Category Archives: General Interest

The Bloody, Gory, Awful Choices We Make To Write Books

By Aaron Ritchey

“Don't demand that your art supports your life. Instead, make a promise that your life will always support your art.
--Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, from her interview with Luc Berthelett

“Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.”
--Stephen King from On Writing

Okay, so which is it. Come on, Elizabeth and Stephen, you both have gobs of money and success and you both can’t be right. You need to decide. I demand it.

I have to admit, I never really understood the Stephen King quote. What is a support system anyway? And for what? Huh? Come again? The expanded version of King’s quote talks about not going into your cave and forgetting about your family and friends and the outside world. That writing is fine, but don’t sacrifice everything to do it. Basically, what I get from good ol’ Mr. King is that write, write a lot, but don’t be an ass about it.

Easy for him to say. He’s Stephen frickin’ King.

In the end, though, I think the Elizabeth Gilbert interview is saying something similar. Basically it says “Don’t quit your day job. But find work that still allows you to write.”

The reality is, the writing life is one of crushing dedication and it takes time, mountains of time, oceans of minutes, a Mount Everest of seconds, years of slavery. Or maybe not. It sure seems like it does for most of us.

So do we write to live, or live to write, and what is the difference?

Again, I don’t understand the question. Do I choose to write? Or did writing choose me? How much freedom do I have?

I think it comes down to how I want to use my minutes. We’ll be dead soon. I mean, soonish, probably, but you never know. I could be eaten by rabid mutant Chihuahuas from outer space in the next ten minutes.

How do I want to use my minutes before I feel their teeth?

I love stories. I have always loved stories, and I like crafting them, and I like the pain of editing, the sorrow of marketing, and the whips of the reviewers. Call me sick and twisted, but I do. Or have I learned to love it?

The Muslim poetess Rabia wrote that she was born when she learned to love what she most feared.

At the end of the day, the dream I have of being the world-famous writer remains. But more and more, I’m seeing success is a big, huge open word and I have the power to choose if I’m successful or not. At every stage of the game. No matter what other people think.

So, to pursue this dream, how much should I sacrifice to write?

I think a better question is, what should I sacrifice to write? Friends? Family? My health? No. Mindless TV, video games, and pictures of kittens on the internet? Yes.

In the end, I need to choose what to sacrifice, and I have sacrificed to write the books I’ve written. I’ve had the same job for seventeen years. I’m still in the same house. Same wife and kids. I’ve chosen a stable life, dreary and dull, that gives me the time to write, because, again, it all comes down to minutes and how I want to use them.

Though I do love those internet kittens. Lord, I do.

That Fleeting Magic

By Colleen Oakes

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It happened last night, in the middle of a long day of writing, editing and brain-storming.  My writing buddy  and I had hunkered down for a five hour session of hammering out the problems in our respective novels. Seriously, it's such a perfect working relationship that it's a little scary.  This is how we do it: first, the good - then, the bad, which takes about five times longer than the good.  Peter's voice needs work. Damien needs feelings.  Comments range from "I LITERALLY hate your mountain range" to "I don't like or respect sexy aliens" Back and forth and back and forth it went.

At the end of our session, I was struggling with the ending of my current novel. It's a very complicated climax, with a lot of specific plot devices that have to happen just at the right time, in the right order and getting that order just right is terribly tripping me up at the moment.  I'm nowhere near the end, but I need to have my ducks in a row to proceed from this point on. I've arrived at a place in the story where I need to know origin stories - and the endgame.

So, we were at Udi's eating delicious pizza and humus when it happened.  At that point we had spent about 5 hours dissecting and editing and I was running over the plot for my novel out loud, in my head, and chasing down every thread that occurred.  To me sometimes, the best way to figure out where a story is going is just to push it down every possible dark alleyway and see what comes out. I was missing something from the climax.  I knew that something KEY was missing.  So we were running over scenarios, one by one and then I had it. A sliver of an idea.  A tiny sliver, a slip of a thing, a whisper of something big.

We discussed it.  Then, our voices rose, and started overlapping. We followed the string into the dark alley and kept following it. We started getting excited and then, we were yelling and high fiving and I'm pretty sure the table behind us thought we were totally drunk seeing how we were talking magic and pirates and musical instruments.

It was a moment, just a moment of pure creation.

Afterwards, even on the drive home as I recapped it minute by minute to my VERY lucky husband, I was still buzzing, my skin feeling like it was on fire, my brain alive and awake and flooded with adrenaline.  When you write with that kind of inspirational heat that is as rare as an eclipse, the story flows out of you like water, the best kind of drowning.

