Stories, please

Like everyone else, I am staying home. Or trying to. There was a doctor appointment, and a trip to the car dealership to check on an engine warning light.  And I had to pick up a prescription.

But mostly, staying home. Connecting with others via telephone, Facebook, texting, and Zoom.

Doing a lot of cross stitch, basket weaving, and Solitaire. Watching TV. Reading.

Today I went outside and raked up sweet gum balls,and dragged limbs into a pile to be taken to the curb. Me against nature. I’m not sure who is winning.

A few days ago I wondered what I could do to help others. I know parents have their children at home, and possibly both parents are trying to work from home as well as make sure their children keep up with their lessons. But what about when said children are bored and whining that they have nothing to do?

The Swineherd and his magic kettle

 

I remembered that I used to read stories to my children and grandchildren. There doesn’t seem to be any substitute for curling up on Mom’s or Granny’s lap and listening to a story.

I remembered the stories I loved to listen to or read when I was a child. And so I dug out the faded and tattered copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. No copyright issues here, Andersen’s most loved fairy tale, The Mermaid, was first published in 1837.

So I set up my iPad on a table on the deck and began to read.

So far I have read six of his stories, some short, some long. Most have a somewhat happy ending. Andersen was not known for happy endings. Remember The Little Match girl or The Steadfast Tin Soldier?

Some are Christian allegories and filled with bloodshed. I even wondered about the soldier in The Tinderbox who murdered his benefactress with nary a glimmer of guilt. Or The Red Shoes, where poor Karen cuts off her own legs in order to stop dancing?

Then I realized something. What these children are living through today has nothing on Andersen’s most frightening tales.

I will continue to read, and leave it to the parents’ discretion as to whether their children can take a 200-year-old story of witches and goblins and kidnapping and whatever else the storyteller had in mind.

I read them all when I was a child, and it didn’t harm me. The world is a dangerous and often wicked place.

Our children know that.

You can find me on YouTube by typing in “Meemaw Sandy reading.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Squirrels, Mark Twain, and pelisses

Well, that was fast!

One day I am sweating like a sumo wrestler just by walking to the mailbox, and the next I am rummaging through the closet for my sweater.

One thing about the cooler weather, I don’t have as much yard work to do. The grass  isn’t growing as fast, and the hedges and shrubs have slowed down in their efforts to add new little green leaves. So I have had time to get back to my book.

I feel pretty good about my writing this week. I’ve added pages and I can see where I am heading. I’ve gone over the last scene in the book so often that I’m now eager to get there.

The abrupt change in the weather reminded me of something, though. No, not Twain’s comment that everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. (Fact check: It might not be Twain who said it, but Charles Dudley Warner, who was an editor at the Hartford Courant in the late 1800s. There, now we’ve both learned something new.)

Image result for pelisse

A reader asked me what a pelisse was. It’s outerwear, essentially a long cape with sleeves.

I  try to be cognizant of the passage of time in my stories, noting the passing of one season and the advent of another by describing the weather as sit affects the protagonist. She might be glad for her straw bonnet on a hot day, or the the warmth of her wool pelisse on a cold one.  Candles must be brought out in the long, dark evenings while a rooster’s crow might wake her early on a summer morning.

If a story takes place in a short period of time, such as a few months or a year, it’s pretty easy. It’s more difficult if it spans a decade or more, which happens in the first two books of my historical series. In “Riverbend” and “Morven,” I solved it by jumping ahead a few years, hoping my readers would catch on without my explaining, “Now, 10 years have passed …”

I must get my present protagonist from seventeen to her mid-twenties without dragging the story out by describing each birthday. I don’t want to make a sudden leap, but had the idea of showing the passage of time by the dates on her correspondence. Whether that will work or not remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, I have a little success to report. I have complained about the squirrels eating the bird feed, no matter where I place the feeders. When one dragged a songbird feeder from the deck to where I found it in the yard, empty, I had had enough. I rigged a line from the persimmon tree to the post that holds the sun-flower feeder (that particular feeder is squirrel-proof, by the way) and hung my finch and chickadee feeders from it. It’s too high for the squirrels to jump up, and the line is too thin for them to crawl along it.

I thought I had the last laugh when I saw a squirrel attempt to reach the finch feeder. He made it, but the tube is glass, and he slid down it like a fireman on a pole, and fell to the ground. Several times.

Or has he simply figured out a way to spill the seed to the ground where he can eat it as his leisure?

You decide.

 

 

 

 

 

Distractions and how to use them

I “wasted” too much time on ancestry.com this morning. I meant to finish up one line and ended up tracking another … it’s so easy to get ensnared in following the elusive clues, combing through records and family histories. The further back you go, the more things get disoriented — dates don’t match, wives seem interchangeable with mothers, children have the same names, especially if one died young and a subsequent child was given the deceased sibling’s name.

I haven’t found out anything terribly interesting. There are a lot of Ladies and Sir Knights and Barons, but I don’t put too much stock in it. I believe other ancestor-hunters love titles and appropriate them whenever expedient. I have one ancestor who is

said to have been godfather to William Shakespeare. I’m going to visit Stratford-upon-Avon in a few weeks and  maybe I will have the opportunity to check that out. And I had a boatload (pun intended) of dissenters who came to America in the Great Migration. A few even came over on the Mayflower. (My Mom would have loved that!) One pastor who left the Church of England was told to immigrate or face prison. He made the wise choice.

