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Welcome to From the Writer’s Desk

a blog for novel writers

There are a lot of writing blogs out there, and many offer great advice. However, most of the ones I’ve seen are geared toward nonfiction writers. As novel writers, we have different goals and needs. We’re storytellers. We write to entertain.

This blog is about helping you write a better novel as I pass along what I’ve learned about this crazy business. So please, pull up a chair and make yourselves comfortable. And if you see something you like, please be sure to post a comment.

Gayle Martin

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How to Write an Honest Review for a Book You Don’t Like

© Can Stock Photo / Pixelbliss

Whether we write fiction or nonfiction, all authors want their books to be read, and reviews are an essential marketing tool. This is why authors ask other authors for reviews.

A good review is like gold. The author may include it on his or her website and media kit, or even as a back cover blurb. This can benefit the reviewing author as well, as his or her name, and book title, may get a free mention. Most of the time, it’s a win/win for both. Most of the time. However, there are times when it can be problematic.

Authors often post review requests on online forums, and back when I was a newbie author, such a request caught my eye. It was for a nonfiction book about UFOs and aliens, and he wanted someone to write a review on Amazon. While not my writing genre, I grew watching Star Trek, and I’ve always been interested in UFOs. So I contacted the author, and he mailed me a copy of his book..

It wasn’t what I expected

I eagerly opened the envelope as soon as it arrived. However, once I started reading the book, I realized it wasn’t at all what I expected. While I make no claims of being an astronomer, I’m well aware of the fact that we live in a vast universe. New solar systems are being discovered. And while I’m hardly a mathematician either, I do know that we live in a galaxy with trillions of stars and perhaps billions of planets. Therefore, it seems logical to me that a certain percentage of those planets would have life. Maybe not life as we know it, but if I were a betting person, I would say yes. There is life on other planets. This author, however, didn’t think so.

The author turned out to be a born again Christian who didn’t think there is life on other planets. And, what we may see as UFOs, and aliens, such as the grays, are demons.

Okay, we won’t be having a religious debate here. I’ll simply say that while I believe in God, I also believe in science. (Many people believe in both.) However, until life on other worlds can be definitively proven, (if ever), people will have their own opinions and beliefs on the matter. I happen to believe that extraterrestrials, if they do exist, are not demons. A demon is a spiritual entity. An extraterrestrial is a living being with a physical body, even if that body is only a single, microscopic cell.

The conundrum

In the meantime, the author is waiting for a review, and I don’t like his book. So do I decline? Do I write a bad review? Or do I try to come up with a different approach?

Declining to review a book is awkward. It’s even more awkward when the author and I are on the same forum. Writing a bad review can have unintended consequences as well. I don’t want to make enemies or risk getting retaliatory negative reviews. Nor do I want to earn a reputation as someone who only writes bad reviews.

My solution

To the author’s credit, the book was well written and professionally edited. And while I certainly didn’t subscribe to his point of view, his argument went well beyond simply quoting Biblical scripture. In other words, he didn’t come across as some hyped-up preacher screaming hellfire and damnation in a Sunday morning sermon. He had his own hypothesis, and his theory, while rooted in his faith, was well thought out. I just didn’t happen to agree with it. So, I tried to come up with a way to write an honest review. Then, it hit me. Why not address the review to the people he wrote the book for? Christians. After all, Christian books are a recognized genre.

I gave the book a four star review, and mentioned some of the things I’ve mentioned in this article. The book discussed the UFO phenomenon from a Christian perspective, it was well written and edited, and Christian readers might find it an interesting read. I didn’t go into my own opinion or debate the author on the subject matter. Again, the subject matter has yet to be proven. All we have at the present time is speculation, conjecture, and opinions. And opinions are like a certain body cavity. Everyone has one.

In conclusion

Book reviews should be honest and fair, and if you decide that you don’t want to review a book you can certainly decline. Had his book (or any other book for that matter), been poorly written, I would have declined it for that reason and told the author it needed more editing. However, that option didn’t apply in this case. So before writing a bad review, consider doing what I did. If possible, try writing a review for the author’s intended audience, and tell that audience why they might find the book interesting.

