July Newsletter

Paper_StackThe July issue (okay, the first issue!) of my Writing News newsletter is out. I hope to make this a regular feature; this issue includes some news items, reading recommendations, and writing thoughts. I’ve kept it short and sweet and (I hope) interesting.

If you’re not subscribed yet, you can do so from the bottom of any page on this site, or from the top of the right-hand sidebar on most pages. In the future I’ll be running contests, offering writing tips and book reviews, and adding anything else I think might be of interest. I’m also happy to hear from subscribers (or potential subscribers) about what you’d like to see.

The July issue is available to view online at http://t.co/mLaYkI7fST.

Break Out of a Writer’s Funk

breaking-ice-1-1407046-mEarlier this year, I wrote about Eleven Reasons to Love Writer’s Block. In this post, I was mainly talking about the situation where we get blocked on a particular project and can’t seem to move forward. But a writer’s “funk” is different. When you’re in a funk, you can’t seem to work on anything writing-related. It all seems too difficult, too big, too overwhelming, and your creativity and inspiration have frozen over like ice on a winter lake.

Now, some of the advice from that earlier post holds true for a funk as well as a block; do something else productive or creative, walk away for a while, exercise, read. Sometimes those things work. But sometimes they lead you into an even deeper rut. The longer you spend away from the writing, the harder it is to return to it.

Breaking out of a writer’s funk usually means getting your brain back into writer mode. And to do that, you often have to prime it with writerly stuff.

1. Read a book about writing. This could be a new title or one of your favourites from your own resource shelf. Reading about writing can shift your thinking back into the familiar writing grooves.

2. Listen to a podcast about writing. Again, either something new or a favourite source of advice. The bonus of a podcast or audiobook is that you can pair it with one of the other block-busters like exercise or housecleaning.

3. Make a list. I’m a great believer in lists and schedules. Write down all the writing-related projects you can’t seem to make yourself tackle. Then choose one that you can finish reasonably quickly and easily and resolve to concentrate only on that one until it’s done. Sometimes a funk comes down to having taken on too much and feeling paralyzed. Being able to finish just one thing might make you better able to tackle the rest.

4. Start small. Write a blog post, Facebook note, or journal entry about how you’re feeling about your writing and what you’re doing to get back on track. Setting down words–any words–can break the ice.

5. Talk it out. Take your problem to your local or online writer friends and ask their advice. Have they ever been in a writer’s funk? How did they break out of it? And do they have advice on solving a particular problem that’s got you stumped?

It takes willpower and desire to break out of a writer’s funk, but I hope some of these ideas will help you get back to that keyboard. Have you experienced a writer’s funk yourself? How did you break out of it?

Photo credit: ivanmarn

5 Questions and 6 Sentences

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A rough sketch is better than nothing.

With the beginning of NaNoWriMo less than a week away, many of us are still floundering around with bits and pieces of story ideas, wondering how we’re going to arrange them into something coherent for our novels. Today I bring you a brief exercise which might help you to put some of your thoughts in order. All you have to do is answer 5 questions and write 6 sentences.

Sound simple? Then let’s go. Here are the questions. You may answer them with a word or a sentence.

1. Who is your main character? (If you don’t have a name, now is the time to come up with one.)
1b. (optional) Who is his or her sidekick? (Companion, mentor, friend, frenemy, family member, etc.)
2. What does your main character want? (His or her overriding goal, quest, desire.)
3. Why can’t he or she have it? (The main obstacle thwarting that goal.)
4. What will help him or her achieve it? (A personal attribute, an item, a person or persons, etc.)
5. What will it cost? (Nothing comes without a cost. What will your MC have to sacrifice?)

Bonus Question: What is your working title?

Okay, now that you have those things sorted (and don’t move on to the next section until you do!), write a sentence describing each of the following:

1. Your main character’s situation when the story opens–what’s ‘normal’ for him/her and the world of the story.
2. What goes wrong–what changes–why ‘normal’ can’t or doesn’t continue.
3. What your main character will do to fight back or respond to what happens.
4. How that response doesn’t work, things only get worse, and defeat for the main character seems certain.
5. How the main character rallies and wins in the end (or doesn’t, I suppose).
6. Your main character’s situation when the story ends.*

If you can go into NaNoWriMo with even these few notes in hand, you’ve got–well, not a road map, but at least some sketchily drawn directions to get through your story.