Sometimes people ask me why I write.  Most of the time, it's because I like sipping on a hot beverage and simultaneously trying not to bang my head against a keyboard. But when it's magic like this, it's a job that is so much more than a job. It's creating a living and breathing thing that can surprise, delight and frustrate you.  Honestly, it's a lot like parenting.

And when that inspirational lightning strikes, and your story falls into place like an elaborate puzzle, it's one of the best moments that a writer can have.

It might only happen once or twice a book, but when it does, it's pure, unfiltered ecstasy.

Magic.

The Road to Accomplishing Your Goals

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

Even if you are firmly entrenched in one path to publication like traditional publishing, you won't find your journey is a straight line. Even those writers who sell their first book to the very first editor their agent approaches, often look back on the way they became an author and are surprised at how winding the road was.

Which makes this the best time in history to be a writer. The options to becoming a writer are immense, as are the ways to publication. My advice, never judge your own journey by that of another. Compare it, sure. Use it, definitely.  But avoid judging your progress by someone else's, especially since the roadblocks and detours you face are very different, as are your writing, your goals, and your needs.

So let's talk a little about those detours and ways in which you can become an author, other than or within traditional publishing or self-publishing, that you might not have thought about.

I'm going to begin with a story about my own path to becoming an author and how different it was from what I expected, which was...I had no clue. I just knew I wanted to see my book at Barnes & Noble. I was naive to the publishing game.

Boy have I learned a lot since my first conference in 2007.

Only 10 books ago (or for those who count in years, 8 of those suckers), which feels like a lifetime ago, I first started to consider a career as a writer.

And why not? I had one brand new spanking, shiny manuscript under my belt and was pretty sure it would be a book by Christmas that year. This was in June, mind you. I was deluded, so sure that publishing was a one step process. Lucky for me, this was also a time when indie or self-publishing was looked at like one does a fan of Dan Brown.

If self-publishing would've been an option like it is today, I would've jumped on it after my 300th rejection email appeared in my inbox. Sadly I had to wait another 700 rejection letters (or 3 years in regular people counting) for my first book to be sold, by me at a RMFW conference.

The thing was, I had an agent. And this wasn't the first book I'd tried to sell. This was the 5th book I'd written. I'd paid my dues (at least I thought I had). I'd done everything I was supposed to do on the traditional publishing linear path. Which went something like, write great book, get agent, sell book to big six publishing house. I'd gotten an agent. I'd suffered through editorial boards. And yet, I hadn't sold a book.

And now I had. By myself.

Of course the agent was very helpful come contract time but that's another horror story and we don't have time for me to break down in tears.

But you see my point, there are more ways than that one straight line for traditional publishing. Think about the authors you know. How many of them fit into the linear path? Maybe one or two. So on the traditional publishing path, we have agent/editor/book, and we can add editor/book. Many houses, with the exception of most of the Big 5 publishers, do accept unagented queries.

You could also smack talk your way to a book deal as social media explodes around us. I know plenty of bloggers who now have book deals because of the platform they built on their blogs. I bet you know of one too. Anyone every heard of Orange is the New Black? Well, the writer, Piper Chapmen, was a blogger who sold her story as a book and then later as the award winning Netflix show.

Which brings me to yet another path, do a sex tape... Pam Anderson of the famed Tommy Lee sex tape published a book in 2004.

Now I'm not saying that's your best bet, mind you...

But celebrity does help.

Okay, let's move on to networking your way to the top. Making friends can get you a book deal. I've seen it happen. Writers become friends with agents or editors, the writer writes a damn good book, and gets it in front of her friends. They love it and already know they love him or her, and the writer is now an author.

Don't discount networking with other writers. That can be just as fruitful. Writers will give their agents and editors referrals and often that referral holds enough weight to get a contract.

Other traditional publishing paths you might not have considered are mid-sized or smaller presses. You probably won't get a huge advance, but they, in my experience, can be better to work with. You are allowed more control over what your book will look like once it's published. Article, serials, and magazine writing can open doors for you. Non-fiction and creative non-fiction are also ways to get published.

All these things, no matter what path, assume you already have a great, polished book. Without that, the path to publication will be very bumpy.

Let's talk about self-publishing options for a moment. I am a hybrid author, meaning I write for traditional publishers as well as have my own self-publishing empire (though it's a very small empire at that). I am a firm believer in self-publishing. I know how hard it is to get a book published the traditional way, especially when it's a book not quite in the mainstream. Short story collects for example. Very few publishers want them.

Self-publishing is as viable an option as traditional publishing if you are looking to get your book into the world. I'm not going to go over the pros and cons of each, just know that there are many for both, and to explore your best option when deciding which path you want to take.

So some of the self-publishing oaths you can take are 'self' self publishing, by which I mean, doing everything on your own. You edit or hire an editor (which is my suggestion), you do the book cover or again hire someone, you do the formatting or hire someone. This DYI approach is a great option if you have the time and abilities.

