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.
You have about ten seconds to capture a reader’s interest. Ten seconds. So my advice to you is to make them count. People have short attention spans, and social media is making them even shorter. This means you, the novel writer, had better grab their attention fast. If you don’t hook them within those first few seconds, they are far more likely to toss your book aside.
I think of my opening sentences as, “Lights, camera, action!” I always start with an action narrative. Nothing overly dramatic, such as explosions going off, but with something interesting enough to intrigue the reader so he or she will want to learn more. So, how do I do this? I write an opening sentence that creates tension, and I’ll use the first sentences from some of my Marina Martindale novels as examples.
Strong opening sentences
Rosemary McGee had the next traffic light perfectly timed until a car from the other lane suddenly cut in front of her minivan.
Well, I’m sure that got your attention. What happened next? Did she have a accident? You’ll have to read more to find out.
My openings aren’t always this dramatic, but even if the opening subject matter is more mundane, I can still create tension in my first line.
Emily St. Claire reached for another tissue to dab the sweat off her forehead and grab her water bottle, but the once-cold liquid had turned lukewarm.
Well, that certainly feels uncomfortable. So where is Emily? And why is it so hot? Again, you have to keep reading to find out more.
Opening lines and your characters
No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve included a character’s name in these opening lines, and you certainly want to start introducing your characters as soon as possible. However, you don’t necessarily have to include them in the opening sentences, nor does the opening line have to be about a leading character. Rosemary was actually a supporting character. My lead character is introduced a few sentences later when Rosemary asks her if she’s okay. Emily, on the other hand, is the lead character. My stories are all different, so my openings are different as well.
A descriptive opening line
Some authors like to begin their stories with a descriptive narrative of where the story takes place. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, you still need to create some tension. An opening paragraph that’s nothing more than a flowery, detailed description of the scenery without any action or tension is less likely to capture the reader’s attention. So unless something really interesting happens within the next paragraph or two there’s a good chance the reader will set the book aside. My advice is to end that fluffy narrative with something to suggest things aren’t quite as peachy as they appear. Here is a descriptive opening from another Marina Martindale novel.
The moonlight reflected off the snow-covered mountains, creating a dreamy, picturesque landscape, which could easily hide a deadly hazard.
Yikes! So what kind of hazard could be hiding there? Again, you have to read more.
Remember, when writing fiction, the conflict drives the plot, so you want to create as much tension as you can. The sooner you start creating that tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.
The lowly business card. It has to be one of the most overlooked, and underused, tools in an author’s promotional arsenal.
Back in college, where I studied graphic design, one of my instructors taught us to think of a business card as a billboard in miniature. It’s an advertisement for the product or service you represent. Sadly, too many people don’t see it that way. Many of the business cards people hand me are so poorly done that I want to dump them in the recycling bin. It’s really not that hard to design a business card that helps promote your book. (Or your product or service.) So, here are a few tips for creating a more effective business card.
Use Easy to Read Serif Fonts
If you want your message to be understood then it needs to be easily read. As a graphic designer, I suggest using serif fonts, as they are easier to read than sans serif fonts. Common serif fonts include Times New Roman, Baskerville, Century Schoolbook and Garamond. All are attractive fonts which work well, and I highly recommend using them for your most important information, such as your name, phone number and email address. If a fancy, decorative font makes this information too hard to read your card may end up in the trash.
Use a Light Text on Dark Backgrounds
Someone once handed me a business card with tiny red text on a dark brown background. Both colors had the same value, meaning there was no contrast between them. This resulted in her phone number and email address being impossible for me to read. Her card went straight into the recycling bin.
Keep the Font Size to at Least 9 Points
I have been frustrated to no end trying to decipher phone numbers and email addresses printed with a 6 point, or smaller, font size. Even with my prescription glasses, the type is too small for me to see clearly. My graphic design instructors taught me that any font size smaller than 9 points is very difficult for people to read. If I can’t read it, the card goes into the recycling bin. No exceptions.
Don’t Look Cheap
I understand money is an issue for many of us, but you want to avoid cutting costs on your business card. A cheap looking card is like a cheap suit. It makes you look, well, cheap, and no one wants to do business with someone who looks like they don’t have any money.
One of the biggest no-nos is printing out your business cards at home. I once attended a business association meeting where someone asked the woman sitting next to me for her card, so she handed that person one of her home printed cards. The person she gave it to immediately called her out on it, and what could have been a good business lead instantly went sour. Don’t be that woman. A homemade business card makes you look like an amatuer.
