Writer’s Stew and the Snake

I might be the only writer suffering from information overload, but I doubt it. I subscribe to several writer’s blogs, as well as RMFW, RWA, etc. I read a ton of great information on writing every week including mechanics, marketing, story structure—you name it. I go to as many workshops as I can, glomming on to handouts and PowerPoints, because it’s such fabulous information from seriously experienced writers. I know I have issues with my writing that need to be fixed and I’m getting amazing How-Tos for it.overload

But all this information causes its own problem. Here I am, trying to figure out how to write the best possible novel, and I’m assailed by things I know I need to consider in order to make sure MY novel is head and shoulders above YOURS (sorry, but that’s real life, man). It leaves me thinking I’ll never be able to absorb, let alone remember, it all.

And then I think, maybe I don’t have to. There is this really cool secret technology I know about. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it so I’m going to give it to you right now. You’ll thank me forever. It’s called a “save” command. You use it to save those words of wisdom on your computer (or you can “print” – it works for hard copy if you roll that way). You can even sort & index the articles by topic.

I know, right?

If this “Great Computer Secret” isn’t enough to cure your info overload, there’s always the fact that YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ALL IN THE FIRST DRAFT. You can refer back to that wisdom when you’re at the end of the story and want to make sure you used that serial comma correctly, have Mother capitalized in the right places and not capitalized in the wrong places, can review your story arc, or see if you used the full range of senses.

Wow. Who’d a thunk it?

I know there are those truly remarkable authors who write from beginning to end, write THE END, and send it off to their editor/agent who can’t find more than a comma or missing quote to complain about. But I’m not one of those, and odds are, you aren’t either.

I have a file on my computer I call “writing tools.” I have it sort-of indexed, enough so I can skim through the articles and pick up pertinent items that struck me as weaknesses in my writing when I first read the article. I read through these when I’m in the “stewing” mode—when I’ve gotten to the end of the story and am letting it stew for a week or two before starting to edit with fresh eyes. I’m sure (at least I hope) that over time, because I’ve recognized them, I’ll overcome most of my weaknesses. But until I do I need to be reminded of them. BEFORE I hit SEND and have that cringe-worthy moment when I re-read my submission and just notice that I just have that issue with using the words “that” and “just,” or wrote “sit down” or “stand up” when you can’t really do it any other way, or all the other simple but ingrained ooopsies we each have.

Crystal skull snakeI’m not going to stop reading those blogs or going to those workshops because I know I have a lot to learn about writing. But I’m going to strategically use the tips I glean, and apply them if/when I need to, instead of letting that overload suck me into a quagmire of information. In case you have the same problem, I’m throwing you a snake (hopefully, you watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and get that I’m doing you a favor here and, by the way, you’re welcome). Now, get going and Write On!

Starting at Word One…

Every writer has to begin at the beginning.

I know this sounds like a cliche, but it's not. Think about it. Every. Writer. Dickens, Tolkien, Charlotte Bronte, Stephen King, Nora Roberts - even Mr. Shakespeare himself. All of them were at one point unskilled, unknown, and unpublished. I'm willing to bet that at some point in their lives, each one of these well known authors felt like what they were writing was going nowhere.

Sometimes, the beginning feels like the void before creation, or the Big Bang, or however the universe came into being. The prospect of creating something in the middle of that vast emptiness is mind boggling. Add in the extra dimension of trying to publish whatever we manage to create and knowing we'll need to fight to bring it to the attention of readers and it's a wonder every single one of us isn't rocking in a corner somewhere, clad in a straightjacket and gibbering at the moon.

Somewhere along the line, every writer you've ever heard of caught a lucky break. But here's the thing--in order to catch that lucky break, they had to be ready. Which means they wrote things without knowing whether those things would ever be read. They practiced. They persevered. In a sense, they made their own luck.

