Revising for Excellence

Just to be clear, this blog post isn’t about editing. Which is just as well, since I’ve already written an entire book on that subject (Excellent Editing). That book was about the entire writing process, though, and this is specifically about revision—revision for writers, revision designed not just to eliminate typos but to turn an okay manuscript into a superb one.

“Every writer has their own way of doing things,” Patrick Rothfuss says, and he’s probably right about that. But I also think there are some essential steps when revising your manuscript, and you cannot skip any of them without undermining the quality of your work. So you finish your first draft, an impressive accomplishment. Once you’ve got a first draft, the chances that you will finish this book go up dramatically, and of course, if you finish, the chances that you’ll publish it go up dramatically. So let’s revise this book to improve your chances of finishing, of publishing, and breaking out big time, attracting the readers you need to make writing not just an avocation, but a vocation. Something you can do profitably for the rest of your life.

Six (Maybe Seven) Steps to the Revision Process

1) The Developmental Review-

Some people call this the developmental edit, but that always traumatizes me, because “edit” suggests making changes to the words, and there’s no point in doing that at this stage because so much is going to change. The idea is to get some useful outside input before you’ve spent so much time on it that everything is written in stone. This is very much revision—it’s simply revision that may take place before you’ve finished the manuscript.

Back in my early days at Ballantine/Random House, my editor was Joe Blades, a wonderful man who read everything I wrote and made genuinely valuable editorial suggestions—a concept that seems quaintly archaic in this modern era when “editors” are in meetings all day and rarely edit. For my last book at Ballantine, long after Joe departed, after getting no feedback for months, I finally asked my young editor if she was planning to edit the book. “Oh, did you want me to?” Yes, the publishing world has changed.

So you may need to phone a friend or hire someone for this, but it’s worth doing, because the truth is no author sees everything. Joe used to do it based on my outline. You probably want to have some pages down, maybe a first draft, or at the least a completed first act. This is the time for someone to point out things like—your protagonist is not interesting or likeble, the plot takes too long to get started, there’s no tension, no conflict, you have long boring parts or excessive description, etc. I do developmental critiques when asked and time permits, and I prefer to have a complete first draft (among other reasons, because the climax is so important), but I don’t insist upon it. You just need to have written enough that the reviewer can make intelligent contributions that save you time—spot something early so you don’t write several flawed drafts.

2) Self-Revision

No developmental edit is going to take the place of the author working over their own manuscript carefully and purposefully. I’ve written 48 published novels, but I’ve never let one of them out the door in fewer than ten drafts, and I think that’s one reason my books have developed a generally positive reputation. Some people can do it in fewer drafts (people who aren’t psycho perfectionists), but I can’t imagine a good book being achieved in fewer than five drafts. For me, the first draft is the painful process of getting all the words down. The second and perhaps third drafts are about solidifying the plot, which despite my outlining still largely emerges during the writing. Thrillers require airtight plots, so I take my time and get it right. At least one draft focuses on the characters. The most important is the protagonist, but all the main characters are important, all need to be distinct and memorable, all need to speak and behave differently. The last several drafts should focus on the language. Go over it slowly, read it backwards—whatever works for you.

3) Alpha/Beta Readers-

People use these terms differently. To me, the author is the alpha reader, so I send my manuscripts out to beta readers. Some people say the writer is not a reader, due to the complete inability to see your own work objectively. Some people send the first wave out to other writers, to catch technical problems only writers would catch, and then to readers, who can say whether it’s good, interesting, any fun. I do both at once—and the best choices are people who write—but are not so far removed from the pleasures of reading that they can’t enjoy a book as a reader too.

How many do you need? I don’t know, how many have you got? Phillip Margolin said at the conference one year that he has ten beta readers. His theory was that if only one raises a particular objection, it’s an outlier, safely ignored, but if six people say the same thing, it’s time to revise. My insecurities are sufficient that one complaint would be enough to cause me to get out the red pen. I think every criticism should be considered, but at the end of the day, it’s your book, and you have to make sure it is what you want it to be. Just don’t reject anything out of hand. You’re only cheating yourself. The point of having beta readers is not to have a cheering squad telling you how wonderful you are. The point is to help you see what you haven’t seen yet.

4) Line Edit—

Everyone needs a good line edit, and no, the line editor cannot be the writer. You’re too close. You won’t see many of the problems. Trust me, this is something worth paying for. You don’t want to be among the hordes of writers uploading books riddled with problems that draw readers out of the story, erode confidence, and cause mortification to the writer. Get someone who will carefully go over the manuscript line by line. If they’re good, they’ll find other issues beyond just typos. Anything that improves the pace, rhythm, or readability of your book is a plus. We do these edits too and I regularly do them for people I know. Friends don’t let friends publish bad books.

5) Read It Aloud—

I used to scoff at the concept of reading books aloud during the revision process, and I still don’t like it as a way to gain insight into the substantive content. When authors read aloud, they start adding inflection, drama, pace variation, and other cues that the non-author reader will not have. You should be trying to duplicate the reader experience, not practicing for your next book reading.

But I have learned to appreciate the value of reading a book aloud as part of the line-editing process. I’ve read the audiobook for my nonfiction books before, but only with the Daniel Pike series did I start reading novels. What an eyeopener! The first time I did it, I could barely finish a page without encountering some flawed line of Bill-prose I couldn’t wait to change. By the second time I read a novel, I took my laptop into the recording room with me so I could make changes as I encountered them before I forgot what they were. Let me tell you—this not only improved the book but allowed me to catch many potentially embarrassing errors.

Does this mean the prior line edit was inadequate? No. First, no one catches everything. Even books from big New York publishers have mistakes in the first edition. This is often how collectors can distinguish a first edition from later editions. No book is perfect. But since you’re reading the book aloud anyway, why not edit as you go and make the book even better than it already is?

6) The Gift of Time—

If you drive too close to the deadline, you lose the luxury of putting a manuscript away for a while, getting it out of your head, then re-reading it as a reader rather than the author. This can make a huge difference. When you’re writing, you miss things because you’re too close. But time can erode that disability. For various complex publishing reasons, The Game Master sat on the shelf for two years between when I thought it was finished and when it was actually going to be published. When I pulled up that manuscript after being away from it for two years—I was horrified. Who wrote this mess? How did I miss these glaring problems? Needless to say, the book was improved as a result, and now whenever possible I give myself the luxury of putting a book away for a time, then re-reading it before I send it off to be published.

7) Formatting-

One last note for those who self-publish. Formatting is almost as important as line editing. If a book looks unprofessional, it has the same negative impact as a book riddled with typos. It puts off readers. It allows them to get judgy and cast scorn on your book for reasons that have nothing to do with the content. If you use a Mac, get Vellum. It’s a great program and well worth the financial investment. Vellum also deals with the fact that we have no universal standard for eBooks. Vellum will give you a separate file for Kindle, Kobo, rtf, print, etc. You will have to learn how to use it, but it’s an intuitive program and you’ll pick it up quickly. If you’re on a PC, Scrivener may be your best option (but if I were you, I would go to the mall and get a Mac. Seriously. You’re a writer. You need the best.) You have the technological means to make your book look as good the the ones coming from larger publishers. So do it.

Bottom line: You’ve put a lot of work into this manuscript. Don’t quit before the job is done. Revise your way to success.

For more info about editing services, email me at wb@williambernhardt.com.

Upcoming retreats:

December 8-12, 2019: New Orleans Five-Day Retreat at the Le Richlieu Hotel. Five days near the French Quarter focusing on your work-in-progress.

February 2-9, 2020: The WriterCon Cruise. Seven days on the Caribbean improving your work and knowledge of the writing business in a beautiful Pacific setting.

Vivid Storytelling Requires Delivery of Experience

My guest post is from Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques of work-in-progress—the kind of insight we offer each year at the First-Page Panel at WriterCon. For this change-of-pace post, Peter offers an example of the kind of review he provides.

Here’s the First Page

In the morning, the soldiers will pack the women prisoners into cattle cars and send them away. A lieutenant stands atop a crate and snaps at the prisoners to form a line for rations. When a pained cry rises from the crowd, pleading with the officer as to where the army is sending them, it goes unanswered.

Lee Palmer muscles to the front of the line in case supplies are limited. Someone elbows her ribs. There’s a fierce yank on her braid. Despite the yelling and crying of the women, she overhears a whisper that their destination is Nashville. This would not be so wretched, she thinks, there are worst places to go.

Lee reaches the two privates who shove rations across a wide table in a mechanical, hurried fashion. Lee seizes the parcels and forces her way back through the crowd so she can examine her food in safety where no greedy hands will tug it free. Twenty ounces of salted pork in a cloth, hardtack crusted with weevils, three cans of peas. This is too much food for Nashville, she thinks. The army is not generous with its food. She closes her eyes as she remembers the railroad maps of this region. Travel time to Nashville with stops in Chattanooga and Murfreesboro: two weeks. This was before the war. Perhaps there is no longer a railroad to Nashville. For all Lee knows of the outside world, there may no longer be a Nashville.

Lee sits on the dirty wood floor amongst the other prisoners, but despite their shared condition, despite her years at the mill alongside them, she is not invited into their little circles of panic.

Nancy, her only friend, hops over the outstretched legs of an elderly woman, her hands clutching her measly rations to her chest like family heirlooms. She settles in beside Lee, and though Lee can tell her friend has been crying, she has to say it.

“They’re sending us somewhere far,” Lee says.

Nancy’s tears are immediate and furious. She curls up beside Lee, head on her shoulder. Lee strokes Nancy’s hair since that’s how Mama calmed her after a nightmare, but it does little to soothe Nancy.

They were four hundred women in total. All of them poor. Many without a full set of teeth, many without shoes. At the Roswell Mills, they spun cotton for rope and uniforms and stitched tents and stretchers in a room flush with hot cotton fibers in exchange for a place to sleep and one hot meal a day.

When the Yankee Army came to this corner of Georgia, it found little resistance. The Yankees seized the Roswell Mills without firing a contemptuous shot.

The only gunfire came from overzealous privates who shot out the windows of the barracks after the officers told the women, gathered in the center of the property, they were under arrest.

The Yankees then brought the women—now prisoners—to Marietta to wait in the abandoned military college there till someone with authority decided what to do with them. Now they know. They’re to be deported.

Lee continues to brush Nancy’s greasy hair while her mind reels.

Theo, you promised, she thinks. You said you would come back for me.

They’re sending us away. You need to come back before it is too late.

Here’s the First-Page Critique

Though I know which side won, I’m no expert on the Civil War. And though I’d heard of the Roswell Mills, it was only after reading this first page of a work of historical fiction that I did some digging to learn the role it played in that terrible conflict. Located north of Atlanta near the Chattahoochee River, the cluster of mills produced textiles from cotton grown on nearby plantations. When the war started, the mills turned to producing a fabric of a uniquely drab color known as “Roswell Gray” and made into Confederate uniforms. On July 5, 1864, General Sherman’s troops seized the mill and ordered all four hundred of its employees—mostly women and children—arrested for treason and sent by train to a military institute in Marietta, where they were held for a week before being expelled to points north. During that week, many of the women were subjected to assaults by Union soldiers assigned to guard them. Subsequently their fates were no better. Left to their own devices, without money, contacts, or any prospect of employment, many starved to death.

That’s the background of this first page. But unless readers know it, they can’t be blamed for thinking they’re dealing with entirely different “cattle cars” in an altogether different war. That was my experience on first reading this page, at least up to the word “Nashville” toward the end of the second paragraph, by which time my imagination had already conjured a quite different scene. Possibly this was the author’s intent: to achieve a sort of lap-dissolve in the reader’s mind whereby an infamous twentieth-century wartime horror is supplanted by an obscure, nineteenth-century one. But though such a dissolve effect might be extremely effective on film, where it can be choreographed to within a fraction of frame, on paper it’s a recipe for confusion and the dismay and resentment bred by it. Unless absolutely warranted by the material, my general rule is never confuse your readers.

Confusion aside, this little-known episode of the Civil War is terrific material for a historical novel, and overall the writing on this first page is more than competent. Still, there are ways in which it can be improved.

Let’s start with the first paragraph, written from a non-specific, neutral perspective. Who sees the Lieutenant? Who hears that “pained cry”? Whose experiences are given to us here, from what vantage point? Answer: that of a colorless narrator located everywhere and nowhere. We may as well be getting not experiences, but information. The difference between the two is the difference between bland and vivid storytelling.

In fact, someone must be hearing and seeing these things, and that someone, we soon come to realize, is the “Lee Palmer” who “muscles to the front of the line in case supplies are limited.” With that first sentence of the second paragraph a clear perspective is engaged. We are no longer reading information; we are sharing an experience.

We would share it even more solidly were the emphasis of the sentence not misplaced, with the subordinate clause serving as its punch-line, and the words “in case,” which convey motive rather than action, replaced by an active verb. The sentence would be stronger still if we had some idea who “Lee Palmer” is: not an officer or a soldier—in fact not a man—but a female prisoner of the Union Army. (On a side-note: it was not until after the Civil War that, in the Northern states, anyway, and for obvious reasons, the name Lee became fashionable.)

“Knowing how limited supplies were, Union prisoner-of-war Lee Palmer muscles her way to the front of the line.” Now not only do we have some idea of who Lee Palmer is, we know we’re in not World War II but the Civil War, so we can more-or-less form an accurate picture of the scene in our minds. And isn’t that the point of fiction, to create experiences for the reader precisely and clearly, so that the experiences become theirs? To that end what role does confusion play? Unless the experience isconfusion, none.

This is why properly engaging POV is so crucial, since things are always experienced by a particular sensibility operating from a specific vantage point, rather than generally from a neutral, disembodied perspective.

The rest of this first-page engages its protagonist’s experiences tenuously and fitfully. “There is a fierce yank on her braid.” That’s half or two-thirds of Lee’s experience; it would be the whole shebang if the sentence were, “Someone yanked on her braid” or “She felt a tug on her braid.” In the next sentence Lee “overhears a whisper.” But to overhear a whisper you have to be close enough to the source to both hear and see the whisperer, yet the source of the whisper is unidentified, as if it doesn’t matter, or—less likely still—as if Lee Palmer doesn’t care, though she certainly would, since those whispered words may seal her fate.

The next paragraph (“Lee reaches the two privates…”) is the first one that thoroughly and consistently engages Lee’s experience, so by the time we read “The army is not generous with its food,” we read it not as bland information, but as Lee’s perspective on things. Things continue well through the next paragraph, until we get to the fifth paragraph and Nancy, Lee’s “only friend,” who “hops over the outstretched legs of an elderly woman.” “Hops” is the verb, but it should be “sees” or “watches,” and it ought to pertain to Lee’s experience, not Nancy’s. “Lee sees Nancy, her only friend, hopping over the outstretched legs of an elderly woman.” See the difference? As written, either the sentence engages Nancy’s experience, in which case it’s a jarring point-of-view shift, or it engages the author’s perspective, which is as good as none at all. Point of view is the difference between the author and the narrator.