So I guess it’s no wonder that my characters in my latest story are searching for their own families. Orphaned at a young  age, Bethann runs off to seek her mother’s family when the one she was adopted into morphs through death and marriage. Sounds easy, but this is in the early 1800’s and there is no ancestry.com to help her. The best she can do is hop on a stagecoach and visit the town mentioned in her mother’s Bible, and begin asking questions.

Henry thinks he has found his family, after discovering that he, too, was adopted. But he is tragically misled and the consequences will be deadly if others learn who he really is before he does.

The theme running through the story is what family is and why it matters. I know people who were adopted and don’t give a fig about finding their birth parents, content with the family they were given. Others sought desperately for answers, trying to fill a need that ate at them until it was satisfied.

I’m not desperate, just curious. I started looking because we don’t know a lot bout my father’s family. The paternal line ends in a few generations, but I researched my grandmother’s side and found a rich history that I might have been unaware of if I’d stayed with the paternal side and gave up after finding the dead end … or “EOL”.

I think I know now why my father tended to preach at us kids. He had it in his DNA on his mother’s side.

 

 

This is what I know for sure

Today (Sunday) I am doing the program for our monthly writers’ club meeting. Many of you realize I write this post well before Sunday, when it is published. So today is Friday in the real world. You can see I have let it slide just a little.

But that isn’t quiet true. I have been thinking about it ever since one of our members asked if I’d mind sharing my publishing experience. What can I say about a journey that started 20 years ago and is still ongoing? I did confess last week how easy it is for the hopeful beginner to get scammed. And that’s because, as beginners, we know nothing.

I certainly didn’t. Back in the day, convinced I had written a great novel (it wasn’t), I sent off my manuscript to any publisher I thought would take a look. I got the names and addresses from the  Novel and Short Story Writers’ Market at the local library. I would go inside, pull the book, sit at a table, and copy addresses down.  I’d take my manuscript to the post office, weigh it with the required SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), and again without the SASE, and put the exact postage on each envelope. The SASE was so the publisher would return my ms. Although I painstakingly made a copy, if rejected I’d want to send the original out again. And again. Oh, how I hated seeing those manila envelopes pop up in my mailbox. What I wanted to see was a long, white business envelope.

Alas, rejections were roughly 100%. Okay, exactly 100%.

The advent of the home computer helped a lot. Publishers and agents began accepting e-mail submissions. That saved a lot of money, but didn’t alleviate the waiting time. Sometimes I heard nothing back at all. Other times it was a matter of months. And sometimes, within a week.

I’ve been fortunate in that in all these years I’ve had only two discouraging rejections. In fact, they were so hateful and mean-spirited that I was brought to tears. I can only think the recipient was having a particularly bad day and I happened to be the one to bear the brunt of their fury. Most editors are kind in their rejections (when they bother to send one) even if it is just a standard paragraph sent to everyone alike. Some were kind enough to say, “This isn’t for us, but do keep writing and try us again.”

I’ve had acceptances from small presses, and they were a pleasure to work with even if they weren’t one of the Big New York Publishers. I never expected to hit the NY Times Best Seller List with my first novel, although it has been done. I know my limits.

I worked with one editor for nearly a year before she reluctantly passed when we couldn’t agree on the ending. That story is now in the hands of another house, which has had it in “in review” since June.

I guess the best advice I can give is first, write the best book you can, ask beta readers to give their opinion on what works and what doesn’t, and if you can’t afford an editor, at least ask a friend to proofread it. This friend should have a good command of English. I am lucky to have a friend who was a newspaper editor and is gifted with a sharp eye for errors.

That done, you should write a query letter that explains what your book is about, what the conflict is, and what genre it falls into. Hint: No conflict, no sale. And write a synopsis. This can be from a paragraph to 10 pages, so check the guidelines of whatever publisher you are going to submit to as they all differ.

Only then should you begin submitting. and for gosh sake, make sure your target publishes books in your genre. Don’t send a romance to a Sci-Fi publisher. I can’t emphasize enough that you need to check the submission guidelines for each publisher or agent. A submission can be rejected out of hand if you don’t follow the rules.

In a nutshell, that’s what I know about publishing. I’m sending out queries now, and waiting, checking my in-box just as I used to check my mailbox on the curb.

Some things never change.

 

 

 

 

Cringe-worthy confession

I started this blog as a way to share my writing journey and hopefully help my readers avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made.  You know what they are: genre-hopping, revising a story so much I killed it …

Alas, the list goes on.

But one mistake I made very early on is one I seldom talk about because it makes me want to hide my head in shame. I should have known better, and yet hope makes fools of us all.

I had written a story I thought was very good. (It wasn’t, trust me.) I didn’t seek beta readers, I didn’t seek an editor. I was arrogant and thought I knew it all. Hadn’t I read every book on writing that Writer’s Digest had to offer?

I sent out a query and was thrilled when the phone rang and I had an offer of representation. The woman on the line had a cultured British accent and she seemed thrilled with my book.

Now, I thought I was no fool. Earlier on, another publisher acted thrilled with my submission, but when he quoted some lines from the book, praising them highly, I grew suspicious. I knew those weren’t the best lines and that he’d selected them randomly, which I took to mean he hadn’t even read the manuscript. I laughed and passed on the offer.

