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.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) -- and Why It Matters for Writers

Note from Bill: This guest blog is from Gena Maselli, a terrific author, one of my WriterCon colleagues—and one of the few people I know who could make this all-important topic easy to understand. She also likes board games, so she’s obviously a good person. Enjoy.

Search Engine Optimization. The words just roll of the tongue, don’t they? SEO is the kind of term that has writers running for their laptops like children running to stockings filled with candy on Christmas morning. Wait—what? That’s not how you feel? You don’t want to do backflips at the thought of learning about SEO? Well, neither did I. But then a remarkable thing happened. My clients got excited about it.

As more of our world is online, the need for writers to learn SEO has increased. For the online writer, learning SEO is nearly as important as learning how to type, use Word or construct a sentence that doesn’t make our college English professor cringe. It is yet one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s toolbox.

In this blog, I want to share what SEO is, why SEO is important for writers and simple tips for incorporating SEO into your writing.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

SEO is a process of making a website more attractive to search engines so you can increase the number of visits to a website. It includes strategies for the design, function and usefulness of a website. It relies on the ability of search engines like Google, Bing, YouTube, About.com, Yahoo and others to match a website to a search. Our goal, as writers, is to write our copy with the greatest likelihood of connecting our pieces to the people who would most benefit from them.

So, for instance, if someone in Billings, Montana, searches for “how do I paint my dog’s nails?” and we write for a company in Long Beach, California, that produces pet-friendly nail polish with how-to instructions, the two can find one another.

Since that search yields more than 3 million results, including webpages, videos and shopping pages, getting our page to rank high in the results takes effort.

It takes SEO.

How Does SEO Relate to Me as a Writer?

SEO is part of our world, but it goes beyond some fictitious client. Here are kinds of writers who can benefit from learning SEO:

  • Freelance writers who write online articles and/or blog posts

  • Bloggers who want to bring people to their site

  • Authors needing to promote their books

  • Pastors, ministers and speakers looking to introduce new people to their messages

  • New writers looking to build writing credentials.

It’s not enough to publish a blog or a website and hope that someone stumbles across it. To see how difficult it is to get noticed, take this challenge:

Conduct a search for something related to your writing—your book’s title, your area of expertise, your church’s name, your favorite genre, anything. Notice how many results return. With more than 1.3 billion websites and 152 million blogs in existence, we must do all we can to deliver ours to the right people. It’s our job, as writers, to draw people to our sites, or to the sites of our clients, and make it clear that what we have to offer is valuable to them. Search Engine Optimization is how to make that happen.

Locate Powerful Keywords

Keywords are at the heart of SEO. These are words and phrases that online users search for in their browser. Search engines want to find the best results for their users, so they scan online content. In the last few years, search engines have become much more intuitive. We no longer have to conduct complicated searches on keyword generators to find specific keywords and decipher those searches to come up with a winning keyword. The fact that this has become a simpler process is a good thing—a very good thing. In the immortal words of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

With a single search, you can now zero in on the keywords that relate to you blog, article or page. For example, if you’re writing an article on “buying gifts for your husband,” you could begin typing that phrase into Google and see what related searches come up.


The list of related searches could help you outline your article because now you know what people are searching for. Or you could decide to write a series of articles, one on each of those related searches. That one search may have helped fill your blog schedule for the next month.

Another place to find related searches is at the bottom of your search results. After hitting enter on the above search, scroll to the bottom of the page and find this list of nuggets suggested to you by Google.

Once again, you’re presented with ideas for the direction of this article as well as future ones. Even if you have already written a piece, you can use this to edit it in a more targeted, relevant direction.

Write a Clear Title

Make your title as clear as possible and when you post it on your website, be sure to list it as H1 (Heading 1). In WordPress, the “Title” of your article is automatically H1. Your natural inclination may be to pique your readers’ interest with a mysterious title, but search engines need things spelled out. If I were titling my article on buying gifts for husbands, I’d want to steer away from something like “The Joy of the Season” or “Buying for the Impossible.” Instead, I’d want to stick to titles like “Buying a Gift Your Husband Will Love” or “Top 10 Gifts for Husbands at Christmas.” Those titles may not be as charming, but search engines—and readers—will know exactly what to expect.

