Tag Archives: #amwriting

The Pitch #amwriting

On Monday we talked about the synopsis, which you would send to lure a prospective agent. Today we’re talking about the pitch and how it differs from a synopsis.

The front cover of your book is important, but great covers alone don’t sell books. The back of a paper book is critical because it contains the all-important pitch—also known as a blurb.

For an eBook, the pitch is on the seller’s product page. Either way, the shopper will read your pitch and decide if they want to know more. If they open the book or use the “look inside” option, you have a good chance of selling that book.

But how do we write a pitch?

First, you want to identify the key elements of your book (or series of books).

Consider a fantasy that features themes of friendship, family, romantic love, honor, and duty. In this story, the obvious theme might be the successful resolution of a quest. Identifying the core plot device around which your story revolves is important.

  1. Who or what is your book about?

You can emphasize either the idea of the book or the main character. Once you choose what you want to sell, main character or idea, stick to that. If you choose the character, use only the main character in your description, and forget the others, because it is that character’s story that you are trying to sell.

  1. Keep it short. It’s easy to be long-winded about our work but not here. You only have about 60 seconds to sell that book.

Since length is bad in a pitch, we must learn to write concisely. I learned to write drabbles—100 word flash fictions. I wrote one every day for nearly a year. I did this because you really have to choose your words wisely if you want to tell your story in such a short space.

Besides helping me learn how to write concisely, writing drabbles was a great way to build a backlog of ideas that became short stories later.

  1. Use power words. Don’t use “telling” words—make every word in that pitch count.
  2. Be visual. Use words that create a visual image in your reader’s mind.

Give us just enough intriguing insight into the main character and the story to make us want to know more about them. Make us curious.

Consider the 69-word pitch for Wool,’ by Hugh Howey. Howey was an indie when he published Wool in 2012.

This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

Howey opted for powerful and visual right out of the gate: clawing for survival. He packed his blurb with persuasive, graphic words that spark curiosity and make you feel that you are holding a powerful story in your hand (or your eReader). He chose not to go with a tagline, but the final sentence is so powerful, it doesn’t need one.

Next, let’s look at the pitch for Roadmarks,’ a classic sci-fi fantasy written by the late Roger Zelazny. It was published in 1979 by Del Rey Science Fiction, so the publisher wrote the blurb. I was in the grocery store when I first saw this book, and the cover art caught my eye. I picked the book up and turned it over to read the pitch.

The pitch made me curious and was what sold me the novel:

The Last Exit to Babylon

“The Road runs from the unimaginable past to the far future, and those who travel it have access to the turnoffs leading to all times and places—even to the alternate time-streams of histories that never happened. Why the Dragons of Bel’kwinith  made the Road—or who they are—no one knows. But the Road has always been there and for those who know how to find it, it always will be!”

Zelazny’s publisher, Del Rey, opted for a mysterious pitch, but they also used powerful words in the first sentence:  “The road runs,” “unimaginable,”— words that pique curiosity. They began the pitch with a great tag line. When I bought that book, I ignored the glowing reviews the publisher plastered beneath the pitch because I don’t care what reviewers think–I make up my own mind.

A word of caution: Indies should never put glowing reviews on their covers unless they are reviews by big-name reviewers or authors.

Del Rey got away with it because the book had been a bestseller in hard cover for a year before the paperback came out, and Zelazny was brilliant and sold books as fast as they could print them.

We don’t put a synopsis on the back of the book. A synopsis is a bald recounting of the novel’s bare bones—why should the reader buy it if they already know the story?

What sort of pitches lure you into buying a book? We write what we want to read, so chances are, you are writing a book along those lines. Go back and read those blurbs and start creating your pitch.

Pitches give away no secrets but hint at the mysteries within. For this reason, you want to ask your friends and your writing group to look at your blurb. If they tell you it’s too long-winded and doesn’t sell the book well, don’t be angry. Be glad they were honest.

Rewrite it, pare it down again, and rewrite it until your pitch is a concise enticement that sells the mystery of what lies within your book. Make the prospective reader open the book or click on the look inside option to see more.

Once they have sampled what’s inside the book, you are halfway there. At that point, your writing and your voice is what will clinch the sale.