But this seemed legitimate. For a certain some of money, her company would send my story to X number of publishers. She almost guaranteed acceptance. She sent a contract which I took to an attorney to look over.

He said it looked good.

So I sent the money. It was a lot at that time, but I talked it over with my  husband and he agreed I should make the investment.

A month or so later, she called again. No one had responded but she had a new list of contacts and for an additional sum …

I asked which publishers she had sent the manuscript to. She said she couldn’t reveal that.

I thought long and hard and declined to pursue submissions with her company. Later, I came to the conclusion that she had never sent anything at all, anywhere, any time.

Lesson learned. Don’t be over eager. I makes you ripe for scams like this, and believe me, they are out there.

First, even thought the contract looked good, it never guaranteed a publisher.

Second, never ever send money to an agent. Ever. If they ask for even a modest fee, they are not your friend. Your book should stand on its own. It should be so good that they are thrilled to represent you because that means they will make money from the book and not from you.

Lots of italics, but I can’t emphasis it enough.

I am wiser now. I still make mistakes, but my hope is that I never make the same one twice.

I hope none of you make this one.

 

 

Memoir continued

Last week I attended a day-long workshop on writing the memoir.  Our teacher was fantastic, to say the least: Joseph Bathanti, Writer-in-Residence at Appalachian State University. Bathanti hails from Pittsburgh, which is near where I spent many years of my life before I, like him, found  my way to North Carolina. I won’t list all his honors and publications, but rest assured, the man knows his subject, loves writing, and enjoys imparting what he knows. I’m now reading Bathanti’s memoir, “Half of What I Say is Meaningless.”

Why do we write memoirs? Many of us want to or plan to, attested by the number of people who signed up for the workshop. Some have stories they need to share because of the lessons they learned and want to pass on. Some use memoir as a sort of catharsis. Me, I just want my grandkids to know how different life was when I was growing up.

Jack is more interested in getting a treat than hearing me talk about my writing.

One thing that kept me from starting, as I mentioned before, was revealing family secrets. Bathanti assured us that we didn’t need to tell everything, but if it is hurtful or painful, we can leave it out. “If you leave things out, you’re not lying,” he said.

That reminded me of another workshop leader who told our class, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” She was talking about fiction, but memoir writing is essentially creative non-fiction. It is subjective, and you can insert your opinion about events which you can’t do in journalism or non-fiction.

There are two things about the workshop that I’d like to point out. One is that as writers, we need to keep learning. Even if I never write a memoir, I took away a valuable tool that I can use in my fiction, which is to dig deep into my subconscious and bring up the emotion I need to make a scene live. The other is more prosaic: We are never too old to learn. I learn something new every day. Never mind that most of it I learn from watching Jeopardy!

And, I just thought of a third thing. Do we need to start with “I was born…” and end with some earthshaking conclusion about What It All Meant?

Bathanti’s book is a series of essays. I had already started writing a few essays on different themes, such as comparing play when I was a kid and what my grandkids do for fun. So now assured that I’m on the right track, I can continue.

Have  you ever considered writing a memoir? If so, what has kept you from starting? Or are you working on one now? I’d love to know how it’s going and what format you are writing it in — straight narrative, essays, humor, confession …?

Me, I’ll stick to short essays and hope it all comes together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weeding and writing

I am trying to write this with one eye covered by a patch. I put a wet tea bag on it  in hopes it would reduce the swelling of poison ivy.

Yep, I did it again. Thought I was pulling out English ivy vines. And yes, I know the difference (after repeated bouts with the poisonous vine) but there were no leaves on them so …here I am again, itching and miserable.

Summer is winding down, though, and soon enough my only yard work will be raking leaves. Time to start on something new. Or maybe something old. I have some manuscripts that are (gasp!) typed on paper. I wrote them before the advent of computers, that is to say very early in my career.

Now, have I learned anything since I wrote those stories? Or am I going to keep making the same mistakes, as I do with pulling vines?

Delia Owens and David Joy at McIntyres Books.

My hope and belief is that I have honed my craft enough so that I will be able to look at these old stories and spot trouble points. I need to be sure there is theme, not just a plot; that my characters are identifiable and relatable; that I balance narrative and dialogue; and most of all, that the story is not boring.

So there is that. And somehow I plan to finish that memoir I started for the grandkids, who are now adults and maybe more interested in their shared history. Our writers’ club is holding a workshop on writing the memoir in November, and  I’m looking forward to learning just how to approach this.  It is a great opportunity, and timely.

Opportunities to learn abound. Last weekend a friend and I drove two hours to hear two novelists (David Joy and Delia Owens) read from their works and talk about writing. Well worth the trip. What I learned: it is okay if your first book is crap. Keep writing.

I hope you all take every chance you get whether it is attending author talks, reading, going to workshops or conferences, or just getting together with other writers to share your dreams.

And if someone out there is trying to deter you ( and there are naysayers whose mission in life is to pull you down) just carefully root them out of your life. They are poison ivy.

Back into the fray

I had a wonderful birthday week. My sister came to visit from Pennsylvania and together we drove to the Golden Isles in Georgia to visit my oldest son and daughter-in-law. My second-oldest son flew in from California, making my birthday wish to have all my family together almost come true. (My youngest son and wife couldn’t make it.) Of course, none of the teenage grandkids could come because of summer jobs and/or school. So it was an adult gathering … very relaxing and enjoyable.

