Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, January 31, 2011

Tip O'Day #16

This writing tip is from Gary Williams. Along with co-author Vicky Knerly, he is signed with Park Literary Agency in New York City, NY. Their first novel is expected to be released in 2012.

Find the time to write that works for you.

Each writer has to discover the most productive time of day to write. For me, I’m far more prolific in the early morning (not long after I wake) and again in the early evening. From 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. is my dead zone. While I do write during these intervals, my productivity slips — the right words are harder to come by, descriptions are lacking, text conversations lag — and I generally end of reworking these sections in the morning. As a writer, you need to understand “your time” and then leverage this information to achieve your most productive writing.

I will admit, this is a rule that doesn’t apply to everyone. While the thriller writer Steve Berry has admitted that his best writing comes in the morning, James Rollins is known to write with equal production at any time of day.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tip O'Day #15

Have you ever read a story – even a full-length novel – and wondered “so what?” Okay, some guys rob a bank and in the end they all die in a hail of bullets. Or geeky boy meets hot girl and loses her due to a falsehood, but they get back together in the final chapter. Or a wealthy CEO has his job, reputation and lover stolen, but manages to climb back to the top.

So what?

There are Universal Themes found in literature. “The moral to the story,” so to speak. There are many opinions about what they are, but I like the following post by Rachel Mork:


She lists 12 Universal Themes:

1. Man struggles against nature.
2. Man struggles against societal pressure.
3. Man struggles to understand divinity.
4. Crime does not pay.
5. Overcoming adversity.
6. Friendship is dependent on sacrifice.
7. Importance of family.
8. Yin & Yang: Just when you think life is finally going to be easy, something bad happens to balance it out.
9. Love is the worthiest of pursuits.
10. Death is part of the life cycle.
11. Sacrifice brings reward.
12. Humans all have the same needs.

Maybe I’m way off base, but I think much of the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction has little to do with grammar, vocabulary, style or subject matter. To me, it comes down to whether plot is primary, or whether the Universal Theme is supreme, woven through practically every page of the work.

Of course, there are other considerations. Much of genre fiction follows a fairly strict formula, and many authors of book series don’t create much of a character arc for the protagonist. But ask yourself – is a Universal Theme threaded through the novel, or is “the moral of the story” mostly an afterthought, even inferred?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tip O'Day #14

Grab the reader's interest from the very first page.

Just how vital the first paragraph of a story is, will remain open to debate but there’s no doubt it plays an important role in whether the reader continues to turn pages, or skips on to something more interesting. Former lit agent Nate Bransford is currently running his 4th annual contest for the best first paragraph. Although it’s past the deadline for entries, it can be instructive to visit Nate's blog at http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/01/4th-sort-of-annual-stupendously.html and look at some 1,500 examples of what OTHER authors think is a good attention-getter.

Here is my entry:

Tyler Goode didn’t know the man’s real name until he read the obituary three days later. Everyone called the guy Brute. It fit him well. He’d become a legend in northwest Montana for taking whatever he wanted – whether someone else’s woman or a warm bottle of beer – and leaving the victim a bloody, broken mess. He wore his nickname like a medal, as if it were a compliment to his strength and combat skills instead of a summary of his personality. Smart people steered clear of Brute, all three hundred-plus pounds of him. Of course Ty had never been accused of genius.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tip O'Day - Lucky #13

Thanks to Gary Ponzo, a fellow writer I met on Facebook, for this writing tip.

Because writing is such an empirical process it's hard to determine one tip which helped my overall skills. The only thing which comes to mind is the old line, "Show don't tell." And we all know to do this, but it's the one ligament which pulls at every aspect of my prose.

I realize it's a simple thought, but I'm a simple kind of guy.

(Comment by Dixon: A great reminder, Gary. Most readers enjoy solving puzzles, from big mysteries that act as the engine of the novel, to minor ones about what drives a character. Instead of saying some guy is a domineering brute, show him browbeating others in dialogue and through his actions. As Anton Chekhov said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.")

