Category Archives: Writing Tips

Writing Tip #12 – Formatting

Formatting (for submission purposes as well as contests) The Synopsis and Sample Chapters

Now I am taking on this topic for two reason.  The first; well its simple and a good way for me to get back up in the saddle.  And Second; Formatting has changed some what in just the last few years and I feel the need to share what I have learned.

So lets begin.

Formatting for submission whether it be to an agent, editor or for a contest may not seem like a huge matter.  I mean really as long as it is legible how much could it matter.  Well like everything in the writing business it matters a great deal because it will show how seriously you take the “business”.

First I want to give a basic format that will be acceptable when there are no specific instructions given as to format requirements.  This should be what you use if you are submitting for a contest, to your writing or critique group, to an agency or editor who still likes to receive paper submission (although this is starting to become a rare occurrence)

Starting with the paper, use plain white 8.5 x 11 general purpose or copy paper.  Nothing else.  Do not think you will get away with slipping in more words by using larger paper, no professional wants colored paper, and they will not remember your name because they will never get past it being embossed on the stationary and it will be in the round file, or given today’s environmentally minded people the recycle bin.  So just keep it simple, and as it were cheap.

As a note I do sandwich my submission between two thicker pieces if paper mostly so it does not get bent or wrinkled in transit.

Now for what goes on the paper:

FIRST the FONT.  The only two (2) acceptable fonts that I am aware of anywhere in publishing are New Times Roman and Courier New.  The ONLY pitch allowed will be 12 Pitch.  Every line will be double spaced.  DOUBLE SPACED, do not use some 1.34 space or even 1.72 space thinking, again to get in more words all it will get you is tossed.

Use your header/footer tool and create a header.  In the left corner will go your name and the title of the novel, it is acceptable to use only your last name if you like but make sure that you keep it consistent (which the tool should insure) throughout the submission.  In the right corner you need the page number. JUST the number.  A numeral and not a Roman type and one every single page.  Yes I know your book is going to have the numbers at the bottom center, but this isn’t your book… yet so do it this way.

Now set your margins so that you have 1 inch margins all around.  You will have a rough right margin do not set the format to stretch to the right margin and do not exceed 1 inch right.

The basic reason for this is word count.  These standards allow for a fairly reliable word count of about 250 words per page and this helps determine total word count by chapter as well as for the novel.  Remember this is paper copies we are speaking about and even word count tools on computers will vary.  If an agent or editor or contest judge wants to have a rough idea of your word count they will use this formula.

The first page of your submission will be the one page that is not like the others.  At least for the sample chapters the synopsis will be consistent first to last page.  For your sample chapters the first page will start about 1/3rd the way down.  You will center your title and then your name under the title.  After your name everything will be Left Margin Flush, this usually includes the chapter numbers/names although I have never heard anyone complain if you do center your chapter head.

For your synopsis you will start at the top of the page not 1/3rd the way down and you will not have your title and name any place other than in the header.

Make sure that your page numbers from your sample chapters and synopsis are separate and it is also wise to add the word “synopsis” to the header although not necessary.

Every page that follows will start at the top of the page and go down to the bottom.  If a chapter ends mid page start the next chapter on a fresh page.  Do not place extra spaces between paragraphs and if you have a scene change or change in POV (point of view) place a return after the last sentence use either THREE “#” or THREE “*” centered then a return and continue writing.  It is again simple but simple always means fewer chances to make errors

Because your synopsis is not usually chapter by chapter but more plot point to plot point (I will get to the synopsis writing soon) you will be able to use all your page space which is valuable as most synopsis are only 3 to 5 pages long and have to give so much information.  Every bit of space counts.

If you have been asked for sample chapters, it is likely going to be specific like “the first 3 chapters” but some requests are for a specific page count such as “first 50 pages”.  Now if this happens and page “50” ends with a partial sentence or at an awkward place something that is not “finished” it is actually better to back up and cut the submission at a natural place, even if this means you only submit 47 pages.  What you want to create with your submission is both a scene of completion and a desire to read more.

Of course nothing is going to sell you better than your writing, but the entire point is to get your writing looked at and proper formatting is part of getting that accomplished.

So until next time,

Write ON!

Writing Tip #11 – THE QUERY: Fiction’s “Foot in the Door”

So in the last few posts I have mentioned some things that I said I would go into detail on later.  One of those things I mentioned is the “query letter”.  Today I want to give you some tips on this very important part of getting published.

