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Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors

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We are always wanting to glean what other authors know about writing.  This blog by Steve Silberman gathers together authors and has them give suggestions on how to improve your writing and make your book great. I thought it was something worth sharing. Have a blessed day.  Shirley

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I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.

The subject of my book is autism, the variety of human cognitive styles, and the rise of the neurodiversity movement. The seed of the project was an article I wrote for Wired in 2001 called “The Geek Syndrome” about autism and Asperger syndrome in high-tech communities like Silicon Valley. I’m happy and humbled to say that it was an influential article, and I still get email about it from the families of kids on the spectrum and from autistic people themselves, though it was published more than a decade ago.

The science of developmental disorders has made significant advances in recent years, and some of the social issues that I raised in the piece — such as the contributions that people with atypical cognitive styles have made to the progress of science, technology, and culture — seem more relevant than ever. At the same time, the wave of kids diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the ’90s is now coming of age, and their heroically devoted families are facing fear and uncertainty about the future as crucial government-funded services and support provided to families of special-needs children dry up. Meanwhile,neurodiversity advocates are challenging narrow definitions of “normal” cognition, and autistic people — even those who are unable to employ spoken language — are using assistive technology like the iPad to express themselves. There’s a lot of new ground to cover.

I’ve signed a contract with a wonderful publisher — a Penguin imprint called Avery Books — and a sharp and enthusiastic editor named Rachel Holtzman. One of the most thrilling moments of my life as a writer was walking into Penguin headquarters in Manhattan and seeing classic jackets for Jack Kerouac’s novels like The Dharma Bums framed on the wall. It was reading the exhilarating, compassionate, and perennially fresh poetry and prose of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and their friends that made me want to grow up to be a writer in the first place.

I’m not sentimental about old media vs. new media. Nothing will ever replace the sublime feeling of sanctuary created by the printed page, but I treasure the books on my Kindle too, particularly when I’m reading at 30,000 feet. What I love is words — storytelling, the flow of well-wrought sentences, the gradual unfolding of a long and thoughtful tale, the private communion with an author’s mind.

But now comes the hard part. It’s one thing to work up a 4000-word magazine feature and another to sit down and write a 100,000-word book. I’m acutely aware that I’ve been granted a precious opportunity to cast light on forgotten history and provide a platform for voices that are rarely heard. At the same time, I’m scared out of my wits that the two decades of journalism that have led up to this project have not prepared me to write a good book. I wake up at 3am staring into the darkness, wondering if I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.

I’ve chosen to deal with my anxiety by tapping into the wisdom of the hive mind. I recently sent email to the authors in my social network and asked them, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”

I’m delighted with the sheer range of practical advice that poured in. The writers in this group are as diverse as the volumes that line the shelves in my home office.  There are top science writers and journalists like Carl Zimmer, Jonah Lehrer, Deborah Blum, Paula Span, and David Shenk; prolific blogger Geoff Manaugh of the endlessly fascinating BLDGBLOG, which focuses on architecture and the future of urbanism; award-winning poet and essayist August Kleinzahler; a wise-beyond-his-years entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha; a Zen master named John Tarrant and an author of Buddhist bestsellers, Sylvia Boorstein; two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and two of the geniuses who helped launch 21st century digital culture and the spunky “maker” movement, Cory Doctorow and Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. A more diverse group of writers, talking about the nuts and bolts of their craft, would be hard to find anywhere on the Web.

A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I’ll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential. And thirdly, I’ll certainly be buying and downloading a software program calledScrivener, which is a powerful word processor specifically designed for writing books and keeping vast amounts of related data in good order.

Reading these tips has made the voice in my head that whispers I can do this a little louder when my eyelids snap open before dawn. I hope the advice here inspires the creation of many great books, not only the one I hope to write. I’m deeply grateful for the time and attention of the master writers assembled here.

Enjoy — and good luck with your own writing!

The Tangled Bank by Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer

Author of A Planet of Viruses, The Tangled Bank, and Brain Cuttings

  1. Do as much research as possible away from the Internet — with living people, in real places.
  2. Be ready to organize vast amounts of data. Use a wall, or software like Scrivener.
  3. Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful.

The Genius in All Of UsDavid Shenk
Author of The Forgetting and The Genius in All of Us

  1. Make it great, no matter how long it takes. There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. As you well know, a great book can last forever. A great book can change a person’s life. A mediocre book is just commerce.
  2. Get feedback — oodles of it. Along the way, show pieces of your book to lots of people — different types of people. Ply them with wine and beg them for candor. Find out what’s missing, what’s being misinterpreted, what isn’t convincing, what’s falling flat. This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion or write the book by committee. But this process will allow to marry your necessarily-precious vision with how people will actually react. I find that invaluable.
  3. Let some of you come through. You’re obviously not writing a memoir here, but this book is still partly about you — the world you see, the way you think, the experiences you have with people. And trust me, readers are interested in who you are. So don’t be afraid to let bits and pieces of your personality and even life details seep into the text. It will breathe a lot of life into the book.

For the Win by Cory DoctorowCory Doctorow
Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

  1. Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.
  2. Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.
  3. Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.
  4. Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.
  5. Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.

And Then There's This by Bill WasikBill Wasik
Author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture

  1. The first tip is that readers expect books to be exhaustive on their subjects. That doesn’t mean they want the books to be long — it means that they expect that you will cover all the basic ground that needs to be covered to understand the subject, even if they know some of it already. This piece of advice may or may not be relevant to your subject. In my case, with a very idiosyncratic book on viral culture, it led to people asking me at readings why I hadn’t included an analysis of X or Y viral phenomenon in my book. “Because you already know about it,” the magazine guy in me always wanted to respond. But in the book world, people want to see you mention the stuff they already know, at least in passing (or to knock it down)– otherwise, how can it claim to be a book on the subject? It’s worth taking that point of view seriously.
  2. This is a basic piece of advice, but it can’t be overstated when you’re trying to go from magazine-length to book-length writing: hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagining ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.

The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff ManaughGeoff Manaugh
Author of The BLDGBLOG Book

  1. Don’t hold back on that fantasy site visit / phone call / interview / query / meeting that you have always wanted to do, lest it become too late to include the results in your book. Do it now! This book is your golden ticket.
  2. Don’t lose track of your notes and/or future ideas for inclusion by writing things down in multiple notebooks or on scattered pages of the same notebook; concentrate, aggregate, cohere, reread, and compress. Keep it all in one place (with back-ups). Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend; telling insane and vaguely embarrassing stories later on, about how you used eight different colored markers, four highlighter types, and multiple versions of extra pages stapled into a vast mega-notebook that you re-read every night before bed – and that you also took digital photos of lest you lose the whole thing in a house fire – will be a lot more fun than explaining how you forgot to include certain things and your book sucked because you never got your shit together.
  3. Quick, tossed off, last minute additions, typed right before you submit the final manuscript, probably aren’t a good idea, no matter how funny or emotionally powerful you might feel they are at the time of impulsively writing them. Always allow time to come back and read something from a distance.
  4. And run all quirky one-liners that you hope to include in your author’s bio (do you “always enjoy a good latté”?) past a close friend; they don’t age well.