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tip O'Day #12

Novelist and screenwriter Dennis Foley blogs at http://dennisfoley.blogspot.com/ and his online writing courses can be found at the UCLA Writer's Program and Writers On the Net. I always look for profluence in the writing of others, but had never heard the word before meeting Dennis.

Profluence and Throughline:

A plot or subplot follows the efforts of the protagonist within that plot to achieve his primary goal. He does this by attempting to accomplish all the lesser goals necessary to achieve the primary goal. (If he is going to kill someone he has to go get a gun first.) This path to the primary goal is the plot's throughline. It is vital to the life of your story.

Recognition of this throughline by the reader gives the reader confidence that there is profluence to the story. Profluence is the clear sense that things are moving toward something, getting somewhere, flowing forward, have a direction and a destination.

The reader demands some reason to keep turning the pages. He won't do it just because the setting is interesting, the character is unique, pages are filled with endless detail or your writing style is fresh. The story needs to be going somewhere. How do you do that?

— You quickly and clearly make it obvious to the reader who the central character is.

— Make it clear what he wants, needs or desires.

— Resist the urge to explain or offer unnecessary back story.

— Remind yourself that you are writing a story and not a biography or a resume.

— Don’t dwell in that character's history, past, earlier experiences or anything from the character's life that wouldn't fall into the category of being absolutely necessary to the story's forward motion. History is final, done, behind the character and has already occurred. The minute a novelist begins to explain what happened when the character was six or what life was like years ago the reader knows that whatever it is, it didn't result in the worst thing that could happen or else the character wouldn't be present in the story.

— Ask yourself with each scene if it is clear that the scene is a logical step toward the protagonist's ultimate goal.

We can't write like previous generations of novelists. Start your story on a train in motion or at least pulling out of a station.

Evidence of continued profluence is the presence of causally linked scenes in pursuit of what's most important to the protagonist. Stories without profluence are normally populated by a lack of causally linked scenes and the presence of unrelated scenes showing no progression or connection to other scenes other than being about the same characters.

Know what your character wants and let your story be about his struggle to get there.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tip O'Day #11

Stella Deleuze blogs at http://synopsisandbookfactory.wordpress.com/ and this is a past post, used with her permission.

Don’t be fooled

As a new writer, you may share a dream with many others: to be published.
For many it stays a dream and for others this dream comes true. I’m talking about signing a contract with a reputable publishing house. While most of the big names do not accept unsolicited submissions and only work with agents, many of the smaller, newer and independent ones are open to deal with authors directly.

But beware of those you deal with. There are a lot of so-called vanity publishers out there, trying to lure you in with promises they can’t keep. I’ve met a few authors who fell for them and bitterly regret their decisions. It’s a matter of not having researched properly that made them sign a contract.

Here are a few points to watch out for:

• If a publisher asks for money upfront or in general, run! Money flows to the author, always.

• If they don’t have books or other checkable credentials on their website. Run! Every publisher is proud of their achievements, no reason to hide them.

• If they get back to you in a brief amount of time, asking for a full manuscript, be skeptical. Publishers are busy, especially if they do accept unsolicited manuscripts, they are swamped. It happens from time to time that they get back quickly. To be on the safe side, research them if you haven’t already done so. Check them at Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware

• If they stress explicitly that they are not vanity publishers. Any good publisher doesn’t need to state it.

• If they don’t offer to assign an editor or tell you that your book will be published a month after signing. It usually takes at least six months to be out on the shelves, even if the book is quite polished upon submission. A more realistic figure is a year.

• If they offer to edit your book for a fee, even if they promise to pay you back once the book sells. Run! Every publishing house has editors and it’s their job to do the final touches to make it fit their lines.

• If they offer you a contract that asks for money, is not conclusive, demands the author to buy a certain amount of books, etc. Don’t sign – run!

• If you find information about them on google or other sites, complaints, negative comments, etc. Run!

There is a lot to watch out for. If you stumble across a vanity publisher, help your fellow writers by sending an e-mail to P&E, informing them. They are on a mission to protect you.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tip O'Day #10

Here’s a writing tip from Raymond Benson, an awesome writer who was selected to continue the 007 novels after Ian Fleming passed away.

