Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, January 29 & 30, 2013

 

For a while this morning I thought I was going to have to write, “Nothing Great out there today. Sorry.” Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case, although the final list is short. That’s okay: quantity isn’t quality.

CRAFT

Harvey Stanbrough (@h_stanbrough) continues his series on writing mistakes with The Next Five (Okay, Six) Most-Common Mistakes Writers Make. If you missed his first installment, you can find it here. This piece deals with assigning human traits to body parts, where to put descriptive narrative relative to dialogue, describing characters speaking to themselves, unnecessary “reaching” verbs, and others. Valuable basic craft stuff here, especially for new writers.

BUSINESS

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) interviews New York Times and USA Today bestselling author CJ Lyons (@cjlyonswriter) today about Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing: Enjoy the Best of Both Worlds. To be honest, there’s really nothing new in what Ms. Lyons says in this long piece, at least not if you’ve been reading this blog or any others for any length of time, but if you need to hear it from a big-name success, this is the piece you want to read.

THE WRITING LIFE

Now here’s a piece that’s the kind of thing writers need from time to time: Angela Ackerman’s (@AngelaAckerman) Success: Is It Happening To You, Only You Don’t Realize It? on The Bookshelf Muse. The subtitle, 7 Signs of Emerging Success, is the key here, or rather, the signs themselves are. They’re a terrific set of sanity checks against the crazy-making hunt for that 100,000th sale or the spot on the big-name bestseller list. None of us are likely to get there unless we had at least a few of these seven first.

I admit I’m always a bit leery of whoever’s the guru-du-jour—I’ve lived long enough to see too many of them come and go—so for that reason I’m not on the Seth Godin (@ThisIsSethsBlog) bandwagon. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have good ideas or clever insights, I’m just not going to worship at his feet. That said, his interview with Kelton Reid (@KeltonReid) on Copyblogger, Here’s How Seth Godin Writes, is worth a look if nothing else than for the short and snarky answers to some of Reid’s questions. Example: Q: Do you write every day? A: Do you talk every day? Hmmm. I wonder if Godin’s getting interview fatigue. Or did Reid get the answers he deserved?

What do you think? Is Stanbrough right? What about Godin? Let us know in the Comments.

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Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, January 26-28, 2013

Good Monday, everyone! The story of scene and sequel continues today, along with more ideas on how to support your author-friends, writing for money and searching for success, and more. Don’t wait a second longer! Dive right in.

CRAFT

KM Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) part 8 of her series on scene and sequel dives into the Options for Reactions in a Sequel. As she points out, the purpose of the sequel is to present the character’s reaction to the scene-ending disaster they’ve just experienced and set them up for the next scene. Sequels can be chapters long or as short as a single sentence, but they will always contain an emotional reaction, an intellectual dilemma, and a decision leading to action. This excellent series is especially valuable for new writers.

BUSINESS

To be, or not to be (a participant in Amazon’s KDP Select program, that is). It’s a question lots of self-published authors ask. Thanks to Joel Friedlander’s (@JFBookman) monthly Carnival of the Indies post, M. Louisa Locke (@mlouisalocke) lists 7 Things joining KDP Select Can and Can’t do for you [capitalization hers]—4 can’ts, 3 cans. Good information here but I was a bit surprised by the idea of putting a book into KDP Select after it had already been on sale with Amazon (and other sales platforms) for a while. Seems like putting all of one’s eggs in one basket. A BIG basket, sure, but hardly the only one.

On Friday I mentioned Rachelle Gardner’s piece on how you can help support an author. Now along comes Chuck Sambuchino (@ChuckSambuchino) with 11 more ideas on Writer Unboxed on How to Support an Author’s New Book. At first it looked like the ideas were going to be only for traditionally published books but that’s not true: at least some of these ideas apply to every kind of book, e-, POD, or trad. What I especially like about this post is that Chuck suggests things you can say to your friends, and that they can say to their friends, that will give them even more reason to be interested in helping.

Focus on the word “returned” in the title of Joanna Penn’s latest post and 9-minute video, Self Publishing In Print: Why I Have Returned To Printing My Books. She made the new-author mistake of paying lots of money to have her early works printed, and then was stuck with copies that weren’t selling. In the video, she talks about that decision and why now, with three books selling well in eBook format, she thinks she’s ready to get back into (print-on-demand) print. Very practical discussion, if you don’t mind the repeated flashing of the newly-printed book.

THE WRITING LIFE

Dean Wesley Smith (@deanwesleysmith) points us at a recent post by John Scalzi (@Scalzi) called A Moment of Financial Clarification, in which Scalzi admits (gasp!) that he not only writes for money, he has done so with the (achieved) objective of getting rich. There will be some who find this objectionable: writing is art after all, isn’t it? Yeah, some of it is, but there are lots of artists in other fields (painting, music, and so on) that have gotten pretty darn rich an no one seems to mind that. If I have a beef with this piece is that Scalzi doesn’t mention how long it can take to become that overnight success. Otherwise, this moment of brutal honesty is refreshing.