For those that don't. You can go through a vanity or boutique press, but be very careful. They tend to be expensive and the contracts can be very tricky. When you self-publish, no matter how you do, make sure you retain the rights.

If you'd like to share, I'd love to hear about your publishing journey. How did you get a book deal, or self-publish your book? If you haven't done either yet, what road do you think you'll follow?

 

You can learn more about me and get a free ebook at www.jakazimer.com or friend me on facebook.

 

Why was this scene cut?

By Janet Lane

I saw a terrific movie yesterday, An American Sniper. The director, Clint Eastwood, made a surprising decision that triggered thoughts about, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the mantra for story telling, and for good reason. Because we all write and read different genres, I’ll mention major movies. Imagine if the slaughtered horse head-in-a-bed scene had not been included in The Godfather. Or the nude sketch scene in Titanic. The shower scene in Psycho. Or when Dr. Zhivago sees Laura through the streetcar window and suffers a fatal heart attack before he can reach her?

All levels of writers know this principle, yet it can be difficult to master.

In Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham explains the purpose of scenes. His first three points:
1. The goal of each scene must relate to the story question.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be with another person, not internally, within oneself.

This is helpful when determining when to write a scene, and when narrative summary will be the best option.

Telling gives the reader essential knowledge that keeps the reader informed, and able to grasp the significance of the scene/s that immediately follow.

If the protagonist is to insult someone, the reader needs to know the stakes and penalties, so s/he can worry. Not an,“It was the best of times and the worst of times” sweeping global overview, but concise details specific to your story.

If the scene is affected by current conditions, it could be a capsule historical overview at the beginning of the story. Here’s an overview from my latest release, Traitor’s Moon: "Poor England was sliding into civil war as the Duke of York prepared to fight King Henry VI for the throne. Roads weren’t safe to travel, and this moonless night made them the more dangerous."

It could be situational, unique to the protagonist.
"Stephen’s family already had their feet to the fire with alliances unsavory to the crown."

Attempting to “show” either of these developments would take chapters, but it’s backstory. Sometimes an isolated piece of backstory is dramatized in a Prologue, but the key here is to avoid “isolated.” If backstory is introduced as a prologue, it must be brief and connected and vital to the protagonist, or the writer risks losing the reader in the first or second page.

Examples of prologues that worked: Beauty and the Beast, a compact narrative voice-over (telling) that explained details of the Beast’s past cruelty and how he deserved the subsequent curse. Contrast that with the decision James Cameron made in Titanic, when he chose to “show” and created “book ends” to frame the story. Book End number one launched the story, dramatizing the moment when an elderly Rose sees the nude portrait of herself as a young woman on a newscast. Rose’s backstory is then presented in a flashback—on a fascinating stage--when she arrives on the boat and we learn basic facts about her engagement and her family’s financial troubles.

Showing vs. telling engages the mind of the reader. Our job is to draw the reader into the story world. Second, it leaves an indelible stamp on the reader’s memory. When shown well, it’s as if we personally experienced the event. It creates a memorable story, always our goal.

It takes extra effort. Again from Traitor’s Moon, it’s easy to say,
"Nicole thought she was ugly."

That’s acceptable for a first draft, but to engage the reader, show, don’t tell.
"Katherine was flawless, a testament to all that women
strive to be, something Nicole could never be with all her
six feet of bones and angles, and lack of all things feminine."

There are mundane, uninteresting moments of life that should not be shown or told.
*When your protagonist is driving to the store during normal weather and traffic (detailed, distracting travelogue)
* When your protag is dressing normally (not strapping a bomb on his chest, of course).

These slice-of-life events have been coined “cigarette actions” because they bring to mind the predictable order of the process: taking a deep drag, exhaling it into rings, and tapping the ashes in to the ashtray.

Returning to the movie, An American Sniper, Eastwood avoided starting his movie with a “prologue.” He started it in real time, a life-and-death moment in which the protagonist has to make a horrifying decision. Only after he totally hooked the audience with this tense scene did he begin a prologue-type sequence of three quick scenes that economically established the origins of the protagonist’s deeply held beliefs. As discussed in Vogler’s The Writing Journey in the chapter on Ordinary World, Eastwood’s prologue didn’t take on an “ordinary” Ordinary World such as, “Born in Chicago, youngest of twelve, average student, had measles at nine, etc.” Eastwood only provided essential details unique to the protagonist--and directly related to his inner story—which showed what made him the man he was.

There was also a point in the movie where I was surprised that Eastwood omitted a very dramatic moment. This is not a spoiler! I’ll just say that a major scene was not dramatized.

Why?