Gee, my main advice to writers these days is to find something else to do :) (just kidding).

Okay, here's a tip: "When I write a novel I mentally *cast* the characters in my mind. For example, for the villain in my first James Bond novel, ZERO MINUS TEN, I imagined it was Jeremy Irons in the role. For some reason, that helped me develop the character's mannerisms and speech, even though I gave no clues in the narrative that I was thinking about that actor. I've found that doing that with all the major characters of novels works very well, at least for me, the writer."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tip O'Day #9

Learn the rules, and then feel free to break them if it serves your purpose.

(A lengthier post was removed at the request of the writer concerned.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tip O'Day - Guest Post (Parts 7 & 8)

When I asked some writer friends for a favorite writing tip, I was afraid they'd be too busy to help me re-energize the Wredheaded Writer blog. Then, one of the first replies I received was an eight part message from Stephanie Osborn. Woot woot!

I've received lots more tips, and will be mixing in some of my irreverent (irrelevant?) insights as well. But this process will be incomplete without YOUR input. Whether a published pro or rank amateur, you still have valuable ideas. John Grisham isn't necessarily any smarter than you - he's certainly more experienced but he struggles with the same issues that bug you, just at a different level. You worry about burning your grilled cheese sammie, while he is concerned that his surf and turf is served at the proper temp and texture. Same issues, different levels. (I look forward to your phone call, John.)

Soooo, let's see your idea. Email me at montananovels@yahoo.com or message me on Facebook (Dixon Rice Novelist).

Now here's the conclusion of Stephanie's eight-part series:

Stephanie Osborn - Things They Don’t Tell You In Author’s School, Installment #7:

So you have the book edited, it’s in gorgeous shape; the cover art has come down and it’s beautiful. You’re done, right? Nope. Now you get the e-ARC, the electronic Advanced Review Copy. You get to review that, make corrections, and send the corrections back. That's gotta be it, you think.

NOW you’re done? No. Now you get the galley prints. These are unbound first run prints of your book. Again, review for errors and send back the corrections. These will sometimes be things that were missed in all of the previous edits (yes, it IS possible!), but mostly it will be problems in converting the electronic version of the manuscript into print. This usually comes in the form of dropped formatting - a missed tab, lost italics, a strange carriage return, a blank line where it shouldn't be, or an odd symbol substituted for punctuation.

Meanwhile, you and your publisher are working on the public relations and publicity campaign. Start making appearances before the book is released if you want to build buzz. Build a website. Blog. Tweet. Face. Space. If you can get your name out there, and your book’s name out there, do it.

After the book comes out come the interviews, talks, and book signings.

Somewhere in there, you start writing your next book.

Thing Seven: You NEVER really get done.

And finally, Installment #8:

Wait - the book is OUT, right? What more can there BE?!

Thing Eight: Congratulations. Once you’ve realized Things One through Seven, you are now an experienced, professional author.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tip of the Day - Guest Post (Part 6 of 8)

Stephanie Osborn - Things They Don’t Tell You In Author’s School, Installment #6:

Thing Six: Getting a contract in hand is NOT the end of the job. It’s the beginning.

Now you get to work with one or more editors, copy editors, and proofreaders. Multiple times.

Thing Six-A: Be aware that you are NOT required to do everything, or even anything, the editors say. But you better really be confident you’ve done it exactly right, because these guys are usually way more experienced than you are and know what they’re doing. (Not always. But mostly.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tip of the Day - Guest Post (Part 5 of 8)

Stephanie Osborn - Things They Don’t Tell You In Author’s School, Installment #5:

(The previous tip discussed the need for patience since your masterpiece may get stuck in a slush pile.)

Well, how the heck do you DO it (get published), then?

Thing Five: A mentor helps. S/he should be someone already experienced in the business, firmly established (hopefully as an author) and willing to take on a protégé. S/he is the "somebody you know," your entrée into the business, acting as your reviewer, your advisor, your agent, your friend, and your shoulder to cry on when an editor says your beloved baby is a pile of horse manure. (Tidbit Five-A: Editors do sometimes say this. Or words to that effect. You haven't lived until an editor has informed you that he hates your intro, hates your conclusion, and everything in between needs to be totally re-written.)