I do want to make a distinction first.  The QUERY is for FICTION.  There is a set of expectations for the query and standards are a must when writing and submitting the query.  But again the QUERY is for fiction.  If you are planning to try and publish a NONFICTION you will be writing a PROPOSAL which is different (and honestly I do not know a whole lot about) I will explain the difference at the end of this post and also give you the name of a book you can get on the subject of proposals if you want.  So onto today’s topic.

THE QUERY: Fiction’s “foot in the door”

Assuming you have finished your manuscript. It’s been edited and rewrites are “done” and it’s formatted for submission (I will get around to the standard format requirements I promise) and you are about to burst with joy for your accomplishment, the query letter is your next step. (Assuming you are not going to spend money on attending conferences that is, which yes I recommend you do but I am bias on them).

A query letters ONLY purpose is to get your actual writing in front of someone who can eventually get you published.  But when something has such a narrow purpose it must be done perfectly.

First: Do your research. If you are going for an agent (recommended) then see which ones are in YOUR area. Just because their address is not in NY, NY doesn’t mean they cannot be effective for you. Being able to have face to face with an agent is an ADVANTAGE. Know what that agent acquires and who they currently represent before querying them. Same for the HOUSE you might query… know who in that publishing house will acquire your genre and if they are currently doing so and for what “book lines” and for the house find out for how long that “line” will be acquiring for.
Now the letter: Assuming you know who you are querying, your letter is your foot in the door. It is going to tell the agent/editor who you are, what you write, how professional you are, and if you could be worth the expense of a print run (what is your “voice”). You must take this into serious consideration because from the moment your letter lands on the desk of an agent or editor you are being judged.

If your letter arrives in a pink envelope and has little doodles all over it forget it its going in the round file and you likely will not even get a form letter rejection.  If it arrives on the desk of someone who only represents horror and you have written a Christian Family story it’s going in the round file.  If it arrives with marks from the mailroom showings it’s been passed over several desks… yeah round file.  Make sure you have properly addressed the letter, that it has enough postage affixed and that your return address is clearly printed out.  When the letter is opened make sure it has been professionally folded (usually the bottom folded up to the inside center and the top then folded back to the outside center so when it is pulled out it shows the address to the recipient). Try if you can to format your letter so that your “HOOK” is also showing in that first fold.

You MUST HOOK the agent. The best advice I can give you is explain your entire manuscript in 25 words or less. YEAH I said 25 words or less. This is your “pitch” this is what makes an agent go “Wow, tell me more”.  This is going to be why the agent/editor unfolds the letter to read more.  This is your one shot and it needs to be perfect so practice.  This is the same 25 words or less you would use if you happened to get stuck in an elevator with the agent/editor of your dreams at a conference but they would only be there for two floors.  Quick, Sharp, Catchy!

Example: Lord and Lady Cantor have the perfect marriage because they live on different continents. But it’s time to end the perfection.

Now tell me that won’t make you want to know more. After that it’s just a matter of being succinct.
Introduce your novel.

Example: Perfect Love is a 100k word historical novel set in both Britain and America. Etc. (do this in 1 paragraph no more than 60 to 100 words)

Introduce yourself. I am an unpublished writer who has a BA in history. Etc (do this is 40 words or less) then tell them why you selected to query them.

Example; I am querying you because of your relationship with X publishing house and your history of success with X author(s). My style is much like theirs. (Do this in 40 -50 words)

If querying a house state which line you are interested in writing for, you may not fit that line but you might be directed into the hands of someone handling a line you would fit. Sign and give a solid as in can be reached 24/7 contact info. That is the best advice I can give you, other then submit your query letter for critique. It won’t hurt.

As I have mentioned your query is going to give the agent/editor a general over all view of you and your ability.  It is very difficult to write a great query, to nail the hook, to give your qualifications and to make them know you understand that publishing is a business they take seriously.  Solid query letters tell the agent you are serious about writing as a profession.  Even if you manuscript has some weaknesses a query will alert an agent to your actual ability and give you a chance.

After that it will be either a form letter stating a polite but crushing NO THANK YOU or a request for a synopses and chapters. And you had best have both ready because if you get a request and it takes you a month to reply you will get a no thank you. If you do get a request make sure you send a pre-paid return envelope because you will not get your work back without it if you get a no thank you. But with it you will get it back AND it’s highly likely it will come back with notes and edits which might tell you a great deal about why you got a NO.

