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’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 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 other 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 into 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.
One of the most essential, if not the most essential, elements of writing fiction is creating intense climax scenes. They’re the “OMG!” moments readers expect, and, just 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 it out small. I write contemporary romance, 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 feel comfortable doing so they can pay their bills. Someone accidentally stumbles across something that looks incriminating about a person they thought they knew. 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. For me, this is where the 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 my protagonist would expect anything major to go wrong.
I try to involve as many cast members as I can. The more people on the scene when it 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. In my novels phone batteries go dead, urgent messages aren’t delivered, 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 then I’ll jump over to another character to see what he or she is up to. Also, depending on the story, I may even jump to a character who doesn’t know anything is wrong. At least, not yet, and they’re not knowing something has happened adds to the overall tension. Breaking up the action while everything is falling 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 for too long. Each story I write is different, so I have to rely on my own intuition. Typically, my big climax scenes go for two to three chapters, sometimes less. 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.
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.