It’s Not All Hearts & Flowers – History Sucks Edition

First off, happy, happy Valentine’s day!

Now let’s quit the mushy stuff and focus on writing.

How does what happened yesterday affect your story?

 

I’ll give you two examples to consider.

Example #1 –

You based a story in Southern California in 1979 with a teen girl as your protagonist. A coming of age story. Something light and filled with girlish dreams and meandering around the sunny beaches.

Sounds like a nice tale, right?

Now through the lens of history. What was happening at that time and place?

Well, a team of serial killers were trolling for young teen girls in the Southern California area.

Therefore, the actions and reaction of the protagonist might be different. Maybe she’s less open to strangers. Maybe her parents aren’t as free with her. Maybe she’s not allowed at certain places.

 

Example #2 –

Not his example actually happened to me. I wrote a book based on my protagonist looking remarkably like Heath Ledger, who was alive and well at the time.

A week after I finished the book, Heath Ledger died of a drug overdose.

Both his death and how he died impacted my novel. People would have assumptions about my character. Or the time and place of the novel. And an emotional response to the tragic ending of Heath Ledger.

 

My advice when writing is two-fold.

First, keep your eyes on current events and climate. Do your research, even if you don’t think it will matter in the long run. Better to know than to be sorry about a factual error.

And secondly, understand that every reader comes into your book with a e=wealth of knowledge, experiences, and views. You aren’t going to make everyone happy. But seeing as your job is to keep the reader entertained, you should consider who said reader just might be and the events that impact your narration.

 

Has something like this happened to you? Have you used an icon, or a place, and then learned information that changed the perspective of your story?

Advertise or Die

I recently had a brief email exchange with Janet Lane on a blog entry she was writing on the topic of book marketing, a topic that I hate. On later reflection I decided to add my own thoughts to hers, which you've no doubt read, precisely because I hate the topic so much.

(Janet: Forgive me if I step on your topic here, I walk only in your shadow.)

Much has been written about how writers are introverts and not easily given to socializing, networking, and schmoozing, all of it true. Marketing is my least favorite part of writing, and I strongly suspect I'm not alone. Marketing is hard for me, and while it comes easily to some, there are even those out there who claim they enjoy it but who are, empirically by observation, not very good at it. Marketing is an art, a skill, one not easily acquired and impossible to fake your way through.

First, when you advertise, remember that you are not marketing this one book. You are not even marketing your entire collection of publications. You are marketing yourself. You want to build an audience not just for your most recent release, but for future releases as well. Marketing yourself is entirely different than trying to sell a product. You have to give others a reason to read what you write, make them intrigued enough to do so, which means bragging on yourself. And yet, to stay likable, you can't come off as bragging about yourself. Doing something while not seeming to do it at all is like trying to pick up a pencil without actually picking it up.

We also live in a climate of very savvy consumers these days - people are very acutely aware of when you are trying to sell them something. Everyone has had the experience of being set upon by a salesman the moment we enter a store or used car lot - we cringe and recoil and are uncomfortable, even resentful, of this kind of hard-sell tactic. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth, and these days we are more likely to walk away having bought nothing than giving in to the pressure.

The term channel-hopping refers to the act of changing the channel on a television every time a commercial comes on. On-demand television must disable the fast-forward feature of their programs because they know, if given the freedom, viewers would much rather skip a commercial than watch it. Commercial-free streaming services have become ever more popular. Web browser ad-blockers sell quite well. I myself am a charter member of the national do-not-call list, and I faithfully report every unsolicited sales call I get. Hell, I never even answer the door unless I'm expecting someone. In short, consumers want to buy, but by and large hate to be sold something.

So now we have to market ourselves while NOT bragging on ourselves, and sell books without seeming to sell books. A more impossible task was never set before mankind.

What's left to us? Mostly indirect sales techniques. In personal appearances you'll notice people will avoid your table. I like to engage them on something entirely unrelated to the books so obviously stacked around me. I comment on the weather, or something they are wearing, or on anything else. I do not address the books I am selling until they ask. I answer their questions succinctly, never going on-and-on or offering any information they did not ask about. And the minute they pick up a book and start to leaf through it I shut up and walk away. From that point on they will buy or not, you have no further control over it.