DO NOT; whatever you do DO NOT NOT NOT send a “form letter” query. I can absolutely promise you that you will burn every bridge in the publishing world if you do. Agents and editors talk to each other all the time and they share queries and proposals with each other. They even share them with other writers learning the do’s and don’ts. Also do not get fancy. Plain white standard paper with 1 inch margins and basic fonts or if the queries are requested by email… same thing only in text. Full words no texting shorts.

Now if you are writing nonfiction you will be submitting a proposal.  And while all the rules above apply as far as professionalism, and purpose a proposal has a little more room for artist conveyance.  In a proposal you will be submitting chapter outlines rather than saying what the book is about as a whole.  You should still keep each chapter outline to a minimum of words and try to keep your proposal to no more than two pages.

I recommend to those who are writing nonfiction, a book written a few years back I even recommend this to those writing fiction because it is just that good.

Your Novel Proposal From Creation to Contract by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J Cook.
The first part of this book is a little out of date as it was written before e-publishing and as happens in publishing houses change around their structure.  But if you skip to chapter 3 and go from there you will find a great deal of helpful information.  Some of course I have already written about, but a blog is not as detailed as a full chapter.

Now, get started on that query and next time we can talk about a synopes.

Till then WRITE ON!!

Writing Tip #10 – Contest, Conferences, Agents and Editors…. Submitting that script for consideration Part 3 of 3

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!
ANY AGENT WHO ASKS YOU TO PAY THEM TO LOOK AT YOUR MANUSCRIPT OR SOLICITATES ANY MONEY UPFRONT TO GET YOUR WORK PUBLISHED IS A FRAUD! DO NOT SEND MONEY TO AN AGENT OR EDITOR EVER. IF ASKED TO DO SO RUN AWAY… AND MAYBE REPORT THEM.

Okay now that’s out of the way on to the topic of agents and editors.

The first question I often get about literary agents is “do I need one?” My answer is always, “It depends.” The truth is if you are intending to take a traditional path to publication then yes you do need an agent. Why? Well agents are usually the only people who will get your script before an acquiring editor or line committee (a small group of people who are working on a specific line of books for a large publishing house: aka Harlequin has romance lines with a theme of travel, intrigue, sports etc and each line has a group of people who look for authors to fit their line). Agents not only have the ability to get your work looked at, they know where to go for a “best fit”. An agent isn’t going to just “shop” your work (pitch it to everyone). In this industry work which is rejected by a great many publishers (like 4) will never see the light of day as a published book because these people all talk to each other and if a few get together and all see they have seen your work your name gets out as a “waste of time”.  Agents know this so they are careful and selective who they pitch you to. As well a publisher is going to give more consideration to what an agent brings them because they know that agent is very selective as well and that agent already has seen the potential. Finally agents know the business. They know if you are going to have a chance at film options or other screen options, if you have the ability to get in as a serial author (contracted for a specific number of books at a specific payment) they know how to get advances and how to get you to those promotional opportunities.
The next question is “where do I find an agent?” Well this isn’t has hard as you might think. I have already mentioned they are at writers conferences, but even if you never make it to a conference you can find literary agents everywhere these days. Once upon a time you could only find them in NY., NY.. Not so today. Do a internet or library search for ones in your state even in your local area. Most agents have offices in NY., but many do their work (take and read submissions) from offices in their home states. There is an agent listing book put out every year by Writer’s Digest get a copy and start looking there. Make sure you are looking for an agent who represents the genre you write. Agents have a good eye for talent but they tend to have that eye for specific genres and they tend to only stay up to date on that genre’s trends. With hundreds of genres and subgenres and sub sub genres it would be impossible for all agents to know and work in all of them. Some agents also advertise in writers’ periodicals. Just be careful again of those who ask for any money up front.

With that last statement I often get asked “How do I know the agent is legit?” The best thing I can recommend is do a background check. Ask the agent for names of people they have recently gained publishing contracts for and ask which houses they work with. No they will not be offended. Then check up on the names and houses they give you. Remember agents know that writing is a business and they will respect you for your diligence and professionalism.
So finally “How do I get started with an agent?” Well if you are not going to sit down with one at a conference you will have to do a little research. Each agent will be a little different in their requirements but for sure each one will require a “quarry letter” (I will tell you about those in the next blog). No agent is going to accept an “unsolicitated” manuscript.   If you did not get a request to submit at a conference then your submission will end up in the “slush pile” and then in the round file. So know how your chosen agent likes to receive quarries. Many today like email quarries but will still accept written one so which ever best suits you, as long as it suits them too.

