Saturday, August 31, 2013

Kindle Dementia


Let's talk about “Kindle Dementia.” I have it. Do you? Kindle Dementia is manifested when the owner of a Kindle finds a book to purchase, often at a reduced price, and utilize Amazon’s “buy now with one click” feature only to be informed that they have purchased the book previously. Amazon --- in the event that the purchaser doesn’t already feel foolish enough --- also advises the date that the book was previously purchased, said date being a year, or a few months, or even a few days prior to the current effort to purchase the same book twice. There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in the future the software or algorithm or whatever in heck it is called will be able to tell you what you were doing when you first bought the book and what other books you’ve bought and read instead of the one which you want to read so much that you’re trying to buy it again just so you don’t forget. What bothers me is that this has happened to me twice in the last three weeks, with different books. I think. Obviously, this isn’t just happening to me; I say “obviously” because although I have been known to think highly of myself (ask my family) my narcissism hasn’t progressed so far that I think that Amazon devised this feature just for me, or a few other people of my age and station. So I ask: has the heartbreak of Kindle Dementia manifested itself in your world? Have you accidentally tried to purchase a book for your Kindle twice? Have you done it often?      

Friday, August 30, 2013

Reader Friday: Report Your Progress!

Tell us how you're doing with your current WIP. Are you working toward a milestone, or celebrating one? Check in and report, Writer!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

First Page Critique

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


Today's first page critique is for what I think is a sci-fi thriller. It's called DEALBREAKER. My comments are at the end. Enjoy!

Mackenzie stood upright with his arms folded, concentrating on the sound made by the wheat on the planets surface far below as it gently swayed in the artificial wind. He cleared his mind of the constant flow of information from his implants, willing the augmented reality overlay to dissolve from his vision. Next he closed his eyes, allowing his arms to fall by his sides as he took cognisance of his own breathing. Finally his mind and body could relax.

Opening his eyes he looked into the distance, his view partially obscured by the huge hexagons of the domed superstructure protecting the buildings and land around him. The eastern horizon was dominated by a wall of dark cloud that blocked the view of the stars beyond. Already the very highest altitudes were tinged with crimson, hinting at the vivid reds and oranges that daylight would soon ignite. By the time the storm reached Dunvegan the sky would be a violent tempest of dust that would shred an EVA suit from anyone caught in the open.

Under normal circumstances the effort to secure all personnel and assets from the deadly weather front would be the companies top priority. Dealing with extreme weather was just part of the way of life on Demeter. It enabled junior operators to prove their worth to the company, and more seasoned figures the chance to prove they were still worth retaining. Mackenzie would rather have been coordinating the effort, ensuring the long range operators had taken sanctuary in the nearest survival dome, that those closer to base had made it back to the safety of Dunvegan. But today wasn't normal. He'd initially queried the decision to delegate all surface operations to a relatively junior team, but Mackenzie had learned to trust Munro's judgement during a crises, and had spoken no more about it from that point on.

He allowing his implants to interact with his mind and body again as he lowered his gaze from the horizon to the rest of the city. Calling up a tactical overlay, the numerous dome structures now appeared to take on different colours against the dusty reds and oranges of the planets surface. Most were now either white, to indicate no known disturbance, or a deep blue for those where order had been restored. The majority of red areas were dotted around the civic government quarter in the south of the city. He shook his head slowly and allowed himself a smile. When would they ever learn?


MY COMMENTS:


First of all there are numerous grammatical errors/typographical errors that detracted from the story. These include planets instead of planet's, companies instead of company's (or companies' if there are multiple companies involved); crises instead of crisis, allowing instead of allowed. When it comes to an editor, these kind of errors can be fatal. I can't stress this enough - the occasional typo is forgivable but wholesale grammatical errors are more than likely going to doom your submission. 


That being said, I thought the writer did a great job of providing an atmospheric, intriguing set up to his/her story. My main issue with this as a first page, however, is that it is all set up. There's only exposition and very little in the way of action to draw the reader in immediately. Now, I am not an avid reader of science-fiction but I expect a writer in this genre needs to balance world-building with action/tension and pacing from the get go. I feel that the book needs to start in a different place - perhaps in the midst of a 'disturbance' in one of the domes where order hasn't been restored and where we (as readers) encounter Mackenzie trying to juggle re-establishing government order while worrying about security and safety given the approaching dust storm.


Although this first page has a definite post-apocalyptic feel I think we need more immediacy to the crisis rather than just background. I also felt that there was too much repetition in terms of color. We have the vivid red which will be ignited once the dust storm arrives and we also have red areas where (I assume) disturbances are occurring within the domes. Though we get the feeling Mackenzie might be in law enforcement we aren't entirely sure what his role is (does he work for the company? for the government? Who is Munro? Why is today not a normal day?) Most of this can be dealt with later in the first chapter but because this page has so much exposition it feels a little ungrounded without more specificity about Mackenzie and why we should (as readers) care about him as a character. I was also unsure about the significance of the last line or why Mackenzie 'allowed himself a smile'.


What do you think? 


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When is “Dark” too dark?

Nancy J. Cohen

One of the words I’ve been repeating in my works lately has been “dark”. You know, the man swung his dark gaze her way. He wore a dark suit. He had his dark hair brushed back over a wide forehead. Shadows darkened in a corner as he gave her a dark scowl.

Ouch.

This can be considered lazy writing, except I hadn’t even been aware of this fault until I ran one of the self-edit programs described in my personal blog at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. I embarked on a search and find mission to replace as many of these weak terms as possible.