Include Subheads in Your Posts

If you’re a magazine writer, you probably consider subheads old news, but for book writers who are used to working with chapters, this may be new. The bottom line is that long prose isn’t Web-friendly. So instead, break up long prose with subheads and format them as H2 (Heading 2). Think of them as mini-titles throughout your piece. Like titles, they aren’t vague, throw-away lines only meant to visually break up copy. Search engines use them to better understand what your blog, article or webpage is about.

Using the above gift-buying example, I might decide to write a section on buying hubby gifts for anniversaries. It would be better to state plainly what the section is—”Anniversary Gifts for Your Husband”—and avoid unclear titles like “Make Him Swoon.”

Keep Your Sections and Paragraphs Short

I’ve already touched on trying to avoid long sections of copy. This goes for sections and paragraphs too. Optimal section length is 300 words. If you have a section that goes over 300 words, you may want to break it up into two sections. Paragraphs need to be on the shorter side too. You may break these guidelines occasionally, but if it is a common occurrence, it’s time to rethink it.

Vary Your Sentences

Search engines use programs to judge whether your blog, article or website is written well. There’s no one behind a desk making those decisions, so the artificial intelligence scans for content that meets certain criteria. It looks for sentences that vary in length and structure. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever use long sentences or three sentences in a row that begin with the same words (Vive la répétition!), but you want this to be the exception instead of the rule.

Include Images and Videos in Your Post

If you are writing a post for your own blog or page for your website, include images and videos as well as alternate text (alt text) for each throughout your piece. This alternate text will appear when the image or video is unable to load. Include a featured image at the top of your page too. This not only makes an appealing graphic in social shares, but it also increases your appeal to search engines.

Include Inbound and Outbound links

The more benefits you provide in your blog post, article or webpage the better. Inbound and outbound links help with that.

Inbound links are links that take people to other pages on your site. If you reference a blog that you wrote before, you could create an inbound link to that blog. Or maybe you link to your About section or your sales page, if you’re selling your book.

Outbound links direct people to pages outside of yours. Now, you may be wondering why you would direct someone away from your site. First, links are all about adding value to your readers, and to the Internet at large. By providing outbound links, you are providing more information and, therefore, more value. Second, when you create a link, you have the option of telling the link to open in a new, separate window, so readers won’t automatically leave your site. This allows you to add value and protect the time people spend on your page.

What kind of outbound links could you include? Let’s go back to our above example about buying gifts for husbands. If I quoted a study that found married couples who exchange gifts are happier, I could link to the study or the organization. Or if I recommend a particular gift item, I could link to that item on Amazon, maybe even with an affiliate link. And if I recommend an outdoor adventure, I could link to a company that provides that adventure.

SEO Baby Steps

If you are reading this list and thinking, There’s so much to remember!—take heart! The first few times you implement SEO, you’ll experience all the frustrations and fumbles of learning something new, but with practice, it’ll become second nature.

SEO is not a perfect science, but with these tips, you’ll make good strides. And for those with WordPress sites, the free Yoast SEO plugin looks at your post and suggests these and other tips for making each post stronger. It even rates your post for readability and SEO.

So give Search Engine Optimization a try. Pull up an old blog post, article or webpage and evaluate it. Look for ways you can strengthen its SEO appeal, and remember that every change, every improvement you make is a step in the right direction!

Writing Traumatic Events for Your Characters

(This guest blog was written by Rene Gutteridge, one of the hosts of WriterCon (Aug 30-Sept 2, 2019). Rene is the author of 24 novels. Her novel My Life as a Doormat was adapted into a movie called Love’s Complicated.)

If you were to ask me to describe the Oklahoma City bombing to you, I’d be able to give you a very accurate picture of what happened that day.  The building had a gaping hole.  Cars and trees were on fire.  Ash-covered people wondered aimlessly like zombies.  Police, fire and ambulances came rushing to the scene.  You wouldn’t have to watch the news accounts of it because I would have painted a very factually based account of the ordeal.

