X is for X Factor

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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You know, the X factor. The thing that makes you different from all other authors. …X is really difficult, okay?

Because, you see, you are in many ways a special snowflake. There neither is nor ever will be another person on earth who has seen what you have seen, interpreted it as you have interpreted it, and had your exact view on the Nature of All Things. Which is pretty cool, because it gives you an automatic niche as an author. Your X factor, however, is a double-edged sword that can be used not only to propel you to the bestseller lists, but can also (when handled clumsily) put you in the ebook equivalent of the bargain bin.

So today it’s time for the tough talk, my dears. But let’s start with the good stuff, shall we? Your status as the one and only you gives you the opportunity to…

  • …create gorgeous metaphors
  • …build characters who will live in readers’ heads for decades
  • …make relevant, necessary, and apt analogies to the world in which we find ourselves
  • …bring hope

And, if you work very hard at your writing, seek feedback and listen to criticism (even if you don’t always make the suggested edits), revise drafts, and otherwise strive for perfection, these are things that are within your reach. I do want to warn you that even in the face of eventual success, it will be a path that contains plenty of disappointment. Your first drafts will not be what you want them to be. Your third drafts, polished to within an inch of their little wordy lives, will have areas that your beta readers (or editors) do not understand. Suggestions will be made. You will have to tear your beloved book apart at the seams and stitch it back together.

It is going to be the literary equivalent of training for a marathon, or studying for the bar. It is not going to be easy, but you can absolutely do it, and furthermore, it is worth it. Authors have a sort of literary echolocation, telling them whether they’re getting closer to correct, or further. Maddening as it can be, when you listen to it and keep trying until you stumble onto the Right Words, it is as if the heavens open and the angels sing. And only you, only you, can produce that draft. Pretty cool, huh? There isn’t anyone else in the world who can do it.

So it can be done. You can do it. Or, and I am being quite serious here, you can fall into a trap that will rob your writing of its power and make little use of your talent: confronted with negative feedback (invariably on your favorite scene, by the way), you can believe that your special-snowflake-ness is so special that readers simply cannot comprehend its wondrous qualities. You can, unless you are very careful, believe that the words you used are more important than the concept you meant to convey – and that your beta readers’ incomprehension of those themes is their fault and not yours. You can tell yourself that it isn’t for those people. You can tell yourself that you poured so much effort into this that it can’t possibly be crap.

Now, let’s take a short sanity break. The things in the above paragraph are all ideas that you will entertain at one point or another in the face of criticism. They will show up in your head, and that’s not a sign that you’re a Crazy Author. It really isn’t! We all get those thoughts. When we get them after the book is published, we call them reviews, and it’s no easier then, either. You will rage internally.

And then, my fellow authors, please remember what is important, and unique, and wonderful:  your vision, your take on the world, your story. Go back to your manuscript, and make it what it can be. That is your X factor, not any of the arrangements of words you have chosen so far.

Good luck.

W is for Winging It

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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There are some people in this world who can write a perfectly paced masterpiece with elegant characterization and believable dialogue, and they can turn it out by instinct in 1-2 drafts. Statistically speaking, you’re not one of them (and neither am I). There are also some people who possess the ability to plot out, scene by scene, a masterpiece they have not yet started to write, and follow their outline from start to finish without the need to change anything. Statistically speaking, you are also not one of those people, and frankly, I think they may have made bargains with occult powers to be able to do that. It seems like legitimate magic. The rest of us muddle along somewhere in between, either writing a bit and then planning a bit and then writing a bit, or planning things really loosely and letting things get from A to B on their own, or (my personal favorite) making a fairly detailed outline and then hucking it out the window 20,000 words in when it no longer works.

 There’s a lot to be said for planning things out in advance, but there’s also a lot to be said for today’s topic: winging it. Because it’s almost inevitable that at some point, you’re going to have to, and I’m going to tell you honestly that some of my best writing has come from the days when I felt like I had been thrown into a pool, not knowing how to swim, not knowing where the edges were, and simply trying not to drown (by which I mean, hurl my laptop out into the street).

