Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 30 and 31, 2012

Maybe it’s because a long weekend’s coming up, at least here in the US, that there wasn’t a lot out there on the blogosphere that really jumped out at me yesterday and today. That means a light (mostly) reading day for you.

The only piece on craft today comes from Neil Abbott (@NeilAbbott), guest posting on the WORDplay blog. Neil suggests that you Use Character Quirks to Grab Readers’ Attention and names two specific ways to do this: quirks as part of the story or as symbols for some aspect of the character’s personality. All fine and well, and I know I’ve done that in my WIP, but I think a word of caution is in order, too: don’t be heavy-handed about it. Readers won’t be so thrilled if you give a character a symbolic quirk and then beat them over the head with it to make sure they get the meaning.

Four things for you on the business side of the topic: one practical, two big-time warnings, and one practical and encouraging, in that order.

  • Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) offers some tips for How to Find Out What Readers Want on The Book Designer. Joel suggests both on- and off-line places writers can go to find out and discusses techniques and resources for doing surveys.
  • Victoria Strauss (@VictoriaStrauss) brings a disturbing story to the Writer Beware! blog: Fake Jared And His Friends: Author Solutions’ Misleading PR Strategies. It seems that “Jared Silverstone,” a “Publishing Consultant” for Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI), a company that’s been getting a lot of negative attention lately, both before and after Pearson Publishing acquired it, isn’t a real person. “He” even has fake Twitter and Facebook accounts. I can’t fathom what ASI is trying to accomplish by creating fake people for PR purposes. This is really bizarre.
  • In a similar vein, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (@kriswrites) posts a very long (again, *sigh*) jeremiad titled A Warning To All Writers Who Need Help Indie Publishing. The article centers around a many-times New York Times bestselling author who, apparently because she didn’t read the Terms of Use for a web-based company’s e-publishing “services” may now be locked into a horrible contract-like situation (even though no formal contract was ever signed) that might result, Kris says, in the author not only not ever getting any money from any of the e-books sold but may not be able to sell those e-books through another outlet if she becomes dissatisfied with what this unnamed company is doing. Kris’ ultimate point–read and make sure you understand what you’re signing up for, whether it’s in a formal contract or a contract-like document, no matter where it’s located or what format it’s in–is absolutely spot-on.  (That’s why I’ve boldfaced and italicized it.) I know we writers often don’t like to deal with all this business stuff, but I’ll bet we like getting screwed out of income that is rightfully ours even less.
  • Finally, and on a much more positive note, publicist Crystal Patriarche (@booksparkspr) announces Indie Authors–You CAN Do It on Writer Unboxed. Crystal offers five steps indie authors can take (well, four they can/should plus one they shouldn’t–buying positive reviews) that will help them achieve their sales goals. Note that the first three involve spending money to make money and require knowing what you’re signing up for when you do. Once again: it’s a business.

Have a great weekend. “See” you again on Monday.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 28 and 29, 2012

Welcome to post #201 on the Cochise Writers blog! Today we have everything from scenes to themes in our craft entries and several posts on what might be called the down sides of desperation for fame and fortune. Unfortunately, there’s nothing funny today to offset that bad news. Anyway, let’s get to work.

  • Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) brings us an excerpt from Martha Alderson’s (@plotwhisperer) The Plot Whisperer Workbook containing what she considers the 7 Essential Elements of Scene & Scene Structure. These include time and setting, conflict and tension, and theme, and much more in between.
  • Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) offers one tip on How to Find Your Character’s Voice on her WORDplay video post. Her technique–write random scenes in which the character is prominent, without worrying about where they will eventually fit into the story–will work. I added two of my own in the comments: interview the characters or have them write something autobiographical. Then the author HAS to get out of the way.
  • Canadian author Suzannah Windsor Freeman (@Writeitsideways) draws 3 Fiction Tips from Stephanie Vaughn’s “Dog Heaven” on Writer Unboxed. These tips are broader in scope than the first two posts today, and include how to break rules with intention and create a memorable ending.
  • And in the last post on craft, Dr. John Yeoman (@Yeomanis) discusses The Power of THEME on The Bookshelf Muse. This might sound scary and super-literary, but it’s not. Every story has a theme–its meaning–and Dr. Yeoman addresses what to do when either you’ve written the story but aren’t sure what the theme is or have an idea for a theme but no story to go with it.

