Tag Archives: writing

How to Begin: Five Ways to Start your Next Story

Happy New Year!  I hope you have fired up your New Year’s Resolutions, and harnessed them to some goals (remember: the difference between a dream and a goal is a plan).  If you’re hanging out with us, I’m guessing some of your goals have to do with writing.  Since this is the first Novelocity of the New Year, I’d like to help you get started.

goethe-quote

Often times, people get hung up right at the beginning of a new piece.  We know that, if we want to lure readers in and sell the work, the opening has to be fantastic.  This is true.  But when you first put keyboard to monitor, it doesn’t have to be brilliant–it just has to get done.  So, here are five ways to get in there and get writing!

  1. The opening doesn’t have to be perfect for you to keep writing. The ending of the story will suggest what the perfect beginning is.  Don’t get hung up on crafting a hook before you reach the end.  That’s what revision is for.

 

  1. Begin the story as close as possible to the moment when all Hell breaks loose: when the character or world faces the problem that starts the plot.

 

  1. Many authors begin with a lot of back story, character or setting description, or other elements the author needs, but the reader doesn’t. When does the *plot* begin?  Trim as much as possible before that.

 

  1. Can’t find your way in? Write 5 different ways to open the story:  character, conflict, setting or world-building, a different point of view, an image that evokes the dominant emotion or theme.  Dash them off quickly, with just a couple of sentences each, then see which one gets you excited to keep going.

 

5.  Overwhelmed by a big project or a fresh start?  Try setting a timer for 15 minutes, or a word goal of 100 words.  You can write 100 words. . .try it every day, you might soon be writing a thousand!

Wishing you a creative and successful new year!

Hitting the List: Learning from the Bestsellers

What does it take to reach the best-sellers list?  Like many writers, I’ve asked this question (and been asked in turn), and heard all kinds of theories, often presented as hard facts.  The answer is (as it so often is), it depends.  So here are some approaches to the bestsellers that may be of use.

  1.  There are a number of lists, and they are compiled in different ways. The New York Times list is still the gold-standard, and is broken out by fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes available in other categories.  It is a measurement of sales at about 3000 stores, now augmented for e-books with electronic sales as well.  But Amazon has their own lists, which can be shaved down into hundreds of narrow categories, meaning lots more bestsellers.  The USA Today list includes fiction and non-fiction together.
  2. The NYT list for fiction has about 780 slots per year.  Of those, only about 100 are up for grabs–the rest are pretty much locked up by the big names, and publishers will try to avoid launching certain kinds of books into the shadow of a big author’s release month.  Trad authors generally release a book a year, and the book will come out in the same month every year (the first Tuesday of the month).  This makes your odds of hitting the NYT list about 2 in 10,000–but that’s still better than your chance of being struck by lightning!
  3. All of the best-seller lists are a measure of sales velocity:  how many books sell in a short period of time.  So many books on the list are actually being out-sold (albeit very slowly) by other titles which are bought in smaller quantity, but on a more regular basis.  As an author doing self-promotion, you want to drive the most sales during the first week the book is out in order to achieve strong sales velocity.  (this is also what encourages Amazon to promote your book more to readers because it’s a primary metric they track)
  4. For the Publishers’ Weekly list, about 8 to 14% of the slots in any given year are debut authors.  Most authors in fact don’t hit the list with their first novel, but with a later one, generally in the same series or genre. Once one of the books in a series hits the list, it often brings the other ones along for the ride.
  5. According to the Stanford Business Institute, the first time an author hits the NYT list, their sales improve by 57%.

There have been some great works that analyze what makes the list and why.  The recent book, The Bestseller Code, discusses a computer algorithm that analyzed thousands of books, some from the list and some not and came up with some very interesting results about what the bestsellers have in common, and what sets them apart from the non-bestsellers.  Hit Lit takes a more longitudinal approach, developing a list of themes and ideas that appear in the bestselling novel of each decade for about the last one hundred years.

Aiming for the list?  Good luck–and hopefully I’ll join you up there!

