Viewpoint–The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I’ve been editing quite a few manuscripts lately (see below for info on editing and critique services) and I’ve found that I’m commenting on viewpoint problems more frequently than anything else. I discussed viewpoint in a chapter in Creating Character, but I nonetheless continue to receive requests that I devote an entire book to the subject. This reinforces my feeling that this is something that’s causing headaches for some aspiring writers.

It’s really not that complicated. Look, you just need to pick a viewpoint and stick with it throughout a scene. If you change viewpoint characters, don’t do it in the middle of the scene. No “head-hopping,” that is, drifting from one character to another’s thoughts and observations. That leaves the reader feeling dislocated. They don’t want to hear from an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone (meaning you, the author). They want to forget about the author and be immersed in the story. Readers will care more about your characters and what happens to them if you can get them inside the characters’ heads.

This does restrict what you can write about, or at least how you go about it. You cannot reveal information your viewpoint character does not or could not know. You may say something like, “She thought his smirk suggested he didn’t believe her,” but you cannot say, “He didn’t believe her” when you’re in her viewpoint, because she doesn’t know. Internal monologue is a good tool for keeping your reader inside a character’s viewpoint. When characters are thinking to themselves, the reader feels securely within that viewpoint. That doesn’t mean you should do it to excess, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should use internal monologue to tell rather than show (see the discussion below). And fyi, you don’t have to use italics every time your characters think to themselves.

Ideally, each new scene should identify the viewpoint character in the first sentence. “Mary walked into the room” or something like that. Then unless there is a scene break, you cannot portray any other viewpoint. You can’t take us inside another character’s head, or tell us what he or she thinks or experiences, unless and until you break the scene. Ideally, after identifying the viewpoint character by name in the first sentence, you refer to them by “he” or “she” for the rest of the scene. This tight psychic distance keeps the reader firmly inside that viewpoint. Using their name again tends to take readers outside their head, to distance them. Of course, this also means none of the other characters in the scene can be “he” or “she.” Refer to them by name or a nickname.

Head-hopping, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is not as immersive, and omniscient narration has fallen out of common use–for a good reason. Readers don’t like it as much. What they like is to experience a story through the eyes and ears of one of the characters involved. Even when there are multiple viewpoints, readers should have a sense of who the main character is and should spend most of the time inside that head, experiencing the story as the protagonist does.

The usual reason for introducing additional viewpoints is to increase suspense. The narrative flips to an antagonist’s viewpoint and the reader learns something the protagonist doesn’t know yet. This creates suspense, because the reader knows something bad is in the works but the lead character doesn’t.

One last thought: many beginning readers try to avoid these viewpoint problems by writing in first-person narration. I do not receommend this. If you think first person is easier than third person–you’re wrong. It is far more challenging to do well, because it means staying in the voice of a character–who should not be a sassier, braver verison of the author–for an entire book. While it can be done, I think it’s best reserved for writers with experience and a clear view of their character’s unique identity.

Click here to learn more about the Red Sneaker Editing & Critique Service (I do the editing myself).

Show, Don’t Tell–What Does That Mean, Anyway?

I was sitting onstage taking questions one year at our annual fall writing conference, and a woman I knew asked me to explain the opt-quoted concept of Show, Don’t Tell. “That sounds great,” she said, “but this is a novel and sometimes you just have to tell people what’s going on. Don’t you?” I didn’t have a ready answer, but that’s always good, because when I actually have to think about something hard enough to explain it, I usually end up understanding it much better than I did before.

I eventually suggested that my questioner distinguish character from plot. Yes, to move the story forward, you will eventually have to tell the reader what’s going on, perhaps fill in a little background, and not all of it can always be shown. When writers talk about Show, Don’t Tell, though, they are usually referring to revealing what’s going on inside the viewpoint character’s head, what they’re thinking, or even more importantly, what they’re feeling. The idea is that, instead of saying, “Sally was mad,” you say, “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, flung herself down on the bed, and pounded the pillow.”