On the business side…

  • Porter Anderson’s (@Porter_Anderson) long Extra Ether piece on Jane Friedman’s blog on Buying Book Reviews is the first of several that have shown up in my blog reading in the last few days (one is definitely enough) about authors, including best-seller John Locke, buying positive but completely bogus Amazon.com reviews from a company (GettingBookReviews.com–now shut down) whose only business was to provide them. It’s yet another sad example authors being desperate for fame and sales and the people who are willing to take advantage of them for their own profit. Honest work? Who needs that? Integrity? C’mon, man, this is the 21st century. (In case you’re wondering, I’m being sarcastic. And very sad.)
  • Along similar but more positive lines, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) warns Not So Fast: Ideas to Rethink, when it comes to beliefs like quality in writing doesn’t matter any more or that electronic publishing is easy. There are a couple more, including one that might be seen as self-serving–her riposte to the idea that agents are becoming irrelevant. Judge for yourself.
  • Finally, to end on the most positive note I can, Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) lists 5 Lessons About Community that Writers MUST Learn (emphasis hers) on DIY MFA. The essence of her piece is that while writing is primarily a solo occupation, maybe even because it is, it’s important to be a part of a community of writers (not necessarily a critique group) that gives and receives help and support to and from its members. (Which, she notes, is a way to generate legitimate Amazon reviews, among many other benefits).

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 25-27, 2012

Welcome to the first full-weekend edition of Great Stuff. Of course we’ve got stuff on craft and stuff on business but we’ve also got something new–stuff on writers’ conferences–and some just-for-fun stuff. We’re well and fully stuffed!

Nothing crafty about the fact that we’ll start with craft stuff.

  • Stories, of course, start with the opening line–hey, how about that for a revelation!–and that’s where we’ll start, too, with Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s Kill Zone piece on That all important first line. There’s some debate in the comments about how important it is that the first line be great, but it should be clear that a bad opening line (á la last Friday’s Bulwer-Lytton contest winners) can be the wrong kind of killer.
  • Next, Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) warns of 5 Ways You’re Preventing Readers from Suspending Disbelief. Experienced writers know all about (or should) avoiding the things on Kim’s hit list–incorrect facts, clichés, plot holes big enough to drive a truck through (oh, sorry), and the wrong kinds of character behaviors, but this is a good review for new writers.
  • Writers’ conferences can be a terrific asset for writers, new or experienced, but only if the potential attendee picks wisely and well. Harvey Stanbrough (@h_stanbrough) offers A Crash Course on Writers’ Conferences on his Writing the World blog.

Moving on to the business stuff, we find:

  • Victoria Strauss (@VictoriaStrauss) adds another thoughtful, rational piece to the discussion on the publishing industry with her Writer Beware post Vanity, Vanity: Turning the Label Around. Strauss calls for an end to the “vanity” versus “legacy” name-calling and distorted story-telling advocates on both sides are engaging in and refocusing on producing quality work, irrespective of how it’s published. Hear hear!
  • Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) addresses one of the possible reasons for all the name-calling in his somewhat long Writer Unboxed post ‘Social’ Media: Author Ignorance. Porter’s central point is that if you’re going to speak out on the issues surrounding what’s going on in the publishing world right now, it’s wise to have the real facts, not what your own beliefs and biases tell you are the “facts.”

Enough of that serious stuff, let’s have some fun.

  • For starters, Chuck Sambuchino (@ChuckSambuchino) follows up on the Bulwer-Lytton contest with one of his own on Writer Unboxed: the “Worst Storyline Ever” Contest: Seeking Awful Plot Ideas. Instead of an awful opening line, Chuck wants to see your ideas for horrible “loglines”–those one-sentence (60 words maximum) descriptions of a story’s plot. Want to play? You’ve got until 11:59 PM Pacific time on September 3rd to submit your (maximum of 2) loglines. See the post for the rest of the rules.
  • And finally, Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) must have had too much time on his hands over the weekend 😉 because he came up with this: The Publishing Process in GIF Form. I’m not sure I want to know where he came up with all of these animated GIF clips but, well, just take a look.

Have a great week. I’m off to a radio interview on writing in a few hours. Should be fun. (No web link, unfortunately, or I’d invite you to listen in.)

Critique Technique, Part 29—Writers’ Tics

Writers’ tics—those sneaky, dastardly things that slip into our writing when we’re not looking and make it go CLANK! They’re insidious and terribly hard to recognize: our eyes glide right over them when we’re editing.

And it doesn’t matter how experienced we are, we’re still vulnerable to them.

What are they? Here’s a nowhere-near-complete list:

  • Incessantly using unnecessarily intrusive adverbs excessively.
  • Clichés we’ve read a million times before.
  • The words or phrases we really like to use over and over because they do a really great job of really capturing what we’re really trying to say.
  • Those, like, popular, y’know, empty words or phrases that are nothing but noise. I know: seriously?
  • Repeated word patterns:
    • Short, choppy sentences. Strings of them. One after the other. Like that. And this.
    •  Whenever you’re writing, beginning sentences with independent or dependent clauses.
  • Making repeated parenthetical comments, perhaps set off between commas, or other ways (within parentheses)—or between dashes—to call attention to them.
  • Putting words or phrases in quotation marks to “set them off” from the others, so readers know they’re “special.”
  • Using italics when a character’s being very emotional. Even when they’re not.
  • Using exclamation points! A lot!
  • Having one or more characters use the same gesture over and over.

