Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

HappySadTheatreMaskOur characters are people – real in our mind, real on the page, and real in our hearts. Make them as real to your readers as they are to you.

This is the most important part of a novel. We might have excellent plots that twist and turn with fresh surprises at every angle, or a beautiful, imaginative world that inspires us with awe. Maybe a fresh, fascinating story rarely told, or even masterful prose with transcendent knowledge and application of language. But take any book you love, replace the characters with flat shadows of people, and you are left only with empty, black ink.

From the first line of our story, invest the reader in the characters we create. Show us what they care about. It could be as important as saving the universe, or as small as caring for a single daisy. But if our characters care, our readers will care. So, how do we do this?

Real people have passions. If our character loves gardening, don’t tell us that she gardens everyday. Show us how warm she feels as the sun beats on her back, as her hands ache with the pressure of churning soil, how much she sweats as she labors away for hours, but show us her satisfaction of witnessing seeds of nothingness grow with time into delicious tomatoes, or red roses, or juicy watermelons. And she doesn’t have to be good at it. She just needs to be passionate about it.

Emotion is universal. Everybody can identify with it, so the stronger the emotion (well…this can be overdone), the stronger the connection. I recommend overstating emotion. In theatre, emotion is overstated, as it is in cinema and books. But the reader won’t be able to tell if you do it right. Exaggerated emotion is one of the keys to storytelling. This doesn’t mean our character runs around on a rampage shooting or slicing everyone up, neither does it mean our character should drive around crying everywhere after her boyfriend dumps her. Here’s what it can mean: Our character reacts internally after witnessing a herd of buffalo stampede over her freshly budded grove of plant life. Depending on what kind of person she is, she could scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” (not recommended), or we can show her feeling the strong loss of creating something from nothing, then shoving down the exaggerated emotion, only to unleash it at a later time – directed at someone undeserving. Which is the more interesting story? Who do you identify with more? If your answer is the screaming psychopath, perhaps you should join Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Point is, when readers identify with the characters, and when they have a stake in the story, we become invested. And when we become invested, we now have a stake in the story. We’ll flip the pages from cover to cover to see what happens next, unable to set the book down. We’ll feel both satisfied at the end, and disappointed there is nothing of the story left to read.

In the title, I also mentioned growth. In a great story, not only does our protagonist change, but our antagonist also changes. Many writers miss the latter point. This doesn’t necessarily mean our antagonist transforms into a saint, but it can mean they learn an important life lesson, or devolve into something even worse.

So, growth of our protagonists. (We can also show protagonists devolving.) What better way to show growth at the end, than flaws at the beginning. Real people have flaws, right? You have flaws, don’t you? I certainly have no flaws, but we all know you do, right? Right, where were we? Flaws, yeah. It’s okay for our characters to have flaws, especially if they’re universally identifiable. What makes a story interesting is how our characters deal with those flaws. Do they learn from their mistakes and get over hard-learned obstacles? Or do they fall to the Dark Side like our forever-friend Darth Vader? Show the story, don’t tell it. Make the reader a friend by showing our characters’ experiences as they endure them. Then leave that lasting impression by showing how far they’ve come. Key is to show our protagonists’ progression little at a time, then compound the growth with extreme experiences. But never leave them stagnant. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if our characters grow too much too quickly, they might lose that ever-so-important quality – reader identification.

Transformation also ties integrally with growth, the difference being, they are rarely recognizably the same person when comparing them at the beginning of the book to the final page. We need to be careful here. As advised above, if our characters grow too quickly, we will lose our audience. Want your characters to transform? Throw unique, interesting, and hard – very, very hard – decisions and obstacles in their paths. They need to make the emotional or logical choice for who they are at that time – which changes them forever. Then keep doing it again. But beware, always change the pace. If we have a non-stop, hard-hitting pace from start to finish, our readers will never be able to come up for air. And breathing is important for most of us.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into the differences between active, reactive, and proactive characters, and which are the most interesting in stories. Okay everyone, raise your hands. Active? Eh, might get a few hands in the air. Reactive? Hmm, probably only one or two. Okay, what about proactive? AHA! There they are! Raise them nice and high! Yep, you are right. Proactive characters are by far the most interesting, and here’s why.

Reactive characters only do what? That’s right – react! Our antagonists will likely be the most interesting characters in this type of character story because they are making everything happen. They are making the decisions for our protagonists – shaping them, forcing them to enact whatever evil plans our antagonists are concocting. Just about the only interesting thing our protagonist can do in this situation is react unexpectedly. But that’s a far cry from our other two types. Active characters are good. They will react, but will also push back. They will create tension, and exert a moving role to drive the story forward. Now, proactive characters take charge. Proactive characters don’t necessarily always know what they want, but they always make decisions (good or bad). This makes for a much more interesting story. It is highly common for the inciting incident in our novel to cause a reaction in our character that impels the story forward all the way to the last page. But if our protagonists are actively doing something in the beginning, and drive the story forward all on their own, that’s when we get caught staying up into the wee hours of the night reading that novel we just can’t put down. This is real tension – driven purely by our proactive characters.

