Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tip O'Day #400 - Books on Writing

Guest blogger Seeley James on some writing books that were very helpful and others – well, not so much.

I’ve read many books about the craft of writing. Some I cherished and underlined and marked up. Some I abandoned after a few pages. Each of them taught me something. A few were amazing. Oddly enough, the highly recommended books were not that good. I jotted down my thoughts about the three I found most helpful and two that made me think, what happened here?

First, understand my slant: I like to read and write thrillers. My goal is to entertain as many people as possible. If your goal is to write character-driven, world-changing literature, or romance or epic Sci-Fi, these reviews may or may not mean as much to you. However, I think good advice transcends genre.

Second, I like to read books that tell me how to be a better writer. How to improve my action sequence. How to pace my highs and lows. Why no one feels my main character’s pain. When to do this instead of that. I like to read a book and immediately launch into notes for improving my manuscript. If the book I’m reading doesn’t stimulate my creative process, then I’m not enamored.

Third, on my blog, I’ve written my ideas on the craft of writing in a series called The Architecture of Writing because the one thing all these books have in common: they’re too freaking long. The points made in each could be summed up in a PowerPoint deck and dropped on us to take or leave as we wish.

Two popular books that taught me far less than I expected:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass -- While Mr. Maass is a top agent who cites great works of literature and describes why they were great, it rarely says anything about how to actually write a breakout novel. I found myself nodding and thinking, ‘yeah, he’s right, that was a great book.’ But only jotted down two or three notes to follow up on later. My takeaway: some writers wrote some really good books.

On Writing, Stephen King -- Yeah, blasphemy, I know. I’m a heretic. It’s a great book about a literary celebrity. I was fascinated by his story and his life experience. He has one passage about his editing process. And he railed against plotting. Otherwise, it was a memoir. (OK, so he’s been writing since he was 10 and he plots intuitively. Does that mean the rest of us are pond scum?) My takeaway: Always have a book in your hand.

Three books that drove my imagination and made me take notes:

Techniques of the $elling Writer, Dwight Swain (1965) -- Yes, I am recommending an obscure writer who taught at the University of Oklahoma fifty years ago. The references to starlets long gone are amusing and younger readers will have to study some of his literary references but he explains technique at the sentence and paragraph level. With right way and wrong way examples, no less. Read this and you will have a much better grip on why your last story flopped and how to make your next sing. My takeaway: Tactics.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King (1991) -- Another oldie but goodie. And I mean goodie. This one explains story structure and pacing with a little more meat on the bones than Swain’s work. Where he gives you paragraph tactics, this offers concepts for story strategy. At the same time, this book picks nits that will have you running for your editing notes. And the best part is — the authors formed a company offering indie authors professional services. Their story was so compelling that I’ve hired The Editorial Department to handle my editing, artwork, layout, and marketing. My takeaway: Strategy.

The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler (1998-2007) -- This is the most important book a novelist can own. Mr. Vogler presents it as the foundation for every story ever told. Not true. However, it is the most comprehensive explanation of classic stories like Star Wars and Wizard of Oz. You do not need to follow his example. You do need to understand the structural underpinnings that have formed classic stories from Odysseus to Harry Potter. My favorite author, Lee Child, has never applied this method. My second favorite author, James Rollins, always applies this method. Whether you use it or not, knowing how it works helps you form a stronger story. My takeaway: Structure.

There are many more good and not-so-good books out there. I’ve only listed three of my many faves. What books taught you the most about the craft?

Seeley is the author of short story collection Short Thrills, and his novel Geneva Convention will be released later this year. He was a Finalist for the DeMarini Award in fiction, and was short-listed for the Fish Publishing Award and the Debut Dagger Award.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Know Your Enemy

Guest blogger Zachary Richards wrote this post, which has nothing whatsoever to do with writing or getting published. It appeared on his blog on 9/20/2012 (Repeated with permission).

You need to know this.

Regardless of your political beliefs.

Regardless of your race, creed, gender, religion, sexual orientation or financial situation.

I am a member of your family.

I know very little about North Dakota. I know where it’s located but I’ve never met anyone from there. Don’t know if I would like them if I did.

But I know this.

If any outsider, any foreign country or even hostile space aliens invaded North Dakota and attacked its citizens, I would grab my rifle, jump in my truck and take off to help defend them. It wouldn’t matter who they supported for president, or whether or not they liked country music, or if they are adamantly for or against this or that.

They are Americans and as Americans they are my family and in times of trouble I got their back and have no doubt that if the situation were reversed, they’d have mine.

As the political season grows uglier, we need to remember who we are and what we stand for. Don’t let them convince you there are blue and red states. Don’t buy into the lies that seek to divide us into conservative and liberals, or rich and poor. Ever hear the saying, divide and conquer?

E Pluribus Unum — Out of many, One.

That is our country’s motto. Remember that.

Over the course of our history hundreds of thousands of our soldiers sacrificed their lives for our protection. The best way to honor that sacrifice is not by having parades, or holding memorials or having big blowout department store sales. We can honor their sacrifice by taking the time to verify the statements made by the media regarding the people running for elected office. I have seen the most outrageous, villainous and outright treasonous claims made about the presidential candidates as well those campaigning for local office.

It is disgraceful.

I have no idea what your political stance is but I do know this. Even if we were on completely opposite sides of an issue, if we sat down at the table and hashed out our concerns, we would come to a reasonable compromise. It wouldn’t be perfect, compromises never are, but our main concern wouldn’t be about getting our way. It would be about doing what’s best for our fellow Americans.