Two sentences later we read that Lee’s stroking of Nancy’s hair “does little to soothe Nancy.” I believe it, but it’s information. Whose information is it? Lee’s. How does she know it? We don’t know, but we can guess. Perhaps by the look on her friend’s face as Lee strokes her hair, or by the tears still welling in her eyes, or the trembling of her shoulders. Those may be Lee’s experiences, the concrete evidence from which she derives her information. Instead of giving us Lee’s information, give us that evidence; let us draw conclusions from it.

Similarly, Lee can’t possibly experience “400 women in total.” What she experiences is a throng of women. She might conclude—with remarkable precision—that they total 400; but the more likely explanation for that figure is an author injecting her own awareness.Reread the rest of this page and see for yourself which moments authentically engage Lee’s experience, and which fail to do so. Then imagine, with her experiences thoroughly and consistently engaged throughout this already striking and gripping first page, how much more striking and gripping it would be.

Thanks to Jane Friedman, who first ran this post in her excellent blog.

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer's Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic(Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize.

Skillful Description Readers Won't Skip

I talked about description at WriterCon in the midst of a talk titled “Five Super-Secret Steps to Superior Fiction.” Obviously, I chose this title primarily due to my addiction to alliteration, but also because the elements of great session topics are, first, numbered lists, and second, the suggestion that you’re revealing secrets. The problem, of course, was that having devised this brilliant title, I needed to come up with an equally brilliant list of super-secrets.

Well, I don’t know how brilliant the talk was, but I did come up with a list. And one of the super-secret steps related to description, which I felt somewhat obligatory since I am already long overdue on the next Red Sneaker book, which is purportedly about description. (I will get back to that, promise.) I talked for maybe ten minutes about description, but I didn’t notice the audience looking as I’d revealed the arcane secrets of the ancients. Less is more, I said, and they nodded in agreement. One insightful sentence is better that a long-winded paragraph. Sure, Bill, what else is new? But I finally saw eyes widen when I said:

You have five senses. Use them. 

What did that mean? 

 I have noticed two recurring patterns in my small-group writing workshops. First: when early writers start describing, they typically describe how something looks. In other words, the use only one sense—sight. This is understandable. Sight is the sense we use most often. When people think about description, they typically think about how something looks. I’ve even attended workshops where speakers told readers to “Imagine your scene on a television screen. Write what you see.”

 This is horrible advice. Limiting yourself to one sense is like typing with one finger. Why do that? Typically, describing only appearances leads to the most superficial and least impactful descriptions. You’re basically telling readers what they conjured in their minds’ eyes the instant you said “courtroom” or “blanket” or “sunset.” And if they already have a mental image of the scene, no visual description from you is likely to dislodge it.

Second: early writers tend toward pleasant, lovely descriptions—lots of sunsets and wind-whipped ocean views—even when the book is a mystery or thriller. Regardless of your genre, you want your story to have tension, to give readers the unsettling feeling that all is not as it should be. That’s how you keep readers turning pages. You can’t do that with rambling portraits of beautiful landscapes. You use skillful description to bring a scene to life, and you can also use it to inject tension—by using all of your senses in close collaboration.

Let me take you through an example, totally cribbed from my friend David Morrell. 

He sat on the blanket.

Not a terribly exciting sentence, is it? Let’s dress it up with some description.

He sat on the gray blanket.

Oh, good work, Bill. Much better. You added an adjective. You took something that should be warm and comforting—a blanket—and turned it into something dull and uninteresting—gray. Surely we can do better—without interrupting the pace of this obviously breathtaking story.

He sat on the blanket.  It reeked of sweat.

Okay…this is a little better. One strong word is better than a dozen weak ones, and “reeked” is a strong word that immediately conjures a powerful mental image. You can almost smell the stink. Plus, the blanket is sweaty, which means it feels wet and icky. So now we’ve activated three senses—sight, touch, smell. I’m not going to make the guy taste the sweaty blanket, but we could still plus this a little…

He sat on a gray scratchy blanket that reeked of sweat.

You can decide for yourself whether you prefer two short sentences or one slightly longer one. To some extent, the best choice depends upon the pace you’re creating. If this is a tense, suspenseful, scary scene, go with the short sentences. A longer sentence does create a somewhat more relaxed, leisurely pace. 

The big addition here is the word “scratchy.” This adds another unpleasant suggestion about how the blanket feels—and perhaps a sound cue as well. Scratchy blankets make noise, so the overall takeaway is irritating, off-putting. To create tension in your scene, you’ve inserted a blanket, something that we normally think of as comforting, and instead made it just the opposite, by employing a few, brief, descriptive elements. It’s gray. Blah. Reeks. Ick. Sweaty. Gross. And scratchy. Something you want to get rid of, not wrap around yourself. You’ve only used a few words, but you’ve created a vivid word picture that will have far more impact on the reader than a long-winded description based solely upon sight.

A good approach to every scene—including the descriptive parts—is to remind yourself what emotional tone you’re striving to achieve before you start to write it. Is this scene romantic? Suspenseful? Humorous? Heart-breaking? If you have a clear idea what you’re striving for, you’re far more likely to achieve it. The old woman on the park bench could evoke pathos--or joy--depending upon how the description is written. The single man with a neatly folded handkerchief could suggest loneliness--or an orderly mind. What emotions you evoke depend upon how well you describe it. Remember that you have five senses and use them all. In most cases, the reader can adequately supply the visual image. You supply the rest.

Want to make sure you don’t miss out on my next spectacular session title? The WriterCon Cruise departs on February 2, 2020. Why not join us?

Getting Out Of the Writing Doldrums

I’m at WriterCon this weekend, so I’m running another guest blog, this time by the wonderful Mathina Calliope. I love the idea of “writer candy!”

No matter how much we love writing, sometimes we find ourselves in the doldrums: the blank page terrorizes us, we question our fitness for this life, others’ successes poke at our inner green monsters, and rejections demoralize us.

When this happens, how do we combat it? Probably too many of us turn to social media for a distraction, but when I do that, it does nothing to lift me out of the muck. Lately, I wondered what might be more fruitful, and I hit on the idea of writer candy—completely accessible, easy ways to nourish our muse and get us back to the page. They’re treats that don’t depend on factors outside our control such as an elusive rush of inspiration or energized productivity or on validation from gatekeepers.

I’ve been feeling discouraged since early spring. A handful of tough rejections have felt like indictments not only of my writing but, given that I write memoir and personal essay, also of me.

Such setbacks can get under our skin and pervade everything about our writer selves in ways both overt and subtle. Although my early summer was jam-packed with immersive, positive writerly experiences (Yale Writers’ Workshop, Denver’s LitFest, Barrelhouse’s Writer Camp), I couldn’t seem to shake the insecurity the rejections provoked.

So when I sat down to write out my intentions* (a fun dose of woo I highly recommend) for August, it surprised me that they all related to writing. Usually they’re spread across various domains of life: fitness, work, friendships, fun. But this month they were a monolith:

  1. I honor my muse and creativity.

  2. I write for the love of it.

  3. My voice is true, powerful, and uplifting.

  4. My writing reminds people of what really matters.

  5. I have an agent.

  6. I believe in my book.

* I state my intentions as positives in the present tense as if they’re already true—it’s a trick yoga teacher training taught me. Theoretically, this helps the Universe help me.

Intentions are funny things. Sometimes they manifest lickety split and sometimes they linger in my notebook and rattle around my brain for months or even years. Once I write them down I try to read them aloud once a day, and if I haven’t been making one of them happen, this can feel like a soft rebuke. That’s how #2 has been for me this month. I seem to have forgotten how to do it or what it even means.

It occurred to me that the way there might be through writer candy—easy-to-access and reliably pleasurable writing-related activities. So I came up with a list of them:

  • Prompts. They’re quick and low stakes, and they almost always yield something unexpected. Look for lists of prompts online, pick up the book 642 Things to Write About, or take Leslie Pietrzyk’s bitchin’ Right Brain Writing workshop.

  • Word lists. I’ve been keeping word lists in various notebooks for as long as I’ve been writing. Anytime I come across a word I want to learn or move from my receptive to my productive lexicon, I jot it down. Simply going back to these lists and reading them makes me happy.

  • Libraries. Just being in a library, I feel myself becoming a better writer. I browse new titles and nearly always come across a book I’ve been wanting to read. It’s invigorating.

  • Novels. Reading the novel you want to read, not the one you think you should read, just delving into it Netflix style, may be the lowest-hanging fruit there is for climbing our way back into the tree of writerly productivity because it drops us instantly and easily into the language and rhythm of story.

  • Snarky usage books. Okay, one snarky usage book: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. This guy managed to subtweet The New Yorker in a book: “If you’re going to have a house style, try not to have one that’s visible from space.”

  • Thesauruses. The physical, hold-in-your-hands, made-of-paper kind. Just browse one! I especially like J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. It’s fun to pore over how words relate to each other and to fill your brain with exciting new possibilities for your own writing—for when you’re in the mood to write again. Add them to your word list!

Think of all this stuff as writer self-care, maybe even writer kale, not candy.

There are times for ruthless discipline in the writing life, but there are also times for knowing not to push ourselves. In those times, gobbling up writing sweets may be the best reminder of why we do this, the best way to renew and refresh until our muse returns.

I let myself indulge in them this summer, got back to submitting, and even landed an acceptance or two. More important, I wrote again for the love of it.

Mathina Calliope is a writing coach, teacher, editor, and writer whose coaching is informed by more than twenty years’ experience teaching students ages 9 to 89. Her years in the classroom, plus an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and an M.Ed. in teaching, have given her powerful pedagogical tools to use with her clients. Her words can be found or are forthcoming in the Wall Street Journal, Outside Magazine, Longreads, HuffPost, Real Simple, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere.

Masterful Wordsmithing and Metaphor with Imagery

After several posts about legal rights, I thought it was time to talk about writing again! Thanks to C.S. Lakin for letting me share this wonderful blog. And don’t forget to register for WriterCon!

Metaphors, similes, and creative imagery can be useful, creative tools for relaying emotion. In case you don’t remember, a metaphor, according to Reedsy, is “a literary device that imaginatively draws a comparison between two unlike things. It does this by stating that Thing A is Thing B.” A simile compares things, usually with as or like.

Filmmakers carefully construct image systems similar to how writers use motifs in fiction: with color, placement, sound, or emblematic imagery. They are used to subtly manipulate the emotional state of the viewer.

Take the time to add these skills to your writer’s toolbox because they will help you become an emotional master.

Let’s look at some examples, first from my novel, Intended for Harm:

Jake groaned, unaware and uncaring whether his boys were standing there or had left. The moment muddled, miring him like quicksand, sucking him down, down.

Sinking in quicksand brings to mind panic, danger, being smothered, out of control. With that image, we get what Jake is feeling without needing to explain or name the emotion.

Here’s an example from Candace Fox’s Redemption:

My body longed for her, a heavy hunger that set my teeth on edge.

Fox elaborates on the simple understanding of longing by likening it to not only a feeling (hunger) but also one that creates a physical response (setting his teeth on edge).

Here are some other wonderful examples of metaphor:

Dean Koontz’s Seize the Night:

Bobby Holloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cart wheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

The parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.

Maggie Stiefvater’s Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception:

Delia was an overbearing cake with condescending frosting, and frankly, I was on a diet.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars:

The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light. (And) My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations

Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass:

Wishes are thorns, he told himself sharply. They do us no good, just stick into our skin and hurt us.

It Must Fit the Character

As with everything in your scene, if your character is going to speak or think, it has to fit their personality as well as be appropriate for the moment. Don’t try to be clever or gush in purple prose. And don’t overdo the metaphors and similes (or mix them) unless you purposely portray a character that tends to do so.

Take a look at a brief section of the opening of Mariah Fredericks’s A Death of No Importance:

Many decades have passed. There is no one now living who experienced that particular horror—except for myself. And who am I to claim to know the truth behind what may have been the first of the many Crimes of the Century?

Nobody. Less than nobody.

I was Charlotte Benchley’s maid.

But before you dismiss my tale as a gain-inspired fantasy of a woman seeking brief, cheap fame, let me say something. It is the life’s work of some to pay attention to things others wish to ignore. If it is your job to make sure the silver is clean, you must have a sharp eye for tarnish. If the sheets are to be smooth and straight, you must first find the wrinkles. In the matter of the Benchleys and the Newsomes, I saw the tarnish, the wrinkles, and the dirt.

The metaphor of the tarnish, wrinkles, and dirt is perfect for this maid’s character, voice, and vocation in that era.

Here’s a passage from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. Look for the brilliant imagery and use of metaphors.

He makes his way to the living room. The record player by the love seat skips as it spins a record long driven to its end, the static intensifying as he approaches. But Chopin goes on, somewhere beyond reach. He follows it, head tilted for the source. And there, on the kitchen table, beside the gallon of milk on its side, the liquid coming down in white strings like a tablecloth in a nightmare, a red eye winking. The stereo she bought at Goodwill, the one that fits in her apron pocket as she works, the one she slides under her pillowcase during rainstorms, the Nocturnes growing louder after each thunderclap. It sits in the pool of milk, as if the music was composed for it alone. In the boy’s single-use body, anything’s possible. So he covers the eye with his finger, to make sure he’s still real, then he takes the radio. The music in his hands dripping milk, he opens the front door. It is summer. The strays beyond the railroad are barking, which means something, a rabbit or possum, has just slipped out of its life and into the world. The piano notes seep through the boy’s chest as he makes his way to the backyard. Because something in him knew she’d be there. That she was waiting. Because that’s what mothers do. They wait. They stand still until their children belong to someone else.

Sure enough, there she is, standing at the far end of the little chain-link yard, beside a flattened basketball, her back to him. Her shoulders are narrower than he remembers from hours ago, when she tucked him into bed, her eyes glazed and pink. Her nightgown, made from an oversized T-shirt, is torn in the back, exposing her shoulder blade, white as a halved apple. A cigarette floats to the left of her head. He walks up to her. He walks up to his mother with music in his arms, shaking. She’s hunched, distorted, tiny, as if crushed by the air alone.

“I hate you,” he says.

He studies her, to see what language can do—but she doesn’t flinch. Only halfway turns her head. The cigarette, its ember bead, rises to her lips, then flutters near her chin.

“I don’t want you to be my mom anymore.” His voice strangely deeper, more full.

“You hear me? You’re a monster—”

And with that her head is lopped off its shoulders.