Since I have returned home, I’ve been busy bouncing back from yet another rejection and sending out queries and submissions. If the rejections hadn’t been so positive I might have given up, but the encouragement to keep trying is very persuasive.

And, working on my WIP. Isn’t there always a WIP? If not, there should be. It”s the only way to stop worrying about the submissions — did they get it? did they like it? when will I get a reply?

And keep dreaming and hoping for a “yes” this time around.

If writers didn’t dream, there would be no stories. Oh, they might still write them, but the results would be

These daisies didn’t succumb to the dry weather and heat while I was gone and were a welcoming sight when I returned home.

hidden in a box under the bed, read only by trusted friends and then returned to dust and darkness. So we dream up stories and then dream of them finding a home on someone’s bookshelf.

And if we’re honest, on many, many someones’ bookshelves.

This writing path has had many twists and turns since I had my first acceptance after years of writing and submitting. My first two books were accepted and published, only to have the publisher close their door.  I got my rights back and self-published, figuring all the editing and formatting had already been done, so why not? Then I self-published another because it was fairly easy and let’s face it, instant gratification.

 

My next three were accepted by a publisher, which was and is thrilling. The series was fun to write. Then I wrote another book and self published it because I was too impatient to do the necessary round of submissions.

It seems my sales are about equal for the traditionally published and self-published novels. I think there is more of a sense of satisfaction when you get that acceptance letter, but today there is no real downside to self-publishing, either. I think either way is perfectly legitimate. So if you are wondering which path to choose, it depends on how quickly you want to see your book in print. But if you do self-publish, it’s very important to have your work proofed, edited (there is a difference), and professionally formatted. See Mark Coker’s excellent guide (Smashwords) if you decide to format it yourself. And don’t forget your cover, which is the first thing a potential buyer looks at.

My, I’m full of advice! Some gleaned from reading books on getting published and some from my own experience. And, in my opinion, real-life experience is the best teacher.

Write on!

 

 

 

 

Ready, Set … Goal!

Having made the statement that I was going to revisit an old manuscript and revise it because I know now more than I did then, I had several people respond that they couldn’t wait to read the story.

Not only that, but in my writing group I set my next month’s goal to finish at least four chapters. We each put in 25 cents and write down our goal for the next meeting. These slips of paper are put in a pot and drawn. If your name is drawn and you have accomplished your goal, you win. If not, the pot rolls over to next time.

It isn’t about the money. The last person who won walked off with a whopping $5.00. It’s about setting that goal and reaching it. No one wants to admit that, for whatever reason, they didn’t do what they vowed to do. It’s not only  embarrassing, but shows a lack of commitment.

So I set both a short-range and a long-range goal to revise and finish this story. I’m excited. For one thing, in the past 10 years or more since I started it, I’ve learned more about pacing and structure. I’ve changed from pure pantser to more of a plotter, because I’ve discovered that if you go down a  road without checking a map first, you could very well find yourself at a dead end, or almost as bad, someplace you never intended to go and no way to get back on course.

I would most likely finish the story without having made my intention public. But now I feel a responsibility not only to myself but to my few but loyal fans.

Setting a goal is good and we all do it. Sometimes the only person aware of the goal is yourself, and if you fail you are the only one who knows it.

However, if you set a goal and talk about it to friends and write about it, you  have a lot more riding on its completion. And if that doesn’t make you sit down and start writing, I don’t know what will.

 

 

 

Drastic surgery

Once upon a time, I wrote a long, rambling book that I was so in love with that I couldn’t see its flaws.

Its many, fatal flaws.

I revised it several times, but I still couldn’t get anyone interested. At 180,000 words, I now know why. I love, big books. I’ve actually read “War and Peace.” Ken Follett is one of my favorite authors and I just finished “The Punishment She Deserves” by Elizabeth George which  is 690 pages long.

But Follett and George have something I did not: a established following. By that I mean readers who will follow them anywhere, even if it means reading a book that could double as a doorstop.

More to the point, most readers prefer something shorter and editors strive to give them what they want

Back to my book. It concerned two girls, Damaris and Morven, whose lives intertwine although they take different paths. It was a story of friendship and loyalty and a lot of other lovely things. I had to put aside my fondness for the story and do as doctors do when presented with conjoined twins and decide how best to separate them.

I carefully cut and pasted and managed to get Damaris’ story free of all entanglements. The result was “Riverbend,” which came out in May 2017.

Now I’m working on Morven’s story. Like Damaris, she’s a young girl alone in the world. Unlike Damaris, she doesn’t marry the first man to offer and suffer the consequences. Instead, she manages to build a family for herself and only then find true love and her HEA.

It’s a little trickier. I’m cutting entire chapters and eliminating any distracting side plots that don’t move the story along.

 I wrote this book almost 20 years ago, so as I read I am both amused and appalled by my naivety.

But I’ve learned along the way. I can (hopefully) correct my earlier mistakes. And, by letting it “sit” for awhile, I can be a little ruthless and throw away those passages I loved then but question now.

Writing isn’t always just sitting down and putting words on a page, although that seems to work for some authors. For me, it’s revision and cutting and revision and rewriting, and then revising again. Maybe that’s why I don’t publish a book every three months or even every year.

But like the tortoise, I somehow manage to get to the finish line.

 

 

Ain’t nothing easy

Formatting is such a frightening word. When I hear it, I think of some guy in his room, window shades down, typing away on his computer and generating strings of mysterious code.