But winging it is also what happens when your fingers are flying over the keys and you’re too caught up in the scene to care about typos. Winging it is what happens when you need a solution and you write down the first thing that comes to mind (that flying pirate ship in Stardust? Yep). Winging it is what happens when, in despair, you write down the only thing you can think of to get from A to B because what you had on your outline isn’t working, and go wallow in your incompetence over a cup of tea, only to come back and find out that the scene was pretty good.

Is this post a call for writers to throw away their outlines and frolic along without guide or plan? Oh, heavens, no. Is winging it going to produce flawless works of fiction that need no edits? Nope, any more than plotted other writing is. But there are just some things you cannot plan, and when your spidey sense goes all tingly, telling you that the scene you outlined is wrong somehow, well … sometimes you just have to follow that spidey sense into the morass of your subconscious and hope you emerge with something good, rather than clinging to the wrong scene out of intellectual stubbornness. Don’t waste hours trying to talk yourself into liking that wrong plot point – wing it and see what happens. Remember: no time spent writing is wasted.

Happy winging it, fellow authors!

V is for Villain

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Lisa Corn, of “Wired for Story,” is of the (well backed up) opinion that we identify with the protagonist because stories show us how we would survive if the events at hand played out in our lives. She suggests that we should play up the same qualities in protagonists that hold us back in our own lives – resistance to change, a tendency to hold secrets, the desire to get something for nothing. In “Writing the Breakout Novel,” meanwhile, Don Maass reminds us that part of why we read is to identify with people who do the things we cannot or will not do (not entirely a distinct point from Cron’s), and that our protagonist should not be afraid to say that witty comeback or sneak out with their parents’ car.

(I recommend both books, by the way.)

What Maass and Cron are identifying is that our protagonists have the opportunity to hook into the reader’s unknown desires, being both a character to relate to (“I tried to pass World History without studying, too!”) and look up to (“I always wished I could tell off that snooty English teacher, but I never had the guts”). However, what we often do is strip our protagonist down the person we wish we wanted to be.

…let’s unwind that. I’ll bet that what you wish you wanted to do this weekend is a deep clean of your house. You saw that really pretty picture in a magazine, and you’re thinking if you just throw out, you know, most of what you own, and then scrub the floors as they have never been scrubbed before, your house could be as beautiful as that one. After all, you could learn how to make slip-covers, right? And you could paint the walls. If you really wanted to do that, life would be so much easier. Unfortunately, this weekend any number of things will seem more appealing: pretty weather for a walk, that one book or video game, going out with friends, marathoning a show online.

According to Maass and Cron above, the protagonist should be the person who bunks off of work to play the video games, and maybe has some flippant response to their boss about how there may be Serious Consequences to their actions. Perhaps they then grow up a little by the end of the book, becoming the dependable person that can save the family business, but they sure as heck aren’t going to start that way – they’re going to start as someone we can relate to through and through. Unfortunately, many of us make our protagonist into the person who wants to clean their house and have a light salad for dinner. They probably even have matching socks!

Which leads us to a standard problem: the villain is often more relatable than the protagonist. The villain (in this case, not antagonist) goes for what they want, they sneer and make sarcastic remarks, they hold grudges, they embody the emotions we hook into most deeply but aren’t very proud of: fear, thwarted love, anger. Meanwhile, in many cases, the protagonist has just neatly made their bed and is eating a balanced breakfast, after which they will put the dishes away and drive to work in the car they keep clean. We have cleverly engineered things this way because we wanted the protagonist to be someone our readers would like, and instead we are boring them beyond words.

But all is not lost! Say as a child, the only way your protagonist could get a single scrap of attention was by being the perfect child. They want more than anything to bunk off work and spend tomorrow watching TV and eating ice cream (or leave their desk job at the space station and join a band of charming space pirates), but they’re terrified that if they don’t do all the Right Things, they will never be loved. Now we have something: we have the fear of not being loved, an emotion we’re not proud to have but can relate to in spades. And does your protagonist look bad? Not at all.