Outlines. Some of us use them, some of us don’t. But I recommend everyone sketch out at least enough about our main characters to understand who they are. The worst thing we can do is think we know our characters, then make them do something they normally wouldn’t for the sake of the plot. If you want a good reference for an outline, here’s my advice. Make your own. There are numerous character outlines you can download off the net. Some are very detailed, some are vague. But, we all need to find that character outline that fits our story, then make it. It could be as little as describing their personalities, their likes/dislikes, tastes, experiences, and what they would do if held at gunpoint. Yes, many characters will never face that latter problem, but you need to know your characters. What better way than to consider what they would do in a life or death situation?

Want more outlining? Okay, write down how you want them to change throughout your novel. Who do they meet? How do they interact? Write down a few jokes they would tell, or physical tics or eccentricities. Show us their turning points and future moments of clarity. The list goes on and on. We should never put it all in our novel, but as writers, we need to know. Key is, stay organized, stay on track. And remember, sometimes when we write that novel, the outline flies out the window. Allow our characters to change, to experience life beyond the bounds we’ve set forth in an outline.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to express yourself. I want to hear your thoughts. I’ve found the above to be some of the best methods (that by the way work universally), but I always keep an open mind, and I’m always striving to learn and grow – to be better than I was yesterday. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

ChapterOneFrom the first line in a story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with the protagonist. So what makes an exciting first line? And at what point in our novel or short story do we “re-hook” the reader?

Make interesting things happen – preferably bad things. That’s the base of basics of hooking. But please, PLEASE, don’t start your piece with one of the following first lines. They are overused and generic, and unless done in some awesomely unique-never-before-seen-blow-your-socks-off way, agents and editors will cringe, and will not read on. Remember, agents look for an excuse not to read further. And don’t you want to make your piece as interesting and unique as possible? Anyway, here are my top 5 “cringers”:

  • Waking up – especially from an alarm clock: This is one of the most common first lines agents and editors read. And complain about. Whether it is or isn’t, most believe it to be lazy writing. So come on! You’re a writer! You can do better than that!
  • “It was a dark, and stormy night…”: Weather in general – whether the weather is dark and stormy, or bright and sunshiny, this is one of the most overused, so try to avoid it.
  • The bad day at school: This is more common with YA. This has both been done very well and muy terrible! But it’s still the bad day at school. As unique as your character’s bad day at school is, it is, still, indeed, the bad day at school. Most agents and editors will stop reading.
  • It was all just a dream: Starting your story with a bang is great, but if the opening turns out to be just a dream, many readers will be disappointed, and agents will in all likelihood stop reading…
  • Running through a forest (especially if it’s a nightmare): This at first glance might seem like a great idea, but many, many, many others have also come up with this idea. As many twists and turns, near-death experiences, or lost loves they have while running through this forest, agents and editors will smack their foreheads, shake their heads, and punch “delete” on their keyboards – (that is if the “delete” key has survived the abundant daily abuse).

Still reading? Okay good. You might have thrown a few expletives my way, chucked your keyboard at me, or revisited your novel a moment to check how you started your story… But there’s good news! There are PLENTY of great first lines! Here’s what makes a great hook:

  • Begin with the character. Not description. Not the weather. Not the building. Not the world. Not a prologue. The character.
  • Give the reader an immediate stake by putting the character or something the character loves in imminent danger, or start with a special flavor of comedy. Could be physical, could be emotional or psychological.
  • Start with an interesting action or thought. Make it fresh. Make it immediate and impactful.
  • Show the reader who the character is in that first line. No back story. Who are they NOW? Show what they are doing right now that will impel your story forward all the way to the last line.

Want some good examples? Here we go:

  • “Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.” ~ Mira Grant, Feed
  • “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” ~ Brandon Sanderson, Elantris
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing about the world.” ~ Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Nuff said? Who would stop reading any of these novels after those phenomenal first lines? Albeit, Brandon Sanderson woke up his character in the first line, but being “damned for all eternity” kind of overpowers the former. Point is – there are exceptions to everything. We can argue about genre, preference, and style, but a great first line is a great first line.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into not only the first line, but also show how to hook a reader throughout a piece, keep them intrigued. This goes along with a later post I’ll write, “Tension, Conflict, and the Driving Force,” with a couple big differences. We establish tension by hooking a reader. The catalyst is the hook. The reaction is the tension and conflict. And oftentimes, the hook is a one-liner, or small paragraph that escalates emotion or impels action.