If you don't keep a blog, start one. But don't write about your books and how good they are and how everyone should buy one. Instead, interview other writers or industry professionals, or write about topics peripherally related to the themes covered in your books. If your books are mysteries, write about other unsolved crimes in current media. If you write romances, then blog about prominent figures who have recently gotten married or divorced. You get the idea.

Keep your books, with buy links, prominently visible on your blog pages, just don't try to sell them directly. The hope is that people who happen upon your blog and like what you have to say on other topics will be spurred enough to check out your books and maybe - hopefully - buy them.

(NOTE: For god's sake, don't get political in your blog. In our current hotly charged, cavernously divided political climate it takes very little to alienate half of your consumer base with an off-hand reference to topics about which very few agree. Steer clear.)

Participate in events, such as book fairs, book giveaways, library drives, etc. Volunteer for things such as public speaking engagements, guest blogs, organizations that dovetail with the topics you write about. Send letters to editors, comment on others' blogs, leave thoughtful reviews for books by other writers on places like Amazon and GoodReads.

The point is, marketing is never going to be easy, and it gets harder as our industry changes. Your best bet at selling more books is to keep your name as prominent and visible as possible while never hard-selling your books or alienating possible buyers. Finding that marketing sweet-spot is as elusive as that cat hair tickling your nose that you can't quite seem to find. And frankly just as annoying. But keep at it - you're only certain to fail at the things you don't try.

Enthusiasm Refill

The festive holiday season fills us with excitement, hope, cheer, enthusiasm, optimism. For several months we have something to look forward to. For many of us it is the excitement to see family and friends we haven't seen is a long time, for others it's seeing what Père Noël left for us under the Christmas tree, and for still others, like me, it's the anticipation of watching loved ones open presents we chose and wrapped just for them.

Inevitably after the holiday season there is a period of blahs, the unavoidable doldrums as we look ahead to what can't help to be mundane pursuits after the bright tinsel and blinking lights of such a heart-warming and lighthearted time. The lingering hangover from New Years Eve doesn't help.

Santa WritesHere's a perfect way to reignite your enthusiasm: write. Whenever I write, even when I have to force myself to sit down and put fingertips to keys, whenever I allow myself to be transported into the world I'm creating in my own stories, my spirits are always lifted, my heart lightened, my mind liberated.

It's safe to say the time-constraints of the season have necessitated that many (most?) of us have had to neglect our writing, even if only for a couple of weeks or so. This is the perfect time to get back to it. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it's productive.

And it will keep at bay the post-holiday blahs.

“The Silver Moment”

It's a term I made up to describe a twist in fiction that can make the "black moment" more shocking to a reader. The black moment is a part of the basic structure of fiction that has been knocking around for centuries.

  • The inciting incident.
  • The mounting tension.
  • Complications.
  • Climax.
  • The black moment.
  • Denouement.

There are as many variations on this structure as there are writers who write about writing, but roughly this is the basic formula for your plot in fiction. Everything else is a refinement on this.

The black moment is the part of the story just before everything is resolved when things seem to be as bad as they can get for our protagonist, when all seems lost and the antagonist is about to win.

The silver moment, as I call it, is infrequent in fiction but you should recognize it when you see it. It comes just before the black moment. It is the part of our story when, in contrast to the black moment, everything seems to have worked out for our protagonist, when all seems to have been resolved as it should have been and the good guys have won. The silver lining of the cloud that has been hanging over our protagonist throughout the book has, in effect, been found.

In this case, the black moment comes when the antagonist, thought defeated, reappears out of the blue with one last card to play, one last-ditch effort at accomplishing his goal, or at the very least, at destroying those who prevented him from achieving those goals in the silver moment.