The Mad Professor by Mark FrauenfelderMark Frauenfelder
Author of The Mad Professor and Rule the Web

  1. Use Scrivener to write your book. Awesome organizing tool as well as word processor.
  2. If you have the feeling an interview isn’t yielding much, get off the phone as soon as you can. On the other hand, when you strike interview gold, keep it going as long as you can.
  3. Don’t forget to write the book that you want to read.

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah BlumDeborah Blum
Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and Ghost Hunters

  1. here are a few things that i’ve learned or that people have told me along the way. i’ve written five books. the first two (monkey wars, sex on the brain) were issue books. the best advice i got when writing an issue book was to write the first chapter LAST.  this isn’t absolute, but it’s in the research and writing of later chapters that you often figure out what your primary points will be and how best to frame them.
  2. the best advice i got in writing narrative non-fiction was to get my hero in trouble and keep him there. this was with my first narrative book, love at goon park. my editor suggested that as the over all arc — how is harry harlow ever going to persuade the scientific community that love matters? — and within that to have him confront an obstacle in every chapter. i’m a little looser with that now, not an obstacle in EVERY chapter, but it’s still a great way to think about structure. for instance, in poisoner’s handbook, every chapter is a poison. so my heroes must confront arsenic in one chapter and thallium in another…
  3. i usually try to have a single sentence that describes the primary message of the book. this turns out to be really useful when your editor asks you for the one sentence the sales force can use to persuade book sellers to buy your book. but, again, it’s also a useful organizing principle. so with monkey wars, the primary sentence (not brilliant for sales, but still) was “animal research is really about us.” number one species on the planet, can do whatever we want to other species. and i used that to frame every chapter around a decision that a researcher was making in his use of non-human primates, from brain surgeries to testing on endangered species.
  4. i let my first draft suck. kind of the anne lamott advice on “shitty first drafts.” to me my first draft is just an attempt to start unfolding the flow and logic of the story. if i get stuck, i just put xxx in the draft (for figure this out later.) with one of my books (sex on the brain) i did this so often that i had literal nightmares about it, that people were coming up to me and asking me if i had adopted an avant garde writing style.
  5. i’m obsessive about the research. i organize and cross-list and file from the very beginning. i make notes of key points, issues, and themes. the amount of research one does for a proposal is very different from the amount of research one does for a whole book. so i keep track of all these key moments in a way that lets me recognize patterns that i didn’t see earlier. and also so that when i’m later actually writing, i know where to find everything. writers waste a lot of time looking for that study that they filed, well, somewhere.
  6. i recognize that today’s book author isn’t done even after the manuscript is accepted. publishers expect us to be part of the marketing of the book and the sooner that starts the better. i used to tell people that i wanted to be the j.d. salinger of science writing and just stay home and let the royalties wash over me. but that’s mostly in the moments when i’m just overwhelmed. the new public version of a science writer is actually pretty fascinating.

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August KleinzahlerAugust Kleinzahler
Author of Sleeping It Off in Rapid City and Cutty, One Rock

  1. I find it helpful sometimes — and still to my surprise — trying to explain to someone what it is I’m trying to write about, usually someone bright but in a different intellectual zone, and not a writer. Or, likewise, in a letter or email to such a person.
  2. When my self-disgust reaches critical mass I seem to be ready to go.
  3. I tend to discover the structure, a structure, after diving in the deep end and swallowing water awhile, until I stop swallowing water, make my way to the surface and figure out how far it is toward shore or the side of the pool, and what mixture of treading water and the Australian crawl, given my limitations/aptitudes, might get me safely home.

My Start-Up Life by Ben CasnochaBen Casnocha
Entrepreneur and author of My Start-Up Life

  1. Shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott nailed it! But with books, it seems to be more like “shitty 20th drafts.” So shitty, for so long.
  2. Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.
  3. Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions.

The Mindfulness Revolution by Barry BoyceBarry Boyce

Author/editor of The Mindfulness Revolution and In the Face of Fear

  1. You’re better off than you think, because you’ve done this before, just not in as large a format. Almost every technique and skill you’ve used to structure and tell a story at feature length scales to book length. So, let go of the excess anxiety about never having done this before.
  2. Planning. Planning. Planning. It’s a campaign. I used some project management tools in the end to put some order into the vastness. That’s the thing about the bigger scale. It requires more management to support the creativity. Cultivate a good relationship with your editor from the beginning. He/she is going to be your task master at some point. That’s going to go so much better if he/she is also your friend, colleague, supporter, and fan. The campaign of writing a book can get so lonely sometimes, you need a good attaboy just to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and that you’re not the crazy loser who needs to get out more.
  3. As Trungpa Rinpoche said (I paraphrase): enjoy refreshing activities from time to time. If you’re planning and scheduling well, you can find opportunities regularly to breathe more fresh air into your life and replenish yourself, because “the work fills the available space” is nowhere more true than on a book project. Watch out for self-indulgent and cheap substitutes for actually taking an honest to god break, of whatever duration.

The White Hand Society by Peter ConnersPeter Conners
Author of Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead and White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg

  1. When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process — no matter how much I want to read it — I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead — bask in the madness.
  2. Non-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.
  3. Don’t focus on the promotional aspects of social media. Just share your passion for the subject matter as it filters through your writing process. The promotion aspect will be an organic extension of your passion.

Long Time Gone by David CrosbyDavid Crosby
Singer-songwriter, founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, author of Long Time Gone and Since Then

  1. Cathartic effect.
  2. Love of the well-turned phrase.
  3. Set specific times to work.

When the Time Comes by Paula SpanPaula Span
Author of When the Time Comes

  1. You already know what you need to know to do this.  The fact is, my 60,000-plus-word book was pretty much like writing 8 to 10 long-form pieces.  I didn’t do it differently, in terms of research or writing or rewriting.  My existing skills were perfectly adequate to the task; yours will be too.  It took me 2.5 years but then, I was teaching and freelancing at the same time; had I focused solely on the book, it probably would’ve taken 18 months.  So you will make your deadline, even if your book is longer and more complex.
  2. Unhelpful, right?  But maybe not.  Bottom line, this is not some whole different sphere for which you are ill-prepared.  For better or worse, whether you use some nifty software to organize your material or you use a whole bunch of yellow legal pads and photocopies in hanging files (like me — so retro), this is familiar territory and you are an old hand.  So get to it.