The list goes on. And on.

The good news is that this is a case where being a critiquer can benefit you as well as the author you’re reading. When you’ve learned to spot these problems in other people’s writing, you’ll catch more of them in your own work.

Great! But what are you trying to do?

The good news is that this skill is a kind of working memory, in which your subconscious keeps track of things in a story or article, counting each time they show up, and when it detects them, it whispers to you, “Hey, that’s the third time she’s used ‘really’ as an adjective in the last four paragraphs. Looks like there’s a pattern setting up.” Once you’ve developed this turn of mind to catch these problems, they’ll start jumping out at you.

It’s like what happens after you’ve bought a new car, for example. Suddenly, you start seeing the same make and model on the street. You’ve become attuned to that thing—car or phrase—and now they seem to be everywhere. It’s not that they weren’t there before, you’re just more conscious of them now.

So how do you learn how to do this?

The good news is that there are at least a couple ways. First, if you know someone—a member of your writers’ group or a trusted reader, say—who already has the skill, watch them in action. Listen closely when they’re giving critique to another member of your group and then go back through that same piece, looking for what they found.

If they reviewed some of your own work, notice what they found, especially if they were kind enough to mark it for you, then go looking for the same problems in other things you’ve written.

Or, take a piece of writing that you’ve been told has some kind of writer’s tic in it, but not what the specific problem is, and try to find it yourself.

Like this one. I’ve planted a problem in it: a phrase that I’ve used repeatedly and in a very specific way. Can you find it?

The good news is that if you can find it, you won’t have to look in this footnote[1] to find out what it is. (By the way, did you notice that every bullet except the last one at the start of this article illustrated the problem it was describing?)

Like all the other problems and techniques in this series, detecting writers’ tics is about being aware of more than just the chain of words that pass before your eyes. It’s about seeing the work in larger parts, as the sum of those parts, and as something more than the sum. It’s about reading like a writer, not merely like a reader.

Once you’ve developed this skill, not only will you be able to help the writers you’re reviewing, you’ll be able to shock and dismay yourself when you discover how much you make these mistakes, too! But that’s OK because after you get over the shock and fix the problems, your work will be better, and that’s what we’re all striving for.

If you know any other techniques that writers and critiquers can use, please include them in the comments. Thanks!

Happy hunting and happy writing.


[1] It’s starting paragraphs with the phrase “The good news is that…”

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 23 & 24, 2012

A 60/40 mix of craft and marketing posts today, with a final just-for-fun piece. As usual, we’ll start with craft.

  • Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) offers suggestions for how to Strengthen Your Writing by Listening to Pet Peeves on her WORDplay blog. Every writer, reader, agent, or editor has things they just hate in writing. While you might not agree with all of them, you can improve your writing, Kim says, if you listen to those gripes, consider them with care, and adjust your writing wherever you see the value behind the complaint. James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) asks Kill Zone readers to list their faves (or maybe these are their anti-favorites) on Reader Friday: Stop It!
  • Martha Alderson (a.k.a. The Plot Whisperer; @plotwhisperer) means to describe what she considers to be the Benefits of Plotting in Scenes on The Bookshelf Muse. Frankly, I’m a little torn about including this post today because, while she succeeds to an extent, I felt this post and this concept could have been much more fully developed. Still, there is value here.
  • Finally for this section, John Vorhaus (@TrueFactBarFact) reminds us that The Practice of Writing requires just that–practice–and offers 9 ways to ensure you can and will do it.

These next two posts have to do with getting your work in front of readers’ eyes.

  • Dan Blank (@danblank) asks on Writer Unboxed, Do You Know Who  Your Audience Is? No, Really: Do You? It’s a many-times-asked question, which means lots of would-be published authors haven’t got this one figured out yet. While this longer than necessary article could have benefited from some editing, it does eventually get around to the steps to take to identify who your target audience/market is.
  • With your target market identified, Michael Hyatt (@MichaelHyatt) offers his steps for How to Launch a Bestselling Book. This post is focused more on non-fiction than fiction, and Hyatt notes that what worked for him won’t necessarily work for you, but the steps are practical and specific. That’s different from saying they’ll be easy, especially for those not comfortable with the whole idea of marketing.

And finally, and just for fun, the winners (?) of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced in Publishers Weekly. In case you’re not familiar with this contest, it’s run by the English Department of San Jose State University in California in honor (?) of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the British novelist and playwright who began his novel Paul Clifford with, “It was a dark and stormy night;…” You can read the full list of winners (?) in all the various categories, if you can, if you dare, here. (To his credit, EGB-L is also the creator of the terms “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “the great unwashed,” and “the almighty dollar,” although given the prolix nature of Victorian prose, one shudders to think what verbiage these phrases might have been embedded in; or if you prefer, in what verbiage these phrases might have been embedded.) Thanks (?) to Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) for reporting this on his blog.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 21 & 22, 2012

Welcome to the first multi-day edition of Great Stuff. There’s lots to share, so off we go…

Let’s start with some posts on craft, shall we?