In fact, think of the protagonist as your friend, not as an expression of who you hope to want to be someday. Your friends are people you watch go about their daily lives, and you are powerless to force them to take your advice on anything. They may get together with that person who treated them horribly, or have a messy apartment, or keep forgetting to take their medicine. You wish they would just get their lives together and do the things they should, so there’s genuine frustration in your relationship, but you love them to pieces, anyway.

Better yet, think of the protagonist as a villain. They don’t have to tie anyone to train tracks, but they’re going to get the wittiest comebacks (even if they’re only in the protagonist’s head), they’re going to resist change mightily, and they’re going to have grudges and wounds in that heart of theirs. Just like your friends. Just like you. Embrace the inner villain, fellow writers!

U is for Unseen

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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 We’ve all heard show, don’t tell so many times that we nod outwardly, giving it a mental pass because we think we understand: don’t tell me the moon is shining, give me the glint of light on broken glass, yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it. Having thus acknowledged that we know what we’re supposed to do, we proceed to wander into the middle of our story and dump a fantastic amount of world-building exposition on our readers, so that they emerge dazed, blinking, and possibly looking back in the book to remember all those words we made up.

While this is clearly a terrible plan, we feel like we’re in a bind – especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction, where it can be absolutely imperative to establish the setting in order for anything to make sense. What would Left Hand of Darkness have been, after all, if Le Guin hadn’t talked about kemmer? What about Dune, and the Bene Gesserit? It was absolutely imperative to know these things, and so we did. World-building, you say. Exposition.

Only, world-building does not necessitate exposition. Instead, it tempts us mightily. We know we wrote this absolutely freaking fantastic political system with seven distinct branches of government, each aligning with a patron saint and championed by masked gangs of … Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty great. You’re all fired up. You want to share. Unfortunately, it comes out sounding something like this:

Jim awoke, and brushed the woven fabric back from his matching sleep clothing. It was time for him to engage in his ritualized face washing before eating the morning sandwich of eggs and preserved meat, because soon the long line of cars would begin to wind its way down the pavement rivers into the cluster of glass-and-steel edifices that…

And really, just…what. What you’re actually going to need to convey that information is something about how Jim related to the morning process. Did he follow it properly because he is a well-mannered gentleman who always eats a balanced breakfast, or is he going to skip breakfast because he just wants to watch the world burn? Is his car different from any of the others? How does he feel about that?

It’s obvious when it relates to our culture, and becomes outstandingly difficult when we’re writing an alternate world. We throw around italicized terms, lobbing them into conversation without giving the slightest thought to conversational cohesiveness – and where this can actually be forgiven by the reader if it imparts information that’s needed in the scene, it’s often an attempt to slip world-building in around the edges, where its information-dump qualities are suddenly glaringly obvious. And how do I know this, you ask? Because I do it all the time. And then I have to try to edit it out, and find some other place for the information, and I lose time in edits that could have been spent finding a better way to word the dramatic speech (my characters are usually more eloquent than I am).

Don’t be me. Learn from my mistakes.

If you want to world-build, that’s great! It’s good for your world to have an internal consistency, so you don’t end up with, as Jacqueline Carey once said, “Faramir, Boromir, and Steve.” Write prayers and map cities if you wish! And if you like to make your world up as you go, rock on and just keep track of what needs to be tied up later or foreshadowed earlier.

But here’s the trick: world-building is better seen than heard, and in general, a piece of world-building information should be shown only in one of three scenarios:

  1. That piece of information is needed to interpret what’s going on. For instance, Steve is kneeling and putting his forehead to the ground because he’s at a religious service, not because he got tired and wanted to take a face-first nap
  2. The piece of information is BOTH going to be needed later (Steve worships in a splinter sect of the main religion and is therefore on a lot of people’s bad side) and is ALSO relevant in the scene at hand (Steve is going to be late for work, but his religion means a lot to him)
  3. This piece of information is either completely new to Steve (his sect was founded by an alien) or something he’s simply never paid much attention to before (he’d have known about the alien if he’d paid attention in his version of Sunday School) – either way, it changes Steve’s outlook on life

And the rest of it, unfortunately, probably needs to be left out. Sad as it is, unless that wonderful seven-branch political system has a bearing on the plot, devoting pages to it is going to, at best, confuse your readers. So remember: U is for all of the Unseen parts of world-building, subtly informing our work as we wind through the plot, but that may or may not need to filter to the surface in any given scene. Steve’s best friend might still be wearing the friendship bracelet she got from Jim eight years ago, but unless it impacts how quickly she and Steve can disarm the bomb, probably best not to dwell on it.

