokers?” asked Little Butch. <P> Rosemary said, “Partying.  What else?”  She was sloshed.  “You still going with Jennifer?”  >>>>>  Note: At issue is the simple description: She was sloshed.  Sometimes simple is fine, and you don’t want to paint with too heavy a hand, but consider these types of sequences opportunities to paint a picture for the reader.  >>>>>  SHOW: “What are you doing with these jokers?” asked Little Butch. <P> “Partying.  What else?”  Rosemary’s words mixed in an alcoholic slur as she leaned against the car to prevent herself from falling over, and her eyelids bobbed in time with her head, as if they weighed a hundred pounds each.  “You still going with Jennifer?”

TELL: The sky was a brilliant blue with a few white wisps scattered here and there.  Her long smooth legs were warm from the sun.  >>>>>  Note: The key here is to replace the weak state-of-being verbs with more active verbs that bring the image to life for the reader.  This typically requires some simple restructuring.  >>>>>  SHOW: Sunlight, broken occasionally by scattered white wisps, radiated through a brilliant blue sky and bronzed her long, smooth legs.

TELL: He knelt by the gravestone, completely exhausted and desperately needing sleep.  He’d never been so sad and lonely.  He couldn’t imagine what life would be like without Karen, the only woman he’d ever loved.  >>>>>  Note: It’s important to remember that readers hear you telling them that something happened, or merely that something was, when you pile on the adverbs and adjectives.  Conversely, they envision the scene (see what happened) when you utilize active verbs and descriptive nouns.  >>>>>  SHOW: He collapsed to his knees alongside the gravestone, and expelled his last ounce of energy in a sputtering, tearful gasp.  Silence shrouded the cemetery, broken only by his heavy breathing and the uncertainty that pounded like war drums in his mind.  The love of his life, the object of his greatest dreams and desires, lay six feet beneath him, beyond his reach for all time.  How would he survive without Karen?

Remember: The reader must see more than your words; he must see the images those words create.  When you write, live within the scene, and paint a picture of everything that happens around you.  Don’t tell the reader what happened; let him see what you see, hear what you hear, feel what you feel, as though he’s standing beside you inside the scene, witnessing and experiencing it right along with you and your characters.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: Make Your Characters Blind, Deaf and Dumb

No, I’m not suggesting you write a story where the only characters are Ray Charles, Helen Keller and Marlee Matlin.  Although, now that I think of it, that would be quite the writing exercise, wouldn’t it, to create a scene in which the three of them interact?

I’m merely suggesting that a reader doesn’t really care what characters see, hear, feel, etc, in the most direct sense.  In other words, she doesn’t want you, Dear Author, to TELL her THAT the character saw something.  She wants you to SHOW her WHAT the character sees, right along with him, at the very moment he sees it.  She wants to experience it as the character does.  She doesn’t want to hear from the author, after the fact, that the character saw it.

This is truly the essence of storytelling.  Perhaps we should coin a new, more appropriate term: Storyshowing.

The first step in eliminating excessive telling from your story is to find all instances such as those I list as “triggers” below, and to replace them with sequences that show instead.

SAMPLE TRIGGERS:  She heard, he saw, I thought, we listened, they noticed, she felt, he looked, I peered, we smelled, they anticipated, she observed, he imagined, I wondered, I knew, etc.

NOTE: Like all “rules” of writing, this is not a 100%-er.  You may have occasion to use appropriately these phrases in your story.  However, these should be the exceptions, not the rules.  These phrases should trigger a self-review.  How can you better show what happened rather than tell that something happened? I offer now a series of examples from pieces I’ve edited or reviewed.  As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.

BAD: I could feel the intense heat radiating from the smoldering hulk.  >>>>>  Note: In a first-person narrative like this one, the author is clearly in the character-narrator’s POV.  Thus, when he mentions “heat radiating,” the reader already knows it’s because the character “feels” it.  Not only should the author not tell us (show us instead); Author doesn’t need to tell us.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): Intense heat radiated from the smoldering hulk.