Let’s start with clothes. Face it, men wear dark suits. To get a better idea of colors, I accessed this website: http://lawyerist.com/suit-colors-for-the-clueless/. Ah, now it became clear which colors are popular for men and suited to business. My descriptions of dark suits changed to black, charcoal, slate or navy. That’s a lot better than “dark”, isn’t it?

charcoal blazer

If you want to get even more particular, go online to a department store site like Macys.com and put in the search feature “suits, “blazers”, or “sportcoats” and you’ll get a wide variety of colors.

navy blazer

What about the character who has dark hair? Is it black or dark brown? Check this reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_hair_color. Instead of black hair, give your character raven, ebony, or onyx hair. Varying the descriptions adds spice to your story.

Jen4

Also watch out for redundancies like dark shadows & dark scowl. Both of these work well without the “dark” element.

Despite its ambiguity, this word is popular for movies. Witness Batman’s The Dark Knight; Thor: The Dark World; and Star Trek into Darkness.

The filmmakers can get away with it, but as a writer, you cannot. What other ambiguous words like this might you want to change?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Five online mistakes writers should never make


Clare's post yesterday about social media has inspired me to add my own two cents about social media. Specifically, I'd like to discuss some of the language errors I see online at many sites (Fortunately, I don't notice these mistakes here at TKZ, which reinforces my already high regard for this community). 

Anyone can make a typo or a mistake when they fat-finger something in haste or after consuming too many Singapore Slings. But there are a few gooflaws which seem to reflect a lack of understanding about the use of language. 

Here, in no particular order, is a list of the five language mistakes that have been driving me absolutely bat poop crazy lately, especially when they're made by people who claim to be writers:

  1.  Loose/Lose: Perhaps because my series deals with body image issues, I lurk at a few sites where people discuss their need to lose weight. Too often, someone will say she needs to "loose" weight. Whenever I encounter this error, I have to control my itchy typing finger to keep from replying with a snarky correction. Nobody likes snark.
  2. Its/It's: This is the mistake I see the most. People often use "it's" when the correct form should be "its". "It's" is used as a replacement for "it is". "Its" is a possessive pronoun, as in, "This post has got its dander up." When unsure, try replacing the word with "it is", and see if it makes sense,
  3. Your/You're: Sigh. I don't think I even have to explain this one to our readers. This offense seems to be committed mostly by Millennials, including some who claim to be writers. These people make me despair of the current state of English teaching in America. On the other hand, I don't have to wonder how their literary ambitions will pan out.
  4. Their/There/They're: These words seem to get misused on news sites a lot, mostly by online bloviators who use anonymous IDs and savagely attack the opinions of other people, no matter how benign those comments are. So, to recap: "Their" is used when you are referring to more than one person and something they possess. "There" is the word that is most often misused in place of the other forms. "They're" is a contraction for "they are."
  5. Compliment/Complement: "Compliment" is something nice you say to someone. "Complement" is something that adds to, enhances, or completes something else. It can also be used as a verb with an object.
 So that's my rant for today. Do you have a pet peeve about language you'd care to add to my list?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Social Media for Authors

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We've blogged a lot about the need for authors to be savvy marketers, as well as great writers, and to use social media wisely and effectively to promote their books. At the Willamette Writers Conference I attended a few weeks ago this was evident in all the presentations provided on publishing and marketing ebooks. 

As someone who has only used social media sporadically in relation to my books, I was interested in how many of the presenters viewed the social media world as a fragmented one - with options such as Facebook and Twitter having, in their view, only limited reach and effectiveness in terms of actual marketing. I have certainly noticed a real uptick in the number of Facebook posts I receive that are little more than either blatant self promotion or thinly disguised marketing (To be honest I'm getting pretty sick of hearing what # on Amazon's rankings certain author's books are - does it mean I'm more likely to buy their book because I read a Facebook post on this - short answer, no). Most of the time it doesn't bother me though - I'm always interested if it's a post on a one-day sale or some special event/signing etc. - but I remain unconvinced that Facebook is a tool for actual marketing. In my mind it's more of a tool to connect with people who have already opted to be your 'friend' (either on your author page or for you as an individual). I'm not sure it necessarily gains an author new readers.

After digesting what many of the presenters at the Willamette Writers conference said on the use of social media, I thought I'd get some feedback from the TKZ on their views. It will be interesting to get your take on the issues raised. So...here goes... 

  • When mapping out your own marketing plan (or author platform development) how do you view Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, or Tumblr etc. 
  • Do you adopt a different approach and have different expectations in terms of using these? 
  • Do you use all or only some of them? 
  • Are there any you just don't bother with?
  • Do you replicate content across social media or do you produce discrete, original content/posts for each?
In short, how are you navigating the social media world when it comes to marketing and promoting your books?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Best Way to Market Your Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



Every writer is looking for that secret marketing weapon that works every time. Or a palette of possibilities that virtually guarantees success. But reality keeps affirming the old adage: We know that 20% of marketing works; we just don't know which 20%.

But of course we all have to market our books. This applies whether we're self-pubbing, going traditional or doing a bit of both. The author is expected to work the social media circuit, build a platform, get the word out any which way he can. Sometimes it all feels like loading mercury with a pitchfork.

Comes now the marvelous Joanna Penn with the new go-to
book. Joanna already runs one of the most helpful websites for indie writers, The Creative Penn. Go there and hang around awhile. You'll find material aplenty, including a podcast with a certain author of note (at least, of note to himself).

In How to Market a Book, Joanna approaches the whole enterprise by way of a skiing metaphor. Marketing a book is like hitting the slopes on a fresh pack of snow, and so:

Your path is not a straight line. You have to zigzag

"Even though you know the general direction you want to head in," Joanna writes, "you can't direct yourself straight down the mountain, or you will certainly have an accident. Even pros have to change direction and turn their skis across the slope. There is no direct path, so don't expect there to be."