*The idea for the second part of the exercise came from here: http://www.andrewjackwriting.com/2013/02/11/six-sentence-story-planning-for-pantsers/

Writing the Blurb

DSCN5084When I wrote my series of blog posts about mistakes made by self-publishing authors, one key stumbling-block I mentioned was the blurb. I picked out three major problems with blurbs in that post…in this one, I’m going to try to help you learn how to write a great one.

Earlier I said, “The blurb is your chance to sell me on reading your book.” That’s true–but how do you do that? There’s a lot going on in your book, I know, so how do we boil all that excitement down to a couple of brief paragraphs?

I’m going to propose a template here for a three-point blurb, and show you a couple of ways I’ve used it myself. I’m not saying these are the best blurbs ever written, but I think they’re solid and I’ve had readers tell me in both cases that they decided to read the book based on the blurb alone.

1. Start with your character(s). Who are they at the start of the story? Give them names, professions, status–whatever it is that makes them who they are and is important to the story. Do they have a goal, a dream, or a problem at the outset? Is there something about their world or situation that’s important? Can you also give a clue about the type of book this is?

Captain Luta Paixon of the far trader Tane Ikai needs to know why she looks like a woman in her thirties–even though she’s actually eighty-four. (character, profession, problem, genre)

Kit Stablefield is a detective with a secret and a crush on a guy she knows only online, in a future where magic is a part of everyday life. (character, profession, setting, problem, genre)

2. As I like to tell students when I do presentations about writing, stories are fueled by TROUBLE. So add a sentence or two telling us what the character’s biggest challenge or challenges are going to be in this story. What’s the one (or even two) most vital problems that must be faced and solved or the story will fail? Why is there no easy solution? Does something happen that compounds existing trouble or creates a new problem?

The explanation might lie with her geneticist mother, who disappeared over sixty years ago, but even if her mother is still alive, it’s proving to be no small task to track her down in the vast, wormhole-ridden expanse of Nearspace. (possible solution, not easy)

But when millionaire Aleshu Coro walks into the offices of Darcko and Sadatake with a message from the Murder Prophet and fourteen days to live, everything changes. (new challenge, upsets “normal” life)

3. The third point can do a few things: it can pile on further problems or complications; it can expand on why solutions are not easy to find or add further threats; it can pose a question that the story promises to answer, and the reader is now interested to see answered. You can also take the opportunity in this or any other point to give further clues about the tone, mood, and genre of the story.

With the ruthless PrimeCorp bent on obtaining Luta’s DNA at any cost, her ninety-year-old husband asking for one last favor, and her estranged daughter locking horns with her at every turn, Luta’s search for answers will take her to the furthest reaches of space–and deep inside her own heart. (complications, further threats, more genre clues)*

With her eighty-six-year-old grandmother insisting on helping out, and a sentient goose who simply won’t stop pestering her to watch his “killer” video game moves, Kit has more than her hands full as she races against the clock to prevent Coro’s murder…and possibly her own. (complications, further threats, tone)**

Very often, even if the question isn’t explicitly stated in the latter section of the blurb, it’s there inherently. (Will the character succeed?) But you may want to pose a more universal or thematic question as well. While some folks don’t like questions at the end of blurbs, I’m not convinced that they’re a bad thing if they serve to get the reader wondering and invested in the story.

A few things to remember:
For each of the three points, limit yourself to one or two sentences only. This helps you really focus in on the vital points of your story.

Be honest! Write the blurb for the book you’ve written, not something else. If the book doesn’t deliver what the blurb has promised, you’re going to have a disappointed or even angry reader, and no-one wants that.

Don’t be satisfied with your first attempt. Rewrite, and rewrite again, trying out different elements or structures. Edit your blurb as carefully as you’ve edited your book. The blurb, as well as telling a potential reader what your story is about, also reveals how proficient you are as a writer. Make it sharp, clean, vivid and intriguing, and you’ll have readers wanting to know more.