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Honesty in Writing #amwriting

As writers, we are entertainers. We write books for people who want a diversion from the daily grind. No matter what the subject or genre is, we write escapes, windows into other lives, other places, other realities. When we offer the book to the public, we hope the reader will stay with us to the end, hope they find the same life in the narrative that we thought we were imparting when we wrote it.

This can only happen if we are honest. When I first started out, I wrote poetry, lyrics for a heavy metal band. I was young, sincere, and convinced I had to impart a message with every word. I didn’t know until twenty years later when I came across my old notebook—my poems weren’t honest. I wasn’t honest with myself, and when I looked back at my work, I could see the falseness clearly. My words were contrived, formed too artfully. They shouted, “Look at me! I’m young and full of angst, but I’m talented and artsy!”

When I began writing stories for my children, I still wrote crap, but it was honest crap. I no longer had anyone to impress—children are never impressed by parents who write. They are also quite honest about where a story fails to impress them, and why. I began to write fairy tales that were honest, but not written by an educated author.

With that as my training ground, learning how to make my writing enjoyable became a goal. It was there that I discovered that, besides writing honestly, an author needs to be consistent with punctuation. I had no idea I was uneducated—after all, I had done well in school.  Even so, I had to re-learn the fundamentals of American English grammar because my first real editor pointed out that I hadn’t retained much of what I was taught in elementary school.

As Ursula K. LeGuin said in her wonderful book, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.”

My rule is to embrace what I fear, so I embraced grammar. I’m not perfect, but I make an effort.

I have always been a reader, enjoying books in every genre and style.  While the books I love are scattered all across the spectrum, they have one thing in common—they are all written by authors with an understanding of the basic rules of punctuation. Sure, they break other rules of grammar with style and abandon, but they do pay attention to punctuation.

This is because punctuation is the traffic signal telling the reader to go, slow, pause, yield, go again, or stop. Punctuation at most of the right places allows the reader to forget they are reading and encourages them to suspend their disbelief.

Writers begin as readers. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King gives us permission to read for six hours a day, should we so desire. Reading is how we come to understand writing and the art of story. (He also admonishes us to learn the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.)

In my quest to understand the art of story I have come across some pretty awful books. I don’t consider “hard to read because it is written in an old-fashioned style” awful. However, I do consider “hard to read because the author wasted my time” awful.

Contrived prose is not poetic. Hokey and forced situations are not exciting. Perfectly beautiful people bore me. Long passages about clothing and furnishings bore me.

Write me an honest story about “real” people with real problems, one that comes from your deepest soul. Set it in outer space, or the Amazon Jungle—I don’t care. I read all genres and all settings. I will forgive imperfect grammar and punctuation for a great story that rings of truth and touches my heart.

Let me sink into your story. Let me forget the world—let me become so into the book I forget to cook dinner.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote: Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, ©1999 Ursula K. LeGuin, First Mariner Books Edition 2015, page 11.

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Naming Characters #amwriting

I have mentioned (several times) one of my mistakes in naming characters. In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name. My mind was in a rut when I thought that one up because I named her Marta.

You can see why this is bad—the two names are nearly identical.

To really confuse things, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a major storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

In my family, “Robert” is a name with a great deal of repetition. My father was named Robert, my two brothers are both named Robert (with different middle names), and my mother’s younger brother is named Robert. My younger brother’s son is named Robert, as is his son. We have a Bob, a Little Bob, a Rob, a Bobby, a Robby, and a Quatro.

I took this absurdity to an extreme in Billy Ninefingers. In Waldeyn, every third boy is named William, which is why Billy MacNess embraces the name his mercenaries give him after the injury. In that novel, “Williams” generally go by their last names.

Other than Billy Ninefingers where it was intentional and integral to the story, my personal rule is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.

But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but should also use common sense.

A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store? Is it someone the reader should remember? Even if this character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.

Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest or show us something about the protagonist. Their comments could offer us a clue into the protagonist’s personality or past. Other random people are in the scene purely for the ambiance, part of the world-building. A woman smoking in an alley outside the back door to an office needs no name, but she serves as a visible clue about the world the main character is walking in.