5 Things Writers can Learn from the Presidential Campaign

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

1. Dialog is key.  A scene is so much more engaging when two people are in it. Especially if those two people each have their own agenda, and each is trying hard to advance it.  Pay attention to body language, setting, their reactions to each other and reactions from those around them.  Also, dialog is a great way to build tension on a variety of levels.  A debate is a heck-of-a-lot more entertaining than a stump speech.

2.  Focus on your tribe.  It’s been said that all you need to be a successful author is a small, dedicated audience who want everything you write.  These are the folks who are going to share your work around, who will be eager to read the next thing, to cheer you on, even when things look rough.

3.  Nail the details.  Maybe you’re writing fantasy or science fiction or something nobody’s ever seen before.  Doesn’t matter. If you get down the details of place, time, character, they will create the image you need to build in the reader’s mind.  If you are working from any factual basis, like historical fiction or contemporary, getting the details wrong will blow the reader’s trust.  Make a few mistakes about the wrong things, and they’ll never let you forget it.

4.  Engage with your big ideas.  What is it you really want to say?  Are you saying it?  Are you working to your fullest to make the strongest work you can?

5.  Polls are important–but polls don’t know everything.  Yep, you’ve got to submit. You’ve got to get the work out there to be read, and sometimes it won’t stick.  The editor rejects it, the readers give it low reviews (or worse, no reviews), it comes out the same day as something else that distracts the world from your great work.  Take what you can from these experiences, but maintain faith that your work is worthy and that, even if you didn’t win today, if you keep working, you’ll get a chance to rise again.

Why Does It Take So Long for the Next Book???

reading-925589_1280
One thing that readers often ask is why the gap between books is so long, and I thought I’d address some of the reasons for that here…

When an author is being published by a traditional publisher (like the members of Novelocity have been), there’s an awful lot that goes into the process, every step of which slows down publication. I’ll put some of these below:

  • The publisher has to find a place in their schedule for the book. Publishers don’t want to release too many books at once, and therefore they tend to spread them out throughout the year. That schedule can be set up as far as 18 months in advance, so Book X might be ready to go on January 1, but they don’t have room to schedule it until April 17…so that’s when it comes out.
  • The publishing process has a gazillion steps (edits, copyedits, proofs), and a delay at any of those levels can cause the above schedule to become problematic. I’ve known authors whose books, due to some issue—not necessarily the author’s doing—along the line has caused their book to miss its scheduled slot…and end up being shunted back 18 months. A small delay can turn into a huge one.
  • The publisher wants to wait on results before giving the green light to a later project. (My example would be my editors waiting for Dreaming Death to actually come out before greenlighting a sequel—which they did not do after all—but that would have meant at least 18 months between the book and its sequel.)

 

Of course, there can also be slow downs on the writers’ side. For example:

  • Some writers do not write quickly, no matter how much their publishers want them to finish that next book. In fact, you will see books scheduled that are pushed back several months for this very reason. *
  • Some writers have multiple projects going on, sometimes with multiple publishers. Necessary prioritization means that they may not be working on the book -you- want them to work on.
  • Some writers will have a series dropped by a publisher. This creates a whole new set of problems, as the writer has to figure out some way to get the rest of those books out there. There are a limited number of presses who will pick up an abandoned series (this is a complex problem), or the writer can self-publish the remaining books (far more common these days).

All of those reasons will cause slow downs. In most cases, authors probably wish things would go faster. I certainly do.

However, this also causes an issue for readers who want everything now…which in turn causes its own problems for the writers.

I’ve seen a lot of people say “I’ll wait until the whole series is out and buy it then so I can read it all.”

Unfortunately, this is really deadly for writers because the publishers are looking at initial sales of books when they determine whether to buy more from that writer. If people are waiting to buy the book until the whole series is out, then the publishers see that as a lack of interest in the series…and cancel it.

The publisher can’t know that people actually do intend to buy the book one day…and even if they did, the publishers won’t take that gamble unless the writer is someone super-famous (G.R.R.M., for example.) I’ve seen a lot of writers with good reviews and decent sales get cut mid-series because….well, they’re selling, but not -enough-.

So the slow pace of the industry might be frustrating, but it’s not the author’s doing. Hang in there with us! We need readers’ support…

…and their patience!