T is for Targets

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Ah, targets. They’re about as insanely difficult to hit in writing as they are in archery. Actually, scratch that, they’re more difficult. What are we even going for? It’s not a nice canvas ensemble with helpful colored circles, it’s some vague notion of a “good book.” Are we even sure what kind of good book we want to write? No. No, we are not. What if we get halfway into our lighthearted romance and there turn out to be Important Themes? What then, brain? Did you think of that?

And then, just as you’re contemplating a career of self-loathing and moroseness, you stumble across a blog article that has Very Specific Guidelines on how to structure your career: identifying your genre, your subgenre, your tone, your themes, your target market, and your social media strategies before you ever set pen to paper. And because you’re feeling particularly vulnerable just then, you start taking notes because no wonder you aren’t J.K.Rowling yet, you’ve clearly been doing everything wrong.

Put the pen down. Take a deep breath. We’re going to go a few steps back today to talk about targets: the targets you have, the targets you’re too afraid to tell yourself. The targets that are just dreams still, because that’s right where you want to be right now. Dreams are great things, right up until you set goals that slowly turn those same dreams into a cage. Dreams must be held loosely, or they will literally eat you alive. And yes, that’s corny, but please learn from my mistakes. It is true. (Also, I feel obliged to point out that if I had courted only what I thought was my target market, I’d actually have missed the bulk of my readership.)

What is your writing dream? Just take a second to think about it. It might be bestsellerdom, or you might decide, after some thinking, that you’d love just to have a steady income so you can keep writing and pay all your bills and live in a cottage. Maybe it’s awards you want, or a meaningful connection with fans. Whatever the case, write your dream down on a little scrap of paper and fold it neatly away in a desk drawer. Don’t worry, you won’t forget it.

Now spend a few minutes thinking about what you need to do to make that happen. For a steady income, for instance, you’ll need somewhat of a backlist and a steady output of new books. For fans, a social media platform is key. For awards or sales, it’s difficult to know when genre-conforming and genre-bending will be to your advantage – and while the desire for both speaks to a deep need for understanding and adoration (believe me, I feel it), the best way to get there is to write a really, really good book you’re passionate about, no matter the theme or genre designation. In fact, that’s usually the way towards anything in this business.

Okay, so you have a dream and a rough idea of what you need to do to get there. Now you have a target. Targets are great, nice and loose and adaptable – much more mobile here than in archery. And all you need to do now is take slow, careful steps in that direction, adjusting as necessary (perhaps your dream will shift, or your success will change your opinions on where to go next). No great big lists of Absolutely Necessary. The way to find your path through a career is to write one great book you love, then another and another, all the while being a generally reasonable person to interact with for fans and coworkers. Your target simply shifts this goal a little to one angle or another.

We’re almost done now, but unfortunately, what’s coming up is the most difficult part. Write down one more thing: I will not let my targets become a cage. Targets are there to give you something shimmering off in the distance like a mirage, lovely and mostly unattainable. They are not there to dog your every step, whispering, “you should be writing,” or, “you only get to enjoy your book when you’ve produced a Nobel-worthy chapter.” Targets are there to keep you running, not trap you here and now.

What are your targets, fellow authors?

 

S is for Self-Care

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Ah, you are thinking. A post that is not about writing. I will skip it.

Please don’t! This is most certainly about writing, and about the fact that your writing comes from your health. There’s some sort of romantic allure to the overworked artist, sleep-deprived and substance-abusing, perhaps artfully depressed. Speaking as someone who recently experienced depression, I can tell you for a fact that it will rob you of your ability to write. Sleep-deprivation, substance abuse, mental health issues, and chronic overwork will not help you write. You might be able to carry on for a time, but when it catches up to you, the crash is going to be horrific.