BAD: She heard the crashing waves of an incoming tide and she saw the gleam of whitecaps under the stars.  >>>>>  Note: Not only does the author tell us that the character heard and saw, he does so in a wordy way.  Note how, in the show-us-what alternative below, I cut the word count from the original 19 to a more concise 11.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): Waves crashed on the shore and whitecaps gleamed under the stars.

BAD: She saw a wound at his hairline, deep and ragged.  She peered closer and didn’t feel the horror she expected.  She saw a portion of the white skull.  >>>>>  Note: First are the various triggers: saw, peered, feel, and saw again.  Second, “white” is unnecessary in “white skull”—everyone knows the color of human skulls.  Third, although the scene teases at an intense, gruesome image, its weak construction fails to deliver.  >>>>>  GOOD (Detailed): A deep and ragged wound pierced his hairline, and a portion of his skull protruded from his scalp, laced by tattered skin and tissue.  Horror lingered at the edge of her mind, yet the grisly scene compelled her to investigate closer.

BAD: I knew then that there would be no more looking back to the future.  My destiny lay ahead of me in the past.  >>>>>  Note: The author almost—almost—creates a compelling paragraph here.  The first problem is the telling trigger: I knew.  Please, it’s a first-person narrative—if the narrator is relaying events, of course he knew the events.  The second problem is that it’s wordy and awkward.  Some simple tightening, along with showing rather than telling, makes all the difference.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): There would be no looking back to the future.  My destiny lay ahead of me in the past

BAD: He felt the wolf pack curl around him and his grandmother, and when he looked up, he saw his mother and his baby brother sleeping peacefully among them.  >>>>>  Note: We have the usual triggers here: felt, looked and saw.  We also have redundancy: “he looked up” before “he saw.”  Finally, we can trim back on the word count, from 28 to a more concise 19.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): The wolf pack curled around him and his grandmother, and his mother and baby brother slept peacefully among them.

BAD: “Come Fire,” he murmured before each life breath he blew.  “Wake Fire,” he whispered as if into a lover’s ear and a timid crackle he heard.  >>>>>  Note: Set-up: The author uses “Fire” as a character, and thus capitalizes it as a name.  The first thing that struck me was the length of the dialogue tags, which feel forced and awkward.  By combining the tags into a single dialogue lead, the reader will better hear the tone of voice and emotion.  Finally, the author ends with a classic telling trigger: he heard.  >>>>>  GOOD (Detailed): He murmured before each life breath he blew, as if whispering into a lover’s ear.  “Come, Fire, and wake.”  A timid crackle provided his first reward.

BAD: John looked at the sack with uncertainty.  “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.”  >>>>>  Note: The first sentence, the dialogue lead, is a perfect example of where we writers must earn our keep.  Most writers, and a fair share of editors, would think nothing of that sentence, and the author might be fine leaving it be.  However, it is all telling.  Now, let me make clear that some telling is fine, but you should always consider a situation like this an opportunity to engage the reader.  The keys here are “looked at” and “with uncertainty.”  The author could have run him through one or two brief mannerisms here—I’m talking about body language—that clearly shows John’s uncertainty to the reader.  The telling is… well, dull; a little in the story is fine, but every reader has his own boredom threshold, so it’s always risky.  When you show the reader, you pull her into the scene, you engage her, and that’s interesting for her.  This author needed to stretch a bit.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.”  >>>>>  Note: Yep, the author decided (rightly so) that the dialogue flowing between the two characters of the scene—their actual words—said all that needed to be said.  The dialogue lead was unnecessary, and it interfered with the scene, so the author simply cut it—a good choice.  However, for the sake of illustration here, let’s assume that he still needed to paint the scene and show John’s uncertainty.  >>>>>  GOOD (Detailed): John bounced his leg up and down and nibbled on his lip.  “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.”