I have mentioned in a previous post that Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdock, an Australian who had been under investigation for hacking into people’s personal cell phones and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal the nephew of the Saudi King. And on the other side of the spectrum, The Daily News is owned by Canadian born Mortimer Zuckerman, a man with a long association with the Israeli lobby.

Do you think both sides are slanting their news stories to convince you to side with them and to support their issues? Do you think both sides are fanning the fires of derision to make us turn on each other and overlook the fact that they are feathering their own nests at our expense?

I do.

And I will not support or participate.

I believe that as an American, you are capable of making up your own mind as to who your elected representative should be. I believe you will take the time and make the effort to research the candidates to find the best one for the job. As for me, I will actively fight against any organization that divides us into categories, or tries to convince me that anyone who disagrees with their position is a traitor, or un-American. And I pledge that I will not post any derogatory clip or statement about any candidate unless I can personally verify its accuracy through various unrelated and reliable sources.

My name is Zackary Richards and I approve this message.

If you agree, share this and let the special interests know that lies, misinformation and malicious propaganda against any candidate will not turn you against the candidate but will instead, turn you against the organization that distributes it.

If you wish to comment you can do so at my blog: http://zackaryrichards.blogspot.com

Dixon says: Americans have a long history of vicious political discourse. In the mass media of his day, Abraham Lincoln was pilloried with a gusto few modern politicians have been subjected to. Franklin D. Roosevelt was called a Communist - not by fruitcakes on the fringe, but by his mainstream political opponents. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected as president, was hated by segregationists and bigots of every stripe, and Texas schoolchildren cheered at the news of his assassination. George W. Bush was ridiculed by late night comics as nothing but a hick and a moron, and Barack Obama's first national campaign - well, you know all the far-fetched claims that spread like wildfire on the 'Net. But this year's political campaigns, fueled by fear, anger and heaps of special interest money, have really been over the top. Even if we dislike the current White House occupant, I hope we can come to respect the office itself.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Saying for Writers #133 - Isaac Singer

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

"When I was a young boy they called me a liar. Now that I'm all grown up, they call me a writer." – Isaac Singer

Twin Lakes in northwest Montana.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tip O'Day #399 - A Writer also Reads

Guest blogger Ellen Grogan on how technology and becoming a writer simplified her reading life – Not!

Two years ago when I got my first e-reader (a Nook Color), reading was simple. I read what I love, and I love historical fiction. Nine months later, things got a bit complicated when I decided to try my hand at writing. My reading time got divided between historical fiction and “how to write” books. Then, of course, genre books had to be added into the mix to further complicate things.

Several more months went by, during which time I discovered Facebook and started “friending” authors, telling them how much I appreciated their books, how helpful their writing had been, yada, yada, yada. More months passed and it was time to purchase a second Nook, the Simple Touch. It was lighter, more portable, easier to use for studying all those “how to write” books when on the go. Now things got even more complicated. So many wonderful authors, so many wonderful books they’d written, so many reviews to post on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads and Smashwords. Yikes! How did things ever get this complicated?

It’s been two years now and I’ve broken down and added a Kindle Touch to my collection, but only because of those dastardly DRM’s that prevent me from converting Kindle books to epub format for my Nook. Well, at least now I have all my favorite types of books, all my “how to write” books, and all my favorite authors’ books at my fingertips all the time on one or another of the e-readers. I am one happy camper, let me tell you. (Not!)

Most mornings, I spend five hours with my “how to write” books, learning and writing. In the afternoons, I spend three hours sampling books by authors who are new to me. After dinner, I spend another three to four hours reading books by authors I’ve already become familiar with and whose writing I enjoy.

I know, I know, you’re wondering how I find time in between all this learning and writing and reading for the editing work I do. No problem! When an editing job comes in, everything stops until that manuscript goes to print. Everything. Except at night. I will steal three hours each evening to stop and rest and read historical fiction – usually something by Margaret George because her writing calms me down and keeps me sane.

A little sanity in my life – priceless!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tip O'Day #398 - What Drives Readers Crazy

Guest blogger Darlene Elizabeth Williams looks at what makes a novel outstanding compared to others in the same genre.

As a reviewer, I look for some key points. First and foremost, the most common detraction to a novel is poor editing. While typos or grammatical errors are found in most novels, more than 2 or 3 become a distraction. Novels rife with poor grammar and superfluous words quickly lose appeal.

One of my pet peeves is the word “that.” It is an overused word that, in many cases, does not need to be included. I am guilty of this habit and always go back through my work to ensure I have eliminated every “that” possible.

Lengthy passages of narrative relating events are sure to cause a reader’s eyes to glaze. Instead, characters conducting conversations or engaging in activities to impart the information keeps the reader in the moment. This technique is valuable for immersing the reader completely.

While on the topic of narrative, passive sentences slow action. Sluggish progression equates reader boredom. A tightly written novel with active wording and succinct dialogue zings with vitality. The pace has highs and lows. Readers need to catch their breath after a climatic event, but not for too long. An outstanding novel wraps up almost immediately after the final climax. To continue on for a few chapters with explanations of what happened afterwards ruins what could be an excellent finale.

Authors who complete comprehensive character studies “know” their characters intimately. A cynical character who, inexplicably, becomes tender and forgiving in Chapter 3 before reverting back to sardonic in Chapter 4 goes beyond suspension of disbelief. Well-developed characters evolve throughout a novel in a convincing fashion.