Aspergirls by Rudy SimoneRudy Simone
Author of Aspergirls: Empowering Women with Asperger Syndrome andAsperger’s On the Job

  1. I had the easiest time of my life writing my three Asperger books. I just ran like Secretariat once I got going. But, I did learn that questionnaires make good research tools. I had three levels of questionnaires, each expanding on the one before it, so I didn’t have to individually interview each person. I did that by email or phone if and when it was warranted. By the time I wrote Aspergirls I had it streamlined: The questionnaires were posted on my site, the first one visible to the public so anyone could use it, then the 2nd and third were on hidden pages that I gave my participants the URL to. The data was compiled and I received email alerts whenever there was a new entry. So while I was researching certain elements of my book, the questionnaires and the people who used them were doing a lot of the legwork. Being that I’m fairly uneducated, I think I did a pretty good job with it.

Short by John SchwartzJohn Schwartz
Author of Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All

  1. Advice from a Newsweek editor I worked with in the ’80s, Nancy Cooper. Roughly my age, but so much smarter and more worldly and sophisticated. I was worried about writing the opening story of the nation section. And she sent me a note that read: “You just start working and you keep working til it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery.”

Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia BoorsteinSylvia Boorstein
Author of Happiness is An Inside Job and It’s Easier Than You Think

When I settle into writing, i.e. proposal signed, accepted, etc., I…

  1. Do not open email until 5PM on any weekday or other day when i expect to be writing much of the day.
  2. Do not read other people’s work on the same subject. That might be hard for you, since you are collecting research data, but I say very little about what other people have said or thought. They’ve already said or thought it.
  3. I am VERY selective about having other people read it as I go along other than my editor, and that only when I have enough written to feel secure that I have found my voice.
  4. When I do not like how what I’m writing is sounding, I quit. I leave the computer. I do something else, like cook soup. I “hear” what I am about to type before I type it and if it is not sounding like me naturally talking, I know i am not clear or balanced enough to go on.
  5. I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening.
  6. I take the due date for the first draft EXTREMEly seriously., like everything depends on that day. it makes the project energetically alive for me, like a James Bond five-minutes-and-fifty-two-seconds until the whole world blows up movie and even if the draft is finished a week early I push the SEND button just after 12AM on the day it is due. Theatrical, I know, but I learned it from a friend of mine whom I admire as being a fine writer who prides himself on doing that.

Nameless Book by AnonymousAnonymous
Author of notable books on science and psychology

What I wish I didn’t know now that I didn’t know then:

  1. How hard writing a book would be  on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)
  2. How important and valuable the final reward would be. Not the money, but (in my case) the promised trip to a very special place. Wish I had put the photo of my destination on my screensaver long before I did, as it worked like an extra force of gravity pulling me to the end. The trip also gave me a coda to write into the book, just an extra added benefit.
  3. How inept publishers are at selling books, even books that, as in my case, they have a significant financial stake in and that they profess to love. Once they get rejected by Today and Terry Gross and once the Sunday Timespasses (or, as in my case, assigns a  review and then never runs it), they’ve exhausted their playbook. Solution: what you’re already doing, which is to build your brand among your intended audience.

Playing in the Band by David GansDavid Gans
Musician, radio producer, and author of Playing in the Band and Conversations with the Dead

  1. The most striking thing about my book processes was that no one at the publisher did any editing at all.  No fact checking, no line editing.

Lincoln's Melancholy by Josh ShenkJosh Shenk
Author of Lincoln’s Melancholy

  1. Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.
  2. Find ways to break it into chunks and set concrete deadlines with friends/agent/editor. I’m sending my agent material every week now. The shit is super rough, but at least I’ve got *something* on page. Also consider a writer’s group. When I asked Bruce Feiler for this advice at the start ofLincoln’s Melancholy, he said: “emotional management.” I told him, yeah, but I really want practical advice, etc. etc., and he repeated the phrase. Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.
  3. What’s the idea/argument in a sentence or two? You shouldn’t have this necessarily at the start but will want to by the time the book is done.
  4. Apply to MacDowell, Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center, Headlands — a few other good residencies, including one in Cali I can’t remember now. Four to eight weeks of you, quiet, among other artists, with people feeding you on schedule can do wonders.

Bring Me the Rhinoceros by John TarrantJohn Tarrant
Author of Bring Me The Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life, and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul & the Spiritual Life

Here’s a triplet of things that may apply only to me.

  1. Ideas don’t come from anywhere identifiable, so I’ve come to trust that they will be given. This is along the lines of not whipping the donkey.
  2. The process of lining the book up, giving it a bedside manner, asking “Is this what it is about? But what is it really about?” was a plunge. I had to explain the work to myself in more and more elementary language. I came to enjoy doing this. It helped when I realized that the discovery process was part of the writing and I didn’t have to be through it already.
  3. There is always period when I wrestle alone with my own process and at the same time I like collaboration. So I’ve learned what kind of editing works for me. A good editor is an impersonal force who says things like, “You could ditch the first half of your first chapter and start with what comes next,” and immediately I know if the edit is true or not. So I learned to be confident about sharing my work when it is not fully formed, learned that the process is robust and will look after itself.

How We Decide by Jonah LehrerJonah Lehrer
Author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist

  1. My one piece of advice is to insist that your editor be brutal — there should be red pen on every page. At least in my experience, the book only gets decent during this phase, as all the darlings and digressions get killed. It’s such an important process, and yet too many editors are too meek (or overworked) and too many writers resist their edits. A good editor is a great thing.

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin
Seth Mnookin

Author of The Panic Virus and Feeding the Monster

  1. If you’re a Mac guy, I whole-heartedly, full-throatedly recommend using Scrivener. I think you can get a free 30-day trial, so it’s at least worth checking out. Especially with this last book, it totally saved me from having hundreds of (virtual) stacks of thousands of (virtual) scraps of paper.
  2. For me, it was vitally important that all non-book related reading be as mindless as possible. I binged on mysteries…Rex Stout and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark in particular.
  3. I tried, not always successfully, to start each day with some discrete goal I wanted to accomplish: write 200 words, or get through a certain amount of research, or conduct two interviews, or whatever. If I set out to spend a day “writing,” that would be so overwhelming I’d end up just farting around online all day instead of starting the climb the mountain.
  4. Finally: assume your book is going to completely tank commercially. That’ll help you remember that you’re not writing this for the purpose of writing a best-seller (at least I assume you’re not), but because it’s something that you care passionately about and excites you intellectually and because you hope to be able to share your thoughts and observations and conclusions with a group of people you respect and want to discourse with. Everything else is gravy. At the end of the day, what’s important is producing something you believe in…not producing something that’ll catch people’s eyes at B&N.

Superbug by Maryn McKenna

Maryn McKenna
Author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil
  1. Find an organizational scheme for your notes and materials; keep up with it (if you are transcribing sound files or notebooks, don’t let yourself fall behind); and be faithful to it: Don’t obsess over an apparently better scheme that someone else has.  At some point during your work, someone will release what looks like a brilliant piece of software that will solve all your problems. Resist the urge to try it out, whatever it is, unless 1) it is endorsed by people whose working methods you already know to be like your own and 2) you know you can implement it quickly and easily without a lot of backfilling. Reworking organizational schemes is incredibly seductive and a massive timesuck. (I use DevonThink, OmniOutliner and Filemaker Pro. David Dobbs apparently has a quite different flow. We hope to do a workshop on this at NASW.)
  2. Don’t wait too long to start writing, especially if your book incorporates descriptive or narrative elements. Write at least a quick sketch of the sensory and emotional elements that stick with you as you come back from field reporting.
  3. You’re going to spend a lot of time in your head. Take care of your physical self too. Be just as committed to that as you are to getting your writing done every day. If you don’t care about your health, think your vanity — there’s an author video and a lot of public appearances in your future.
  4. Bonus tip: Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it.