Online business card templates have also become popular with those on a budget. However, the problem with using them is that other people are using them too. I have, on occasion, ended up with identical business cards from different people in different occupations who used the same background template, making it all too easy for me to pull the wrong person’s card from the Rolodex.
For you authors out there, I recommend a designing simple card, with your book cover or logo, along with your name, website and contact info. You really don’t need to use those artsy-fartsy Vista Print background templates that everyone else is using. A plain white, ivory, or pastel background should work just fine. If your budget is small there are plenty of online printing companies, such as PrintingForLess.com, who can print 500 4-color cards for around $50, including shipping. They can also help you design your cards if you need it.
Remember, your business card represents you. It’s often the first thing people will see about you, and you want to give them the best impression you possibly can.
Oh the silly things we authors can have major hang-ups over, such as doing revisions and rewrites. First of all, rewrites and revisions are not one in the same. They are actually two entirely different processes.
I’ll begin by saying I’ve always subscribed to the notion that the first draft is all about getting your ideas down. Having to worry about syntax, grammar, punctuation and so forth while putting your ideas on paper can thwart your creativity and may even result in writer’s block. The first draft isn’t your final edit. Get your ideas down. Worry about the rest later.
Once I have my initial idea down, I’ll go back and revise. The word revision means making an alteration. It’s changing a word here, rephrasing a sentence there, correcting grammatical and punctuation errors, or eliminating filler words. In other words, it’s editing. The story itself remains the same. Sometimes I’ll do this at the end of the chapter. Other times I may revise a paragraph as soon as I finish writing it. It all depends on what pops in my head at a given moment. I, for one, happen to enjoy doing revisions as they make my story read better. The better my story reads, the more excited I get about it.
Rewrites on the other hand, are much more involved than simply changing the phrasing or fixing a punctuation error. New ideas may come to me as I craft my story. For example, I may have created a character who I intended to be a cold-hearted villain. Then, as I got into my story, I realized he was a more complex character than I had originally envisioned. He really isn’t a bad person at all, and his motive was never to cause any harm. He simply has the same goal as the protagonist. Therefore, he has to compete against the protagonist, thus creating the conflict. This changes the entire story dynamic, so I now have to go back and rewrite some of my earlier chapters to reflect this new perspective. Instead of a minor alteration to the wording, I’m making a change to the story itself. This sometimes happens, but certainly not with every novel I write.
Revisions are part of the writing process. They help bring clarity to your story and create a better experience for the reader, but they don’t change the story itself. Rewrites, however, add an entirely new concept or dimension to your story. I do as revisions as I write, and then my editor will make even more, but rarely do I ever have to do an actual rewrite. So don’t let anyone chastise you or intimidate you for doing revisions. It’s your story. If you’re not satisfied with it because it needs more work then your readers won’t be satisfied with it either, assuming your editor doesn’t send it back because it needs more work. Trust me, no one ever writes a perfect novel on their very first draft.
The holidays are over, which means it’s time to start preparing for tax season. I want to begin by saying I’m not a tax expert, nor am I giving any kind of legal advice. However, one thing I have learned, through trial and error, is to save those receipts. Come April 15, it’s far better to have your tax preparer tell you that you can throw a receipt away because you don’t need it, instead of having him or her tell you that you won’t be able to claim a deduction you would have otherwise been entitled to because you don’t have your receipt.
Which Receipts do you need?
Generally speaking, if it’s an expense incurred in writing, publishing or promoting your books, you can deduct it. Your tax preparer will ultimately determine which deductions you can take, however he or she will want to see your documentation first. Therefore, you should keep your receipts for:
book design services
book reviewers, (if you had to pay for a review)
photographers and illustrators
Does your publisher charge you for copies of your books? If so, hang on to the receipts.
other potential deductions
Other expenses which may be deductible would include:
Book signing materials, such as tablecloths, display items and signage
Cell Phones, (if purchased for business use)
Computer hardware and software, (if purchased for business use)
Postage and shipping services, such as UPS
Do you work out of your home? If so, a portion of your rent or mortgage payments, and utility bills, may be deductible. Save those receipts.
Some authors, including yours truly, write genre books which may require special attire for book signings. For example, I write Old West historical fiction, and some venues where I sign my books require me to wear western clothing. Therefore, if I have to buy any special outfit or accessory for business use, such as a book signing, I keep the receipts, as it may be tax deductible.