No, she’s bending over, examining something between her feet. The cigarette hangs in the air. He reaches for it. The burn he expects doesn’t come. Instead, his hand crawls. Opening his palm, he discovers the firefly’s severed torso, the green blood darkening on his skin. He looks up—it’s just him and the radio standing beside a flat basketball in the middle of summer. The dogs now silent. And full.

“Ma,” he says to no one, his eyes filling, “I didn’t mean it.”

There’s the liquid coming down in white strings like a tablecloth in a nightmare, the pocket radio like a red eye winkingThe piano notes seep through the boy’s chest. Her shoulder blade, white as a halved apple. The simile: She’s hunched, distorted, tiny, as if crushed by the air alone. Striking imagery that evokes strong mood.

Singular words stand out to me: the floating cigarette, that flutters near her chin.

The character doesn’t convey any emotion until we see him shaking as he approaches his mother. No emotion is revealed when he names his emotion: he tells his mother he hates her. When she bends over, he sees it as her head is lopped off (wishful thinking?). And then the bigger surprise—his mother isn’t there. Was she ever? Did he imagine her? Or did she leave him while he was examining the dead bug?

That dead bug, the flat basketball (think of what all that might symbolize or imply), the spilled milk, the skipping record. All those little bits weave a potent mood and backdrop to this moment that makes us long to read on.

This is beautiful, masterful writing.

Push Beyond the Boring and Predictable

Often the reason a character emoting doesn’t move us is the writer uses boring, predictable descriptions. It’s easy to fall into tropes. It takes time and work to develop a writing style that fits genre and sets you apart as an author.

There’s something to be said about a masterful writer whose style, in and of itself—syntax, choice of words, ways of presenting life through his eyes—moves us emotionally. Humor, cynicism, deep insights into the human condition, the brilliant turn of a phrase or use of metaphor all can have profound effect on us as readers.

I can’t teach you how to find your special writing style. That’s something you have to find by reading and writing. It takes thousands of hours of practice to become proficient enough in writing fiction to get beyond focusing on the mechanics (“Did I structure this sentence correctly?”) to freeing the creative voice inside you—which also requires kicking the self-critical editor off your shoulder while you write. This is why freewriting without restraint is so helpful.

Here’s a passage I grabbed out of Kathryn Megendie’s amazing novel Tender Graces:

When Grandmother Laudine drove up in her shiny black Chevrolet pickup truck with her umpteenth husband she’d asked us to call Uncle Runt, the rain had turned into the skinny stinging kind. I watched out the open door as Grandmother blobbered towards me. She hollered back to Runt and the storm took her words out of her mouth and scattered them to faraway places. Runt went back to the truck while Grandmother barreled into our living room. We kids lined up to get a good look at her.

She wore a pink pantsuit with pockets the size of my head, tissues sticking up in one and a bottle of Milk of Magnesia in the other. Her britches stopped above her ankles, and she had on pink bobby socks with lace, and white tenny shoes with pink shoelaces. Her hair wasn’t hers at all, but a big poofy wig that held raindrops like sparkly diamonds. When she hugged on me, she smelled like Vicks VapoRub.

Megendie could have written all that in a very expected, common, boring way. But look at how she twists words in new ways, all the while giving insight into her POV character with a unique voice and way of looking at her world.

Not all of us are such gifted wordsmiths, but we can all take time to rework our exposition into powerful, moving prose.

Readers can be emotionally moved by the lingering effect of an entire scene or a singular word. Words are powerful. Don’t neglect the need to become a masterful wordsmith in order to become a master of the emotional craft.

This post originally appeared in Jane Friedman’s terrific blog.

Learn more about C.S. Lakin.

Protecting Your Work

I’m not sure why, but there seems to be a pervasive fear among the pre-published that their creative work will be stolen before they finish writing it. I hear this at my writing retreats almost every time. “What if someone steals my idea?” or “I don’t want to share my big plot twist because someone might copy it.” I try to comfort them, explaining that this really doesn’t happen in the book world—but they are rarely assuaged. I don’t know if this is the normal anxiety of the creative, or abnormal egoism suggesting their concept is so brilliant anyone could have a bestseller if they just heard a whisper of the central idea. Let me try to set the record straight and, I hope, put some minds to rest.

You Can’t Protect Ideas. Everyone knows the primary protection for written work is the copyright—but you can’t copyright ideas. Only written work. Until you’ve written it down, there’s nothing to protect (and even then, you’re protecting your arrangement of words, not the ideas underlying them). Arthur C. Clarke once famously came up with the idea of communication satellites and tried to patent it—without success. You can’t patent an idea. You need an actual invention. Same thing with copyright. You can’t copyright an idea. Only a piece of writing.

The Myth of Bestselling Ideas. Perhaps you think your concept is so unique anyone could make a success of it. The history of literature suggests otherwise. Granted, there is a lot of talk in New York publishing houses about “high concept”—a clever juxtaposition of popular tropes, or perhaps a reversal of norms, so unique that a brief description of the premise creates interest in the book. To be sure, a good tagline can help generate interest. But at the end of the day, the only thing that can make a book a success is good, immersive writing. Typically, many books can and will be written on the same general concept. The one that emerges with the best sales is not necessarily the first one. The most successful book will be the best one. Something some other writer cobbled together in a hurry is not going to steal your thunder.

Bottom line—even with so-called high concept novels, it is rarely the idea that makes the book a success. It’s the quality of the writing. The best way to protect your idea will be to work hard, write every day, produce a high-quality novel employing your idea—and get it into print. So share your work with colleagues, beta readers, agents, and editors, and stop worrying about it.

Do I Need a Copyright? Copyright is not necessary to protect your work. Your writing is automatically protected the moment you write it down. You obtain a formal copyright (which you can do online—www.copyright.gov) to create proof in the event ownership should be challenged. In other words, you’re not creating a copyright, you’re proving it was already in existence on a date certain.

Is it worth it? If it gives you peace of mind, sure. But the truth is, this will only be relevant in the extremely unlikely event that someone steals this unpublished work by an unknown writer, publishes it, and makes money off it. What are the chances of that happening?

Public Domain. Are you concerned that your work might accidentally slip into the public domain if you don’t protect it? Perhaps you’ve read about moviemakers who lost their rights because they didn’t guard them zealously. That doesn’t happen to books. In our world, work is copyrighted for the life of the author PLUS seventy years—long enough to protect you and a generation or two of your heirs. The only way your work can slip into the public arena is if you purposefully choose to make available to one and all—say, through the Creative Commons license, or some similar program by which authors deliberately make their work available and reproducible by the public. Even if you do that, though, you still retain the copyright. It’s no different from signing a contract with a publishing house. You license the right to publish the book—but you do not give away your copyright.

I think some of this insecurity arises because we live in a world where moves and tv shows get more media attention than books (which is so wrong, but don’t get me started). You hear stories out of Hollywood about people stealing ideas and being sued because someone alleges they stole an idea. This happens in large part because these media projects are by nature collaborative. Many people are involved in the production of a film, including, typically, the writing of the screenplay. Over the course of multiple drafts of multiple screenplays, some ideas may be retained, but not everyone’s name will appear in the final credits (much less on a check). So lawsuits happen, but they are expensive and rarely successful. Unless you’re collaborating with hundreds of people on your book, you should able to avoid this problem.

What About eBook Piracy? You may have read about people who have created self-pubbed eBooks on Amazon by duplicating the work of other writers, in whole or in part. This sadly is happening—but it’s not the idea being stolen, it’s the entire book or large portions of it. Amazon will pull a pirated book—when this is brought to their attention. Most of these people are trying to make some quick money before they’re caught. It’s sad that people like this exist in the world, but there’s nothing new about unscrupulously losers trying to rip off artists. If you’ve been listening to my podcast (and if not, why aren’t you?), you’ve heard me praise Nora Roberts, who has taken action against one such South American author. She realizes that not every writer has the financial wherewithal to fight this fight—so she will. She’s a hero in our own time.

The Importance of Exposure. One last thought—it’s just possible that unrestrained distribution of your work, or some of it, might be to your benefit. You’re probably aware that some people are giving away eBooks, making them available for free—to generate interest in their work. Paulo Coelho says he pirates his own work to gain exposure—and it works. People like Anna Todd, the author of After (now a major film), have made their work available free of charge on Wattpad to generate a following, and that exposure has led to six-digit contracts with established publishing houses. Andy Weir famously posted The Martian on his webpage, chapter-by-chapter, getting feedback that helped him make that book a runaway success.

Here are my Final Thoughts: I’m glad you have confidence in your ideas and your work. That’s a good sign. But the best thing you can do now is stop worrying about bogeymen in the closet and focus on finishing your book. Make it the best book you can, attend a conference to learn how to survive in the book world, and get your work into print. Become the success story you want—and then you’ll never have to worry about insubstantial specters again. Because you’ll be too busy worrying about what to write next.

Writing Retreats

WriterCon 2019

Red Sneaker Writers podcast (available here or wherever you get podcasts)

Writing Conferences: Five Tips on How You Can Benefit Most

WriterCon is fast approaching (August 30-Sept 2 in Oklahoma City), so it seems appropriate to share an excellent blog from one of my partners in the conference, Write Well Sell Well’s Rene Gutteridge—friend and insanely talented writer. Here are her thoughts on making the most of writers conferences, which were critical to her success in the writing world.

I distinctly remember the first conference I ever went to.  I still to this day don’t know how I got the mailing list, but a postcard announcing the conference came shortly after I’d made the decision to pursue a publishing career.  It was like I was meant to go.

That turned out to be true.

I arrived with not a clue what I was getting myself into, but it felt like I’d come to a Disneyland for writers.  Courses on character!  Plot!  And they even had genre specific classes.  That conference began my education into publishing and fiction.  I’d learned plenty about writing in college, but this was another level—specific levels—that elevated me and put me in real contention to get published.

I kept hearing the statistics—how hard it is to get published—but I understood pretty quickly that, armed with the knowledge I was gaining at these conferences, I was going to have the upper hand against people who were perhaps writing at my same level but didn’t know how to put a proposal together. Or were missing a crucial understanding of POV. Or how to pitch face-to-face with an editor.  I was gaining knowledge almost faster than I could absorb it.

I attended every conference I could afford and continued to not only expand my knowledge of publishing fiction, but also my network.  I met writers, editors, agents.  I realized this was the world I needed to be dwelling in, and I made a point to go when I could—to local conferences, to big conferences, to small conferences.

It paid off.  I landed my first publishing contract by conference.  And I also found my agent at a conference.

With that encouragement, I’d like to give you five tips for making the most of your conferences.  You bet it’s an investment.  When I was learning the craft, I’d pay anywhere from $100 to $1000, but I saw it as an investment into my career.  And if you’re going to invest money, big or small, you might as well make it count.

So here are five tips for you—some of them may be surprising—but I think they’ll pay off for you in the end.

COME PREPARED.  I have a trick when I buy a car. I learned it from my brother-in-law who used to sell cars while he went through seminary. And it’s this: carry a folder.  Josh told me that when a sales guy sees you with a folder, they make the assumption that you’ve done your research.  It cuts through a bunch of junk and gets you right down to business.  Folders, no matter what arena, give the impression you have your stuff together, even if it’s only, literally, in that folder.

Seems easy enough, but you’d be amazed at how many times I’ve seen what unprepared looks like at a conference.  Even if you don’t have a full manuscript—even if you only have an idea—get yourself some business cards and a nice looking folder.  That does wonders for perception.  You can store notes in it, carry your business cards and a pen, and look intentional.

But preparation goes far beyond just perception.  You actually need to do some research, especially when you’re attending a bigger conference that will offer you chances to meet editors and agents.  The worst thing you can do is sit down in a one-on-one and have no idea with whom you’re meeting.

“Can you tell me what kinds of books you represent?” is the last thing that should come out of your mouth.  If you’re at the point that you’re ready to pitch to editors and agents, spend the time researching who they are, what they’re looking for, and other essentials that will show them you’re serious about your meeting with them.

Last, even if a conference has casual attire, make sure you look pulled together.  Your favorite “I SKIED BRECKENRIDGE” sweatshirt from 2001, while perhaps the comfy sweatshirt you write in, should not be the outfit you’re wearing when you’re trying to impress an editor.  Jeans (your nice ones) or slacks, and a business-casual top should be just fine.  An editor has two things on his or her mind when they’re assessing you: Can she write?  Can she finish?  A lot of people can write.  Finishing is another ordeal and whether you know it or not, they’re assessing you to see if you’re going to be a reliable author.  So dress like you mean it!

WATCH YOUR MANNERS.  Let me share a scenario I see often at conferences.  Two people are talking.  One is engaged in the conversation.  The other is trying to be, but his or her eyes are darting around the room instead.  You know what they’re looking for?

Someone more important.

They’re hoping to run into the editor they’ve been meaning to make an appointment with.  Or brush elbows with the keynoter.

I’ve been engaged in a dozen or more of these kinds of conversations.  While I understand the motivation isn’t to be rude, but rather maximize your time there, you must understand what a small world the publishing business is.  An editor that you’re blowing off at the moment could very well move the next month to the publishing house you’re hoping to land at.  Sometimes the publishing world is like watching musical chairs.

Here’s a true story.  I was teaching at a conference once when a woman I’d been chatting with here and there stood in line with me for lunch.  She expressed that she didn’t have anybody to sit with.  I was with a group of writers I’d planned to sit with, but I didn’t want her to be alone and the tables only held a handful of people, so I told her that I’d be happy to sit with her.  We got our trays and were headed to a table when suddenly the big keynoter walked by.  She said hello and something else to him but I kept walking to find a table.  A few seconds later she was by my side.

“He asked me to come sit at his table! There’s just one seat, so…”  Her eyes were wide with excitement and off she went to sit with him, leaving me now alone.

It made a pretty big impact on me.  It told me something about her, but it also told me something about me. I knew, whatever the case, I didn’t want to be that person.  My own personal philosophy is that I’ll meet the people God wants me to meet.  I never want to make someone feel “less than” because there’s somebody “more than” nearby.  I have followed this philosophy for a long time, and let me assure you, it will build you a hearty and good reputation.  And all those people you’re supposed to meet?  You’ll find your way to each other.

And by the way, you never know when that “less than” will move up in the world and become the person you end up wanting to make an appointment with someday.  So be kind and not dismissive.  Spend time with people who can’t do anything for you.  While you’re building a great network, you’ll also begin building a great community for yourself.  Some of my closest friends have been found at writer’s conferences.  They can’t do a thing to get my book published, but you better believe they’re the people I call up when I’m struggling through some things.

LISTEN MORE THAN YOU SPEAK.  I’ve been teaching at conferences for twenty years, and there are two kinds of people—the talkers and the listeners.  And a listener by nature may turn into a talker just from sheer nerves.  But I’ve experienced it and observed it…a person gets a few minutes alone with someone who might have some good advice for them, but they use the entire time to talk about themselves or their project.

