Tag Archives: Advice

Secrets of Author Success as Told By Someone Successful (Which is Not Me or is that I?)

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

As writers we hear tons of advice from editors, agents, other writers and fans (plus anyone who ever hears we are writers, randomly, even in the loo).

All of this advice is wonderful. And horrible. Good and bad. It's all about how we see it, and how we react to it.

The Guardian newspaper out of London once collected 10 bits of advice from some famous authors. While I love reading this list just to see what advice Neil Gaiman has for me, it's the Irish novelist, Roddy Doyle, who struck the biggest cord. Here's a few bits of his wisdom:

1 Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Best advice I can think of. If my favorite writer can't handle the pressure, what is the future for a hack like me?

4 Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

I like this idea as it keeps me on track. I can always change it at a later date. It's not like the publisher is going to keep my title anyway.

5 Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don't go near the online bookies – unless it's research.

When I started out writing, I used to play online poker. I called it research. God, do I love my research.

6 Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said".

Again, when I first started out, I thought I sounded smarter by using my thesaurus at will. Now I use it as a coffee coaster. I find it works much better.

Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It's research.

God, I HATE research. I'm a writer. Why do I have to wash my clothes? Or the floor? No one's looking there.

And finally, my favorite:

10 Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – "He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego." But then get back to work.

J.A. Kazimer lives in a small mountain community on Mars. When she's not fostering peace accords between people and Martians, she writes best selling, award winning books about how awesome she is...

Any advice you would add? Any advice you've ever taken that you'd like to share?

How To Handle a Bad Critique – Aaron Michael Ritchey Style

BY Aaron Michael Ritchey

So I’ve been in critique groups for nine years now. That’s a whole lot of words being read by other people. You want the math? Oh yes, I know you do.

So ten pages a week, times fifty-two ‘cause there are fifty-two weeks in a year, so that’s 520 pages a year for nine years. For a grand total of 4680 pages. If a book is around three hundred pages, that’s 15.6 books. Roughly. Break that into words, about three thousand words every week, times fifty-two, times nine, and that’s 1,404,000 words critiqued.

I won’t do hours.

So yeah. I’ve been around the block and back. Most of the time the critiques are good, sometimes they are fun, and sometimes, sometimes, the critiques have claws that rip my poor wittle heart to shreds.

A bad critique attacks the very heart of my writing, and I’m not sure how productive that is. But it happens. It’s part of the deal. A good critique seeks to improve or offers a different perspective. A bad critique is destructive. And to make myself perfectly clear, sometimes the bad critique comes from someone who innocently is just offering their opinion. A bad critique can fall out of the sky like hail. Hail doesn’t hate you. It just falls. Sabes?

How do I handle things when good critiques go bad?

I hate.

I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I sharpen knives and listen to Cannibal Corpse. I plot murder, rebellion, revolution, anarchy in the U.K. I draft long emails defending my work, defending the vicious act of writing words and its difficulty, defending the very purpose of my soul on earth. I print out the emails and eat them, tearing one page off at a time and swallowing them down with cold, cold black coffee from last Thursday.

Or I write letters (not emails) with blood-filled pens on sheets of paper made from human skin. I attack the critique, wanting them to know just how much I DON’T CARE ABOUT THEIR USELESS, STUPID, PEDANTIC OPINIONS. Who are they to question me and my work? What do they know? If they’re so smart how come they’re not New York Times bestsellers? I eat those letters as well, but I use gutter water to wash them down.

I rant. I shake my fists at heaven (literally). I weep.

Alone. So alone.

So that’s what I do. I don’t recommend it, but you can do all those things, just don’t carry out your wicked plans of murder, rebellion, revolution, and the U.K. doesn’t need your anarchy, thank you very much.

So I do that for awhile. I used to do it for weeks on end. Or months. Okay, 2009 was really bad. But I learn. It’s a slow process, me learning, but I learn.

Last time I got a bad critique I spent a bad night not sleeping and doing all the things I said. The next day, I journaled about the experience and got a good understanding of my part.

Because yes, when I’m upset, when my heart is shredded, I have a part. The experienced triggered something in me, and it might have much to do with what actually happened. If I didn’t care about the bad critique, I wouldn’t care. Why do I care? That’s what I have to find out.