While you don't want to fall victim to "Obsessive Promotion Disorder" (OPD), you do have to be aware and watch the terrain. One of the great advantages an indie writer has is the ability to change direction quickly via price pulsing, new cover designs, paid promos, or simply adding more product.

It's easier to turn once you're moving

"You need some momentum in order to turn on skis, so you actually have to get moving before you try. In the same way, you actually have to start writing in order to have something to edit and improve . . .You have to start marketing somehow so you can learn what works for you and improve over time."

One of the benefit's of Joanna's book is that it is a menu of options. You can pick and choose what appeals to you, get started right away and establish some Mo.

You can't learn it all from books: you have to get on the slope 

"You can't be a great skier by reading about it or going to seminars or watching YouTube videos. You have to actually put in the hours skiing. The same applies to writing, publishing and marketing."

There is a time for study. It should be part of your ongoing self-improvement program, as both a writer and marketer. But at the same time you must act. As a writer, you must produce the words. As a marketer, you must toot the old horn. Even if that horn makes barely a peep at first, at least you're learning.

You're going to fall over and it's going to hurt

"But you get better over time. If you're afraid of falling over, you will never be a good skier. Because you will fall, it happens a lot and it has to happen if you're going to push yourself to get better and go on more advanced runs. So be prepared to fall, to fail, and to just get up again. Keep writing, keep putting your words out and keep experimenting with marketing."

The writing life is so much about overcoming setbacks and challenges and perceived failures. The only way through it is to never stop, ever. The benefit is you get stronger that way.

Some days, the weather is perfect and you can see for miles and the sun is shining and it's amazing!  

"This is meant to be fun! Yes, it's a career and an income, but it's also a passion. The reason we keep going back to skiing, keep going back up the slope, is that there is exhilaration and joy in the process, not just the outcome of getting to the bottom. Some days, the weather will be perfect and we will have amazing runs on pristine, soft snow. Other days, the

icy cold will make us grit our teeth to even manage one run. But we keep going back because we love it."

You gotta love it to get through the hard times. And if you're a real writer, you wouldn't have it any other way. You take your shots because you know the joy of writing "in the zone." You know how your writer's soul whoops when you nail a scene. Even when that whoop is out loud at Starbucks.

So what's the best way to market your books? Your way. Select from all the modes and means out there, doing as much as you want without taking away from the most important thing of all—your actual writing. Write well, write often, and then tell people about it. Master the five fundamental laws in Self-Publishing Attack! and build your personal marketing plan with the help of Joanna Penn and How to Market a Book.

If you're a published writer, what are your favored means of marketing? What walls have you run into? What would you advise writers to avoid?  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Going Places

By Mark Alpert

I’m going to a wedding in Vermont this weekend. I know the state fairly well; my first job (almost thirty years ago!) was at a newspaper whose coverage area straddled the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. I went back and forth between Claremont, New Hampshire, and Springfield, Vermont, almost every day, and at night I often ventured to a bar called Bentley’s in Woodstock and a place in Proctorsville whose name I can’t remember. (The Station? Maybe that was it. I do remember that last call was at 12:30 am, which seemed ridiculously early.) I’ve skied at Killington, Okemo, Mount Snow and Stratton, and I went to the state fair in Rutland and the inaugural ball of former governor Madeline Kunin. But the wedding this weekend will take place in the fabulously picturesque northeastern corner of Vermont, which is so different from the rest of the state that it’s called the Northeast Kingdom. I’ve never been there, so this is going to be a real treat.
And I’ll be checking out the place as a possible setting for future novels. I’m always doing that. I don’t feel comfortable writing about a place unless I’ve been there.

In my upcoming novel The Furies (to be published in April, right after the paperback of Extinction comes out) I decided to set a gunfight in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn I’m not so familiar with. I wanted to put the scene in a neighborhood that was gentrifying but still kind of dicey, and that’s what everyone says about Bushwick. But I was feeling a little uneasy about the choice, so I decided to take a stroll down Bushwick Avenue the other day. I started at the gentrifying western edge of the neighborhood, and I did indeed see many hipsters and artist types hanging out at newly renovated cafes carved from the ground floors of former warehouses. And as I walked a couple of miles east, the hipster percentage gradually decreased and I started to see abandoned buildings and lots of graffiti, and I definitely got the sense, “Yeah, this is dicey.” On the plus side, I felt a lot better about the choice of neighborhood for my book, but on the minus side I began to worry about wandering into a real gunfight. So I cut the expedition short and found a great little deli and bought a bottle of Jarritos fruit-punch soda. It’s delicious stuff, incredibly sweet. Then I climbed up the stairs to the elevated track of the J subway line and headed back to Manhattan.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Reader Friday; Where's Your Bookmark?

What are you reading this week? Enjoying it?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

First Page Critique – The Good Guys

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

A brave author/follower of TKZ has anonymously submitted the opener to a book entitled – The Good Guys. My critique will be on the flip side. Enjoy!

Fotolia_3029480_XS (2)
Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane


I should’ve let the cops arrest me. After all, it was just a drug deal in a neighbourhood park. A much smaller crime than taking a hostage at gun-point. I’d have most likely just got a date with the Magi and been home in time for lunch.  A lot less trouble that I was in now.  But it was a stressful situation, and in the heat of the moment, I panicked. 

“Are you a fucking retard, Tay?” Si yells. “I told you to get the money, hand over the shit, return. How the fuck did you manage to come back with no money, no drugs and this son-of-a-bitch?” 

His fist strikes my jaw and I fly backward. A dull moan comes out before I can stop it. I’m fucked now. Even though I’m a chick, Si likes people to take their beatings ‘like men.’  Before I hit the floor he grabs my by the front of my jumper and pulls me back to my feet. Then he appears in my face, so close I can smell the sausage on his breath. 