Also, please understand that when I mention self-care, it is not as some superhuman self-care guru. I am a person who almost always remembers to brush my teeth, and on days when the planets align, I also moisturize my face and drink a glass of water before bed. (I once told myself that I would do that every day, because after years of living in this body, I apparently still do not know myself at all. Ah, well.)

Now, I see a lot of articles about self-care in different professions: nursing, veterinary work, psychiatry. The long and short of it appears to be that people in these professions really need self-care, and also are terrible at it, and the truth is that writers are no different in either of those two capacities. Unfortunately, there is one place that we are different: writers are more prone to mental health issues than the general population.

A lot of people pin this on a writer’s lifestyle: a lot of time alone, indoors, often with shaky finances. Personally, I think the root cause goes deeper, to the same talent that helps writers capture the full range of human emotion – but whether I’m right or wrong, the lifestyle I mentioned above doesn’t help much (and I say that as a contented introvert). Thus: self-care for writers. The following are tips and tricks that I have learned the hard way, and have been made as general as I can make them.

  1. Maintain a good sleep schedule. You’re a writer. Your dreams are your bread and butter, so do what you can to get regular sleep. It’s not always possible, certainly, but when you can do it, prioritize it! Try to get away from blue light about a half an hour before bed. And yes. That means stop writing! I encourage you to keep a notebook by your bed so you’ll know you can capture the ideas that crop up on the edge of sleep.
  2. Don’t forget maintenance of health issues. Say it with me: my writing comes from my health. Take medicine, go to physical therapy, see therapists, avoid allergens, whatever it  may be. Don’t let your health issues spiral out of control if you can help it.
  3. Watch for signs of mood disorders, and have your loved ones do the dame. These are endemic in the writing community, and they are truly devastating diseases. They are neither to be romanticized, nor are they a sign of weakness. There are as many optimal treatments as there are people, so if you find yourself in the grip of one, work with your doctors and loved ones to come up with the ideal plan for you.
  4. Do the basic, boring things. Eat fruits and veggies, limit mood-altering chemicals, get sunshine, and get moving. All general, all helpful.
  5. Take time off and cultivate other interests. Things have a way of figuring themselves out in your subconscious while you work on doing something else. So, guilt-free, make sure you set aside time to pick up a book, play a video game, learn to play an instrument, tap dance, or whatever else. Make time to decompress in the ways that are important to you.

Everyone has their own rhythms. For your sake, and for the sake of your friends, family, and writing, listen to yourself and learn yours. There will be very personal things not listed here, such as having a warm blanket to curl up in or a particular kind of tea. Pay attention to your mind and your body.

Stay healthy.

R is for Rewrites

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Originally, today’s post was R is for Reading List. Then I remembered that so many people have already covering that beautifully. In short: read a lot, read in many genres, and don’t listen to any of that crap about how you should only read Important Serious Things. Read whatever you’d like.

So, that’s reading. On to Rewrites!

Whether by slow, painstaking first drafts, in which you pause to choose the correct word and shift the sentences slightly this way and that, or by wildly different second drafts, tossing out whole paragraphs and snarling in frustration, a great deal of what you write will be, well, rewritten. There are a few reasons for this. When you write the first draft…

  • …there are inevitably some plot surprises waiting for you, so you may have to go back and change the groundwork
  • …there are also inevitably some typos
  • …in fact, there are whole sentences you will look back at and think, “what was I even trying to say?”
  • …you may or may not have found your character’s voice consistently
  • …and many, many other things

As you can see, rewriting does not occur simply because you did anything wrong. It is not something that can be avoided entirely with more forethought and planning. Rewriting is a natural result of the fact that by writing, you discover new parts to your story. You learn more about your characters than you ever could without getting into their skin and writing, and you get so caught up in scenes that you skip letters or words as your pen races over the paper. Rewriting occurs when you return to your manuscript and try to guide it gently closer to the book it was meant to be.