Through the inventory process, I find out where I was selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and afraid. Generally it’s all four. And yeah, when I’m hurt, it’s all about me and my ego.

After getting a good understanding of why I’m weeping, I then find people to talk to about the experience. Sometimes it’s just one person, but if it’s bad, I find two: one normal person and a writer (who is not normal).

We talk it through because you know what? Humans heal through their mouths. We talk to each other and magic happens.

So I figure out why the bad critique hurt me, I share the secret, and I get free.

And I keep writing, I keep submitting, and I keep editing. Because bad critiques, bad reviews, bad deals, are part of the writing experience. You want the whole buffet, yeah?

Well, there’s always gonna be crap sandwiches in the buffet, but don’t load up your plate with ‘em. Because like I said at the start, most of the time the critique experience makes me excited to revise! That’s what you want. That’s the idea.

And if your critique group is mostly serving you crap sandwiches, week after week, it’s time to find another critique group.

Take A Little Trip

By Mark Stevens

Two random tidbits last week got me fired up.

The first was from a story in The New Yorker about new research into the positive effects of psychedelic drugs—psilocybin in particular.

The second was a line uttered by Alexandra Fuller during a podcast of her Tattered Cover presentation for her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Combined, the two comments got me stewing over inertia, anesthesia, deadness, stasis, status quo, acceptance, monotony, stability, order, constancy and all those other awful traits which are the bane of good fiction and the certainly mean the beginning of a long slow death for a good character.

Right?

Okay, let me back up a tad.

In the New Yorker story called “The Trip Treatment,” author Michael Pollan (author of many fine books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) dropped the following little bomb:

Most psychologists believe that your personality is “fixed” by age thirty “and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change.”

One of the cool side effects that scientists are studying is the ability of hallucinogens to alter thought patterns—and personality—not only during the “trip” but after as well. Addictions are being eliminated, for instance, and attitudes permanently altered through “psychedelic therapy.”

My mind was blown—these are researchers at top-flight institutions like N.Y.U. and John Hopkins looking into treating patients and improving the quality of life through a properly dosed trip. In the instruction manual for those taking psychedelic trips as part of the research, they are encouraged to face their monsters. Isn’t that the basis of most great fiction? (It’s a great article.)

Okay, hold that thought for a second but, if you’re over 30 years old, do you think your character is “fixed?” Do you think the personality of your characters, if they are over 30 years old, is locked in place? Are they really facing their monsters?

Next, Alexandra Fuller’s speech at The Tattered Cover attacked—and I do mean attacked—how men have generally screwed up the world and it’s time for the male of the species to step aside and give women a shot. Can’t be much worse, can it?

This was one of many themes in a powerful talk about identity and self and women finding true, unadorned freedom.

Fuller is a force. She’s feisty, forward and, from what I gather, fearless. (Must now read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)

Anyway, Fuller talked a lot about society growing comfortable and complacent and encouraged everyone listening to get down to their “absolute bedrock of self” and understand what voices are running their lives. Her message was aimed particularly at women, almost kind of a “rise up out of your chairs” speech from the movie “Network.” She invoked Franz Kafka’s rejoinder that it’s a writer’s duty to take an axe to the “frozen sea” inside us.

Here’s one nugget from Fuller: “If someone else is in possession of your mind, then you’re not in possession of your voice.”

And, back to the magazine story about psychedelic study, another researcher noted how we all pay a “steep price” for the order and ego in the adult mind. Adults, he said, give up their “ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”

Writes Pollan: “The sovereign ego can be a despot.”

I’m not here with answers.

I’m not here with “ta da.”

I’m just here to wonder about my characters and how to give them a good jolt.

If they aren’t challenging the voices in their heads, the voices running their lives, then they are slouching and slipping toward anesthesia.

And that’s not a recipe for powerful stories.

So I’ve got to figure out a way to have them face their monsters, grab the axe and whack the frozen sea.

Maybe I need to send them on a little trip.

kafka quote

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!

Guest Post: Bonnie Biafore – Enough Already

Hi, I’m Bonnie. I’m a recovering workaholic.

The pace I kept was starting to affect my health and the quality of my writing. The friskiness and humor that are the hallmarks of my writing were disappearing faster than unguarded burgers when my dogs are around.

So…..I’m going to play devil’s advocate to some of the writing advice out there.