BAD: The lighting was dim and the only sound he heard was the piped in elevator music that played in a seemingly endless loop.  He could hear Karen Carpenter’s “Close to You” over the relentless rain tapping on the ceiling of his cell.  >>>>>  Note: Note the weak word choices (was [2], seemingly, could) and the usual triggers: heard and could hear.  Once again, the author should trust in the character’s (“he”) POV and just show the reader—paint the scene.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): Dim lighting deepened the sullen mood as piped-in elevator music played in an endless loop.  Karen Carpenter’s Close to You accompanied the relentless rain that tapped on the roof of his cell.

When you allow the reader to experience your story at the instant your characters do, you make it possible for her to share in the emotion and impact of the moment.  This mechanism, more than any other, draws a reader right into the story as though she’s a spectator at the scene.  The difference may be subtle at times, the reaction hidden in the reader’s subconscious.  Yet it’s often the key to making a reader say, even for reasons of which she’s not consciously aware, “I liked this story.”  If you fail, she might instead say, “Eh, this story didn’t really do it for me.”

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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The Bond Between Reader and Writer: How Long Will the Reader Trust the Author in Any Given Story?

Every reader takes a leap of faith when she picks up a book.  She places her trust in the author, expecting the author to hook her early in the story.  She then expects—I might say insists—that the author will hold her level of interest at a steady clip, compelling her ever forward.

Yet no book is Bam!-Bam!-Bam!-Bam!all the way through.  Great books are not 90-minute action movies on paper.  Great books are rich, deep excursions into another time and place, into one or more characters’ most intimate desires or darkest fears.  Ironically enough, great books play out like a movie reel, but the 6- to 12-hour version.

How much exposition might an author engage in?  How long may an author drift away from plot to build character or setting?  Ah, the tightropes we must walk.

The simplest answer is that an author must do what she must.  I would suggest the key word is this: relevance.  Does the extra characterization, or setting, or historical foundation, truly matter to your story, or will it merely make the reader yawn?

Every writer likes to talk about the first step: the opening hook.  Must an author hammer the reader over the head right out of the chute, or can she ease her into the story?  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  Different genres have different rules, which is to say readers have come to expect a specific approach in any given genre.  Every story is both a beneficiary and a victim of its genre conventions.  Authors break with those conventions at significant risk.

I don’t mean to suggest that authors can’t break the rules, merely that they understand the difficulty, and their odds of success, in doing so.  However, and let’s just be honest here, ’tis better to grab the reader by the collar and shake her like a rag doll, than to cradle her in your arms and gently rock her to sleep.  Excitement good.  Snoozing bad.

Many are fond of insisting that authors start in the middle—en media res.  Nonsense.  Start at the beginning.  Or start in the past.  Or start at the end.  Start where it makes sense to start your story.  No two stories are identical.  Well… no two stories should be identical.

I’ve read articles that said, “Never start with a flashback.”  Yet I’ve read many books that did so… and knocked my socks off.

I’ve read articles that said, “You must hook the reader in the first paragraph.”  Yet I’ve read books that took me a few pages to warm up to, and which I then couldn’t put down.  It’s important to note, however, that while those authors did nothing to hook me at the very start, neither did they do anything to turn me off, to cause me to stop reading.

So which rules can you fudge on, and which ones must you follow as though they were the word of God?  First, remember that in writing, no such thing exists as a 100% rule.  Yet some are 99%-ers.  For example: Don’t start with setting; start with action.  That doesn’t mean take-a-deep-breath, grab-onto-your-socks and hang-on-for-dear-life action; it just means something meaningful needs to happen.  Another example: Build the action steadily and finish with a bang.  If you do that, your readers will come back for your next book.  If not….

Other than that, I believe story structure is wide open, a playground where you can kick the ball around and have some fun.  There’s only one requirement: Keep the reader turning those pages. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that all this assumes another critical fact: The author actually knows how to write—no spelling errors, decent grammar, well-structured sentences and paragraphs, no mixed tenses or continual head-hopping—prose that is, if not exceptionally strong, at least not terribly weak.