*The full blurb for One’s Aspect to the Sun is here.

**The full blurb for The Murder Prophet is here.

Photo credit: pippalou

The Five Obstacles Self-Publishers MUST Overcome – Part 5

typewriterOne more hard truth, fellow self-publishers, and then I’ll stop haranguing you.

Obstacle #5 – You, the Author

This might sound harsh, but all the other obstacles we talked about really stem from one source—the author. Here’s what a lot of authors miss:

Self-publishing does not mean that you can, must, or should do it all yourself.

I think that’s what trips us up. You may be passionate about doing things your way, sticking it to the “gatekeepers,” or just sharing your story with the world. But don’t lose sight of the fact that publishers do not do everything themselves, either. They use editors. They use cover artists. They use book designers. They use marketers. They use people who are trained in these skills, and like it or not, your book is competing with those books for readers’ money and attention.

Yes, it’s possible to do all those things yourself, and do them all well. Maybe you can. But don’t expect to. Don’t assume you can. Instead, assume you have to educate yourself. You have to learn how to do these things, all of these things, well. And you have to accept that sometimes your best effort will not be enough, and you’re going to need help.

Let’s face it, as writers, we all have to have a touch of ego. We want to tell our stories. We want others to listen. We admit, by the mere fact of writing, that we believe we have something to say. But that ego can be our downfall. It tells us we can make a good book cover—or one that’s “good enough”–with no training or experience at all. It tells us that our writing is pretty darn good without any expensive and time-consuming editing. It tells us that if only we shout and shout and shout about our book enough, make our work “discoverable” enough, people will listen and feel compelled to read it, because it’s just that good.

That ego lies. Don’t trust it. View everything it says with suspicion. Assume you can’t do all those things yourself, and educate yourself if you’re determined to try. There’s a much better chance then that I’ll buy your book, and not put it down after the first five pages. And that other readers will follow suit.

The best news in all of this is that it’s not too late. Even if you’ve made one or more of these blunders, thrown these obstacles up in front of your potential readers, you can fix it. You can upload a new cover for an ebook. You can rewrite and change your blurb. You can upload an edited version of your story. You can start promoting more (or less!) or more effectively. You can decide to educate yourself or get help in the areas where your skills are lacking. If you’re in this for the long game, it’s never too late to improve.

Good luck!

The Five Obstacles Self-Publishers MUST Overcome – Part 4

1164137_stacked_mailAre you mad at me yet? Do you think I’m being too harsh on self-publishers? I hope not. My goal is to help you make better, and better-selling, books. Keep reading for the next obstacle you have to overcome.

Obstacle #4 – No Editing

This is a big one. Huge. Overwhelmingly huge. Your future as a writer rests on this. Again, this is one of those admonitions that I’ve read over…and over….and over. And still a lot of writers aren’t listening.

I’m sad to say I stopped reading the last three self-published books I took a chance on. In one, the first three pages were entirely missing paragraph breaks. Yup, three pages consisting of one big paragraph. The content was pretty much just the main character explaining stuff that, at that point, had no relevance or meaning to me as the reader. Now, you may think I’m too picky, but for me, that was enough to kill the book for me. The lack of paragraph breaks, such a fundamental technical element of writing, told me that no editor had passed this way. The content was not vital, exciting, or interesting enough to convince me that I should persevere. I can and will overlook mediocre writing if the story is good enough, but if you lose my trust in the first few pages, it’s pretty hard to gain it back.

In another of those books, the first chapter was interesting, but it was liberally sprinkled with misused words and awkward, confusing sentences. It became too much work to keep going, so I stopped. Again, editing could have made the difference.

In the third book, I got a little further. The writing wasn’t bad, the story was interesting. But then things started to go downhill. Events stopped making sense. Characters acted without apparent or understandable motivations. The story went off the rails and again, I lost faith in the author. This book was in need of plot or substantive editing. As writers, we’re not always fully aware of points when the book on the page is not as clear as the book in our head. We need that second pair of eyes to find those things and point them out to us, so we can fix them.