Now to what is called the “story world.” A novel lacks depth when it skims over the characters’ environment or contains easily notable inaccuracies or discrepancies. Credibility is lost if a character pops an 8-track tape into his 1954 Ford Customline telling his passenger how “cool” the Back Street Boys are. If a dog is black at the commencement, he’d better be black at the conclusion.

Fantasy, paranormal and science fiction story worlds have more liberalities, yet they must also be plausibly constructed. Fans of the genre expect intricate, imaginative settings, but still require some familiar grounding. Even Star Trek’s Spock had his rare moments of emotion.

Not just a few of these elements are essential for an outstanding novel. They all are.

Darlene Elizabeth Williams reviews historical fiction at http://darleneelizabethwilliamsauthor.com/ (under the HF Reviews tab) and is currently working on her first historical fiction novel.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Saying for Writers #132 - Gene Weingarten

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“All stories have to at least try to explain some small portion of the meaning of life. You can do that in 20 minutes, and 15 inches. I still remember a piece that the great Barry Bearak did in The Miami Herald some 30 years ago. It was a nothing story, really: Some high school kid was leading a campaign to ban books he found offensive from the school library. Bearak didn’t even have an interview with the kid, who was ducking him. The story was short, mostly about the issue. But Bearak had a fact that he withheld until the kicker. The fact put the whole story, subtly, in complete perspective. The kicker noted the true, wonderful fact that the kid was not in school that day because ‘his ulcer was acting up.’ Meaning of life, 15 inches.” — Gene Weingarten

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tip O'Day #397 - Grafton vs Indies

Guest blogger Simon Alexander Collier on “Busking Outside Carnegie Hall.”

American novelist Sue Grafton brought a wave of criticism on herself through a number of disparaging remarks about those, like me, who choose to self-publish their fiction. Like these critics, I think she is mistaken, but since she has subsequently apologized and expressed a desire to learn more about changes in the publishing world, I won’t add my droplet to that wave. I too occasionally err, as my wife kindly points out.

Ms Grafton’s original comments did raise a couple of points that are worth considering, even if she herself has since rowed back. The first is the idea that self-publishing is a “short-cut,” a way of avoiding the hard work required to become a published author in the orthodox fashion. As many indie writers who responded to Ms Grafton correctly pointed out, there is an enormous amount of work required to get your own work out there and publicize it. Self-publishing isn’t about avoiding work as much as substituting productive work – publishing and marketing your story – for the unproductive task of spending months or years in a (likely) futile attempt to find an orthodox publisher.

Another issue raised was that self-published authors have an inflated sense of self-worth, acting like “a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he's ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.” Well, an element of ego is probably involved in any public display of artistic output, but it is difficult to see why any more is involved in self-publishing. It would also be easy to highlight many conventionally published authors whose mastery of their craft is well short of the average concert pianist’s. Ultimately, this line of reasoning rings of “know your place,” a location of which I have long remained proudly ignorant.

Since the musical analogy has been introduced, it may be worth recalling the spirit of the punk movement of the 1970s. A reaction to the corporatisation and blandness of much of the music of that era, this promoted the idea that anyone could be in a band and gave us groups such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash, whose music stands up pretty well these days. Democratization of the creative process should surely be welcomed, and while there may be some semi-literates producing fourth-rate bodice rippers who are not exactly the Johnny Rottens de nos jours, it is likely that self-publishing will lead to some works of merit seeing the light of day that otherwise would not have done so.

Fundamentally, it is a mistake to see publishing as a moral issue. There is no ethical requirement for hard work – that is unavoidable in one form or another anyhow – or for only the “deserving” (whoever they might be) to have a chance of an audience when so much rubbish gets put out by conventional publishers. I make no apologies for saying that I would love to find a short-cut or any cut at all to the literary equivalent of stadium filling. Frankly, however, at the moment I’m playing a couple of tunes I wrote to a few friends and the odd passerby at open mic night in my local boozer. The closest I get to Carnegie Hall is busking outside. But greatly enjoying it.

Dixon says: If I understand it right, busking is a British term for street music or performance, what’s sometimes called guerilla theatre. A pretty cool word, don’t you think? I plan to use it frequently (and probably incorrectly).
Simon is the author of Milligan and the Samurai Rebels. If you’d like to learn more about this writer, check out his busking good website.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tip O'Day #396 - Ads in eBooks

You’ve probably heard of today's guest blogger, bestseller Scott Nicholson – my Kindle is full of his books – who provided the following update of an article he wrote in December 2010. He says, “Amazingly, I finally made a prediction that came close to the mark… I’ve gotten out of the ‘writer babble’ business for two reasons: (1) I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and (2) it’s all changing so fast that even the boldest predictions of digital evolution quickly become laughable.”

I don’t even use traditional publishing as a reference point anymore, because that is so far removed from most writers’ realities that it may as well be Shangri-la or Hollywood. The indie vs. trad debate is now only meaningful for a small group of people, and they are all making way more money than you or me.

So you are in it, and if you are lucky, you made a nice little nest egg back when everyone was standing on the sidelines deciding whether indie was the way to go. Hopefully, you shook off the intellectual shackles that chained us to the agent speed-dating sessions at writing conferences and were hammered and locked into place by “publishing experts” with 20-year writing careers in the old system. You know the mantras: “Get an agent,” “Only hacks self-publish,” and “You can’t produce and distribute a book without the advice of publishing experts.” Basically, ego affirmation. Of course the experts didn’t want to lose their position of authority (and in the agents’ case, the intermediary status of being the first in line to get checks.)