If you’ve been reading blogs on writing for any time at all, you’ve run across the message, “to learn how to write, keep writing! To be an ‘overnight’ success, write lots.” Boyd Morrison’s (@boydmorrison) But I Want Success Now! on The Kill Zone repeats that message, but with plenty of examples of how many novels now-big-name authors wrote before the one that made them big-name authors. The numbers might be scary but the truth is what it is.

What do you think? Are you willing to work and wait for success or do you want it yesterday or not at all?

Critique Technique, Part 40—The Gray Haze

Fog over village

Photo by Dan via freedigitalphotos.net

Painters have a lot of different tools at their disposal to create an image: oils, water colors, acrylics, computer graphics. Photographers have light, angle, framing, the capabilities of their camera and film or electronics, and of course Photoshop® and its cousins. Sculptors have stone, wood, found objects, metal, even sand.

We writers have words—hundreds of thousands of them in the English language alone—so there should never be a problem with creating a clear image, right?

Alas, we know that’s not true. It’s not how many or how few tools we have at our disposal, it’s how we use them that matters. The next five posts are going to deal with how writers use words poorly to describe what they want the reader to see, hear, feel (emotionally and physically), smell, taste, sense psychologically, and so on, and how critiquers can help them do it better.

When we talk about vague or inadequate descriptions, there’s a tendency to ask how much description is the right amount. That’s the wrong question, for at least a couple of reasons. First, every genre has its own standards. Literary fiction often spends a great deal of time and effort on description in order to place the reader fully in the physical and/or psychological setting of the story. So can other genres.

For another thing, the descriptive needs of a work—fiction or non-fiction—change from moment to moment. For example, let’s say the characters in a story take several drives through a river valley. It might be appropriate in one scene to spend a lot of time describing the valley but say almost nothing about the car. Yet in another scene, the car will be more important than the valley and so should get more attention.

So one of the causes of inadequate or vague description is the author not knowing what she wants the reader to focus on or why. When this happens, the author’s mental senses will skim so lightly across the sensory field that she picks up little or nothing and as a result, describes little or nothing. The characters of the example are now driving through a valley on a hazy day:

  • They can see the fields and trees and river around them but the sights and the haze have no meaning or import;
  • Maybe they can hear the engine, the air rushing around the car, or the tires rolling over the pavement, maybe they can’t, or maybe those sounds don’t matter;
  • If there are any scents coming off the fields, no one knows;
  • The road must be straight, smooth, and flat because there’s no sensation of movement; and so on.

The result is that the scene is bland at best and maybe even unnecessary.

Another cause of poor description is the author knowing he needs to describe things, but not knowing how. This can show up as anything from excessive description to none at all, or descriptions of things that don’t matter. Perhaps the most common error here is simply using bland, generic, or uninformative terms. In a work I’m reviewing right now, the author describes a character’s voice as “upper-tier baritone.” Okay, baritone I get but what does “upper-tier” mean? As it turns out, this adjective is unnecessary because he shows what he means through the way the character speaks.

So how can you help a writer clear away the gray haze and give the reader a meaningful sensory experience? The first step is to know the general conventions of the genre, even the sub-genre, of the piece you’re reviewing.

The second is to determine, if possible, whether the author intended to work within those conventions or outside of them.

With this background information in place, you can get to the words themselves. The next step is to determine what’s necessary and appropriate to the story. The writer doesn’t want or need to engage all of the reader’s senses in every scene, but certain ones, especially beyond sight and sound, will draw the reader into it. Identify those. Don’t forget, this includes things like mood too, which may or may not be described in physical terms. Tell the writer which senses you believe should be engaged, or engaged better, why, and how the story or scene would be stronger if she did so.

Now determine which objects, sensations, impressions, etc., need to be described in special detail. In one story, a glass on a window sill may be a minor object; in another it could be key. The first glass needs little more than a mention; for the second one, whether it’s clean or dirty, full, half-full, or empty, what is in it, how it looks in the light, etc., may matter for many different reasons. As a reviewer, you can help the author home in on those characteristics.

The last key is to pick the most evocative descriptive terms—like Mark Twain’s lightning versus lightning bug. In one story, it will be the lightning; in another, the bug. You’re looking for the right word, the one that reveals something important, that puts the reader inside the scene with the characters, rather than watching it from the outside. The right word sharpens the image; the vague and generic one, or the mass of adjectives or adverbs, dims or diminishes it.

Unintended vague description is a writer’s bane. It’s a particular problem for the new writer. As a reviewer, you can help him pick what needs to be described, come up with the best words to clear away the haze, and make his story sparkle.

