Category Archive: All advice articles

Apr 27

8 Ways to Make Your Story Stand Out

Your manuscript has arrived!

Editors and agents see enough manuscripts in a day to make their heads spin, most of them with the same mistakes. If you want to forestall the “Not again!” reaction, follow these 8 steps to a more competitive story. 

 
1. Make sure you base your story on some kind of action that propels it forward. This could be a problem that the protagonist encounters in the first scene, one that she works the entire length of your story to resolve. Sometimes even writers with a good publishing track record submit what are known as “walking around thinking stories,” which follow the protagonist from encounter to encounter, each one related to her problem in some way, but not bringing us any closer to the point where she solves it.
 
2. Conversely, avoid the “macho hero story” in which your protagonist goes from climax to climax like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra. You will have a hard time making this kind of story seem fresh.
 
3. In a similar vein, avoid repetitive profanity, sex and gore. If they are necessary for the story, then fine. But these, when not essential, will do nothing to hold the attention of weary and revulsed editors. Quite the opposite. Add alcohol, drugs and rape to the list. The writers of these tales (there are many!) realize they must avoid “walking around thinking stories.” But rather than turning heads, they will be turning stomachs.
4. Sympathize with your characters, even in a comic novel. Too many agents meet sorry, unrealistic characters who fart, belch, scratch and pick their noses throughout the story. If we don’t feel for you protagonist at least, we will turn off and put your manuscript down.
 
5. Persist. As science fiction great John Campbell said: “The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.” You can be absolutely sure your favorite author was rejected far more than you before the publication of her first book.
 

6. Don’t just submit. Resubmit. Find the right home from the thousands available online and in print. Editors may reject a newcomer many times before letting him into the fold. Submit, rewrite, resubmit.

 
7. Be yourself. Don’t just try to hit the hottest new fad in publication. Chances are prospective agents and editors are sick to death of it. Harlan Ellison put it this way:
 
“Publishers want to take chances on books that will draw a clamor and some legitimate publicity. They want to publish controversial books. That their reasons are mercenary and yours may be lofty should not deter you.”
They make money off of finding new things.
 
8. Work on a strong ending. End your story in the right place. Does you ending focus on particulars and the tying up of loose ends? Or does it focus outward and help us see something greater? Is there an earlier point which would fill the bill? You may have to cut a few pages off the end of your tale.
You can do it. Remember: the good news is, if you can avoid the mistakes that editors see 99 times out of 100, then you have a foot in the door. Make the best of it.

Apr 20

A Writer’s Life

Today we talk with Rosemary Lynch, author and artist from Wiltshire, England. We asked her the trials and tribulations of the writing life and self publication.

 

When did you decide to become a writer? What made you do it?

I dabbled a bit when I was younger and then when my girls were small I wrote a few children’s stories about the animals on my parents’ farm.  The main bug kicked in about 2 1/2 years ago when I was off work due to an injury, and rooting about I found a chapter I written about five years ago.  I read though it and thought “Hey this is good! Did I really write that?”  Then that was it; I’ve been hooked ever since!

We all need feedback. Do you have a writer’s group?

I don’t have a writer’s group, but I join in as much as I can with forums and have my contact email on my website for feedback. I am fairly new to this, having only just released my first book, Kainan, so I’m learning about new ways to reach out to people every day.

What, for you, are the important steps of the writing process? Will you change anything the next time around?
 
For me it’s the whole enjoyment of writing.  Establishing the characters and giving them real personalities so the reader can empathize with them and feel their joy and pain. As I don’t have an agent yet, I am pretty much working at my own pace. I haven’t really changed anything with the book I am writing now, the sequel to Kainan.  I enjoy writing it – I have laughed and cried my way through.  Still not 100% sure where or how it will end, but that’s the excitement of writing each word, each page leads somewhere else.

            Writing is easy. Publicity is hard.


What’s your daily routine like?
 
I have a family and a part-time job.  On a normal day – if there is such a thing – I drop my youngest at breakfast club and get to work at 8 a.m., half an hour before I am due to start. I sit in the peace and quiet of my car, and I write.  Sometimes a page, or sometimes I can scribble down ideas for a chapter.  In fact, a large percentage of my third book which I have finished was written in my Mondeo!  Then family – walking the dogs, picking up my youngest, dinner for kids.  Then I have about two hours whilst they do what kids do.  So I blog, write, tweet.  Then cook dinner for hubby. 7:30-ish:  Collapse in living room with family, whack out the lap top whilst watching TV and write ‘til I can’t see anymore! Saturdays I write as much as I can, or I paint if the brain is not willing!