But what I really gave you was a news report.  Because how I describe most of the Oklahoma City bombing to those who ask comes from the news accounts I watched about it years later.  However, if I rewind the tape and analyze what I really remember and how I remember it, you would have quite a different story on your hands.

One of the most vivid things I recall is the crunch, crunch, crunch sound of glass as I ran to the south side of the building to get around the fires. I didn’t take a step that didn’t put glass under my feet, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what it was that I was running on.

I ran into a police officer and he grabbed my shirt, and I have no recollection of what we said to each other, but I remember his eyes—wide, terrified, unheroic in the moment, it seemed—and he let me go.

I remember all that paper floating down from the sky and the urge to gather it up because that’s what you do when people lose their important papers—you gather it up for them.

Hours after the bomb went off, sirens still took up all the silence, not a single moment to listen to quiet skies—just wailing, high-pitched sirens. I remember being irritated by it, feeling like the whole world must be on fire.

Did I see death?  Blood and gore?  The most desperate moments of my fellow human beings?  I did. I had to have. There was no way for me to miss it.  Yet I have one or two small, vivid images of that sort of thing. Mostly what I remember from that day would never draw a complete picture of the events that unfolded.  It wouldn’t even be an incomplete picture.  It simply, if all strung together, wouldn’t make any sense at all.

When writers try to capture a traumatic event in a character’s story, it’s easy to try to use that moment to describe the entire event itself.  Whether it’s a car crash or a life-and-death attack, we want our reader to see it as we see it in our head—unfolding moment by moment.

But to help our reader connect to our character, we must resist the temptation to have it play out as a scene in a movie. Rather, we should allow our reader to experience it as the character experiences it—through broken, unhinged moments that don’t make up the whole story.

Chances are, you’ve also experienced your own traumatic moment.  Stop and think for a little bit.  What do you remember about that incident?  What do you reallyremember?  Sure, your mind has filled in the blanks, but what are your very first memories…the ones that don’t make sense on their own?

Take some time to sit and write them out.  I bet you’d be amazed at some of the things you remember that seem so outside of the true event.

I was 19 years old, whizzing down Interstate 44 when a bread truck in front of me started to swerve violently from one side of the highway to the other until, going at least sixty miles an hour, it slammed head-on into the concrete beam that held up the overpass.

I pulled to the side of the road and looked around. There wasn’t another car in sight.  And I remember thinking I was the only person who could help him.  This was before cellphones, so I got out of my car, with full intentions of rushing to the truck to offer help.  As I got out of the car, I could see the entire front of the truck. The cab, where the driver would’ve been, was virtually a pancake.

Like it was yesterday, I can still feel this sensation: my feet had become lead.  I tried to move, but my feet felt like they weighed five hundred pounds each.  A man ran past me—I hadn’t even seen him stop his car—and I remember thinking, “How is he running?” It was like gravity had glued me to the road.

These obscure details that we remember from trauma are similar to what your character will remember too.  Trauma is just that—it jolts the brain.  The mind tries to make sense of  madness. Is it any wonder that we can’t process it right?

I vividly recall standing in front of the gaping hole of the Murrah building after the bombing and looking at a computer that was swinging from a desk four or five stories up, held only by a cord, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  What is that box hanging there?  What is that black cord?  My mind could not immediately register that it was a computer hanging from a desk, in an office that had half its side blown out.

By narrowing your descriptions, and letting your character process trauma as we do in real life, your scenes will not only read more accurately, but also more intimately. Sure, the fireball of the explosion makes for good drama, but this is a book, not a movie, and it’s the microcosm of the event, the tiny details we remember in extraordinary moments, that make us human.

Here are some practical tips to capture your character’s most harrowing and traumatic moments:

  • Go small, not big. When something traumatic happens, it’s very hard for the human brain to comprehend the entire event….and for the reader to feel like they’re immersed in the moment.  It’s like offering a tasty hamburger but instead of offering a bite, you make them shove the whole thing in at once.  Sure, all the flavors are there, but they’re working on trying to get the thing down without choking.  The finer details will give the reader a bite-sized amount to handle, and will therefore make her feel as though she’s in the event as well.