Not a subtle example, but you get the idea, right? There are legitimate reasons for writing this way. For one thing, words expressing emotional states tend to be flat and to have little impact on the reader. If you portray the emotion, however, it will come to life and have far more impact on the reader. This is closely related to the all-important concept of viewpoint. You want to keep the reader inside your characters’ heads, experiencing the story through their eyes and ears. Few readers get wrapped up in a story that is narrated to them, but if they feel as if they’re inside the story, as if it’s happening right before their (inner) eyes, they are much more likely to be engaged. When you just tell the reader about a character’s emotional state, it feels as if the story is being narrated. After all, no one really stands around thinking, “Grr. I’m mad.” On the other hand, if you show their emotional state by describing their actions, you’ve kept the reader inside the character’s head.

This so-called rule is usually attributed to the playwright Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to his brother, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” He was writing about description rather than emotional states, but the core idea is just the same.

Hemingway is renowned for what he left out, not just adverbs and adjectives but anything he thought the reader could figure out for themselves (the theory of omission). One of his most famous stories is “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is simply a few pages of two characters not talking about what is uppermost in their minds. The clues are sufficient to allow an attentive reader to figure out what it is, though, and it strikes with much more impact because the reader is led there rather then being hit over the head with it. For the same reason, Chuck Palahniuk has recommended a ban on what he calls “thought verbs,” such as “thinks,” “knows,” “understands,” “realizes,” “wants,” etc.

By the way, there’s still room in some of my summer writing retreats. More than two dozen of my students have been published, and three of them are up for awards this coming weekend. Is this the year you should join us? For more info: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Does Anyone Still Buy Books? Where?

There’s a new Author Earnings report out this month, and for me, that’s a chance to reassess everything you’re doing as a writer, and perhaps, to readjust your plans for the future. It’s hard to obtain reliable information about the publishing business, and every source has flaws, but I believe the information collected by Author Earnings is the most reliable we have, and certainly better than the info from AAP or Bookscan or other sources that don’t track Amazon sales. Granted, that’s tough to do, since Amazon doesn’t release its sales figures. But any accounting that ignores the retailer that sells more than 50% of all books sold in the US, and an even greater percentage of all eBooks, is inherently untrustworthy. Authors Earnings, using its advance computer-bot data-gathering techniques, counts everything.

Here are the three main takeaways from this month’s report:

One: In the five primary English-speaking countries, indie self-published books outsell the Big Five New York publishers.

When you’re doing the math, remember to add the sky blue (indie books) to the cyan (uncategorized, probably self-published). Independent authors are doing better worldwide than most people realize. Also note the increased growth of Amazon’s imprints. Amazon is the fastest growing publisher in the world.

Two: eBooks are still selling, and they sell far better at Amazon than anywhere else.

eBook sales did dip around May of last year, but they rebounded and are slowly growing again. As this chart makes clear, Amazon sells far more books than anyone else, but the other three are not insignificant. Which leads to the third topic…

Three: The answer to whether it’s best to have your books exclusively with Amazon, or to “go wide” (my wife calls this, “playing the field”), is still unclear. Amazon sells more books, and exclusivity does have benefits, the most significant of which is participation in Kindle Unlimited. KU allows members to “borrow” your book at no additional charge. The author gets paid based upon pages actually accessed by the borrower.

The plus is that many will borrow who would not buy. According to Author Earnings, “KindleUnlimited has grown into a Top-3 ebook retail channel in its own right; KU is now paying indie authors twice as many dollars as Barnes & Noble’s Nook is paying to all publishers combined.” That said, you have to wonder how many of those people would’ve bought the book (at full price) if they couldn’t borrow. Even if it’s only a fraction, you might make more in royalties.

And there are always risks in being dependent upon a single market. What if Amazon’s eBook sales dip again, even more precipitously? Or Amazon changes its policies on author compensation? Being visible, and taking advantage of promotions, on a variety of platforms may increase your visibility. It will also increase your ability to get value out of marketing promotions like Bookbub. I have friends who have told me they are getting something like a quarter of their sales from B&N.com or a combo of non-Amazon sites. (Of course, that only comes with active promotion.)

I wish I had a definitive answer here, but I don’t. My recommendation? Experiment, and see what works best for you and your books.

Author Earnings: http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2017

Promoting Your Work in Instagram

The blog is back!

I took February off to finish up a novel and to help Lara get the next issue of Conclave out. In case you’re wondering–Ben Kincaid is back! Justice Returns will soon be available. The Balkan Press has two new titles, Fetish and Other Stories, a lovely collection of short fiction, and Whimsical Warrior, a poetry book out in a few weeks. Lara’s novel, The Wantland Files, is doing phenomenally and was recently nominated for the Oklahoma Book Award. The summer writing retreat schedule is posted and we’ll soon be providing details about the fall writing conference.

