Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, January 31 & February 1, 2013

Well here’s a post that will launch you into the weekend with plenty consider—at least, if you live in the U.S. and are an American football fan—when you’re not wrapped up in the Super Bowl. Eight pieces: some challenging, some sad, some practical, and some mostly for fun. Enjoy!

CRAFT

Hmmm. Well, okay, this is different. Editor Stuart Horwitz guest posts on Writer Unboxed under the title Plot is a Four-Letter Word. “Plot,” it seems, is verboten around his office. Instead, he tells writers to think in terms of “series.” Not series as in book 1, book 2, book 3, and so on, but series as in characters, and things, and phrases, or as he puts it, “a narrative element that repeats and varies” within a book. So each book has not just one series, but many, and they operate in series and in parallel. And they interact and together form a net which is the story but does not anywhere contain a plot. Got it? No? Well, check out the post and see if it helps.

It’s been kind of fun to watch Gabriela Pereira’s (@DIYMFA) web site evolve and now she’s ready to take the next big step with an Online Workshop: Boost Your Writing With Seven Techniques next Tuesday, February 7th, starting at 1 PM Eastern Time. More than just a webinar you passively watch on your screen, this will be a truly interactive workshop. How cool is that? Even better, because it’s the first one, Gabriela’s offering it for free. Click on the link above for the full story or here if you already know you want to register.

BUSINESS

If you’ve wondered what the various kinds of editors do (you did know there are various kinds of editors, didn’t you?) and what the can do for you if you’re self-publishing—and what they can do to you if you let them—then you want to read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s (@kriswrites) Hiring Editors. Skip or plow through her de rigeur sliming of traditional publishing and agents because around that is valuable, maybe even vital, information on content editors, copy editors, line editors, and proofreaders (who aren’t editors but can be really important too).

Some people may find this news from Victoria Strauss (@victoriastrauss) on Writer Beware® Blogs disappointing (at least): Christian Writers Guild Publishing: Pay to Play from Jerry B. Jenkins. Why disappointing? Three reasons. First, like companies like Author Solutions, CWGP is offering writers bundles of “services,” some of questionable value, for prices starting at—brace yourself–$9,995.00. Second, a big-name author like Jerry Jenkins is involved. And third, this is proof once again that just because something is labeled “Christian” doesn’t mean it can be trusted to live up to those principles.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Today Robert Lee “My Name Is Not Bob” Brewer (@robertleebrewer) publishes this year’s list of his Best Blogs for Writers to Read in 2013. While I’m pleased to say that many, indeed virtually all, of the blogs I report on here are included in his list, there are many that are not. Why? Because his list is 55 blogs long! Yikes! Okay, so sanity-check time here. No one’s suggesting that you MUST read all 55. What else would you do with your day if you did? But with so many to choose from, I’m sure you’ll find a reasonable number that are worth your time. And THANK YOU for including this blog in your list!

TECHNOLOGY

It’s easy to get intimidated by all of the capabilities your word processing software has, isn’t it? So many of us fall back to a default position of learning a few tools and ignoring the rest. Then, anyone who knows even a few more gets designated an “expert.” Which is a shame because those software designers created those tools to make your life easier. That’s Joel Friedlander’s (@JFBookman) theme in Getting Started With Microsoft Word Styles for Book Layout. Every word processing program has something like Word’s “styles,” although they may call them something else, so this post is well worth your time, no matter what program you use. And by the way, “styles” aren’t just for laying out books. I write this blog in Word and have set up a “WordPress” style that captures not just the header design Joel discusses but every format-related thing I want. With one click of my mouse button, a new document is automatically set up. Shazam!

THE WRITING LIFE

Don’t do it! Don’tcha dare do it! Don’t read those reviews. No, not even the good ones. That’s Michelle Gagnon’s (@Michelle_Gagnon) advice on The Kill Zone, and she’s got lots of good reasons. Not reading the bad reviews is pretty obvious: clearly the reviewer just didn’t get it. J But the good reviews, well, their traps are more subtle. Michelle’s not talking about the ego overload problem, but all those “good ideas” that can lead you into forgetting that the work, especially the next one in the series, is your work, not that gushy reviewer’s. There be monsters. Beware!

Sarah Callender (@sarahrcallender) takes a fun but also serious look at The Writer as Inventor on Writer Unboxed. Sure, we know we invent our (fictional) stories. What Sarah focuses on are the traits of successful inventors: curiosity, focus, loyalty, clarity, fear more-or-less balanced with foolishness (or vice versa), and someone to provide a sanity check without stifling creativity.

So what do you think? Does Horwitz’s idea make any sense to you? What about Callender’s: are you a writer/inventor?

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.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, December 13 & 14, 2012

Happy Friday, everyone, from snowy southern Arizona. You read that right—snowy. Not Minnesota-snowy, but we are getting snow showers today. Nothing’s sticking—the ground is much too warm—but yes, 10 miles from the Mexican border, we do get snow. The mountains should be gorgeous once the clouds lift enough that I can see them. Anyway, that makes today a good day to stay inside and WRITE!