  • Connect a moment in the traumatic event to a memory in the character’s mind from long ago. Let’s say the character is trapped in a burning car.  Flames are licking at his shins.  Sure, you can use strong words like “searing pain” but what if it reminded him of the time, when he was five, that he reached out and touched the tea kettle while it was still over its flame?  The mind has a crazy way of interpreting moments in life, and you can add to the chaos of the event by showing the brain doing something unexpected, like connecting pain back to a childhood memory.

  • Use all the senses, but not all at once. I do not remember a single smell from the day of the bombing.  Surely the air was thick with suffocating smoke, but I don’t remember it.  Using all five senses is always a good idea, but in a traumatic moment, when the person is trying to interpret what is happening, one sense typically takes over.  Maybe all the sound is swallowed by the raging fear the person experiences.  Play with how you can use senses intentionally to add to the chaos of the moment.

  • Less is more. If you need to describe a fiery crash on the freeway, from the POV of your character, give short bursts of what someone might see.  The very top of a fireball.  Light bouncing off the side of a semi.  The ground shaking underneath the floorboard of the car.  Find some small moments and let the reader fill in the blanks as they want to.

Gravity eventually let go and I ran to help the man driving the bread truck.  I hopped in the truck and helped throw bread out the back so they could get him out that way.  I remember watching him on the gurney, being loaded into the back of the ambulance, awake and talking. I couldn’t believe he had survived.  When the officer asked me for my statement about what I saw, I mentioned that I thought he was probably drunk.  The officer said, “He went into a diabetic coma.”  That was what I took away from that day—never judge a situation.  You never know what is really happening.

And I also learned that I’m probably not going to be the hero in the moment.  Maybe my feet have more courage these days but I hope I don’t have to find out any time soon!

Should I Do NaNoWriMo?

I'm sure you're all familiar with NaNoWriMo, which has become the best-known writing event in the nation. People all across the country commit to writing a novel during the month of November, and many claim they have succeeded. 

I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I'll admit it. I like anything that encourages writers to sit down and write. If you've read my Red Sneaker books, you know I advocate a no-frills, no-fuss attitude. In other words, stop whining and write already. NaNoWriMo has largely the same message. Of course, I don't think you should do this for just a month. I think it's a critical part of the writing life. Write every day. Get the work done. Finish and start the next one. But if NaNoWriMo gets your rear in the chair--good. If it helps you get past the urge to edit as you go, to monkey with each page before you've even finished a chapter--grrrrrreat!

On the other hand, the idea that you can write a good book in a month is absurd, and potentially even dangerous. At best, you  might get a decent first draft done in a month, and that's no small thing. (I've never done a draft in anything close to a month, but some people may be smarter. Or at least faster.) For me, the first draft is the hardest, the most painful, and the easiest to make excuses to avoid. What could be tougher than creating something out of nothing? Revising is no piece of cake--I revise and revise, typically working my way through a book ten or fifteen times before I even think about showing it to anyone else. But revision is pleasurable. I like seeing all the parts start to come together. Once I have a first draft down, I know I'll finish the book. It's simply a matter of time.

Should you try NaNoWriMo? First of all, let's define terms. If you attempt this, acknowledge that what you're doing is creating a first draft in thirty days--not a finished novel. (And by the way, 50,000 w0rds is not a publishable length for a novel in most markets.) Even then, whether you should attempt this, in my mind, depends upon whether you have trouble getting motivated. If you need a little push and this artificial calendar event helps, then by all means, try it.

What I will caution you against is trying to rush a book, that is, sacrificing quality for speed. There's too much of that going on in the world today. When people talk about junk books, too often they pick on the growing legion of self-published novels, but the truth is, it's going on in the traditional publishing world as well. The Big Five publishers are actively encouraging their big-name legacy writers to crank out more books, particularly series books, sometimes two or three a year.

The results are inevitable. First, authors lose their personal lives. Second, the books have not gestated as long as a good book requires, so they won't be as good as they might've otherwise been. They may be perfectly competent, mind you, adequate bubble-gum, time-passing material, but much of the richness, texture, and quality will be lost. The fact that this is encouraged nonetheless shows how schizophrenic the current tradional publishing world truly is. On the one hand, they trumpet so-called upscale fiction, meaning genre fiction that is supposedly better written, that has the art and craft of a literary novel. But they're paying their bills by enouraging their best-known writers to produce more and more quickly.