I recently formated Riverbend for submission to Smashwords. In case you don’t know it, Smashwords sells books in every available format so readers can download their purchased book on a Kindle, iPad, Nook, telephone, or even, I suppose, their watch if they like to read books on their wrist. Moreover, Smashwords uploads your book to other outlets such as Nook, Kobo, iBooks, Scribd, Overdrive, and I don’t know where else, saving the author the trouble of individually uploading each book in a different format.  You only have to do it once and they do the rest.Image result for hacker images

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is. I spent two entire days formatting my book. But, and here is the kicker, all I had to do was follow the instructions in Mark Coker’s guidebook. And the book is free and very user-friendly. If you follow it precisely, your book will be readable with no deep paragraph indents or inches of white space. I’ve read other books with a table of contents and buy links at the back and wondered how they did it. Now I know! Never too old to learn new tricks.

The other thing I’ve been working  on is converting Riverbend to Audible. I put up the info and a script, but so far no one has auditioned. I’m not very hopeful as an experienced reader can charge up to $500 an hour to read a book and ACX calculated it wold take 7.9 hours to read my book. That isn’t just reading, but editing. I can’t afford that, so I went the second route, which is to share royalties 50-50 with the reader.  Because I don’t have a large “platform” or following, I really can’t expect anyone to take the chance that their hours of work will pay off.

I thought of reading it aloud myself and making a file to upload. I like reading aloud and am told I have a pleasant, if soft, voice. That might be just right for Riverbend, whose main character is a genteel Southern woman. But where would I go to record? I’m afraid any recording I made would be interrupted by barking dogs, meowing cats, cars honking, birdsong, and me coughing when my throat gets dry. The birdsong might be a nice touch if I knew how to edit everything else out.

So that’s what I worked on this week. And you thought writing was only about thinking up a plot and inventing characters to act out the story.

I did too, once upon a time.

Commercial: If you want to read an excerpt from Riverbend, here’s the link: www.sandrazbruney.com

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson re-learned

When my first two non-fiction books were published, I was elated. A real publisher had accepted my submissions. It was a small, indie press, but to me it was a first step. Never mind that the company went out of business a few years later and I had to re-publish the books on my own. The experience was invaluable in that I realized I was no longer a wannabe, but a professional writer.

The second lesson I learned was during the editing process. Each book (Angels Unaware and The Lunch Club) elicited the same directive from the editor: Lose the first chapter.

It’s good advice. Many writers, including me, think that everything has to be explained in the first pages. We throw in too much back story, we put in too much detail about the characters and their lives, and we never get to the point of the story until chapter two. It’s not until then that the action begins to gain momentum.

I tried to follow that advice with my next books, published by a different small press. I started out with the problem and the story accelerated from there.

But I must have forgotten with my current work in progress. Like the tablecloth I mentioned in my last post, I kept starting and stopping, knowing something was wrong, but just not getting it. The first chapter limped along like a dog with a sand spur in his paw. Aggravating and painful.

Then one evening the answer came to me. The first chapter is boring because it doesn’t state the problem in the first page. It drones on until about mid-chapter, and then we discover the dilemma the protagonist faces. By then, most readers would have yawned and tossed the book aside.

Yep, I needed to lose that first chapter. So I highlighted and deleted the whole thing  and rewrote the second chapter (now first) so that the reader knows immediately what the heroine faces.

The lesson here is that we continue learning, but sometimes we forget what we learned. That’s why it’s so important to keep reading craft books and magazines, to attend workshops, and to work with a critique group.  I submitted that now-gone first chapter to a critique partner who said succinctly that she wasn’t sure if the protagonist was 13 or 30. I re-read it and realized in an effort to make the heroine young, I had essentially made her a teenager. More cuts and revisions.

But now that I’m aware of the red flags that I’d ignored in my blithe assumption that as a published author I knew what I was doing, I am eager to tackle the story again.

And I’m still eager to learn. On October 28, Joseph Bathanti will lead an intensive short story workshop in Wadesboro. I don’t write short stories very often, but I believe that what I  learn from a master writer can be applied to longer works.

If you live in the Charlotte area, check it out at Carolinas Writers Conference. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling validated

Well, whoop-de-do! My latest book, “Riverbend,” got a 5-star review in the September issue of Ind’Tale magazine. Naturally, I want to exploit this in the nicest way possible, which is to say putting it on Facebook.

But Facebook reaches only so many people. I’m sure that you (if you are a serious author) are always seeking ways to promote your book because frankly, we are the only ones who will.

I wanted the world (or those who don’t subscribe to Ind’Tale, which is a great on-line magazine, by the way) or follow me on Facebook to see the good news. But how?

I have often wondered how authors get those glowing editorial reviews on their Amazon book pages. Did the magazines and newspapers submit them? Common sense told me the New York Times has better things to do.

So like all curious people the world over, I Googled my question. And duh, you can do it yourself. Go to Author Central, click on the book page you want the review to appear on, and lo, there is a form you can fill out.  Look on the left side where it says “editorial” and click on “add.” You have to do it for both Kindle and print editions.

I didn’t copy-past the entire review as it was too long, and the rules say if you are copying another’s words, you should limit it to two sentences. So I picked the most glowing.

If you are not on Author Central at Amazon, why on Earth are you not? It’s another tool in your kit. Maybe not everybody visiting your book page will click on your link, but those who do get to see every book you’ve written, links to your bio, blogs, videos, or anything else you want to add.