After I posted my review on Amazon I got a nice thank you note from the author. And while I certainly won’t be reviewing any more of his books, it was nice for both of us to walk away happy.

Gayle Martin

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Naming Names

A banner saying, Your Name Here."
© Can Stock Photo / MSPhotographics

Just received my weekly newsletter from a fellow writer. In this issue, he discussed his technique for naming his characters.

Naming your characters is something all fiction writers must do, but coming up with the best names isn’t as easy as some may think. In fact, it can be downright challenging. I think we all have different ways of doing this. In reading my friend’s article, I noticed his way of coming up with character names is very different than mine.

My approach for naming my characters is simple and straightforward. I create names that are reasonably common and that most readers can relate to.

Choosing with the right surname

I don’t use Smith, Jones or Johnson as they’re so common they’re almost a cliche. I prefer using familiar surnames, such as Palmer, Campbell, Bennett, and Walsh. One of my friends once mentioned that her maiden name is Bennett. I really liked the name, so I asked her if she would mind my using it for one of my lead characters. She was certainly flattered, but I highly recommend asking before using a friend’s surname, even if theirs is a common one. You don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.

There have also been plenty of times when I’ve gotten stuck trying to figure out the right surname. This is why I keep an old white pages phone book. I’ve been known to open it to a random page and skim through the listings until something pops out at me.

Finding the right first name

For me, this is where it becomes a lot more fun. I write contemporary romance, and my novels are much like the soap operas I watched years ago. Therefore, I’ll sometimes give my characters the same first name as a favorite soap opera character.

For example, two of the characters in my Marina Martindale novel, The Stalker, are named Rachel and Alice. I grew up watching the now defunct soap opera, Another World. It was famous for its ongoing feud between two characters named Rachel and Alice. Their feud began while I was in grade school, and it lasted all the way through college. So, to pay homage, I named my leading lady Rachel, which is also a popular Millennial generation name. I then named her sister Alice. But unlike their Another World namesakes, the two characters have a close relationship. And, because the name Alice is less common today, I also named their grandmother Alice, as many families name children after their grandparents or great-grandparents.

I also invested in a baby name book. It contains hundreds, if not thousands of names, including many different ethnic names. It’s a handy tool that I often use.

Naming fictional businesses and places

Naming a fictional place is just as important as naming your characters. Again, you want names that are reasonably common that readers can relate to. Another Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion, is set in Denver. Jeremy, a supporting character, works as a bartender at a sports bar called O’Malley’s Grill. When I was a kid, we had next door neighbors named O’Malley, and I always thought it was a cool name. However, before using it, I did an online search to make sure there were no bars or restaurants in Denver with that same name. Whenever naming any fictional business always make sure there is no business with that name in the location your using.

And finally, a disclaimer

With over three hundred million people living in the United States, and billions more on the planet, it really doesn’t matter how you create your character’s names. There will be real people out there with the same names. This is why you need to include a disclaimer in the frontmatter of your book. Make sure you clearly state that your story is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

GM

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How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

A section of a clock placed in front of a starry sky.
© Can Stock Photo / Nikki24

Readers give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviewers for my debut Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashback scenes can greatly enhance the story. They can be a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.

How to use flashbacks in your novel

  • Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.
  • Your flashbacks should be relevant to the present time. The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. I decided not to show their original break up as a flashback. That backstory is instead told in dialogue. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you insert a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset and annoy your reader. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback.

how to place a flashback

This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the flashback scene. The flashback begins with Chapter Two.

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time that had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was that her long blonde hair was now a shoulder length pageboy. She started to reminisce about the past and her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.

“Calm down, Gillian,” she told her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

 She took a few more deep breaths, and as she did the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.

Chapter Two

Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the wall clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she muttered to herself as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas.

This particular painting was one of those projects that simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it got. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.

In conclusion

As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is then well prepared, and even expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.

And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I only did so because of the long interval of time between two characters interactions. None of my other novels include flashbacks.

GM

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Hey Google! I Can Think for Myself

A block of letters that read "Search Rank."
© Can Stock Photo / Curioso_Travel_Photo

As some of you may have noticed, I recently migrated this blog from Blogger to WordPress. Part of me hated doing this. I loved Blogger because it was so easy to use. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Google owns Blogger. And, like Facebook, Google is getting much too creepy.