Perhaps you have heard of a little book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? The author, Douglas Adams, didn't actually set out to write a book. He wrote a screen play. And this is what he had to say about the night it first aired:

"The first episode went out on BBC Radio 4 at 10:30 P.M. on Wednesday, March 8, 1978, in a huge blaze of no publicity at all. Bats heard it. The odd dog barked.

After a couple of weeks a letter or two trickled in." ~Douglas Adams

Douglas freaking Adams, you guys. Words he wrote, characters he created, are now catch phrases that are part of casual conversation. There is even a Towel Day every year. And yet, he too experienced that terrible silence so many of us fear when we're launching a book.

Stephen King threw Carrie into the trash can. His wife pulled it out and talked him into submitting it.

You get the picture. If you feel like you're spinning your wheels with your writing and going nowhere, write anyway. If you're in the desert of bleakness at the middle of a novel and have lost all hope of ever writing anything good, write anyway.

Writers are not good judges of their own work. You never know when your lucky break will come, or which book you've written might suddenly strike a chord with readers and take you to the top of a list.

Write even if none of these things happen, if you never catch a lucky break.

Write because you're a writer, damn it, and that's what you were put into this world to do.

 

Having. Written. Writing is work.

Writing is work, and usually demands a good amount of self-discipline just to get your butt in the chair and put down words whether you feel like it or not.

Yes, I go through funks. One of the reasons I give seminars on how to get through my panic and work through funks is because I experience them. Like a week ago. I’d been making a reasonable daily wordcount (about which I am obsessive), then outside real life worries mixed with the knowledge I’d have to trash the first chapter of my new manuscript spiraled me down into a funk.

So I asked myself, “What would make you very happy now?” Travel? An air conditioned house, or even an office? A cupcake? (I live too close to a cupcake shop) Comfort food? (I know where all those places that serve what I like best are, too).

However, myself said, “Having written.” That would have made me feel better about my day.

Unfortunately I don’t have any magical writing pens or spells that would transfer ideas from my head onto the computer, wonderfully written and nicely formatted.

It doesn’t work that way. There is no “having written,” unless you actually sit down and do the work.

WRITE!

Like many in PAL and IPAL I am a professional writer. Furthermore, I am single, without any other income. I don’t write, I don’t get paid. It’s a risky business. So I really can’t afford funks or the panic or the self-hate that immobilizes me. I can’t wait upon a muse to waft into my window and fill me with enthusiasm. I can’t wait upon inspiration.

Writing is work. I first discovered this within my first year of seriously writing. After the Colorado Gold conference, I’d joined a critique group, but my technique was so poor that I needed a writing buddy (also a new writer) to meet with and look at my pages before I took them to critique. I’d written a new scene and met with my buddy one Saturday morning at the hideous hour of seven a.m. across town. I knew the scene was good.

She said so, too. But then she said the fatal words, “This is a great scene but it doesn’t belong in the book.” It was extraneous to the story. In fact, it was backstory.

So I sat there, staring down at curdling eggs, at too-early-a-time-of-day-for-me-to-even-be-awake-on-Saturday, looking at pages that had taken me hours to write and polish. That was when I knew writing wasn’t just fun, it was work.

Most of the time, it remains work. Oh, like everyone, I have those days of giddy inspiration, those bursts of fabulous words that flow faster than I can type, but, really, a lot of the time it is plinking one word down at a time. I don’t consider myself a literary writer, one who strings together beautiful phrases. I consider myself a workmanlike writer of good technique who can fashion interesting characters and tell good stories.

I also got my start in publishing when self-publishing wasn’t much of an option, and after I wrote my million words, put in my ten thousand hours to become proficient. Most of the time I can take myself into my office and write, even if I have a little depression or fear. Most of the time I like the process of writing, too, though the story might dribble out word by word.

But I ALWAYS love “having written.” Even if I don’t think the words are great, or am dubious about whether the scene will remain in the manuscript, or if I took a wrong turn. I wrote. I did my job.