My advice has always been to go for the 20/80 talk rule…talk being the twenty percent.  Of course you need to state why you’re there and what your book is about, or why you want to talk to them, but then is the time to pull out a pad and pencil and take some notes.  If they ask you a question, be ready to answer.  Put a lot of thought into your pitch before the conference ever starts.  I’ve seen writers blow their 15 minutes by using the entire time to explain their book because they haven’t practiced how to pitch it succinctly.

If you happen to meet with an editor who hears your pitch and passes on it pretty quickly, be ready with some additional questions like, “What’s your best advice on how to get published?”  Or “Could you recommend someone who might be more interested in this topic?”  Or “What’s the biggest mistake you see from unpublished writers?” Utilize your time productively so that you can get the most out of it.  That means listening.  And it’ll make an impression on the person you’re with. They’ll know immediately you’re someone willing to learn.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been surprised by how much I learn from just listening.  Sometimes at a table I’ll tune into a conversation that doesn’t have much to do with what I’m interested in, but I still gain some knowledge just by listening.

Some people have a tactic of coming in hot, pitching the book like it’s a Ted Talk, and leaving no room for the editor or agent to give feedback or recommendations.  Get your pitch down, ask questions for sure, but leave some room for the other person to talk.

COME OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE.  Through the years of going to conferences, I’ve often watched with envy writers who are extroverts.  They can hold a room. They can tell a joke! They’re savvy negotiators of people’s attention and time.

Then there’s me.

On a scale from zero to cave-dweller, you can probably guess where I land.  Let’s just say I have to be intentional about getting enough vitamin D in my life.

By nature, many writers tend to be introverts.  We have our small circle of reliable friends and family and that’s about all we can emotionally manage.

Over the years I’ve learned to be more extroverted, partially because once you become a published writer, you no longer have the luxury of dwelling only in imaginary worlds. Turns out people want to meet you.

I’ve adjusted okay, but at the end of the day, I still have to spend a lot of time alone to recharge.

Maybe you can relate.  You desperately want to be at the writer’s conference, if it weren’t for all the people.

I wish I had some better news for you, but you’re going to have to come out of your comfort zone.

One thing that I’m terrible at is making the initiative to meet someone.  There may be someone that I want to meet.  And there they are, standing in the corner, nobody around them.  I’m twenty feet away. All I have to do is walk over and say hello!

Or go get a coffee.  And off I go for coffee.

I think I’ve probably missed some good opportunities to meet some fantastic people just because I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone.  So I urge you to be different than me.  I promise you, it’s not going to kill you—and it turns out talking to people is the only way to meet and get to know them. I wish I could give you other options, but a handshake is where it starts if you want to leave a lasting impression.

And you don’t have to be the life of the party, by the way.  A simple conversation will do the trick.  Leave your best jokes at home and put your best foot forward instead.  Not every encounter is going to be a hit, but the ones that are supposed to remain with you, will.

RELAX AND LEARN.  When I was young and flying from city to city, going to conference after conference, there was a certain frenetic impulse I felt.  “What if” followed me around a lot and did some whispering in my ear.  “What if they don’t like your work?”  “What if the editor rejects your chapters?”  “What if that agent you think is supposed to be yours dismisses you?”  “What if your zipper’s down?”  “What if you forget all your words?”

Boy did I put a lot of pressure on myself back then.  I had this idea that I was going to make or break my career at a writer’s conference.  While it’s true that I did sell my first book at a conference, I don’t think feeling frantic did me any favors.

To me, the best favor you can do for yourself is come with the expectation of learning not selling.  If you’re able to absorb the information,  you’re going to be a better and better writer.  The time will come when you’ll find yourself in front of the right people at the right time.  And because you’ve been educating yourself, you’ll be ready.

On that fateful day when I sold my first book, it was the last place I thought it would happen.  It was on a writing cruise.  There was only one editor there.  What were the chances that he’d be the one?

He was taking 15 minute appointments on the deck (what a place, eh?) and I came with a sheet of several ideas and books I’d been working on, barely noticing the ocean passing us by.  I began pitching them (succinctly, like I’d learned to do at the other conferences) and it was a bit brutal.

Pitch #1 – “Nope. Already done by so-and-so author.”

Pitch #2 – “Nah. Readers aren’t into that genre right now.”

Pitch #3 – “Don’t like it. At all.”

On and on this went until I finally got to the bottom of the page. I’d run out of pitches.  He looked at me.  “Do you have anything else?”

“Well…”  I had this idea I’d been working on in my head on the plane there.  I didn’t have much more than the title and the basic idea.  “I have this idea called Ghost Writer and it’s about a New York editor who begins receiving pages of an anonymous manuscript about the secrets of his life.”

His eyes lit up.  “THAT’S the one I want to see!”

And that became my debut novel.

You just never know when it’s all going to come together…the timing, the person, the pages, the moment.  Ghost Writer ended up being the first book I published.  Pitched smack-dab in the middle of an ocean. I didn’t see that one coming.

Go to learn.  Prepare to pitch.  Listen.  Absorb.  Meet and greet.  Do this over and over, as many times as you can, at as many conferences and retreats as you can afford.  Consider attending free webinars.  Join a local writer’s group.  Immerse yourself in this world and it will pay off for you, in more ways than one.

WriterCon

When Do I Need Permission?

This time I’m going to discuss a topic that arises again and again at my writing retreats and WriterCon.

When do I need permission?

To write? Never. Wait around for that and you’ll never publish anything.

To mention celebrities in my book? Never. But I would be careful about what you say. Why offend? You don’t need a lawsuit in your life.

To mention real-life places? Never, but again, don’t ask for trouble. If the description is going to be negative in some way, make it up, like my make-believe country club in Cruel Justice. There are country clubs in Tulsa, but since the one in my book was going to have a bad father and potential child murderer on the grounds, I made one up. And just to be safe, I put it in a location where no country club in Tulsa could possibly be. No lawsuits. (But a few emails from folks telling me they’d been to Tulsa and couldn’t find the country club.)

To mention the title of a book, song, or movie? Never. That’s like referencing a fact. You aren’t infringing on anything copyrighted so you don't need permission.

To include a link to something on the web? Never. It’s just a link. This is true even if the link is to something that shouldn’t be on the web, like work still in copyright. You can’t upload copyrighted work, but if someone else has, you can link to it.

To quote something in the public domain? Never. If it’s not protected by copyright, you can quote with wild abandon. Currently under US law, everything published before 1923 (and some work published after) is in the pubic domain.

To quote or reproduce someone else’s creative work?

Ah, now we have a tricky question. This takes us into the realm of permission and fair use, so I’m going to get legal on you, but I hasten to say (as I am required to do) that I am not your lawyer, I do not represent you, this should in no way taken as me offering legal advice, and you should always consult your own attorney before taking action. Understood?

I frequently see manuscripts from writers in my Patreon program that use song lyrics as an epigraph. I had one recently with dozens of song lyrics spread throughout the book (you know who you are). Generally speaking, if you want to quote more than one line of a lyric, you need to ask for permission and you will almost certainly be paying someone a licensing fee. What constitutes one line? There is no clear legal opinion on that. Is it a musical phrase? A complete sentence? No one knows for sure, so again, my advice is, don’t risk it. Use as little as possible, or none at all.

For one of my earliest novels, Perfect Justice, I wanted to use a Mary Chapin-Carpenter song lyric that I thought beautifully and meaningfully reflected the theme of the book. Just four phrases, arguably two lines. And my publisher told me they’d contacted her music publisher and this would be no problem. They’d just deduct the $800 from my royalties.

I switched to a quote from Blaise Pascal. He’s long dead and thus no longer charging a fee.

How much can you quote from a source? Some people still say one line, even when you’re quoting prose. Some have tossed around a “300 words” rule. Some say no more than 10% of an article. But none of these rules are enshrined in law anywhere. They are guidelines, not absolutes. So the safest course is always to err on the side of quoting as little as possible.

This leads us to the doctrine of “fair use,” one of the muddiest areas of the law. Courts have allowed critics and other nonfiction writers to quote copyrighted work, but what constitutes “fair use” is a judgment call, and getting judgments from judges is expensive and risky. Courts will apply four criteria to the decision:

1) Purpose: Is the quote for commercial use, or not-for-profit/educational use?

2) Nature: Facts can’t be protected, but creative work gets the strongest possible protection.

3) Quantity: The more you quote, the more likely you are to run into trouble. Most publishers limit quotations to 200-300 words from a single source.

4) Market Impact: Will your quoting deter readers from purchasing the quoted work? Have you made the source unnecessary or irrelevant?

The safest course, natch, is to not quote. But if you must and you think there’s potential danger, ask your publisher, or if you don’t have one, consult an intellectual property lawyer.

Remember: Identifying or citing the course does NOT mean you no longer need permission to quote.

And by the way, the same essential rules apply to visual works. Get permission, pay a fee.

All clear? Just in case you still have questions, here’ s a link to an excellent article discussing other copyright issues: https://www.copylaw.org/2013/12/12-copyright-permission-myths.html

By the way, my new Daniel Pike novel, Court of Killers, can be pre-ordered now! It contains no discussion of copyright issues whatsoever, promise.

Cruel Justice

Perfect Justice

Bill’s Patreon Mentoring Program

Bernhardt Writing Retreats

WriterCon 2019

Don't Let Readers Abandon Your Book

My guest blog this week comes from a terrific writer and teacher, H.R. D’Costa:

Book abandonment.

Yep, it’s a thing. The scenario looks like this:

Readers discover your book, perhaps by browsing the categories on Amazon, perhaps through a Bookbub ad. And with so many enticements—

  • steeply discounted price

  • mouthwateringly gorgeous book cover

  • compelling book description

—they click the buy button. But after the first chapter, the third chapter, or even the first half of your book, they abandon your novel—never to return again.

Therein lies the fatal flaw of the marketing tactics mentioned above. While they’re essential for readers to discover your book, they can’t get readers to finish your book. And if readers don’t finish your book, then all your savvy marketing plans are for naught.

On the other hand, if you create the kind of emotional experience that readers crave, they won’t be able to put your book down—and you’re one step closer to igniting word of mouth that can help you effortlessly sell your novel, month after month, year after year.

That’s why improving your craft is an essential component of your marketing strategy (although, at first glance, it might not seem like it). But what storytelling elements should you focus on?

I humbly suggest an element that might not even be on your radar: the stakes, or the negative consequences of failure. Without stakes, your protagonist doesn’t have a reason to keep on pursuing his goal. Readers may question why he perseveres despite the obstacles mounted against him. Once readers question the plot, they’ll disengage from your story. And once they disengage…well, book abandonment becomes almost inevitable.

With stakes, however, the protagonist does have a reason to continue—and there’s no cause for readers to disengage. Not only that, stakes put readers under tension. That’s because they don’t know how your protagonist is going to avoid those nasty negative consequences. The only way to relieve that tension is to—wait for it—finish your book.

Indeed, when you wield stakes wisely, you’ll create the emotional intensity that’ll make your book impossible to put down. The plotting tricks here (adapted from my writing guide Story Stakes) will show you what to do.

As a quick overview, here they are:

  1. If a multitude of people will suffer if your protagonist fails, focus on a few of them.

  2. Build a subplot around the stakes.

  3. Have your protagonist put some skin in the game.

  4. Bind your protagonist’s failure to the sting of regret.

  5. Take the personal stakes out of play last.

Before we dive in, a few caveats:

  • This article doesn’t really discuss different types of story stakes. If you’re looking for something like that, here’s a convenient, printable list of 11 types of story stakes.

  • I tend to use masculine nouns and pronouns (you may’ve noticed that already). But rest assured, as a female, I know females make amazing protagonists.

  • Because films are more universal, I generally use examples from films to illustrate my points. However, the principles behind the examples apply equally as well to novels.

  • The tips in this article are suitable for novels with elements of physical danger (i.e. thrillers, mysteries, etc.). In other words, the tips are less applicable if you write rom-coms, but you can still save them for future reference!

Okay, with those caveats sorted, let’s get to it.

1. If a multitude of people will suffer if your protagonist fails, focus on a few of them.

The fate of a nation. The fate of the world. Objectively speaking, these are high stakes indeed.

However, it might not feel that way to readers—not at an emotional level. That’s because these stakes are too vast to grasp. Subjectively, these stakes might not generate much emotional weight. As a result, the reader experience can become more of an intellectual exercise, and your story may not contain the emotional intensity you anticipated.

That’s why, if you want readers to invest in your novel, you should draw their attention to the plight of a few individuals within the larger group comprising the stakes.

The connection between readers and this subset creates a conduit for reader emotion to flow through, and thus carry over to the group as a whole. This way, the stakes remain high, and at the same time, they feel high.

To accomplish this, make sure readers get a chance to spend time with the stakes (the subset, to be clear) at the beginning of your novel. Give readers the opportunity to get to know and like the stakes—the same way you give readers an opportunity to know and like your protagonist. To create such an opportunity, consider starting your story with a celebration.

In the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the fate of all Middle-earth hangs in the balance. But audiences worry about the effect of evil on one area in particular: the Shire. Moreover, the connection between audiences and the Shire is formed by depicting preparations for a special birthday party.

Likewise, in Braveheart, William Wallace wants to free all of Scotland from the tyranny of King Edward I. But audience investment in this worthy goal emerges, in part, from their connection to Wallace’s own village—which they get to know through scenes depicting a wedding.

Once you’ve created a bond between readers and the stakes, you’re not home free yet.

If you don’t take the appropriate measures, this bond can slowly wither. Consequently, readers won’t be as emotionally invested in the climax, whose outcome will determine what’ll happen to the stakes.

To prevent this, take the time to fortify the reader-stake bond. Periodically remind readers about the stakes throughout your novel.

Just to be clear, the same techniques should be used even when your protagonist is only charged with saving one or two people (as opposed to a multitude). Forge a bond between readers and the stakes, then maintain it.

2. Build a subplot around the stakes.

Need to get your novel to the right length? Subplots are quite handy for that. You accrue even more benefits when you build a subplot around the stakes. That’s because doing so also enables you to accomplish the aims discussed above, namely:

  • forming a connection between readers and a subset of the stakes

  • bringing the stakes to the forefront of your story in a natural way (i.e. subplots = stake reminders)

To build a stake-based subplot, it might be useful to view it according to Scott Myers’s definition of the small story:

I read a lot of scripts, and one recurring issue I find, regardless of genre, is a lack of emotional resonance. There can be all this huge stuff going on in the plot, literally in a sci-fi story at the scale of blowing up an entire planet, but if there aren’t points of connection for a script reader to the story’s characters, where we actually feel something authentic for them, then the effect can be so much noise.

That’s why I have this writing mantra: Substantial Saga / Small Story. That is whatever the bigstory is, what I call the Plotline, there have to be some intimate subplots and dynamics going on which engender a human connection between the reader and the characters.