Enough update. Back to blogging. I want to continue the prior discussion about marketing, this time focusing on Instagram. Whether we like it or not, social media marketing has become essential to book promotion. Most of you are probably already using Facebook and perhaps Twitter. But you may be overlooking Instagram, currently the fastest growing social media outlet, either because you think it’s just for kids or because you think it’s more about pictures than words. The latter part is true–but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to attract readers.

Instagram has about 500 million readers, and 300 million of those post or visit every day. Who are the people? According to the Pew Research Center:

  • 32% of all internet users (and 28% of all US adults) use Instagram. Would you like to reach 28% of all US adults?
  • Instagram use is highest among young adults, but 33% of 30-to 49-year-olds also use Instagram.
  • Females are somewhat more likely to use Instagram than men, 38% to 26%, respectively.

So Instagram may be best for those targeting readers between 18 and 49, but almost anyone could benefit. Creating a profile is easy. All you need is a username and a short bio, though I would also add a photo. And start posting. Don’t expect overnight success. Like everything else in the world of writing, it takes time to build an audience.

How are authors using it? Tyler Knott Gregson has used it to become the bestselling poet writing today, with book sales far greater than the more traditional or academically approved poets. He typically handwrites or types out his short poems and posts photos. Agent Gordon Warnock’s Instagram feed is named for his dog Archer–it’s called archersnack.  He posts a lot of dog pictures, which people love. Other authors have posted book covers, photos from signings and events, or gorgeous photos of the settings of their books or the places where they live or write.

Lara and I were at Eureka Springs’ Books in Bloom festival and I started playing the piano because, you know, no one could stop me. Moments later, Tess Gerritsen had snapped a photo and posted it, which drew her many readers to my page (though they were more interested in what I was playing than what I was writing).

The site has added Instagram Stories, which allows you to string together photos or videos to tell a story. And there is Boomerang, which allows you to post a series of 20 or so photo frames which Instagram will speed up to create a looping video.

Here are some suggestions for finding a following on Instagram:

  • Choose a regular posting frequency and stick to it.
  • Cross-promote from other channels. Don’t hesitate to ask your Facebook friends to join you on Instagram.
  • Create a consistent photo theme. For instance, I may mention other books on Facebook and Twitter, but on Instagram I’m strictly a poet.
  • Use hashtags. On Instagram, you can use lots. #instapoet, for one.
  • Create quote images or “memes,” always popular and frequently reposted.
  • Share your followers’ posts. Khloe Kardashian reposted a Lang Liev poem, and the next day her following (and book sales) skyrocketed.
  • Include faces in your images occasionally. Including yours. People are drawn to faces.
  • Share Instagram posts to Facebook. You’ve already created it. Might as well.

I hope that’s helpful. I’m also attaching a link to my summer writing retreats. Two have already filled, so if you’re thinking about attending, don’t wait till the last minute.

Summer Writing Retreats: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

 

 

Marketing 101: Making Social Media Work for You

In a previous blog post I mentioned that social media has become crucial to promoting books. This is a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s cheaper, less time-consuming, and more effective than old-school book promotion tactics like book signings, but it may not be your first choice of how to spend your afternoon. My recommendation is that you strategize. Make a plan. How much can you do without going bonkers? What posts on what platforms will work best for you?

I also mentioned that Facebook is by far the best medium for selling books to adults, but Twitter and Instagram have adherents too, and other forums may be worthwhile if they or their participants favor the content of your book. But remember this: All these platforms are crowded and getting more so every day. You are not the only person advertising books. It is not enough to merely post. You must think of a way to make your posts distinctive. You must give people a reason to follow you.

What do your readers or potential readers like? Giveaways, warnings, updated info, laughs, inspirational words, advice, surprising truths, or fun facts? What emotions cause people to return to your posts? Happiness, compassion, the desire to be informed, career goals, support, or a feeling of being connected? The same creativity you put into your books must also be put into your social media campaign.

Here’s a checklist that may help. The most popular social media posts are:

Posts with images. Pictures grab attention more readily than text. Ideally, the image should make the reader’s eyes stop, then redirect those eyes to the text.