What your mentor can do is to point you in new directions, and tell you if and when someone is trying to take advantage of you. Sometimes your mentor even becomes a co-author, and then it’s really fun.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tip of the Day - Guest Post (Part 4 of 8)

Stephanie Osborn - Things They Don’t Tell You In Author’s School, Installment #4:

Getting your foot in the door can end up with a smashed foot.

Thing Four: The old adage, "You can’t get published without an agent, and you can’t get an agent without being published," isn’t true – but it isn’t far from it. Many of the big publishers won’t even look at anything that isn’t handed to them by an agent. With some of them, it’s impossible for the budding author to even find contact information.

Contrariwise, most agents won’t look at anyone who isn’t published. (There are a few. But your story had better be good, and polished to the nth degree.) But there are some good publishing houses out there that DO accept unagented submissions. The trick to these is that, unless you know somebody, your submission goes into a "slush pile" and will remain there for some time. Slush pile submissions are read in the order received, so your baby will be there for however long it takes for the company’s readers to dig down to it. So be prepared to be patient.

Dixon’s comment: Consider getting your first publication credit from a small, regional press. Also, many authors e-publish and hope that sales on Amazon and other sites may entice a major publisher to pick up their book.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tip of the Day - Guest Post (Part 3 of 8)

Stephanie Osborn - Things They Don’t Tell You In Author’s School, Installment #3:

Some things have nothing to do with your manuscript.

Thing Three: There is a pecking order among authors, and it is not entirely determined by tenure, sales figures or awards.

Who published you? How big was your last advance? (This is not, coincidentally, often determined by the size of the publishing house.) The bigger the publishing house, the larger your advance, the higher up the pecking order you are – at least in the minds of some.

Be prepared to experience resentment from those below you, and disdain from those above. Some of us view the playing field as level – but not all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tip of the Day - Guest Post (Part 2 of 8)

Stephanie Osborn - Things They Don’t Tell You In Author’s School, Installment #2:

Thing Two: It IS possible to have a novel that’s TOO LONG. It seems there’s some alchemy mixed into publishing. There’s an arcane formula publishers use to transmute word count into page count. Page count, in turn, converts to shelf space. Use up too much shelf space on one book, and the publisher suddenly can’t display as many books. So your wonderful, two hundred thousand plus word count book that spewed out of you like water from a fire hose probably isn’t usable, unless you can find a way to cut it down into two or three books.

Comment from Dixon - I had an interesting talk with a literary agent this fall at the Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Among other things, he said that although thrillers are typically around 100,000 words, previously unpublished authors should limit themselves to 70-80,000 words.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tip of the Day - Guest Post (Part 1 of 8)

This evening marks the kick-off of "Writers Tip of the Day" - a bit of advice on how to improve your writing craft or get published. More than that, it's a reason for you to get out of bed in the morning.

Stephanie Osborn couldn't come up with one tip. She sent me a week's worth. Here's Installment 1 of
Things They Don’t Tell You In Author’s School.

I’m a fairly decent writer, with a good half-dozen popular books to my credit. (Not bad for a couple years in the business.) And long before I submitted a novel manuscript for publication, I did my homework. I knew about query letters, slush piles, and house formats. I knew some publishing houses don’t take unagented submissions and some do. I knew how to find the correct name and address for a submission, and to address the query letter TO that person. I knew how to make my query letter POP.

But once I got into the industry (translated – once I had a novel under contract), I discovered there are some little details they don’t tell you in author’s school.

Sub-thing: Everybody knows not to trust spelling and grammar checkers, right? They don’t know there from they’re from their… (finish the statement on your own). Good. ‘Nuff said. On to the serious stuff.