Some authors have book related travel expenses. This would include travel for book signings, research or business meetings. Whether it’s across town or across the country, you need to keep track of your travel expenses, as they too may be deductible. These expenses would include:
Hotels and lodging
Business mileage is another tax deduction many us may forget about. You can document your mileage by either keeping a log book in your car, or via websites like Google Maps. Simply enter your address and the address of your destination, and the exact mileage will display on the page. Print out the page and put it in your tax files.
Remember too that authors and writers are not immune to tax audits. You should keep your final return, as well as all of your documentation, including receipts, on file for at least six years. Rest assured, if you’re ever audited, you will most certainly need your receipts. If you don’t have them, the IRS may disallow the deduction. They may also hit you with a penalty. It’s far better to have those receipts and not need them then the other way around.
For more specific information about taxes, please consult with a professional tax preparer, or the Internal Revenue Service.
I still have the last remaining copy of my first book; a historic cookbook titled Anna’s Kitchen, which I produced and self-published back in 2005. I learned a lot from the experience, and since that time I’ve done my best to share what I’ve learned with the rest of you.
Looking back, I admit I was such a little smart-alec at the time that I thought I knew everything. Okay, so maybe having been a freelance graphic designer helped. After all, I was able to produce something that looked really cool. However, back then I didn’t know squat about editing, distribution, or marketing. So, here are but some of the lessons I learned.
A spell checker is not a substitute for an editor, or a proofreader.
If you want your book to be distributed, you really need Ingram.
500 books really does take up a lot of room in your shed.
Ah, I was so naive at the time, but it was a good, yet humbling, learning experience. The following year I wrote Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the first of my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers. That same year I signed on with a publisher, Five Star Publications, Inc. (Now Story Monsters, LLC.) Linda Radke, the company president, was an amazing mentor. I learned a lot about the publishing business from her.
After I finished Riding with the James Gang, the final book in the Luke and Jenny trilogy, I was ready for a change. I wanted to write full-fledged novels for adult readers. In 2011, I wrote my first romance novel, The Reunion, under the pen name, Marina Martindale. Linda Radke was also changing her business model to an exclusive children’s books publisher. However, we both agreed that I was ready to go out on my own. So, that same year, I founded my own publishing company, Good Oak Press, LLC.
Writing novels isn’t a hobby. It’s a business. My advice to any novel writer, or prospective novel writer, is to treat it like a business. Kudos to you if you’re lucky enough to beat the odds and sign on with a traditional publisher. However, as I explained in my earlier post, The Three Options for Publishing Your Book, the odds of a major publishing house signing on a first-time author are extremely slim at best. Most of us will either sign on with a partnership publisher, or start up our own publishing business. This means you need to do your homework and learn as much as you can about the book publishing business.
Every story ever written has two things in common; a beginning and an ending. It’s at the end of the story where we, as storytellers, deliver the punch lines which will impact our readers.
Regardless of your genre, most readers want, and expect, a happy ending. One which ties up all of the loose ends and leaves them satisfied. More often than not, this is what they get. In my genre, romance, it’s pretty simple. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, but there are conflicts and obstacles to be overcome. Then, once the conflicts are resolved, everyone lives happily ever after. THE END. Then again, some of the most well-loved and compelling romance stories ever written didn’t end with the couple living happily ever after.
Remember Romeo and Juliet? This timeless tale of two star crossed lovers ended with a double suicide, which compelled their two warring families to put an end to their bitter feud.
More recently there was Gone with the Wind. After thinking she was in love with Ashley Wilkes for all those years, Scarlett suddenly realizes she’s been in love with Rhett the entire time. Unfortunately for Scarlett, Rhett’s response is to walk away and slam the door behind him, leaving her to ponder her next move. This ending certainly left us wanting more.
Another famous ending comes from the movie, Casa Blanca, which was actually based on a play called, Everyone Comes to Rick’s. It too is a love story with a twist. Boy meets girl. Girl ditches boy. Boy meets girl a second time, only now she’s brought her husband along. So, along with some unforgettable dialog, (“Of all the gin joints in all the places in the world, she had to walk into mine.”), we all root for Rick to get Ilsa back. Instead he puts her and her husband on the plane and sends them away for good. The final scene ends with the plane taking off while Rick walks away with Louis Renualt saying, “You know, Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
Good stories aren’t always about happy endings. Sometimes they’re about doing the right thing, even when doing the right thing isn’t so easy to do. The same can also be said of real life.