“Say it.” 

“Say what?”

“Say: I’m a fucking retard.”

“I’m a fucking retard.” I speak slowly and clearly, holding his gaze.
               

He smiles. “Good.” 

I start to exhale, praying it’s over, but then he grabs my ponytail and the air whooshes past my face. The room blurs. At first, it feels like someone is attacking my scalp with a thousand tiny needles, then it’s more like half a dozen thick, sharp blades. White noise is all around, but in the background, the far, far, background, I hear a husky voice. 

“Leave her alone.” 

Suddenly released from Si’s grip, I slump to the floor and stare at my hostage. Did he just say that? Fuck me. He hold Si’s gaze, but I see fear in his eyes. Fear and something else. I can’t quite place it. There’s a scent of familiarity about him. Must have done a drop to him before. 

“Sorry, man, are you feeling left out? Don’t worry. It’s your turn now.”

Si cracks his huge, mangled knuckles then pulls a shiny, black handgun out of the back of his jeans.  He points it at my hostage. I now know what I saw in his eyes. Hope. I know, because now it has been extinguished.


My Critique:

A.) First thing I want to point out are the typos. I’ve bolded and colored the ones I found in red. There are 3. This is where reading your work aloud would’ve helped, but typos are a big NO NO, especially with such a short excerpt. An editor or agent would see these and think the rest of the book is riddled with them. Submitting work for publication or representation is competitive. Don’t give them a reason to turn you down. Beta readers checking your work might catch these too.

B.) The intro starts with a bit of back story set up that is written in past tense before it propels the reader into the present. It might’ve been more effective to keep the reader in the moment as the story unfolds, without the set up that doesn’t tell much anyway. I would almost rather have read THAT scene (of how the whole thing went wrong and how she was stuck with this hostage). Seeing the aftermath is less interesting to me.

C.) When Si first mentions that she “comes back with this son of a bitch,” it might be more effective to draw the reader’s attention to who he is referring to. Since this is in her POV, you could have her look at the guy and show the reader what she sees. Instead we have to wait until the end to realize who this guy might be and know he’s in trouble. The author has created a mystery at the beginning, but not capitalized on this hostage or teased the reader with who he is until after the fact.

D.) The use of profanity so heavy in the beginning can not only be a turn off to readers, but editors/agents too. Here the word fuck is used 4 times in such a short segment. There are times when this word can be effective and I’ve certainly used it before in my books, but I use it sparingly and in the body of the work. We’ve chatted about the use of profanity on TKZ before, but I wanted to point out that using it so heavily in this intro can be another red flag for an industry professional reading this as a writing sample.

E.) One of my editors asked me to change a word ‘spaz’ or spastic because it had the derogatory meaning of retarded in the UK and she didn’t want to risk using the word if it turned off that market. But in this intro, we see the word ‘retarded’ used several times, and coupled with profanity. I’m not sure how this would be received, but I wanted to point out what my editor found necessary to change.

F.) In the description of Si hitting her, it reads at a distance as if the author (or the character) is watching it from faraway. If I got hit in the face, I would not know what happened. I’d 'feel' more. My eyes would water, my jaw would throb, the pain would radiate through me, and I’d see stars and be dizzy. I’d feel embarrassed, hurt, and many other things, but the writing in first person has to come inside the character, using the senses.

G.) This is a nit pick, but the name of Si forced me out of the writing for a bit. It seemed like a typo. I’m Hispanic and the word “Si” with an accent mark means YES in Spanish. I thought it might be a typo for the word SO as well. If you have a nickname for your character, I would make sure it is more distinctive and not too similar to another word that would trip up the reader.

H.) The use of the word MAGI (for magistrate) sets this book possibly in the UK, but definitely not the US (not that it has to be). The spelling of ‘neighbourhood’ gives a hint of this too. If this story takes place in a specific country, I would be tempted to use a tag line to establish that with the reader right away.

I.) In addition, and my biggest point, the writing of this author is very sparse. It is quick snippets into the mind of our girl, Tay, but little else. I would like to get a feel of the setting and put the reader into the scene using the reader’s senses. Writing in a sparse style can move pace, but it shouldn’t at the expense of a richer character voice. That’s what would make this piece more memorable. So what would add color and 'voice' to this work? Try answering these questions and incorporate those thoughts into this intro to add flavor.

Questions to build what we know about Tay:
  1. What has driven Tay to be a mule for a drug dealer? Does she have a roof over her head? Where did she sleep last night? Is she doing criminal acts for money to survive or is she desperate to take care of someone else? Or are her motives a secret?
  2. What is she wearing? Is she cold? Hungry? Needing a shower?
  3. How does she feel about other people she sees at the park where the drug deal goes down? Is she an outsider to the normal people who are there for other reasons? Does the scene remind her of her past? How so?
  4. When she’s at the park, what does she smell? Does the hot dog vendor make her hungry? Does she see people with money, paying for things, and resent it?
  5. Who is the hostage and why does she take him? She knows she’s in trouble with Si, but bringing a hostage will put him in harm’s way too. Why does she do it?

These are just a few questions—and you certainly don’t have to answer them in the intro—but if you back up where you start and take it from where things start to go wrong for Tay at the drug deal, you could incorporate some of her feelings with a touch of her motivation and what she sees, hears, tastes, etc to make her more sympathetic by the time Si punches her for screwing things up. 

The author could have a big mystery going as to why this out of place street kid is in the park in the first place--the furtive glances, the tension--until the drug deals goes down and everything unravels. She would come off as a criminal, take a hostage, but the reader might be compelled to read on if she comes across as vaguely sympathetic with hints of her motivation (without giving too much away).