Do you have a daily word-production target? How often do you meet it?
 
I don’t work to a target! That would do my head in!  However, I do try and write something every day, even if it is only a few words.

What authors inspired you?
 
As a child I loved Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis.  Now it’s people like Terry Goodkind and Terry Brooks.

How can fledgling authors hone their talent?
 
Read, and then read some more.  I spent a lot of time reading books that I both did and didn’t like, just to see how words are use to express feelings and actions.

How did you get the idea for Kainan?
 
It was on a trip up to Scotland to visit my parents. We were driving through the borders and I just had this idea for an epic fantasy as I looked out at the rolling hills.  My husband and I chatted about it, and he said, “What if you had this happen…?”  (I won’t tell you what – that would be a spoiler!) And I thought “Yeah, what a good idea.”  Scribbled it all down and then did nothing with it for years.  I reread the chapter I had written and had this mega-dream afterwards. It was like a movie playing in my head, and it just went on like that for months.

       The first time I held a copy in my hands, I cried.


Tell us a little about your journey to publication.
 
Initially I wrote Kainan just for my own pleasure – it was kind of like my baby!  My colleagues knew about it and started to nag at me that they wanted to read it.  I was reluctant at first, and to be honest, a bit embarrassed at it all.  Eventually I gave in and had 10 proof copies printed and sent out to willing volunteers to help me edit and proofread, by the time I had finished, it had been farmed out to their families, as well. I had such a good response that I decided to give it a go. I painted my own cover, as finances were short and that’s pretty much it. I would like to be taken on by an agent, as I find all the publicity side of it quite daunting.  My heart is in writing and telling the story.  I have had 100 books printed, which are available on my website, and the first time I held one I cried.  It was such an exciting moment as I am sure it is for all authors when they see their book in print for the first time.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to publish to Kindle?
 
I would say go for it, it’s free. The only problem is, it is very difficult at first to get the book noticed amongst the thousands that are on there. That’s why sites like this and the others out there are so helpful. You learn a lot from other people. It can become a bit addictive looking each morning to see if you have sold any, and disappointing if you haven’t.  Writing is easy, publicity is hard.
Find out more about Rose at http://www.rosemary-lynch.blogspot.com/

Apr 13

Pictures and Books

By Pamela Love

One of my book covers

Whenever people find out that I write children’s fiction, they immediately ask, “How do you find an illustrator?”  As a matter of fact, I don’t.  Nearly all publishers want to hire their own illustrators for the manuscripts they purchase.  Even if you do find your own illustrator, a publisher may love the manuscript, but not the illustrations, or vice versa.  They often just reject both to avoid trouble with an author or illustrator who begs them to use the other person’s work.  If you want to write picture books, send them in without illustrations, unless you can do them yourself at a professional level.  (Even then, be prepared to hear, “We want to buy the story or use you as an illustrator for someone else but we don’t want both.”)

In a way, all books are picture books—although in many cases, the pictures reside in the readers’ brains.  Especially for children’s books (and short stories), think of the illustrator.  What are you giving him or her to work with?  (Even if the reader is the one imagining it all.)  I don’t just mean adjectives, like black hair or dry leaves.  I’m talking about action.  If your story contains mostly dialogue, can you have the characters doing something while they talk?  Are they joking while standing in line?  Whispering backstage while waiting to make their entrance in a ballet?  Arguing while building a tree house?

      Make the picture in your readers’ minds a detailed one!

 

What if your characters don’t talk?  I have published books about non-talking animals and a short story about a child who was non-verbal.  In that case, movement and sound become even more critical. Think of all the ways your characters can move in their environment:  climbing, running, jumping, diving, swimming, digging, sliding, etc. Also, think of all the ways the environment can be moving, potentially affecting the character.  If you have two people just talking in a room, you might try making the scene less static by having a breeze come through a window and blowing one character’s hair, and she keeps moving it back behind her ear.  Meanwhile, the other person goes to the refrigerator to take out a soda—and maybe shuts the window on the way.  Possibly the refrigerator has only soda in it, or maybe someone spilled milk in it and hasn’t cleaned the shelf yet.  All these details make the scene more realistic. Make the picture in your readers’ minds a detailed one!

Mar 23

Launch a Description the way Anthony Burgess Does

Get inspiration from unexpected places

You have that new page shining empty in front of you. You feel that moment when an invisible hand grips your throat: “Gawd,” you gasp, “what will I ever write?”

If that’s you (or even if it’s not), try some exercises to loosen up the muses a bit.