Eastwood demonstrated his firm grasp of story by showing (foreshadowing) in the previous scene, the off-camera action that followed. Would the omitted scene have elicited deeper emotions than the penultimate scene? I welcome your comments, but please avoid including any spoiler information so others can view the film and see for themselves this unusual treatment of “show vs. tell."

Nailing Voice

By Robin D. Owens

I watched that reality show, The Voice. I especially like the blind auditions and observing how the coaches work with people – because I like seeing professionals practice their craft in other disciplines, and I wonder if I can use this or that technique in mine.

To be honest, though I LOVE music, and writing to music, I prefer no vocals to distract me. And though I've watched the show since it began and am learning the terminology for singing and the music business, I don't consider that I have a good ear. For singing.

But for writing? Yes, I can usually spot when someone has nailed their voice.

THE main thing in writing is also VOICE. It's that uniqueness that only you can bring to the page. The way you structure your words, the way you put together your sentences, the characters you swagger across the page . . . simply, the way your mind works.

And when it works, the reader knows it.

All our backgrounds are different, depending where and when we grew up, our social strata and how our parents and peers talked (for instance, I never heard my parents use the f-word – ever, and my father grew up lower class in Denver with three brothers). So the words you use will be different than even your best friend's. Your world view is your own, and with that view, you will craft the worlds, whether it is contemporary Denver, historical Mississippi, or Space Station Zebra, that you want to explore, and that you want others to explore.

Usually it takes a while to find your voice, to refine it, then to keep true to it. I know that mumbledy-mumble years ago, when I began seriously writing, the leader of my first critique group had me check out a packet from the RMFW library on Voice (yes, it was that long ago). This packet had a couple of books and conference lecture tapes (WAY long ago). At the time I was a little miffed, because I thought I'd found my voice. But after going home and writing a scene in my favorite author's style, I realized I wasn't quite there. So I read the books and listened to the tapes.

I also remember being scolded for using cliches. I once wrote "we were ships passing in the night." So, the next time critique group met, it was: "We were ships, passing in the night. But he was a nuclear sub and I was a clipper..."

Yes, you may start out writing robotic characters that fizzle, cliches that sound new but are so old that a reader never wants to see them again (like "strappy sandals"). Paragraphs strung together that might be found in any new writer's books, published or unpublished (my first manuscript is staying firmly in the drawer). But as you write and as you grow as a writer and as you READ, you will find that voice.

Even if your everyday voice isn't the one you use when you write, if you craft lyrical sentences, or you polish or pare down until the words on the page are closest to the images in your head (or the voices in your ears), you will find your original voice and use it, and that's what will keep the readers coming back.

And that's what I want to remind you of this month, that you have a voice that is only yours. Characters that only you can imagine, your plot that will twist this or that way.

Find your voice, let it grow and change as it needs to, and stay true to it, because that's why people will want to read YOUR stories.

May all your writing dreams come true.
Robin

Guest Post – David Boop: The Snowflake Theory of Characters

By David Boop

Over the lifespan of your writing career, you’ll hear lots of catchy sayings about the craft.

Write what you know.

End chapters on a cliffhanger.

Never fight a land war with Russia in the winter.

The last one may only pertain to alternate history writers, but I’m sure you’ve heard a bunch. One of my favorites goes;

Your character has to be the right person, the only person, who can do X (with X being the anointed task.)

That’s a heavy burden on an unsuspecting office worker, pining for the secretary he’ll never be cool enough to ask out, or the poor milkmaid who dreams of joining her brothers in battle, but is just a girl. Characters are indeed swept up by the story to become the only people who can do this all important thing at the appointed time. Which brings us this little gem…

Characters should be like snowflakes, no two alike.

Yeah, that saying kinda sucks and I don’t blame you for wanting to burn this article. Too bad it’s on a blog and tablets are expensive to replace.  Trust me, I’m not giving you the uniqueness spiel as a writing tip. MY snowflake analogy goes deeper.

Snowflakes are not just one thing.

They’re cold. They’re wet. They can be beautiful, and wished for around Christmas time. They can clump into large groups that force me to sweep off my patio when I’d rather be inside editing. Snowflakes have the ability to be many things, some at the same time.

One of the greatest sins in writing, in my opinion, is the character who is only one thing and incredibly good at it.

Let’s make a character. Let’s call her Kendra the paralegal. One day, Kendra stumbles across a murder and uses her powers of paralegalness to solve a crime in a book we’ll call “Illegal Eagles.” (Cute, eh?) We’re to understand Kendra because she’s us. She’s plucky, good at her job, and just waiting for people to notice her. As she solves the crime, there is no doubt in her mind that this is what she is supposed to do. In each successive book, Kendra finds other backstabbing lawyers or philandering judges to expose, growing more confident that this is her lot in life: crime-solving paralegal.