If you land an agent and they wish to have you sign a contract, usually a promise that you will not actively look for a competing agency while they have your script, do not hesitate to get some legal counsel in contract law. Remember again this is a business and you do not want to sign a contract which will impede your ability to do business at a productive rate. You do not want to give an agent your consent to indefinitely hold your script. If the contract seems unclear to you get a lawyer to look at it the cost is deductable from your taxes as a work expense (I will eventually blog about taxes as well).
Quickly, Editors. Well they are a little different. They do show up at conferences, they do actively acquire but they are really someone you get with after you have a publishing contract. They are who will work with you to polish that script and to keep you on your deadlines. Usually they will not take a look at your work unless you have some kind of resume, you win a major writing contest or you have published before in a different genre. Do not count them out as a means to publish but look at them as a later resort.

Now get those scripts polished and ready you know what you need to do enter a contest, go to a conference quarry an agent. Get that script out there for consideration.

Hope this serves you well till next time,
READ ON!!!

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

ANY AGENT WHO ASKS YOU TO PAY THEM TO LOOK AT YOUR MANUSCRIPT OR SOLICITATES ANY MONEY UPFRONT TO GET YOUR WORK PUBLISHED IS A FRAUD! DO NOT SEND MONEY TO AN AGENT OR EDITOR EVER. IF ASKED TO DO SO RUN AWAY… AND MAYBE REPORT THEM.
….just had to warn you again.

Writing Tip #9 – Contest, Conferences, Agents and Editors…. Submitting that script for consideration Part 2 of 3

So last time I talked about contests and I mentioned that many of the best contests are connected with writer’s conferences. This time I want to talk about conferences and why you should really consider them as part of your profession.
Writer’s conferences vary greatly from place to place and from genre to genre so while I will be giving you some basics make sure you do some (actually a lot) of research on your own before you attend any conferences.

The first type of conference you may which to attend would be a genre specific conference. Now these are much rarer than other types because they are often held only once a year and they are not necessarily state constant, in other words they move the venues every year to different cities in different states. Often these conferences are the “national” conference for the genre. For me the one which applies is the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference. The last one of these I attended was held in Dallas, Texas and the next year it was held in San Francisco, California so it’s easy to imagine the expense involved in just getting to the conferences. However, I do recommend trying to attend at least one of these national conferences at least once (preferably after you are published but not necessarily). The reason is the extent of professionalism you will be exposed to. The agents and editors who attend these conferences are the best in the business they are the ones who regularly find the “next” NY Times Best Seller and secure those six figure advances. They do not in any way “screw around” with one hit wonders. They know the publishing and writing business better than anyone could and what you learn from them can be the key to unlocking your career success as a writer. These conferences are also attended by the top selling published authors in the business and at least for the most part this is when those writers are most accessible. They come to these conferences ready to mingle, even with a unpublished nobody writer who may not even have any talent. They come ready to not only enlighten you to the paths you must take but to encourage you to keep at the craft even when you have received that 1000th rejection letter. They also come baring gifts of free novels and promotional which can help you decide on the kind of items you may want to use to promote yourself and your works.

Now, the second type of conference you can look into are the “general” or fiction/nonfiction conferences. These conferences are usually held annually and locally (or relatively locally) in most every major city in every state. Most are pretty cost effective and you get a lot of “bang for your buck”. I typically attend two each year in my area one put on by a city level writers origination (which is not really limited to just the city) the other by a state level organization. These conferences are usually organized by committee made of up the heads of the local individual writers groups. So in my case the local chapter of RWA helps in the selection of agents, editors and guest speakers who will be attending. The RWA chapter works with the Sci-Fi chapters and the Nonfiction chapters so that the conference is equally attended by representatives of each specific genre and they often only ask those agents and editors who are ACTIVELY acquiring NEW writers to attend. This gives you a chance to put your name and work out there and to become experienced in the act of submitting work for consideration.

So, how to go about attending conferences, what to do when you get there and how to save money.

The best advice I can give you is do research. Find a few conferences you might like to attend. Look at who will be attending as an agent/editor who will be attending s a guest speaker. If you see there will be an agent or editor you might like to work with (your “dream agent”) then do some research on that person specifically. Look into what he or she has recently done. Who did they just acquire, who did they sell and to what house and for how much. Most agents have their own web pages so this is not hard thing to do. If you find the agent has acquired and sold someone new go find that book and read it to see who much like your work the book might be. Agents are like writers they like certain kinds of “voice” and you can save time, money and disappointment by targeting who would most likely be interested in you.