Even if they do speak a few lines, if they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The desire to make every character a memorable person must be ignored. When we begin revising second draft of our manuscript, we must find and resolve the distractions we inadvertently introduced in our first draft.

My current work in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my two protagonists and their sidekicks. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in that scene for only one purpose. They are to be overheard and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my main characters are named in the full transcript of this scene.

Finding that we have too many named characters is an easy one to fix, once we decide how important that character is to the story. If they don’t appear again, the reader will move on and forget about them. The information they imparted will remain.

I have found that a great use for my extra walk-on characters is the short story. The world is already built, and they have a story, albeit a short one. Use them to your advantage.

I now keep in mind simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation when I name my characters. How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling, so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. You may not think this is important, but it is.

My advice is to keep it simple. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names. Be vigilant when choosing names—don’t give two characters names that are nearly identical.

Do make your spellings of names and places easily pronounceable. You may decide to have your book made into an audio book, and the process will go more smoothly if you’ve considered this in advance. I only have one book that is an Audio book and the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply.


Credits and Attributions:

Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.

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The Proofreader #amwriting

I see the process of getting a manuscript ready for publication as a four-part process.

  1. Writing the first draft.
  2. Beta Reading and revising the manuscript to your satisfaction.
  3. Sending it to the editor and making suggested revisions.
  4. Having the edited manuscript proofread.

Proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made. Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there will be places where the reader’s eye will stop.

It is best if this task is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things hiding in your otherwise-perfect manuscript will stand out.

Some things your proofreader must understand:

  • The proofreader should not try to hijack the process and derail an author’s launch date by nitpicking his/her genrestyle, and phrasing.
  • The proofreader must understand that the author has been through the process with a professional line editor. At this point, they are satisfied that the story arc is what they envisioned, and the characters are believable with unique personalities. The author worked with an editor to ensure the overall tone, voice, and mood of the piece is what the author envisioned.

You will note that I have used the word envisioned twice in the above list. If a proofreader can’t restrain their unasked-for editorial comments, you should find a different reader.

The edited manuscript is the author’s creation, a product of his/her vision, and by the time we arrive at the proofing stage, it is intentional in the form it is in.

This is why a professional proofreader is a good investment. The proofreader must realize that the author and his/her editor have considered the age level of the intended audience. A proofreader does not go through a manuscript with a red pen and mark it up with editorial comments. They do not critique the author’s voice or content because that is not their job.

A proofreader does highlight places where typos and other proofing errors exist and ruin the narrative.

A proofreader understands that every typo and error is different. These little landmines are insidious and may not leap out at first glance, which is why they aren’t always caught during the editorial process. Any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur during the process of making even minor revisions.

In case you didn’t see it when I mentioned it above, I will say it again: proofreading is not editingEditing is a process that I have discussed at length elsewhere.

At the outset, the proofreader must understand that no matter how tempting it may be, they have not been invited to edit the manuscript for content. If they cannot refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content, find another proofreader.

The proofreader should look for misspelled words, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). Spell-checker may or may not catch these words, so a human eye is critical for this.

  • Wrong:  Cissy wint out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Right:  Cissy went out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Wrong: There dog escaped, and he had to chase it
  • Right: Their dog escaped, and he had to chase it.

The proofreader must also look for repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are the kind of error frequently introduced into a manuscript when a tired author is making revisions. When we are pushing ourselves, even the most meticulous of authors unknowingly introduce errors when cutting and moving entire sections, rearranging portions of the narrative for a more logical flow.

You must rememberthe editor won’t see any errors you introduce when you implement their editorial suggestions. Once an editor has made their recommendations and returned your manuscript to you, they are done and won’t see the book again until it is published. You will have to make those revisions, and that is where many typos and errors occur.

Cut and paste errors are insidious and difficult to spot, and spell-checker won’t always find them. But a proofreader will notice them because the prose will contain unusually garbled sentences, and sometimes, two periods (full stops) at the end of a sentence.

  • Wrong: It is is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
  • Wrong: Itis accepted practice to thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot thoughts..
  • Right: It is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.