  1. Don’t write every day.

Writing isn’t like eating or breathing to me. Writing is my job and I’m trying hard to treat it as such. When I worked for a company, I had weekends and holidays off, and took vacations to recharge my batteries, sharpen the saw, fill in analogy here.

Working for myself was a different story. From 1999 to 2012, I worked close to 7 by 24. I’ve had relapses since then.

Now, I take time off from writing. Time off can be writing related: people-watching to get ideas for characters or traveling to get ideas for settings or storylines. Some time off, though, should be dedicated to total recharge.

  1. Don’t set a rigid writing schedule.

I do set a schedule. It just isn’t rigid. When I’m updating a book, I know I have to revise 15 pages a day, 5 days a week for 2 months. Which hours of the day or which days of the week aren’t as important to me. (OK, this is my full-time job so I get to set my work hours and days. Those of you with other jobs might not have this luxury.) There have been times—many times, when I sat down to write, and spun my wheels for 2 hours before I realized what was happening. If those 2 hours were my writing time, I’d have a word count of, say, 20 words for the day.

Now, I watch for spinning wheels. When I notice them, I stop and do something else. Sometimes, I simply switch to writing something easier. (With my non-fiction writing, some stuff is easier to write.) Or I might do something else that needs to get done.

A favorite trick of mine is to knock out a short to-do so I can scratch it off my list. The energy boost I get from completing a minor task is often enough for me to tackle something more difficult. Sometimes, a change of scenery helps. Write in a spiral-bound notebook instead of at the computer, or use a laptop computer to sit on the sofa, at a coffee shop, or in a train station.

  1. Walk away.

Many times, the spinning wheels come from a writing problem: opening sentences, chapter cliffhangers, or a sentence that just doesn’t sound right. I’ve learned to take a break, usually to walk the dogs. Invariably, I end up recording the sentences I need on my cell phone as I walk in the woods.

  1. Don’t follow other people’s advice!

Everyone is different, so what works for me might be disastrous for you. I know what time of day I’m most productive, the best time for creative work or drudgery. I’ve learned that when I wake up at 1am thinking about work, I need to turn on the light, work for an hour or so, and then go back to sleep. I know that when I get on a roll, I need to cancel other plans so I can make the most of that opportunity. I know when something I’ve written is right, even if others tell me to change it. I’m learning to recognize the days when my brain and body are crying “Uncle!” and then take the day off mostly without feeling guilty about it.

Go ahead. Listen to what others have to say. Then, figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

----------------------------------------

End of rant here:

Writers are great. They work in a competitive, stressful industry, yet they share their knowledge and support each other’s endeavors. They work hard. They’re fun to be around.

Thanks for letting me be part of the group.

Tales from Long Shots in Book Marketing

By Mark Stevens

I hopped in the car and flipped on the radio.

Scott Simon (rock star reporter and host on National Public Radio) was wrapping up a Weekend Edition interview with a guy reviewing books.

I only caught the tail end of the chat, but Simon said something like: “...and that was our London cab driver so-and-so who occasionally reviews books for us…"

I’m not sure I remember the rest.

Cab driver? Book reviewer? National Public Radio?

As you may or may not know, my friend Mike Keefe and I are in the process of publishing the works of the late Gary Reilly, who left behind 25 novels when he passed away in 2011.
Of the 25 novels, 11 are very humorous books that feature Denver cab driver Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. Murph, The Asphalt Warrior. To date, six of those 11 have been published, along with the first of Gary’s books based on his experiences in Vietnam.

Gary’s posthumous works have received great reviews—and two of the titles were named finalists for the Colorado Book Award.

But as a publisher (and also as a writer, unless you’re in the stratosphere of high visibility) there’s a never-ending search for reviews and, well, mentions.

Mere mentions of your book can make your day— Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, bring it!

So why not roll the dice with the cab driver from London? Indeed, why not?

Our company, Running Meter Press, has been lucky to have time and support donated by a major book publicity firm, JKS Communications. I contacted JKS and an energetic member of their team found a way to contact the cab driver, an apparently cheerful and well-read guy named Will Grozier. Soon, via Twitter (!), we had the green light: send 'em!

I packed five “Murph” titles up in newspaper, shoved them in a box and shipped them off at some cost ($55 if I remember right). In a couple weeks, I received an email from Will saying they had arrived safe and sound and that he was also enjoying the newspaper articles I’d use to wrap the books.