My personal limit is 5 pages; that’s how long I give an author to make her case.  Again, this assumes the writing is not terrible, in which case I’ll quit after 1-2 paragraphs.  How about you?  What’s your limit?

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Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: Readers Can’t See What Something Is “Not,” They Can Only See What Something “Is”

If you’re a writer, you’ve already heard this primary commandment of effective writing: Show, Don’t Tell.  Yet most writers say at some point, “Great!  And just how do I do that?”  Ah… if only one could offer a single, simple answer to that.

One example of violating this commandment is the placing of statements in negative form.  E.g. John was not big.  When you read that sentence, and you try to visualize John, what do you see?  Right.  Nothing.  The words “not big” are vague and meaningless, and thus evoke no mental image.  You must first decide what “big” even means, and then you must decide, by contrast, what “not big” means.  That’s too roundabout—never takes you to a clear image.

In my well-worn copy of The Elements of Style (Third Edition, Macmillan, 1979), by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, the authors state definitively on page 19, “Put statements in positive form.”

Now, many people revolt against The Elements of Style because the authors take such a dictatorial approach to their lessons: you must do this, and you must not do that.  Okay, so there’s no such thing as a 100%-er; after all, writing is art, not science.  Nonetheless, if you apply a dollop of common sense and a dash of critical thinking, and pay attention to how the human mind works, I believe you’ll come to agree with most of what Strunk & White command.

In the case of negative versus positive statements, at least, they’re dead on.

Reading is a visual experience.  Now before you say, “Well duh, Diamond,” let me clarify.  Reading is more than just seeing words on the page, it’s seeing the images those words represent.  Your aim as a writer is to evoke those vivid images through the power of your words.

When you tell a reader what something is not, you’ve only told her what not to visualize.  If you want to evoke that image, and tell the reader what she should see, you must tell her what something is.  Let’s revisit my simple example above: John was not big, which contributed to his lack of confidence.  >>>>>  As discussed, this is meaningless.  We know what you’re trying to say, but we can’t see it.  >>>>>  John was small, and rather self-conscious about it.  >>>>>  This is better, but still lacking.  Five different readers will likely have five different ideas of what the vague “small” means.  The good news is that they may visualize John in some way; the bad news is that they won’t necessarily see him as you intended.  >>>>>  At 5’4″ tall and 132 pounds, John fought constantly to embrace and project his masculinity.  >>>>>  See the difference?

You might be saying, “Wait just a minute, Diamond.  It’s not about negative versus positive, but rather vague versus specific.”  Actually, it’s both.  Imagine if I had said this: John was not exactly a 6’2″ strapping hulk, and thus fought constantly to embrace and project his masculinity.  >>>>> Once again, we have nothing to see.  Indeed, it is impossible to say only what something is notand be specific… at the same time.  Specificity requires that you place the statement in positive form. I’ll leave you with this silly example to cement the point:

“Harry, what was it that broke through your front door and ripped your living room to shreds?”

Harry just stared at Tom.

“Please, Harry, I simply must know what the heck happened here!”  Tom fidgeted on the edge of hyperventilation.  “What was it?  What did all that damage?”

“Well, it was not an aardvark.”

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Infinite-Verb Phrases Give Readers an “Act without an Actor”

Too many writers use infinite-verb phrases to open sentences.  Way too often.  Yes, that’s a strong statement, but I’ll stand by it, because I believe we writers harm our cause when we attempt to rationalize bad writing.  The old excuse, “Well, lots of writers do it,” is no excuse.  Lots of people do lots of bad things; that’s never proper justification for us to do them too.

We see stories through a series of visual images, and when a writer creates a disconnect in any given image, he reduces the effectiveness of his story.  When an act occurs, and thenthe actor appears in the scene, we have that disconnect.  Imagine going to a Broadway play, and you hear crying behind the curtain, but there’s no actor on stage.  Then the actor appears, no longer crying.  Disconnect.