Dialogue that is missing quotes can be a problem for many authors. When they are in a hurry, they sometimes don’t hit the quote key at the end of a sentence. Also, for US authors, they must be closed (double) quotes rather than single quotes.

  • Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area,’ said Officer Shultz. “What do you know about the dead man?
  • Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area,” said Officer Shultz. “What do you know about the dead man?”

Numbers that are digits are acceptable to use when writing notes and emails. They can also be used if you are writing a blogpost, but ask any bookkeeper – digits are as easy to accidentally mess up as words.

  • Wrong: There will be 3000 guests at the reception.
  • Wrong: There will be 003 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be 300 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be three hundred guests at the reception. (In literature, we write it out.)

Dropped and missing words will make the prose seem garbled and hard to follow.

  • Wrong: Officer Shultz sat at my table, me gently.
  • Right: Officer Shultz sat at my table, grilling me gently.

Something you must be aware of if you have paid for someone to proofread for you—each time you tweak the phrasing or create a new passage in your edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error. Never make revisions when you are tired or not fully on your toes.

If you are happy with the way your manuscript was edited, I suggest you do not ask a different editor to proofread your manuscript, as they may be unable to resist suggesting larger changes. Each editor sees things differently and editing is their nature and their job.

The problem is that this can go on forever, and you run the risk of ironing the life out of your manuscript and losing the feeling of spontaneity, making it feel contrived. You also risk publishing a manuscript that looks unedited because of the flaws that were introduced in the proofing process.

Before you publish your book, do yourself a favor and have it proofread by an intelligent reader. Find someone who understands what you are asking them to do and who is willing to do only that. If you are a member of a writing group, you have a good resource of readers there.

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What we can learn from midlist books #amwriting

As part of my ongoing quest to improve my writing skills, I have been reading a series of novels written by a midlist author (whom I am not going to name), trying to decipher what it that I like about her work and what I don’t like.

Midlist is a term used by the traditional publishing industry referring to books that aren’t bestsellers, but which sell enough to justify their publication. If these authors can build a consistent sales record, the big publishers will probably want future books from that author.

Most books published today are midlist titles. Bestsellers earn the largest portion of overall royalties, but midlist novels are steady earners over a long period, and many of these authors have devoted fans.

So, I have been binge-reading this series of mystery novels, trying to decide why she sells enough to keep her publisher buying her books, and in the process,  I have figured out why she’s not a bestseller. I have come up with a list of strengths and shortcomings, things I can look for in my own work.

The positives:

  • Her plots tend to be intriguing. She is creative with her murders and doesn’t rely on cliché situations.
  • She knows how to sink a hook. The details of how and why each of the murders are discovered is interesting, and at the beginning, logical, so you keep reading.
  • She has good skills in world building. The ethnicity of the immigrant Armenian neighborhood feels solid, as if you know it well.
  • The main characters reveal themselves slowly. They have an air of mystery around them. You never feel like you know all there is to know about them.

The negatives:

  • Her books tend to follow a formula that is recognizably hers, which is why she can put out four novels a year. In that regard, they are like romance novels. Once you’ve read the first three in the series, you know the basic story line.
  • They’re not memorable in any way. The one thing that keeps you reading is curiosity to discover who out of the many possibilities actually did it.
  • Toward the middle and the second half, the story arc becomes jerky, at times almost flatlining. The eye wants to skip pages.
  • Then suddenly, it’s so chaotic it’s impossible to follow what just happened, and no matter how many times you go back and re-read it, you can’t understand what is going on.
  • References to habits, such as obsessive chain smoking, start out doing the intended job, conveying a personality. But these references soon become repetitive, over-used, inadvertent crutches.
  • Her political and technological references place these books firmly in a certain period – a double-edged sword. The political references are the biggest Achilles heel. She began writing the series in in the early nineties. Publishing schedules being as slow as they are, these references immediately made the books feel slightly out of date, rather than set in an era.
  • By book three, the Main Character hasn’t grown or evolved. They’re still locked firmly in their own time-warp.
  • Her publisher misses a lot of proofing errors. This is every indie’s nightmare, so it’s annoying to find so many flaws in a book by a reputable publisher.