This is a relatively new development. Back in the day, when I was writing a Ben Kincaid novel a year for Random House, I occasionally suggested that I could do more--mostly because I wanted to write something different. Repeatedly I was told to chill. To have more than one book released a year would "glut the market."  Critics and fans would rebel. No one can produce good books that quickly. (And in truth, a year is often not long enough.) But today economic needs, driven by profit shortfalls stemming from the increasingly less profitable print arena, are causing publishers to change their tunes.

I don't want to live in a world where novels are cranked out on a rigid conveyor belt. I've already heard tales of people dictating novels into their phones while they drive, and we know many of those Big Five legacy authors are using co-writers and ghosts who may or may not be acknowledged on the cover. Yes, I've always advocated an unpretentious approach to writing. But I still believe quality is paramount. The whole point of my eight Red Sneaker books (the ninth coming soon) and the conferences and the seminars is to help you produce the best book possible. If NaNoWriMo helps you get there, fine. But don't ever do anything that compromises the quality of your work. Amazon is already flooded with mediocre books. That's not how you break out. That's not how you get the writing career you want.

Make your book the best it can possibly be. That's your ticket to success. Quality.

Should You attend a writers conference?

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I hope you will forgive me if, just this once, I digress from the usual hot-off-the-presses publishing news and writing advice and instead tell a more personal story, one that has been much on my mind these past few days–in part, because people keep asking why I spend so much time putting together this annual writing conference. It takes time away from my writing, it’s not particularly profitable, and I spend most of the year worrying that no one will come–so why? I’ll explain this the same way I do everything.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was young, my dream was to write a book and see it published. That was it. That was all I wanted. I dreamed about visiting the library and seeing my name on the spine of a novel and thinking, yeah, I did that. Problem was, I had no idea how to make this happen. I sent my stuff out, hundreds of times, but it was always rejected (because it was awful). I took some classes in college, but they didn’t lead anywhere. I became a full-time trial lawyer, but I wrote every available spare minute–and still couldn’t even get an agent.

I joined a local writing group, and someone there recommended that I attend the Golden Triangle Conference in Beaumont, Texas. Not in Dallas, or Houston, or anyplace you might expect. Beaumont. Great conference, she said. So I went.

I participated in everything possible. I went to every class I could. Despite my poor social skills, I forced myself to talk to people, even agents. I even went to the banquets. No luck. But somewhere in the midst of it all, someone mentioned an agent named Esther Perkins. How did she know Esther? Esther had attended this conference several times in the past.

So after I got home, I sent Esther my manuscript (this was Primary Justice, in case you’re wondering). She liked it. Better yet, Esther knew an editor in the Ballantine division of Random House, Joe Blades. How did she know Joe? She met him a few years before at the same conference. As it turned out, Joe also liked my book. He offered me a three-book contract. The book was a hit and that led to a career of more than forty books and several New York Timesbestsellers. All because of a conference.

You may be thinking this is just my way of persuading you to attend the conference. Wrong. This is my explanation of why I’ve hosted conferences all these years.

Because now my dream is to see what happened for me, happen for you.

Can I guarantee you’ll get an agent at this conference? No–though many have. Can I guarantee this will lead to a publishing contract? No, though for many it has. But I can guarantee you’ll meet some terrific people, and one of them might just drop your Esther Perkins, that is, the tiny bit of information that makes all the difference.

You will have one asset I didn’t have all those years ago–me. I will be there chatting and shepherding and making sure everyone gets what they need. No one will miss a session that could have changed their life. No one will miss a chance to speak to the people they came to see. Everyone will leave feeling they have the inside scoop on the current publishing world–because they do.

Writing is like any of the arts–it’s hard to know when success will strike. But the one thing I know for certain is that you have to get yourself out there, get in line, give yourself a chance. Your break will come when you have the right book in the right place at the right time–and you know how to take advantage of it. There is no reason why it couldn’t happen for you. Do you think that skinny geeky kid from Oklahoma thirty years ago had something you don’t? I did not. But I had a lot of desire. And I went to a conference.