That was December, 2013.

Twelve months later, on Dec. 20, 2014, I’m pumping gas and my phone chimes. Shunning all risks for using your electronic device around gas fumes, I answer it.

The six titles in The Asphalt Warrior series by Gary Reilly. Five more to go. And another dozen or so novels to publish beyond this series.

The six titles in The Asphalt Warrior series by Gary Reilly. Five more to go. And another dozen or so novels to publish beyond this series.

A friend of mine is going nuts. “Gary Reilly…NPR…right now…they are talking about Gary Reilly…

Later, I listened to the whole piece (transcript and audio here) and there was Will Grozier singing the praises of my late writer pal and mentor, Gary Reilly, on National Public Radio.

“Huge fun,” said Grozier of the series, citing the books as his favorite fiction reads of the year before mentioning a long list of other books.

So what happened?

First, we got emails from all over. A dedicated book reader and book reviewer from Michigan named Tim Bazzett (a guy who has written books about the books he has read) did some digging on Gary Reilly, having heard the NPR piece, and asked for Gary’s Vietnam novel, The Enlisted Men’s Club. A few days later, Bazzett had consumed the book and wrote one of the best, and most insightful, reviews to date.

Sales went nuts.

In fact, the publishing company we work with in Boulder emailed a few days later to say Amazon had ordered 165 copies of the first title. We needed to hit the "reprint" button; we were running out.

I’d like to think that Gary has a whole new legion of fans being built based on that first book. I know  readers of The Asphalt Warrior (Book #1) will recognize they have their hands on a one-of-a-kind writer with a unique and engaging style.

In thanking Will Grozier (via Twitter) he asked if he could read the new Gary Reilly titles that had been published (The Enlisted Men’s Club and Murph #6, Dark Night of the Soul) since we first set him the shipment.

Of course, I happily obliged.

It was a long shot. It was a random radio-publicist-Twitter-email connection.

Cheers to cab drivers, book lovers, book reviewers, National Public Radio, Scott Simon, Will Grozier and readers everywhere.

##

The Perils of Writing Tribute Characters

Going Under CoverBy Jeffe Kennedy

My new novel-length erotic romance, Going Under, comes out on Monday, so I've been doing a lot of interviews and so forth, getting ready for that promo push. One question I get a lot is whether I've based my characters on anyone real, or who I know.

I try to give this a thoughtful answer, because I understand that readers are really interested in this idea. Characters feel real to us, so we always wonder, on some level, if they somehow are real. So I don't give them my immediate, heartfelt answer.

NO.

Never.

No way.

Not that I feel strongly about this or anything...

Okay, I do. I feel strongly about anything that gets in the way of the story. In my mind, the story should always reign supreme. All decisions should be about whether or not [X] makes the story better. While I suppose it's possible to base a character on a real person and still make decisions based on the betterment of the story, I think this is akin to getting back together with an old lover and kidding yourself that what happened to break you up before doesn't matter.

It's not really about what you're thinking now, but about all that emotion underneath, driving you when you're not really aware of it.

See, truly basing a character on a real person is nearly always driven by the desire to somehow memorialize that person, or otherwise work out persistent emotions tied to them. Usually intense ones. I've had several author friends who've wanted to do this - usually for someone close to them who died - and it just never works out well. The need to "serve" that person bogs down every other choice. Decisions are no longer about what's best for the story, but about that person.

Worse, it just never works out. Because, really, it's impossible to fully memorialize a complex human being by turning them into a character. No matter our characterization skills, no matter the nobility of the motivation, a character in a book can never be as fully realized as an actual human being. We'll always fall short in some way.

Then both the effort and the story have suffered.

For me, characters come together more like Method actors do it - by drawing on fragments of my own experiences. In this way, we can access pieces of people we know, pulling in those traits, thoughts, experiences or moments that we hold precious. But then the character becomes someone new, someone who is no longer that tribute character we tried to resurrect in fiction.

Better that they rest in peace.