But the gate was left open and the horses all got out of the barn, or something like that (come up with your own gatekeeper metaphor; I am writing this for free!). So now we have a market where the 99-cent eBook had a year’s run, and the pool was finally beginning to find stratification (crappy books sinking, good books nailing stable plateaus) when Amazon unleashed the latest version of indie roulette — the free eBook.

I'm on record as predicting the flat-text eBook era has an outside range of five years, at least for fiction — specialized non-fiction and manuals will continue to be valuable for their content alone. I believe eBook sales will continue, but certainly not with expanding profits for all involved. Now that there are thousands of free Kindle books available every single day, how long before readers come to expect and even demand free books exclusively?

That’s not even considering the impact of lending libraries, public libraries, and subscription services, which will soon create a Netflix type of system for most eBooks. Under such a scenario, it’s difficult to see the average book being worth more than a nickel a download.

Freebie roulette. Great for readers. Good for Amazon (maybe in the short term, but it is hard to figure the long term). Terrible for authors. At least for those authors who aren’t prepared for the future and the cataclysmic changes that will inevitably unfold.

The market is diverse enough to support many different price tiers, but writers who want to survive in 2015 will need to make money from free books, or they will soon quit writing.

I only see one outcome: ad-supported or sponsored books. At first blush, you'd think NY has an advantage, since Madison Avenue is right there. But can corporations, with their large structures, be able to compete when indie or smaller entities can react more quickly to present conditions instead of protecting some imagined status quo?

J.K. Rowling can inspire a Pottermore built around her brand, and James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler have already built factories around their names (and, yes, V.C. Andrews, you can roll over in your grave two or three more times for all I care, because this is all your fault). But most of us are not factories or we wouldn’t have to indie publish.

This points out the new era of the branded writer. And not just "writer," but "content creator" and even mere "idea marketer." A personality is more suited to building brand identification and audience than a publisher is. I say "James Patterson" and you get an image. I say "Random House" and what do you get? Randomness. We've seen it here locally: "Ray's Weather" is where you check the weather and "Todd's Calendar" is where you click to find what's happening in the region — and both are ad supported. You can get the free content elsewhere but you don't get the human personality attached.

I'm already experimenting with the ad model because I believe it is viable. I am counting on Idea Marketing being one of my foundational pillars. I am not quite sure what it all looks like right now, but I look at it this way — you don't need NY in order to give away tons of free eBooks or to spread an idea or to build a social platform. You are the idea you want to spread.

Other authors will say “I’ll never sell out.” (Ironically, those are usually the authors who have given most of their incomes to agents and publishers…) I don't blame people for sticking with what worked in the past. It all goes to how invested you are in a certain system and how the alternative looks, and, of course, the turf where you’ve staked out your ego. Publishing-industry talk on eBooks uses phrases like "managing risk" and "cautious adaptation." That is why those of us in the trenches knew Barnes & Noble was in serious trouble when most in the “publishing industry” only realized it recently when BN’s horrifyingly bad third-quarter reports came in. They are working off of old data while I work off the data I got an hour ago.

And my data says this may be the very peak of the Golden Age of digital publishing. The $9.99 novel may be dead this year, since three-quarters of the current bestsellers are low-priced indie books. As fast as major publishers yank their name-brand authors out of digital libraries, ten new indies cram into that virtual shelf space. Maybe forever. James Patterson’s factory can’t run on $2.99 eBooks, but mine can.

But what happens when the $2.99 and 99 cents drop to permanently free? Where’s your sponsor? Are you willing to go there? It's not going to be as clumsy as an image of a refreshing Bud Lite popping up when the main character enters a bar (though it's not unthinkable at some point). Can you see Jack Reacher with a favorite brand of soft drink, or Bella Swan wearing only Calvin Klein? At what point is your willing suspension of disbelief shattered? At what point do you realize the ad is the only reason the book can exist at all?

My informal polling on ad-supported eBooks yields statements like: "I'll quit reading before I put up with that." I also remember saying I'd never carry a cell phone, or be on Facebook, or give up my vinyl albums, or start thinking that maybe nuclear energy is the best short-range answer to our energy addiction. Or that I’d ever read an entire book on a screen. And it really doesn’t matter what our individual opinions are. Free books are here, and Amazon is already using sponsorships to lower Kindle prices. The future has already arrived and we just don’t recognize it yet.

I don’t know the answer, but I am deeply invested in the question. So, ads in eBooks. As readers and writers, what is your opinion?

Scott Nicholson says he’s the bestselling author of “a bunch of books” and also released The Indie Journey: Secrets to Writing Success, found here, because some people still think you can buy the secret instead of be the secret. Follow him on Facebook, his blog, Twitter, his website, or Scott's newsletter.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tip O'Day #395 - Where Ideas Come From

“What do I write about?” is a commonly heard plaintive question, whether from novelists, poets, essayists or short story writers. Often we start our writing career with a focus on things we are drawn to: our favorite literary works, character types, hobbies, sports, movies and TV shows. However, it doesn’t take long to exhaust those topics, or to feel we’re treading down a path already trampled by far too many authors.

Instead of the subjects that naturally attract you, consider exploring the abhorrent ones. What was it about the idiot truck driver during rush hour last week that made road rage seem justifiable? What is it about the other members of your critique group that makes you grind your teeth? What is it about a particular literary agent, political candidate, waiter, traffic cop, retail clerk or blind date that makes you wonder about the cost of a contract killer?