As I discussed in my previous post, The Best Search Engines for Novel Writers, no writer should ever use Google for their searches. And not just writers. In my humble opinion, no one should be using Google. No one. Google has become too powerful. So much so that it’s now trying to tell us what to think.

How Google is trying to manipulate us

Last night, as I was listening to Coast to Coast AM, the host announced her guest, an expert on alternative medicine. She began her introduction by stating that Google has eliminated ALL alternative medicine websites from its search engine. All of them. It has replaced them with ANTI-alternative medicine websites. This means that if you’re looking for alternative treatments for your allergies, because all the conventional treatments have failed you, you won’t find any information on Google. Why? Because Google thinks you’re too stupid to decide which treatment would be best for you. They will decide the treatment you need, not you.

When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the doctors told him there was nothing more that they could do, he took matters into his own hands. This happened in the late 1990s. The Internet was still in its infancy. There was no Google. So my father drove to the nearest health food store and purchased every book he could find on alternative treatments. He then followed up and sought those treatments. And guess what? His cancer went into remission. Alternative medicine gave him an extra year with a good quality of life, without any side effects. It was an extra year he would not have otherwise had. He and I both believed that had he used alternative medicine much sooner, he probably would have beat the cancer. Assuming he would have even developed it in the first place.

Alternative medicine can work. Unfortunately, this is but one example of how Google is trying to manipulate you and tell you how to think.

We have the right to live our lives as we see fit. And, lucky for us, there are other search engines that DON’T think they’re God. They will give you the information you are searching for, and they will allow you to think for yourself. These search engines include Bing and DogPile, as well as GoDuckGo, one of the search engines I discussed in my last post.

Hey Google! We can think for ourselves. Stop using Google. Find a better search engine.

GM

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The Best Search Engines for Novel Writers

Contrary to popular belief, writing fiction isn’t about making things up as we go along. Good fiction writers know their craft. They can easily spend as much time researching their subject matter as they do writing about it. And that can be problematic.

Novel writers sometimes have to research the strangest things. My plotlines, for example, often revolve around crime. That’s because when it comes to creating a good conflict, few subjects work better. And crime isn’t limited to mystery stories. It works well in other genres too. I write contemporary romance, so having a character accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit works well for me.

Now let’s say I’m using that idea for my story. I want it to be believable, so this is where research comes in. However, a Google search on, for example, how many years would you get for armed robbery, could possibly raise some red flags. Google records your IP address and your searches. Google also tracks you around the web. And while police officers would probably enjoy a good read as much as anyone, we don’t anyone getting the wrong idea. After all, that unexpected knock at the door could really ruin your day. This is why we need to do our searches anonymously.

StartPage and GoDuckGo

There are two search engines that you can use for anonymous web searches. Startpage, and GoDuckGo. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

I’ve been using Startpage for years. Startpage works with Google. It doesn’t record your IP address. It also gives you the option of visiting a website anonymously. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t as some websites do not allow anonymous viewing. However, it’s a nice option to have. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t like being tracked after I visit a website.

As much as I like Startpage, it’s far from perfect. As said, Startpage only works with Google, and lately Google has become creepy. They’ve been very outspoken in their commitment to weed out websites whose points of view they happen to disagree with. And that troubles me in many ways. However, I’m going to limit my comments to this. As writers, we can, and should, be able to see ALL points of view on a given subject; not those with whom Google happens to agree with. We’re writers. We can think for ourselves.

Thankfully, there is another anonymous search engine out there. GoDuckGo. I’ve not used it as much as Startpage. However it has one advantage over Startpage. It’s not married to Google. But there is also a disadvantage. GoDuckGo doesn’t allow you the option of visiting a website anonymously.

And there you have it. Neither search engine stores your information, nor do the track you. Both have similar looking homepages. I would recommend using either, or both. Which one you choose, however, is entirely up to you, as there is no wrong answer.

GM

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No, You Don’t Need Facebook to Promote Your Book

© Can Stock Photo / Curioso_Travel_Photo

For the past few months I’ve had issues with Facebook over censorship and their flagrant privacy violations, both of which remain  ongoing.