May all your writing dreams come true.

Publish Or Perish

Gutenberg_PressOnce you have a final manuscript, ebook* layout and design is easy. Keep it simple. Use default fonts. The readers will use the fonts they want anyway. Don’t get tricky with putting the text on the page because readers will change the size, the flow, the color, everything. Those hours you spend putting together the perfect layout to add that certain something to the story? Wasted as soon as the first reader inverts the text or changes the font size so they can read it on their phone.

Here’s the secret of good typography. Nobody notices it.

If it’s good – really good – it’s like the texture of the paper. It does its job by getting out of the way. Simple is better until you can learn enough to be subtle and elegant. Those purists who love books because of the scent of the ink and the texture of the paper? The feel of the book? No. I like books, too. While there’s something sensual about the feel of the book, that’s not why I buy books. I don’t keep a library of books because I like to periodically sniff them or take them down and fondle their leaves. I buy books for the stories. If the story is good, I don’t care what the ink smells like. If the story is bad, I don’t care how lovely the paper feels. A book is a box. A simple, utilitarian box – executed well – will do the job of holding your stories.

Formatting is easy with free tools like Sigil. Simply save your word processing document as an HTML file and open that file in Sigil. Save the epub. You’ll want to do some things like add cover art (a smallish version to keep the file size low), put in some front and back matter, and perhaps a table of contents. The file will be bloated and ugly on the inside because word processors add kruft but readers won’t know. If you’re fluent in HTML, you can clean it up easily with a few judicious find/replace commands.

There are a couple of gotchas to look for.

One is scene breaks. Many authors use a couple of carriage returns in their manuscripts to break scenes. Those get ignored in HTML rendering so you need to do something else. A couple of dashes, centered, serves admirably and doesn’t require any special graphics or formatting skills.

The other is the page break before a chapter heading. While it seems a bit silly to force a page break on an ebook, it really does make a difference in the reader’s experience. It’s not difficult. In Sigil, go to the top of the chapter heading, press control-enter. Sigil will break the HTML file at that point. Repeat for each chapter. Now each chapter has its own file within the EPUB framework and Sigil kept track of it all for you.

Yes, there are codes that you can embed in the files to tell ebook readers to break, but they are not universal—even within a single architecture. Putting each chapter in its own file is. It won’t matter what version of ebook device the reader uses, your chapter headings will always start on a new page.

One last step before uploading to KDP. Convert the file to .mobi using the Amazon Offline Previewer.

The previewer is a free tool that you download from Amazon. Run your epub into it and the Previewer will convert it to the current valid .mobi format unless there are errors. It’s much easier to find and fix the errors before you upload. Upload that .mobi output file to KDP and you’re on your way to publishing your first book.

The hard part's over and you've spent $50. Now all you need to do is sell it.

Next time: Making A Mark In Marketing

* The ebook market is where the money is. While you may want to publish a book in paper, let's leave that for the time being. I'll come back and address printed books in a later post. Hint: Saving your word processing document as PDF and uploading to CreateSpace is not going to give you the results you want.

Software Mentioned:
Sigil can be found at https://github.com/Sigil-Ebook/Sigil/releases
The Kindle Offline Previewer can be found at http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1000765261

Feeling Cozy: Avoiding F-Bombs & You

I’m a big fan of f-words. Though I try to limit the number of them, both in my books as well as in real life. F-words Funny gorilla with red sunglasses celebrating a party by blowing a striped hornhave power. Even if you don’t use them, you must understand the beauty of a great insult. Or a stream of f-words blurted when one stubs a toe.

I recently judged a contest, and was surprised to see the number of writers who agreed with the use of the f word. Oddly I found myself turned off by a few that didn't fit the tone or seemed over the top. Yes, me. Does that mean one shouldn’t use the f-bomb for fear of turning off a reader? Heck no.

F-bomb away.

But know that words have power.