For example, look at Jen Campbell, a London bookseller, poet and writer. She loves her day job, and probably could write 25 pages or so about the joys of selling books before running out of steam. One day, she was surfing the ‘Net when she came across the question, “What are your pet peeves?” Having had occasional encounters with the customer from Hell, she thought the subject of wacky things said in bookshops had enough material to fill a series of books, and would appeal to retailers as well as writers, publishing professionals and book lovers the world over.

Jen wrote down all the goofy situations she could recall. She also started blogging on the topic, and contacting other booksellers about their experiences. The result is the recently published WEIRD THINGS CUSTOMERS SAY IN BOOKSHOPS in the UK (or …BOOKSTORES in the US and Canada). I’m an avid follower of Jen’s This Is Not the Six Word Novel blog, and the excerpts I’ve read are simply hilarious. I can’t wait for my hardcover edition to arrive in the mail. (Not sure if an eBook version is imminent.)

Getting back to our pet peeves, those are merely situations. How do you turn one into a story? Take a look at the first example: the pickup-truck-driving moron who cuts you off in traffic and nearly forces you into a ditch. Did his father mock him when he played with his Hot Wheels? Did a pint-size neighborhood terrorist enjoy knocking him off his trike? Did the school bully hold his bike hostage for lunch money? Or did he truly emerge from the birth canal angry and aggressive, elbowing his more passive twin out of the way?

As for the victim in your story, what is her reaction to nearly getting road rash? Does she storm after the idiot, honking the horn while she scribbles down the truck’s license number and scans traffic for a police car? Does her reaction change when she notices the rifle in the truck’s Easy Rider gun rack? What if she loses sight of the truck, but then notices it three vehicles behind her, following her home? What if she catches up to the reckless driver, who turns out to be her son’s schoolteacher?

Every decision fleshes out the situation into something closer to a story, and each unique decision you make moves it away from every other road rage incident you’ve read about or seen in the media. With each decision, you will see more scenes taking shape further up the road. As E.L. Doctorow once wrote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Jen Campbell’s book is available through Constable (UK/Commonwealth) or Overlook Press (US/Canada), as well as Amazon.com and Amazon.UK. Her This Is Not the Six Word Novel blog can be found at http://jen-campbell.blogspot.com/.

By the way, popular and prolific author Scott Nicholson has been kind enough to provide a guest post about the changing publishing environment for my humble Wredheaded Writer blog, and it will appear here tomorrow (Monday, September 17th). Mark your calendar.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Saying for Writers #131 - Sharon O'Brien

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say.” – Sharon O’Brien

Instead of being stretched out on a beach this July, you could have been at Cobalt Lake (Montana), waiting to see what you were going to say.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tip O'Day #394 - Publishing, the new Wild West

Guest blogger John Scherber on publishing without New York.

You’re ready to publish your great novel, the one that took you eight years of agony to write, but no one’s interested. You even have an agent. Signing with her made you feel you were really on your way, but now she rarely returns your calls, and you don’t know exactly what she’s doing with your manuscript. You looked briefly at self-publishing options, but when you scanned the lists of self-published books on Amazon, your stomach became all fluttery, and you knew you could never be part of that pathetic loser crowd. Your book is different.

Every day you get up and you’re a day older, but that’s the only thing in your life that’s truly in motion. When you attended an expensive writer’s conference in a western city, you found that most of the other attendees were much like you, only their book was probably not as good, or in most cases not even finished. You felt superior to most of them because you already had a completed book and an agent.

The reality is this: it’s been a great run, but the old-line New York publishers are not what they were. Through bankruptcy and merger, their ranks have thinned. Although they position themselves as the gatekeepers of great writing, working to exclude the unworthy, they are mainly focused on a shrinking bottom line. They sense that the business model is changing, and next year will be even tougher than this one. Who’s next to go down? They are correct, because publishing technology has taken a left turn, while they continued in a straight line. After all, it worked so well in the past, why mess with success? Their favorite obscenity is Amazon Kindle. Reading this blog is now giving you a headache.

Let’s look at their product. The top two or three percent of the books they put out are excellent, top-quality work. The level below that, say about fifteen to twenty percent, are solid, workmanlike books that, although they may not be inspired, still deserve to find an audience.

The seventy-five percent or so below that is of little interest, and often a waste of the paper it’s printed on. Writers who have produced great books in the past are allowed to write drivel unchallenged. Others who sell well put their names on books they didn’t write, even when they’re dead. Look for the real author’s name in small print at the bottom of the cover. The old-line publishers are no longer serving either the reading public or the writers who seek to inspire it. Trying to get through this no man’s land is like navigating a logjam in a birch bark canoe––a chancy situation.

Worse, the alternative is chaos––the self-publishing world, where 96% of the output is worthless. It’s a place not different in kind, only in degree.

Yet there are similarities. In both places you will do all your own promotion. That’s right, all of it. The old–line publishers spend their entire promotional budget on their top five or six best sellers. Get ready to spend 70% of your time promoting. The reality about writing is that the actual placement of words on the page is less than half of the required effort. There is no barrier here to publishing trash, but in self-publishing, at least you’re sure to get it published, if you can pay the modest price.

Indie publishing, as it’s called, is like the Wild West. It’s a free-for-all, but one that is at least vigorous and exciting. It’s young, and things are happening in this wild place! You will need to stop worrying that being with all these other writers makes you look bad, and do what every writer needs to do––set yourself apart. Find a platform of people who might want to hear what you have to say, who share your interests. Anything goes now, and I like that. The old-line publishers have for too long masqueraded as the bastion of quality. Now the reader will make the choice again of what succeeds, and because there are so many inexpensive options for ebooks, with some even free, it’s possible that more people will be reading, since it's much more affordable now. When did the price of anything ever go down before?