TL:DR version
To the publisher,
readers waiting to buy until the series is complete = lack of interest in the series
________________________

*It’s very hard to know why books are pushed back, but most authors who have social media presences are usually happy to explain that. Check their blog/webpage/social media if you want to know why.

Making Alien Languages Alien

Last week I had the privilege of giving a small class as part of the GenCon Writer’s Symposium. The topic was some variation on the title above, and for about an hour’s time I went through just a few of the ways in which a writer could create the feeling of aliens through language (both the one they spoke and the way they managed to utilize ours). While these ideas are still more or less fresh in my head, I thought I’d share a portion of them with you here.

Perhaps the most useful thing to keep in mind in your quest to make your aliens sound alien, is that Language (note the capital letter) can be viewed not simply as a set of rules for communicating to one another (that’s what language without the capital letter is for) but rather as the methodology by which we organize reality and determine what is and is not important in our world. Sit with that idea for a moment, really roll it around inside your head. Because if you do, you’ll quickly discover the trick to it all. Namely:

    the key to having your aliens think and act in a truly alien fashion is to tweak their language and change how they understand reality.

I recommend you attack the problem on two fronts. Select a single difference and examine how it alters the way your aliens view the universe (relative to our own organization of it) and by extension how it influences their comprehension of our own view, and the errors in understanding that result. If you’re writing humor, alien language contains everything you need for farce. If you’re writing a more serious tale, you have the seed for interplanetary conflict and annihilation. Fun either way, right?

So, if you only need to change one or two things, where do you start? Well, I’ll give you a couple gross categories (sadly, I don’t have time or space to do more) and a few examples under each of these.

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
Let’s start here, because really, once you’ve gone meta, you never go back. Figurative language includes not simply using simile and metaphor (two types which I’m going to assume you already have a passing familiarity with) but other forms of speech including personification, allusion, and puns, to name just three. These are all so commonplace in our language that many of you may not even realize that you’re not speaking literally at all.

Personification effortlessly violates the selection restriction rules of language and so much more. Inanimate objects suddenly possess agency. Abstract concepts acquire base human attributes. But what if your aliens lack this miracle of the nonliteral speech act? Such an alien, presented with a phrase like “opportunity is knocking at your door” would be confused to find no one at the entrance to their space craft and struggle to literally parse these words (and likely go looking for this elusive knocker of doors, who is all the more wondrous if the vessel is in space!).

Likewise, allusion works for native speakers of a language because of common experience, allowing large chunks of knowledge from popular culture to be compacted down into a single word or phrase, evoking more words than a thousand pictures. Alas, none of those words are apt to be contained in the aliens’ literal grammar. While you and I might utilize an allusion like “Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra” to indicate an anticipated success at working with our newly arrived visitors from space, at best they’ll process that reference to mean here are three proper nouns that might as well be X, Y, and Z. Useless.

And don’t get me started on the confusion and error inherent in homophony, ambiguity, and other forms of wordplay that qualify as puns because of multiple interpretations of meaning. You can’t expect your visiting aliens to have mastered all these subtleties, so be wary of the chaos that follows when you unleash even a minor double entendre. The classic example of course involves a book that is less a manual for our enlightenment as a guide to culinary adventure.

FEATURES OF LANGUAGE
Another approach is to take a look at the requirements we have for a system to even qualify as a language. Decades ago, the linguist Charles Hockett put forth a list of likely requirements (mind you, this list was not met with complete agreement by other linguists, but then we can’t get everyone to agree on climate change even as the waters rise around our ankles). It’s a long list but sharing even a few will make the point that any of them can give you a truly alien language; all you have to do is posit that your aliens don’t have that particular feature in their language and don’t see the need for it in ours. Consider just three of them: prevarication, traditional transmission, and displacement.

Prevarication means lying. Languages allow us not only to communicate with one another, but to communicate untruths. A popular conceit for telepathy is that it lacks the ability to prevaricate (though I’ve never really understood why, when self-deception is such a popular thing). Several authors have had a lot of fun with aliens who lack any understanding of lying (C.J. Cherryh’s amazing Faded Sun trilogy immediately comes to mind), and having human beings lie to aliens creates everything from comic scenarios of selling them bridges to propaganda that incites wars. Too easy!