Take said for an example. Writers use it to dialogue tag for reason. Invisibility. Use a word too much and it loses its power.

That being said, I’ve recently started writing a cozy mystery my agent requested. I wasn’t sure I could do it. Wasn’t sure I had a voice for it. Turns out the cozy fits my style quite nicely. I get to research, which I love, on top of that, my cozy is about whiskey, so I also get to drink.

I’ve found it easy enough to avoid the f-bomb, as well as a few other choice words I would normally use. Where I’m coming into trouble, and I’d love your advice, is in toning down the snark. I’m naturally snarky, and it comes through, perhaps too much, in my narratives. Though it works for my previous characters. Not this one though.

How do you keep yourself out of your words? And what’s the acceptable amount of f-bombs dropped in a novel?

 

 

 

I’m Guilty – Throw the Book At Me (I really need to catch one!)

JudgeYep. I’m guilty. I didn’t mean to do it. It just happened. I stopped writing and started doing yard work. With a shovel. I became enamored with a battery-operated sprayer for my weeds. I couldn’t resist the siren call of the annual plant displays at every store in town, including the pharmacy. I found a cute little raised bed garden kit and made it my own. And I didn’t write.

In my defense, I did manage to submit two already-written stories to Colorado Gold, but I don’t think that will be considered justification for letting me off. My self-imposed sentence is to put my butt in chair and shackle myself to my computer and get some words on the page.

I know that if we, as writers, were truly judged on how easily we are led astray, the docket would be filled with regretful authors being handed long sentences (hah! I didn’t even notice this the first time around!). Whether it’s catching up on all your recorded Game of Thrones or Walking Dead shows with a box of pizza, summer vacation planning, gardening, or another fun in the sun summer activity, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that you’ll write later. But then you’re tired, or it’s time to fix dinner, or pick up the kids at the pool or summer league.

Hold up your right hand (if you’re writing, you can skip this part), and repeat after me: “I solemnly swear to set up a schedule to get at least 5,000 words on the page per week.” Ok, maybe 2,000 words. I am swearing, I guarantee (but then I do that all the time). Are you with me? Can we make a pact to close the curtain to block out the beautiful sunshine, turn on some music to drown out the birds singing, and turn up the A/C so we have to wear sweaters and pretend it’s deep, dark winter and there’s nothing to do but write? Or, I guess I could just put on some sunglasses, take the laptop out to the patio with a nice cold drink and hang out with the nice birdies and butterflies while I write. gardening graphic

Yeah, like that stupid weed that had the gall to grow over there will let me. Or the lawn that grew two inches overnight….

Sigh. It’s going to be a long hard row to hoe to keep on the straight and narrow this summer. But I’m going to try, because I want to be good and ready for Colorado Gold. How about you? Let’s Write On!

 

Rereading and Rereaders

First, a note, reading is my primary entertainment, I don't have cable television (I have two network channels, that's it) and I don't download and watch films.

I reread my library (not my own work) all the time. I always thought everyone did, but I was having a talk with a writer friend and found out she never rereads a book.

This got me thinking.

I know that my fans DO reread my books, and my series, and I asked them why on Facebook. I got 128 main comments and comments on the comments...

And they reread for the same reasons I do.

1) Sometimes I read a book fast, just zoom through it, and I go back and re-read to savor, pick up details I miss. This is particularly true if there's a mystery or suspense plot and I missed a clue.

2) The book is part of a series and I reread one or more previous books to recall what's going on in that particular world at that particular time.

3) I know a book explores a particular emotion/topic/character that I want to think more about and I reread for that.

4) I know I'll see something new in the plot or the characters, in the STORY when I reread.

5) I am deep in deadline or my mind is tired and I don't want to plunge into the intellectual stimulation of a new world or story question but want some entertainment.