Posts inviting comment. Start a conversation. Ask a question. People love to have their opinions respected, and this will cause them to linger longer on your post.

Posts with secondary advertising. “Buy my book” posts are tiresome and should never be more than 10% of your media activity. A secondary ad may refer to your book without overtly asking people to buy. Upload your cover, or post a pic of you signing books or speaking to a book group.

Posts with links. Even when you aren’t overtly selling, form the habit of including a link to a site where people can find more information. This will also generate an image, which is good (see #1).

Some people have used ads on Facebook or Twitter to promote their work. I think this may have worked once but is now overdone. I’ve tried it but I’ve never felt it did me any good. I think it perhaps works best for nonfiction authors who can target readers interested in a particular topic than it does for fiction writers targeting fans of a particular genre. There are writers who have used these ads successfully, but I think they all started earlier when it was not so popular.

If you want to get in on the ground floor of something that isn’t overdone (yet), try livestreaming. Instead of posting text, try posting a video. Facebook Live is new and might be an opportunity to stand out—if you can concoct an engaging video presentation. YouTube Live may also be useful. Hold a livestreamed fundraising event to promote your book, or a livestreamed book-launch party. Recording live is not required. You could just make a video and post it. Start a YouTube channel (YouTube allows you to post longer videos of higher quality).

Start slowly and consider what will work best for your books. Don’t be shy about it. And don’t forget—no matter how much marketing you do, the majority of your day should still be spent writing.

Maximize Your Writing Time

If there’s a universal lesson that I think all writers must learn, it’s that your most valuable commodity–by far–is time. I can teach people to write cleaner, more effectively, more dramatically, but the one thing I cannot do is teach people to write more quickly. Finishing a book is extremely time-consuming, and that will be true whether you’re on your first book or your forty-fourth. As soon as you hear someone grin and say, “I write fast,” you know it probably isn’t going to be very good.

As a writer, you have to measure “to-do” items, not simply in terms of need, or cost, but time. Sure, it will save you fifty cents to drive to the other side of the city and buy gas at that 7-11, but what is the cost to you in terms of time? To be more specific, how many words are you giving up to save fifty cents? Is it a good investment?

Given the importance of time to every writer, I’m going to list a few productivity tools I think are valuable. The most essential one is Dropbox or Google Drive. You need one or the other for two reasons: 1) to make sure you have a safe place to store your work, and 2) so you can share large files with agents, publishers, friends, fans. You may back up your computer to a cloud, or an external hard drive, and that’s a good idea, but you probably don’t want to share access to your complete hard drive. An inexpensive Dropbox account will allow you to share specific large files with anyone. It also allows you to access key files regardless of where you are or which device you’re currently using. (If you don’t have an external hard drive, CrashPlan provides a continuous 24/7 backup for the contents of your computer.)

Evernote is the world’s most popular organizer, or “to-do list” program. It is beautifully designed and easy to use. I compose the first drafts of these blog posts on it. I’ve also used it for outlines, research notes, or random ideas that occur to me when it’s inconvenient to write them out in detail. You can carry the app version on your phone, so even if you don’t have your computer with you, Evernote can store your ideas. If your desk is perpetually surrounded by Post-It notes, it may be time to consider Evernote.

Zoom is the best and cheapest online meeting service for conferencing with editors, agents, friends, students, colleagues. Apple users can use FaceTime, but amazingly, not everyone uses Apple devices.

If you create graphics, check out Canva. It’s somewhere between Gimp, which is completely free but limited, and Photoshop, which can do about anything but is extremely expensive. I wouldn’t use Canva to design a cover, but it’s fine for creating social media materials. I’ve started posting about my poetry on Instagram, because that’s the largest poetry community in the world today. But Instagram requires a visual. Canva allows me to create good ones. (If you need free/public domain visual images, go to VisualHunt).

SignUp Genius is the best bargain in online scheduling software. We used it at the last Rose State Writing Conference to schedule private consults, and it was a huge improvement over pencil-and-paper scheduling. Acuity Scheduling has more features, but it does require a small monthly charge.

Virtual Response is the email newsletter service I prefer (I use it to send out the Red Sneaker Newsletter). VR makes it easy and cheap to send email to large numbers of people. Inputting the addresses is streamlined and simple. If you have fewer than 2000 names on your mailing list, MailChimp is free–but you may find you soon outgrow it.