In retrospect, I like this author’s work, but certain of her writing habits annoy me as a reader. So, why have I subjected myself to reading so many of her books if I’m so ambivalent about them?

Education.

We all know what we love when we see it. But unless we out-and-out hate something, being able to identify what we don’t love is sometimes difficult.

And this concept is especially true about our own work. Those of us whose vocation is writing fiction must work to ensure our voice and writing style is current and fresh. It is a quest that can take a lifetime and involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Books on craft are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. This is why I study how books in all genres, both good and bad, are constructed.

When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study them. What did you love? What did they do right and how can you incorporate those techniques into your work?

When you don’t like a novel, ask yourself why it failed to move you. What did the author do wrong and how could you write it better?

Read widely, dissect what you read, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.

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Update and Resolutions for 2019 #amwriting

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the year of 2018 is enjoying its last hurrah. People are getting ready for parties and counting both their successes and failures. It has been an eventful year for both my family and my writing life, so I am looking forward to what 2019 will bring.

My quest to complete the three-book literary fantasy series, Billy’s Revenge, will finally come to an end. Julian Lackland is on the home stretch and will go to the editor on February 1st. Depending on how quickly that goes, he will be published in June. Julian began life as my first NaNoWriMo Novel in 2010 and was picked up by a small press. Unfortunately, that didn’t go well.

It has taken me eight years to undo the damage they did and get this manuscript into proper shape. Julian Lackland is why I have been on this quest to educate myself about the craft of writing. I wanted to give Julian the kind of book he deserves, and judging by my beta readers’ comments, the effort has been worth it.

I am also closing in on finishing the first draft of a new duology set in Neveyah, the Tower of Bones world. One of the things I learned when I was trying to finish Valley of Sorrows, is that readers who begin a series want the next book in a timely fashion. They might wait a year, but after that, they will forget about it. It takes me four years to get a book from concept to publication, which can be a problem.

What I am doing differently with Alf’s story is this: I’m writing the first draft of the entire story arc before I begin revisions on the first book. So, this means I am writing a 250,000 word manuscript. Only when the entire first draft is finished will I begin the editing process. The manuscript will be broken in half and published as a duology, hopefully six months apart, assuming that editing goes smoothly when we get to that stage.

I am also finishing the stand-alone book that was begun as a serial in 2015, Bleakbourne on Heath. I have approximately 20,000 words left to write before it goes to the editor. Leryn’s story was so much fun to write. I had never done a serial, and unfortunately, I soon discovered I couldn’t keep up the daunting schedule I had set for getting my installments published. It was like “live television.” Whenever I sat down to write a chapter, I had no idea what was going to happen next.

One day I realized I had reached a creative plateau and had no idea how to finish the damned thing. Some people consider that writer’s block, but not me. When I can’t think of a way to advance a particular story, it’s time to rein it in and put it aside for a while to work on something else. So, I wrote a wedding scene, and ended the serial on a happy note, winding up most of the threads, but with the main quest still unfinished.

Last year was a good year for short stories, some of which found good homes in forthcoming anthologies. Also, two of my poems were selected for publication in the I Hear Olympia Singing poetry anthology and were chosen as the opening verses. I survived my first live poetry reading and met some amazing people in the process. Yay for that!

Despite cutting back on my professional editing schedule, I was privileged to edit several wonderful books for my clients—what a joy that aspect of my life is. I can’t completely drop out of that part of this business, as I love working with my clients, helping them to realize the vision they originally had for their book.

My resolutions for 2019 are to publish at least one novel, have a second one either published by the end of the year or ready to go in 2020, finish the first draft of my duology, and continue to write short stories and poetry, and continue to edit for my private clients.

I will keep writing new words every day, and I will remain involved in the local writing community. That connection with other writers feeds my creativity, offers me a sounding board, and keeps me working with good people who will read for me and show me what needs to be rewritten.

Thank you for being a part of my writing life. May the new year bring you good fortune, good food, and good friends. May the new year bring us all inspiration and determination—the two most important gifts a writer could have.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dirck Hals – Musicians – WGA11043.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dirck_Hals_-_Musicians_-_WGA11043.jpg&oldid=253948561 (accessed December 31, 2018).