You might say, “Well, so what? You bought the book, so the author got his/her money!” Indeed. But they won’t be getting any more from me, because they lost my trust. And they will also not be getting the good review that could have sparked further sales.

Editorial services are expensive, I get that. Not everyone can afford them. But they’re not your only option. You can swap manuscripts with writing group pals and edit each other. You can get some books on self-editing (I like this one) and teach yourself how to improve. If you can get honest feedback from friends and acquaintances who are avid readers, they might at least be able to tell you that your manuscript has a lot of spelling errors, or doesn’t hold their interest, or doesn’t seem “ready.” This kind of advice may be vague, but at least it tells you that there’s more work to be done. None of these tactics is going to produce the polished manuscript that a professional editor will, but at least you’re making an effort, and it will show in the finished book.

I know. You’re excited about this thing you wrote. You love it. You want to share it with the world. But here’s the hard truth: the world doesn’t want it straight from your keyboard. Look at this graphic from @TheUnNovelist. This is the truth of writing, and your writing won’t do well until you accept it.

There’s one more obstacle I’m going to talk about—the most important one of all. Come back for it tomorrow!

The Five Obstacles Self-Publishers MUST Overcome – Part 3

promotion-clipart-canstock17025706Here’s the third in this five-part series of posts about the obstacles I see fellow self-publishers still throwing up in front of their potential readers. Today, it’s all about promotion.

Obstacle #3 – No Promotion/Over Promotion/Bad Promotion

This is for books I might find out about online, for example on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Well, obviously, if you’re not doing this sort of promotion, I’m not likely to hear about your book at all. There’s a slight chance that if it’s in a particular genre niche that I enjoy, I might discover it if I’m browsing that section. But the odds on that are slim, at best. Do you really want to leave it to chance?

1. No Promotion. I heard an author complain the other day that sales of a recent title had dropped off completely. So on a whim, I went looking for the book. I had to search around on the author’s site a bit to even discover the title. I found it on Amazon—but it had no reviews. I found it on Goodreads—again, no ratings or reviews, and the author has not set him/herself up as a Goodreads Author. I looked back over the last week of the author’s Twitter feed—no mention of the book. Granted, I don’t know what other promotional avenues this author has tried. But apparently he or she has not made an effort to get some reviews—not even from friends or colleagues—and is not actively promoting it on Twitter or the website. These are pretty basic promotional efforts, folks. No wonder it’s not selling. Remember, readers have to find out about your book before they can read it.

2. Over-Promotion. The other side of the problem, of course, is those authors who over-promote. To use another Twitter example, when I’m deciding whether or not to follow a writer, I look at their recent Twitter feed. If I see five or more promotional tweets in a row for the same book, I generally don’t follow. I know that I’ll only be annoyed when the same same same tweet keeps showing up in my feed, and there’s no chance I’ll go check out that book. Which is too bad, because sparingly-used tweets can serve as a gentle reminder about books that look interesting to me. There’s a good chance I will at least go to the book’s page at Amazon or elsewhere and see what the cover and blurb look like. But flood me with promos and you turn me off.

3. Bad Promotion. This is what I call shoot-yourself-in-the-foot promotion. This is another thing that makes me sad. The writer who posts an unedited (or poorly-edited) chapter of a novel on Wattpad or a blog to “generate interest.” The writer who shares a sentence, rife with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, on Twitter. These efforts to create interest in the work actually have the opposite effect. They say “Stay away, bad writing ahead.” I’m not saying you have to post only letter-perfect material in every Tweet or Facebook update. But be sure that what you’re sharing is as good as you obviously think it is, or you’re only harming your reputation as a writer.

I know, I know. There are famous authors who share their first drafts, chapter-by-chapter sometimes. But keep in mind that by the time they get to the point of being well-known, these authors are writing pretty good first drafts. They have experience being edited. They likely have considerable editing experience themselves. Writing is a craft where, if you are constantly trying to improve, you do improve with practice. They can do it. Maybe you shouldn’t.

