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.
I wrote my first book when social media was still in its infancy. MySpace was the big kid on the block, and all the book marketing experts were telling authors to embrace social media to promote their books. Among the recommended social media networks was one called Twitter.
Twitter was a very difference place back then. It was for posting, “mini blogs.” It’s purpose was, “to let your friends know what you’re doing.” A typical tweet was something like, “Taking the kids to the park. TTYL.” Back then tweets were limited to 140 characters, so to me, Twitter was more of a bulletin board. Let’s face it. It’s kind of hard to engage with people with only 140 characters.
One of my author friends showed me how to use Twitter to drive traffic to my blogs. She introduced me to Hootsuite. Hootsuite could shorten my blog link, making it easier to to stay within the 140 character limit. I could also schedule my tweets to post on a day and time of my choosing. It worked. In less than 30 minutes, I could set up tweets to post throughout the day, and it really increased my blog traffic.
Things change over time, and Twitter was no exception. I write contemporary romance novels, (under the pen name Marina Martindale.) I keep politics out of my books and out of my blogs. In fact, I write my books for people who want to take a break from politics. Twitter, however, was becoming more political and increasingly hostile. I still used it to drive traffic to my blogs, and while my number of Twitter followers increased, my blog stats showed significantly less traffic coming from Twitter. So as Twitter becomes more controversial, I keep wondering how much longer will it be of benefit to me?
For now I’m staying with it. However, the jury is still out. Most of my blog traffic now comes from Facebook, but about the time I’m ready to give up on Twitter someone retweets one of my tweets, so who knows? I suppose time will tell.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, building your own unique brand as an author is essential. For those of us who’ve written more than one book, this includes having consistent covers. After all, what’s the first thing a potential reader sees? Your book cover.
Unfortunately, when the time came to publish my second book, Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War: a Luke and Jenny Adventure I found out that the person who designed and illustrated the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral cover was no longer available. Thankfully, we were able to find another illustrator with a similar drawing style. However, no two artists are exactly the same. I loved the Billy the Kid cover illustration, but it didn’t match the O.K. Corral illustration closely enough to make the two books look related. I now had to make a decision. I could either have a book series with one cover which looked like it didn’t belong, or I could have the original Luke and Jenny book cover redone with a new artwork from the new illustrator. I opted for the latter. It really was my only option.
My covers were now consistent, which, in turn, made it that much easier to build my brand.
A few years later I published updated editions of the Luke and Jenny series, this time with my own publishing company, Good Oak Press, LLC. I could have redesigned the covers with new illustrations, but opted not to. My brand had been well established by then, and other than new ISBN numbers, and some minor copy editing, the books were essentially the same as the Five Star editions. The only change I made was to add the brown borders to distinguish them from the earlier Five Star series.
After completing my Luke and Jenny series I changed genres and started writing fiction for adult readers. This meant starting all over from scratch and building an entirely new brand, including creating a pen name, but the same rules for my covers applied. While I now write stand alone novels, I still work with Wes Lowe, who did the Luke and Jenny cover illustrations, and I still have consistency in the cover designs. It’s all about building your brand.
I often see discussions from first timers in my online authors forums or Facebook groups about book cover design. Some talk about how easy and convenient it was to use stock photos for their book covers. Others think royalty free means copyright free. Some even think they can just Google the type of photo they’re looking for and download it for free.
The problem with royalty free stock photos
Stock photos are easy to find and relatively cheap. I frequently use them on my blogs because I don’t always have the time to go out and shoot my own photos. However, royalty free doesn’t mean the photo is free. You pay a one time licencing fee, and the fee may vary, depending on how the photo will be used.
The problem with stock photos is that you don’t buy exclusive rights. Other people can and do use the same photo you’re using, and this could include other authors using the same photo for their book covers. Imagine going to a book festival and seeing another author signing a book with the same cover photo you’re using. Yikes!
If it’s on the Internet it doesn’t mean it’s public domain.
There are people out there who honestly believe that publishing a photo online automatically makes it public domain. Therefore, they can download it for free and use it as they wish. WRONG! While I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving legal advice, it’s common knowledge that the rights to the photo belong to the person who took the photo. Therefore, if you use someone else’s photo without their permission, you could, potentially, find yourself in serious trouble. And who needs that kind of the grief? So, when in doubt, find out who the photographer is, and get their permission to use the photo.