You will also want to look into who will be guest speaking. Now agents and editors will all be giving seminars but conferences also have published authors attending and doing the same. If you look at these authors and what they write you can best choose if you want to sit in on those seminars.

Now once you have selected a conference to attend you will have to send in your conference fees and usually an attendance sheet marked with any considerations you may have such as limited diet or handicap needs. Many of these sheets will also ask you if you want to submit to a contest, pitch to an agent or participate in an “open read” (which I will explain some other time). If you have a completed manuscript which is polished and in proper format then I do recommend doing a pitch (which again I will explain later) even if you are rejected at the table you at least get the experience and that first time case of nerves is banished.  If you do not have a finished script then do not worry about it conferences are still a valuable tool. The seminars will take your hand and walk you through the process from that first word to first sell.

Once you have gotten to the conference though you really do need to make the most of it. Even if you will not be pitching or doing any type of open read yourself you need to set yourself up to gain as much information as your brain can possible take in and then some. The main thing to remember is you are not the only person there attending for the first time, you are not the only one there who really doesn’t understand writing as a business or even writing as a craft. Find some people and make new friends and contacts. Network. This will be the key to getting more out of the conference. Make a list of the seminars you want to attend and if there is more than one in a specific time frame and you must choose find someone who will be going to the one you will miss and ask them for their notes. Many conferences make recordings of each seminar and sell those recordings it’s an expense but sometimes worth it. MINGLE. I can stress this enough. There will be agents, editors, authors, publishing professionals and so many others just hanging out approach them, ask them question, talk about life, family, school and of course writing. I once made very good friends with the lead editor of Paladin Publishing by being there when he order crab cakes at the bar and only received one. We had a heavy discussion about false advertizing, customer service and “dressing” for dinner. He asked why I was there I said I am a writer (not knowing who he was) he said did I write well I said I thought so and he gave me his card and said submit to him he’s give a full read though. Sadly I never did as when I got home I did some research on Paladin and found it was embroiled in a court case and being sued, but again that is a responsibility a professional writer has and a choice I made. Again though and back to my point do not sit in the corner and say nothing. Put yourself out there remember you are not just selling your script you are selling YOU. The last thing you will want to do at a conference is find out if there is a local writer’s group who will take you as a member. You will want to first decide if you want a critique group or a writing group they are different and at a later date I will explain the difference. If you find a group that will suit and you can join then and there do so. There is nothing like a group of supportive people who can cry with you over a rejection, cheer with you over a success and encourage and teach you the craft. Get involved with one.
The last thing I want to tell you here is a few ideas on how to save some money. Conference fees and contest entrance fees are just something you have to choke up (unless you submit to a contest where the grand prize is the conference fees). But you can do things like contact the person who is answering question about the conference and see if there is a list of people who want to share a hotel room with someone so to divide the cost (which is usually discounted for the conference already) sharing a room is really the best way to save. So is carpooling. There may also be a list of people who want to attend but need transportation find out and carpool. Pack a few food items. Most conferences will provide a breakfast and a dinner but lunch will be on you. A cooler pack and then stored in the room’s refrigerator will save you a few dollars for sure and help with those late night hungries when you are still up processing all you learned that day. It is way cheaper than room service. And lastly as I said before make friends and find people who attended different seminars to get their notes and their feedback. If you are going to attend and pay all the money to get there, stay there and be there you might as well get as much from it as you can.

Like contests conferences are just one of the many ways to get your manuscript before an audience of people who very well could be looking for a writer with your story to tell. Keep them in mind as a tool but do not expect them to be the only tool you will need. Next time I will explain agents and editors and how there are not as scary as you might believe.

Till then I hope this helps and READ ON!!

Writing Tip #8 – Contests, Conferences, Agents and Editors… Submitting that script for consideration Part 1 of 3

So back to writing as a profession:

I was talking to someone who “hopes to someday be a published author” and when I asked if she had completed a story, she said she had finished a few short stories. And when I asked if she had submitted them anywhere she said “No, I don’t want anyone to steal them and I don’t know how to copyright them.”
Now I managed not to laugh, but I am sure my expression showed my dismay because she got a little bent out of shape. So let me explain to you as I explained to her…. No one is going to steal your work…. Not as an unpublished author, not even as a published author with only small sales. you really need to be someone like Stephen King or Bertrice Small; multi published and big earnings before someone will attempt to steal your material and by then you have the entire publishing house backing you so no need to worry then either.