Where’s the fun in that? How’s that like me?

I’m plagued by doubts. Thoughts run from “I got lucky” to “the publisher owed me a favor” to “that was probably the last sale” even after doing this for over ten years straight. Conversely, when I finish a piece, I’m cocky. “This is the best story I’ve ever written, guaranteed to win me accolades and fame.”

I try to write characters that are not just one thing. They have as much potential to fail as succeed. And they should fail in their tasks occasionally. If they don’t, then we’ll never believe them. Adversity will come, it’s unavoidable. It’s how we handle it that makes us human and, in some cases, heroes.

Ask yourself, why is “The Empire Strikes Back” heralded as brilliant while “Return of the Jedi” maligned? (The answer has nothing to do with ewoks.) It’s because ESB is one screw-up after another orchestrated by overconfident heroes, who barely escape their own embarrassing deaths caused by sheer stupidity. No one expected that after “Star Wars,” and the plot actually mirrors many of my Mondays. RotJ, conversely, is a series of successes. Even when it appears the heroes have screwed up, it only leads to a bigger victory. The outcome is never in doubt as reflected in the character’s attitudes and abilities.

If you want to make your characters more believable, they should have more than one aspect to their personality. Blowhards are usually covering for insecurities. Mousy people in real life are often vicious trolls online. If your characters don’t have different sides of their personality, then your readers will quickly grow tired of them. A snowflake that doesn’t melt becomes boring real quick. (I grew up in Wisconsin, I know this is true.)

Deepen your characters like the many-faceted crystals of a snowflake and your readers will stick out their tongues for more.

 

David Boop is a bestselling Denver-based speculative fiction author. In addition to his novels, short stories and children’s books, he’s also an award-winning essayist and screenwriter. His novel, the sci-fi/noir She Murdered Me with Science, will return to print in 2015. David has had over forty short stories published and two short films produced. He specializes in weird westerns, but has been published across several genres including media tie-ins for titles like The Green Hornet and Veronica Mars. 2013 saw the digital release of his first Steampunk children’s book,The Three Inventors Sneebury, with a print release due in 2016. David tours the country speaking on writing and publishing at schools, libraries and conventions.

He’s a single dad, Summa Cum Laude graduate, part-time temp worker and believer. He’s a member of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writer, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Horror Writers of America and the Western Writers of America. His hobbies include film noir, anime, the Blues and Mayan History. You can find out more on his fanpage, www.facebook.com/dboop.updates or Twitter @david_boop.

Publishing Options: How to Wade Through the Swamp

By Pamela Nowak

I received a request for advice from a fellow writer. Poised on the edge of publication, she is looking at options. As I thought about how to answer her, it occurred to me how different things are now from how they were fifteen years ago, when I was moving into that stage of my career.

Back in the old days, we reached for the most recent addition of The Writers Market and our notes from conferences then made lists. All the information we needed was in one tidy book: names, contact information, query procedures, submission guidelines. Formats were standard, word counts were based on a word-per-page formula, and there were fewer options. If a publisher wasn’t listed among the names in that book, it wasn’t one you wanted to submit to. You simply prioritized them and queried. Except for advance amounts and reputation within the genre, there was little else one needed to consider until an offer was received.

Wow, have things changed!

Today, the options have exploded. Big publishers, small presses, self-publishing, and combinations of them abound. Guidelines vary and so does everything else.

With all the options out there, research is more critical than ever. There is no longer such a thing as an industry standard—in submission guidelines, in contracts, in press runs, in distribution, or in anything else. Writers today need to be constantly aware of the ever-changing business of publishing. They need to consider what they want, what their skills are, and what publishers are (and are not) offering.

If you want to pursue traditional publishing, you must look at what the publisher offers. Do they release in mass market paperback, trade paperback, hardcover, digital, or a combination? Are different formats released simultaneously? What is the distribution system? Do they offer marketing support? What type of product do they release? How supportive are they of their authors? What type of advances and royalty percentages are paid? Are your rights tied up for a limited amount of time or in perpetuity? Will the publisher get you reviews? The list goes on and on.

If you are considering independent publication, you need to look at your own skills. Are you experienced in social networking? Do you know how to access reviews? How much time are you willing to put into marketing? Do you like spending time online?

But I feel you also need to be aware of what you want in terms of your career. Do you want to reach your goals all at once or are you willing to get there via steps? What is most important to you? What are you willing to compromise on, if necessary? How devoted are you to your genre and style of writing?