Six Common Writing Mistakes and How To Fix Them

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We all made mistakes as beginner writers and I still do even though I’ve been writing a number of years now. It’s always nice to get reminders of what type of mistakes top writers and editors find consistently. It’s even better to find out how to fix them. The craft of writing is a continual learning process.  When you stop learning. lay down your pen. Have a blessed day.  Shirley

*****

Today, one oLourdes Venardf our most experienced editors on Reedsy shares some invaluable advice for first-time authors! Lourdes Venard specializes in crime fiction, science fiction, Young Adult, memoirs, and other nonfiction. She also teaches for the University of California, San Diego’s copyediting certificate program.

When it comes to writing, every writer is unique. But mistakes made by first-time authors are not as unique. In a very unscientific poll, I asked fiction editors which errors they come across the most often. Not surprisingly, the culprits were the same.

Below are the six most common writing mistakes identified by fiction editors, with simple fixes that can be done in the revision stage.

Wordiness

Wordiness can come from overdescription, overexplanation, and redundant language. Those of us who are editors see this all the time in descriptions, especially in the use of adjectives and adverbs. Many first-time writers believe they need to bolster their nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs, but this often marks the writer as an amateur. Instead, writers should focus on using strong nouns and verbs. Take the simple phrase “a small river rushing by quickly.” A river that is rushing will naturally be doing so quickly, so eliminate the adverb.

The fix: When revising your manuscript, look through your descriptions—are there unnecessary words? Are you relying on adjectives and adverbs, rather than strong nouns and verbs? Look to cut as you revise.

“Telling”, rather than “showing”

“Telling,” rather than “showing.” This comes from explaining too much and not trusting the reader to understand—or not giving the reader the opportunity to fill in the spaces with his own imagination. A subset of this, as one editor said, is having characters discuss things in dialogue that no rational person would: “Did you know, Ian, that the agricultural sector in England was transformed by the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348 and killed many laborers, and by the Hundred Years’ War, which was actually a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453,  as well as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381?” If this sounds like a Wikipedia entry, it’s because it was indeed cobbled from Wikipedia—not from an actual conversation.

The fix: Dialogue can be used to effectively impart information, but is it believable and natural? Use dialogue to move the story ahead, to add tension between characters, and to impart—but not dump—information. Break up the information in conversation-sized tidbits.

Laundry list of description

A character is introduced and immediately a description, head to toe, is given; hair color, eye color, glasses, what the character is wearing are all covered in depth. The author may repeatedly mention those “liquid brown eyes.”

Ian Rankin

The fix: It’s much more effective to describe a character through their behaviors, actions, body language, and dialogue. Here, crime fiction author Ian Rankin gives a description that skims over a character’s looks, but manages to give us plenty (because our mind’s eyes fill in the rest): “He was twenty years younger than Rebus, and a stone and half lighter. A bit less gray in his hair. Most cops looked like cops, but Fox could have been middle management in a plastics company or Inland Revenue.”

Head-hopping

You want to keep your point of view to one protagonist (maybe two, if the story lends itself, as in a romance or a story with two strong characters whose paths cross, as in the award-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr).To have more POVs dilutes the bond that a reader forms with the protagonist. Even worse is to have a point of view bounce from character to character in the same scene (we start out in the head of one character, only to hop into another character’s head).

The fix: It’s more powerful for the story to be told through the eyes of the main character, so make that your viewpoint. It may be more work to recast your story, but it will be the stronger for it.

Inappropriate dialogue tags

Many new writers have a fear of reusing the same dialogue tags—“said” or “asked”—and so editors see an abundance of incorrect dialogue tags: he yawned, she growled, he laughed. These dialogue tags mark the writer as inexperienced. Someone doesn’t “yawn,” “growl,” or “laugh” dialogue and, besides, they are clichéd ways of marking speech. Dialogue itself should show the reader whether a character is angry, happy, or sleepy.

The fix: Stick to “said” or “asked,” which become invisible to the reader, or avoid dialogue tags when it’s clear who is speaking. If you must indicate that a character has missed his naptime, then write, “he said, yawning.” Or even better, use a dialogue beat: “He stretched and yawned, putting down his coffee cup.”

Misplaced modifiers

This is one of the most common grammatical errors. These are phrases or clauses that are not clearly related to what follows. This not only makes for awkward sentences, but often unintentionally funny ones. For example: “After making some repairs, the pigs soon found their way to the fixed trough.” If pigs could fly—or repair their own troughs!

The Fix: Locate the modifier and relocate it to the appropriate place, or rewrite the sentence with the missing information. “After the farmer made some repairs, the pigs soon found their way to the fixed trough.”

Finally, there’s one other “fix” that may catch these and other errors. Read your manuscript aloud (some writers even go as far as reading it into a recorder, then playing it back). You’ll be surprised at what you find—portions that are dull, dialogue that goes on for too long, and awkward constructions that trip up the tongue. Simply delete or rewrite these!


Writing Fiction? 10 Common Writing Errors That Make You Look Like a Newbie

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This is an article by Sarah White that I thought I would share with you. It’s always a good thing to read advice that can help improve our writing.  Shirley

You’re about to work on your first big writing project. Whether it’s a novel, memoir, or short story, you don’t want everyone to know it’s your first (even if you’re shaking in your boots, just a little).

Many first-time writers fall into traps that can decrease the quality of their piece, and these newbie blunders can diminish their credibility.

New writers fall into these habits for all kinds of reasons: putting pressure on themselves to write something enormous and profound, attempts to mimic other authors, and probably in the most common occurrence, a bad case of writer’s block during their first big project of their career.

The pressure is on and your brain has gone into panic mode, resorting to comfortable cliched phrases.

Not to worry: these writing pitfalls can be easily sidestepped with some awareness.

Here are 10 of the most common writing errors that new authors should strive to avoid.

1. Including too many cliches

Just because it’s the most popular phrase doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. Consider your personal experiences before plunking down a common saying or phrase — those unique reactions are what give you an edge as a writer.

Even when writing fiction, use your own perspective to your advantage as you play with metaphors and other ways of developing your story.

2. Writing inauthentic dialogue

Suspending disbelief is easy when the dialogue in your story universe sounds natural. Dialogue is extremely hard to do well, but can also make or break your story.

Listen to conversations around you; take note of verbal ticks or idiosyncrasies that appear in normal human speech.

3. Rushing the plot

Getting your characters from Point A to Point B is certainly important, but not so much as providing a solid foundation for these transitions.