No one will miss the old style bookstore more than I will, but the business model is changing, and they’re no longer competitive.

Here’s what to do: learn the indie publishing business. The Internet is full of sites that will tell you the detail. Decide whether you need a subsidy publisher. This is what most “self-publishing” companies really are. They will get your book in print for you for a fee in the low hundreds to the low thousands of dollars, depending on how elaborately you want it done. Most of them will then take a cut of every single book sale you make.

If you have only one book, and it’s not likely to sell well, this may make sense for you. You can be a published author, sell a few books to friends, and get on with your bucket list. If, however, you’re a serious author, whether you have only one book, or a series that could sell, you’re better off learning the nuts and bolts and doing it all yourself. Because once the pain of mastering the detail of putting out your book is over, you will own your book and control it forever. You will give no one else a cut.

That is the route I took. At first I found the process opaque, and I spent eight months mastering the publishing part. My wife learned the software, so she could design and format our interiors for print editions. Now she uses it to help others get into print. I’ve published thirteen of my own books so far, and I have three more coming out in the next year. My process now is to become more sophisticated about promotion, which has layers of nuance. With time, it yields to your effort.

The message is that it can be done, and done well. You don’t need all the New York people; they don’t want you anyway. Self-publishing requires the same things that other businesses require: determination and hard work. The information on how to approach it is easily available online.

Two years have passed since I started this venture. Please check my website and see how I did. I’d like to hear from you –– your comments will help me to improve it.

John’s website is www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sayings for Writers #130 - Just Keep Writing

A Few Quotes which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.” - George Singleton

"Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing. They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves, and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties." - Bonnie Friedman

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” - Ray Bradbury

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tip O'Day #393 - Writers Conferences

There's a saying you'll hear at AA meetings that, "If you keep hanging around barber shops, sooner or later you'll end up with a haircut."

Looking at it a different way, if you want to become a world-famous barber, there's no better place to loiter than a barber shop.

A writers conference is a wonderful place to learn more about (1) the craft of writing, (2) how to get published, (3) what's going on in different genres, and (4) how the publishing business really works. It's also a great way to network with other writers and book lovers, and I still keep in touch with folks I met at conferences years ago. Most of all, a writers conference fills me with enough energy and inspiration to keep going for 12 months - until the next conference.

Some conferences are massive events, and you need to be nimble so you're not trampled by eager hordes of authors. I'd like to suggest a small, writer-friendly gathering in one of the most beautiful spots on earth - my home town.

The Flathead River Writers Conference takes place in Kalispell, Montana, within view of the Rocky Mountains on Sat-Sun October 6-7, 2012. It is limited to 100 participants, and full registration is a mere $150. For a rundown on our speakers and other details, follow this link: http://www.authorsoftheflathead.org/conference.asp

Hope to see you there.

Lake McDonald in pristine Glacier National Park, an hour's drive from Kalispell, Montana.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tip O'Day #392 - Time Travel

Guest blogger Sheila Bali on “How History Leads to Historical Fiction.”

I write historical fiction, and I’m quick to admit that I’m not a historian. I just love to write about the past. Flip open the pages of a historical novel and you are thrown into another time. A woman in Ireland during the potato famine digs for bits of food. A child of the Industrial Revolution in England toils in a textile mill. A man trapped in a coal mine in Wales dares to cuss as he prays. In historical fiction, these characters live on the page as they once lived in time. They tell us their story, and in this way they tell us about history.

Since the beginning of language, storytellers have created tales steeped in history. History is the greatest source of both information and story. As listeners and readers of historical fiction, we too revel in history—we are entertained, enlightened, horrified, engaged.

My forthcoming novel, Shattered Tears for My Homeland, takes place during the turbulent years of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I have spent over a year on research alone, reading archived newspapers and magazines, interviewing people, viewing documentaries and black-and-white films, and thumbing through the dog-eared volumes of history. A daunting task? Of course. But I need correct information, lots of it, and I need to understand it so well that it almost becomes part of me. My handwritten notes are voluminous—even in this technological age, huge quantities of paper go into research. With all the files and folders, and folders within folders, I sometimes think I’m obsessed. I’m sure you can picture this, and perhaps you are chuckling. I’m chuckling too, but it has all paid off.

During all of this, I have begun to learn the difference between the history that historians write and the historical fiction that novelists write. Reading history is like going on a journey of ifs, maybes, could bes and can’t bes. Novelists take those ifs, maybes, could bes and can’t bes and do wonderfully creative things with them. But I understand now why historians cringe at the release of a historical novel: sometimes historical fiction produces historical distortion.

If you gathered all the historians in the world and put them together in a hall, they would disagree on almost everything. History is generally scripted by the victors. Where go the spoils, so goes history. But some history is written by the vanquished, and their perspective is entirely different. They tell another tale. It is for this reason that the accuracy of history is always in dispute. Just as there are two sides to every coin, there are two sides, at least, to every piece of history. What is a novelist to do?

As a writer of historical fiction, I investigate all points of view. Readers, I believe, should be able to identify with more than one side. They should know how the vanquished feel crawling out of the ashes, overcoming the obstacles. This makes writing historical fiction challenging, but it is worth it. It takes a long time to write a novel, longer than I had imagined. Sometimes my patience wears thin and I find myself wanting to plow through to the end. I must dedicate the time it takes, however long that turns out to be. I cannot afford errors or falsehoods.