Just remember: Cool gadgets and gizmos are only advantageous is they give you more time to write–not if you’re playing with your gadgets when you should be writing. Make yourself write as often as possible, whether you are “in the mood” or not. That’s how books get finished.

The State of Publishing–2017

THE STATE OF PUBLISHING–2017

Publishing has probably never been more confusing, in part because people hold onto long-standing prejudices and stereotypes rather than looking at the facts. Well, that’s not the Red Sneaker way. I want you to have the most satisfying and successful writing career possible, and that means keeping one eye on your work and the other eye on the world. Some long-held beliefs are simply no longer true. When you prepare to make critical career decisions, what to write, where to send it, you need facts. Accurate information can help answer a lot of your questions. For instance:

Should I seek a big New York publisher, or a small press, or self-publish?

First let me say, as I have said before, that you must do what will make you happy, what will make you feel successful. That said, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent Author Earnings report, the Big Five New York publishers’ market share is declining and will likely continue to do so in the years to come. By contrast, independent presses, self-publishers, and Amazon imprints (more on those later) comprise over 50% of all book sales. Old stereotypes such as “the best books get picked up by New York” or “bookstore books are superior” are simply no longer true. Given the small market share they have, bookstore sales have become the tail wagging the dog. Most people buying online don’t care who published a book and don’t care whether it’s in bookstores. They just want a good read.

Here’s what Jane Friedman wrote in her blog: “I think it will be a lackluster and perhaps soul-searching year for traditional publishers. The “print is back” fanfare will diminish, with Barnes & Noble continuing to remain flat or decline, and Amazon further gaining market share across formats….Without smarter ebook pricing, traditional publishers will continue to see flat or declining sales in that format.”

There are advantages to having the backing of a New York publisher–and disadvantages too, particularly in the royalty department. What is clear is that it is not the only way to go. Figure out what will be best for you and your work.

Do I need an eBook edition? Do I need a print edition?

I like print books too, particularly hardcovers. I’m old-fashioned and I just get more out of that reading experience. But since our goal is to be successful, not just to please ourselves, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent DBW White Paper, in 2016, over 70% of all adult fiction sold in the eBook format. That is expected to grow, not diminish, in the years to come. eBook reader sales also continue to grow, and more readers means more digital sales. So no, if you’re writing adult fiction and you’re hoping to reach readers, you can’t skip the ebook. You might be okay without a print edition (though it’s not hard to set that up at CreateSpace, whether you think it will be massively profitable or not).

If you’re writing for children or writing nonfiction, your situation may be somewhat different–but I still wouldn’t skip the eBook.

Is Amazon a major publisher?

A strong argument could be made that Amazon is THE major publisher in the US. It now has thirteen different imprints, covering virtually every imaginable genre, and the Kindle Scout program opens the door to anyone who can mount a successful campaign. In 2016, 7 out of every 10 books on the Kindle bestseller list were published by Amazon. Overall, Amazon’s market share grew last year by 4%. No other publisher even comes close.

This just makes common sense. Like every other publisher in America, Amazon favors the product in which it has a vested interest, both in its promotions and its positioning. If you can make Kindle Scout “crowdsourcing” work for you, do it. If not, tie your book to a similar successful Amazon-imprint title in your marketing, so in time it will appear on that book’s page as a “People Who Bought This Also Bought” title.

With all the books out there today, how do I draw readers to mine?

Two answers here, both obvious:
1) Write it well, and
2) Market.

This may seem simplistic, but those are in fact the correct answers. As the Amazon store is increasingly filled with eBooks, the books that attract the most attention will be the ones that please readers (because they are written well) and the ones that have authors willing to spend time and occasionally money on marketing.

Once upon a time, every successful writer wanted a personal assistant. Today, the smart ones hire a book marketer. Using email, search engine optimization, and social media is more effective than any previous book marketing ever was–but it does require time and knowhow. Most writers would rather be writing. But I suspect that in the long run, this is what will separate those who sell well from those who don’t. So I’m going to devote the next several entries in my blog to marketing. Get the app and check it out. And follow what my wife Lara is doing with her new novel, The Wantland Files. She’s mapped out a six-month marketing plan that’s a virtual textbook on modern-day marketing, starting with the online launch party on January 21. Click here to see how it’s done.