Whether you decide as you go or map out your character’s story beforehand, ask your editors or critique group if they can name the cause and effect of each major event. DIY MFA’s mapping technique can help you organize the interwoven events that take place over the course of your story.

4. Choosing a cop-out ending

“And then he woke up” is a perfect example of a cop-out: an ending that negates all other given information that the readers have been led to believe is useful in analyzing the plot, characters, and ending.

After fully engaging with the universe you’ve created, your readers don’t want to feel tricked!

5. Abandoning or using your characters

If a character suddenly makes an “exciting” choice that makes no sense with his or her aforementioned stable traits, your readers will instantly question your motivation for inserting that choice into your story.

To avoid this pitfall, take special consideration when choosing your point of view. An event in your character’s life that might read as mundane in a typical third-person scenario might come across as more significant in a first-person voice.

6. Repeating syntax

An entire paragraph — let alone an entire novel — of “The [adjective] [noun] [verb-ed] the [adjective] [noun]” sentences will not hold the attention of your audience, no matter the reading level.

If you’re cranking out a first draft, don’t spend too much time worrying about this. But if you’re ready to have a colleague review your work, scan each page for this predictable repetition.

7. Not trusting your audience

Over-explanation can be just as harmful to your work as under-explanation. As mentioned earlier, your audience does not like to feel deceived, and they certainly do not like to feel belittled, either.

Much of the joy of reading is discovering your connection to the author’s writing. Remember to let your readers dig into your story independently.

8. Changing the setting excessively

Unless constant shifts in space and time are essential to your piece, you need not create pauses after every event. Connecting to a piece of writing is challenging when there isn’t at least some sense of fluidity.

While there can be many settings, timelines, or universes — and creating an unusual format is always an interesting feat — consider whether every shift is a necessary one.

9. Not doing your research

Even if you “write what you know,” it’s critical to verify your information for factuality, especially if your story is heavily based in realism.

Say that your story’s villain is a world-renowned scientist; you’ll lose your readers with the first innacurate algorithm. No one is scared of a mad scientist that can’t even do the math for his own experiments.

Figure out how to access the databases at your local public or university library to locate journals, documents, and other research to support your story.

10. Forgetting your audience

“You can’t win ‘em all,” they say, but you can win over the hearts of yourparticular demographic. Know who you’re writing for and who you plan to reach, or you risk reaching nobody. If you’re in love with your historical fiction piece, don’t write to please the romance enthusiasts.

If you find a couple of cliches or other common errors after your first draft, don’t sweat it!

We’ve all come across at least one of these holes in our own writing. In the end, a good portion of creating fresh, interesting work relies on trusting your own instincts.

Keep an eye out, use good judgement, and most importantly, write from your own experiences and your own heart.

The Heat Monster

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heat-shimmering

This blog was originally published in Southern Living and was written by Rick Bragg who is a Pulitzer Prize- Winning writer and author of several best selling books. I identified with it so much I wanted to share it with you.

***

When I was a boy, when monsters were real.  I would see it in the distance, hovering just above the hot, almost liquid blacktop.  It had no form, just a thing shimmering, indistinct.  Now I know it was the heat itself, distorting the very air.  How odd, to see the heat. But when I was small, it was easy to see more in it than that.  This was the creature that came in the worst of summer, the boiling eye of it.  It was the could in a white-hot sky that gave up no rain.  Aristotle knew it, and the Romans, and then us, in the American South.  That thing of glimmering heat from my imagination did not have a name, truly, but its season did.  We called it the dog days.

The Greeks and Romans believed Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Great Dog), ushered in an evil season in late summer, one that boiled seas and soured wine and sent people and livestock into fits.  In that season, the DogStar and our sun hung together in the heavens, one rising, one setting, which, they believed, produced more heat than the planet could stand.

Now, of course, we know it is the tilt of the planet, closer to the sun, that brings the heat, but my grandmother knew better.  Ava Bundrum knew there were more things than heaven and earth, and spoke of the dog days the way she would any unnatural thing.  She would motion me close, as if the clinging air were listening, wave a cardboard funeral home fan at me like she was giving me some kind of blessing, and tell me to stay out of the pasture, stay out of the woods.

It was more than myth.  Dogs went mad, or lay panting, glassy-eyed, and you could not rouse them to play.  Food went bad in the dog bowls.  Cats, through, did not seem to care.  Cats don’t ever care.

I can remember children crowded around a rattling box fan, as if it were telling them a story.  I remember strong men going white as chalk, trying to catch their breath.

Bulls went mad and tore through fences.  Cows would not give mild, and when they did, it went sour, or tasted of sulfur or onions.  Birds flew in the house, a bad omen.  It meant someone was going to die.  Chickens perished in the coops  Rabies resurfaced, in foxes, usually, and men shot them from the porch.

The gardens withered. You got either quick, violent storms or no rain at all.  Mudholes vanished into pieces of hard clay, like someone had smashed a pot on the ground.  Grogs perished, which made my grandmother sad; the more frogs, the healthier the land.  (Everyone knew that.) Only the insects reveled.  Flies and gnats swirled.  Mosquitoes danced. and there was nowhere to hide.

Air-conditioning was myth. We put a man on the moon before my family had a window unit.  But when we did, when the air blew cool in August, it was like the mean season became myth itself, just another story, like the ones that old people told of the Depression.  I guess I am the old people now.  I think of the dog days when I see that glimmer on the distant asphalt, but when I there, it is already gone.

ZfdfdStar and our sun hung tog

The 5 C’s of Writing a Great Thriller Novel

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Writing Project

This article by James Scott Bell was first published in the Writer’s Digest. I read it this morning on Books Go Social Authors Group ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/booksgosocialauthors/?fref=nf ) and thought it was worth sharing.  Even if were not writing a thriller we may want to add a touch into whatever we’re writing.  Enjoy.   Shirley

Remember when Tommy Lee Jones holds up the empty shackles in The Fugitive and says, “You know, we’re always fascinated when we find leg irons with no legs in ’em”? It makes me think of readers who pick up thrillers and find no thrills in them. Or at least not as many as there could be.

I’m not just talking about plot here. It’s possible to have guns and bombs and hit men and terrorists and black helicopters and still not have a novel that grips the reader in the gut.

For a healthy, fully functioning thriller, try some literary vitamin C. Dose your book with these five Cs and it will stand strong, chest out, ready to give your reader a run for the money.

  1. Complex Characterizations

The first place to fortify a thriller is its cast of characters. A critical mistake made here can undermine even the best story concept.

Is your protagonist all good? That’s boring. Instead, the thriller hero needs to struggle with issues inside as well as outside. She’s got to be a carrier of flaws as well as virtues. These roiling conflicts make her survival an open question.

When we first meet Detective Carol Starkey in Robert Crais’ Demolition Angel, she’s flicking her cigarette ash on the floor of a therapist’s office, “pissed off” because it’s been three years and her demons are still alive and well. Quite an introduction, especially for someone on the LAPD bomb detail. We know she has a short fuse. And we want to watch to see if it goes off.