Writing in first person present tense is a great way to bring the reader into the heart of the character, to really know what is in her head, but that doesn’t happen in this sample.

To make Tay more interesting, the author must give her opinions of her surroundings and her situation, and enough insight that will allow the reader to know why Tay deserves a starring role in this book. I want to care more about her and her hostage, but I’m not vested in them yet. Back up the time frame of this intro, and make us care about Tay and the poor guy who gets drawn into her mess, and you would have a more compelling start.

What do you think TKZers? Anything to add that might help this brave author?

Jordan Dane's BLOOD SCORE now available in ebook at Amazon for the discounted price of $2.99 - Buy at this LINK.

A dangerous liaison ignites the bloodlust of a merciless killer

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Keeping it Real

By Joe Moore

Before we begin, a bit of self promotion. For one day only, Saturday, August 24, Amazon is dropping the price of two of my thrillers (co-written with Lynn Sholes): THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY and THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. TGC is an international bestseller, and both are previous #1 Amazon bestsellers. Download each for only $1.99. Don’t miss reading the first installment of the 4-book Cotten Stone saga (TGC) or how far one man will go to live forever (TPA). Enjoy!

----------------------

Today is my lucky day. It started right after I poured my first cup of coffee and launched my e-mail. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the first message popped up. It was from an exiled Nigerian king who escaped his country excitewith a fortune in the bank but no way to get to it. Somehow he had found me and asked that I help him get his family’s money; and amount he estimated to be over fifty million dollars. For my assistance, he was willing to give me twenty percent of the funds: a cool ten million.

As you can imagine, I was speechless. But then things got even better. My second e-mail was from none other than the Official International Lottery (you’ve heard of it, right?). Believe it or not, my personal e-mail had been randomly chosen from among all the e-mail addresses in the world as the sole winner: a lump sum of $500k. Considering that there are hundreds of e-mail addresses out there, perhaps thousands, I felt like the luckiest guy on my block. I was whooping and hollering when my wife walked in and asked what all the excitement was about. I told her that minus some small administrative fees I needed to wire transfer to His Majesty and the lottery guys, we were rich beyond our wildest dreams.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Joe, you’re one lucky guy. You might also be thinking that all this good fortune is hard to believe. After all, winning the International Lottery is one thing, but on the same day getting this incredible opportunity to help the Nigerian king is, well, an amazing coincidence. I bet there are even a couple of you that flat-out don’t believe it could happen. You think it’s just too much of a coincidence.

If this were a novel, chances are the reader would be kicked right out of the story. That’s because coincidence, if used improperly or overused, can be considered nothing more than a cheap trick. Using it can lower the writer’s credibility and believability. And if it comes as a blatant trick to solve an unsolvable problem, it could cause the reader to close the book and move on.

Coincidence is defined as something that happens by chance, was never intended to take place, and is usually considered an accident. Improper use often occurs when a writer paints himself into a corner and there’s no way out except to turn to an unbelievable event or the introduction of a new element “out of the blue”.

Don’t get me wrong, coincidence is a legitimate writing technique if it’s properly setup and foreshadowed. The key is to make it realistic. Example: on a given day, running into someone you know at JFK is not realistic. Considering an international airport like JFK has multiple terminals, dozens of airlines, and hundreds of thousands of passengers passing through it daily. How often have you run into someone you know at a big airport like JFK? Not too often, I’ll bet. If it doesn’t happen to you, why should it happen to a character in your story? It’s not realistic.

But let’s say two people are in the same industry. Each year they attend an industry tradeshow. They always stay at the same hotel. You’ve established this somewhere previously in the story. What are the chances of them running into each other in the hotel bar? Pretty good. That’s a realistic coincidence. You’ve already foreshadowed enough information to the reader that when it happens, the reaction is Aha, not No Way.

The secret to using coincidence is to narrow down the chances of it not happening beforehand so that when the event takes place, you don’t make the reader roll her eyes.

A nasty form of coincidence is what’s called deus ex machine, Latin for god in the machine: a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new character, ability or object. Your character suddenly has the ability to fly a jumbo jet without any prior flying experience, or a new character appears just in time to perform a life-saving rescue, someone that up until this point was never mentioned in the story. Don’t go there. It will make your writing weak and lacking in integrity. And it could cost you readers.

So how do you avoid coincidence and deus ex machine? Plan ahead. Take time to foreshadow so your reader doesn’t get blindsided. Map out the story in advance, drop hints, and keep things realistic. And as a last resort, if you must use coincidence, take the time to go back and insert the foreshadowing and hints. Doing so will make you look clever in the eyes of the reader. Lastly, placing your character into hot water by coincidence is forgivable. Getting her out is not.

BTW, one more thing about my fabulous luck with the Nigerian king and the International lottery: according to stats, U.S. citizens lose more than $550 million a year as a result of Internet fraud. I sure hope His Majesty isn’t trying to put one over on me.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cardboard men and the women who love them



Men characters...can't control 'em and can't shoot 'em.

Actually, I guess I could do the latter. And that is just about where I am right now with one of the guys in my work in progress. His name is Josh. Or sometimes Matt. Before that his name was Alex. The fact that I can't even settle on a name for this guy shows you where I am with him right now. He's the husband of my heroine and while SHE doesn't really need him -- in fact, that's part of her character arc -- I do need him. He's important to the plot.

It's my fault. I gave birth to this creep. I can't even blame my co-author sister Kelly because when we plotted this book out, I was the one who drew duty on Josh. I put him on paper, I got him up and walking around. So now I have to find a way to deal with him. I thought I was doing okay with him until I ran his introductory chapter past my critique group. They tore Josh to shreds. 