Admittedly, promotion is a delicate balance. The keys, especially in social media, seem to be diversity (using many different vectors), and a consistent message that doesn’t become overwhelming.

Also, be sure you’ve overcome obstacles #1 and #2 before you move on to promotion. When I see a paid ad for a book with a terrible cover, I feel sad again. You’ve actually paid to alienate me from your book.

Two more obstacles left! Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 4!

The Five Obstacles Self-Publishers MUST Overcome – Part 2

blurb-shape-mdThis week I’m talking (okay, maybe ranting just a wee bit, but it’s for your own good, fellow self-publishers!) about the fundamental things many self-publishers are still doing wrong, resulting in alienated potential readers and harm to the author’s reputation. Part 1, on book covers, is here.

Obstacle #2 – The Blurb

When I speak of the Blurb, I mean the description of your book that you’ll upload to online sellers. This is generally the next thing your potential buyer/reader will see, after your cover. It’s usually a paragraph or two long and basically explains what your book is about. Sounds pretty simple, right?

And yet I’m amazed at the number of books I come across that are not just missing out on the opportunity to hook readers with their blurb, but actively turning readers away with it. Let’s look at the most common problems:

1. Bad writing. The blurb contains spelling errors, poor grammar, typos and other mistakes. It doesn’t matter how polished and perfect the writing in your book might be, I am never going to get that far if the blurb is badly written. This is your “advertisement” for your book. This is where you tell me what I’m going to get if I invest time and money to read your book. And I’m not going to invest either if the blurb is a mess. I will–I have to–assume the book is, too.

2. Incoherence. Even if there are no overt mistakes in the blurb, it can still turn readers away. If what you have to say in the blurb is confusing, convoluted, or a mismatch with the cover, your potential reader is likely to pass on it. You must craft your blurb as carefully and precisely as you’ve written your book—if not more so. Again, get others to read, proof, and give you feedback on your blurb. It should intrigue and introduce your readers to your book, not alienate them, and it should complement the cover of your book in genre, theme, and style.

3. Invisibility. The author hasn’t even tried to write a blurb for the book, or if they have, they’ve simply provided a vague, generic description. “Detective X must solve the murder of Y before time runs out!” Well, that’s just about every mystery novel I’ve ever read, how about you?

The blurb is your chance to sell me on reading your book. Your chance to make me want to read it. Try to infuse your blurb with the excitement that made you want to write the book. What makes it special? What will keep me turning the pages? Be specific and try to make me care about the problem the character(s) face. If you can do that in your blurb and your cover is good, I’ll likely take a chance on your book.

However, the obstacles are not all behind us yet. Watch for Part 3 tomorrow!

The Five Obstacles Self-Publishers MUST Overcome – Part 1

Hoe's six-cylinder pressBefore we get to this list, let me tell you where I’m coming from on this. I try hard to support and read independent/self-published authors. I have a self-pubbed book coming out soon myself. I’m not a literary snob or a believer in any “one true way” of publishing. Roughly 1 in every 3 to 4 books I pick up will be indie/self published. I’m happy to read them. I want to read them. I’ve discovered some wonderful books and authors this way.

But lately, I’ve been almost immediately putting down quite a few of those that I pick up—some after less than a chapter or only a few pages of reading. And many don’t even make it to the point where I will pick them up.

There are a LOT of books I want to read. I manage 50-60 per year and my shelves and e-readers are still overflowing. So despite my desire to support, I’m not going to waste my precious reading time, either. Your book has to pass several all-important obstacles for me to read it. We’re not even talking about whether I end up liking it yet, so you get that ever-more-important good rating/review. We’re talking about just getting me to read it, all the way through to the end.

Obstacle #1 – The Cover

We should all realize by now the importance of the cover in selling your book. The average cover in a bookstore gets about 8 seconds to interest a potential book-buyer—I’d hazard a guess that online, that window of opportunity is even smaller. I can’t even count the number of articles and blog posts I’ve read that stress the importance of your book’s cover.

And a lot of self-published authors are still getting it wrong.