Brainstorm a list of at least 10 inner demons your hero has to fight. Ten. Get creative. Then choose the best one. Work that demon into your hero’s backstory, and show how it is affecting him in the present—and could hinder him even further in the future. Give him actions that demonstrate the flaw.

Move on to the rest of your cast. Avoid the “stock character” trap, which can be especially perilous in this genre—e.g., the cold, buttoned-down FBI agent; the police detective with a drinking problem. Here’s a good habit: Reject the first image you come up with when creating a character. Entertain several possibilities, always looking for a fresh take.

Then, give each character a point of potential conflict with your hero as well as with the other characters—especially those who are allies. Look for ways friends can become enemies or betrayers. Short of that, create more arguments.

To help you add complexity, make a character grid like this:

Mary                        Steve                  Cody                     Brenda                Julio

Mary

x

Steve                            x

Cody                                               x

Brenda                                                              x

Julio                                                                                   x

Now, fill in the blank boxes with possible relationships, secrets and areas of conflict. For example:

Mary     Steve

Mary

Hates him because he abused her sister

Steve     Knows that Mary had a child by Julio

If possible connections are eluding you, try running this exercise for each of your main characters: The police come to the character’s residence with a search warrant. In his closet is something he does not want anyone to find, ever.

What is it?

What does this reveal about the inner life of the character? Use the secrets and passions you discover to add another point of conflict within the cast.

Standout thrillers need complexity and webs of conflict, so that every page hums with tension.

  1. Confrontation

I call the main action of a novel the confrontation. This is where the hero and antagonist battle over the high stakes a thriller demands.

When it comes to the antagonist, writers can easily make the opposite of the “all-good protagonist” mistake: They make their bad guy all bad. Worse, they make him all bad because he’s crazy.

More interesting confrontations come from a villain who is justified in what he does.

You mean, in doing evil things?

Yes, that’s exactly what I mean—in his own mind, that is. How much more chilling is the bad guy who has a strong argument for his actions, or who even engenders a bit of sympathy? The crosscurrents of emotion this will create in your readers will deepen your thriller in ways that virtually no other technique can accomplish. The trick is not to overdo it—if you stack the deck against your villain, readers will feel manipulated.

Start by giving your antagonist just as rich a backstory as your hero. What hopes and dreams did he have? How were they dashed? What life-altering hurt did he suffer? Who betrayed him? How did all of this affect him over the course of his life?

Write out a closing argument for him. If he were in court, arguing to a jury about why he did the things he did in the novel, what would he say? Make it as persuasive as possible:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my name is Hannibal Lecter. You’ve heard a lot of lurid tales about me from the prosecutor. Now you will hear my side of the story. You will hear about a world that is better off without some people being in it. And you will hear about the conditions I endured inside the horror of a place called the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane …”

It can feel a bit disturbing to try to understand someone you might hate in real life. Good. You are a writer. You go where angels fear to tread.

Now take all of that material and use it to strengthen the antagonist’s position in the story. A stronger confrontation can only result.

  1. Careening

There’s nothing like a stunning twist or shock to keep readers flipping, clicking or swiping pages. Part of the fun for readers is thinking a story is going one way, and getting taken completely by surprise.

Harlan Coben is one of the reigning kings of the art of surprise. “I’ve rarely met a twist I didn’t like,” he has said. His method, if it can be called that, is to write himself “into a lot of corners” and see how things work out.

That’s one way to go. Forcing your writer’s mind to deal with conundrums is a great practice.

But there is another way. Pause after every scene and ask yourself: “What would a reader expect to happen next?” Create a list of at least three directions the story might take.

Then discard those three and do something different. I call this unanticipation.

Another method is the old Raymond Chandler advice: When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun. It doesn’t have to be an actual man with an actual gun, of course. It can be anything that bursts into a scene and shakes things up. Here’s the key: Get your imagination to give you the surprise without justification.

Make a quick list of at least 10 things that just pop into your mind. For example:

  1. A woman runs in screaming.
  2. The lights go out.
  3. A car crashes through the wall.
  4. Heart attack.
  5. SWAT team outside.
  6. Marching band outside.
  7. TV announcer mentions character’s name.
  8. A baby cries (what baby?).
  9. Blood drips down the wall.
  10. Justin Bieber comes in with a gun.

Some things on your list will seem silly. That’s OK. Don’t judge. Look back and find the most original item, and only then find a reason for it. In this case, No. 8 creates the most interest for me. I have no idea where that came from or what it means. But I can make it mean something.

And so can you.

  1. Coronary

The best thrillers stab the heart, throughout. They do it by getting readers to experience the emotions of the scenes.

How can you do that? First, by experiencing them yourself. Sense memory is a technique used by many serious actors. Here’s how it works: You concentrate on recalling an emotional moment in your life, and recreate each of the senses in your memory (sight, smell, touch, sound, etc.) until you begin to feel the emotion again. And you will. The actor transfers that to her role; the writer, to the page.

When I was getting to the heart of one of my own thrillers-in-progress, a story of two brothers, I needed to feel what the younger one was experiencing when the bad guys came. I recalled a time when I was 6 or 7, and some bullies were holding me hostage on a hill. Terrified, I finally made a break for home and sobbed to my big brother about what had happened. He left me at the house.

I never saw those bullies in our neighborhood again.

When I wrote the scenes with the younger brother, I focused on feeling those moments again, and transferred those emotions to the page.

They’re going to kill Chuck and they’re going to do the same thing to me. That’s why they have me tied up and they put another thing in my mouth and they won’t let me talk. … They hit me. I’m in the back of some truck. They’re taking me somewhere. I hope they take me where Chuck is. If they do anything to Chuck I will bite them. I will do anything I can to hurt them. Maybe I’m going to die but I will not die until I hurt them because of what they’re going to do to Chuck.

Another way to tap into your character’s heartbeat is the run-on sentence. Interview the character at the height of an emotion. Write down his reaction for at least 200 words without using a period. Then explore that text to find gems of emotional description. You might actually use some of it, as Horace McCoy did in his 1938 noir thriller, I Should Have Stayed Home:

All Dorothy’s fault, I thought, cursing her in my mind with all the dirty words I could think of, all the filthy ones I could remember the kids in my old gang used to yell at white women as they passed through the neighborhood on their way to work in the whore houses, these are what you are, Dorothy, turning off Vine on to the boulevard, feeling awful and alone, even worse than that time my dog was killed by the Dixie Flyer, but telling myself in a very faint voice that even like this I was better off than the fellows I grew up with back in Georgia who were married and had kids and regular jobs and regular salaries and were doing the same old thing in the same old way and would go on doing it forever.

  1. Communication

The original storytellers spun thrillers. When heroes went out into the dark world to confront monsters and demons and great beasts, the tribe vicariously lived the tale. But there was something more—they learned how to fight, act courageously and survive.

The first thrillers carried a message and helped bring a local community together.