6) And, as far as I'm concerned, the best: Comfort. I like the world, I like the characters, I like the story and I want to settle in and visit them again. There are good lines I want to savor, there are laughs I want to recall and laugh with again. Or I want to be on that spaceflight and look out the portal at the stars, or journey with the drovers in nineteenth century England, or see, once more, how love unfolds between these two very disparate people.

One that doesn't apply to me:

My favorite authors don't write fast enough and I read fast and I'd rather reread a good story than try new authors.

One that applies to writers more than rereaders:

I want to see how that writer pulled a certain technique off. One of my favorite books is Northern Lights by Nora Roberts. I think it is a fabulous example of how to have a deeply depressed hero in the beginning and keep the reader not-depressed, interested, and reading.

So, as a writer, there are several ways to consider readers who do and don't reread.

First, from the point of view of voracious readers who don't reread. They will try and will buy a lot of books, probably zoom through backlists if they find something they like. Yay!

Rereaders will be loyal fans, they'll wait and anticipate your next book. They'll know what you're talking about when you reference the Hawthorn-Holly Feud, the intelligent Turquoise House, when the flying horses (volarans) deserted the Marshall's Castle, the size of Brownies... etc. If you're on social media, you can interact with your readers, and build more of a following. Since they reread your books, they're interested in your characters and stories.

I'll talk about how readers and fans can help you out (non-promotional-wise) in some other blog, but now I think I'll head back to that werewolf challenge scene I particularly liked....

 

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Things That Keep You From Writing: The Fear Factor

 

FEAR"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." ~Frank Herbert, Dune

Today's motivational writing post is brought to you by the emotion fear.

Fear is a tricky emotion. It doesn't always manifest with a pounding pulse, shaking hands, and chills up and down your spine. Sometimes, when it comes to writing, it can masquerade as boring, ordinary, avoidance.

You sit down to write. You open up your manuscript. You stare at it. It stares at you. You feel a sudden need for another cup of coffee. Or maybe a snack. Brownies would be good. You don't have any brownies in the house, but there's a box of mix in the pantry. Or, better yet, you have a made-from-scratch recipe which will allow you to feel creative and virtuous for eschewing chemicals and the make-it-quick mentality of our modern society.

While the brownies are baking you have a good thirty minutes of writing time, but it occurs to you that the dishes need to be done and the floor should be swept. The cat rubs around your ankles. When was the last time she saw the vet? You can't remember. Maybe she needs shots. Rabies would be a terrible thing. That horrible scene from Old Yeller is permanently etched in your memory and the thought of a rabid cat shredding you with her claws is terrifying. You don't own a gun, unlike the Old Yeller kid. Maybe you should think about that. What would it take to own a gun?

By the time the oven alarm goes off to let you know your brownies are ready, you've researched vet appointments and guns.

Now you have brownies, though, and it's time to go back to writing.

That manuscript is still staring at you. There's a small uneasiness in your belly. A sudden desire to go outside. Or vacuum. Forget vacuuming, the carpets haven't been cleaned in forever. This really is the day to go rent a carpet cleaner and get that done.

Of course you really want to write and you're very sad that life keeps getting in the way, but that's just how things are...

Next time you sit down to write and feel this huge resistance thing going on, consider staying right there in your chair and checking out your emotional state. What is your body telling you? Can you feel the tension of resistance in your shoulders and your thighs? Is there a weight in your belly? Or butterflies?

Take out a sheet of lined paper or a notebook, if you have one. Get a pen. Now write, at the top of the page, these words:

I am afraid that...

Now free write for five minutes, keeping that pen moving and not stopping to think about what is going on the page.

In my world, it's going to be something like this:

I am afraid that I can't write this book, that it's going to suck, that I'll lose all of my contracts and my former readers will hate me. Maybe I have Alzheimers or something and have forgotten how to line up words on the page. I'm afraid that everything I've ever written is horrible. I'm afraid this book is too big for me. I'm afraid I won't get done in time, that this deadline is too tight, that I've bitten off more than I can chew...