Introduce something new when it makes sense, but surprise the reader. Keep them on their toes. At the end of chapters, throw in a one-liner to re-hook the reader – to keep them turning the pages. In the new chapter, throw in another hook. These first and last chapter one-liners aren’t nearly as important as the first line in a novel, but most great writers understand how to cause us poor readers those many sleepless nights. This isn’t the end-all be-all of writing, but you must know where your story is heading. Keep it moving forward by keeping the reader hooked.

Re-hooking can come in many forms – dialogue, emotion, action, comedy, even literary prose. But it must make sense to your novel. I wouldn’t tell a joke at the end of a chapter if the next one begins with a torture scene. Well…unless you want to shock the reader. But that’s a different subject. Anyway, the mood of characters, the voice of your story, and the pace of your prose dictates where those strategic hooks can be placed. Sometimes, it won’t make sense to begin or end a chapter with a hook, but the key is to watch for it. Write. And read. Look for those turning points or moments in your book where one line could make a big difference. Use this in conjunction with tension and character, and you are well on your way to a best-seller.

Step Up That Game

Posted: February 24, 2013 by stonehengewriters in Matt's Words
Tags: , , , , , , ,

It has happened!

What, you ask? We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, allow me to show how I got here.

As a writer, my immediate payoff for writing is in fact…the joy of writing. Slaving away those hours upon hours in front of a computer, brainstorming ideas throughout the day, locking ourselves in a closet as we outline…(well maybe not ALL of us can relate to that), all of these things don’t always feel like work. Because face it, most of us write because we have a passion for storytelling, a love of the craft, or a character that keeps pounding on the inside of our skulls, begging to be released onto paper.

But it isn’t all fun and games, is it? No matter how we cut it, writing is hard. Very hard. The first draft of my novel read worse than a kindergarten drawing. My parents thought it was great, but then, they are a little biased, aren’t they? Only after I joined a writers group – Stonehenge – did I understand just how terrible it was.

And then, the real work began.

First, I studied the craft. I learned the basics of grammar – by reading books, practicing what I learned, listening to podcasts, then doing it all over again. And yes, my friends, this was work. A lot of work. I then unearthed the value of great storytelling, discovered the advantage of 3rd person limited versus omniscient. (For those unfamiliar, stay tuned for a post about this.) Learning and practicing. Learning and practicing. It was hard work, but once I felt comfortable with my writing, and felt that it was publishable, do you think I stopped there?

Good guess. No. While continuing to read about and practice the craft, I researched the publishing industry and conferences. I learned about agents, query letters, synopses, pitches, developmental editors, the various forms of publishing…and my head was spinning. How, oh how, was it possible for my baby to get published? Why did I ever pick up the pen? Of all the talent, all the writers in the world, why would I ever believe anything from little old me would be put into print?

Well, I also believe self-doubt, self-loathing is a part of most every writer’s process. Yes, process. And when we find a way to get over this, the cycle repeats. But, that’s for another post…

Above, I mentioned conferences. Browsing on the internet one day, I discovered this thing called San Francisco Writers Conference, and it was super expensive. But the more I read about it, the more I knew I had to attend. I read it was a great way to not only learn more about the craft and industry, but to also meet published authors, agents, editors, and publishers.

So I signed up with an excited, but heavy heart. I wasn’t sure it would pay off. Couldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere? I have a family, mouths to feed. How could I justify paying so much for this little hobby? Well, writing is more than a hobby to me. It is a passion. I strive to learn more, to build upon myself, to make my writing better than I’d ever thought possible.

My lovely wife has always supported me, (though she rarely cracks open a book). But, there are many ways to support those you love. She knows my passion, and she felt justified to encourage me to pursue my dream.

In 2012, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference. I left renewed, invigorated, and felt more connected to the industry. I met lots of great people, and discovered us writers are one giant, family. I took what I learned back to my writers group, worked on a few more revisions, then decided to go again this year.

This year, in 2013, this year, I did not expect this to happen. With a much improved manuscript, I reconnected with some great people I met at the conference the previous year, and thought to continue to improve upon it even more. I write Fantasy, which is only 6%-8% of the market. But those hopes, those dreams which haunt in the dead of night, those passions that keep my fingers punching the keys, would not allow me to see reason.

The final day of the conference, the awesome Pam van Hylckama Vlieg – book blogger, agent, and social media extraordinaire – offered me representation.

Often times, I daydreamed about that moment – what I would say, how I would feel, how I would act if that moment ever arrived – but none of those dreams compared to the emotion that moment elicited. My jaw was on the floor. I was confused. Could this really be happening? Me? Joe Shmoe? I looked from Pam to my manuscript sitting before her, then back to Pam. And I was still confused.

But yes. She nodded, confirming that impossible notion. And like any unintelligible cave man, all I could say was, “Really?”

Obviously, I’m a writer, not a speaker.