It is very important to remember that rewriting is necessary and expected, because it can feel an awful lot like failure to have to go back to your work and redo it. A manuscript is a labor of love, and after pouring (hopefully metaphorical) blood, sweat, and tears into it, it won’t feel great to realize there’s another whole manuscript’s worth of work to do. Because of this, piling on self-hatred and doubts about your writing talent can make rewriting go from intensive to daunting. You may retreat, or put the manuscript away. And yes, I do this, too – overwhelmed by the amount I needed to change, I set aside my manuscript for Remnant about a month and a half ago, and I’m just now working up the courage to go back!

Yes, rewriting invites a certain amount of, “if I’d only…” Writing your manuscript, however, is quite a lot like gardening. You go out each day, sometimes into beautiful weather and sometimes into blazing sun or sullen clouds, and you try to guide the plants into health. You prune some plants in order to keep them from expending all of their energy on stems and leaves. Others, you check for disease. Some, you harvest. In any case, there is a certain amount of working to control the natural chaos of life: aphids, broken stems, errant branches.

And like a garden, a manuscript is a living thing – it is a repository of thoughts that raced along neurons and made themselves into words on a page. It evokes passion and humor as you read it. It will, inevitably, hold chaos, a force that in itself is neutral, and that in your writing will carry you to both wonderful ideas and non-functional ones. To allow chaos in is to learn to work with ideas and adapt your story to the stellar ones. To deny your writing chaos is to deny it to live.

And can I share a secret with you? To deny your writing chaos, to stick rigidly to pre-appointed plot events and pre-established character arcs, is to invite rewrite after rewrite as you try to infuse your writing with emotion – a thing that is inherently chaotic and disturbing.

So, really, the question isn’t whether or not you’re going to have to rewrite some of your manuscript. It’s how you decide to feel about that. It whether or not you embrace it, and throw yourself into your writing, going fearlessly down side paths to see where they lead. It’s whether or not you let your story grow beyond your outline.

(Re)write on, my dears!

 

 

Q is for Query Letter

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Wait wait wait, self-published authors come baaaaaack!

Excellent, thank  you. I know, some of you want nothing to do with querying agents and some of you are on the fence, and that’s okay. None of you actually have to query agents. Today, we’re just learning about query letters, because they have a surprising amount to teach us. We’re going to talk about query letters, and how the best time to write them (before not sending them?) may be as you’re just starting into your manuscript.

First ask yourself: what is a query letter? In a query letter, you detail who you are and why the agent should care (less useful if you’re not previously published, but very useful if you’re in non-fiction and need to show credentials), and what your book is about and why the agent should care. You have a few-sentence pitch that covers your story’s theme, maybe one or two events, its intended audience, and why it’s exciting. That’s a lot to pack in. It’s difficult.

A query letter is a way to sell yourself and your book to an agent.

Or, breaking it down further:

A query letter is a way to sell yourself and your book.

Okay, so … a traditionally published author (almost always) begins with a query letter, and if successful, that agent then expends her energy to sell the book to a publisher, who then expends their collective energy to edit it, print it, and (oh, right) put a multimillion dollar marketing machine behind it.But if a traditionally published author fails at knowing how to query, they don’t so much become a traditionally published author as an unpublished author, so why do the self-published authors care?

Because if a self-published author fails at knowing how to query (which is to say, make a short and snappy summary of their book), this is the first of many marketing failures. Because you’ll need that summary when you upload anyway. Because marketing takes a lot of time, and the last thing you want is to take a lot of time on marketing that doesn’t work. And while all of those are important reasons to know how to query, the most important one is, if you spend several hours working on a short, snappy pitch for your book and you can’t do it, you may have a focus problem with your book. And while traditionally published authors have this hurdle waiting for them from day one, self-published authors may not even realize there’s a problem until they’re staring at the upload page on their platform of choice.

See, now you know why I said you might want to try writing it at the start.