History scholars excavate facts from the past. They unearth precise dates, capture victories and losses in battles and wars, cite lives lost, and redraw maps. They name rulers, despots, tyrants and heroes. They analyze the results of treaties.

When those treaties fail, like the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, the historical novelist might illuminate a broader truth, a universal truth, as it was lived at a certain time in the past. The novelist writes the bigger scene, the scene of ordinary people, how they survived with everything stacked against them, and in that way the novelist takes the reader to the doorstep of history.

How does the novelist do this? Through convincing, well-developed characters that transport the reader into another time. The characters of historical fiction relive the past by experiencing it in the present. They wake to the sound of tanks rolling through the town and flee the shaking house. If I have researched my history properly, I will know what happens to that town, and that will determine what my characters do next. Do they run to the streets, to the forest, to bomb shelters? What are the names of the streets? Is there even a forest? Did bomb shelters exist? Are my characters engulfed by bullets or by flames? Do sirens scream? Do radios blare? What are the messages? Who lives? Who dies?

The historical novelist gleans the rubble of the past, tasting the grit, extracting the jewels. History becomes an eye-witness account, and we, the readers, live the scene. As we do, we learn, we appreciate, and we vow never to forget the past.

Learn more about Sheila at her website (www.sheilabali.com) or her blog (http://sheilabali.com/wordpress/).

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Saying for Writers #129 - George Orwell

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” — George Orwell

Dixon says: Maybe I would suffer more if I had a better understanding of my craft. As it is, I thoroughly enjoy writing except for those moments when I struggle to take the vague disenchantment of my critique group and turn it into some showing or telling that converts a so-so scene into magic.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tip O'Day #391 - An Author's Blog Tour

Guest blogger Malika Gandhi on Writing Her Novel – the Past, Present and Future.
Dixon says: Some aspiring authors have only a vague idea what a blog tour is. With more and more book stores vanishing, and some of the remaining ones being hostile to Indie writers, online blog tours have taken the place of "real" book tours in which newly published authors would travel from store to store, reading excerpts from their works and signing copies for purchasers. In this case, Malika Gandhi has arranged to appear in writers, readers and reviewers blogs each day during this month. (US readers may notice a few different spellings, as the author is British.) I was flattered to be asked to participate, and I hope you enjoy the following.

In Freedom of the Monsoon, I wrote about India and its history, spurred on by the violence during British colonisation. As I researched the subject and read accounts of Indian citizens who survived that dangerous and frightening era, I felt anger and frustration. I felt fascination too.

I wanted readers around the world to know what happened during the time of the Quit India Movement and how it affected the Indian population.

Looking into the details. Details were searched for this book. Emotions and actions were a large part. I looked into the souls of these people as I read what they went through, how they were treated and how they saw the British Empire. Some took life as it was and were satisfied, if not happy about the way they lived. They didn’t see or chose to ignore the bad treatment of their fellow neighbours and carried on life regardless. But there were people out there who wanted to see the British out, to see justice done.

I was lucky to stumble upon a website where real experiences of the riots and killings were told. These people told of their fear.

Writing Freedom of the Monsoon. I began to write Freedom of the Monsoon. I portrayed the violence, the romances and the day-to-day life through five individuals, whose lives were very different from one another. These five were Rakesh, a freedom fighter, Dev, a griever and confused man, Pooja, a head strong girl who was dealt a worse than death fate, Amit, a lovely soul who fell in love with the wrong girl and Sunil, an engaged young man who tried to deal with what he witnessed.

Freedom of the Monsoon was published but I had another job to do. I had to carry on writing – I needed a sequel, which told of the aftermath of Indian Independence – the partition of India which became India and Pakistan. Book two is currently being written.

Publication. News of the book’s publication travelled throughout Leicester’s Indian community, to India and to Canada and the States. As both Indian and non-Indian citizens read the book, it led to more research for some. I was delighted with the response and so I began a blog. This site was to be the base of Freedom of the Monsoon, which then evolved into more. It began to carry more information in article form about the period of colonisation; it told of India’s history in detail. It brought culture to the readers.

The Present and Future? What does the present hold for Freedom of the Monsoon? Great reviews and comments and recognition are brilliant. The future will hopefully bring more awareness of India’s crucial and horrendous history.

There have been great novels on the Independence of India in different contexts. May Freedom of the Monsoon join those ranks.

Malika’s book is available as both eBook and paperback, and you can find it at Amazon.com or Amazon.uk. She blogs at http://malikagandhi.wordpress.com/.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tip O'Day #390 - Writing Humor

Guest blogger Adam Hornyak of Front Row Lit opines on why he’s “A Fashionably Late Bloomer.”
Dixon says - Many writers struggle with humor. Somewhere along the line, Adam learned the secret: you start with a scrap of the truth, and then exaggerate it beyond all recognition. This is a wonderful example of writing that tickles the funny bone.

As a columnist for a fashion magazine, you might think I would have a clue as to clothing. Long story short, I don’t. Thankfully, Front Row Monthly columnist Charissa Livingston has slowly changed my life. Every month, Charissa provides us with news and reviews of the latest fashion trends and crazes from around the world. Her words are poignant, informative, and I feel are going to put me in a position to develop a style of my own, giving me the confidence to finally attract that one elusive woman I’ve sought after for so long.

I’ve never been one for fashion, but since Charissa came into my life, I have searched hundreds of websites, and watched a buttload of Bravo TV, mesmerized by visions of bulimic models prancing their tiny asses down the catwalk. The cuts, colors, and cameras promote a scene that I’m upset I hadn’t found sooner. Charissa’s column has been a Godsend.