The idea of traditional transmission is just as simple. It refers to the notion that language is passed down from parent to child. That’s all well and good for humans who typically rear children one at a time and have years to teach them about nouns and verbs, but what if your aliens spawn by distributing thousands of fertilized eggs and moving on, leaving their potential young to be born and fend for themselves (and presumably acquire language). What does this do to their world view, or their appreciation of ours?

And last of the three I have time to share here, displacement, is the ability to speak of things that are not in front of you. It allows you to invoke referents that are not at hand. Displacement is what lets us get beyond the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But what if your aliens cannot? What if they require the thing in front of them (or at least a symbol standing in for it) to talk about it? How will we manage to speak to the aliens if at its most basic level, their language strikes us as one big game of ‘peekaboo’?

I could go on and on (and maybe in a future post I will) but my point here is a simple one: you don’t need to be Tolkien or Okrand and create an entire language to make your aliens sound alien. You just need to pick one aspect of language — out of the thousands that exist and which we take for granted every day — and turn it on its head or just turn it off. The results will contradict much of what you know about how language is supposed to work, and just like that the aliens will have arrived.


Lawrence M. SchoenLawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, WSFS, and Cóyotl awards, is a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

Follow him at LawrenceMSchoen.com and on Twitter at @klingonguy.

Genrenauts Kickstarter

Hello, my lovely novelociraptor readers! Mike Underwood here, coming to you on a Monday rather than my normal Thursday.

I’m posting today because I just launched a Kickstarter to complete Season One of Genrenauts, my series of adventure science fiction novellas.

Genrenauts comes out of my love for genres and storytelling – if you like Leverage, the Jasper Fforde Thursday Next series, Sliders, and/or the comic series Planetary, it might be up your alley.

Here’s some information about the Kickstarter – I hope you’ll give it a look.

Pacing the Novel, part 1: Getting up to Speed

The most important thing about your first novel is finishing it.  The only way to learn to write a book, and that *you* are capable of writing a book, is to actually do the job, from beginning through the middle, to the end.  Short story writing can teach you all kinds of useful skills for crafting the elements of fiction:  character, plot, setting, theme. However, novels have their own special set of considerations.

A book that really takes off!

A book that really takes off!

One of the keys to a great novel is pace.  In a short story, pace is often less critical because the focus of the work is clear and direct.  The story pursues a single goal, and does so whole-heartedly, without digressions, diversions or dithering.  In a novel, you have much more latitude for these things.  Especially with a first novel (and even more so with a book of speculative fiction), there is a tendency to be drawn toward two poles:  exploring everything possible about the world, the characters, the situation,  OR making the plot snap along like the proverbial roller-coaster.

This is the first of a series of articles about how to manage the pace of your novel so that it moves at an appropriate speed for your readership and your material.

Wait a minute–an “appropriate speed”?  Isn’t pace all about speed?  Not necessarily.  Pace is about revealing your plot and characters in the most engaging way for your readers. Sometimes, that will mean moving quickly–bounding from one plot turn to the next to keep them on the edge of their seats.  But sometimes it will also mean drawing them so tightly into a moment of character revelation that they are on the verge of tears, fully experiencing a single instant in the fictional realm.

I describe these two poles as movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader), and intensity (the impact of that plot on the reader).  A book which is entirely focused on movement may be described as fast-paced, but is likely to leave the reader unmoved–yes, lots of things happened, but the reader didn’t get involved in the characters and their problems enough to care.  A book which is entirely focused on intensity may devolve into chapters of navel-gazing and inner monologue, but leave the reader with the sense that nothing is happening and that they are wasting their time.

The balance between movement and intensity is partially determined by the genre in which you write.  Thrillers are known for their fast movement.  Romances and literary fiction often lean toward greater intensity–how the character feels or reacts to what happens is as important (or more so) than the actual events.  This is why the art of pacing is individual to each book.  Even within these genres, individual authors or plots may emphasize a different ratio.  The key for your work is to be able to consider how your book will benefit from careful pace-management.