Rogue Agenda by Kevin Paul TracyFor example, in Rogue Agenda the terrorists have all been rounded up by the Feds, the Al-Serhemni family have successfully escaped to Canada, and while Lainie still has an arson/manslaughter rap hanging over her head the reader knows she is innocent and, if there is justice, will be exonerated. But wait...what about the hit man who started this whole mess by trying to kill the CIA agent and has been stalking Lainie ever since? For god's sake, check the closet before you go to sleep!

Presence of Malice by Kevin Paul TracyIn th conclusion of my book Presence of Malice the villain, Dr. Gerald Gannery, is wanted by several Federal agencies and our heroes - Jet, Gregory, Patricia, and Paul - are enjoying their victory and have let their guards down. Unaware - but about to find out - that Gannery has found the brownstone where Jet has hidden his paraplegic brother and is aware of the money that his henchman tried to bribe the fixer with...and is now driven by a murderous thirst for vengeance.

The silver moment can definitely be overused. If the reader comes to expect it, it loses its impact to make the black moment come as a greater surprise and seem even blacker. But if used judiciously, it can be an effective tool in bringing a shocking and satisfying story to your readers.

Write Your Novel Like A Noob…Or Not

As I write this, here in my 38th year, I'm struck by a number of what some people might consider failures, and yet others might see as learning experiences. To not put too fine a point on it, this is the writer's experience in an online nutshell. As for me, I've taken several cracks at this whole writing thing. In total I've started writing, around 18 different books...give or take. All of them in various stages of incompleteness. Wow, right? But to be honest, it's not as impressive as it is disappointing. Because only in the last couple of years have I actually seen any of these projects to completion.  In fact, only four of them have been finished (as in reaching completion on the first draft). Only two have reached a second draft. And worse still, only one has been refined enough to be sent out to find representation. So this being said, let's jump into a short list of things to do...or not do as it were, when writing your novel(s).

Finish what you start:

If you didn't spot the problem laid out above, here it is in plain view. While no writing is ever wasted (unless it's about Frozen, I hate that movie), as in we get better the more we practice our craft, start a project only if you intend to finish it. Writer's minds are often scattered, we are creatives after all. I personally have so many ideas that will randomly come up and ignite excitement inside me that I can't wait to work on them more. Listen to me now: NO! No. Bad writer. BAD WRITER!

On that note...make a note:

This is why notebooks exist. Carry one in your pocket, in your purse, in your knapsack...but not your fanny pack. Get an app on your phone (Evernote is great). Get a new idea, jot it down in a new note, or create a folder for new ideas. Get it out of your head so you can come back to it later. Then, exercise self control and go back to the project you've already started and finish it.

Plot...but also pants:

If you're new to this idea it's basically this: You're either a plotter (someone who fully and in detail plans out their novel before writing). Or you're a pantster (someone who flies by the seat of their pants, allowing their story to take whatever path it will). Personally, I've done both. And the greatest thing I can take away from those experiences...is that I suck at each one. Individually, that is. For me I need a mixture of the two. A healthy amount of plotting so I know where the story is going and needs to go, and a generous spritzing of pantsing so that the story remains fluid, able to adapt to the awesome things my brain will drum up when I'm in the middle of something else. Be adaptive. Nothing is set in stone.

Try this:

Start writing. If at any point you find yourself struggling to write a scene and you're having to force it...stop. Exit the word processor, notebook, stone tablet, or parchment scrawled in your own blood. Open up something new, and plot. No need for full on detail. Think about your story. What is happening? What are you trying to accomplish? What are the main events/actions/consequences/stakes that need to take place. Then figure out (in very broad strokes) how your character is going to get there. Then, if you're comfortable doing that, start constructing individual scenes. The most important point here, though, is finding the process that works best for you, probably a mixture of both plotting and pantsing.

Do NOT obsessively re-write...the same scene...over and over:

To me, this is tantamount to self mutilation. Pointless. Painful. And unlikely to do anything but sow the seeds of regret later on. This goes hand-in-hand with plotting and pantsing. If you find yourself doing this, then it's a pretty good sign you might need to step back from the scene you're stuck on and figure out where your story needs to go. The best cure for writer's block (which doesn't actually exist) is planning.

