“I have this really great idea for a book that I think you should write.”
This has to be the most infuriating thing anyone could ever say to an author. While the person saying it may have thought they meant well, they’ve just told you how to do your job. Then there’s the other implication. Somehow you’re not capable of coming up with your own ideas for your books. Good grief! I never thought that I would actually hear this, but sure enough, someone said this to me. It was a real jaw dropping moment.
My response was firm, but polite. I told him I write contemporary romance novels, and that I ONLY write contemporary romance novels. Period. In other words, I set my boundaries before the conversation went any further. Had he said, “Yes, I know. I just wanted to tell you about my crazy ex girlfriend,” I would have listened. When he finished his story, I would have thanked him for his time time. I would have also let him know that I couldn’t guarantee I would ever use his story for a future book.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with people sharing their stories. Other people’s stories can be great inspiration for a novel, and oftentimes they are. However, adding the words, “I really think you should write this,” changes the dynamics of the conversation rather quickly, and not in a good way. I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job. Any decision to use anyone’s story, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is mine and mine alone, and it’s subject to my own interpretation.
Once I firmly set my boundaries the gentleman didn’t elaborate any further. I had a funny feeling that romance novels weren’t his thing. He never got around to telling me what his great idea was, and I didn’t ask.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer working from home, it’s that I have to set my boundaries.
Working at home is certainly convenient. The commute time is less than a minute. You don’t have to worry about who used the restroom before you. You can work in your sweats, assuming you don’t have a Zoom meeting. If you do, then wear a nice top with your slippers and sweatpants. Going to lunch is easy too. It’s only a short walk to the kitchen.
Convenience, however, has it’s drawbacks. You miss out on watercooler conversations. There’s no coworker saying it’s five o’clock so let’s go grab a beer. It gets lonely at times, and you can easily put in sixty or eighty hours a week. Sometimes it’s necessary. Especially when you have a deadline. However, if you’re not careful, you could easily burn out. And for creative people, burnout can be a career killer.
If took me a while to figure it out, but I eventually came to realize that I had to set boundaries for myself.
Learn to Set Boundaries
Family time, and time for yourself, is as important as the time you put into your work. Perhaps even more so. Kids grow up fast. You don’t want to miss school plays or soccer games or other family time because you were too busy working. You also need to give your creative mind time to recharge itself.
I set my first boundary when I decided to get my nails done every week. A little pampering does wonders for your self-esteem, and a manicure isn’t that expensive. Now every Wednesday afternoon is my time for me, and in spite of it all, I still get things done.
Another boundary is ending my workday at five o’clock. I define a workday as doing paying gigs and activities related marketing and promoting my creative work. However, writing contemporary romance novels is one of my greatest joys in life. I live for my creative writing time, so I don’t set time limits on that.
Weekends are another boundary. I don’t open my business email account on weekends or holidays. If brick and mortar offices are closed on weekends and holidays, then my home office can be closed on weekends and holidays too.
How and when to set your boundaries is entirely up to you. What’s matters is keeping things in balance, and making the time to do the things you enjoy doing.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of finishing your very first manuscript. If you’re like most new authors, you probably can’t wait to see your book in print. However, there are a number of steps you need to take before you’re ready to publish. The following checklist will help you determine if you are indeed ready.
Have you determined if there is a viable market for your book?
The old adage that there’s an audience for every book is generally true, but some genres are more popular than others. That said, some niche authors do very well. I know a gay man who writes romance novels for gay readers, and he built a following rather quickly
Have you completed your research and listed all your sources in a bibliography?
This mostly applies to nonfiction works, although I included bibliographies in my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers. The series was written to teach actual historic events in an interesting and entertaining way, and it was geared toward educators.
Have you gotten two to four manuscript reviews to use for your back cover blurbs?
It’s an important step which many new authors miss. Having a back cover blurb gives you more credibility. I’ll ask other authors for reviews and let them know there’s some free publicity for them, as their name and book title appears on my cover. Authors associations and online forums are a great way to connect with other authors.
Have you obtained written permission for all the visual references you’re including, such as photographs or charts?