It’s no secret that Facebook has become a data mining platform pursuing its own political agenda. But I’ve been told, over and over again by all the so-called experts, that because I’m an author, I had no choice but to put up with Facebook’s crap. If I wasn’t on Facebook, my books would surely languish on the shelf. Well, after being on Facebook for nearly a decade, I have to tell you that as usual, the experts are wrong.

Most, if not all, of my Facebook friends know I’m an author. Many have liked my Facebook author pages. Whenever I posted something about my books, they’d hit the like button. Wanna know how many of them actually followed through and bought my books? Well, I know of one who did. Maybe one or two others might have, but I’m not sure. I could probably count the total number of Facebook friends who actually purchased my books on one hand.

Likewise, I had hundreds likes for my author pages. Yet whenever I posted on those pages, I would, on a good day, maybe get twenty people who actually saw the post. And out of those twenty, maybe one or two engaged with it. Wow. If I were a betting person, I’d bet that out of all the people who liked my author pages, the number who actually purchased a book is close to zero. 

I stopped advertising on Facebook several months ago. My ads no longer had the reach they once had. It’s been well documented that fewer people are on Facebook these days. And those who haven’t left the platform spend less time there. But even before all the Facebook controversy, I wasn’t getting a good return on my investment for my ads because people weren’t purchasing my books. And that’s the bottom line.

The other morning I read a news article about how Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple, is saying that people need to delete their Facebook accounts. Wow. That’s coming from a credible source. An insider who knows more about cyber spying than the average Joe or Jane. So I’ve deactivated my account, which, to be honest, is something I’ve wanted to do for sometime now.

Yes, social media is a good tool for promoting your books. However, a presence on Facebook doesn’t mean you’ll sell more books. We want people reading our books, not just hitting a like button. So please, if you’re concerned about Facebook and its complete lack of ethics, and if you don’t want third parties spying on your every move without your knowledge and consent, then please don’t feel that you have to stay on Facebook to promote your books, because you don’t. It’s okay to shut down your Facebook account. And if you do, you’ll probably be better off for it.

In recent months I’ve an uptick in book sales. It started when I stopped wasting my time on Facebook. I got back into blogging. I’ve updated and optimized my websites and blogs. I’ve also started up a newsletter. Coincidence? Well, you tell me.

GM

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So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part Two

© Can Stock Photo / swellphotography

In my previous article, So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part One, I talked about how your editor is a fresh pair of eyes to go over your manuscript and give it the polish it needs to become a successful book.

I understand that money is an issue for many of you. But unless you’re one of the very few lucky writers who lands a deal with a traditional publisher, you’ll probably have to invest your own money into producing your book. Typically, a good editor will charge one to two cents per word. So, for an 80,000 to 100,000 word manuscript, you could be spending $800 to $2000.

I know that’s a lot of money. So you may be tempted to take some shortcuts. My advice? Don’t do it! Asking your friends, your cousin, your spouse or your mom to do your editing may seem like a good alternative. However, if they don’t have experience in journalism, teaching English, or any other professional writing experience, they’re not qualified for the job. You would never your best friend to work on your car if he or she had no experience in auto repair. So why would you ask someone who isn’t qualified to edit your manuscript?

Nowadays anyone with a smartphone can write a manuscript and upload it to Amazon Kindle. The market has been flooded with poorly written books. So do you want four and five star reviews? If so, then you need a  professional book editor. Because nothing will end your writing career faster than a poorly-written book with bad reviews.

GM

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Redeemable vs Non-redeemable Villains

© Can Stock Photo / hjalmeida

I enjoy streaming a syndicated radio talk show called, Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis. The show has interesting, offbeat topics. Listening helps me unwind at the end of a busy workday. The other night Clyde talked about the latest Godzilla movie. He described how the title character has evolved from an evil beast to a defender of the planet. That’s quite a leap indeed, and it was a fascinating discussion.

(To hear a podcast please click on the link above.) 

While I don’t write science fiction or horror myself, those genres do allow more leeway for using symbolism for political undertones. This may be the case with Godzilla. However, there are certain unwritten rules that fiction authors must follow because it’s what readers expect. High on the list is that good always triumphs over evil.