DO have multiple projects...just not 18 of them:

At a certain point, if you're diligent, if you're dedicated, and if you aren't binge watching something on Netflix, you will finish your book. The first draft anyway. Once this is done, put the pen down and step away. Stop thinking about it. Stop worrying about it. If you need a break from writing, take it. If you still want to write, start working on something else. The point is two-fold: to remove yourself from the other project and get emotional distance so that you can see it from more objective eyes. And to get something else going on the back burner. I mean, come on! You've got other ideas you want to get rolling. Do it!

The End:

There's more to this discussion, many more things that we can talk about. Perhaps we'll talk about those next month. In the meantime...write something.

Live Longer–a no-cal way to add years to your life!

It's time to read, and write good books for your fans.

In a recent Yale study, researchers found that avid readers may live as much as two years longer than non-readers.

Details of the study

It followed over three thousand people over a 12-year period.

They were placed in three groups. Group One was a non-reading batch. Group Two people read up to three and a half hours a week, and Group Three read more than that.

Conclusion

Those who read at least 30 minutes a day reduced their risk of death by about 20 percent.

Read for your fanshammock-reading-10-17-2016

Autumn has been called the second spring, when all the changing leaves sparkle and shine, much like flowers in the spring. The nights are crisp, the afternoons still lovely, and there’s a sense of excitement as the seasons change. Like me, you may have sweet memories of the first days back at school, and the marvelous smell of new textbooks—knowledge, just waiting to be discovered.  And for fiction, excitement, just waiting to be relished.

It’s also time to prepare for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, a writing movement that has become worldwide (see global map of participants at http://nanowrimo.org/). It’s a club in which participants strive to write a novel in a month, where writers track and share writing progress and get pep talks and support from fellow writers striving toward the same goal.

Read your story idea file.

Autumn is a great time to revisit earlier plans. Been thinking about writing a series? Check your idea file. Like me, you may have story ideas already in there that have gathered dust and been forgotten. Now may be the perfect time to expand on it.  Add a few notes and let it percolate.

Read your interrupted works-in-progress.

What was it that intrigued you to start writing it? Has your craft improved to the point that you can now tackle the issue that stopped you, mid-book? Or you may have held two jobs when you were writing it and ran out of steam, and now it's time to take your fictional characters on the journey of their lives.

Read with your critique partners.

Write a brief story synopsis, and schedule a plotting and brain-storming session with your critique partners, who will also come to the table with their brief story synopses. Maybe now is the time to try a new genre, or write that short story or novella that’s been tickling your fancy for a while.

Read for the joy of it!  It’s easy to get in a reading rut, reading for research, industry news, best-selling lists, marketing and such. What entertains you the most? Does your reading list reflect that? They say the hammock is the least used piece of outdoor furniture. Isn’t that sad? Schedule a date with your hammock and indulge yourself with a fabulous book of fiction. It’s sure to entertain as well as stimulate new story ideas.

Read, and live longer.  Talk about a Happy Ever After!

The Writer’s Nightmare Before Christmas

The holidays are coming…can you feel your writing time slipping away?

I love the holidays, the lights, the costumes, the decorations, the family, the baking—presents. The one thing is, those months ALWAYS knock me off my word count track.

Usually this is not a huge problem. I pick back up in January and keep plugging along, but this year’s a bit different. The final book in my Ascendant Trilogy is due out Summer of 2017 and I need to get that manuscript to my editor by March to make that happen. I don’t have time to fall off the yellow bricks and into a Christmas tree.

This year, my holidays need to run different.

I had brunch today with two of the most supportive and encouraging female writers I know. (We’re partial to Linger in Highlands, fantastic food and a great atmosphere. If you haven’t been, we highly recommend!) Among the many writerly conversations we had, we came up with a few ideas to help all three of us enjoy the holidays while still being productive with our individual writing projects. Here they are.