So, some things to consider for the story you’re writing at present…

  • Can you sum up the tone of the story in one word or phrase? (Light-hearted, whimsical, unflinching)
  • Can you tie the protagonist’s struggle into a larger issue? It could be something like slavery or prejudice, but it might simply be the universal desire for a meaningful human connection. Whatever it is, name it.
  • Do you know your protagonist’s inner issues?
  • Can you name the events of the story that propel the protagonist towards resolution of both internal and external issues?
  • What’s exciting, gripping, and/or new about the story?

Notice what this list does not identify: the end, and the high-level plot specifics. It can be modified fairly easily as your story shifts (because I don’t think I have ever talked to anyone whose novel stayed exactly as plotted), but what it will do is keep your story essentials clear to  you now, while you write. It will keep them clear to your potential readers later, when you upload, and it will keep them clear to your readers as they read and look for a sequel.

Take a few minutes. Try to write a query letter. If it was a breeze, well, take a few minutes of well-deserved happiness and bask in the knowledge that you’re doing great. If you’re at  a complete loss, the good news is that you now have a handy road-map for what may not be clear in your story. Hone in on where you got stuck (and maybe read yesterday’s post, too!). Clarify. Review what you have so far. Some things may thunk into place, and then you get to bask in that knowledge I mentioned at the start of the paragraph.

Good luck!

P.S. I’m not good at it, either. It makes me tear my hair out, too. Hang in there!

P is for Plot

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Bringing our essay collection back to the craft of writing, we’re here today to talk about your plot. Like pretty much every other aspect of writing (love interests, semicolons, accents in dialogue), you can find a huge number of writing books that cover the development of plot: when do you plot things out, and how completely? What are the distinct stages of your plot? Does every book need the same basic plot arc? And the disappointing fact is, everyone has their own spin on the idea…except for one specific point.

So tonight we’re not going to zero in on basic plot structure or on the divide between plotters and pantsers (those would be people who fly by the seat of their pants, not so much plotting as going from one point to another). We won’t talk about subplots or scene-blocking or story-boarding. What we’re going to talk about is the interplay between protagonist and plot:

Whether you develop character or plot first, the internal character arc and the external plot arc must line up. Which is to say, both the protagonist and the plot will reach a breaking point, and while external events may play a part, not only should these breaking points happen at the same time, the external events should be ones that relate innately to the protagonist’s inner struggle.

There are different approaches to come at this synergy: Don Maass suggests making sure the character is playing out a larger social conflict, and simply making sure that the character’s crisis point and the plot crisis point happen at the same time. Larry Brooks insists that not only must plot be precisely executed (there are percentages, y’all), the protagonist must be both the Chosen One to fix this issue, and also the Very Last Person you’d want to trust with it, because of their internal issues. Lisa Cron, on the other-other hand, believes that the character’s inner issue supersedes all else, and that the plot serves only to back the character into a corner where they must either face their issues or give up (she offers It’s a Wonderful Life as an example, for the reason that in the end, no one learns what happened to the money, but no one really cares, either – it was only a catalyst to make George face his inner issues).

However you come at it, it’s an interesting way to look at things – especially in genre fiction, where there is great emphasis on a well-executed plot. Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular have a heavy emphasis on “what if…?” and there can be a certain distaste in rigging the game, so to speak: “well, certainly the plot and character arcs could line up precisely, but really I’m trying to show the world as it is, and so tailoring my character to my plot is much too convenient.” Believe me, I get it. It’s difficult for me, too. The “what if…?” is a pure, noble concept, driving us away from moralizing and towards pure, clear prose. That’s the good side of it!

Here’s another way to look at it, though: you’re always going to end up choosing aspects of your protagonist’s character. For some reason, you chose this particular person to make your protagonist, and no one else. Sure, maybe someone else could have carried the ring to Mordor, but Frodo had all the right qualities: a yearning for adventure, resilience to the ring’s powers, and a pure heart that led him both into and out of danger by turns. Aragorn would have been the wrong person. Saruman would have been worse still. And yet no one would look at The Lord of the Rings and say, “eh, it’s just too convenient that the ring ended up with Frodo.” That’s a “what if…?” paired with a basic fact of storytelling: a certain amount of coincidence is necessary to power the story. If Saruman had gotten it, the story would have ended quickly in death and destruction, and if no one at all had ever found the ring, things would have continued on without a tipping point. No one wants to read either of those stories.