The Top 5 Best Pieces of Writing Advice I Ever Got … by Trai Cartwright

1.   If you’re holding something back for later, drop it in now.

Last Thursday, a friend and I both had one of those explosive days you live for as a writer: the day when your story just electrifies you, delights you, reveals itself to you. She told me she had just written the scene that told her it was just another 25 pages until the supernatural elements of her book could be introduced. I’d just written a scene that was wholly unexpected: a dude who wasn’t supposed to reveal his true nature for many (many) pages to come suddenly whipped off his mask.

This reveal not only changed my whole book but radically improved it in an instant.

This trick comes from a writing teacher I reviled except for this gem. Don’t hold on to the secrets. Don’t write an entire book knowing that in the last 30 pages, all will be revealed. It drains your writing of life-giving creative energy. By “giving away the store”, I was seemingly left with nowhere to go. In fact, I was forced to imagine greater. My story expanded in the most delicious ways because I didn’t hold back.

So my advice to my friend who’s waiting 25 pages to unleash her tasty goodness: just do it now.

2.   Write something beautiful, something grotesque, and something odd on every page.

This one came from a poet who’d just published her first novel, and it’s what her editor said transfixed her. The poet had always used these tricks in her poetry, and had unconsciously carried it over to her fiction. The effect: pages and pages of surprises in the sentences, creating a unique texture that illuminated her world in unexpected ways.

3.   Don’t let the reader catch you writing.

This is from Elmore Leonard and a habit I had to break in my early years. If you’re overly-enamored with your own scintillating, bombastic, lyrical writing style, chances are your readers know it all too well. My voice often over-took my story, and instead of carrying my readers away on a fantastic journey, I was demanding they stand in awe of my cleverness. The point is this: you’re a storyteller first. The voice has to be in service to the story, not your ego.

4.   Don’t confuse, don’t bore.

This from my MFA director Tod Goldberg. Written in big letters on the board, first day of class. If your readers are busy trying to sort out why someone said such-and-such, how they got from the parking lot to Rockefeller Center, who it is they are talking to, when their mother became reanimated because you could swear she died in the first ten pages, they are being carried way on a fantastic journey. They are confused. Confusion equals disengagement as we readers try to conjure the answers that are not on the page.

And boredom, well that’s easy too. If you’re bored writing your story, your readers will have already put your book down. The fix? See #1.

5.   Stop with the semi-colon. And the em-dashes. And the parenthesis.

This is from my god-like genre teacher, Stephen Graham Jones. We all do this. We all suddenly fall in love with some punctuation device that to our minds displays brilliance, adds essential information, and in the case of parenthesis, delivers a dollop of writerly humor.

Readers get exhausted by these devices. Semi-colons create complex sentences that can feel like a challenge to some. Most of those sentences can live independently of one another, so drop in a period instead.

Em-dashes—which, to our mind, can create urgency, provide delightful intrusion, or give crucial tangential information—work maybe every five or six pages, but more than that, it’s a red flag to readers. We start tracking your over-use of the device rather than read your story. It’s like using a word like “stupendous” on every page—we will notice. And it will annoy us.

And as for parenthesis (those semi-smiles of bardic narrator grandstanding), they often break the fourth wall just so you can impart your own sense of humor rather than the character’s. Or worse, it’s a piece of exposition that the writer couldn’t figure out how to include any other way and shoe-horn it in awkwardly. The answer is simply to not employ them. We probably didn’t need that info to follow the scene anyway. And we certainly didn’t need the distraction of your joke.

So that’s it: my top 5 best pieces of writing advice.

What are yours?

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Rebecca Taylor

By Rebecca TaylorThe Exquisite and Immaculate Grace of Carmen Espinoza

Yesterday, I uploaded my most recent book, The Exquisite and Immaculate Grace of Carmen Espinoza, to Kindle—Yes, I self published it. And as I, only hours later took it down to make changes (I suspect it won’t be the last time) I wondered:

Why don’t more writers make the leap into self-publishing?

I thought about it all day and here’s what I came up with:

  1. In truth, self-publishing still reeks a bit of failure (if you think it has completely lost all stigma, then you’re not looking hard enough outside the self publishing community. Like it or not, self publishing is still judged pretty harshly in some circles, especially the ones surrounded by the high gates of traditional publishing. There are only two things that truly mask this odor: Winning legitimate awards and big sales.
  2. If you do it right, it’s a ton of work. It can be super easy and not at all a ton of work if you just take your first draft, upload it to Kindle, and slap one of their cover generated images in front of it. Of course, if you do it that way you should also expect to get out what you put in—which is almost nothing.
  3. And finally, and this I think is the big reason why many don’t take the plunge, you stand completely alone beside your work, taking a huge risk that, even after all your labors the only sound to reach your ears is the eerie silence of your one hand clapping (the other one is, of course, occupied holding up your book to a world that doesn’t give a shish.)