This is a biggie, and never assume it’s public domain because it’s a historic image or it’s royalty free. Copyright laws changed dramatically in the 1970s, and some museums own the rights to images in their collections. Also royalty free doesn’t mean copyright free, so read the terms and conditions carefully when purchasing stock images. When in doubt, ask. Better yet, create it yourself if you can.
Have you used your spellchecker?
Seriously. Even the best of us make silly mistakes, and double checking your spelling will make your editor’s job a little easier.
Have you decided how to publish your book?
Gone are the days when big publishing houses dominated the market. Today’s authors have many options. Please refer to my post, The Three Options for Book Publishing, for more specific information.
Are you prepared to deal with the possibility of rejection letters or receiving bad reviews?
Not everyone is going to like your book, and those who choose to find an agent or go the traditional publishing route will have to deal with rejection letters. However, you needn’t fear an occasional bad review. It means that you are real.
Are you willing to accept editorial changes?
This is another biggie. Your editor is a fresh pair of eyes who goes over your manuscript to give it the polish it needs to help it become successful. They can and will make changes. Therefore, it’s important that you find someone you feel comfortable working with. Once again, author’s associations and online forums are good places to ask for referrals.
Have you planned a budget to cover expenses such as software, editors, and other out-of-pocket costs?
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is a business venture, and you will have some out-of-pocket expenses. Even traditionally published authors have overhead expenses, such as computers and software. Grants, endowments or crowd funding may be available for those authors in need of financial assistance.
Do you have a plan for marketing and promoting your book?
Marketing the book is the author’s responsibility, even if you are traditionally published. Thankfully, there are many how-to books out there to help you with your marketing plan.
If you answered no any of these questions then you’re not ready to be published. However, this checklist may be a handy guide for doing what you need to be ready.
Remember, book publishing is a team effort. So for best results, you must be willing to work with others and be willing to consider whatever suggestions or advice they may offer you.
Filmmakers have certain advantages over novel writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware that the villain is lurking inside. As he or she gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The bad guy leaps out of nowhere, confronting the protagonist, who either has to fight or run for dear life.
Unfortunately, novel writers don’t have the luxury of having background music. We have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension. This may create the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, putting a plain old period after, he leaped out of the closet at Joe, looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!, would look a whole lot better. Right?
Well, not necessarily.
What an exclamation point actually means
An exclamation point in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers.
For example, instead of saying, he heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe, try using, He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer. He held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room. He stood by, unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder as they came closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.
By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension exclamation points becomes unnecessary. Bottom line. Never use exclamation points in the narrative.
But what about the dialog?
An exclamation point in the dialog indicates that someone is shouting. People shout when they are excited, unexpectedly surprised, under stress, or angry. Therefore, exclamation points should be rarely used in dialog, and only when absolutely necessary.
For example, someone might shout, Look out! if they see someone else is about to step into the street, unaware that a bus is barreling toward them. This sets the stage for a number of outcomes. The first character pulls the second character back onto the sidewalk in the nick of time. The person stepping into the street sees the bus coming and takes evasive action. The second character looks back and replies, “What?” Or the second character ignores the warning and ends up being hit by the bus. Whatever option you take, no further exclamation points are necessary. The crisis has passed. Any further exclamation points would be redundant
I think of exclamation points as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long way.
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.
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 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 lead 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. 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 the tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.
Oh the silly things we authors can have major hang-ups over, such as doing revisions and rewrites. Rewrites and revisions are not one in the same. They are actually two entirely different processes.
I’ve always subscribed to the notion that the first draft is all about getting your ideas down. Worrying 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 enjoy doing revisions. 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. Don’t let anyone chastise you or intimidate you for doing revisions. It’s your story. If you’re not satisfied with it 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.
I still have the last remaining copy of my first book; a historic cookbook titled Anna’s Kitchen. I produced and self-published it back in 2005. I learned a lot from the experience, and I’ve done my best to share what I’ve learned with other authors.
Looking back, I must admit I was such a little smart-aleck at the time that I thought I knew everything. Okay, so maybe my having been a freelance graphic designer helped. I was able to produce something that looked really cool. That counts for something. Right? 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 publishing children’s books only. 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. I’ve learned a lot, and I have no regrets.