Fiction plotlines, regardless of genre, are conflict driven. The antagonist creates the conflict when he or she interferes with the protagonist. The antagonist is there to block whatever goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. This is why most antagonists are villains. And the more devious and evil the villain, the more drama and intensity to the story.

In real life, however, people can and do make poor choices. Some learn from their mistakes. In fiction, they would be redeemable characters. For example, Josh, from my most recent Marina Martindale novel, The Letter, is a con artist. He’s working a Ponzi scheme with two unseen characters. However, as the character took shape I noticed he had some redeeming qualities. So, I did a rewrite and made him into a redeemable villain. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll sum it up and say that things aren’t always as they appear.

Most of my villians, however, are unrepentant. Some, like Maggie in The Deception, remain defiant, even while they’re carted off to prison. Most however, are their own undoing. They police shoot them, or they’re killed in accidents while trying to escape. They’re the unredeemable villains. The Godzillas, who have to have their comeuppance, otherwise readers won’t accept it. After all, karma’s a bitch. Not only in fiction, but in real life as well.


GM

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Book Signing Etiquette

Whether it’s a bookstore, a book fair, or other special event, book signings can be a lot of fun. They’re a great way to engage one-on-one with potential readers. However, we authors sometimes let our enthusiasm get the best of us. So please, consider this reminder to treat fellow authors respectfully.

The worst experience I ever had at a book signing was during a big event weekend in Tombstone, Arizona. The local bookstore had so many authors that they ran out of space inside the store. So, they seated me, along with another author, on the boardwalk in front of the store. This should have been a strategic advantage, as there was more foot traffic outside the store. Unfortunately, the other author was a non-stop talker

He talked and talked and talked about anything and everything. Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. He wouldn’t shut up. Not even while I was trying to talk to potential readers, or trying to close a sale. And yes, his incessant talking actually killed some of my sales.

As if this weren’t bad enough, he started babbling about a controversial book he planned to write about his religious beliefs. So, not only was I stuck with him yapping my ear off while I was trying to talk to my customers, he’s now quoting Biblical scripture, chapter and verse, in a very loud voice. Not only were people no longer stopping at my table, they were literally running away.

I strongly believe in religious freedom. However, there is a time and place for religious debate. And it’s not on a sidewalk, in front of a secular bookstore, at a secular event. I normally do well at Tombstone events. This time, however I had a disaster. I hardly sold any books, all because one very self-centered author couldn’t keep his stupid mouth shut.

A book signing is where authors come to connect one on one with their readers. If there are other authors at the same venue, please show some respect and a little common courtesy. Keep your conversations with other authors brief. Try to limit those conversations to those times when there are no customers around. Most importantly, keep your mouth shut while other authors are talking to potential buyers. Nothing is more unprofessional than interfering with another author’s sale.

GM 

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Let’s Just Say No to Sensitivity Readers

and Other Forms of Censorship

© Can Stock Photo / alexandrum

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about a disturbing new trend. Particularly in traditional publishing. The use of so-called, sensitivity readers to censor the author’s work. Their job is to ferret out any so-called trigger words from the authors’ manuscripts.

Here in the United States, our constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This would include artistic expression. Our constitution was never intended to protect anyone from being offended. In fact, it’s opposite. It insures our freedom to debate opposing points of view.

What is and isn’t offensive is oftentimes subjective. Let’s say, for example, that I write a scene in my book where two of my characters enjoy a burger together. If a vegan reads this, he or she might be offended. A chef, however, can read the very same scene and be inspired to create a gourmet burger for two.

I’m a woman who writes romance novels. Therefore, I’ll include male characters. And even though I’ve never been a man, I write in the third person narrative. This means some of my chapters will be written from a male character’s point of view. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m simply trying to tell a good story. However, to the so-called, sensitivity expert, I could be stereotyping men. And because I’m allegedly stereotyping men, I’m no longer allowed to write anything from a male point of view. This tramples on my right to freely express myself as an artist

Sensitivity is the new, politically correct word for CENSORSHIP. And as a writer and and artist, censorship goes against everything I believe in. Well guess what? I’m a U.S. citizen, and I have a Constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Therefore, I will continue to write the stories I wish to write. And if the sensitivity thought police don’t like it then they can go straight to Hell. 

GM

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