My best advice would be to take the photo yourself if you possibly can. However, if you don’t have the skills to do so, or if the photo needs to be taken at a distant location, consider hiring a photographer to shoot the photo for you. If budget is an issue then ask around. Many of us have friends or family members who are into photography and who would be honored if you were use one of their photos for your book cover. There are countless online photography groups and forums on social media. No doubt they have members who would love to work with you. Most colleges and universities offer photography classes, and students will oftentimes jump at the chance to do a paying assignment. Use a stock photo only as a last resort.
And one final note. Whether you are using a friend’s photo, or hire a professional photographer, be sure to have the photographer sign a release form granting you permission to use their photo, even if they’re letting you use their photo for free. Stuff happens, and you can find release form templates online.
The book cover I’ve included is one I designed for another author. I’m a photographer as well as an author, but none of the photos in my library were what I was looking for, so I asked a photographer friend. He had the perfect photo in his library.
Why writing political posts on social media is a bad idea for novel writers.
It’s that time again. A presidential election is coming up, and people are expressing their political views all over social media. I understand freedom of speech. However, our mothers also taught us to never discuss politics or religion in polite company, (at least mine did), and our mothers were right.
Social media is an invaluable marketing tool for authors. It’s the best platform out there for driving traffic to our websites and blogs and building our brands. However, it takes a huge amount of time and effort to build a following, and by huge I mean months, or even years. That said, after all that hard work, do you really want to risk alienating your fans and followers?
If you’re a nonfiction political writer then it’s a given that you should write about politics, but not all of us are political writers. If you write novels, short stories or other creative fiction, and your sole purpose is to entertain you reader, then my advice to you is this: DO NOT write political posts on social media.
While I make no claims of being mathematician, or a statistician, I think it’s a safe bet to say that roughly half of your fans and followers do not share your political views. It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative, liberal or libertarian, they do not share your views, and trust me, you won’t get them to change their minds. So if you’re all over social media bashing conservatives or liberals, or bashing their candidate, then rest assured you’re going to piss off roughly half you fans and followers. They in turn will unfriend or unfollow you on social media. They’ll unsubscribe to your blogs and newsletters. Most importantly, they’ll stop buying your books, and if you’re made them angry enough they’ll leave scathing reviews. So, before writing that political post, ask yourself this question. “Do I really want to lose half my fans?”
I’m sure there are some of you out there who are so passionate about your beliefs that you don’t want people who disagree with you buying your book in the first place. If so, that’s certainly your prerogative. However, I think most of us really don’t want to lose any of our fan base. I know I don’t.
Over the past few weeks I’ve unfriended a number of people on Facebook for overloading my newsfeed with their constant flow of negative political posts, and no doubt I’ll be unfriending more before the election is over. Some have been people I’ve known for some time, and unfriending them made me feel sad. However, I’m honestly burned out on all the negativity, and it’s put me in a place where I’m seriously reevaluating some of my friendships.
I guess I must be old school. I subscribe to the notion that who I decide to vote for is for me to know, and the rest of you to wonder about.
I’ve recently moved into a new home in another state, and while I was packing, I found a copy of my very first book, a historic cookbook titled Anna’s Kitchen. I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’ve done my best to share what I’ve learned with the rest of you.
I published Anna’s Kitchen back in 2005, and I was such a smart-alec at the time that I thought I knew everything. Okay, maybe my having been a freelance graphic designer helped, since I already knew how to typeset and design an interesting cover, but I didn’t know squat about editing, distribution, or marketing. So, here are some of the lessons I learned from self-publishing.
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.
A year later I met Linda Radke, owner of Five Star Publications, Inc. Linda published my second book, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Luke and Jenny. Visit Tombstone. It would be the first in my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers. Not only was Linda my publisher, she was also a mentor. After publishing the final book in the series, Riding with the James Gang: a Luke and Jenny Adventure, I was ready to change genres and start writing novels for adult audiences. At the same time, however, Linda was changing her business model to specialize in publishing children’s books. (Her company is now called Story Monsters, Inc.) We talked it over, and she honestly thought I was ready to start up my own publishing company, which is how Good Oak Press, LLC came about.
Looking back, I must admit the lessons I learned with Anna’s Kitchen were most certainly a positive experience. I learned, firsthand, how much work goes into publishing a book, and I have no regrets. Oh, by the way, Good Oak Press later published a new edition of Anna’s Kitchen. Its new title is Rosie’s Riveting Recipes.