I promised long ago to share any insights I have into the writing game, and sadly to say, promotion is a big part of it. Some of us are not good at self-promotion as we think it is tantamount to the bragging or parents scolded us for. We need to get over that notion.

You wrote a book. Now get out there and sell it.

 

 

Judge not…?

The thing about contests is that someone has to judge them. Not many people clamor to do this job, hence a little arm-twisting might be necessary to urge people to volunteer.

I volunteered along with three other members of my writing group to judge a neighboring county’s contest entries. It’s been a long-standing agreement that their club judge our contest entries and our club judge theirs.

So there we were, sitting around a kitchen table sipping water, tea, or diet soda, passing the pages around as each “judge” read and made notes. You may think we were in agreement on our choices, but that wasn’t the case. Some gave one story high marks while another called it average. We were divided on the poetry as well. We discussed our reasons for our decisions. No minds were changed, however.

Then we voted. The results were probably as fair as they could be. The only thing we agreed on was that some of the entries were categorized incorrectly. We could tell creative non-fiction from a short story, but somehow the writers could not.

I don’t like judging for the simple fact that 90 percent of it is subjective.  When I judge I weigh the merits of the story, its flow, the pacing. I want to care about the characters. I ignore typos and give some leeway on grammar. These things can be fixed. A story that goes off the tracks can’t. Yet others will leap gleefully on a misplaced comma and lower the rating accordingly.

I’ve entered contests and had my work returned with judge’s comments. Some were constructive, some not so much. Having been a judge myself, I know how impossible it is to be completely impartial. Our prejudices creep in. We like one genre better than another; we like one tense better than another. We try to be fair and push our preconceived notions aside. Sometimes we can.

Contests are important and often help the writer to become stronger, give her direction, help her see and overcome her weak points. If the writer enters in order to get this valuable feedback, she has won even if she doesn’t get to claim the prize.

Contests can provide confirmation to the winner. My hope is those who don’t place resolve not to give up, but to try again. Because it is’t the aim of contests to crush the writer who “failed.” Nor is it the aim of the judges to send a message “you’re not good enough” to these folks.

I’ve judged and been judged. Neither is easy. But in both cases, it helps us to grow as writers.

 

 

 

 

Synopsis first?

For years, I thought you wrote the synopsis after your book was written. It’s then that you want to start submitting to agents/editors/publishers. So you sit down and struggle to tell your 300-page novel in five pages or less.

For me, the word struggle doesn’t begin to cover it. What do  you include and what do you leave out? Is the sub-plot important? What about the secondary characters?  It almost takes me longer to come up with a synopsis than it did to write the story.

And then there’s the logline, which is another subject. To be honest, I wrote  and published several books before I knew what a tagline or logline were. In case you are wondering, here is one definition:  A “tagline” is a short, clever sentence or phrase somewhere on the book’s cover thatmm-blog should pique a potential reader’s interest enough to flip the book over and read the blurb (a one or two paragraph description of the books’ contents). For example, the tagline for A Question of Time is “In time, there are infinite places to hide a king.” A “logline” is a two-sentence plot summary. Readers don’t see loglines; your write them for agents or publishers to give them a quick idea of what your book is about. So they need to be carefully constructed, too. 

So many ways to condense your book!

But now I have learned you should write your summary first. And before you do that, you should sit down and  write an outline. As a pantser, or one who starts writing with only a vague notion of the book’s plot,  this was a revelation.

Oops, doesn’t that make me a plotter?

Maybe not. It doesn’t mean I have to fill three binders with notes or put sticky notes all over the wall behind my computer, or create a story board with pictures and descriptions. It’s more like a road map. We all download directions from MapQuest or type in our destination in the GPS before starting a trip. It doesn’t mean you can’t take a side road or detour if you are so inclined. (If you use a GPS, you will be reminded constantly how to get back on the main road.)

In the article, “Plotting Boot Camp” by Amanda Renee (Romance Writers Report, May 2016) the author outlines the steps you need to take to arrange goal, motivation, and conflict in your story. Renee states that she takes her cues from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat when she creates her “beat sheet.”

You can find numerous references to beat sheets, but simply put, there are specific places in your story where certain things must happen.  Must is the keyword, because to miss one beat is to have things begin to fall apart.

I decided I would try this method, mainly because it works so well for others. I’m already almost 6,000 words into the story, so I may have to backtrack a little. It’s worth it if I reach the end and everything fits, there’s a happy ever after, and no loose threads or plot holes.

So by looking at the synopsis as a kind of literary GPS, I can take up my story and go forward, hopefully on the right road. And, I may just take a side road or two to see what it’s like.

Because at heart, I’m a pantser.

 

What is your brand?

I have put a lot of miles on the Malibu this summer. Jim would be complaining about the mileage and wear and tear, but I think secretly he would be proud of me for getting out and not sitting home grieving.

I’ve been to Pennsylvania, Georgia, and most recently to Kentucky. I have to say Kentucky has a lot going for it: good roads, lovely scenery, and horse farms. Lots of horse farms.

In Louisville, there are horses everywhere. Not  real, live horses. The city boasts horse statues of every kind. Some are painted in bright colors. They really stand out on a sidewalk. (Click here to see some pictures of the painted horses.)

So from statues, billboards, signs, and even actual horses grazing peacefully in the countryside, you can’t forget for a minute that you are in horse country.