How have you helped writers overcome vague descriptions?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, January 22 & 23, 2013

 

What do you know? A Great Stuff post without anything on craft! But that’s OK, there’s still Great Stuff out there: a convenient submission tracking form, yet another way to connect using social media and other ways to get support, acting like a writer, and a post like nothing you’ve ever seen—at least not recently.

BUSINESS

A couple weeks ago, Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) published a post called Navigating the Guest Post Process on DIY MFA, which included a PDF guest post submission log form. Today she announced on Twitter a new and improved version that you can fill out using Adobe Reader. (Full disclosure: Gabriela designed the form, I suggested and created the capability to fill it in with Reader. Thanks for letting me contribute, Gabriela!) The form is good for other submissions besides guest posts, too: opinion pieces, even full-scale non-fiction articles for print or online publication. You can find the form by clicking on the link above or get it directly here.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Google+ continues to come up with its own takes on things other social media sites are already doing. Now Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) introduces us to the latest with Google+ Communities Create New Networks for Authors and Publishers. I won’t make any snarky comments about this being another way to spend time we should be spending writing: we know that already. What jumped out at me was this: there are four general types of groups: public, public moderated, private, and private hidden. That’s fine. But once the community’s been created, you can’t change the type, from public moderated to private, say? Really? If Joel’s not wrong, Google certainly is. That’s poor design.

THE WRITING LIFE

No doubt Becca Puglisi (@beccapuglisi) chose the title Got Any Wise People in Your Village? Or Just Idiots? with the intention of getting our attention. And she succeeded. But the village she’s referring to is the group of writing-related people around us—the people who should be our support group. Are they wise or, um, not so helpful? Her key points are: (1) you need them; (2) you decide who to keep close and who not to.

Having that village around you will only help so much, however, if you’re not willing to help yourself. Carleen Brice (@carleenbrice) answers the question Can Acting As If You’re a Writer Make You a Writer? with a qualified yes. Yes if you use acting-as-if to get started or keep yourself motivated to keep going. There’s even scientific evidence now to show this works. But it’s the doing that matters in the end, not the pretending.

FUN

Oh, man, this is just too much fun to pass up. John Vorhaus’s (@TrueFactBarFact) Simile Fever Spreads Like Wildfire on Writer Unboxed is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Good thing you’re done with this post. You can stop what you’re doing an go read it—now!—without guilt.

Then share the laughs with all your writer friends.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, January 19-21, 2013

Happy Monday, everyone! It’s a grumpy Monday around here and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was that hard-sell video lying in wait in my inbox this morning. Grrrr. But enough of that: there’s Great Stuff ahead!

CRAFT

Porter Anderson’s (@Porter_Anderson) Writing on the Ether posts have always been frustrating for me. On the one hand, they often have useful or at least interesting information in them. On the other hand, they’re so freakin’ long. I mean, 5,078 words this time? Seriously? Which is a shame, because buried in all those words are two useful sections. One is on a study by Teresa Frohock (@TeresaFrohock) on whether readers can tell the difference between male and female authors when they don’t know who wrote a particular piece. The short answer is no. You can find the full report here. If you want to read the full Ether discussion, including a diversion into whether boys or girls are reading more, and two tangential tweet copies, click here.

So it’s ironic that the next piece here is Joe Bunting’s (@write_practice) 3 Ways to Compress Your Story Like Les Misérables on Writer Unboxed. Compress like les Mis, eh? Turns out, Bunting’s referring to the compression of the original novel into the play and the recent movie musical, which he says requires these steps: choose the right moments; combine characters; and write a good story, then cut. Good advice, all, though tough to do. Be sure to check out the supporting quotes.

Let’s stay with the practical tips and visit Harvey Stanbrough’s (@h_stanbrough) Top Five Mistakes Writers Make. Clear, simple, practical advice that I’m much more conscious of since he pinged me on most of them when he edited my WIP. D’oh!

KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) has pretty much finished teaching us how to structure our scenes, so now it’s time for the sequel, which would be… sequels. And in Pt. 7: The Three Building Blocks Of The Sequel, she does just that. To give you a preview, those blocks are Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision, which every sequel, no matter how brief, should include.

BUSINESS

Anderson also includes a section on author Cory Doctorow’s (@doctorow) take on writing, publishing, and visibility in another section of the same Ether post titled Beyond DBW: More Conferences. What that has to do with what Doctorow says isn’t clear. Here’s the key quote, though (emphasis Doctorow’s): “Here’s the thing about fame: although it’s hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it’s impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts. It doesn’t matter how you plan on making your money — selling books or downloads, selling ads, getting sponsorship, getting crowdfunded, getting commissions, licensing to someone else who’s figured out how to make money — you won’t get the chance unless people have heard of your stuff.”