Thing One (with apologies to Dr. Seuss): Different publishers have different definitions of what constitutes novel length. For some, it’s anything over forty thousand words. For others, it’s sixty, and for most in my genre (science fiction slash mystery) it’s around one hundred thousand. This is a rough rule of thumb, and generally the bigger the number, the more leeway you have, plus or minus, in your word count. But make sure you know what the definition is for your genre, and MAKE IT LONG ENOUGH, or you could run into problems.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bickering Feds

Here's a scene that didn't make the final cut for my unpublished novel, MONTANA IS BURNING. I liked the characters too much to kill them off, though, so they do appear in a few later scenes. Oh, wait a minute. I just remembered - I DID kill off one of them...

Six hundred miles south of Mullen County, Montana, FBI special agent Jordan Pelzner handed an airsick bag to his traveling companion and looked past him out the window. To the east, the sun edged from behind mountains dusted with early snowfall. Pelzner looked beneath the 737’s wing at the intricate network of dikes and roadways surrounding the Great Salt Lake. Some reservoirs were full of water, others evaporated to salt beds. He wondered how many tons of salt the Mormons had extracted over the last hundred and fifty years.

The retching at his side interrupted Pelzner's wool-gathering. He handed a napkin to Fred Rugar, the senior ATF agent for the Western Region. Rugar patted the pointy chin that anchored his heavy jowls and stuffed the napkins into the airsick bag. A sour odor drifted toward the FBI man.

"You know," said Pelzner, "you have an unusual method of preparing for an investigation."

"Shut your damn face."

“Is that standard operating procedure in the Seattle ATF office -- drink yourself blind and then bust up a gay watering hole? Or is it usually the other way around?"

"For freaking missionaries, they sure got a mess of gay bars."

"Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms..." Pelzner mused. "I suppose you can't smoke or shoot worth a damn either."

"Heaven protect us from self-righteous Fibbers. My damn head is ready to burst and here you’re thumping a bible for all you're worth. Lemme die in peace."

"That's a tempting thought, my friend, and you certainly couldn't smell much worse. Might even be an improvement for the first few days."

"I had any strength, I'd yank your tongue out."

"No, Agent Rugar, I can't let you die. Too much inter-departmental paperwork and besides, you're the big cheese on this case."

"Aw shit, don't mention cheese."

"I’m afraid explosives mean this one's an ATF case. The FBI just came along to smile at the reporters and pay the bar bill."

Rugar’s hands trembled on his lap. "Don't remind me what we're headed for. I was hoping to coast into retirement without sniffing any more crispy critters."

Pelzner watched he poor bastard’s shakes grew steadily worse. He wondered if there were any medical personnel on board. The ATF agent gripped the armrests as if the seat bucked under him. The tremors finally subsided and Rugar took a few long, slow breaths.

“Your color’s coming back, my friend," the FBI agent said. "But you’re still a bit green around the edges.”

"Takes me freaking days, sometimes weeks to get the smell of burnt flesh outta my hair and off my skin. Don't know how many suits I've gone through in the last twenty years. Stunk too much to dry clean, just threw them out."

"That's why you get the big money."

"Hah!" The ATF agent’s bitter laugh turned into a wheezing attack. Beet-red jowls quivered as he pounded his barrel chest with one hand, tightly holding the armrest with the other.

"Great impression. That's from The Exorcist, right?"

"Lord," said Rugar, raising his eyes in mock prayer, "help me live through this flight and I'll do any penance you name. Go to church. Shoot a Fibber. Any-damn-thing."

"I notice you failed to mention celibacy."

"Leave your mother and me outta this, Pelzner."

"So the subtle Fred Rugar wit lives on, despite the anticipated demise of the body. I'm sure the locals will be suitably entertained."

"Yeah, I’m really looking forward to meeting Barney Fife and the rest of the Mayberry gang. I swear, if I find one piece of evidence mishandled, I'll rip each freaking bugger a new anus."

"My friend, your attitude bodes poorly for cooperation with the Mullen County Sheriff."

"Those hicks probably don’t handle twenty felonies a year. Best for them to stand back and let the pros take over."

"You take over, Agent Rugar. I'll hold your jacket and lead the applause."

"Just make sure there's a freaking rental car waiting in East Cupcake."

"That's Edgerton."

The ATF agent turned away from Jordan Pelzner and looked at the morning sun rising past the Wasatch Mountains. "Whatever."