Anthony Burgess, asked by a popular magazine about his writing rituals and methods, had this to say:

“I’ll tell you a thing that will shock you. What I often do nowadays when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. I even did it in a novel I wrote called MF. There’s a description of a hotel vestibule whose properties are derived from Page 167 in R.J. Wilkinson’s Malay-English Dictionary. Nobody has noticed. As most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re really doing what nature does. I do recommend it to young writers.”

 

That gave me a start, so of course I immediately ran for a dictionary. I found American Heritage too technical, with words like mescaline and metagalaxy, and settled on Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, which I have here in front of me. The print is big, so I will use two pages, 1208-1209. I see words like responsibility, restraint, restrict and resting place. To me these suggest not only an idea for a setting, but for character, too.
Here goes!
Leonard had to take responsibility for his own desk. His mom would brook no excuses. Should she find a pencil or rubber band out of place, she would sweep everything to the floor with a flourish. He aligned his pencil cups, books and diary with the discipline of a soldier. He tried to keep these items to a minimum, to ensure himself a much-needed resting place for his elbows.
You could say my effort was a failure: I included only two of the words I selected. I would have included restraint, as well, but switched to discipline. However, a glance at these dry dictionary pages, seen in a new light with a new purpose, gave life to a setting and a character I didn’t know I had in me. The selection of words immediately brought to mind a tired, repressed individual, and I tried to bring that out in the description of his environment. This handful of lines will not be getting me a Pulitzer ever, but the exercise gave me a springboard and a direction with virtually no effort. And it’s fun. Try it!

Mar 20

Aim for money? Dream the dream?

Decisions, decisions…

How much to court fame and money, and how much to chase your dream?

We all face this question in our writing; we can choose a trendy topic, or we can go with our own fancy and see where it takes us.
Partly it comes down to an old saw oft repeated at writer’s workshops: write what you know. This tidbit of wisdom has taken fire lately from some writers, and often spurs fledgling authors to transcribe a bagatelle of personal experiences onto the page, hoping for the “write what you know magic” to produce a story. And if you aim at, say, science fiction, how can you write what you know, short of coming from outer space?
But in a sense, you are what you read. If you read westerns throughout your youth, then perhaps that genre is what you know. If it is romance, then that is what you know. Don’t forget, whatever sub-genre tops the trend heap right now will not necessarily do so by the time you finish your opus and pimp it around to several agents. Your work may provide the change of pace that editors will look for.
Nora Roberts had this to say:

“The most important thing is you can’t write what you wouldn’t read for pleasure. It’s a mistake to analyze the market thinking you can write whatever is hot. You can’t say you’re going to write romance when you don’t even like it. You need to write what you would read if you expect anybody else to read it.”

Naturally, we couch our queries in such a way as to highlight similar, successful works. But we also must demonstrate that we aim for a niche that now stands empty, and that our work in some way differs from anything else out there. And you can’t do that by cloning off the top hits.
So write what you know. You are, after all, an expert on books. Or you should be. If not, hit your local bookseller right away.

Mar 18

Write a Cascade!

The lines tumble down as if in a cascade

The cascade is a poetic form which can be fun and rewarding to write. It gives you some of the elbow room of free verse – there are no rhymes or required number of syllables per line – but each line of the first stanza repeats as the last line of the subsequent stanzas. Thus the first line of the poem will be the last line of the second stanza, the second line of the poem will be the last line of the third stanza, and so on. This lends some form to the verse, and provides a little challenge and creative stimulus for the poet.

The number of lines in the first stanza thus determines the number of stanzas in your whole poem. In a tercet scheme, the line arrangement would look like this: ABC, deA, fgB, hiC. For a quatrain, you would use ABCD, efgA, hijB, klmC, nopD.

Let’s have an example, the first cascade I ever wrote, to test the form:

The boy asks his father

the meaning of rain,

but the father does not listen.

 

The rain patters on the windowsill,

tickling the fantasy, when

the boy asks his father.

 

But the father is working, connecting the dots.

He’s not thinking about

the meaning of rain.

 

The drops call out to the open heart

and the flitting mind.

But the father does not listen.

 

Try writing one now; you’ll enjoy it! Feel free to submit your own cascades here on the blog.

Mar 11

Tips for Titles

Title time

by Pamela Love

What do these works have in common?

Black Beauty; The Princess and the Pea; Anne of Green Gables.

Answer:  Alliteration.  It’s the repetition of a beginning sound in words, and it’s a quick and easy way to make your titles memorable.  I’ve been writing children’s fiction since 1995, and I’ve sold nearly four dozen pieces with alliteration (for example, my picture books A Loon Alone and A Moose’s Morning) or some other form of word play in the title. It can be useful to think of a common saying or phrase and substitute a word for something relevant to your tale (as I did in my short stories “Where There’s a Well, There’s a Way,” and “Glide and Seek”).