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I’ll do it Mañana #amslacking #amwriting (a little)

For those of us who regularly participate in NaNoWriMo, the month of December can be a comparatively unproductive time. I average 500 – 1000 new words each day, mostly in the form of re-writing and tweaking existing prose.

I find myself cooking a lot and doing some housework. I’m not a great housekeeper but I do like to keep things dug out, so some sort of chore is always on the list. Whatever can be done in one hour gets done. Everything else can be done mañana (tomorrow).

It’s the end of the year and a good time to look back, and see your accomplishments for the year. One of my personal goals this year was to clean out the garage.

Oops.

Maybe next year. I’m sure it will happen in 2019.

The weather has been dark and dreary here in the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been reading old Agatha Christie novels. When I’m not reading or writing, I like to bake bread at this time of the year. Few things are homier than the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting through the house.

And, when I have a little urge to write, I find myself in the Room of Shame, taking a look at existing work with a fresh eye and checking for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, auto-correct errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are real words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Digits/Numbers: Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
  • Dropped and missing words.

These are things that always find their way into my work during the mad rush of NaNoWriMo. In my writing hours, I’m working on things to submit and don’t want to send out work that looks unprofessional.

I plan on taking it easy for the rest of the month, cooking a little, cleaning a little, and making revisions, but mostly I’m going to spend the dark time of December curled up on the sofa with Agatha Christie, lost in as many Miss Marple mysteries as I can stuff into my Kindle.

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World building, ensuring consistency #amwriting

The key to making both fiction and nonfiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: world building. Maps, no matter how rudimentary, are the foundation of world building in my writing process.

The first map of what eventually became my world of Neveyah series emerged from a conversation with a game designer and was scribbled on a piece of note paper in a Starbucks. I transferred the scribble to graph paper, and over time, that map grew, evolving into a full color relief map of the world as it exists in my mind.

I love maps. Since that early scribble, my maps all start out in a rudimentary form, just a way to keep my work straight. I use pencil and graph paper at this stage, because as the manuscript evolves, sometimes towns must be renamed. They may have to be moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges may have to be moved or reshaped so that forests and savannas will appear where they are supposed to be in the story.

And that tendency for embellishment and evolution in the story teller’s mind is what has led to my most embarrassing moment of the week.

I went back to the original manuscript of Mountains of the Moon, Wynn Farmer’s story, just to check on how I had described the terrain of the high country of the Escarpment, as I am writing a short story set there. While I was searching for the passage I wanted, I noticed that I had described Widge as the northernmost navigable port on the River Fleet.

Which means that Dervy can’t be the northernmost port, and the novel I am not working on for the duration of NaNoWriMo has a large plot-hole that won’t be fixed until December.

Fortunately, it is set five hundred years before Wynn’s time, so I’m not going to scrap that portion.

Instead, I made a series of notes for when I get back to writing that novel after NaNoWriMo is over. I will show how at that time, Dervy had some commerce via flat-bottomed barges owned by daring traders. The courses of rivers are changeable, like the Mississippi or the Nile. Where a harbor was possible three hundred years ago, it may not be possible now. (see How The Nile Has Changed Course Over The Past 5,000 Years.)

So, I just had a sharp reminder to check my work for inconsistencies while I still have the chance to either make them possible or remove them.

Perhaps you think you don’t need a map. You aren’t writing fantasy, so the real world is your setting. If your characters are traveling and you are writing about their travels, you want to be accurate. Google earth and a good map will help, as will timetables for trains and airlines.

In my books, people are going hither and yon with great abandon, and if I am not really on top of it, the names of towns will evolve throughout the novel.

The basic pencil-drawn map, in conjunction with my style-sheet, is my indispensable tool for keeping the story straight. I just have to keep referring back to them, rather than trying to keep it all in my head.

What is a style-sheet? When a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and that pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a style-sheet.

The style-sheet can take several forms. It’s a visual guide to print out or keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and paste every new word or name onto my list, doing this the first time they appear in the manuscript. If I am conscientious about this, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale. I also do this for my clients when I edit a manuscript.