Josh, it seems, is a cipher. In creating him, I committed one of the biggest sins of writing, something I preach about to every new writer I encounter. Namely:

Your villain must not stupid, dull, or incompetent. He must be a worthy opponent for your hero.

Wait, you say, Josh is the villain? I thought he was the husband. (Actually, he might be the villain; I haven't really decided).  Regardless, the same commandment applies to love interests as well as villains. If you expect readers to buy into a romantic relationship, the man you pick for your woman must be worthy of her affection.

Josh, alas, is made of cardboard. He's not the sexy UPS man. He's the UPS box.

I haven't taken the time or energy to flesh him out. I neglected to give their relationship enough back story to make it believable. I didn't give enough thought to his motivations. I have been so busy lavishing love and words on my heroine, the cast of fabulous secondary characters -- shoot, even the frickin' scenery -- that I just plain forgot about flaccid Josh.

I know why this happened, though I hate to admit it.

This book is not a Louis Kincaid book, so I can't depend on my deep "friendships" with old characters. I don't know these new characters yet so it's harder to plumb their depths. This book is also not a strict thriller like we have written before. It's closer to psychological suspense, which for me at least requires some stretching. It is still dark in tone as our other books but it is more dependent on relationships and all the shadows, ambiguities and difficulties that presents. 

I think when writing Josh I had flashbacks to my romance writing days, when relationships were the backbone of my stories. There wasn't the convenient conveyance of violence or an unsolved case to propel the plot forward; you had to build suspense solely through how the characters related to each other. Plus there's the sex thing. In romance, if you didn't have sex every four chapters or so there was something wrong with you. But that was a long time ago. I haven't had to have sex since...well, never mind.

Friends, I am here to tell you. It is not just like riding a bicycle.

The lesson here is: Pay attention to every character and don't take shortcuts. Go deep and then even deeper when you think about their motivations. I didn't do my job as a writer with Josh the first time around. I thought I could get away with giving him less than my best. So now, here I am, struggling with rewrites way too early in the first draft. 

This is not a good place to be because first drafts, as I have said often, should be just that -- drafts. If you stop and go back for intensive surgery too early in your book's life you lose your forward momentum. But I have no choice because I know the rest of the book will not fall into place the way it needs to until I go back and fix Josh. So today I will transfuse Josh with some blood, jolt him with the heart paddles, and try to make him come alive on the page.


I should have killed him off in chapter 4. It would have been easier.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Go with the Flow

By Boyd Morrison

I almost always write to music. It’s usually movie scores that get me in the mood for dramatic action and suspense. Some of my favorites are the soundtracks from Aliens, Inception, TRON: Legacy, The Dark Knight, Battlestar Galactica, and anything by John Williams. The music can’t have any words or I find myself singing along and typing those words into my manuscript (“Without a word, the convict drew the shiv and plunged it into the Honky Tonk Women!!”… Damn you, Rolling Stones!).

I know things are going well with my writing when I suddenly realize that fifteen songs have gone by and I don’t remember hearing them. That means I was in a flow state, and that’s when the writing process is really fun.

Flow is a concept first proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow describes a state of euphoria and intense focus that is achieved when you are fully immersed in the task at hand. You tune out the world because you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing. For me it’s easy to remember times when I was reading a good book or playing an immersive video game and my wife had to call my name several times before I could pull myself out of the experience. It was like I was really there. I was in flow.

Writing can produce the same experience for me, but it’s more challenging to produce the flow state. However, when it happens, it’s a sweet feeling. For musicians it’s called being “in the groove.” Athletes talk about being “in the zone.” You’re in the flow state when you’re teetering on the edge of competency, when your ability is perfectly matched to the challenge.

Flow has three prerequisites:

1)    The goals must be clear. – I think this is why it’s so hard for writers to get started on a book. My characters’ goals aren’t clear to me at the beginning, so it’s hard for me to write down what’s happening to them. On the other hand, at the end of the book I usually get in the flow and write very quickly because I know where the characters are going.

2)    The feedback must be immediate and clear. – I’m also a stage actor, and the feedback when I’m performing couldn’t be more immediate. You can sense how an audience is perceiving you, particularly with a comedy. But with writing the only feedback we get is from our editors and online reviewers days, months, or years after we’ve typed the last word. That’s why the feedback writers require to continue is not the readers’ kudos, but their internal drive to find out what happens in their own story. I often hear that concept expressed as someone’s “need” to write.

3)    You should have the proper balance between the perceived high challenge of the task and your perception that you have the high skills to complete the task. – This prerequisite could be the problem for many new writers; the challenge often exceeds the perceived skill level for a newbie. Writing a 100,000-word novel is a daunting task if you’ve never done it before. That’s why I think in terms of scenes instead of a whole book when I’m actually writing. If I know what’s happening in that one scene, I can get in the flow.

It’s not surprising to hear that the list of character traits Csikszentmihalyi lists as most important for achieving flow are the traits you’d expect to find in successful writers: curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only.

If you can find the flow when you are writing, you probably won’t have any problem producing novels. The key is setting up your environment so that you minimize distractions that will keep you from entering the flow state. Checking email and Facebook will take you out of flow, so turn those apps off or write somewhere where you can’t access them. And I highly recommend listening to wordless music.

The flow concept has many components to it, so if you want to find out more, you can watch Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk about it. And if you want to learn about the oxymoronic characteristics that the most creative people have, check out his article in Psychology Today.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Do You Know What You Want to Say?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



"If you want to send a message, try Western Union." - Samuel Goldwyn

Do you send a message in your fiction? Nothing wrong with that. You can't read Atlas Shrugged or On The Road or To Kill A Mockingbird without picking up that the writers had something on their minds that drove them in the writing. And each of those books still sell tens of thousands of copies per year.