There are times when I get a little weary trying to explain to newbie authors why they need to have their manuscripts professionally edited. Sometimes they get it, other times they don’t. (Sigh.) So, if for no other reason, have your manuscript professionally edited and proofread so your readers won’t go onto forums and rip your book to shreds.
Never, ever assume your reader is stupid. They’ve just paid good money for your book. They’re used to reading well edited books, and they expect your book to be well edited too. If it isn’t, they will be disappointed at best. At worst they’ll feel like they’ve been ripped-off. They may write you a bad review, or they may go on-line to reader’s forums and point out your mistakes. Either way, your dirty laundry just got hung out to dry, and your career as an author may have come to an untimely end. That said, I’m going to paraphrase some of the avoidable errors I’ve seen mentioned in online forums.
A leading lady gets into a Handsome Cab. (As opposed to a hansom cab. Perhaps the cab driver was handsome.)
The leading man is locked in a dudgeon. (That must be where the threw the stupid prisoners. No doubt the others were locked in the dungeon.)
He wrapped his arms around her waste. (Yuk! I’m seeing a really nasty visual here. Hopefully the next time he’ll wrap his arms around her waist.)
During a sex scene he’s having an organism. (There’s an interesting twist to a love scene. After his tryst is over he’ll need to see a doctor.)
He would gather her up in his arts. What? You mean he put her body parts into his sculptures? Sounds like that old Vincent Price movie about the wax museum. I’d much prefer that he’d gathered her in his arms.)
What do all these faux paus have in common? According to the forum I was reading, they all came out of self-published books. Yes, it’s funny to us, but not so much to the authors who wrote them. What’s sad is that these are just a few of the kind of mistakes that a good editor will catch, and correct.
Still think you don’t need an editor? Well, if you don’t mind being laughed at on a public forum then maybe you don’t. However, if you want to be taken seriously as an author, and if you want your book to be successful, you’d better find yourself a good editor.
It’s one of my all time biggest irks. Seeing so-called “job listings” for creative services with such caveats as, “we can’t afford to pay at the present time,” or, “no pay but we’ll provide food.” Then there’s my all time favorite. “We can’t afford to pay you but we’ll give you free exposure.”
Wow. Some things make me so angry it’s hard to find the right words.
I get it. We all have dreams. Whether it’s writing and publishing a book, producing a film or recording a CD, we all want to get the best professionals we can to give our project everything it needs to get it off the ground. But here’s the rub. These professionals spend years learning their craft, and, depending on the project, they may have to use their own equipment as well. So makes you think you’re entitled to get it for free? Think about it. Your doctor doesn’t work for free. The mechanic who works on your car doesn’t do it for free. So what makes you think your editor should work for free?
We don’t have the money because we’re just getting started.
That’s the same lame, tired, worn out and overused excuse that everyone uses whenever they want something for free. “We just don’t have the money.” Well, too bad, because in the real world people expect, and deserve, to be fairly paid for their time and labor.
Any kind of creative business venture, whether it’s writing and publishing a book, making an independent film, or recording a music CD is just that. A business venture. Any business venture, whether it’s creative or not, requires a certain amount of capital upfront. Fortunately, there are places where you can get the money. If you’ve ever registered a business name then you know your mailbox will soon be filled with all kinds of offers for business loans. Here’s an idea. Apply for them. Even if you can only qualify for a small amount, it might be enough for you to pay your people.
Same goes for grants. There are all kinds of grants out there for creative projects. Apply for them. Yes, it can be time consuming, but you just might get the funding you need to get your project off the ground. Another option is crowdfunding through Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or other crowdfunding platforms.
If all the above fails, then do it the way our parents and grandparents did it. Put a little money aside from each paycheck until you save up enough to pay for the services you need. Sure, it’ll take some time, and in the interim it won’t hurt to go out and start promoting your project. Who knows? You might get lucky and find yourself a sponsor.
Here’s the bottom line. Unless you’re a 501(C) 3 nonprofit, and the people providing their services can provide them as a tax deductible donation, then you frankly have no business asking a professional to provide you a service free of charge just because you want it. Not only is this demeaning to the service provider, it’s also insulting. If you can’t afford to pay your people then you can’t afford to do the project. Nuf said.
I’ve finally completed my latest Marina Martindale novel and now I’m ready for a much needed break. In fact, I typically go on a long hiatus after a new novel is published.
While writing truly is one of my life’s passions, I’m also aware of the thin line between creativity and burnout, also known as the dreaded writer’s block. Burnout can happen when we overextend and push ourselves too hard, but sometimes we’re so into what we’re doing that we’re not aware we’re overdoing it.