Larger publishers offer you wider distribution and sell their books at a lower cost while small presses may have a narrow distribution, smaller print runs, and may only offer higher cost formats. Larger publishers are more rigid with the category standards while small presses tend to be more flexible. If you are willing to adjust your length, complexity, or sub-genre, larger publishers may be the route to go. If you are firmly tied to something that doesn’t quite fit, you may want to look at small presses. But don’t sign unless you are fully aware of those limitations in print runs, distribution, cost per book, and earning potential.

If you want your book published without lots of editing, there are a host of small presses who offer that option. But those publishers will not have the same reputation for quality as those who edit more deeply. That doesn’t mean your manuscript is not well-written. It simply means that if the publisher doesn’t edit much, they will inevitably achieve a reputation for producing books that lack editing. Does that matter to you?

You’ve received an offer but the publisher wants your rights in perpetuity. What is most important to you--getting your book in print or being able to get your rights back in the future?

You want your book in front of reviewers. Which publishers will get them there? And…what publishers have reputations for getting good reviews? Are you willing to do the editing that might be necessary to achieve a good review?

If you are thinking about self-publication, are you willing and able to market your book online? Do you understand the various distribution channels? Do you accept that you will have to work hard to make sales?

Here's a look at my experience. I signed my first contract in December 2006, just as small presses were beginning to emerge as a viable option. Signing with a small press had not been what I had originally envisioned but it was an option I began to look at when I discovered large publishers were no longer buying western historical romance that didn’t fit neatly into category lines or stereotypical characters.

In looking at my goals, I realized that I didn’t want to change genres and I didn’t want to write less complicated plots in order to comply with category guidelines. This was not an area in which I was willing to compromise. Therefore, I needed to look at options that would allow this. I researched carefully, looking for a small press know for quality products, good editing, and review connections. I accepted some limitations (small press runs, limited distribution, and higher product price) while holding to those things that were most important to me.

As a result, I’ve taken a slower route, Yet, it is one that allows me to write the type of books that I always envisioned and, when the market shifts, I will be in a position to pursue publication that reaches a larger readership at a lower price point. It’s a route that is working for me but might not work for others.

In the end, my advice for navigating your options is to research what publishers offer, to examine what is most important to you and to know where your skills lie. I would do this even before you query a publisher and certainly don’t accept an offer until you have fully researched and thought about these points. On the whole, it’s easier than it’s ever been to achieve publication but easiest is not always best. There is much more to consider before you select the route that’s best for you.

Happy hunting!

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Seven – Conflict

By Jeanne C. Stein

What is conflict? Why is it important in your writing? Those are redundant questions, aren't they? In fact, you've heard them so many times, you're sick of them. They are mentioned in every article, every class, every discussion on writing.

Why? Because conflict is crucial to good story telling.

A dictionary definition says conflict is a continued struggle or battle between opposing forces. Sums it up pretty well. Without it, there’s no story. If our protag slays her demon in the first chapter, if Sleeping Beauty meets her prince and he whisks her off before she takes a bite of that apple, we have no story.

Conflict has to be built into your plot in such a way that from the first page to the last, tension builds and grows. How to do it? Let’s see if we can figure it out. For our purposes, I’m going to divide conflict into two categories: external and internal.

We’ll look at external conflict first. In most genre writing, the external conflict usually involves the main story question. It’s our protagonist’s quest. It’s set up in the inciting incident that calls our protag to adventure. It involves the tests and obstacles she must overcome. It’s the action that propels the story.

Let’s look at how we do it. Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer broke it down for us in a simple and beautiful way: Scene and Sequel. Even better, he told us what to include in each.

Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster
Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision

What does this mean? The easiest way to explain it is to show it. Our protag for this simple example is a vampire. She is after a potion that is believed to hold the secret to regaining her mortality, something she desperately wants. She knows where it is (goal). She gets there. The potion is guarded by a supernatural determined to keep it from her (conflict). They fight. She wins. When she opens the bottle, it’s empty (disaster.)

Disaster is the hook that keeps the reader interested, keeps him turning the page when he knows he should turn off the light and go to sleep. You want a hook at the end of each chapter. In the next lesson, we’ll look at ways to do this and what elements you want to include in every scene to make it come alive. Right now, I want to continue with the discussion on constructing that page-turner.

Here’s where I’m going to differ from the common school of thought. Swain suggests after every scene there should be a sequel. A time for our protag to react to what happened, assess what she needs to do next and make a decision how to proceed. It’s introspection. It’s a place for back story. It’s where the reader can catch his breath.

Do we want the reader to catch his breath?

I say, no.

If you look at how thrillers are constructed, it’s ALL scene and very little sequel. Don’t we want our books to be thrilling?

Okay, you ask, but if all we show is action, where does our protag do the things the sequel is designed for? In our example, how do we show her recovering from the fight, facing her disappointment at finding the bottle empty, deciding what to do next?