Some people use Scrivener. I prefer to keep it simple, so I just use Excel for this because I like keeping my maps and the glossary in the same workbook. Google Docs works just as well, and it’s free, or you can just keep a list on a document or notepad.

Regardless of how you create your style-sheet, I suggest you include these elements:

  • The cast of characters and how their names are spelled
  • Their home town
  • The places they go
  • Every made-up word or name
  • The page on which it first appears
  • What it means

What should go on a map? When your characters are traveling great distances, certain differences in the terrain will impede your characters. If they are pertinent to the story, you will want to note:

  • Rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

What if your setting is indoors, such as an office, a mansion, or a hotel? You want to make sure the rooms and corridors that get mentioned in the narrative aren’t described in a contradictory way. If a room is next to the kitchen in the opening scene, it should still be there at the end of the story, barring a tornado.

Billy Ninefingers is set in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floor plan for my purposes because the inn is the world in which the story takes place. If you are writing a space opera, map out your ship or station, just for yourself.

Know your world.

As a side note, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are.

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A league is a unit of length (or, in various regions, area). It was long common in Europe and Latin America, but it is no longer an official unit in any nation. The word originally meant the distance a person could walk in an hour.[1] Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries.”

Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, which means you must take the terrain into consideration. In my current work, I don’t even mention distance by measure. Instead, I use time—they travel for an hour, or day, or two days.

Not everyone is an artist. Perhaps your work is set in a fantasy world, but you feel your hand-drawn map isn’t good enough to include in the finished product.

One option is to go to a game designer’s map generating site, play around with it until you find a map you like, then write the story to that map. Another option indie authors might consider is hiring an artist to make a map from their notes.

I’m fortunate to have some skill as an artist, so my pencil-drawn map always evolves into artwork for the book.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “League (unit),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=League_(unit)&oldid=865343305(accessed November 4, 2018).

Map of Neveyah ©2015 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

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Ideas to jump-start #NaNoWriMo2018 #amwriting

I have been a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo since 2012. I started participating in this annual writing rumble in 2010. I  found myself taking the lead as the unofficial ML for my region in 2011 when our previous ML didn’t return, and we didn’t have one that year. Organizing write-ins, cheering on my fellow writers–I didn’t really know a lot about how it all worked, but it was a lot of fun and I met so many wonderful people.

Over the years I have learned a lot of little tricks to help people get a jump on their NaNoWriMo project.

Some people continue writing the first draft of an unfinished work-in-progress but on November first, they write all the new work in a separate manuscript that is only for NaNoWriMo validation purposes.

Most will start an entirely new project, which is what I do. Actually,  since 2012, I have started a bunch of new projects, an attempt to amass a collection of short stories to submit to magazines and contests.

Many times, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do until 12:01 a.m. on November 1st.

But that lack of a finite plan doesn’t mean I have no ideas. I am always prepared to write something new.

One of my favorite tools is the prepared list of one-liners that I keep on hand, little ideas to open a story with.

You must write every day, even when you are only writing for yourself. When you write every day, you keep your “writing mind” in top condition–you are training yourself the way an athlete trains for a big event.

For this reason, I have a document saved to my desktop that I use to write down ideas as they hit my brain.

Everyday I pick a prompt out of my list and start writing. I write new words on that idea for fifteen minutes.

Often, I end up with a good drabble to show for my fifteen minutes. Other times, what I produce is not worth much, but the act of writing new words is important.

On November first I will pick one that will be the first short story I write, giving me a jumping off point to riff on.

1 – Leonard always said there was no place for pansies in this war. His preferred weapon was a dahlia.

2 – Dogs and little children hated Eldon. The rest of us merely despised him.

3 – Death is the one thing you can take with you, and Harvey Milton was packed up and ready to go.

4 – No dogs or cats for Mrs. G—she had pygmy goats.

5 – The body in the trunk of Edna’s car had become a real inconvenience.

6  – “Technically, it’s not my cow. It’s my stepdad’s cow. Anyway, we aren’t going to harm her. She’s just going to school for a day.”