CRAFT

Ever find your story wandering off not just into places you never intended but into the deep, dark, dismal forest, just lost, lost, lost? Yeah, me too. Lisa Cron (@lisacron) offers a path out of those woods (or a way to avoid getting into them in the first place) in How To Keep Your Story On Track: Chart “Who Knows What, When” on Writer Unboxed. Outliners may love this method, since its character-knowledge-lines tie directly to a story’s scene-by-scene outline but even pantsers will find it useful, although at a later stage in the development process.

Another way stories get slowed down is when the author inserts “filler”: sentences, paragraphs, scenes, even (gasp!) whole chapters that add nothing to the story. Fortunately, editor Laura Carlson comes to the rescue with How to Cut the Filler and Tighten Your Book on KM Weiland’s WORDplay blog. If you’ve ever written anything that turned out to be filler (c’mon, of course you have J), this post will be helpful.

Last Wednesday, after I’d put up my post, Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) put up a 4-page Writing Goals Sheet, a downloadable PDF file that covers near-term and long range goals, funding and resources, and more. It’s all very pretty but you need to know how to turn on the typewriter function in Adobe Reader if you want to type directly onto the document. (To do so, in the latest Reader version, click on Comment on the right side of the screen, then click on the big capital T. That will give you a special cursor that you can place in the document where you want to start typing.) Of course, you can always print out the sheets and fill them in by hand.

BUSINESS

Writer Beware® Blogs! hosts guest blogger Mridi Khullar Relph (@mridikhullar), who provides useful information on International Writing Scams and How to Protect Yourself. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that many of the overseas scams Mridi discusses have kissing cousins (or identical twins) here in the U.S. but working outside your home country always adds additional complications, so if that’s something you’re contemplating doing, or already doing, be sure to give this post a look.

The cover of your book, irrespective of format, is critical to whether it’ll be purchased or not. I know that seems unfair—that some graphic artwork can have more influence on a potential reader than your own words—but it’s true. If you’re publishing independently, what do you do? Design it yourself? Hire someone to do it? If so, who? Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn) has invited guest poster GX (@graphiczsdesign) to discuss this in Want Professional Ebook Covers on a Budget? Try Ready-To-Go Options. GX discusses his (?)/her (?) own company’s work and how authors can use ready-to-go covers, and one of the comments also suggests three other sources.

THE WRITING LIFE

Jurgen Wolff (@jurgenwolff) retells a story originally told by Tim Ferris, the author of “The 4-Hour Work Week” in How big should your next writing or other creative goal be? (The missing reasons) on his Time to Write blog. The basic point is that if you aim for mediocre goals, that’s the most you’ll achieve. Aim higher and you have the chance (nothing guaranteed but the chance) at something far better. Thanks to my friend Lucinda for pointing out this piece.

Of course, if you aim high, there’s the risk of doing nothing but leaving a big splat mark on that tall building you tried to leap over in a single bound. Two posts address this fear: Nathan Bransford’s (@NathanBransford) Living on the Edge of Confidence and Self-Doubt and Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) 5 Ways to Deal with Failure on the Books & Such Literary Agency blog. Both discuss living with the fact that failure is a part of doing and that how you deal with failures is more important than the failure itself. If you’re needing a confidence boost about now, check out these two posts.

Rachelle then comes back with a post on her own blog about creating a realistic Holiday Writing Plan. Her five suggestions are nothing but common sense, but as the saying goes, sometimes common sense ain’t so common, which makes reminders like these valuable.

So what do you think? Have any thoughts or observations about any of these posts? Share them in the Comments below.

 

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 31, 2012

Back to busy days, again. Today we’re covering the range from craft to publication.