Kentucky knows how to brand herself.

I understand that is important for a writer as well. An author needs to create a brand that is instantly recognizable. What do you think when you see the names John Patterson, Mary Kay Andrews, Elin Hilderbrand?

If you answered fast-paced action mystery, humorous southern romance, and summer beach reads, you know what branding is.

Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Authors work hard to create a brand. Their books are aimed at a specific segment of the reading public. If Patterson suddenly published a sweet cozy mystery instead of his usual drama-packed story, readers would be as outraged as if they had opened a carton of rocky road ice cream and found a quart of strawberry swirl instead.

He might even lose a few fans.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. I wrote women’s fiction, and then switched to a kind of hybrid paranormal. I should have written the latter under a pen name, I suppose, but it seemed like too much effort to create a new Facebook author page and website. And, everyone knows that J.D. Robb is really Nora Roberts, so changing the name doesn’t fool anyone. Except that readers know what to expect when they open her books–under either pen name.

That’s what branding does. The reader sees a familiar name on a book cover and instantly knows what kind of story lies within. Yes, the cover illustration and the blurb on the back help, but the author’s name gives instant recognition.

I haven’t reached that pinnacle where people recognize my name and realize at once what kind of stories I write. But I hope I am slowly, steadily, building my brand.

Book by book.

 

 

 

 

Getting my money’s worth: Part Two

Today I am posting some more tidbits of wisdom garnered at the Carolinas Writers Conference. Chris Roerden is an editor and this was her second appearance at the annual conference. Chris knows more about editing than most people I know (including editors) and is happy to share her expertise. Some of what she told us was what we all learn when we start writing, but here are a few things I didn’t know.

  • Attitude: The main character should have an attitude–that is, her world view, how she approaches her environment.
  • We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell.” The character’s emotions are critically important. Don’t say, “She cried.” Show the reader how she cried. (If I showed the reader how I cried, I’d have to say “and snot came out of her nose.” Because I don’t cry pretty.) Showing is judgmental on the part of the author.
  • Read the book you love twice, first for enjoyment and second to figure out how the author did it.

Author Michelle Buckman also made her second appearance at the conference. When we find someone who is good, we tend to ask them back. Here’s what I took away from her workshop:

  • Show the protagonist’s characteristics in the opening page. The opening pages create a sympathetic character or situation.
  • There has to be a reason for everything the character does. Things in the past affect the now and project into the future. (Here is where we can sow little clues in the beginning of the book that bear fruition when we come to the climax.)
  • History is backstory and is necessary for depth but it doesn’t go up front. Your characters must have a history, but scatter it throughout the story. Avoid the dreaded “information dump.”
  • Tie your characters together as closely as possible, but not in the way readers expect. Make the unlikely one step up. Surprise the reader to keep her interest.
  • Create sympathetic characters and intriguing situations or a situation that  relates to the reader’s life.
  • Add enough layers to the character and plot  so both are intriguing.
  • What is her greatest fear? Why? What caused it? Have her face this fear.
  • Who does he love most? Who does he hate? Reverse roles for a new dimension.
  • Who is blocking the main character from achieving her goal? Who is her mentor?
  • Have the lead character do something he would never do. Do the same thing with a secondary character.
  • Find something about your secondary character that ties him to the main character.

You’ve probably heard all this before, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. I’ve been taking a long, hard look at my WIP to see if I’ve created as many layers in my characters as I could.

Because there is nothing worse than a shallow, cardboard cut-out hero or heroine.

 

 

Getting my money’s worth

Like Christmas, after a period of frenzied preparation the day of our writers’ club’s annual conference has come and gone. Some of us counted success in the number of attendees, others in the  comments of those who came away with renewed purpose and a clearer goal.

I sat in on Robert Macomber’s workshop on “Planning Your Writing Career.”  I, like many others, went into writing with high hopes and little knowledge of the real work behind the books I love to read. Among those books are Macomber’s “Honor” series, richly detailed and meticulously researched novels about a fictional officer in the U.S. Navy from the Civil War through the early 2oth century. Here’s what he had to say:

  • Think of yourself as a professional writer, even if you are not yet published. Attitude is everything. Be positive minded and professional at all times.
  • Understand your story and understand your genre. Tell your story in a different way. Pick a niche that hasn’t been done.
  • Know your audience.
  • Learn, learn, learn. Know the rules and when to break them. Be an expert in your subject. Learn your competition: read their books. Talk to libraries, booksellers, editors to learn what readers want. Learn about the business of writing.
  • Bring your family on board. Have one area of the home that is your oasis and find a minimum of three hours a day when they know you are not to be disturbed. They need to know this is your second job. (Your first job earns the money so you can do the second.)
  • Decide before you start on point of view, past or present tense, and your title. A title should be concise, vivid, evocative, and memorable. Plan a storyboard or visual road map. (And here’s a kicker) write your synopsis first to keep your story on track. Decide the size of your chapters up front. Chapter titles and sub-titles intrigue the reader and help pacing.
  • Set a daily goal of draft words or finished words. Read your work aloud. The reader “hears” the words he reads inside his brain.
  • Consider the visual aspect of your words on the page, i.e., white space.
  • Set reasonable dates for interim goals to be met. Have your family celebrate these goals with you.
  •  Invite people to help you with research and be sure to name them in your acknowledgements.
  • Your first three pages are the most important in engaging the reader. The end of your story should leave the reader with a feeling of accomplishment and wondering what comes next.
  • Everybody needs one to three critical reader and an editor. Critical readers are friends who are widely read, who know grammar, can give you advice, and keep their mouth shut.
  • Your readers should learn something, be entertained, and not feel they have wasted their money.