To show you how you might integrate a small story into your own novel, let’s play around with the plot of Wonder Woman. In it, moviegoers got the “substantial saga” of World War I. But they didn’t get the “small story.” Let’s fix that.

In the film, Diana and Steve rescue a village which, despite their heroic efforts, is ultimately destroyed. Poignant stuff, to be sure. But now imagine how much more poignant it would be if a subplot were built around this village.

For example, the film could introduce this village to audiences long before Diana and Steve arrive there, and highlight the attempts of one or two villagers to survive amidst the chaos.

As in the actual film, the outcome of the war would hinge on Diana and Steve’s actions. But in this alternate version, audiences would feel the effect of those actions through their connection to the villagers.

Furthermore, because audiences have gotten to know the villagers through the small story, when Diana and Steve finally arrive on scene, audience joy over the rescue of the village is going to crest higher. At the same time, audience pain over the village’s ultimate destruction will cut deeper.

3. Have your protagonist put some skin in the game.

It’s a basic truth: By and large, readers invest more in your protagonist than in any other character. So when you use this plotting trick and make your stakes personal—when your protagonist’s potential failure directly affects him—your story will have greater emotional intensity. It’ll be even more difficult to put down.

Returning to The Fellowship of the Ring, the Shire is home to Frodo, one of the central protagonists. Because audiences have invested in him, the potential destruction of the Shire carries more emotional weight than if it were a place that wasn’t so near and dear to Frodo’s heart.

However, “skin in the game” means you usually have to go beyond a protagonist’s connection to a place and focus on his connection to a person. Someone close to him—

  • love interest

  • child

  • mentor

  • friend

—will die (or suffer other grave consequences) if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal.

At this moment, you might be recoiling from this idea. Indeed, many writers resist it because it occurs too often. That’s their argument, at least. But if you’ve done your job well—and readers have emotionally invested in your protagonist as well as in the stakes—then readers will be too engrossed in your novel to compare it to something else.

Think about the ending of Ant-Man. I doubt any members of the audience were thinking, “I can’t believe the hero’s daughter was taken captive by the bad guy.” The same exact thing happened at the end of Live Free or Die Hard.

No, I’d wager audience members were thinking, “How in the world is Scott going to save Cassie in time?”

If you still remain unconvinced, well, maybe you can try out the next plotting trick instead.

4. Bind your protagonist’s failure to the sting of regret.

Here’s how this works: Although your protagonist has a dream, he hasn’t been pursuing it. He’s all talk (or thought), no action. Then the inciting incident comes along, bringing with it a new goal for the protagonist to pursue, the overall goal driving the main plot of the story.

Now, the protagonist can’t pursue his dream at all. That’s not an option anymore. Instead, he must save the world, save the day—whatever the overall goal may be. And now, failure carries double meaning.

It doesn’t just mean that the day won’t be saved. It also means that the protagonist, having lost all chance of pursuing his dream, will be consumed by regret. This, you’ll note, makes a bad situation feel even worse, which is why this trick is so effective at adding another emotional layer to your story.

To see it in action, study the film Collateral. If Max fails to outwit a hit man, Max will die, filled with regret. However, if Max succeeds, he’ll not only survive the night; he’ll also be able to start the limo business he has always dreamed about.

At first glance, the limo angle might not seem like it contributes much. But think about it. This dream, along with the specter of regret that accompanies it, is much more relatable than dealing with a psychopathic hit man. In other words, it creates another pathway for audiences to connect to the story, thereby supercharging their experience.

That’s not all. If you employ stakes of regret in your own novel, you won’t just be heightening its emotional intensity. You also might motivate your readers to take action and pursue their own dreams—before it’s too late.

5. Take the personal stakes out of play last.

Whenever your story involves general stakes and personal stakes, be careful about when you take the stakes out of play, i.e., bring them to a place of safety.

  • If you take the personal stakes out of play first (e.g. the protagonist rescues her daughter—and then everyone in her daughter’s summer camp), your story ending will be anticlimactic.

  • If you take the general stakes and the personal stakes out of play at the same time (e.g. the protagonist rescues everyone at summer camp, including her daughter), your ending won’t be anticlimactic (not for this reason, at least).

However, you will be missing out on an opportunity to elicit even more emotion from your readers.

To take advantage of this opportunity, take the general stakes out of play BEFORE the personal stakes (e.g., the protagonist rescues her daughter’s campmates, and then her daughter). Notice, to accomplish this, you’ll probably have to come up with a credible way to separate the personal stakes (in this case, the daughter) from the general stakes (the other girls at summer camp).

But why bother?

Remember, readers are emotionally aligned with the story’s protagonist. Consequently, they’re going to have a stronger emotional response when they see the protagonist rescue her daughter than when they see the protagonist rescue the other girls. By virtue of contrast, the latter half of the climax is going to feel escalated compared to its initial half. As a result, the reader experience—already intense—is going to feel even more intense.

Confession: This plotting trick isn’t like the others. Whether you use it at the climax or not, readers aren’t likely to put down your novel at this point. They’ve come too far to throw in the towel now.

Even so, the tactic is still valuable to apply. With it, you’ll prove to readers that you know how to prolong the tension and deliver a roller-coaster ride, right up until the last minute. So when they eventually walk away from your story—not because they’ve abandoned it, but because they’ve reached THE END, and that’s what they’re supposed to do—they’ll eagerly search for the other books you’ve written.

A happy ending, in more ways than one!

Click here for more info about H.R. D’Costa

Click here for more info about Story Stakes

This post originally appeared in Jane Friedman’s wonderful blog.

Revealing Character Emotions

I still remember the moment with clarity. We were doing a Q&A during lunch at the annual writers conference. Someone made the usual comment about how writers should “show, not tell”—and my longtime friend Kathleen Park called us on it. “People always say that,” she countered from the audience. “But let’s face it—sometimes you just have to tell. Otherwise, the story never goes anywhere.”

And you know what? She’s right.

After a long moment of thought, I grasped the discrepancy between what we were saying and what she was saying. When writers talk about “showing,” we’re usually referring not to plot details, but to character emotions (although the same is true of descriptions. Remember what Chekhov said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”) When you simply tell the reader about a character’s emotions, it has little impact. “Sally was sad.” So what? Barely even registers. If you want reader impact, you create a vivid mental image readers can absorb. “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, threw herself on the bed and pounded the pillows, tears streaming from her eyes.” Ok, over the top, but you get the idea. Create a vivid image.

Here’s a question for you. Is that image better with or without the tears? To me, the tears are so obvious it’s better without them. Adding tears comes perilously close to telling.

The task of revealing emotional states is even more challenging when you’re dealing with a character with suppressed or repressed emotions, like my longtime series character Ben Kincaid. Because he tended to keep his feelings bottled up inside, I devised all sorts of indirect indicators to communicate his feelings to the reader. I think these were key to the widespread character empathy that spawned nineteen novels in the series. As you know from reading Creating Character, reader connection to your protagonist is key to immersion in the story. That’s why I encourage you to think about backstory, to complete character job applications, and such. Similarly, in Perfecting Plot, I urged you to think about character arc, hero’s journeys, and the long-form story you’re telling.

How do you reveal the emotions that lie beneath the surface? As it turns out, it’s much the same in fiction as in real life. You can draw from your own experiences to create three-dimensional characters who are still portrayed with art and subtlety.

The first and most obvious approach is body language. We all know the body indicates emotions (far better than words). That’s why we have our characters smile, shrug, breathe deeply, whisper, etc. The problem here is that a little goes a long way, it soon becomes repetitive, and some body-language indicators are so obvious that, once again, it comes perilously close to telling.

Another approach is to deliberately portray the character having an over- or under-reaction. When someone suddenly flies off the handle for no apparent reason, it usually indicates something is simmering inside. My new series character, Daniel Pike, usually appears confident and genial, so if he suddenly erupts, or has any extreme emotion—you know something is bothering him. The same is true for an unnatural under-reaction. Either way, it cues the reader that something unstated is troubling the character, and encourages them to figure out what it is. Another mystery to solve, which always keeps readers turning pages..

You don’t have to be a poker player to know that tics and tells often reveal what someone is thinking. Everyone has a tell, they say, and so should your protagonist. The reader may not recognize the tell at first—but they will in time, and that will be a wonderful epiphanic moment that will not only let them feel smart but will also inspire them to think that you are a skilled and artful writer. Ben Kincaid stuttered when he was worried, or having some other suppressed emotion. Sometimes he tugged at his collar. What’s happening with your character? My advice: try to avoid the obvious—like averting eyes or clearing throats. Come up with something less on-the-nose, something readers may not immediately grasp, but will love when they get it and will relish when it reoccurs—because they now know what it means, without bring told.

You’ve read about the fight-or-flight response. Which will your protagonist choose? Most heroes will fight-eventually. (This is why I never took to the Scooby Doo crew. What kind of heroes run when they see the monster?) But perhaps fighting is not your protagonist’s first response. Maybe it’s something they have to work up to. Will your character freeze? Choke? This might give you an opening for a great character arc. The character eventually finds strength they didn’t realize they possessed.

Finally, consider whether a passive-aggressive response might reveal what is swirling beneath the surface. (This might be better for a sidekick character than the main hero.) Entire books have been written about passive-aggression, but the general idea is that someone superficially acquiesces, but does so in a way that suggests hostility. If you ask your partner if they want to go to the movies and they answer, “We could do that”—well, that isn’t a “Yes!”, is it? Similarly “Sure, if you want to” is passive-aggressive. “You do whatever you want. You always do” is edging closer to plain aggression, but it definitely reveals suppressed emotions. This is another reason to write “off-the-nose” dialogue, which as I explained in Dynamic Dialogue, is often the most interesting dialogue to read.

You can use some or all of these techniques if you find them useful. What is paramount is that your give the reader an opportunity to connect to your main character. When readers identify with a character, even though the character is completely unlike them—that’s when the magic happens. That’s when the reader feels they’re on the page, experiencing this story as it happens, learning the lessons the character learns, without undergoing the misery you put the character through. That is the hallmark of a great book. And you can do it. So start writing.

Creating Character

Perfecting Plot

Dynamic Dialogue

The Last Chance Lawyer (Daniel Pike Book #1)

Writer Con

Writing Retreats

Going Viral: A User's Guide

My guest blogger this week is David Gaughran, author of Amazon Decoded, Bookbub Ads Expert, and all-around expert on author marketing. This piece originally appeared in his newsletter, normally exclusive to those on his mailing list, but he graciously allowed me to reprint it here. David will be a presenter this year at WriterCon. If you’d like to register for his newsletter, click the link at the end of the essay.

Going Viral: A User’s Guide

Nobody knows what truly causes something to go viral.
 
Sure, afterwards, we can all point to something — with the benefit of hindsight — and list off elements which contributed to the explosion in sharing: it had a cute dog bouncing on a trampoline, it had just the right amount of indignation, it was funny, there was a well chosen emoji, it was topical, it tapped into some lingering but unspoken resentment about a hot button issue… that list could go on forever.
 
Trying to assemble a Franken-thing that ticks all those boxes will quickly show you that this retrospective diagnosis is missing something — the X-factor that makes one thing go viral and another thing, which was very like it (or even superior in many ways), do the opposite.
 
This is not going to tell you what that X-factor is. I’m not even sure anyone can answer that with total confidence. If you had to push me, I’d say it’s probably luck, as long as we allow timing to share luck’s umbrella.
 
If you think that’s a dodge, wait for this: it doesn’t matter.
 
Going viral has less value than you think. Unless you are actually interested in celebrity rather than building something more meaningful, then it often has very little lasting value at all. For me at least, I’m a million times more interested in money than fame. If it was an actual choice, I wouldn’t have to think about it at all — give me the bag of gold and I’ll be a happy hermit.
 
This might surprise anyone who hasn’t gone viral. Let me share some experiences.
 
A close friend of mine went viral last week after posting something to Facebook. Her personal page too, not her business or author page. It wasn’t a new release announcement or ad. It wasn’t anything that was going to put money in her pocket or promote or books or company in any way. It was a funny post, but with an underlying serious message that obviously resonated with a lot of people because it got something like 10,000 Facebook shares. That’s a lot of eyeballs on a post that might otherwise have been seen by a couple of dozen or a couple of hundred people.
 
The first thing you should realize about something like this is that you can’t choose what goes viral. You might prefer it to be something which would provide more tangible benefit — like maybe something that had a link to one of your books — but you can’t choose what goes viral.
 
(I should note that these things genuinely can have real value which transcends grubby monetary concerns, and I know that my friend both enjoyed the experience in itself, and was also deeply touched by how that post made so many people feel, but we’re strictly talking about business and marketing stuff here, not the emotions of puny hoo-mans.)
 
And if you start pumping out stuff that is designed to go viral, you just end up turning into a clickbait publisher, telling people 7 Reasons For This and How To Do That and pretty soon you are just regurgitating the historically common elements in viral posts in an empty and robotic way, and your site descends into slideshows of desperation.
 
You can’t choose what goes viral. You can’t make something go viral. And you shouldn’t care either. More personal experience:
 
I’ve gone “viral” a few times. Not like meme-ing my way to an appearance on Ellen, or being shared by George Takei, but my old Wordpress site was officially certified as “Stephen Fry-proof” which was a jokey designation if you were able to handle a sudden, unexpected, and massive spike of traffic, as if you had just been tweeted by Stephen Fry.
 
(In case you don’t know, he’s an English comedian/actor/writer with over 12m Twitter followers who is known for covering a remarkably broad range of issues on his feed, and high engagement too.)
 
In my case, I was actually tweeted by Stephen Fry, so it was literal. I think I had 40,000 visitors in an hour or something insane like that. Luckily, I wasn’t self-hosted at that point or I could have fried my servers (and my pricing plan!). But the good people at Wordpress.com had systems in place to handle viral outbreaks like this and cycle in beefier servers, so the site was able to stay online with barely a burp.
 
Honestly, the first time it happens it’s a huge rush. You are refreshing the numbers every ten seconds, watching them climb and climb and CLIMB. And, of course, because the brain often needs to be treated as a hostile witness, you start thinking, “Maybe I’ve finally made it!” or some such nonsense.
 
I should note that, unlike my friend’s example above, this actually was a blog post that was totally nailed on for my audience, so it was natural to think that the traffic surge would be comprised of people I could potentially sell books to, or at least maybe get blog sign-ups or Twitter followers, or email subscriptions.
 
But none of that really happens, not in meaningful numbers.
 
The first time, I blamed myself. I reorganized my website. I changed up my book links. I made my blog subscription more prominent. Tried to clean up my act and sharpen my hooks, and just make everything look more pro. Next time it happened… well, to be honest, I blamed myself again! And tweaked all that stuff again.
 
After a few times the penny started to drop. (While I am a slow learner, I’m not a total lost cause.)
 