Over the next segments of this series, I will turn first to general principles of creating movement, then of intensity, then two lists of ways to boost either one to craft the best book you can.  Next up:  the basic building blocks of pace!

A Good Book, Ruined: Reading Like a Writer

I have a couple of writer-friends who cannot critique a manuscript to save their lives, nor can they analyze what they are responding to in a work they admire.  Why?  Because they have not yet learned how to read like a writer.  Instead, they tend to plunge right in and get involved in the story, no matter what (even if the prose is uneven and the work doesn’t hang together).  They often describe this experience as being like watching the movie unfold inside their minds.

In order to hone the craft of writing, it’s important to learn to stop enjoying books. Or perhaps I should say, when to stop merely enjoying the reading experience, and start understanding it, and analyzing why you respond to a work the way that you do.  This will help you improve your own work, deliver better critiques for your writing buddies, and appreciate how the authors you admire craft their prose to best effect.

So, how do you ruin your reading experience?  Don’t worry, I’m here to help.  And I find, ultimately, that reading like a writer provides a different, but no less enjoyable experience.  The goal is to bifurcate your reading brain, so that, as you react to the work, you are also aware of the reasons for that reaction–in essence, you are observing yourself reading.  The approach is similar to techniques used in counseling or meditation, when you make note of your behaviors and responses, so that you can modify them later as needed.

A work of fiction exists on several levels: the one we tend to focus on is the macro level (the story, the characters, the plot overall), but the micro level is where the action really happens (the words, sentences, paragraphs and structures that create the on-going movie of the prose).

In order to understand the macro level of a work, one thing that helps me to break the movie is listening to the audio book, especially while I am engaged in some other activity–driving, house-painting, or what-have-you.  The physical activity means you can’t fully invest in the “reading”, and the fact that you are listening tends to blur the focus on individual scenes or moments, and instead give an overview of the work, the rhythm of scenes and sequels, the structure of the plot.

But when you want to understand what’s really going on, you’ll need to dig deeper–and this is what will also make you a great critique partner.  Reader reaction, especially to character, is often based on small word choices that build into the complete image.  If the wrong word or phrasing choices are made, the impression the reader receives could be completely different from what the author intended.  Placing two ideas close to each other in the text leads the reader to link them, regardless of what the author had in mind.  As the reader in this scenario, you need to be able to articulate what you are responding to in the text, as the writer, you need to act as a sleuth and discover the small details that are triggering your reader’s response.

Sometimes, it can come down to a single word.  The word “sneer” for instance is overwhelmingly negative.  If you intend for a character to be sympathetic, use of that single word could undercut the entire effect.

To hone this kind of close reading, I recommend re-typing passages from published works.  Sit with the book open in front of you, and simply type out what you see.  If you are simply reading the words, you may not pay attention to the sentence structure, word order, or accumulation of detail that creates scene and character.  Typing the words forces you to slow down–to freeze-frame the movie–and look at each comma, each word choice, and think about how they work together.  This can be a great way to learn from the authors you wish you could be.  The idea isn’t to copy them into your own prose, the idea is to understand how they do what they do, and think about how you can better use your own small choices as a result.  Learn from the masters–and also from the not-so-masterful.  If a book isn’t working for you, analyzing *why* it doesn’t work can be just as important.  While re-typing passages, I have found which authors are master of metaphor, and which are making lazy verb choices.

When you return to your own manuscript (or to your friend’s), apply the same kind of macro and micro analysis.  What is the overall effect of the prose?  What small choices add up to create that effect?

Thanks, E. C., for ruining reading for me. . .well, as I said, I find this kind of reading to have its own joys, including the thrill of discovery when you can see the mechanics of the magic–you can be inside the secrets of prose.  And if I do find myself sinking through the words, into the movie, then I know I have found a true master.  What techniques do you use to separate writer’s mind and reader’s?

In the meantime, you’re welcome.