Yes, number three, lack of self-confidence, I suspect it is the real reason why many writers don’t give it a go—of course this may be simply because it was the real reason why I didn’t.

Confession: I am always a little bit in awe of someone in possession of flagrant self confidence. I watch them, without even the slightest hesitation of self doubt, they will happily spread their feathers befor2000 x 1333e you and shimmy—it has been my experience that these people are usually connected to the theatre in someway.

When that self-possessed someone happens to be a writer—well I’m flat out flabbergasted to be in the presence of such a rare bird.

In March of this year, I sat on a publishing panel answering a variety of questions from writers. Towards the end of the session, one young woman approached the microphone and asked, “What one piece of advice do you have for aspiring writers?”

Now, there are many, many good answers to this question: Write, Don’t give up, Learn the craft, etc, etc. But what popped out of my mouth was, “Toughen up.”

Yes, find those bootstraps and pull them hard because the truth of the matter is, if you are still a walking wound of self-doubt, anxiety, and crippling insecurities when your first book, traditional publisher or no, comes out—that first three star review is going to knock you to your knees. And that one star, the one with the especially snarky, and yet cleverly crafted, dissertation-length review, may likely drive you from your dreams of writing anything ever again.

I think many writers, who might otherwise be interested in the allures of self publishing, still avoid it because they believe having a publisher (regardless of the publisher’s size and actual knowledge of the publishing business) is going to fill that void, that empty gaping hole where the writer should believe in themselves, and their work. That acceptance acts like a Band-Aid of, “Look, it’s not just me…someone else likes my book too.”

And maybe that Band-Aid will be enough.

But I will tell you, if this is how you are going to prop yourself up, by leaning against the facade of traditional legitimacy, all it will take for it to all disappear is for fickle winds of favor to start blowing the other way.

And then, where does that leave you?

Ever heard the tale of the traditionally published debut author that didn’t sell enough books to earn out his meager advance? It left him with no sales, no offer for that next book, and no confidence in his ability. Even with traditional publishing, nothing is guaranteed!

Self-confidence is an absolute MUST in this business.

Be bold! Stare the very real potential of deafening silence in the face and say, “I’m not afraid of you.” Once you face that fear, whatever yours may be, it can’t hold you in paralysis any more.

When it’s ready, when you’re ready, get your work out there anyway you can. If a traditional publisher wants to stand with you—great! Just don’t fool yourself into thinking they’re going to sit up with you in the middle of the night and rock you back to sleep.

Kind of like your kids, no one will ever care about your work as much as you do. (except your mother—for both examples.)

This is just my opinion, but I happen to think you have to stand at the center of your writing career and act as the captain of your own ship—no agent or editor is going to do that for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to talk you out of your Big Five dream—I don’t think self-publishing is for everyone. Truth be told, I actually hope it’s not the only avenue forever open to me because I’m probably the first writer in line to lick the feet of a Random Penguin should it happen to deign glance in my direction. I still want my books in Barnes and Noble just a bad as you do.

But, if it turns out that the publishing powers that be don’t want me there, I’m not afraid to stand alone, book in hand, and brace myself for silence. My biggest fear is not that I will make a fool of myself—it’s that I will stop trying.

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Rebecca Taylor 2000X3000Rebecca Taylor is the young adult author of ASCENDANT, a recently selected finalist for the 2014 Colorado Book Award. The second book in the Ascendant series, MIDHEAVEN, will release in 2014 and her standalone novel, THE EXQUISITE AND IMMACULATE GRACE OF CARMEN ESPINOZA, is now available.

You can find more information about her work at: Web: www.rebeccataylorbooks.com, Blog: www.rebeccataylorbooks.blogspot.com,  Twitter: https://twitter.com/RebeccaTaylorED,  Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/Rebeccataylor, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RebeccaTaylorBooks, Wattpad: http://www.wattpad.com/user/RebeccaTaylorED