Some of these things I knew before. Some I knew but hadn’t put into practice. And some are things I had never thought of, so of Macomber’s workshop I can say I learned something, was entertained (Macomber is as engaging a speaker as he is a writer), and I certainly didn’t feel I wasted my money. His workshop alone was worth the registration fee.

Next week I’ll share what I learned in the other workshops I attended.

You are welcome.

 

The balancing act

I somehow found myself volunteering to lead a workshop on dialogue.

Yes, “found myself,” as that person who raised her hand and said, “I’ll do it,” surely wasn’t me … except it was.

I thought I knew a little about dialogue. It’s my favorite part of writing. I’m a shameless eavesdropper and even more shameless about incorporating phrases and new (to me) words into my writing.

I know dialogue advances the plot, moves the story forward, foreshadows, gives insight into character, provides needed information, and all the rest.

What my research via the great search engine Google taught me was that dialogue also creates white space on the page.

That brought me up short. White space? But then I remembered the many books I leafed through, only to put them down because there was page after page of long, black paragraphs. Like Alice, I like a book with conversation and pictures. We don’t get many pictures now, but I remember when there were drawings interspersed among the pages that gave the reader a glimpse of what the characters and settings looked like. Now the author must provide this information, not with long expositions, but with a few well-chosen words that provide a springboard for the reader to leap into his or her own imagination.

Like artists facing a canvas, writers need to create a pleasing page as well as articulate prose. Balanced paragraphs. Judicious placing of description, action, and dialogue: not too much or too little of any of the components. We can’t really know how our words will appear on the printed page (or electronic page) but it is our job to try.

After all, writers are artists, also. We just use words instead of paint.

 

 

How much is too much?

Many writers describe their efforts as similar to having a baby.

I beg to differ. The command to “Push!” comes after the book is born published. Your publisher, even if that person is you, knows the next step is to get that baby noticed.

I was advised to leverage my 4.5 star review in the February issue of InD’tale magazine and use it to convince reviewers they needed to hop on the bandwagon and go forth and do likewise. Well, none of the reviewers I have been researching wants to know how another reviewer rated your book. Nope. They want to come at it without any predetermined opinions.

I don’t blame them. There must be another way to leverage a good review, but that’s apparently not it.

I have been begging requesting reviews, though. It’s a tedious process to find reviewers who are a)are not swamped and are still accepting submissions b)review your genre and c)are willing to post it to various sites (amazon.com) and not just on their blog.

But I’ve been plugging away. The catch is, these people really are busy and although they love to read, it may take weeks before they get to my book.

I’ve been active on Facebook, although now I’m told the place to push your book is on Instagram. Excuse me, I just mastered Twitter. As for Pinterest, I’ve been locked out of my own site so often I’m ready to quit, with apologies to my five followers.

So. Maybe I had better take a closer look at the newest social media craze. Except I don’t have a smart phone. Don’t want a smart phone. Those things are smarter than I am, and I am depressed enough.

I may have to take the plunge. I have always prided myself on not being afraid to tackle new things. I learned html back when blogs and websites were the new kids on the block. I ought to be able to master this.

So, another learning curve. That’s all right. You are never too old a dog to learn a new trick.

Here’s another piece of advice.  Always remember it isn’t your book you are pushing. It’s you. And if people like you, they will take a look at your book.

Whether they buy it or not depends on many things–and shoving your book in their face and pleading with them to buy it isn’t one of them.

Sometimes “push” equals “pushiness” and that’s never a good thing.

 

 

 

Even pantsers need to plot sometimes

I am a pantser, not a plotter, so sometimes I get to a point when, like a driver without a road map, I have to admit I am lost.

Luckily, I have OnStar for road trips. But to plot out my course in a work in progress…not so much help.

I had a feeling yesterday while I was writing that something was wrong. I had a plot, I had a good idea of where I was going, but I wasn’t sure the destination was valid. That same feeling sent me to Google and I did some research.

Yep, you should listen to that inner voice. I based the ending of the story on a premise that wasn’t true. If I’d gone on and eventually published the book, my email would have been filled with angry letters from historians.

In the story, my protagonist is being blackmailed, but what I discovered was that what he did was not exactly against the law in the early 1800s. Well, it was, but he wouldn’t have been punished except for a fine that he could easily have paid. In real life he’d have laughed and told his adversary to go ahead and report him.

So the threat wasn’t a threat after all.

I felt both crushed that I had to come up with another sin in his past and happy that I’d taken time to fact check before I had gone any further, because I hate looking like an idiot.

I left my work station and went outside and whacked some upstart weeds, raked and bagged pine needles, and piled up some dead branches that had fallen in the last wind storm. And thought.

I do some of my best thinking while engaging in physical labor. Also at 3 a.m., but that’s another story.

I did come up with a alternate idea. Now my protagonist has a choice of giving in one more time or telling his blackmailer to go ahead and betray him — but this time the stakes are much bigger. He could lose everything. Conversely, he could gain his heart’s desire.

Will he accept the gamble?

I know the answer to that question, but I’m not telling.

Yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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