By the time I finish one novel I’m already formulating the next one in my mind, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is starting page one of that new novel the day after my current one goes to press. Like the tide, creativity ebbs and flows, and none of us want to ebb unexpectedly. I’ve learned, through experience, that for me the best thing to do after finishing a novel is to put my creative writing muse on the back burner, even as ideas for the next book pop into my head. Or, should I say, most especially when those new ideas are popping into my head. I’ll jot them down, but I won’t take them any further anytime soon.
I enjoy my down time between novels. It can last for a few weeks to a few months because I’m no longer on a time schedule. Then, when I feel I’m ready, I’ll start my next book. Until then, however, it’s my time for me.
So you’re a new author and you’ve just completed your first manuscript. Congratulations. This is a big accomplishment. However, it’s only the first step for getting your work out there, and one of your next tasks, if you haven’t done so already, is to decide how you would like to have your book published. You have three options; traditional publishing, partnership publishing, or self publishing. Each has their advantages and disadvantages.
Let’s begin with the option most people are familiar with, traditional publishing. Some of the most well known traditional publishers in the United States include Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House. No doubt you’ve heard of them as they’re part of a group known as The Big Five. This is certainly the big leagues, so you may be thinking, “Yeah, I’d love to have them publish my book. I’ll send them a copy of my manuscript and wait for them to call me.”
If only it were that simple. In reality, getting onboard with one of the Big Five publishers is about as easy as going to Hollywood, walking into a major motion picture studio and telling them that because you were the star of your high school play, you’re now ready to become a movie star, and would they please sign you up. Signing on with a major publisher, especially when you’ve never been published before, is a long, complicated and daunting process filled with rejection. Even if you have a good literary agent and a well written manuscript, there is no guarantee they will accept your work, and even if they do, they will drop you if your book sales don’t meet their expectations.
This can be a viable alternative as partnership publishers provide many of the same services as a traditional publisher. They produce, format and distribute your book, and they pay you a royalty. However, unlike a traditional publisher, they don’t buy the rights to your book. You keep the rights, and you pay them for their services.
There is, however, a huge difference between partnership publishing and vanity publishing. A vanity publisher will produce your book, usually for a hefty fee. However, they don’t distribute your book, and your printed books are often poor quality. A partnership publishing company on the other hand will distribute your book, typically through Ingram. It is up to you, however, to do the research and find out if the company is indeed a legitimate partnership publishing company. Most importantly, before signing any contract, ask if they distribute through Ingram. If the answer is no, walk away.
For the record, I started out with a very reputable partnership publishing company, and my books did quite well. I did have to pay them for their services, and they took care of the cover design, the printing, and the distribution. Like a traditional publisher, they paid also royalties, but unlike a traditional publisher, I retained the rights to my book, and I could leave them at any time.
Self publishing has lost much of the stigma it once had, and, on rare occasions, a traditional publisher will pick up a self published author.
The big advantage to self publishing is that the author has complete control over all aspects of the publishing process. This includes editing, proofing, typesetting and ebook formatting, printing and distribution. In other words, it’s a lot of work. However, Amazon has made this process somewhat easier with their self publishing tools; CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. Even so, editing and proofing are still the author’s responsibility.
I was lucky. I was a graphic designer for many years before I became an author. In 2011 my partnership publisher decided she wanted to change her business model and specialize in children’s books, while I had switched genres and had started writing contemporary romance. She was, however, a mentor as well as a publisher, and I learned a lot about the publishing business from her. So I started up my own publishing company. For me, this was the perfect choice. With my graphic design background, I’m able to format and design my own books. My company is an LLC, registered in the state of Arizona, so I was able to distribute through Ingram. However, after I started up my own company, Ingram created a division called Ingram Spark, which caters to self publishing authors. That said, I still recommend setting up an LLC if you’re serious about self publishing. Not only will you come across as more professional, an LLC can help protect your personal assets if you should ever experience an unexpected legal challenge.
Marketing Your book
Please note that regardless of which option you choose, it is up to you, the author, to promote your book. While book distribution is the publisher’s responsibility, selling the book is not. That is on you, even if you’re a traditionally published author. Like publishing a book, marketing a book can be daunting, but there are resources out there to help you. Again, it’s up to you to find those resources and use them.
Good luck with your book. If you would like to see my company website please click on the link below. I’m including it as an illustration of what you can accomplish if you’re willing to invest the time and effort.Please note, however, that I am unable provide publishing services for other authors.