But good old Sam Goldwyn knew that if you get too didactic, the story suffers. You have to let the characters live and breathe and act like real people in response to the story elements. You don't want to manipulate them so much that the reader thinks you've moved from storytelling to sermonizing.

Still, at the end of any book or story, an author will have left something for the reader to think about. It can't be helped. That's the nature of story.

Which bring us to Theme.  Theme (or as I call it, Meaning) is the "big idea." It is what emerges once the central conflict is resolved. The famous writing teacher William Foster-Harris believed that all great stories could be explained in a "moral formula," the struggle between sets of values:

Value 1 vs. Value 2 => Outcome.

You plug in your values thus:

            Love vs. Ambition => Love.

In other words, the value of love overcomes in the struggle against ambition. If one were writing a tragedy, the outcome would be the opposite, with ambition winning, but at the cost of lost love.

Writing teacher Lajos Egri posed a similar idea in The Art of Dramatic Writing. He called it the "Premise." It is expressed in a moral formula as well, as in Justice overcomes deceit.

The question today, writer, is whether you are being intentional about your theme.

Not all writers know their theme when they start writing. They have characters and a plot idea, and they let the writing unfold as it will. They may not think about theme at all. They may simply write about characters involved in the struggle of the plot, knowing that struggle will eventually end. Most of the time that's how I approach it in my own writing. But I do, at some point, identify what it is my emerging story is trying to say—because, of course, it's really me in there somewhere.

But even writers who say they never think about theme end up saying something. It can't be helped. All stories have meaning, whether the author is purposeful about it or not. Why? Because readers are wired for it. We are always looking for meaning, trying to make sense of the world. Indeed, one of the reasons we have storytellers is to help our fellow creatures through the mythical dark forest, otherwise known as life.

Perhaps, then, it would be wise to be a little more conscious of your theme. Whether you start out with one or find it along the way, try to identify the unifying message. Then you can go back in the revision process and weave symbols, metaphors and thematic dialogue into the tale.

It also helps to know your theme in case you get questions. I wrote a short story that stoked some controversy among a section of my reader base. I got a few emails, and one consternated face-to-face query, asking why I wrote such a disturbing and eerie tale.  

I responded that I was actually trying to write a profoundly moral tale. One that had a very clear meaning (to me, at least). I shaped the plot precisely to be disturbing (think Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents)  because the theme would not be as powerfully presented otherwise.

I would be very interested in seeing if you find the meaning I intended. That’s why I've made the story, "Autumnal," free on Kindle today through Wednesday. I'd love it if you got it, read it, and told me via Twitter what you think the meaning is. Use #Autumnal for the discussion.

As for you, dear author, talk about this in the comments: Do you know what you want to say when you start a story? Are you a "theme-first" kind of writer? Or do you prefer to let the characters duke it out and leave it at that?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Happy Birthday, Hank



Author Charles Bukowski would have been 93 yesterday. That would be a ripe old age even for the best of us but would have been well-nigh impossible for Bukowski, who probably never had a healthy day in his life and compounded his miseries with his alcohol-fueled lifestyle which in turn provided the frank fodder for his prose and verse. Bukowski, the poet laureate and prose prince of the down and out, was capable of inducing laughter or tears from readers within a sentence or two or on many occasions within the same sentence. I attended a reading of his in the early 1970s during which he got me to laughing so hard that he had to stop the proceedings until I fully recovered. Actually, I never really did. Reading Bukowski, let alone listening to him, was and is a life-changing event.

My introduction to Bukowski in was accomplished through a great guy named Mark Clayman who in the 1970s was the owner and operator of “Upstairs Books.”  It was a wonderful hole in the wall located at the top of two short staircases in a brick building in the Spicertown neighborhood adjacent to the University of Akron. One rainy afternoon Mark thrust a trade paperback book (I am deliberately omitting the somewhat scatological title) into my hands and said, “Have you read Bukowski? I swear by him.” He was so sure that I would like the book that he offered me a full refund if I didn’t like it. His money was safe. I have gone through five copies of that book over the years, the replacements occasioned by coffee spills and ill-advised lendings to the wrong people and get-out-of-Dodge moves subsequent to divorce.   I’m still reading and re-reading it, as well as other Bukowski short story collections, his novels, and even his poetry collections (and I NEVER read poetry anymore) some forty odd years later. 

It took a while for the public to catch up with Bukowski. His writing was stark and his subject matter was ugly. His books throughout most of his life were only available through small presses, most of which have since gone out of business. He eventually hit the big time; HarperCollins is his publisher now, and it even has a website set up to commemorate his birthday at http://happybirthdayBukowskidotcom. The subject matter remains the same, however. If you drive hurriedly through impoverished neighborhoods where the only going concerns are sad-looking taverns strategically placed every half block or so, the folks propped up on bar stools inside are the stuff and substance of Bukowski’s work. They would include the author himself, who wrote several autobiographical novels featuring Hank Chinaski, his fictional alter ego. 

Bukowski may have been an unapologetic drunk and a failure at conventional work, but he had no illusions about himself and no reservations about baring his soul for the world to see in prose shot through with an angry but resigned weariness fueled by his near-constant intake of whatever alcohol he could get his hands on at any given moment. At the end of the day, however, he described the ugly beautifully, as well as the frustration and difficulty of writing, the only occupation at which he attained some level of success, and that in spite of himself.