Here’s the deal: this kind of drive-by traffic is… drive-by traffic by definition. The very fact that you have gone viral is usually a sign you have gone beyond your target audience.
 
This kind of traffic isn’t sticky. These people don’t hang around. Well, maybe a handful will, but if you expect a meaningful chunk of the 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 people who clicked on your post — because the planets happened to align that day — to turn into fans or readers or customers or prospects, you are going to be very disappointed. It’s not junk traffic, but you haven’t struck gold either.
 
It’s kind of like press attention, in a way. Something that can be nice to happen, as long as you don’t treat it with too much seriousness, and don’t expect it to change your life or throw your book to #1 or land you a big deal.
 
Again, that’s not to say there is no value in going viral. In my case, I was able to influence a public conversation that I felt strongly about. That has huge personal value to me — I genuinely cared deeply about the issue. But in pure mercenary terms, it did little or nothing for me. Which makes it a terrible thing to shoot for if you are trying to sell books, or boost sign-ups, or make money.
 
What does lead to success on those fronts is the slow, hard slog of producing things that people want and getting it into their hands. Building something over time that people need, something real, something substantial. Targeting those people with laser-like precision. Drilling down into the subset that digs your stuff, whatever that may be, and working that niche crowd. Not the bigger one surrounding it.
 
And if you do go viral, what will make those few stick around is that slow, hard slog you have already put in, not the dog picture, however cute he might be.

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Beta Readers: Three Reasons You Need Some (and One Reason You Don’t)

In recent years, you’ve probably heard a lot of people talking about their beta readers, that is, people they send their manuscripts to for feedback before they send them to their agents, editors, or publishers. The term is new, but the idea is not. We all benefit from a little feedback—just so you don’t get trapped into believing everything you hear (or rejecting everything you hear). I always wondered why the term is “beta reader”—who’s the alpha reader? The writer is not a reader, and about the furthest thing from an objective reader there could be. I think of my readers as alpha dogs, the people who more than once have prevented me from making embarrassing errors. But to avoid confusion, I’ll use the “beta” term everyone knows.

 When should you bring in beta writers?After you’ve finished an outline? First draft? Third draft? Polished product? Some people like to send out amazingly early drafts, so they can get input on character and plot before everything is chiseled into stone. I can see the logic there, if you know someone who will read something that rough, but I have to admit I don’t send anything out until I think it’s 98% finished. This probably has more to do with ego that strategy—I can’t stand to have others point out problems I should have spotted myself.

 Who should you choose for beta readers?Some writers prefer frequent readers, someone who might actually buy a book like yours. Some writers prefer other writers, because they might notice problems a lay reader wouldn’t. Speaking for myself, I like a mix of both. It’s not so much that writers notice things others don’t as that they know what to call it. The reader might say, “The story didn’t grab me” and you don’t know what’s wrong. But the pro writer will say, “You’ve got a viewpoint problem,’ and then you know exactly what’s wrong. Still, I also like getting the opinion of someone who reads solely for pleasure because ultimately, a book should be an entertaining read, and those readers are best equipped to tell you if you’ve attained that.

 How many beta readers should you have?I don’t know--how many people do you know who would be willing to read your manuscript? At least five, I think, so you get a variety of opinions. At our conference one year, Phillip Margolin said that he sent each manuscript out to ten beta readers. If only one or two of them had a problem, he assumed they were outliers. If he heard the same comment from several—he knew he had a problem he needed to fix.

 Here are the reasons you should start assembling your beta team:

 1) Everyone Makes Mistakes

 I know, it’s hard to accept. I like to think of myself as perfect…but I’m not. I also do a great deal of research for every book…but still some details slip through the cracks. In an early draft of The Last Chance Lawyer, I made a humiliating error, attributing an ABBA song to Queen. Inexcusable. My Baby Boomer card should be revoked. Fortunately, my sharp-eyed writer pal Rick Ludwig caught my error.

 The content-based mistakes are the most embarrassing, but we are all plagued by typos, the pernicious weeds of the writing world. Rarely has any book—including those from major publishers—gone out without some error somewhere. (This is how collectors often authenticate that a book is a first edition—by spotting the typo.) Even after a score of proofreaders have been through the manuscript, an error or two often remain, and sadly, the independent publishing phenomenon has increased this problem. Some books are being published with inadequate proofing, and that only results in the author looking unprofessional (even if it’s not really the author’s fault). There was a typo on the very first page of my very first book, Primary Justice, a typo I marked in the galleys but had not been corrected. I was mortified. (But then again, the book sold half a million copies and I’ve never once heard anyone mention the typo.)

 I strongly advocate that authors, particularly those who plan to self-publish, pay for a final draft line-edit. In fact, that’s the top item when I give people a “publishing budget” at my retreats. It’s simply a matter of maintaining professional credibility, and maximizing the reading experience. If a few hundred bucks can prevent me from being embarrassed—here’s my check.

 2) Not Everyone Sees Characters the Same Way

 I try to create characters who are complex, interesting, and three-dimensional, especially the primary and secondary characters. And of course, as you know from reading Creating Character, your protagonist needs to be likeable (which does not mean perfect). But sometimes, likeability is not universal. In Last Chance Lawyer, the lead is Daniel Pike, a crusading but complex lawyer, and he is soon joined by the other members of his new firm, Maria, Jimmy, Garrett, and Mr. K, all of whom have their quirks but who I hope you will find somewhat likeable.

 I wanted to give Dan an edge, to make him a bit of a show-boater, but imagine my surprise when one of my beta readers said she found him sexist! I would never have deliberately done that to any protagonist, but this reader was put off by some of his comments, particularly by the badinage between Dan and Maria about her close-fitting jeans. I thought both characters were joking and he wasn’t offensive, but the wildly different take of this beta reader did inspire me to tone down his comments. Best of all, I used that to develop a character arc for Dan in the second book in the series (Court of Killers, out in July 2019). In that book, Dan looks into the mirror and asks himself if he hasn’t been somewhat sexist in some of his dealings with women. Many thanks to Cassy Pickard for input that proved useful even beyond the book in question.

 3) Credibility is Not an Objective Standard

 Poe talked about the importance of “verisimilitude,” which of course is not the same as “lifelike,” but at least suggests that something like this could happen. This is always challenging in thrillers, which increasingly seem to demand larger-than-life plots to hold reader attention, plots that far exceed anything that could really happen—or anything you would want to ever happen. Although I try to keep my books real on courtroom procedure, the truth is that if I ever presented trials as trials actually transpire, readers would be bored to tears. I don’t care what the charges are—most trials are mostly boring most of the time. Judicious editing is the first step, but sometimes the boundaries of reality have to be stretched a bit, too.

 Good writers develop tactics for presenting the less-than-realistic events in a manner that allows them to be more readily digested by readers, like early planting, foreshadowing, and nuanced character reaction. But I like to run scenes by beta readers to see if they object. If the feedback indicates that an event shattered the suspension of disbelief—it may be time for rewrites. Different people have different standards. Personally, I found many of the scenes in Avengers: Endgame ludicrous, even by the loose standards of a superhero drama. But given that the movie is now the highest grossing movie of all time, others may have felt differently.

But by all means pay attention to your beta readers if a consensus arises. 

 And the One Reason You Don’t Need a Beta Reader—Validation. 

 You do not need beta readers who simply tell you how great you are and how brilliant your prose is. While this sort of feedback might make you feel better about yourself, it will not improve your work in the slightest. Your validation should come from the fact that you finished a book, a good book. That’s your source of pride, not feedback, reviews, or publishers. We are writers. We write. And then we put it out there, because we believe it has value. That’s the only validation that matters.

 The Last Chance Lawyer

 Creating Character: Bringing Your Story to Life

The Myth of the Natural Writer

You've heard these stories, haven't you? About writers who are/were so talented words flowed effortlessly from their pens. And you thought--why is it whenever I try to write, it's hard work, and every word seems to come slowly and painfully. This must mean I'm not really a writer, right?

Wrong. Completely wrong. In reality, most writers never receive magical inspiration that suddenly makes writing easy, nor do they have an epiphanic movie moment that overcomes their self-doubts. They just learn to ignore all that and plow ahead with the work. But I've rarely heard anyone discuss this as eloquently as my guest blogger Erika Krouse does here:

"After I decided to write my first-ever novel, I fell prey to what I call the Myth of the Natural Writer. Let's blame Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1797, Coleridge composed his signature poem, "Kubla Khan," after he woke from an opium-induced dream. He claimed he wrote it in one manic stretch—unedited, unplanned, and perfect except for the fact that it was unfinished, due to an untimely interruption by someone who was likely his drug dealer.

That's how inspiration works, I thought, so I got to work (sans opium), writing continuously without a plan for the first hundred pages of my novel. Inspiration was mine! Ideas were gushing! I was a novelist, whee!

Then I continued on to write the same-but-different novel for seven more years, in seven completely different directions, with seven different middles-to-endings, all ludicrous. It felt like I was shooting one very slow bullet a year, hoping that if I closed my eyes and aimed at random, I'd hit the distant target I had only vaguely envisioned. How was I going to complete this idiot book? What if I brought in a completely new character 10 pages from the end? What if I used three points of view, four, five, six, fourteen? The answer was in the subplots, the answer was in the adjectives, the answer was in opium, the answer was nowhere and the earth was going to crash into the sun and we would all die, but not soon enough to erase my shame at wasting my life.

It took me a little too long to realize I could get help.

Finally, in a fit of desperation, I bought every book on story structure I could find. Shouldn't I already know this stuff? My boyfriend (now my husband) (despite this event) drove me to The Sands Motel at the edge of Cheyenne, Wyoming—the only hotel I could afford, with a weekly rate of $161. He dropped me off with my heavy desktop computer, a cardboard box full of canned food, and a bike for emergencies. Then he drove back to Boulder, with my instructions not to return or call me for seven days.

Hell, I've learned, is a motel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The walls were covered in brown burlap wallpaper circa 1970, with graphics of giant, demonic ducks strewn across it, beaks open in murderous shrieks. The room stank from cigarette sweat and maybe bedbug poison. Sunlight shied away from those filthy windows, pocked by decades of pebbles. The March Wyoming wind leaned on the walls, pushing them inward. Even the motel maid abandoned me, and my voice weakened from disuse.

During those seven days, I did nothing but outline my novel and learn everything I could about story structure. I read books by anyone who had anything to say on the subject, from Joseph Campbell to Robert McKee. The information hit me in a "duh" way. Wait—did I even have an antagonist? A climax that originated from the rising action? Turning points? A resolution that, um, resolved anything? The ducks rolled their walleyes at me. I had read books all my life, but had never really thought about the mechanics of story—each component's particularities, characteristics, functions, and personalities. Exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, resolution—all were ingredients I could learn about, and then actually use.

After the week was up, I flipped off my judgmental wallpaper ducks and left Cheyenne with a new outline that I shaped into my novel, Contenders, over the next three years. From there, I developed a curriculum for a two-weekend structure clinic I teach every year, which turned into a two-year curriculum for the Lighthouse Book Project. By learning story structure from the subfloor up, I had developed a specialty that now helps me write better stories, and teach other writers to avoid my mistakes.

By the way, after that burst of fevered writing, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" poem lay dormant for nineteen years while he waited for the Muse to revisit him. He finally gave up and published the poem in its unfinished state, to the derision of his colleagues. Coleridge eventually died of complications from opium use, forever chasing that initial moment of divine inspiration from within.

I wish he had my ducks."

Erika Krouse is the author of two books of fiction: Contenders (novel) and Come Up and See Me Sometime (stories). Two new books are forthcoming with Flatiron Books/Macmillan: Tell Me Everything: Memoir of a Private Eye, and Save Me: Stories. Erika's work has previously been published in Glimmer TrainThe New YorkerThe Atlantic, Esquire.com, PloughsharesOne Story, Granta.com, The Kenyon ReviewThe Iowa Review, and The New York Times. This essay first appeared in the Glimmer Train blog.

Other Links:
Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction
Creating Character: Brining Your Story to Life

Should You Write in First Person?

Every writer starting a new project must make fundamental decisions about viewpoint. First person or third person? (Let’s leave second person to academics unconcerned about sales.) Single viewpoint or multiple viewpoint? And your answers to these questions should be based upon your understanding that:

1) they are not the same question, and

2) you should do what’s best for the story you’re telling.

First person, of course, means that one of the characters, who may be the protagonist, uses first-person pronouns and speaks directly to the reader: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The first-person narrator is typically the central character but doesn’t have to be. Nick Carraway narrates The Great Gatsby, but I think the titular Gatz is the big cheese. This is not the same as deciding whether to have multiple viewpoints. Many first-person novels, like Gatsby, are told entirely from a single viewpoint. Others, like my Dark Eye, are told primarily in first person by the protagonist, but switch periodically to a third-person antagonist. Many other recent thrillers have used the same approach.

In my Ben Kincaid series, I wrote the first eighteen books in third person, but for the nineteenth, Justice Returns, I used first-person Ben as narrator (though I occasionally jumped to other viewpoints presented as interview transcripts incorporated into Ben’s record). This helped me energize the story and make it seem fresh rather than yet another iteration of the same thing. I’m not sure any of my readers even noticed. I have yet to see this change mentioned in a single review. Which may lead us to another conclusion: If you write it well, these technical details that writers obsess over may be largely invisible to the reader.

So you have many mix-and-match options. Which should you employ? In my writing retreats I have noticed a tendency for many first-time writers to choose first-person narration. I can see why this might seem appealing. On the surface, it might look simpler, more obtainable. (Indeed, the earliest examples of English novels—Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Joseph Andrews—are all first person, possibly emulating the fake first-person confessions sold at pubic hangings in that era). If you’re striving for reader-character intimacy, that is, to get readers inside your character’s head, it seems like a natural approach. But there are three factors you need to understand before you write in first person, especially for a project as large as a novel:

1) First person is not easier—it’s harder.

2) First person has serious narrative limitations.

3) Some readers strongly dislike first-person narration.

Let’s take those in order. First person is not easier. It may seem so, especially if you imagine that the character’s voice is your voice, perhaps the flashy, wisecracking, insightful superstar you see in your mind’s eye, always one step ahead of the others and leaving the room with the perfect esprit d’escalier (the snappy comeback you only think of an hour later while angrily reliving the scene in your head). But the truth is, no fictional character’s voice is exactly the same as your voice, and even if it were, maintaining that voice consistently for 80,000 words would be a challenge. You must tell the entire story in a specific voice, and if it slips even for a moment, the reader will feel that something has gone wrong. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying it’s not something to attempt in your first book because you think it will be easier. I first attempted first person for Dark Eye—after I’d been publishing for more than a decade.