(A longer version of this post appears in the most recent edition of the Red Sneaker Newsletter email. If you’re not on the distribution list, sign up here.)

Myth #8: The Good Writers Always Get Published

Since this is the season to be jolly, I wish I could tell you that this myth is true. Many people believe this to be true. I’ve heard it whispered on many occasions (even in bookstores), usually in the context of, “Why do you waste so much of your time trying to help writers? If they’re good, they’ll make it.”

And my answer is: Because I know that’s not necessarily true.

If you’ve read the classics, and I’ll bet most of you have, you know that many if not most of the greatest writers of all time were not popular and may not have even been published in their own lifetimes. Sometimes it takes a while for readers to catch up with the writer. And sometimes the writers just don’t know anybody, don’t have connections, don’t know how to structure or dramatize their work to make it publishable. I’ve always speculated that Emily Dickinson might’ve had a happier life if she’d just been lived in Boston rather than Amherst. Surely someone there would’ve appreciated her talent and known someone in the business. If you’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces–and I hope you have–then you’ve read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by a man who could not get published, and eventually, in utter despondency, took his own life. I bet the posthumous awards did not make his family feel any better.

Sure, talent is important–though hard work and perseverance are more important. But they are no guarantee of anything. I know how fortunate I was to find a publisher early in life–and I know that not everyone in the world is so fortunate. So I’m doing what I can to give back a smidgeon of what I’ve been given.

This myth is not exactly the same but is certainly in the same ballpark as another myth I wrote about earlier in this series–the one about writers being born, not made. That’s silly–as if there’s a special writer DNA strand or something. There’s not. And there’s similarly no guarantee that the universe will serendipitously lead all great writers to their publishers.

I don’t say this to depress anyone. Just the opposite. I do it to encourage you, first, not to be discouraged when success doesn’t come overnight, and second, to not give up. Write every day. Revise and revise and revise. Seek outside input. Even if there are no guarantees, you can give yourself your best shot by doing everything possible to achieve your dreams. I don’t believe in the magic writer gene, but I do believe that if you keep learning and writing and persevering, eventually you will have the right book in the right place at the right time–and that’s when you get published. It’s not predestined by your talent. It’s made more likely by your determination.

On the subject of learning, my previous offer still stands. Register for one of the 2017 summer writing retreats before the end of the year and we’ll knock $100 off the price. I’ve seen a lot of talented people come out of these programs and publish. I sincerely hope you’re the next one.

Enjoy your Christmas–

Bill

2017 Summer Writing Retreats: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

For more info or to claim the discount: 405 203 8641.

Shopping for Writers

It’s that time again, like it or not. We were at the mall yesterday to see a movie, but we could barely get there for all the holiday shoppers scurrying frantically about. Is Christmas shopping still fun? Was it ever?

I bet you have some writers on your shopping list. I know I do. And this past week, I’ve seen several proposed shopping lists floating around the internet, all of which I thought terrible, filled with expensive tech gewgaws more likely to distract a writer than to aid one. So of course, I decided to prepare a list of my own.

Editing Tools. I’ve written a previous blog about the importance of outside editing for all writers, and I’m always available to help you find an incisive copyeditor. But some people are seeking advice on technical matters. Hemingway is an app that helps you improve readability. It tells you if you’re being too wordy or technical. Deadline and Grammarly are apps that check grammar and punctuation, but if you’re giving a gift, I suggest the more in-depth (and expensive) analysis provided by ProWritingAid. You paste in your text and it will give you many different reports (how many depends on how much you pay) and an overall summary. It will not only correct grammar but point out cliches, redundancies, vagaries, excessive dialogue tags, and much more.

Writing Tools. The most stylish writer in the house, Kadey, suggests a Tiffany & Co pen, preferably in the iconic baby blue. Diamonds are optional. I’m a fountain pen man myself, but I have to admit, they are lovely. If you don’t want to spend quite that much, try the Knock Knock Note Pads. They are hilarious. I prefer the Pep Talk version, because it seems to be speaking to writers with check boxes labeled “You Can Do It!” or “It Is What It Is.”

Consider an Assistant. Overwhelmed by the social media necessary to publicize a book these days? Consider an author assistant. The cost might be less than you imagine–find a bright English major by posting at your local community college. Every time you punt some chore like media posting or manuscript formatting or managing email or fact-checking or website management, you’ve bought yourself more time to write.