Pulp, Bukowski’s last novel,  was completed and published shortly before his death. It is a vicious sendup of the hard-boiled detective genre, containing exaggerated clich├ęs and stereotypical situations which stand as a deliberate textbook example of how not to write a genre novel, and should therefore be read by anyone who intends to write one. As always, no punches are pulled, so that at times one is tempted to look away from the page even as the pull of his words makes doing so impossible. It is also however, infused with Bukowski’s knowledge and frustration over the fact that time for him was running out. Despite his prodigious output,  the man had so much more left to say.

 If you’re unfamiliar with Bukowski, check out the website I mentioned earlier and sample a book or two. If you have read his work, pull a volume down from your shelf and revisit a stark example of how the job of writing is fittingly and properly done.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Reader Friday: Which indie publishing resources do you recommend?

We started talking in the Comments on Tuesday about indie publishing resources we have found to be useful, or could recommend to others. Let's use today to swap useful resources for publishing! (And thanks go to our friend Basil Sands for suggesting today's topic).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Life and Death: Proofreading Your Novel

By Elaine Viets
bears
    Are there more typos in novels these days?
    Readers complain about “it’s” instead of  “its,” “grizzly murders” (beware of those killer bears), and plain old misspellings.
    Yes. There are more typos, in my professional opinion.
    I’m speaking as a professional proofreader. I worked my way through college proofreading everything from phone books (snore) to medical journals, including The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, along with Allergy, Surgery, and more. Reading medical journals gave me a lifelong distrust of doctors.general hospital
     I’ve never forgotten proofing that stirring editorial in The American Journal of Surgery, reminding doctors to count their sponges and surgical instruments before sewing a patient back up.
4.1.1
      I proofread from 1968 to 1972, and made $1.59 an hour, forty cents more than the minimum wage. Each medical journal was proofread three times, by three different people. They were nearly flawless.
    Publishers can’t afford to do that any more. Now you’re lucky if your book is read once. It’s your job to catch those typos.
    Betty Wilson, a master proofreader, taught me the trade. She believed hunting typos was a matter of life and death – and for medical books she was right.
    It’s harder to proofread your own books. Your mind substitutes the right word for the mistake that’s there.
    But Betty’s three-step method will help you catch more. If you’re like me, you’re better at catching typos on paper than on a computer screen, so if you aren’t reading page proofs, print out the manuscript.
    Here’s how I read my page proofs:
    (1) Read the novel through once.
     Find a quiet spot with good light. Then turn off the TV, CD player and other distractions, and pour yourself some caffeine.
coffee
    If I’m reading a 320-page novel, I break it into 70 to 80 pages a day. Take short breaks every two or three chapters. Pour more caffeine, scratch the cat, stretch, rest your eyes, then go back to reading.
    (2) Read your book again, holding a piece of plain white paper under each line.
    You will be surprised how many typos you missed the first time.
spaces
    When you’ve finished with the white paper read, you’ll be sure you’ve caught every single mistake. Boy, are you in for a surprise. It’s time for Step three.
    (3) Read your novel out loud.
    You don’t need to shout it out. You can mumble quietly in your chair. Your family’s used to that. But reading your novel out loud is crucial. Also, crushingly boring. And hard on the throat.
     This time, skip the caffeine. It dries out your throat.  Drink water. Cold will do, but I use the radio announcer’s trick for scratchy throats. I drink hot water with a slice of lemon. It works.
lemon  
So does reading your book aloud. You will be shocked to find still more typos. I guarantee you’ll catch at least four more this way.
    Will you get them all? Not this time.
    But you will see the last few typos – when your finished novel arrives.
Books
                    ***
   
    DEAD-END JOB FANS: Enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of BOARD STIFF, the ultimate beach book, in time for Labor Day. Hope you get to take my 12th DEJ book to the beach. Hurry! Sweepstakes ends tomorrow, August 16. Click on  
 http://elaineviets.com/new/Contests/Contest_Enter.asp
BoardStiff

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Broadchurch

Nancy J. Cohen

Are you watching the British crime drama, Broadchurch, on BBC Wednesday nights? It’s a limited episode series that started last week, so you’re not missing much if you pop in tonight. As a mystery writer, I can’t help analyzing the story structure.

Episode one presents the scene of the crime. A young boy is found murdered on the beach. The time and method of death are established. We meet his family, some of whom are keeping secrets. The boy may have been killed between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am last night. Where was the father? Supposedly out on an emergency plumbing call. Oh, really? How lame is that alibi?

Yet not once does the lead detective suggest verifying the plumbing job. This handsome bloke, by the way, is David Tennant of Dr. Who fame. I like him with his scruffy beard. But someone needs to clue him in on finding the facts. Will it be the ambitious reporter? Or did he have a hand in this horrible event to create a story for himself?

David Tennant

And where was the victim’s father the night of the murder? Is he having an affair? Involved in a smuggling scheme? The rugged coastline may have been the site for smugglers in historic times. Perhaps there’s a new gang at work and the boy became a liability.

And how was the boy involved? His best friend isn’t so innocent. The kid erases all his computer and cell phone files after his mum, a detective on the force who’s been passed over for promotion, tells him he’ll be questioned about what he knows. What’s the kid hiding? Could he and the victim have been involved in a shady scheme with the victim’s father?

Then again, the father seems too easy a mark. Maybe he’s the red herring.

As the show progresses, we’ll see more townspeople guarding secrets. Eventually the detective will unravel them until he exposes the killer. And what about his own past? He was sent to this little hamlet after something scandalous occurred in his career. He couldn’t have created a murder to boost his own reputation, could he?

Broadchurch

Everyone in this village is a potential suspect. It’s a juicy story in that respect, and I’m eager to see how it plays out. This is why I like whodunit mysteries. We are guessing along with the detective. The small town atmosphere becomes a character in its own right as we learn that not all of the inhabitants are as innocuous as they seem.

So are you going to watch the show tonight?