Whatever your version of the fear may be, this emotion is a strong deterrent to writing.

Anything.

Ever.

And the only real solution I know is to push past the fear. To write through it. I find that this is easier if I write every day. It's like that old "get right back in the saddle after you fall off the horse" cliche. The longer you wait, the longer you let the fear keep you from the page, the harder it will be to overcome it.

Here are a few methods that have helped me get past my fear.

  1. Write something. Anything. If the manuscript proves too formidable, write something else. A blog post, say. Or some free writing in a journal. Anything that gets the words flowing and begins to dissolve that big, cold, lump of fear labeled I Can't Write.
  2. Actively give yourself permission to write crap. Yep. Sometimes I sit down at my computer and consciously tell myself, maybe even out loud, "Go ahead. Write something that sucks."
  3. Make friends with the fear. Talk to it. Bribe it with treats. Name it, even. Because it's probably not ever going to actually go away. Ten books down the line it will still be sitting on your shoulder, much like Poe's raven. So you might as well get used to it.

And that's about it. I've made a little permission slip for you, to help you get started. Print it off, put your name on it, sign and date it, and keep it where you write.

Permission Slip
Permission Slip

Rocky Mountain Writer #47

Heather Webb
Heather Webb

Heather Webb - Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening  

 

Writer Heather Webb stops by the podcast to give a sneak peek of the four-hour master class she'll be giving at Colorado Gold, RMFW's big three-day conference in September.

Her class is called Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening and it will give participants a chance to learn what makes an opening grabby, or trite, and how to win an agent's eye.

Heather also catches us up on all her projects, including a short story collection she spearheaded that was recently reviewed in the New York Times.

Heather Webb’s novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin's Lover are published by Penguin Random House and have sold in six countries. Both books have received starred national reviews and Rodin's Lover was a Goodread’s Pick of the Month in 2015. Heather’s works have been featured in national print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, Elle, France Magazine, Dish Magazine, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and more

 

 

 

Heather Webb
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Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Yee Shall Not Judge or Should Yee?

Recently I’ve struggled with writing, publishing and the whole caboodle (yes, caboodle is an actual word though it shouldn’t be). I am not complaining, not in the least. No really. I swear

My issue is a matter of self-doubt. Which is my problem and mine alone. Or so I tell myself when caught whining to uninterested family members or friends. Nobody cares about how hard it is to publish or gain new readers. How the deck seems stacked against you. That is, nobody but your fellow tribe members suffering similar self-doubts and annoyances.

I love you guys!

While I am not turning this into a whine-a-thon (yes, again an actual word according to word), I wanted to preface my post with the above.

My post is about judging. Not being judgey (Caught me. Not a real word, but a good one that should be). I’ve long judged contests for various organizations. Every time I’m asked it brings up this issue of self-doubt. Who am I to say if a submission is good? Or more importantly, what it is about said submission that makes it worthy of a high score?

Yes, I’ve gotten books published. People have read them. Some liked them. Some didn’t. But I’m pretty much a hack. It was a fluke. 9 times over. I won’t ever see another word in print…

See how self-doubt derails me? It makes me feel unworthy of making simple contest judgments.

And they are simple. It’s about engaging me as a reader, not as a writer. The writer in me has a list of do’s and do nots. A bunch of reasons for every writerly action, and the consequence of opening a scene with the weather. But the reader in me doesn’t. I like certain styles more than others, sure. But any voice can engage me. Every well crafted scene can make me gasp in surprise.

I might have points to make for the writer, things I’ve experienced in my own publishing journey, but those are asides. If a writer opens with the weather, and makes me a believer in the reason for it, I, as a reader will be just fine.

Do you judge contests? If so, do you feel differently? What about critiquing? Do you read as a writer or reader? And hell, let’s open this up to self-doubt. What’s your greatest downfall when it comes to self-doubt?