Illumination. Lara (author of the acclaimed novel The Wantland Files) suggests candles. This may be influenced by the fact that she writes in the bathtub (don’t laugh, so did Voltaire), and what’s the point of a bath without candles? Bath & Body Works is currently having a sale on their aromatherapy line.

Education. I would be remiss (and excessively modest) if I didn’t mention my summer writing retreats, which are also more affordable than you might imagine–I haven’t raised the price in ten years. My 2017 schedule is finalized, and if you register before the end of 2016, you get a 20% discount. I love working with aspiring writers, and the fact that more than two dozen of my students have gone on to publish with major publishers suggests that the retreats work. I know they’re a lot of fun. Here’s the schedule:

June 21-25, 2017 East Coast Retreat
Dolliver’s Neck Road
Gloucester MA 01930 (near Boston and Freeport)

June 28-July 2, 2017 Deep South Retreat
The Veranda
252 Seavy Street
Senoia GA 30276 (near Atlanta)

July 5-9, 2017 Ozark Mountains Retreat
The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow
515 Spring Street
Eureka Springs AR 72632

July 19-23, 2017 West Coast Retreat
Huntington Beach CA 92647 (near LA and Anaheim)

July 26-30, 2017 Southwest Retreat
2801 Parklawn Drive
Midwest City OK 73110 (near OKC)

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Should My Novel Have Multiple Viewpoints?

During a visit to Thrillerfest a few years ago, I heard the same question posed to two different writers (during two different sessions). Each was asked, “How many viewpoint characters can you have?” The first author, who is successful and well-respected, answered, “Three is good. Five is the max.” When my friend Phillip Margolin received the same query, his answer was, “How many do you need?”

I’m with Phil, but I do think we need to establish some guidelines. You should have a central protagonist. Though there are exceptions to every rule, readers generally are happier when they know whose story they are following and who they are rooting for. Books with co-protagonists rarely work. So regardless of the number of viewpoints, the protagonist should have more scenes than anyone else and those should recur most frequently. I think it’s usually a bad idea to be away from the protagonist for more than a chapter.

Multiple viewpoint is more common today than it has been in previous eras. Arguably, the epistolary novel was a form of multiple viewpoint, but subsequently, single-viewpoint novels were more common. In time, though, writers realized that multiple viewpoint was a great way to drum up suspense. In mysteries and thrillers, a departure into the viewpoint of a competitor or villain allows the reader to know something the hero doesn’t–ratcheting up the tension (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). This might also give you an opportunity to make the antagonist more empathetic and less of a cardboard bad guy. In romances, multiple viewpoint–switching between hero and heroine, is more common today (A Run for Love by Callie Hutton). And you will also find it in SF/fantasy and literary fiction (The Hours by Michael Cunningham or The Help by Kathryn Stockett). Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best approach for telling your story.

I recall one of the best writers I know, David Morrill, railing against writers who introduce a viewpoint character for one chapter only (usually because the character dies at the end). For David, this is lazy writing. There’s always a better way to convey that scene than by asking the reader to become invested in a character who will never appear again. It’s not only a cheat but an unwelcome bit of misdirection. When you put your reader in a character’s viewpoint, you suggest that this character is important. They will not be pleased to learn the character is simply a victim. And it’s always a bad idea to introduce a new viewpoint just to drag in some exposition or infodump.

And now, having established the rules, let me explain how and when I broke them. When I wrote the last Ben Kincaid courtroom drama, Capitol Offense, one of the topics I wanted to address was the common law enforcement policy of not pursuing lost-person reports from a spouse until someone has been gone a long time, often as long as a week. Their excuse is that, in most cases, there’s been a squabble and the spouse has simply run off. But this policy has led to many tragic results. In my novel, Ben’s client was devastated by the loss of his wife–because the police waited too long to look for her. I wanted the reader to feel his pain, and to me, that meant they needed to know his wife personally. So I introduced the wife in the first scene, her work as an oncologist for children, her sense of humor, her great love for her husband. Obviously, she did not survive far into the story. But I still felt the excursion into her viewpoint was justified.

Capitol Offensehttps://smile.amazon.com/Capitol-Offense-Novel-Kincaid-Book-ebook/dp/B002PXFYJC/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479663628&sr=8-1