Some people think that just because a participial phrase ties, at some point later in the sentence, to a subject committing the act, that it’s okay.  Wrong.  A participial phrase needn’t be left dangling to qualify as poor writing.  All acts require an actor, yes; but in the proper sequence, please.

I once saw a post online that indicated this dangling participle was bad: Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.  Why is that a dangling participle?  Because the subject who committed the act of hiking never appeared in the sentence.  That point is correct, as far as it goes.

The problem arises when the author suggests this “fix”: Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.  Never mind the other terrible parts of that sentence—the telling (heard) in lieu of showing, or the weak adverb.  The author suggests that because of the addition of subjects, the sentence is now okay.  Not.

Let us just focus on the infinite-verb phrase to start the sentence.  An act occurs (hiking the trail), and then the actors show up (Squiggly and Aardvark).  Disconnect.  The visual image is out of sequence—broken.  That, Dear Writer, is bad prose.  Great prose unfolds like a film reel; at no point in a film would we see hiking, even for a moment, without hikers.  Disconnect.

When we deny the intricacies of human psychology, of the way our minds work, in order to rationalize bad writing, we’ve defeated ourselves.  If you place the cart before the horse, how in the world can you expect the horse to pull you to your destination? Here’s a more effective sentence: Squiggly and Aardvark hiked the trail beneath a cacophony of chirping birds.  As I’ve said so many times, Dear Writer, please keep it strong and direct.  Your readers will love you for it.

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The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers – John Gardner (Vintage Books Edition, June 1991 — excerpted, in applicable segments, from pages 100-101)

Sentences beginning with infinite-verb phrases are so common in bad writing that one is wise to treat them as guilty until proven innocent—sentences, that is, that begin with such phrases as “Looking up slowly from her sewing, Martha said…” or “Carrying the duck in his left hand, Henry…”

In really bad writing, such introductory phrases regularly lead to shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic.  The bad writer tells us, for instance: “Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, Eloise drove into town.”  (The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and the action of driving into town are simultaneous.)

Or the bad writer tells us, “Quickly turning from the bulkhead, Captain Figg spoke slowly and carefully.”  (Illogical; that is, impossible.)

But even if no illogic or confusion or temporal focus is involved, the too frequent or inappropriate use of infinite-verb phrases makes bad writing.  Generally, it comes about because the writer cannot think of a way to vary the length of his sentences.  The writer looks at the terrible thing he’s written: “She slipped off the garter.  She turned to John.  She smiled at his embarrassment,” and in a desperate attempt to get rid of the dully thudding subjects and verbs he revises to “She slipped off the garter.  Turning to John, she smiled at his embarrassment.”

The goal, sentence variety, may be admirable, but there are better ways.  One can get rid of the thudding subjects and verbs by using compound predicates: “She slipped off the garter and turned to John”; by introducing qualifiers and appositional phrases: “She slipped—or, rather, yanked—off the garter, a frayed, mournful pink one long past its prime, gray elastic peeking out past the ruffles, indifferently obscene” (etc.); or by finding some appropriate subordinate clause, perhaps: “When she had slipped off the garter, she turned to John”—a solution that gets rid of the thudding by lowering (hastening) the stress of the first “she.”

…Used indiscriminately, the introductory infinite-verb phrase chops the action into fits and starts and loses what effectiveness it might have had, properly set.

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‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Quality Counts when Publishing eBooks

I’ve been sampling some indie-published eBooks lately, and I must say that most writers are not helping the long, sad reputation held by self-published authors.  Only the rare exception is edited and polished to a fine sheen.

No, I don’t think readers expect to see absolute perfection, which is, in any event, largely subjective.  Even legacy publishers put out the occasional sloppy piece.  The difference is that their sloppiness represents perhaps 10% of releases, whereas self-publishers offer sloppiness at the rate of about 99%.  Big difference.