  • Joe Moore’s (@JoeMoore_writer) post Fried Catfish and Grits isn’t about food; it’s about setting written so well (in Ace Atkins’ The Lost Ones) that it gave Joe a hankerin’ for those southern staples. He then goes on to discuss ways to make your setting details contribute to the story.
  • Kim Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) video on How to Use Foreshadowing to Jazz Up Slow Scenes tells the tale of how fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss uses foreshadowing to keep his readers engaged through what Kim calls “[a] couple hundred leisurely pages of everything going pretty much the protagonist’s way.” A COUPLE HUNDRED PAGES!!! That’s some serious foreshadowing!
  • Next, David R. Gillham (@drgillham) provides 5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction on the Guide to Literary Agents blog. While the title says “historical” and Gillham does indeed focus on that genre, what he suggests applies to just about any genre: “Fiction = friction,” “Using language or accents” to name just two.

OK, enough for craft, how about the business side of things? Sure!

  • We’ll start with Alan Petersen (@AlanPetersen) discussing 3 Really Good Self-Publishing Ideas and 5 Hilariously Bad Ones on The Book Designer. I don’t know if the the 5 bad ones are hilarious, really, but they definitely are bad. And the good ones? I’ll summarize them this way: if you want to make money (from your books), you’ll need to spend money (on getting them ready) first. Just do it wisely.
  • Speaking of bad ideas, M. J. Rose (@MJRose) discusses how not to commit Social Media Suicide on Writer Unboxed. Of course, don’t write stupid things is part of her prescription. So is not going crazy on social media. Seems being smart about how to use social media isn’t so easy, at least for some folks.
  • So how do you market yourself effectively on social media (and elsewhere)? Harvey Stanbrough (@h_stanbrough) offers a set of Resources to help you figure that out. While he includes himself, he does also list Steven Pressfield of The War of Art and Dean Wesley Smith’s web site, which includes the tab “Think Like a Publisher.” Hmmm. Have to check that out myself.
  • Finally for this section, Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) wonders, Does the Publishing Industry Care Too Much About Writing Quality? This is a continuation of the discussion about the quality (or lack thereof) of indie-published writing. Seems to me the answer is clear: the publishing industry cares (as it should) about making a profit. The books that sell lots of copies but aren’t “quality” writing in the eyes of self-appointed experts are the very books that allow publishers to sell the “quality-writing” books that don’t make money. This shouldn’t be an either/or question. The answer is both/and. IMHO.

So much for the business side, let’s close with a couple of personal life posts.

  • Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) writes about Dealing with Impatience: what might cause it, why it can be a problem, and what you can do about it if it’s a problem for you.
  • Karen Jordan (@KarenJordan) offers some tips on Taking Time Out on WordServeWater Cooler when something–maybe it’s that impatience–gives you a “flat tire” on the journey of life.

Why I joined a Writer’s Group.

I’m a Baby Boomer. Yes, one of the many. Not long ago, I was reading an article about my generation, and found that the biggest dream of Boomers, is to write a book. Man, I thought I was doing something unique when I retired from public school teaching to become a writer. Nope, not unique. 

That was the first blow. The second came after giving my memoir to a writer friend and hear her tell me I needed to do more work on it. “You’re close, but you need to peel back more layers. We want to feel what you felt.” My heart sank. I’d worked on it for two years! Surely it was ready for publication, and will become a sensational best seller. I was forced to take a good look at my expectations. Did I want to peel back the layers, and expose my deepest self in a memoir? Maybe I’ll turn it into a novel. I’m still thinking about that one.

For awhile, I dithered around with writing, not knowing what I should do. I’m a fence sitter from way back, so, not making a decision came natural in this situation. One of my dither activities was to read blogs about writing. If you can’t write, read, right? Many of the blogs suggested I join a writer’s/critique group. I don’t need that! I’m an expert at story analysis. A gift from my education in Theatre. However, the more I thought about the possibility of having someone else read and critique my work, the more I knew that’s exactly what I needed. I was scared. So, I started a group of my own. It’s a great group. We support each other’s process. But, we’re all new to writing. I needed experts, or close to it. That’s when I found Cochise Writers. I’m still a little afraid that I’m not a good writer, but as so many creative people have pointed out, it’s the scary projects that make you grow. Since joining Cochise Writers, I’ve learned some valuable things about the art of writing and about myself. In subsequent blogs, I’ll peel back the layers and share my process with you.