writing tips

“Keep the mundane world out”

As I sit down to write today I am thinking of a passage from Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing (probably because I totally wasted an evening I had blocked out for writing the other day and am feeling guilty about it):

If possible there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write. I work to loud music — hard rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica have always been particular favorites — but for me the music is just another way of shutting the door. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out. When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do.When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

I’m at the point in my writing career where I don’t need to isolate myself completely to be productive. I do, however, need to create the same “bubble” around myself that King describes in his book. Just something I think is worth thinking about.

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How a literary agent can improve your writing

I don’t really believe in the traditional publication model anymore. That is to say, the model where the writer writes, then queries an agent, who (ideally) agrees to rep the author and actually submit to publishers. I believe this process is interminably tedious, and that it gives authors the short end of the stick both creatively and financially.

That is not to imply that all literary agents are talent-less, bloodsucking hacks. There are agents out there who are up there with the best of editors in terms of their ability to whip a sagging manuscript into fighting shape. When I think of these kinds of agents, I think of Janet Reid. Her blog, Query Shark, is one of my absolute favorite writing resources (and that’s from someone who’s not even interested in querying agents).

Reid’s specialty is the annotated critique of query letters. Here is an example, from Query #254 (Reid’s comments in italics):

“Wealthy French attorney André Gensonné, specializing in art crime, discovers a painting of a woman who resembles the vulnerable girl he met in the United States two decades ago, just after his 18-year old brother drowned. (36 words) His failure to save his twin defines his virtuous existence; he strives to fulfill the role of two sons for his family and their four-generation law firm.

36 words is too many. Too many words is made worse when they form a boring sentence. Why do we care about any of this? And oh my Godiva… virtuous existence? I’d probably stop reading right here. Why do I want to read about anyone who could possibly be described as having a virtuous existence? Virtue is boring. TRYING to be virtuous when beset by evil temptresses… now THAT is interesting.

Truthfully though you’ve made a classic query error here: you’re focused on setup and backstory rather than where the story gets interesting. You’ve compounded the problem with Andre Gensonne sounding tres ennuyeux.

The painting entitled Miriam disappears from the Musée de l’Erotisme propelling André to search for it and the woman named Anne, who has lingered in his psyche. Miriam has a notable history; the painting disguises an Impressionist work by Elisée Maclet. The two men responsible for the camouflage, Maximillian and Bertrand, skirmish over custody, value and ownership. But their primary objective is to fence the Maclet without getting caught.

Who is Anne? And why is she stalking his psyche?

At this point we’ve got way too many characters in play: The boring Andre, his dead brother, their entire family firm, Miriam, Anne, Elisee, Maximilian and Bertrand. This is the von Trapp family without the soundtrack or a scorecard.”

This isn’t just a query lesson. It’s a free writing lesson, and it’s valuable whether you plan on querying agents or not. Check it out sometime. You just might learn something. I know I have.

How to get indie books reviewed

booksSo your masterpiece is finally for sale on Amazon or Smashwords. Congratulations! Now the real work begins. You need to start spreading the word about your novel/short story, and one of the best ways to do that is through reviews. Unfortunately this process can be downright torturous — particularly if you’re learning as you go. If you are an indie writer looking for help landing your first reviews, here is my tried-and-true strategy in five simple steps:

1. Write a great book. Easier said than done, of course. Reader tastes will vary, but no matter what you write you absolutely must put out a high-quality product. That means professional looking cover art, formatting and copy editing. Going the indie route is no excuse for shoddy presentation.

2. Research the best markets for your work. Depending on what you’ve written and how big a following you have, sites billing themselves as general book review sites may or may not be the best fit. My short, “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell!“, is a pulp sci-fi story. It appeals to a niche audience. Due to both length and subject matter, I’ve avoided more “mainstream” reviewers in favor of sites like The Extremis Review and The Cult Den. These reviewers and I share the same target audience. You will need to find venues that fit with what you’ve written. Otherwise you’ll end up spinning your wheels.

3. Keep your review request short and sweet. Business writing should be brief and to the point. Here is a sample review request:

Dear Reviewer,

I am writing to ask if you would be interested in reviewing my sci-fi short, “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell!” (http://www.amazon.com/Vampire-Brides-Planet-Malcolm-Chandler-ebook/dp/B00ITC89XG), on your site.

I can provide a free review copy in .pdf, MOBI or EPUB format.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Malcolm Chandler

Don’t get complicated. If you’ve put out a professional product with an eye-catching cover and a compelling blurb, your work will speak for itself. Don’t be afraid to let your buy link do the talking. The longer your review request, the weaker its impact (and the more likely it will end up in someone’s junk folder).

4. Be patient. Reviews don’t get posted overnight. Reviewers are busy people. Many of them are juggling several projects of their own. My rule of thumb is to allow 4-8 weeks before sending a brief, polite follow-up.

5. Be professional. Under no circumstances should you take any part of this process personally. Some reviewers will ignore you, some will decline politely and others will be considerably more blunt. Don’t get snippy in reply, and definitely don’t get into any kind of blog/Facebook/Twitter war. Like it or not you are a business person. Your actions will reflect on your business. The best thing to do when faced with negativity is ignore it.