For my entire life, I’ve only enjoyed wardrobe styling reminiscent of professional wrestling fans and toll booth attendants, which has made for a difficult attempt at dating. It can be embarrassing at times, as I get the feeling that every woman who has ever seen my closet thinks the same thing, “How am I going to untie myself and get out of this closet?”

Filled with stadium giveaway T-shirts, and beer logo hats featuring wildlife scenes, my wardrobe looks like a flea market that puked on a yard sale. I’ve even attempted to donate my clothes to Goodwill which declined, asking that I never return.

I’ve grown to understand that it’s time to start changing my ways, and I encourage Front Row readers to help in the endeavor. Please do not hesitate to keep me abreast of the latest styles, designers, and fads as I am a sponge looking to take ideas to the next level. Starting today (ehh, probably tomorrow), Adam Hornyak vows to stop wearing mustard stained jeans and accept what my public feels I need. Money is no object, so feel free to recommend a Nicole Miller gown (It can’t be backless though with all of the prison tats, and such). Maybe I’ll buy a Prada handbag to carry my pistol and condoms in. Just because I’m a men’s size 12 and weigh over 300 pounds doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a sexy pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes to wear out for an evening dancing. I am a new man, ready to take on this fashion shit with the gusto and fervor that made me the Wendy’s manager that I am today.

Mark my words. Someday soon, that one-eyed midget Sam’s Club cashier is going to notice me, and when she does, look out. The Adam is coming in style and will rock her 4 foot world. Sure, I can probably be a little more fashion-forgiving on everything above the equator (since she can only see my shoes and pants), but I can guarantee that the short circus freak will no longer spurn this guy’s advances. Look out world. Charissa has changed my life, and a new and improved Adam is about to show up.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Tip O'Day #389 – Kill Your Editor?

Guest blogger Feather Stone discusses finding a critical eyes for your manuscript.

Until I actually hired one, I believed it was an editor's job to make the corrections, make my novel perfect. I had researched the list of editors and selected five whose interest was in my novel's genre. After interviewing each one, I selected the editor who I believed best suited my needs. We seemed to be compatible and her price fit my budget. We signed a contract and met after she read my masterpiece. I was prepared for glowing comments.

"It's going to take a lot of work," she remarked without enthusiasm.

I slumped in my chair. Crestfallen, I listened to the list of issues with the characters and the plot. She pointed out important areas that I had glossed over leaving the reader confused. And, she hated the ending.

"But otherwise," she brightened, "it is well written. It's got intrigue and a lot of potential. I'll work with you if you're willing to put in the work."

Okay, my naivety just got a kick in the pants. I'd spent five years creating something that came from my soul. I wasn't about to give up. My editor and I met once a month. Each paragraph was dissected mercilessly. Everything from the time of the sunrise in Acapulco to details of each scene, action, and dialogue had to be in synch with the whole.

When the editor told me to reduce the manuscript by half, I sat speechless. "If an action, character, dialogue, or scene does not add to the plot or the climax, get rid of it," she insisted.

She was right. All of my instructors had been clear that publishers are reluctant to accept large manuscripts from unpublished authors. The toil of deleting paragraphs, sometimes entire chapters was painful. Not just because beautiful scenes were being cut, but that process was complicated and exacting. If a scene or action was deleted in one area, it likely affected scenes before or after. Another two years of rewrites went by.

Then came the assignments. The shocker was to write a detailed biography of each of the main characters. At this point, I checked the contract to find the "kill the editor" clause. However, it was probably the best advice she gave. Through this process, the characters became alive. Their birth, education, goals, drives, weaknesses, sins, strengths were spelled out. Some of these traits never actually appeared within the story. However, I was able to more instinctively know what and how each one would react, say, feel in all their circumstances. The result was the reader had a more intimate experience with each character. After another year of continuous rewrites, the manuscript was ready to send to a publisher.

The education I received from my editor was worth every penny, and more. My grammar still needs improvement. But I'm now more aware what words are typically over used. And, if something can be said in one sentence, it will have more impact than said in an entire paragraph.

There are hundreds of websites that provide support to writers. Other authors are often happy to offer guidance. Find a support group of writers who will critique your work. Be sure to check your ego at the door. They can be just as tough as a paid editor. But, in the end, that's exactly what you need. A critical eye will polish your work, making you the author of the next best seller.

In the end I'm glad I didn't kill the editor. Besides, it would have looked bad on my book's author bio.

Here’s the link to Feather’s novel The Guardian's Wildchild. Also, check out her website.

Saying for Writers #128 - Harper Lee

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” - Harper Lee

The above picture is of some Montana friends, taken by a Montana friend, and has nothing to do with this blog post.

Dixon says: That's a great quote from the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. You will get occasional harsh criticism - some of it from people who couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted them the C and A.

You will also get rotten and unfair reviews. Some will come from folks who have obviously not read a single sentence of your book. Some from people hoping to boost their own fortunes (or those of a friend) by attacking other writers in the same genre. Some from religious wing-nuts who think differing opinions should be scourged from shelves and e-readers alike. One from that stalker you refused to meet at the corner of Center & Main last Tuesday at midnight.

The absolute worst thing you can do is respond to criticism or bad reviews with anything other than: "Thanks for taking the time to express your opinion." The moment you reach for a flamethrower, you will have started an online battle that will make BOTH your critic and yourself appear to be amateurs and morons. There have been some memorable flame wars over unfavorable reviews, and the author has never come out looking good.