And what about essays, those wonderful commentaries and literary pieces for various magazines? I’m stricken every day with ideas that would make such good essays, and November is my month to write them.

  • Impressions of a spring day at the Olympia Farmer’s Market (one of the largest on the west coast).
  • The story of a mentally ill homeless woman whom I met on a rainy day.
  • A road trip down Washington State Route 105 from Westport to Raymond, and the ghostly, nearly abandoned coastal towns of rural Washington State.

So many random ideas and so little time to write those stories! That is why November has become so precious to me—it is my time to make use of my flashes of inspiration.

Another trick to both jump-starting and finishing a NaNo Novel is to write the last chapter first and set it aside in a separate document from the NaNo Manuscript.

Yes–its true. I wrote my first complete novel by writing the last chapter first and then wondering how the characters had gotten to that point, that place.

Once I knew how the book ended, I was easily able to write 60,000 to 70,000 words to connect up to that final denouement.

The original premise: An old man returns to a town that was the scene of his most treasured memories.

The book opens when he is a young man of barely twenty and takes him through grand love affairs and miserable failures, a Don Quixote-like story of madness and bravery. My brain was on fire with that book.

I still love that book and one day I will republish it.

Maybe.

That wasn’t my first novel, but it was the first one I had completed—and if you don’t complete your projects, you can’t really lay claim to being an author.

We all have false starts—it’s part of writing. My first novel was begun in 1994 on an old Macintosh Performa. The original manuscript was lost when I switched to a PC in 1998, but I rewrote it. Over the next ten years, that version evolved to over 250,000 rambling words, ten different story lines, and it was still nowhere near the finish line.

I promise you, that is one book that will never see the light of day.

NaNoWriMo has shown me that writing prompts are a wonderful tool that we can use to jump-start our imaginations. The Writer’s Digest website has an excellent post dedicated to writing prompts:

Creative Writing Prompts

If you want to practice writing something but can’t think of what, take a look and see if something interests you.  No two people are alike, so don’t be afraid to use a prompt from a popular site like Writer’s Digest. The way you go with it will be as unique and individual as you are.

In the meantime, start keeping a list of ideas, prompts that you think would make great stories. Save it to your desktop so it is always available with just a click. Great novels all begin with a random idea, a “what if.” Don’t let your ideas slip into oblivion–write them down and use them.

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World building: what was, what is, and what may be #amwriting

All novels are set in one of three time periods: the past, the present, or the future.

Readers are much smarter than we are, so knowing what you write about is critical no matter what the level of technology. Even when setting a novel in the present day, the actual technology available is an unknown quantity to most of us.

However, targeted research can shed some light on what was once possible, what is possible, and what will one day be possible. Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

The Past:

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid- to late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This book was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who knew the people she was writing about.

What I find absolutely charming is the way the author used excerpts from medieval rhymes and literature to put their lives into context, forming a picture of how we really lived before the industrial revolution. In fact, many rural communities were still living this kind of life in the early twentieth century. The author knew and interviewed farmers whose lives had been spent working the fields and raising animals the old way.

Best of all, even though the book makes no apologies for being a textbook, Hartley’s prose is so enjoyable I found myself reading it with the sort of enjoyment one gets from a novel.

I also get a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  There, under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands. In the course of their work these painters created accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, how they dressed, and what was important to them.

The Present:

You can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there. If you need to know how many bodies you can fit into the trunk of a Mini Cooper, don’t guess. Look it up and write with authority. (The answer is NONE—Mini Coopers have no trunk.)

Available on the internet today:

TED Talks are a wonderful resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Barnes & Noble and look at the many publications that are available to the reading public. You can find everything from culinary to survivalist, to organic gardening—if people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

Know what your community is interested in, and your setting will have depth.

The Future:

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

But many business people and scientists have incredible imaginations, and their life’s work is making the future knowable, and a reality.

SPACEX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci fi, you must read sci fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the classic science fiction is now current tech—ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy. Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the amazing bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing.

Above all, enjoy the act of creating a world that a reader will want to live in, whether it is set in the past, the present, or the future.


Credits and Attributions:

Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley, © 1981 by Pantheon, cover illustrated by Beatrice Fassell, fair use.

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