I enjoy talking with prospective authors, but whenever a first-time author starts bragging about all the rejection letters he or she has received, as if it were some kind of honor, it gives me pause for thought. While they’re busy collecting all those letters, their manuscripts sit around collecting dust for months, even years, without being read.
As I often tell people, six-figure advances, and all the fame that comes with being an author, is more myth than fact. Unless you already happen to be a famous a celebrity, the odds of a major publishing house buying your manuscript, and you becoming rich and famous, especially if you’re a first-time author, are about as good as going to Hollywood with no prior acting experience, walking into a motion picture studio, and landing a starring role in a feature film.
This is why I never bothered playing the rejection letter game. Life is simply too short for that kind of nonsense. I’ve heard similar stories about trying to find an agent. While I’m sure there are plenty of good literary agents out there, far too many of them are full of more you-know-what than the Thanksgiving turkey. I hear the same story, over and over again, from prospective authors. “I emailed a query to an agent. They got back with me right away and wanted to see my manuscript, but it’s been ages, and I haven’t heard from them since. So when will they get back with me?”
As I mentioned before, I have better things to do than waste my time playing games because I want to get my books in reader’s hands. So, when I first started out in the writing business, I began with partnership publishing.
Partnership publishing is when you take control and you pay someone to publish your book. You may be thinking it’s “vanity publishing,” but it’s actually not. It’s a business decision, and it means you believe in your work enough that you’re willing to invest your own money into it. Most importantly, you retain the rights to your work instead of selling them to a publisher. With partnership publishing, the publisher does the formatting, cover design, printing and distribution, much like a traditional publisher would do. However, your book is usually published in weeks instead of years, and a publishing partner won’t drop you if your book fails to meet their expectations.
Please be aware that there are good and bad partnership publishing companies out there, so it’s best to do your homework first. Writer Beware is an excellent resource for finding out whose business practices are questionable. You’ll also want shop around for the best price and be sure to ask about distribution. If they’re not distributing through Ingram or Baker & Taylor, or both, you may have trouble getting your book into bookstores or libraries.
And here’s a final thought. A reputable partnership publisher probably won’t accept a poorly written book, so please be sure you’re using proper grammar and punctuation, and that your story is well told. You’ll also need to have your book professionally edited.
So, it’s up to you. Do you spend the next few years collecting rejection letters while your book remains unread? Or do you want to take control of your destiny and get your book into the hands of readers? The choice is yours.
An essential element of writing fiction is to create an intense climax. It’s the “OMG!” moment readers expect, and like any other part of fiction writing, creating a page turning, believable climax takes some skill.
Set the stage properly
Introduce the conflict early in your story, and start out small. I write contemporary romance, ( as Marina Martindale), so my conflicts begin as seemingly everyday occurrences. Someone meets a stranger who seems familiar, but they can’t place them. Someone has fallen on hard times and has to do a job they don’t want to do. Someone stumbles across something which looks incriminating about someone they know. From there you add more tension and conflict and build your story.
How to Create the Perfect Storm
As you build up the tension there will come a point when it needs to be released. This is where the real fun begins. The following is my formula, and I find it works well.
I begin by putting my protagonist(s) in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I don’t make it obvious. My locations have included a courthouse in the middle of a busy workday. A resort hotel on a busy night. A character’s backyard on a beautiful fall day. Wherever it is, I make it the last place where the characters would expect something to go wrong.
I try to involve as many cast members as I can. The more people on the scene when it all hits the fan, the more potential for things to happen. Most importantly, I make sure everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong.
Miscommunication adds to the drama. Phone batteries go dead, urgent messages aren’t delivered, rumors get started and misunderstandings abound. Someone will inevitably get the wrong information and draw the wrong conclusion.
I break up the action as much as I can. If more than one character is involved, I’ll end one scene with a cliffhanger, such as a character waiting for help to arrive, and jump over to another character and draw them in. Or I may go to a character who doesn’t know anything is wrong, and they’re not knowing adds to the overall tension. Breaking up the action while everything falls to pieces creates more suspense and keeps the reader engaged.
Timing is everything. I don’t want my climax to end too quickly, nor do I want it to drag on too long. Each story I write is different, so I rely on my own intuition. Typically, my big climax scenes go for two to three chapters. It all depends on how complex the scene is, and how many characters are involved.
So there you have it. The more things go wrong, the more suspenseful, and dramatic, your climax will be, and the more it will engage your reader.
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.