Make writing a priority

Too often it is easy to make writing last on our never ending lists of things. It must be a priority. This often requires nothing more substantial than a shift in our thinking and the actions we are choosing to take during the day. If I think, “I need to get one thousand words written BEFORE I tackle anything else on my list” instead of, “As soon as I accomplish these other twenty things, then I can sit down and write one thousand words” I have completely shifted my priorities for the day.

Make a plan

Everyone feels most creative at different times of the day, but for me, first thing in the morning has ALWAYS worked the best when it’s crunch time. Even though I’m home writing full time now, I can easily fill my entire day with all the other things that need management and attention. Getting up at four in the morning, before my kids are awake and getting ready for school, gives me two magic hours of utter silence in my house. Plus, since I know that time is finite, it keeps me from messing around on the computer reading all your fabulous, but highly distracting, facebook posts. Maybe the evening works better for you, or your lunch break at work, whatever the time of day, set up a reoccurring schedule reminder and stick to it through the holiday months.

Set daily, weekly, and monthly writing goals

Great, writing is a priority, I have a plan to get up early, so what sort of word count promise should I make myself while trying to get ready for:

  • trick-or-treaters
  • traveling to Montana with two kids and two puppies for a week over Thanksgiving
  • getting out those Christmas cards
  • shopping for presents
  • decorating the tree
  • watching A Christmas Story, Elf, and National Lampoons Christmas Vacation

How about I make an easily obtainable one? I usually crack out 1000 words a day while working on a book, but I'm going to cut myself some slack. From the posting date of this blog, there are seventy-five days until New Years Eve. If I were to only write 500 words a day, starting today until New Years Eve, I will have 37,500 words toward my new book completed. That is almost half of the whole book done before the end of 2016! 500 words is roughly 2 pages a day. I can write 500 words a day in my sleep! This blog post is longer than 500 words.

Be honest with yourself

I sometimes use the busyness of my life as an excuse to not write. Yes, there is always a lot to do in my life—but that never changes. I never obtain PERFECT LIST COMPLETION no matter how much I would love to. There is always more. So the next time I forget my priority to write, scrap that plan and hit the snooze, or decide to shrug off that 500 word count goal, I don’t get to hide behind a pile of laundry or sigh about the lines at Target. I made a choice that day, and that choice was not writing. Lying to myself about that only keeps me from getting where I want to go.

Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!

TO SERIALIZE OR NOT TO SERIALIZE

The Cereal AisleSERIALIZE (sîr′ē-ə-līz′) verb 1. to transform cookies, donuts, waffles, french toast, crunch berries, etc. into miniature candy-like form to be dredged in milk and consumed for breakfast. 2. to broadcast or publish (something, such as a story) in separate parts over a period of time.

No sooner was my latest thriller Presence of Malice released than readers began asking if there was to be a sequel or series following it. To be honest, when writing Malice I never envisioned it as a series. It was always to be a stand-alone thriller, one of many other non-related thrillers I plan to release. I already have two ongoing series, taking on a third is, frankly, daunting.

On one hand, Malice is by far the best received book I've ever released, and not to capitalize on it's popularity by releasing a sequel or series feels like leaving money on the table. On the other hand, my writing muse has never been very motivated by monetary concerns, but mostly on whether or not I have a worthy story to tell.

On the other hand (I know, that's three hands) you always want to please your readers, and to have them clamoring for more of something you've written is not only awfully flattering, it also makes you want to do it, if for no other reason than to please them. JK Rowling can't seem to leave the Harry Potter franchise alone - even though she promised after the release of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows that there would be no new Harry Potter books, she has repeatedly tweeted or blogged new information about the wizarding world she created in those books, then released The Tales of Beedle the Bard, then the movie Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them followed by a book of the same name, then the stage play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child...

The point is, it's hard to walk away from something you so enjoyed writing and that readers so enjoy reading. So while it never started that way, Presence of Malice will most likely become a third ongoing series, if perhaps more episodic than serialized. In the end, while you may have other stories teaming around in your head demanding to be written, it's also irresistible to go back a revisit old friends and favorite villains.

Ah, had I but world enough and time!