One way to do this is by naming your protagonist something which will make forming an alliterative title easy.  That’s why the little boy with autism is named Simon in my short story “Simon Says,” (also a common phrase , obviously) in the anthology Family Matters: Thirteen Short Stories.

Target the audience with a sly wink in the title.

Overall, use these techniques with care when writing for adults; you will find the adjustment easy to make. You can produce a humorous or ironic effect; just consider the sexy contemporary romantic comedy Charmed and Dangerous by Lori Wilde, or Jasper Fforde’s hilarious satire First among Sequels, or Wishful Drinking, the uproariously sober memoir by Carrie Fisher. All of these titles target a more mature audience with a sly wink in the title.

And don’t forget famous alliterative titles like The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Angela’s Ashes, Love’s Labors Lost or Fahrenheit 451.

Titles in general are very important. Do what you can to make yours stand out from the others in the pile of manuscripts on the editor’s desk, and (with luck) the row of books on the library or bookstore shelf!

_______________

After working as a teacher and in marketing, Pamela Love became a children’s writer in 1995. Scholastic/Children’s Books published her easy reader Two Feet Up, Two Feet Down. Down East Books published her four picture books: A Loon Alone, Lighthouse Seeds, A Cub Explores, and A Moose’s Morning. Her stories, poems, and plays have appeared in such magazines as Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket, Pockets, and Jack and Jill, among others, and in two anthologies. She lives in Columbia, Maryland.

Mar 05

Racking up the slips

Mile after mile: Rejection slips are just indicators of miles traveled.

James Lee Burke submitted his fourth book, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, 111 times. After more than a decade of rejection, the book was published and nominated for a Pulitzer. One publisher informed aspiring author Rudyard Kipling “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” And let’s not forget “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” rejected for containing – gasp! – “unpleasant elements.”

Sometimes it seems like the writer’s main task is to withstand the slings and arrows of the wrathful editor. It can be useful to think of the rejection slip as a kind of toll payment slip. If I’m in a truck carrying 25 tons of lumber from Augusta down to Tallahassee, I’m going to collect a lot of toll slips. Should I lose heart? Far from it. Each newly acquired slip – though hardly cause for celebration – is a sign that I am on my way.True, there are no convenient road signs reassuring the writer “Publication: 60 miles.”

But bear in mind that a rejection is categorically the opinion of an individual. Like that squeamish fellow who rejected Oscar Wilde. In fact, your rejection may not be an “opinion” at all. The editor may be seeking a piece this month that is shorter than yours. Or longer. Or, if your piece is humorous, she may already have a humor piece for that month

So be proud! These dreaded banes are just indicators of miles traveled.

Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.

– Isaac Asimov

                                                                                              

Feb 15

The Groove

Sometimes the words and paragraphs just seem to fly by. Is this really when you do your best work?

I love it when I get in the groove. The words just seem to flow, I can hear the characters’ voices in my head, and my inner critic pops a Xanax. This, I say to myself, is how it is meant to be. But just how good is the stuff I’ve written in the groove?

Sometimes I’ve had great reader reactions to writing that was done as beads of blood formed on my forehead, as I second-guessed myself the whole way, wanting to delete the whole thing. I’ve also gotten negative or bemused reader responses to writing that came easy, with me riding high, loving every minute of it.

Make no mistake; the “groove state” is one of the great pleasures of an artist’s life. Psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi say this state, which they call “flow,” creates happiness and kills depression. I’m all for that, especially if it gives me the shot in the arm I need to meet my daily word production goal, or get up early the next day to make sure I get my keyboard time.

The “groove state” is one of the great pleasures of an artist’s life.

Yet one thing I’ve noticed about my “groove writing” is that I am loath to change it. Like many other writers, I instinctively feel a passage birthed in this way is anointed by the muses, smeared with that ineffable something. The truth is, I felt darn good when I wrote it, and rereading it reminds me of that, rather like seeing a picture of a loved one from that vacation a last year in Cancun. That’s why it hurts when my peer reviewers shoot me down, saying “I’m not too sure what’s happening here. There’s too much dialogue. I need to come up for air.”
Michael Crichton had this to say:

 “Inevitably, you react to your own work – you like it, you don’t like it, you think it’s interesting or boring – and it is difficult to accept that those reactions are often unreliable. I mistrust either wild enthusiasm or deep depression. I have had the greatest success with material that I was sort of neutral about.”

We must take our favorite paragraphs off their pedestal. What about you? Do you find criticism about your favorite tidbits hard to swallow? How do you get an objective take on your words?

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