Readers still seek that kind of story. So you ought to spend some time asking yourself what your thriller is really about. Does it offer hope for justice? Does it end with justice denied?

In short, what will the reader take away from your book?

Many aspiring thriller writers, perhaps seeing the genre as action-driven, avoid thinking about theme (or meaning, or premise). They prefer to let the characters duke it out, and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, as long as you realize that you will be saying something. Why not be intentional about it?

Here’s an exercise I call “The Dickens” (named for Charles and his time-traveling story A Christmas Carol): Go forward in time 20 years after your story ends. Your lead character is now 20 years older and has had time to reflect on all that happened in the story you told. You’re now a reporter, and you track down the character and ask, “Looking back at everything that happened to you, why do you think you had to go through that? What life lesson did you learn that you can pass on to the rest of us?”

Let the character answer in a free-form way, for as long as possible, until you sense that it’s right.

Now use all your skills to demonstrate that lesson at the end of the story itself, without necessarily using words. Give us Clarice Starling sleeping at last, the lambs of her nightmares silenced. Or Harry Bosch in Lost Light, holding for the first time the hands of the daughter he never knew he had.

Those are the moments that will take your thriller from entertaining to unforgettable.

Here’s to the health of your thrillers.

—By James Scott Bell

Five Steps to a Great Book Contract

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manuscriptSome writers have been fortunate enough to land book contracts, but unfortunately for the majority of writers that’s not the case. Ryan Van Cleave says, “reach beyond the obvious to achieve success.” Ryan is a Florida basted writing teacher and author of twenty books.

You have a terrific book manuscript that’s ready to submit.  Thats great! Or maybe your’re pas the halfway point on a new project and you want to start thinking about the next step.  Before you start stuffing envelopes or firing off email queries, take a moment to reflect on pre submission and pre contract realities.  Is there anything you can do now that might increase your odds for success?

Writing advice espouses the obvious: Take classes, write well and solicit quality feedback on your work.  Here are five actionable, less than obvious steps you can take right now to stand out from the crowd and earn a writer friendly book contract once you’re ready to put your work out into the literary world.

1. Change your attitude.  Literary agent Lisa Hagan says to strongly consider your “attitude regarding changes that need to be made to make the manuscript the best that it can be.”  It’s not about ego or sticking to the original plan.  It’s about producing a publication worthy book.  No one willingly chooses to work with an inflexible stickler.  Be open to suggestions, especially those from publishing experts.

2. Prepare your own pitch.  “The writing may be wonderful,” says Sourcebooks editorial director Todd Stocke, “but can I distill it down to something quickly and easily explained.  Ultimately, that’s the publisher’s job, to find ways that connect the author and the readers.  But sometimes those of us who do this for a living still can’t find the pitch.”  Clearly share your vision for the pitch.  The publisher is still welcome to come up with a different one for the back cover, catalog copy or PR materials, but sometimes you’ll bowl a publisher over with you well-reasoned, compelling pitch that leverages angles they hadn’t considered.

3.  Be proactive with your BISAC. With more than 3,000 BISAC(Book Industry Standards and Communications) subject codes available for a published book, it’s imperative that yours gets the right one(s).  When Random House changed the BISAC for a strong-selling title from “Fiction-General” to “Fiction-Suspense,” the sales increased by 55 percent.  Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you know what BISAC codes the publisher intends for your book.  Do some research so you have ideas ready in case they’re missing ways to increase visibility.  Having the wrong BISAC can make your book essentially invisible.

“Go to a bookstore,” Stocke advices. “Spend time in the stacks, really understand where your book might sit in that store.  What books will be around it?  What authors am I most like?  With what am I competing?” Or is your book better suited to readers finding it in other venues than a traditional bookstore?  Figuring all this out can help your future sales immensely.

4.  Chase down the co-op.  Most publishers have money set aside to spend on book promotions, front of store displays at Barnes & Noble that cost thousands of dollars a week but have huge results in terms of sales.  Make sure you ask any publisher offering a contract if co-op is available for your title.  If not, consider offering to match any co-op dollar for dollar, up to whatever amount you can afford.  Sometimes that’s enough for a publisher to commit those limited resources your way.

5. Run from red flags.  Is the publishing company undergoing big changes?  If so, be wary, warns Hagan.  In terms of book contracts, she prefers to have the “right of first refusal” clause deleted.  It’s not exactly a red flag, but “it saves time for future projects,” she explains.  ” I don’t like to be locked in.”

Stocke says one red flag is if publishers don’t have extensive experience publishing books similar to yours.  They also should have initial competitive/comparative research if thy’re offering you a contract. “What’s their plan for the format, the price, the size, the brick verses e-tail opportunities? How are they going to title, package and pitch it to get it in front of people?  What does success look like, and what does the opposite of that look like?” Anything but good, reasonable answers here are red flags for sure.

Far too many writers spend months on a manuscript but then fire off the final product like it’s a radioactive hot potato.  Take your time to create a clear, informed plan so when you do put that masterpiece into the hands of a literary agent or publisher, it’s with no regrets.  Listen to the experts and give yourself the best chance to earn a great book contract with writer-friendly terms.

How to Finally Finish Your Writings

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Writing Project

I found this article by Kellie McGann over a subject I’m very familiar with, not finishing a writing project.  I thought it was worth passing on to you.  Enjoy

On my computer I actually have a folder of “Unfinished Blog Posts.”

If you’re like me, finishing projects is always a struggle, especially books, which are the hardest projects to finish.

Recently I’ve buckled down to finish several major writing projects, including my first book, and I’ve learned a few things about how to finish your writing along the way.

Three Secrets to Finishing Your Writing

Here are three secrets I’ve discovered about how to finish a book, blog post, or any other writing project, and some hints to keep you going.

1. Choose Just One

At one point I had five different documents open on my computer, all possible blogs, all different topics.

This is the worst way to finish anything.

The first thing you need to do is pick one project: pick one chapter, one blog post, one book you’re trying to finish. Give it your full attention. If you’re able to keep saying no to every other project, you will have no choice but to finish.

2. Kill Your Darlings

Stephen King said:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

Your darlings are those perfect sentences, the string of words that flows so mellifluously and which you love.

About two-thirds through many of my blog posts or book chapters, I find myself asking, “Wait, what was my point?”

As writers, we tend to sidetrack, or tell other stories, or make points that are good but not always relevant.

Instead, keep your writing focused on your central message.

And if you have any “darlings” or sections that deviate from that central message, don’t delete them. Rather, move them to a separate document and title it, “My Darlings.” Save those darlings for a rainy day when you don’t know what to write about.

Tying up loose ends is essential to finishing strong, and killing your darlings is part of the process.

3. Finish with Questions

One of the best ways to end a writing piece is by asking questions.

Questions are perfect for summing up your point and making sure your readers understand.

It’s a fun, easy way to finish your piece and engage your readers.

Have you ever had trouble trying to finish a book writing project? What is something you use or do to help finish your writings?