Hopefully you find these tips helpful. Please share any questions, advice or success stories.

A fresh “perspective” for my writing

I am trying a new strategy with my latest fiction project. I am writing the whole thing in first person in the first draft. Then I’ll go back and change the POV as needed (I think the final product will work better in third person).

Why bother with all that trouble? Writing in first person POV has some major advantages:

  • It helps me “get into” characters’ heads
  • It makes it easier for me to write sensory detail
  • For whatever reason I feel like I write with a stronger voice in first person (in college a theater major asked me to write her a monologue for an audition so there might really be something to this one)

Generally speaking, I find the most difficult thing about any new writing project to be finding a way “in.” Adopting a first person POV in the early stages should make that easier.

Sometimes mom really does know best

A lot of people will tell you not to listen to your friends and family when it comes to editing your fiction. The concern is that they don’t offer critical enough feedback.

There is a great episode of that show Shark Tank where a woman is pitching for capital for a product that is basically a clip-on strip of plastic that will hold post-it notes to a laptop. I think she plans on selling it for $10 a pop. All the investors think it’s a terrible idea. One of them says something along the lines of: “it’s really unfortunate no one in this woman’s family had the courage to stand up and tell her this product is total shit.” (You can watch the full clip here)

Fortunately my mother was blessed with great editorial instincts.

She’s not a writer, but she is a prolific reader. As such, she’s got a finely-honed gut instinct when it comes to what works and what doesn’t work in fiction. If she says it doesn’t work, she’s generally right about it. And what’s more she’s very honest with her opinions. As far as I’m concerned these are far more important qualities for a beta reader than writing experience.

It’s supremely important to have non-writers read your work. After all, most of the people who read your work are not going to be writers. If it doesn’t work for them it won’t work with any audience. Period. Even if you can somehow rationalize your manuscript’s shortcomings to your writing group. Let’s face it, most people in your writing group are probably hacks to begin with.

Whether it’s my mom or someone else,  you need a beta reader (or beta readers) willing to give you the straight dope on your writing.  The less these people have to do with writing themselves, either as professionals or hobbyists, the better.

The last thing you want is to end up as the post-it lady.

Is there such thing as too much revision?

Beginning writers beware: few pitfalls are more dangerous than the “never-ending cycle of revision.” A.k.a “when is my draft actually a draft?” It’s all too tempting to proofread and tweak, never quite getting to that point where you actually show someone what you’ve produced.

For me there is rarely a clear break between drafts. That is to say, I can’t go back and produce a Draft v1.0, Draft v2.0, etc. I don’t outline (a nasty habit I broke myself of years ago). Instead I go with my gut. When it feels like I’m making transformative changes it’s time to go back to the beginning and look at the manuscript from a fresh point of view.

I know I’m ready for beta readers when the plot is complete and momentum has ground to a halt. That means for the moment I can’t find anything substantive left to tweak. Then it’s time to get some distance and a second opinion.

I’m getting to that point with my latest work, “The Bazaar.” I am looking forward to sharing it with you.

In the meantime, I’d be curious to know how any of you interrupt the (potentially) endless cycle of revision.

The cardinal sin of overwriting

I hate overwriting. Where writing and plotting are concerned it is a cardinal sin.

The dictionary definition of overwriting is as follows:

Transitive Verb

“to write too much or in an overly elaborate style.”

Overwriting manifests itself when a writer takes a simple thing and makes it massively complicated for no goddamn reason other than to stroke her own ego. Creative people fall into this trap because we’re tremendously insecure and desperately want others to perceive us as clever. But the truth is when we overwrite we don’t come off as clever. All we do is strain our audiences’ willingness to suspend disbelief – frequently to the breaking point.

Take, for example, The Awakening. In it a skeptical young woman investigates reports of a haunting at a creepy boarding school.

Initially this struck me as a fine film. Damn creepy, too (what with a faceless child ghost and all). But in the third act it runs right off the rails, crashing and burning and scattering body parts all over the place. The reason is a plot twist.

Apparently the protagonist grew up in the house that was later turned into the boarding school. She has traumatic childhood grief related to the place. In fact, she witnessed a double murder there and the faceless ghost is actually her dead brother, who it turns out wanted some company (!)

See what I mean? You get to the third act and WHA-BAM!, the twist hits you like a kabob-smack to the face. All the tension that’s built throughout the film evaporates. Suddenly the script dumps a bunch of backstory on you to make sense of it all, and the last thing you’re thinking about is the faceless ghost.

What, pray tell, is so wrong with a skeptic going to investigate a haunted house because it’s fucking haunted? Why does every goddamn detail need to be interconnected? Why can’t we just flash back to a scene of the murder because the ghost voodoos our protag with some spiritual Jedi mind shit, like Mola Ram does to Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom?

Mola Ram

Mola Ram doing some crazy shit.

I don’t need a convoluted reason for a character to have strange visions in a haunted house. People see weird shit in haunted houses because they’re fucking haunted.

That’s all the explanation you need. It’s an intuitive leap the audience is more than capable of making it on its own.