First person has serious limitations. Anytime you write in viewpoint, you’re restricted to what that character knows. But when you write an entire book from a single viewpoint, your narration is limited to what they can see and hear. The novel The Hunger Games is told entirely from Katniss’s viewpoint, but the film version broke from her viewpoint occasionally so the reader could see the riots breaking out while she was trapped in the game, or President Snow forming his evil plans while pruning his roses.

As I mentioned, you could write a hybrid first-person/third-person narrative that occasionally jumps into other viewpoints. This creates page-turning suspense, because the reader learns something the protagonist does not know. Even then, however, the form has limitations. What if your narrator is not reliable? What if your protagonist is in denial about her problems (like Susan Pulaski in Dark Eye)? How will the reader figure it out? It’s not impossible—you could reveal clues in a conversation with a trusted comrade, a dream sequence, a flashback (ick), or some kind of external record, like a videotape or interview transcript (Justice Returns). But it’s challenging.

Finally, you must realize that some readers just can’t tolerate first-person narration. I’m not sure why this is. It doesn’t bother me, but I’ve heard others say a book loses all credibility once a character starts talking directly to them. Some moviegoers can’t stand voiceover narration (mentioned in The Opposite of Sex) and I suspect it is much the same thing. Engaging readers in the fictional construct we call the novel requires a major suspension of disbelief. You have to lull their conscious minds into forgetting that these are just words on a page and lure them into a shared imaginary world created by your sentences. For some readers, when a character speaks directly to them, the illusion is shattered. It is much the same as when a movie character “breaks the fourth wall,” that is, speaks directly to the camera (as in Deadpool, over and over again). Once the illusion is shattered, you’ll probably never get it back.

First person is best used when you have a specific purpose for choosing that form. Gatsby uses it so we witness Nick’s eventual disillusionment with the man he initially worships, which gives us insight into his dubious ideals, and implicitly, the dubious American Dream. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time uses first person to help us understand how an autistic youth thinks. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie uses first person to deceive the reader and pull off one of the all-time great feats of misdirection. Room is narrated by a five-year old boy, a classic unreliable narrator who doesn’t understand the horror of his situation. Huckleberry Finn uses an uneducated first-person narrator so the reader can witness his growing awareness of the deceit and inequity in the world.

I considered first-person narration for my newest novel, The Last Chance Lawyer. I was creating a new protagonist, Daniel Pike, and I wanted to get readers into his head fast, liking him and empathizing with him. I wanted readers to understand what drives this lawyer who loves extreme water sports, lives on a boat, and forgoes briefcases and dress shoes for backpacks and Air Jordans. But having him explain all this to the reader, or even remarking consciously upon it, seemed a bit of a cheat. I was convinced I could get the reader on board without alienating those who hate first person, or relinquishing the option of jumping to other viewpoints to generate mystery and suspense. Although the book is in Dan’s viewpoint 90% of the time, I used occasional diversions to show the conspiracy growing and the threats to him personally, a tightening web he learns about long after the reader does. I made a conscious choice, after due deliberation, based upon the book itself and what I wanted to achieve.

None of this is intended to discourage you from writing whatever book you want to write. If you’ve got a first-person character voice desperate to get out, go for it. My goal, as always, is to have you make decisions based upon solid information, not misapprehensions. And there are some signs that first person may be gaining wider acceptance. It has become much more popular in young adult fiction. In the wake of The Fault in Our Stars, many YA books now feature first-person female teenage protagonists. I’ve seen it catching steam in the romance and SF fields as well. My bottom line advice is, first, that this may not be the best choice for early writers who will have many other problems to work through, and most importantly—don’t attempt it unless you have a good reason.

Links:

Justice Returns

Dark Eye

The Last Chance Lawyer

Flipping the Script

This week I'm presenting a guest blog from my friend, fellow writer, and WriterCon colleague Rene Gutteridge. She's one of the most successful novel, screenplay, and comedy writers in the business and she knows what she's talking about. You should always have twists and surprises in your story, but "flipping the script" is literally turning reader expectations on their head—to enhance the story and increase reader pleasure. This is a great topic to think about when you're writing that first draft.

By the way, if you'd like another (completely self-serving) example of flipping the script, check out chapters 30 and 49 of my new novel, The Last Chance Lawyer.

FLIPPING THE SCRIPT

On January 15th, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 departed from LaGuardia airport.  In the climb out after takeoff, the plane was struck in both turbofan engines by a flock of Canadian geese. The engines caught fire and lost power immediately.  Captain Chesley Sullenberger was forced to ditch the plane moments later in the Hudson River.  It was called the most “successful ditching in aviation history” and instantly became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

One small perk of being a full-time writer is that I’m able to watch amazing and historical events as they happen when they’re covered by the media.  On this particular day, I remember getting a breaking news alert. I turned on the TV and there, to my astonishment, was a passenger jet floating in the middle of the Hudson River.

I was glued to the TV for hours. Afterward I read every article and watched every video that came out on it.  I’m a little bit of an aviation geek.  Before 9/11 there was a little patch of concrete out by the runway at Will Rogers World Airport here in Oklahoma City.  You could park your car there and the planes would take off right over your head.  When my husband and I were dating, we used to go to the observation deck at the airport and watch the activity of all the planes taxiing and taking off.  I even wrote a book about planes and made a movie about it, called Skid.

So when the movie Sully was made about the Miracle on the Hudson, I was first in line to see it.

It didn’t disappoint. I then saw it two more times in the theaters.  But probably not for the reason you’d expect.

I went back for one single scene.

In the movie, there is the crucial moment when the birds hit the engines with a loud boom and everyone quickly realizes they’re in trouble.  The engines are on fire and smoking. Peril at its finest.

But how the filmmakers chose to show this dramatic scene left me astonished.

As a storyteller, I would think the natural instinct would be the show the chaos of the moment. When we show chaos, we naturally show screaming and crying. The loss of control is an automatic visual cue for something going terribly wrong.

But in this moment, they decided to flip the script and in doing so, created such an eerie, scary, sacred, astounding moment that I went back two more times just to watch it again.

Instead of showing the dire circumstances through human emotion, they showed it through utter silence.  The plane, suddenly, wasn’t making a single sound.  The engines were gone.  Nothing mechanical was working, including the typical buzzing sound of the electricity inside the plane. This 172,000 pound plane was literally gliding and they chose to show it through eerie quietness.  The silence allowed us to hear the groaning and creaking of the metal that we would never ordinarily hear on a noisy flight.  It was an extraordinary storytelling choice that reminds me how vital it is to take a sharp right turn into the unexpected.

As you probably know, flipping the script simply means this: doing something unexpected when the reader or audience member is anticipating the expected.  This can mean in a single scene or for an entire story. This can mean in the plot or the character or even the setting.

Flipping the script is probably an overused term, but I find it is often underutilized.  As a writer, I have to constantly remind myself to find the right moments.  If you flip the script all the way through, it loses its effectiveness, of course. But when I find the perfect moment, I know it.

A good decade ago, I was writing a scene where a character (whom I needed to have a haunted past) realizes that his sister may be attempting suicide and rushes back to the house to try to save her.  When he gets there, he has found she has hung herself.

I remember sitting at my computer, watching that little cursor blink. The devastating thing would be that he didn’t make it in time.  But what, I asked, would be even more devastating than that?

It is later revealed in the story that he ended up making it in time to save her life.  But not in time to save her from brain damage and a drawn out life in a vegetative state.  He had, inadvertently, trapped her between life and death.  For that story, that is the place I found to flip the script.

As you work through your story, remind yourself to find a moment or two in your story where you might be able to deliver an astonishing turn of events for your reader—something they won’t see coming.  It’s likely because you didn’t see it coming either.  That’s the fun part about being a writer…you can even surprise yourself.  And when you’re surprised, your reader most likely will be too.

Whether your millionaire is driving a pinto, or your zombie is the protagonist, there’s always an advantage to going against the expected.

Along with seeing Sully three times at the theater, I’ve watched it twice since then.  During Oscar season that year, I was anticipating that it would sweep.  It didn’t even come close.  In fact, It was nominated for only one Oscar:

Best achievement in sound editing.

Dealing with Platform Anxiety

This week my guest blogger is James Scott Bell, a great guy, a great writer, and a keynote speaker this year at WriterCon 2019 (Labor Day weekend in Oklahoma City). I’ve heard many writers at my retreats worry about platforms—what’s a platform, do I need a platform, how do I get a platform when I don’t have a book yet, etc. Thanks to Jim for addressing this timely topic:

A recent post by agent Janet Kobobel Grant offers some welcome relief on the dicey subject of “platform.” I’ve been slapping that particular bongo for years. How are new fiction writers supposed to create a following before they have any books out? I even pulled up a comment I made on TZK ten years ago (before I was a contributor!), to wit:

By far and away the best “platform” for us is OTHER people yakking it up about our books. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. You don’t get that by blogging, tweeting or shouting. You get it ONLY by writing books people talk about. That has to be job one.

The flip side is the best promoter in the world cannot overcome a book that fizzles with the reading public. It can get you a strong introduction, but from there the book takes over. If it does fizzle, the answer is not more promotion; the answer is a stronger book.

Yet many a publisher has pushed platform building, even for unpublished writers, leading to increased levels of scribal stress and sales of Pepto-Bismol.

A platform, as the book industry sees it, is whatever you do to engage and interact with a significant portion of the public. That includes social media, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and even good old public speaking.

All of those things take effort and cut into a writer’s creativity and productivity time. So does it make sense to spend that capital trying to create a platform at the expense of writing good books?

There is no shortcut to platform success, either. Sure, you can farm 50,000 Twitter followers, but how many of them are truly interested in you? Or you in them (shown by actual engagement)? That’s the key to social media. Thus, I was glad to read Janet’s comments:

The second group of editors I met with started off our conversation by saying they have come to realize it’s unrealistic to expect a newer novelist to have a large platform. Upon what foundation can a fiction writer build that platform? Especially as a debut novelist, you can only engage potential book-buyers so much in your writing and research endeavors before your attempted connections take on a bland sameness.

However, Janet continues, these fiction editors do want to see that a writer is “willing” to engage in platform building. Which means at least one social media footprint. The big takeaway is something I’ve advised for years:

These editors believe that choosing to focus on one aspect of social media is the best route to go. Rather than dabbling in several mediums but not really figuring out what works for you, dig into one medium and gather all your friends or followers in that one spot.

So which social media outpost is best for you? Read and reflect on Sue Coletta’s excellent post on the topic. Be sure to follow the links and also read the comments. You’ll make wiser social media choices if you do.

Janet Grant concludes:

I hope you’re taking a deep breath as you consider that some of the pressure to collect names and online connections has let up just a bit. None of these editors would say platform isn’t important. But each of them would say she—and the whole publishing team—is taking a more nuanced look at the planks of each writer’s platform.

By the way, if you want to plow right through the nuance, write a book that blows them all away. Then you can talk about platform all you want.

As I was prepping this post, an article entitled “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion by industry expert Jane Friedman appeared on the PW site. Jane writes, in part:

In a great scene from Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character says, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” If I could customize that for today’s authors, I’d say, “The more you know who you are as an author and what readership you seek, the less confused you’ll be about marketing.” And the less you’ll be influenced by the crowd.

It’s easy to feel anxious about your progress when you see your peers engaging in new forms of publishing or marketing and you feel pressured to join. But the more you’re focused on your own long-term outcomes and how to wisely use your time and resources, the better prepared you’ll be to consider or experiment with new tactics, adopting or discarding them as you see fit.

So how is your platform anxiety these days? Does it ever detract from your writing? What are you doing about it?

Creating a Series Character

As I hope you’ve heard by now, I’m launching a new series with a new series character—rebel lawyer Daniel Pike. This project has been in the works for some time—I’ve already finished the first two books in the series and I’m editing the third. But the whole endeavor has caused me to think long and hard about what makes a durable series character who readers like enough to revisit again and again.

The first time around, I didn’t do this. Ben Kincaid was originally intended to be the protagonist of one novel: The Fixed Moment. (The publisher retitled it Primary Justice. I still don’t know what that means.) Of course, series characters were less prevalent then, and it might have been presumptuous of me to imagine I was launching a series since I’d never published anything, despite years of trying and hundreds of rejection letters. My beloved editor, Joe Blades, said he thought this guy could lead a series—and that’s what happened, for nineteen books (so far). Even when I later created Susan Pulaski, I was only thinking of a single book (Dark Eye), one with more psychological depth and heartache.

But now I’m older and I pretend to be wiser, so I’ve taken a somewhat more systematic approach. I looked at all the great series characters out there, like Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone and Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. I even looked at series books from previous eras, like Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books (which I recently completed reading and feel quite virtuous for having done so). What makes a series work? I asked myself. What brings readers back, book after book? I was enthusiastic about my lead character, Daniel Pike—but how could I inspire readers to feel the same?

This inquiry led me to this post, some suggestions for creating successful series characters. I assume you will instill your project with all the essential elements of good storytelling (and if you’re not sure what those are, reread those Red Sneaker writing books). But what does the main character need to succeed?

Here’s what I came up with. Call it the series character checklist:

1) Give the character something that makes him/her special.

This doesn’t have to be a flat-out superpower, but something distinctive, so the character isn’t just another lawyer, doctor, PI, cop, wizard, etc. The paradigm, of course, is Sherlock Holmes, whose inductive reasoning abilities allowed him to solve complex puzzles. I gave Daniel Pike something similarly cognitive, but more related to the work of a lawyer. He has the ability to make careful observations of the people he encounters—which often allows him to discern hidden truths. Sometimes he gets it simply by watching people, uncovering liars. Sometimes it’s by combining observations in meaningful and unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s pure instinct. But it’s a power most lawyers don’t have (trust me) and I thought it would not only make him a miracle worker in the courtroom—but a delight to watch in action.

2) Give the character something that makes him/her fun.

First and foremost, I gave Daniel a sense of humor. At times, it’s a bit acerbic, but he’s never boring. I thought that if he made readers laugh, they were bound to like him more. His success as a lawyer has led to a first-class lifestyle (a complete contrast to Ben Kincaid), a fondness for gourmet cooking, extreme sports, and fast cars. All fun stuff to read about, right? Some of Daniel’s recipes should make your mouth water—and they are all dishes I’ve made myself. Maybe I should include recipes…

3) Give the character something that makes him/her quirky.

Daniel’s a rebel. Though with a big law firm when the book starts, he’s not part of the corporate culture. He lives on a boat—because why not?—he wears Air Jordans in court, and he carries a backpack rather than a briefcase. I mean, honestly, doesn’t that make more sense? Much easier on the back. Making your series character eccentric or unusual will enhance their memorability. You want to give the reader something to hold onto, so when the next book in the series rolls around, they will think, Oh yeah, he’s the guy in the sneakers…

4) Give the character something he/she’s passionate about.