6 Ways to Stay Motivated to Write

Whew–that was a great NANOWRIMO, wasn’t it?  And now you’re all done writing for a while–time to relax and get caught up on Game of Thrones. . .well, not if you plan to make writing more than a once-a-year binge.  As with diet and exercise, and pretty much all things you want to stick with and get better at, regular practice with writing will make you a better writer. It will give you more material to offer to a wider variety of readers (whether through traditional publishing, indie publishing, or your personal site).  I’ve found that, the more I stay in the zone, the more I want to be there, and the faster I can get back when I have to leave to say. . . go to the day job, feed the pets, or make another PB&J for my next session.

  1.  The easiest thing to do is to maintain a habit. If you’ve been doing NANO, even if you didn’t complete the full 50K, you have established a habit of writing on a regular basis.  Keep doing it!!
  2.  Pick a chunk of time that works for you.  If you’re not already in the habit, find a space to make it easy.  perhaps this is first thing in the morning, when you are fresh.  Get up early and give yourself that half hour to write.  Commit to it!
  3.  Or. . .pick a word count you know you can meet.  250 words a day. That’s only a page–you can do that, easy!  And if you do it every day, you’ll have a book by the end of the year.  But some days, you’ll write more.  Don’t let yourself slack off.
  4.   Find a partner and agree to keep each other focused. Report in on a regular basis via whatever means works best for you. Also check out the #1K1H challenges on Twitter, where writers around the world look for some online buddies to write a thousand words in an hour.  #1K1H at the top of the hour–go!
  5.  Focus on the fun parts.  Sometimes you get to a part of the book that frustrates or disappoints you. Instead of letting that be an excuse to go play video games, think about the next part that will excite you.  Let that cool scene or thrilling twist be the carrot you’re working toward as you write through the tough sections.
  6.  Stuff happens.  You get sick, you lose power, you miss a few days of writing for one reason or another.  Don’t let a day or two, or even a week or a month signal the end of your commitment.  Even if you feel bad about the time you were *not* writing, the only way to get back to it is to sit down with the empty page.  Avoidance doesn’t make it any better.  Take a deep breath and get moving.  Half an hour.  250 words.  You can do this. You know you want to.

5 Mistakes New Writers Don’t Know They’re Making

Hey–it’s NANOWRIMO!  For those of you taking part in the annual National Novel Writers’ Month, you should already be at least 1667 words into your new project. And you probably shouldn’t be browsing the blogs.  But if, like me, you are close to your word goal for the day, and you’re kind of hung up on how to write the next scene, then feel free to browse away.  Otherwise–get back to work.

b534n

I read a lot of manuscripts by new authors, either because they seek me out for blurbs, agent advice, or marketing ideas, or through events like the WorldCon Writers’ Workshop.  I see the same kinds of mistakes over and over, so I’d like to give you a run-down on five of them.

  1.  They don’t know where to begin.  This usually means they start weeks, months, even years before anything actually happens in the story.  Begin as close as possible to the moment when all hell breaks loose.  That’s when it gets exciting–when the character is about to encounter the conflict.

2.  They include too much back-story up front.  This can be a subset of mistake #1, by starting in the pre-history of the story, but often it manifests as the author trying to squeeze all kinds of character commentary or inner monologue in the first few pages.  Let the reader get to know the characters first by seeing them in action, then when they want to know more, give it to them.

3.  They write in summary rather than in scenes.  Scenes include action taking place surrounded by details that bring the reader into a particular moment in space and time.  All five senses, forward momentum, dialog and revelation.  Let the reader be a witness to the scene, not merely an accessory after the fact.

4.  They write scenes that don’t add to the work.  These scenes are often transitional:  scenes where someone has to go somewhere, or wait for something, or listen to a version of something that already happened.  This is what summary is for–when we need to know something happened, but we don’t need any details or investment in the process.  Unless something happens on that long ride through the forest, you can just say, “Four days later, they arrived at the castle.”

5.  They lose track of characters in dialog.  The dialog consists entirely of the quotations, without any sense of characters being present in a place.  Instead, use your dialog tags judiciously to show how characters react to what’s being said, and reveal themselves through small actions, expressions, and interactions with the scene around them.

Hope this helps as you dive into or revise your project–happy writing!