We can do it all in a few short sentences. We can do it by having her describe what happened in a conversation with a secondary character. We can do it by showing it in the following chapter: our protag in bed the next morning physically hurting from the fight (reaction), distressed because she’s no closer to her goal than before (dilemma), determined to hunt that potion down regardless of the cost (decision).

And we do it in a few sentences, a couple of paragraphs at most and we’re off to the next scene. Often, we don’t need a sequel at all. We can do the things I described above while our protag is on the road hunting down the next clue to that potion. Keep the action moving forward.

Now for internal conflict. This is harder because it can be seen as contradicting everything I’ve said above. Actually, it doesn’t.

Internal conflict is what our character feels and thinks about what is happening. There’s very little “scene” in internalization and yet it’s a vital part of our writing because it gets to the core of our characters. We want the readers to see them as real. We want to understand their thought processes. We want to feel what they feel. And we want to do it all without long narrative passages. How? We do it exactly how we described “sequel” above.

Here’s an example from my book LEGACY—

Mom doesn’t acknowledge my leaving. Dad resumes his place at the table. Trish follows me with her eyes.

There’s a fissure, cold and brittle as ice, forming in my chest. It expands until my heart aches from the pressure.

I shouldn’t have worried so much about breaking their hearts. I should have worried more about breaking my own.

End of Chapter 25. Then Chapter 26 starts:

I spot Williams’ tail for the first time when I leave Mister A’s….

Right back into the action but there’s no doubt how Anna is feeling at the end of Chapter 25. It’s internal conflict presented in three short paragraphs.

Naturally there will be times when our protag has a problem to think through or there is back story pertinent to what’s happening now. I’m not saying eliminate ALL internalizations. I’m saying make them relevant to the present and don’t use ten paragraphs when one will do.

A word about unsympathetic characters. Think Dexter from the John Lindsay series and the Showtime adaptation. How do we make a police blood splatter expert by day and a serial killer by night sympathetic? By spotlighting his inner conflicts, his constant battle to “appear” normal, to “feel” what others feel. And he does care intensely about his family. All these conflicts come into play and make us as readers care about what happens to a protagonist who probably should have been locked away in the very first book. He’s the ultimate anti-hero precisely because he has people who love him and who he loves in return…and who he will do anything to protect.

Next month, we look at ways to keep our reader engaged—the building blocks to creating and maintaining suspense: stimulus/response.

Happy Writing!!

Paying for it

By Mary Gillgannon

In the month since my latest book came out, I’ve dutifully attempted to promote it. I updated my website, guest-posted on nearly a dozen blogs, tweeted and Facebooked (in my own pathetic way), had a Goodreads giveaway, and engaged the help of the other authors on my publisher’s promotion loop to get the word out. But two weeks after the book’s release, it became clear that my efforts weren’t working. My book wasn’t gaining traction, it was standing still. If a bestseller is the pinnacle of a high mountain, this book was only a few yards up one of the foothills. I decided it was time to heed the old adage, “You have to spend money to make money.”

I’ve spent money on promoting my books in the past. I've purchased ads, had postcards and bookmarks printed and paid for mailings, the only promotion options available in the days before the internet. But there was one crucial difference: Back then, I was spending money I’d already made. When you’re earning several thousand dollars on an advance, it’s a lot easier to part ways with a few hundred here and there.

But even back then, I was pretty cautious about investing a lot of money in promotion. Mostly because I wasn’t convinced it worked. I’d known authors who spent nearly every dime of their advances on promotion and their sales weren’t that much better than mine. Instead, I took to heart the advice most editors and agents gave back then: “Put your time and energy into writing the next book.”

That really was the conventional wisdom in those days. Now publishers expect you to promote. Some even demand it. I’ve submitted to publishers who put as much emphasis on the author’s platform and social media presence as they do on the quality of the manuscript. A lot of it is because the market has shifted to ebooks, which are marketed so much differently. In the old days, if your publisher got your book in the stores and it had a reasonably good cover, you could expect to sell thousands of books without doing much of anything. The important “promotion” took place between the publisher’s sales staff and the bookstore buyers and wholesale distributors. The main hurdle was getting your books out there, and you had no control over that.

Now, “distribution” is the easy part. Anyone with a little tech savvy can get their book published. The ease of that part of the process clearly shows, as the number of ebooks available increases exponentially each year. The gatekeepers are gone and we now have a flood.

So, in an effort to try to get a tiny bit of notice for my book, I decided to spend some money on promotion. But it’s not easy to decide where to throw those bucks. The best sites for promoting ebooks are picky. They want you to have x number of positive reviews, and even if you have those, they may still reject you. They also want you to offer it free or at a discounted price. Since my book was published by a small press, I don’t have any control over the price.