Daniel is passionate about justice, and not as an abstract concept but as a reality he fights for in the courtroom. He likes making money, sure, but his primary drive is preventing people from being railroaded by the government. He has a personal reason why he feels so strongly about this. He believes that in reality, most people are presumed guilty and prosecutors have a devastating ability to put people away regardless of their guilt. He refuses to let the government destroy people’s lives. This is the driving force behind his career, behind every case he accepts. To him, it’s not about whether his clients are good or bad people. He will fight to see that justice is done.

If you can give your character those four critical qualities, you’ll have someone capable of carrying a series. And this is a good time to do it. Series books have never been more popular. Publishers see series books as the safest bet they can make. Readers enjoy revisiting characters they love. It’s a win-win, if you can bring it off. But it all starts with creating the right character.

Btw, you can pre-order the first Daniel Pike novel, The Last Chance Lawyer, at a reduced pre-order price until March 19. So why wait?

Here's Why You Can't Give Up

(This guest blog comes from my dear friend Rene Gutteridge, one of the Write Well Sell Well founders who partner with me for WriterCon. She’s the author of 24 novels plus screenplays, scripts, and much more.)

Recently I walked into my usual coffee house and was looking for a place to sit and work when a woman recognized me and said hello.  We chatted for a bit and she said, “Do you do your writing here?”

“Almost every day,” I said.

“Wow.” She looked truly astonished.  “I assumed you worked in a cushy, luxurious office.”

I laughed and we chatted a bit more, then I found a place to sit.

But I marveled at that comment for a little while.  A cushy office?  Hardly.  I hated to break it to her, but for almost 20 years, my office has been a small corner desk in my bedroom, facing a wall–not a window–and cramped beyond reason.

This year, as my oldest child turned 19 and my youngest started her junior year, I made the decision to move my office to what used to be the “play room” and then became the “entertainment room” and then became virtually abandoned as the kids began to drive and meet their friends elsewhere.  I boldly declared, “This is my new office!”

It’s taken more than a few weeks to migrate over to the new space, and more than a few years to have a real office.  In the middle of it, I’ve been cleaning out drawers and getting rid of things I no longer need. While doing so, I came across a tiny 3 x 5 notecard with some writing on it.  I almost tossed it, but decided to go ahead and see what it was.

A list of my impossible dreams?  I didn’t even remember writing such a thing. I typically don’t even make New Year’s resolutions.

What prompted me to do it is still a mystery.  But as I read over it, I was astonished to see that out of five impossible dreams on that list, three had come true.  I stood there staring at this scribbly mess of dreams, reading and re-reading.  Right there, in front of me, was proof that dreams come true—even if it’s 10 years down the road.

And the crazy thing?  I’d hardly noticed it had happened.

Here was proof I had impossible dreams one time in my life.  And here was proof that they became possible.

Chills ran up and down my body.

But something else caught my eye.  There was one dream, in particular, that wasn’t on the list.  My whole life, since the age of 15, I’d dreamed of writing a feature film that would play in a movie theater.

Why had I not written it on the list?

Did I think it was doable, so it didn’t qualify as impossible?

Or did I convince myself that it was beyond my reach—beyond even an impossible dream?

I didn’t have any answers for that one.

But I was broadly enlightened in that moment, as I held that little card in my hand.

Dreams had come true.

And I had almost missed acknowledging it.

I was now a working screenwriter.  I had a movie made from one my books.  I grew into a place where I could help other writers on their journey.

Three out of five.  Not just dreams.  But impossible dreams.

I wondered why I put “impossible” at the top.  Was it at a time in my life when everything seemed like it had a roadblock up?  Everything was a dead end?  Dreams were dying by the handfuls?

I don’t know.  In 2009, I had a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old.  Life was chaotic with small kids, I remember that much.  It was all I could do to get through a day without losing my mind.

Yet here was proof.  I’d somehow made it.

I used to have this quote hanging on my computer from the director J.J. Abrams.  “If you’re having screenwriting problems, you’re living the dream.”

I always loved that quote, because it was an acknowledgment that these creative endeavors are hard, filled with lots of conflict and frustration, and hardly feel like dreams in the moment.

But in the same breath, he was saying, “Remember—this is your dream.  You’re living it right here and now.”

What is your impossible dream right now?  I dare you to write it down.  Stick it in the back of a drawer like I did.  See what happens when you work your tail off for it.

A decade has passed between the time I wrote those words and the time I opened my eyes enough to see them.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been working so hard on them.

Whatever the case, it proved one thing: dreams do come true.

And when you’re a writer, that’s the star you’re shooting for.  So keep going.  Don’t give up.  You’ve got this.

I thought about my old, cramped office space, unglamorously shoe-horned into a corner of the bedroom meant for a small vanity.  Those were like my dreams at one point.  Hidden away on a 3 x 5 card in a dark, forgotten space in a drawer.

But then time passes.  Life changes.  The next thing you know, a new place to work!  A dream, hardly noticed, has come to pass.  You’re tired.  It’s like climbing a mountain.  You’ve been working so hard to get up it that you have to rest awhile before you can appreciate the view.

Nevertheless, you made it to the top, out of breath and everything.

I don’t know what your mountain is, but don’t give up.

Keep climbing.

And look behind you.  You may be living a dream you forgot you had!

The Blasted Book Description

Ever tried to describe your own book? Chances are you have, and chances are you found it a difficult and unpleasant experience. If you’re taking the traditional publishing route, you must write a query letter or prepare an elevator pitch. If you’re self-publishing, you must write your book blurb or back cover copy. And either way—it’s hard. You’d think it would be simple to describe something you’ve been working on for months—but it isn’t.

This is why there’s now a growing industry of pros who will write your book description for you. Just as you can hire out the editing or the cover design, you can get someone to write book blurbs. And if you can afford it, this is not a bad idea. We tend to get too close to our own work. Sometimes, ego gets in the way. It can be useful to have an objective third party who didn’t write the book, doesn’t have any darlings, and is simply making an objective attempt to get readers interested in reading and buying the book.

Here are a few guidelines if you decide to write your own description. Employ strategic formatting. Remember that the visual appearance of words is an important part of readability. Remember that most people don’t actually read webpages (like the ones on Amazon)—they scan them. Long paragraphs, big blocks of text, get ignored. Short paragraphs look friendlier. Visual tricks—boldface, italics, bullet points—if not used excessively—can make your text more visually appealing and can make key words stand out.

Most of all, remember that you are not writing this for yourself. The point is not to gratify your literary inclinations. The point is to sell books. You should always be answering the reader’s question: What’s in this for me? In nonfiction, the answer will be topics of interest or potential benefit. In fiction, it will be tapping plots, tropes, and character archetypes, that appeal to the reader. What’s on your reader’s Id List? (If you’re not sure what I mean by this, listen to Red Sneaker Writers podcast 008 with psychologist Jennifer Lynn Barnes.) What will trigger readers’ interest and inspire them to give your book a chance?

Formatting is flexible, but here’s a useful structure that might help you get started and prevent you from leaving out anything important:

  • Headline-Open with a hook, something short and intriguing that immediately captures the reader’s interest.

  • Hero-Identify the sympathetic or empathetic lead character you want the reader to cheer for.

  • Opponent-Identify who or what prevents your hero from obtaining their goal.

  • McGuffin-What is it your hero (and possibly others) want? What is the goal or desire that motivates the key players in the story?

  • Stakes-What happens if the hero does not succeed, or the opponent gets their way? As you may know from reading Powerful Premise, stories are more compelling when the stakes are high.

  • Social proof-Provide sales figures, quotes from other authors, reviews, list rankings, or similar successful titles.

  • Call to Action-Tell the reader what to do. The best one is “Click here.” If the reader is already on your Amazon page, this may not be necessary. They probably know what to do there.

And hey—was this list easier to read (or scan) because I added bullet points? And boldface? Of course it was.

Also note that if you’re posting on Amazon, you may need to use “coding enhancers” to make the description turn out right. You can find these at Amazon Author Central. For instance, to indicate boldface text, you insert: <b>

Ok, let’s test the system. This is the book description for my novel The Game Master, and if you’re wondering, I chose that one because it sold more eBooks in the first three months than anything I’ve ever written. Here’s the description:

It’s not whether you live or die, it’s how you play the game.

While in Vegas for the American Poker Grand Slam, BB Thomas—the Game Master—is suddenly arrested by the FBI and taken to a top-secret laboratory. A scientist has been murdered in a bizarre manner, and BB’s daughter has been kidnapped. Reluctantly joining forces with his ex-wife, Linden, BB plunges into a labyrinthine mystery incorporating the world’s oldest and best-known games and taking them to Paris, Dubai, Pyongyang, and Alexandria. Pursued by a relentless FBI agent and an unknown assailant who wants him stopped at any cost, BB races to uncover an insidious plot involving secret societies, ancient cover-ups, and savage vengeance. Someone is playing a deadly game, and the object is the destruction of every government on the face of the earth—no matter how many people die in the process.

William Bernhardt is the bestselling author of…

Now I’ll annotate the sections:

(Headline) It’s not whether you live or die, it’s how you play the game.

While in Vegas for the American Poker Grand Slam, (Hero) BB Thomas—the Game Master—is suddenly arrested by the FBI and taken to a top-secret laboratory. A scientist has been murdered in a bizarre manner, and (McGuffin) BB’s daughter has been kidnapped. Reluctantly joining forces with his ex-wife, Linden, BB plunges into a labyrinthine mystery incorporating the world’s oldest and best-known games and taking them to Paris, Dubai, Pyongyang, and Alexandria. Pursued by (Opponents) a relentless FBI agent and an unknown assailant who wants him stopped at any cost, BB races to uncover an insidious plot involving secret societies, ancient cover-ups, and savage vengeance. Someone is playing a deadly game, and (Stakes) the object is the destruction of every government on the face of the earth—no matter how many people die in the process.

(Social Proof) William Bernhardt is the bestselling author of…

The Call to Action, of course, was implicitly urging readers to click the adjoining Buy button.

See how easy it is? You can do this—in about twenty drafts. And after you think you’ve got it, take a few days then come back to revisit it. You’ll probably find ways to improve it. But you can do this. Done well, this can drastically improve your book sales.

Powerful Premise: https://smile.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B00Z4RN5QU/

Red Sneaker Writers podcast: https://www.spreaker.com/show/3142962

A Writers Guide to 2019

If you've been listening to the Red Sneaker podcast, you know that the modern publishing world is a fast-changing place. I've been saying that since the "digital revolution" of 2009, and the growth has not abated. This is both a blessing and a challenge. The blessing is that there are so many opportunities for writers today, whether you connect with traditional publishing or you don't. The challenge is that, like all professions, writing demands that you keep up with what's going on out there. The Red Sneaker books, the podcast, this newsletter, the retreats, WriterCon--are all designed to help you do just that. 

I had a lot of choose from, but here's my synthesis of what I believe will be the biggest trends and growth areas in 2019:

1) Indie Authors Will Start Early and Go Wide

An increasing number of indie authors are finding success through pre-sales of their books--and by offering them at all possible outlets (not just Amazon). It's not an exaggeration to say that many authors start marketing before they've written the book, and as a result, when the book is finally ready, they have an audience waiting for it. "Promote then Publish" is becoming a catchphrase in the pub community.  So before you launch your book, think about how you can build anticipation and awareness. Offer pre-sales for at least a month before the on-sale date. This will not only give you a great launch--which could put you at the top of sales lists (at least briefly)--but also will have a snowball effect throughout the life of the book, perhaps the series. Anything that generates buzz is a good idea.

We've been debating all year whether it's best to go exclusive with Amazon, the retailer that will generate the most sales, or to "go wide" and sell your book everywhere possible, but at this point, it's clear to me that going wide is the smart choice. The advantages Amazon offers exclusive authors aren't that impressive, and going wide prevents you from being too dependent on a particular retailer. This is the time to maximize your sales and take advantage of emerging opportunities like Chinese stores and the millions who use Google Play Books to find reading material on their Android phones. If you're looking for long-term success as a writer--keep all the doors open.

2) Amazon Will Become "Pay-to-Play"

I discussed at some length in the podcast (ep. #002) Amazon's elimination of the "Also Bought" promotions on book pages, replaced in most cases with paid advertising. Fortunately, AMS ads are affordable and can be completely controlled by the author, testing various keywords and making changes as you observe what sells books and what doesn't. At this point, it's difficult for me to imagine any indie author having much success on Amazon without paying to promote their books. You want your books to be as visible as possible--and that probably won't happen unless you make it happen.

Of course, this means you're not really making 70% from your books any more, which is exactly why Amazon is doing it. They are effectively reducing what they pay authors without appearing to do so. This fee is much like the co-op fees publishers used to pay to get premium placement in bookstores for their lead titles. You want people to see you book? Pay for the privilege.

3) Audiobooks Never Stop Growing

I've written about the surge in audiobooks so many times that you might think it's time for the surge to taper--but it hasn't. Granted, audio is still a relatively small percentage of the book market, but it's also the fastest growing segment, as the ease of downloading books to phones and iPods, coupled with lower prices, make them more attractive. In the past, the indie author needed ACX to get a book published, but now there are a growing number of alternative approaches, such as Findaway Voices (which offers better royalty rates) and Kobo Writing Life. Findaway grants access to StoryTel, which taps overseas markets. Producing your own audiobook takes time and money, but it's a long-term investment that could continue to pay for years to come.

4) More Authors Find Financial Success

Don't be discouraged by recent articles about the decline in writer income (discussed in RSW podcast #010). There are many amateurs out there and they will bring down the averages. And there are many people writing for traditional publishers, sacrificing income for prestige. But there are also many independent and hybrid authors making real money off their work. According to Jeff Bezos, more than 1000 Amazon indie authors made over $100,000 in 2017. Indie author Mark Dawson recently posted a screenshot showing that he had made over $100,000 in one month! There are opportunities for those willing to work hard, write regularly, and market intelligently. As self-publishing paper books and audiobooks, marketing overseas, and going wide, becomes more viable, independent authors will see increased growth and success. More so than ever before, it is possible to make a living solely by writing. But you have to go "all in."

5) Quality is What Matters Most

Ok, this isn't actually new--but it is worth mentioning. Sure, you write lots and you buy ads and you market on social media--but many others will, too. What will set your book apart?

Quality, of course. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, the ones who rise to the top will be those who spend the most time on their books--outlining, writing, rewriting, making it the best it can possibly be (as discussed in the Red Sneaker books). Typos and grammatical errors are fatal to a professional writer--so get an editor already. Every writer needs a good editor. But ultimately it's art and craft that make the biggest difference. Yes, get a great cover, write a brilliant book description, choose the right title--but the package won't matter if the interior disappoints. Your Number One priority, now and always, must be the content. You must write the best book you possibly can, polishing each sentence till it sparkles like a diamond. That's the best thing you can do to ensure a great writing career.