Spelling errors, bad grammar, punctuation errors, a bucketful of adverbs, POV issues and structural errors—all on the first 2 pages?  Come on.  How are they going to succeed in the long run when presenting that to readers?

I’m fascinated by the manner in which indie publishers respond to these kinds of posts.  Most of them get angry, or feel offended, or both.  Yet they’re often just one step away from an excellent book: professional editing.  I’m not trying to insult, I’m trying to help.  I promise.

Too many indie authors choose to forgo this expense, offering any number of excuses—though it’s invariably about money.  They fear they won’t recoup their investment.  Let’s be honest: that’s possible.  They enjoy no guarantee of success, no assurance they’ll sell enough copies of their book, at a high enough royalty, to recoup those costs.  Yet without solid editing, their chances of success decrease dramatically.  We return to the old “chicken and egg” argument.  Q1: How can I afford editing until I’ve sold a lot of books? Q2: How can I sell a lot of books if I don’t have them professionally edited?

If they stop for a moment to extend the logic, to consider their business model, they’ll come time and time again to Q2—and to its clearly implied answer.

When they publish their own work, they’re no longer JUST an author; they’re now a publisher.  And publishing, like any business, requires a little up-front investment in order to do it right.  They can minimize these costs, if creative (heck, just look at the Evolved Publishing model), but they cannot eliminate them—at least, not without dooming their business to failure before they’ve even left the starting blocks.

Many indie publishers are languishing with poor sales, finding the spigot turned off as soon as their family and friends stop buying.  Why?  Because only their family and friends will support them no matter what… even if the work is substandard.

They simply must have a well-edited manuscript, and an attractive, professional cover, and some kind of coherent marketing plan, preferably with the help of others working on their behalf.

When will I get tired of this preaching?  When the world of indie publishers has converted.  Let me have an, “Amen!”

Look, I say this not just as a publisher of eBooks, or as an editor of eBooks, or as an author of eBooks—I say this as a READER of eBooks.  I’ve been sampling works to purchase and download to my Kindle, but I’m picky.  If I’m going to spend my hard-earned money on a book, whatever the price, I expect a professional product.

One look at how few indie authors are actually making a living at it makes one thing clear: I’m not alone in that requirement.

Please, Dear Aspiring Author, do not shoot yourself in the foot.  Be a professional.  Do it right.  And reap the rewards.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Forbidden Mind by Kimberly Kinrade – A YA Paranormal Thriller

Kimberly Kinrade has released her first novel.  The editor for that particular project?  Yours truly.  So naturally, I hope you’ll want to give it a read.

It’s a YA Paranormal Thriller called Forbidden Mind, her first in the Forbiddenseries.

Sam thinks she’s months away from freedom. After spending her life in a secret school, rented out to the rich and powerful as a paranormal spy, she is ready to head to college like any normal eighteen-year-old.

Only Sam isn’t normal. She reads minds.  And just before her big going-away party, she links to the mind of a young man who changes everything.

Drake wasn’t raised as a ‘Rent-A-Kid.’ He was kidnapped and taken there by force. But his exceptional physical strength and powers of mind control make him very dangerous, especially to Sam.

When they meet, Sam is forced to face the truth of her situation, and to acknowledge that not all is as it seems in her picture-perfect world. For what awaits her on her eighteenth birthday isn’t a trip to college, but an unexpected nightmare from which she may not be able to escape.

To survive, they must work together.

But will their powers be enough to save them before it’s too late?

 

Reviews are already pouring in for Forbidden Mind, and they’re quite positive.  If you’re a fan of YA Paranormal, you won’t want to miss this.  Please stop by one of the following locations to pick up your copy: BookieJar, SmashwordsAmazon, or Goodreads.

The second in the series, Forbidden Fire, is due out in late November, and the third, Forbidden Life, before the end of the year.

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