THE WRITING LIFE

Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) summarizes the key points from the Stockdale Paradox and applies them to the writing life (courtesy Jim Collins, author of Good to Great) in 3 Ways to Change Your Thinking Today. “Stockdale” refers to 8-year Vietnam Prisoner of War Jim Stockdale and the philosophy he used to survive that ordeal. In short, for writers, the 3 points are: decide that you will find success; embrace your current challenges; and face your situation realistically, being willing to work as hard as necessary to overcome your challenges. Easier to say than to do, but necessary.

I hope this sets you up for a great week.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, January 17 & 18, 2013

A full weekend’s worth of Great Stuff reading for you! We open with opening lines, pass through structure, find information and the right (or wrong) readers, gain Facebook fans, writing tools (including a quick-ish way to publish a Word document to the Kindle), and close with a little help from our friends. Should be something for just about everybody.

CRAFT

This is the best piece to start out with: Zachary Petit’s Famous First Lines Reveal How to Start a Novel. Lists of great or terrible opening lines are a dime a dozen, but Petit turns the post over to Jacob Appel, who suggests seven ways to start, and we’re still talking here about the very first sentence or two. These tips are excerpted from a longer Writer’s Digest article (which the link in the post DOES NOT lead you to) but they stand well on their own.

Anna Elliott (@anna_elliott) discusses the differences and connections of Plot vs Story on Writer Unboxed, including what’s more compelling (story) and how to craft that story, whether you’re a full-out outliner or, like Anna, someone who starts from character.

You might think, then, that J E Fishman’s (@JEFISHMAN) 5 Elements of Story Structure on KM Weiland’s WORDplay blog would present a contrary view to Anna’s, but it’s complementary. Element 4 is character development (after establishing and disrupting normalcy and creating turning points, and before restoring order), so it’s just a different way of approaching the bigger problem of creating the story.

BUSINESS

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s (@kriswrites) Found Information has several items worth reading—on how book cover design is so important to branding (identifying the genre and series, if appropriate) of your novel, whether in print or e-book format; kids (and adults) are reading more than before, in print and e- formats, despite all the hand-wringing you hear; and the story of how persistence finally paid off for Eleanor Burford Hibbert (a.k.a. Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, and Philippa Carr, plus 6 other pen names). Unfortunately, you have to get past two sections of self-satisfied I-told-you-so chest-puffing first. Fortunately, you can drag your scroll bar down to that third boldfaced header.

OK, let’s assume you’ve accepted the idea that you have to market your work. And you’re trying. And nothing seems to be happening. Or not enough. Gary Korisko (@RebootAuthentic) wonders, Are You Targeting the Wrong Readers? and then offers 7 tips to fix the problem. To some extent he’s channeling Seth Godin’s “tribes” and Kevin Kelly’s “1000 true fans,” but that’s not bad at all.

SOCIAL MEDIA

So you’ve got a Facebook fan page, or think you should have one? If so, then Gillian Marchenko’s (@GillianMarchenko) 3 Top Tips to Gain Facebook Fans on your Author Page on WordServe Water Cooler could be very helpful. That tip about Facebook’s rule against advertising on your cover photo could be a page-saver, all by itself!

TECHNOLOGY

At first I thought Michael Hyatt’s (@MichaelHyatt) My Top 10 Favorite iPad Apps and How I Use Them wasn’t going to have much value to me (and maybe you) because I don’t have an iPad (does that make me some kind of criminal?). But it turns out many of the apps have non-iPad versions as well and I can vouch for their value: Google Calendar, Dropbox, Google Reader, Kindle’s emulator versions, and Hootsuite.

When I saw the title to Ed Ditto’s (@BooksByEd) post on The Book Designer, How to Publish Your eBook from Word to Kindle in Under Ten Minutes, I thought, Cool! I need to know that. Then I read his process: use Scrivener. Gaaah! Well, sure, that’s certainly a way to do it. And since Scrivener is famous for its format conversion capabilities, it makes sense. So, OK, let’s read through the rest of the post. The good news is that Ed’s done a nice job with step-by-step instructions and plenty of screen-shot illustrations (Mac-based, but the PC steps are similar if not identical) that really take advantage of Scrivener’s tools. If you can read and carefully follow these instructions, you can do it. “Under ten minutes?” Maybe not but that’s OK. And $40 or $45 for a copy of Scrivener and the time to climb the learning curve is A LOT cheaper than spending hundreds of bucks to have someone do this for you. I’m bookmarking this one.

THE WRITING LIFE

Jan Dunlap’s piece, The Joy of NOT Going Solo on WordServe Water Cooler isn’t about team writing, as I thought it would be, but about the benefits writers get from joining a writers’ group that’s right for them. That last phrase is key: the wrong group can be harmful but the right group can be amazing.

Don’t be afraid the share the Great Stuff. That’s what friends are for, eh? Have a great weekend.