And now the journey begins. I look forward to working with her on the last revision of this manuscript, look forward to the moment she finds a publisher, and I look forward to our many future projects together.

You can find us here: Pam’s Clients

Here are my final words. I wrote a book before I knew how to write. If I can do it, so can you.

Okay, maybe not a village, but it takes more than an individual. Or it should.

Yes, one person can write a story all on their own, but it’s foolish to think that they can get a decent finished book to print without any assistance.

Thanks to modern technology and the advent of vanity press, on demand printing, and ebooks, anyone can put their works out into the aether. However, this doesn’t mean that they immediately should once they’ve finished their 60,000+ word book. Traditional publishing can, and often does, take a year or two from the date the publisher says “Yes, we’ll publish you,” before the world sees you’re heart and soul laid bare on the page. During this time a team of people are being employed to make your book as best as possible. Hopefully. There’s agents, editors, copyeditors, cover designers, a marketing team, and many others you may never meet.

In my opinion there’s one more group of people that are essential. Beta readers. These are the first people who will see you’re work. They are your test audience to gauge how strong your story is and if there are any glaring errors in character and plot. The beauty of beta readers is that they can be employed at various stages in the writing process, whether or not you’re self-publishing or going the traditional route.

One of the issues I had when I started writing was that I was grossly mistaken in thinking I could write something worthy of print on the first go around. I figured that editors and others could fix whatever issues arose, if there even were any. One of my idols is Robert Heinlein, and one of my favorite stories is The Door Into Summer. It took him only 13 days to write and had very little editing. Granted it is one of his shorter works, but still, to have that skill. While I still hope to one day accomplish such a feat, I now realize how foolish I was to think I was at that level.

Writing is like any other art form. While there are those who will find they have a great knack for it, it still requires great amounts of time and dedication to become the best you can be. The beauty I find in writing is that it doesn’t have to be a solitary journey. You can get feedback along the way. The key is finding the right people who will assist you. You may have had people who’ve said you should write a story, but you should take a step back and ask yourself if you’re willing to do what is necessary, and if they actually mean it. Are they saying it out of politeness and just because you’re friends?

When it comes to finding beta readers you need to be subjective. Don’t just find people who will fan the flames of your ego and lead you into delusion. This is where a writing group can come in handy. If you can find the right one. There needs to be the right balance of ego stroking and constructive criticism.

Writing a book can be a traumatic experience as it is akin to baring your heart and soul to people you will never know. It can be crushing when someone says they don’t like your work, because it feels like they’re saying they don’t like you. Of course pleasing everyone is impossible and shouldn’t be your intention. There will inevitably be people who won’t like what you’ve written, but if you’ve done all that you can to write the best book possible, people who do like it should outweigh these mistaken fools.

In closing, I want to talk about the evolution of storytelling. Before written language we had speech, and I’m certain telling stories has been around almost as long. Without the written word these stories were passed down from one generation to the next verbally, and most assuredly changed and evolved in the process. If you’ve ever played the game telephone you’ll understand. In a way I think of beta readers as the evolution of this process, allowing the original author to tell a tale, get input from others, and then finish the tale while maintaining overall creative control, to an extent. Thanks to the internet and dedicated fans we now have fan fiction galore which carries on this ancient tradition.

There is also the creative commons licensing route in which the author grants others the right to adapt and alter their work legally. It’s a route I intend to explore with a couple stories in mind. One of my favorite actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt is leading the way and has created an online creative commons group, hitRECord,to explore all artistic endeavors. I highly suggest you give it a look.

So, it may not take a village to write a story, but it should be a journey shared with others.

It’s a shame there are so many of us writers and so few publishers…or are there?

In this mass-multi-media-mayhem of a world we thrive in, there have never been so many options.  Whether your goal is to publish traditionally, indie, or by any other means your creative mind can concoct, the world is at the whim of your will.

But, how do we get there?  Well, here’s the short answer.  Anybody can publish a book.  One click of your mouse can show you websites sleek enough to easily connect your story to the masses.

Here are some tougher questions.  Is self-publishing the best option?  How do we know when our writing is good enough?  And at what point should we stop editing?  How do we market?  Where and how do we find agents if self-publishing isn’t the goal?  And what is this elevator pitch/query letter/synopsis thing people always talk about?

Well, if you’ve read this far, are interested in our answers to these questions, or if these questions have fired new ones in the furnace of your mind, then read on.  We will explore every facet of writing our fingertips can click onto the page.  Have a question?  Good, we love discussions and debates.  Just remember to be respectful.

Stonehenge craves knowledge, so if you have something informative to offer, or a different perspective to pitch, please share.  The one thing I’ve come to understand is, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.  While the wealth of knowledge we carry is immense, we are always learning and adapting.  So click around.  Peruse our site.  You just might find an answer to that question burning in your mind.