Look, I’m not saying you can’t create your own cover. Some writers have experience in website or graphic design, art, digital art, etc. You may be perfectly competent to create a good cover. If you have zero experience in any relevant area, you still might be able to do it, but realize that you must tread carefully and do your research. Either way, whether you take a crack at it yourself or hire someone, be smart about it. Here are a few things to think about:

1. If you are inexperienced and can possibly manage it, hire someone to create your cover. There are many options, from pre-made designs to custom artwork, at a range of prices. If you go this route, look over the creator’s portfolio and make sure they create the kind of covers that would make YOU pick up one of these books. I’ve seen some folks offering cover design lately that I shudder to think someone would pay for. Don’t go for cheap over quality, or assume that all designers are equally adept. You wouldn’t dress your new baby up in dirty rags to get her picture taken. Don’t cheat your book of a decent cover.

2. If you feel moderately qualified, take a crack at creating your own cover. If you go this route, do your research first. There are loads of resources online to help you. Like here, here, and here, just to start. And don’t neglect the fonts! A decent cover design can be ruined by the wrong font or not enough attention paid to fonts and title design. At the very least, check here and here before you proceed.

3. If you are self-creating, please, please, PLEASE get a second opinion on your cover when you’re finished. And a third. And a fourth, fifth, and sixth. And not just from people (family and friends) who are going to say nice things even if your cover looks like an incensed monkey threw poo all over it. Ask other writers and readers in your circles, online or in person. If you know an artist or graphic designer, run it by them. Ask for honest opinions and advice.

If you have none of these resources, put your cover on your computer screen and load up some websites or blogs that specifically showcase BAD covers. Compare yours to theirs and ask yourself honestly if you have committed the same types of sins. You MUST be hard on yourself. This is the very first obstacle you have to get potential readers/buyers past.

You may get mixed opinions on your cover—perhaps some people like it and some people don’t. For those who don’t, find out whether their dislike is based on personal taste (they don’t like the colours, or the mood, or it doesn’t look like a book they’d pick up) or unprofessional quality (the fonts are unreadable, images look pasted-in or don’t match, colours clash).

You need a cover that looks professional, and if you can’t create it yourself and won’t pay for it, it’s pretty much game over. Readers are not even going to give you a chance. This is a sad but true fact in the world of self-publishing, and you ignore it at your own risk.

Watch for Part 2 of this series tomorrow, and we’ll talk about the next obstacle!

She Took to Her Bed

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Not my bed, but I’d take it!

Today I decided to take to my bed. Not in the Victorian-lady sort of way, complete with fainting spells, swooning, and smelling salts, but in the need-a-change-of-scenery sort of way. It was chilly in my office, and I was doing financial things (my nemesis), so I needed to snuggle up with a heating pad, a warm blanket, my laptop and a nice big surface on which to spread out a lot of papers. The bedroom was the natural spot to which I migrated.

Also, there were a lot of distractions in my office, and I needed to escape them in order to get anything done.

This got me thinking about how most of us have places we escape to once in a while. In my novel One’s Aspect to the Sun, my main character escapes to the largest cargo pod when she needs to think, and sits or paces on the catwalk that vaults through the top of the empty space. In her case, it’s the close quarters and small rooms of the spaceship she needs to escape–she’s craving the simple sensation of having more open space around her. Which is, admittedly, a little ironic, considering she’s actually out in deep space.

Even in stories where themes don’t touch on escape, many characters have places they go when they need to get away, be by themselves, and think or regroup. It can be a powerful insight into a character to see where they find this refuge. Do they seek out a church or a library for quietude? A milling shopping center where they can blend into a crowd? A forest where they can feel more grounded in nature? What does their choice of escape say about them?

In a short story I wrote recently, the main character’s escape space is a rooftop garden. In that story, it is symbolic, since the garden was started by her father, now deceased, and does become both an actual physical refuge as well as a place of danger, throughout the course of the story.

Where’s your escape? Where’s your character’s escape? What does that say about you, and about them? Can you use it to enhance your storytelling? Or your life?

Tell me your answers in the comments, if you’d like to share.

Photo credit: revwarheart