  • We’ll start with the very most basic of skills: grammar, spelling,and  punctuation. This first article actually wasn’t a blog post but an article in the Harvard Business Review, which I found thanks to Brian Klems (@BrianKlems) and the Writer’s Digest e-newsletter. Kyle Wiens (@kwiens) writes I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. Now, Mr. Wiens runs a couple of businesses that are writing-focused, but then, so do we. If we claim to be writers, but can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re, is our claim legitimate? Don’t think so.
  • Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) continues her series of posts on what she learned at ThrillerFest with a post on Plot and Story Structure, in which she introduces us to Daniel Palmer’s 4-step approach: The Rhino, The “What if?”, The McGuffin, The Characters. Which would you think is most important? Answer at the end of the post.
  • Jeanne Kisacky introduces us on Writer Unboxed to Writing in the Discomfort Zone, the idea that getting out of what makes us comfortable is what gets us into our best writing.
  • Transitioning us out of “craft” and into what I might call “post-production” topics, Michael Hyatt (@MichaelHyatt) recommends 15 Resources for Pro Bloggers (or those who want to be). While most of these tools are specific to blogs and blogging, and two (Byword and Mars Edit) are Mac-specific with no Windows counterpart mentioned, a few, like Evernote and SnagIt should be useful even to those who don’t (yet) blog.
  • Speaking of blogging and “platform” in general, Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) posts a provocative discussion on “Shadowy Platforms” on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog. The platforms he’s referring to aren’t locations for thrillers or mystery novels, but all the ways the whole platform-building enterprise can be a time-suck for writers.
  • Moving beyond “platform” to querying, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) reprises a 2010 post on The Top Ten Querying Mistakes authors can make (plus a bonus one). The info’s good but be sure to check out the street sign in the photo, too. 🙂
  • And last but not least, we go back to controversy with Kathleen Pickering’s (@KatPickering) Kill Zone post, Kirkus Indie: When a Review Is Good for You. The thing that gets Kathleen’s commenters so riled up is that authors pay for the reviews on Kirkus Indie, the independent-publishing side of Kirkus Reviews magazine. For those of you who have never heard of them, Kirkus provides reviews to librarians, bookstores, publishers, agents, and other movers and shakers in the entertainment industry. A positive review is A Very Good Thing. And hard to come by. BUT! There’s no guarantee that buying a Kirkus Indie review will get an author a good review (morally, that’s as it should be), but that also means the author might pay as much as $575 for something he or she can’t use (morally, that’s questionable: is Kirkus exploiting authors’ need for approval to improve their bottom line?). So as you might imagine, the commentary to Kathleen’s post is, shall we say, animated.

Critique Technique, part 21–unclear plot

Today we start a 3-part series on critiquing a story’s plot, or the lack thereof.

The basic concept of plot is simple: it’s the series of events that the characters experience and are involved in. Every story–fiction or non-fiction–has one. In a so-called “literary” story, most of the “action” may be internal to the characters (emotional and/or psychological) rather than external, so it may seem like there isn’t much plot, but there has to be some. A perfect example is Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Not much happens in this story: two couples sit around a kitchen table drinking gin and talking/half-arguing about and around life and love. On the other hand, pick up any Tom Clancy novel and there’s tons of external activity–chases, explosions, spycraft, you name it.

But the point of this post isn’t to examine how much plot there is, or how little, but whether what is going on makes sense. Plot events build on each other, doing those things I’ve written about before, providing conflict, creating tension, putting obstacles in the characters’ ways. Every scene has its own set of plot points (the very briefest may have just one) that, if done right, build to a high point, then fall away to leave the reader wanting to know more. The same is true of each chapter, and of course of the entire story. These are the scene, chapter, and story arcs.

An unclear plot will fail to build that arc in one or more ways. Plot and characters are inseparable, so if the plot events seem unrelated to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, or conflicts, that’s a problem. Even in experimental fiction, events don’t happen at random or for no reason. It’s true that the connection between a plot event and a character’s motivations may not be apparent right away, especially early in the story, but the author must eventually make that connection. It may be hard, even impossible, for you to see it if the motivation isn’t revealed in the part of a longer piece you’re reading. In that case, your discussion about the event with the author should reveal the link.

Similarly, there might be no clear connection between events. Now, if the story contains several parallel plot lines, events on the different lines might never be connected, or the connection might not be apparent until later in the story. That’s fine. But within a plot line, unconnected, disjointed events will just confuse the reader. In a case like this, the author may know what the connection is but has failed to show it on the page. Sometimes this is a good thing, because the way it surprises the reader can increase her tension and curiosity about the story, but now we’re back to the point I made a few lines above about saving the connection for later.

Irrelevant events fall into the same category. If, for example, in the middle of a spy thriller, the protagonist waxes poetic about his Aunt Tillie’s prize-winning mac-and-cheese recipe, there’d better be a darn good reason for that. If there isn’t (and the excuse is likely to be, “it’s character development”), you need to flag it so it can be deleted.

Also, plot events need to fall in some kind of logical order, but I’m going to save that discussion for Part 23.

The thing about an unclear plot is that it doesn’t build tension or move the story forward. A flashback can do that if it adds a new wrinkle to the story or demonstrates a bit of a character’s motivation. But anything that stops or retards that forward motion, takes the story off on a tangent, or leaves it wandering is something you need to call to the author’s attention.

Here are some questions for you to ask about the plot as you read a piece:

  • Do the plot events relate to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, or conflicts?
  • As best I can tell, are the plot events relevant to the story?
  • Can I see the connections between the plot’s events? If not, can the author explain their connections to me, or how those connections will be revealed later?
  • Do the plot events continue to make life more difficult for the characters in believable ways? (Note: it’s OK for problems the characters face to be resolved before the climax if doing so creates opportunities for new problems to arise.)
  • Do the plot events make sense, or do they leave me wondering, in a bad way, what the hell is going on?
  • Do the plot events continue to pique my interest and keep me reading?

A poorly constructed plot leaves the reader at sea without a paddle or sail. Writers don’t let writers plot badly.

What do you look for when evaluating a plot for clarity?