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and finish something! Go to your drafts folder or scan through your documents until you find a piece you’ve been meaning to finish. (We all have them!)

Tips for Writing Amazon Reviews

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 This is books scramble. Many books to scatter under sky.wordsAmazon-Logo-300x109

What if a car manufacturer was to drop off a brand new car to a person’s home, completely at random, and explain they had 24 hours to drive the car? Afterward, they would take the car to another home at random and do the same thing, and repeat for three months. They only asked that the home owners/drivers would write a review of the automobile. What do you think would happen?

I suspect most of the drivers would do exactly what they should. They would write intelligent and informative reviews about how it handled, how it drove, gas mileage, the comfort, the power, the sound system, etc.

But there would be some drivers who would abuse this privilege. It’s human nature. Some wouldn’t even drive the car. Some would complain about everything from the visors to the texture of the floor mats. Some would complain about the color of the free car they were provided. Some would get drunk, drive 100 mph, wreck the car, and then write a bad review.

Power to the people is a wonderful concept, but total unadulterated power to the masses will always result in an unreliable representation of the truth. It’s as simple as pride or ego. It’s the same reason we have few real cable news anchors anymore, because the anchors consider themselves the star instead of the subjects of the stories they report.

And that sums up Amazon reader reviews. While most are very helpful, many are just people exercising their basic nature to be useless. So here are some tips.

TIP ONE
If you haven’t read the book, don’t leave a review. I actually read a one-star review recently that read, “I couldn’t get this stupid book to download.” That is a problem to be solved between you and tech support, not to use the review section to vent.

TIP TWO
Reviews should include something about the story. Fake example: “Set in the Civil War era with war looming, a young couple from the South tries to start a new life.” Too many reviews, however, are so generic they could apply to any book written. Actual example: “The plot was weak. The story dragged on.” When I read reviews like this one, I’m not sure the reviewer actually read the book and would direct them to TIP ONE.

TIP THREE
After you give potential readers a little insight into the plot, you can add your personal thoughts. Fake example: “I thought the premise was unique and the writing solid. I saw the ending coming a mile away though.” Personal thoughts should be about the story, not the reader. Actual example: “I hate dystopian novels.” Which begs the question: why are you reading and reviewing a dystopian novel?

TIP FOUR
A five-star review should be for a book that has everything: good writing, good editing, and a story that makes you want to read it again and tell your friends about. Some people are too generous, which is generally not a bad trait to have in life. But I’ve looked at all the reviews of some reviewers to find that they’ve given a five-star review to all 30 books they’ve read. And while it’s very polite, it doesn’t serve the purpose for potential new readers. Seriously, nobody could be that lucky.

TIP FIVE
If a book is well-written and well-edited, it should never get less than a three-star review. Just because you were not able to tell what the story was about from the book description, or if the story didn’t appeal to you as much as other books, is no reason to give a professional book a one or two-star review. That’s just petty. Stories are subjective, and just because it didn’t appeal to you doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to someone else. Explain in your review why you didn’t like the story. That’s what reviews are for.

TIP SIX
Although I find it extremely improbable, if a book has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and the writing is full of errors and typos, then and only then is a one-star review proper. But usually even badly written books have decent ideas. But this is a powerful tool — use it wisely, Grasshopper.

Thank goodness the majority of readers are very bright. Heck, that’s why they read, or vice versa. When they read one-star reviews that are poorly written, do not actually mention any details of the storyline, and just appear as immature rantings, they take them as such.

So let’s sum up. Reviews are about books and for readers; they’re not about you the reviewer for you the reviewer. If it’s in your character to need attention, don’t write useless reviews, start a blog. Or better yet, become a cable news anchor.

Not Wanting To Make Things Up

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wordsAlmost all of us draw on autobiographical material when writing. This leads to a lot of powerful prose, and probably saves a ton of money in psychiatric bills. But it can also cause major problems with fiction writing, because it can make it hard for the writer to make stuff up. And if you’re not making something up, you’re not making something up, you’re writing a journal entry, which can be beautiful, but it is not a story.

Say you are inspired by your Uncle Louis, a real one of a kind sort of guy who was one of the most colorful figures you ever knew. You always thought you wanted to write about him. He applied for a patent on a copying machine, and he got it. You write up the story, give it to me, and I say, “That’s great that Uncle Louis got the patent, but the story would have more tension if he didn’t get it.”

“But he did get it,” you say.

“Yes,” I say, “but the story would be better if he didn’t.”

“But he did get it. Patent number 3333.”

“Well,” I say, “what if a woman steals his patent then?”

“But he was married to Aunt Irene for 50 years.”

You see where I’m going with this? Keeping the story too tied to Uncle Louis makes it difficult for the writer to use his imagination. It’s locking him into someone else’s story. It’s taking away the author’s power.

What to do? First, think of why Uncle Louis appeals to you. Why do you want to write his story? Is it because you admire his fighting spirit? Can you create a character who has the same fighting spirit but is different than Uncle Louis? Maybe, instead of making your character a little old man, you could make him a young man with red hair. Or, make him into a woman. The key thing is to take ownership of him. He’s no longer your uncle. He’s your character. You can do with him what you want.

We All Get There

Letting Characters Off Too Easily

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dorkPeople show the stuff they’re made of when they’re put under stress.  Sometimes they rise to the occasion and become heroic.  Other times they run.  Part of why war stories are so compelling is because soldiers face the ultimate stressful situation.  They’re putting their lives on the line.  Your character doesn’t need to face death, but he should have to deal with pressure.

Consider Bailiey, for example.  He likes to play golf, but he’s not that good at it.  Then he meets a woman who happens to be a very good golfer.  He begins to care a little more about his game.  Then the woman’s father invites them along on a golfing vacation.  Now our friend begins to care even more, because he doesn’t want to look like a fool.  Then it turns out that the father has been advising his daughter to break up with Bailey because he doesn’t consider him manly enough.  Now Bailey cares even more.  He’s going to beat this man if it’s the last thing he does.  Then, on vacation, they run into the daughter’s old boyfriend, who just won a golfing tournament.

I could go on and on, but the point is that each twist of the wheel puts this poor man under more stress and pressure.  His actions are going to have more significant consequences if someone he loves is involved.  His choices will be harder to make.  The reader’s going to care about him more, because we know how hard he’s struggling.  As a writer, I’m going to have an easier time writing a story when the stakes are higher.  Is he going to crack! Or is he going to reach inside himself and fine some strength of character he didn’t know he had?

In order to put your characters under pressure, you have to know them well.  This is why fleshing our character is so important.  For this story, I would want to know how Bailey learned to golf, how he met this woman, what sort of romantic history he has, where he works, what he looks like, how much confidence he has, how he dresses and why on earth his parents decided to name him Bailey.  The more I know about him, the more fully I can make him come alive.  What if, in thinking about Bailey’s character, I realize that he was captain of his high school football team? Does that change things? I think so.  Explore your characters. Get to know them. Make them suffer.