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.
According to a political slogan in the 1990s, it takes a village to raise a child. Here’s the version for authors. It takes a team to write a book. So who’s on the team?
The author is the team captain. He or she is the star of the show. For some, the word, author, may bring an image to mind of someone in an isolated house by the seashore, working away at their typewriter, pounding out perfect prose with the very first draft. If only it were so. Most of us are working on laptops in our dens or bedrooms, when we have the time. For many of us, our jobs, families and social obligations take priority. However, those of us who are serious about our writing will make the time.
The beta reader. The first person on the team is the beta reader. He or she should be an avid reader, but not necessarily a writer. If willing, your spouse, your mom, or your best friend can be your beta reader. The beta reader goes over the early drafts to let the writer know if their story makes sense or if they’re communicating their point clearly. I’ve had friends and family members as beta readers, and they’ve all done a good job. .
Writer’s associations and critique groups. Not everyone will have someone in their circle who’s willing to give them honest feedback. If that’s the case, check with some of your local writers associations, and try to find a critique group. Critique groups typically meet once a week, either in person or online, and they’ll read, and critique, each other’s work. Like a beta reader, they can help save you the time, and the hassle, of having to do a major rewrite later on.
By the way, if you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend joining a writer’s association, especially if you are a new or first-time author. Some associations, such as Romance Authors of America, are genre specific. Others are open to the writing community at large. Typically, these associations will have monthly meetings with a guest speaker. They are invaluable for learning your craft and networking with other authors.
The first officer
If the author is the captain, the editor would be the first officer. I’ve posted, many times, on this blog about why every author needs an editor. Simply put, your editor will go over your work and correct the gaffes, punctuation errors, inconsistencies, grammatical errors and other problems that you, the author, cannot see. It’s the editor who separates the pros from the amateurs.
Please note that unless your spouse, your mom, or your best friend has a background in journalism or teaching English, they aren’t qualified to be your editor. When it comes to editing, working with a professional is a must. I found my first editor through my first publisher, and my current editor through a writer’s association. Be sure to find someone you feel comfortable working with, and, most importantly, check your ego at the door. My editor and I have a great relationship. She fixes the problems without changing my voice. As an added bonus, she also makes snarky comments in the sidebar. Over time I’ve learned not to drink coffee while I review her changes, lest the coffee go up my nose.
The next team member is the proofreader. Proofreading is sometimes referred to as the second edit, as the proofreader goes over the final edited version of the manuscript to catch the errors that you, or your editor, may have missed. Typically, these are the tiny errors, such as a missing quotation mark. If your spouse, or you mom, or your best friend has a good eye they can probably do your proofreading. I would, however, advise against having your beta reader do your proofreading. For this job you really do need a fresh pair of eyes, and again, your publisher, or writing group, may be able to refer a proofreader.
Other team members
Depending on your genre, your team may also include photographers, illustrators. Some of you may be tempted to use your own visual art, but I would advise a word of caution. Unless you’re a professional, or have had some professional training, I would leave it to the pros. Drawing, painting and photography are disciplines which take many years of formal training and practice to master, and an amateurish photo or illustration can make you book look amateurish as well. Also be cautious about using stock images, especially for your cover. You won’t have exclusive rights, which means another author can come along and use the same image for their cover.
The last member of your team is your publisher. You have some options here, and you may wish to read, The Three Options for Book Publishing, as it discusses those options in detail. Each has its pros and cons, and it’s up to you, the author, to determine which would be the best for you.
Some of you simply may not have the means to hire all these professionals. If that’s the case, and you can only hire one person to work with you, make it your editor. Your editor is the most important member of your team. He or she is the one person you simply cannot work without.
We’ve all experienced it. We start reading a novel that got off to a great start. Then we lost interest. My mother was one of those readers who would plow through to end, no matter what. Even if the book was genuinely awful. Me, not so much. Life is too short to waste on a poorly written story.
Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge. Even the best conceived story ideas are useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.
Pacing is an important part of good storytelling. However, excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, and trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl. Once the reader loses interest, you’re done. A bored reader will toss your book aside and never come back. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions.
Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis
I only include those backstories which are relevant and move the story forward. Then I typically reveal them through dialog. The rest of my backstory remains in my notes.
If it’s been said once it may not need to be repeated
Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. If it comes up again, consider using it in the narrative. For example, “as she hit the accelerator, he reminded her about his mother.” Inserting redundant dialog would have ruined a fast-paced narrative. But what if he needs to tell his story to a different character? Consider adding a spin. His mother was driving drunk.
Fine details aren’t always useful information
Readers don’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, or if it has buttons or pockets. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “She would wear her royal blue dress with the lace trim. It would be perfect for showing off the diamond pendant Jake had given her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.
I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something we didn’t know before. If a scene, or even an entire chapter, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter, and scene, needs a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than filler material which will bore the reader, and the last thing you want is for the reader to toss your book aside and leave a bad review.
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.