But to test things, I went to a less well-known site and paid a small fee to promote one of my indie-published books, for which I’d dropped the price to $.99. In terms of sheer numbers, the approach was successful. On the day my book was listed, I sold 150 copies. Considerably more than the half dozen or so I usually sell in a month. In terms of money earned for money invested, I’ve come out a little ahead, but just barely. With the regular price of $2.99, I make nearly $2.00 per book sold. On a $.99 book I make about 35 cents. So I have to sell nearly six times as many books to make the same money. Plus, I have to earn back the $45 fee I paid to have my book promoted. If the bump in sales continues for a while, or it helps increase the sales of my other books, it will be a good investment.

But that doesn’t help my newest book. For it, I bought an ad on a romance ebook site. It was on sale for $99 and runs for a month. It’s a site that has been sending me newsletter emails for years and I always delete them without opening them. So, we’ll see if it makes any difference. And I’m still looking around, trying to find other avenues for ads. But there’s a limit to how much money it makes sense to spend.

I suspect the slow sales on my latest book may be related to the book itself. I’ve always written historical romances, but this book (a time travel/reincarnation story) takes place primarily in the present. While some readers bounce back and forth between historical and contemporary romances, a lot have a preference for one or the other. In some ways I’m marketing this book to a brand new audience. So, maybe I should do what I’d really like to be doing (instead of agonizing over these things) and finish the next book in the series. Maybe the second book will help me get a few more feet up the mountain.

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION

By Kevin Paul Tracy

senateAfter writing last month’s column on infusing your fiction with real-world politics, I thought I’d address this month’s column to how to infuse fictional politics into your fictional world. In fiction it is often necessary to build a world as a stage on which the events of your novel or series will play. Most often this is done in Science Fiction or Fantasy, but it is done in other fiction as well. For example thrillers often create a world very close to our own, but different enough to avoid complaints by purists. In world building, the more complete your world the more real it becomes to your reader. Even if, like character back-story, much of it doesn't reach the page, readers can still sense the fulsomeness with which your world was built. The subtleties bleed through, even if you the very author are unaware of it. Politics can be a great way to add intrigue and urgency to your story lines.

The thing to remember about Geopolitics is that at the core of everything is money. Find any driver of international political conflict – oil, borders, religion – and you don’t have to dig much further to find the root financial drivers behind it. Now I’m going to use a dirty word, please don’t stop reading: that’s economics. Use the word economics in almost any context and people’s eye glaze over, but it doesn't have to be as dry and boring as the pundits on television make it seem. Let me explain how you can use basic economic concepts to build a realistic, engaging, and exciting geopolitical scaffolding around which to build your fictional world.

The definition of economics is stated in a single sentence: economics is the management of finite resources. Period. That’s it. Simple, right? Resources can be anything from food, to water, to grazing land, to narcotics, to oil, ad infinitum. In economics a resource has at least two properties: demand (how many people want it and in what quantity) and supply (how much of it is available or how difficult is it to come by). The value of any resource increases as demand increases and/or supply diminishes. So, likewise, it’s value decreases as demand goes down and/or supply increases.

dune_frank_herbertYou can use this simple idea to infuse a whole lot of ecopolitics into your world. Consider Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune. In this science fiction epic, the resource in greatest demand in the universe is the spice known only as Melange. Melange extends life. Additionally, two of the most powerful political organizations in the universe need it: the Spacers Guild need it to enable their pilots to fold space and traverse the galaxy, and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood uses it extensively as a part of their rituals and ceremonies. In order to make use of the services these two organizations offer, every other political body in the universe, from the Emperor himself to the lowliest royal house, must deal in Melange. If that demand alone weren’t enough to make Melange the most valuable resource in the universe, there is this one fact: Melange is only available in one place in the entire universe – the planet Arrakis, aka Dune.

So you have a commodity, the spice Melange, in high demand by very powerful entities, and in very rare supply. You can imagine the intrigues and alliances and betrayals and, yes, even battles that emerge out of the conflict introduced by this economic stress. (Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, your can read the books by Frank Herbert, who got enough mileage out of this political tension to fill six books.) Now your book doesn't have to center around this economic tension, but it can add all sorts of color and richness as a backdrop to larger epics and themes. Dune itself is more about prophesies and myths and the emergence of a super-being or god who will bring peace to the universe.

The point is, if you feel the world you’re building is thin or lacking in richness and opportunities for conflict, don’t forget that politics is a great way to introduce grander themes and wider scope to a novel or epic series. And that the core to all politics, eventually, comes down to economics. Of which now you know just enough to build upon.


Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, “Rogue Agenda,” a startling and engrossing gothic thriller “Bloodflow,” and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

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