Tailoring your character arc and plot arc to one another is no more artificial than skipping the scenes where your character has breakfast. It feels different because a character is a person, and we’re socially conditioned not to mess with who people are, but this is different. Your character is not distinct from your story, and indeed the particulars of the character drive the fact that there is a story at all. So ask yourself, “Why is my protagonist both the best and worst person to solve the main problem of the story?”

Last piece of advice: as with all parts of writing, you may not have immediate success. In fact, it’s likely that you won’t. So as you thrash around wailing, “why, why don’t I know the answer to this?” remember that your struggle is normal. Let it percolate, go take a walk, maybe read a chapter or two of your latest book. Return to it and turn it over in your head for a few days. There’s no need to rush this! Think, ponder, tailor. You’ve got this.

O is for Observe (Other Writers)

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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I have to let you know up front that this one is going to be tricky. Observing other writers gives you a very handy yardstick against which to evaluate your success, and that road leads to tears. However, that said, much like reading bad reviews, observing other writers can clue you in to some tricks for success. For instance, when I was just starting out I read a blog post from Joseph Lallo, author of The Book of Deacon - one of the first self-published books to get really popular. Lallo opined that by setting his first book free, he had gained many more readers. I did the same, and sales of The Light & Shadow Trilogy went through the roof.

(Likewise, if you’re starting out, you might observe authors (including me) recommending that you write an entire series and either release it all at once, or at 1-2 month intervals. I genuinely believe that this was a big component of my success with the aforementioned trilogy, and hope you can make that strategy work for you as well!)

Below are a few ways that you can observe other authors. Before you start, please write down something like the following and tape it to the top of your computer screen:

Every author’s path to success is different. For each author who struck it big on their first book, there area dozen who spent years writing before they found commercial success.

(And you know what? You might want to hope you strike it big after 5-10 books – because then you have a backlist that will get you lots of traction!)

  1. Blogs: many authors are very open about the things they feel they did right. It’s worth giving a glance around to see how your favorite (or most admired) authors advise running your career. Blogs may also provide a reference point in how to interact with readers.
  2. Facebook pages and groups: due to some recent Facebook changes, many authors are moving away from pages to groups. Either way, they all run things a little differently. Some use Facebook as their blog and write long, rambling posts; others use short, snappy text and images.
  3. Book descriptions: how do your favorite authors structure their book blurbs? For instance, while many authors and marketers hold that your book blurb is for advertising more than for a story summary, Jen Foehner Wells (author of the hugely popular Fluency) wrote a simple narrative teaser without bold, italics, or reference to awards. Simple doesn’t mean bad – it was a great teaser, and it worked gangbusters for her!
  4. Backlists: go check out self-published authors’ pages on Amazon or other sites, and you might see that they have not only each book they’ve written, but packages of whole trilogies, short story anthologies, and other combo reads. These can work wonders by giving the readers savings, and also avoiding any drop off that might come from, “that was great, but I’ll get the next one when I get home and have wifi” (which often, despite wonderful intent and sincere enjoyment, turns into, “oh, whoops, I just never bought that book. I’ve been there, dear readers).
  5. Advertising: there are blog posts about this, too, but it’s always worth observing how authors advertise. You may even see their ads on your facebook feed! Do they do giveaways? Ads for their latest book? Example: while Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games fame could certainly get away with marketing Mockingjay and Catching Fire on their own, for many authors it may make more sense just to advertise Book 1. People who don’t know who you are (at the start, that’s everyone) won’t care at all that that your Book 2 is out. You want to sell them on Book 1.
  6. Keep observing: okay, this isn’t a thing to watch so much as a reminder. Maybe all of a sudden your sales dropped off sharply and you’re not sure why – it could be anything from a cultural shift to an Amazon algorithm change. The collective group of authors is on top of that, suggesting new keywords and strategies. And after all, one of the great wonders of this business is that you can change things up when they don’t work. Keep observing, and make changes as necessary.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Comment below!