Look, if your goal is publication you MUST submit your work. No publisher is going to call you up and say “hey I was wondering do you have a book I can buy from you?” It’s not going to happen.
But the idea of submitting is scary (and I don’t mean as in Fifty Shades of Grey). It means putting your work and in a way your inner self out there for ….REJECTION. And yes you will get rejected but that is for another day. Submitting work can also be an expense a new writer can barely afford.

So what are some ways to submit your manuscript which produce the best results?
Well you have some options. If you are a new writer still testing out your ability I recommend submitting to writing contests. I don’t mean ones you find in the back of Readers Digest. I mean the ones connected to specific writers’ groups and writers’ conferences. I mean going to the net and “googling” writing conferences and then finding the one which is specific to your genre and then entering the contest associated with that conference.

Here’s why; these contests over the one’s advertised in say Writer’s Digest (not that you can’t enter those as well and even find some conference contests advertised in those magazines)). The contests associated with conferences tend to have judges who are multi-published authors, agents seeking new clients, and acquiring editors so even if you do not win the contest you may catch someone’s eye who can then move you forward.

These contests also have, in my opinion, better prizes. Rather than cash or some publication in some low distribution magazine, contests offer prizes like, coverage of conference fees to attend and a sit down with an agent or editor, they also have prizes like a full read through by an agent or editor of your manuscript.

Entrance fees are usually moderate and submitting is generally streamlined so that you can submit multiple scripts or to multi contests without having to change format or submission requirements. You generally mail in all copies (most require 3) to one place and the contest coordinators then send them to the judges so you don’t have to. And best of all IF you send along a self addressed, stamped envelope these judges will send you back your submission with their notes about your writing right on the paper. Just think even if you do not place in the contest you still win the prize of a FREE professional critique.

Most major conferences’ contests also publish a small pamphlet and if you place in the contest you get your name advertised to everyone attending and you tend to get a certificate if you place which is good for when you are ready to submit to an agent or editor as part of your resume, but that is for another blog.

Now I do recommend submitting to a conference contest held in your area so if you do win and can attend you don’t have the expense of travel, but if you do not intend to attend then all fifty states have conferences year round and each genre has at least one national conference that will take place in a different state and city each year and they all have different fee ranges so you can find the best ones to suit your writing levels and your cheque book.

Always check the conferences history so you are not getting scammed. And always check the submission guidelines so you do not get an automatic rejection and lose your entrance fees. And finally check the prize lists so you know if winning will be worth entering (although I think you win just by entering).

This is, in truth just a small step forward but it’s a safe step for those of you still nervous about letting those precious and sometimes personal words out into the world. Contests are a good way to break out of your comfort zone and to find out if your skills have what it takes or if you still need to polish your writing.
As always I hope this helps and READ ON!!!!

Writing Tip #7 – What a Character!

Seemingly sometimes what a writer writes is not completely clear. What?!? Say it isn’t so. But it is… evidently. That is what I was told anyway when an excerpt from an earlier post was reposted and someone not familiar with the full text thought I was endorsing “mean people”.
Now I wasn’t; not that I couldn’t, endorse them in certain cases but it made me think about the characters writers “create”. And I put the word create in quotes because I have to ask do writers really “create” characters?

So… This blog is about Archetypes.

Archetypes are loosely defined as stereotypes.

(From dictionary.com) The original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copies or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.

And/Or

(In Jungian psychology) a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.
Some years ago I was at a writer’s conference and one of the new books being promoted was a book on character archetypes and how to write them. Now I knew this writer was not quite a friend but was more than an acquaintance and I still could not bring myself to purchase that book. And even now I still feel the same about the book, I couldn’t buy it (not that you shouldn’t) because the idea, the very premise that a writer would look to someone else to tell them how to develop a character made me sad. Really, how can you call yourself a writer and not at the very least KNOW your characters, know their deepest darkest secrets, their greatest joys, their fears and their hopes, how can you not know their GOALS?   And WHY, WHY, WHY would any writer want to be a “copy” of someone else?

Now certainly there is the necessity for both reader and writer to categorize characters, like the hero or the villain, but a good writer can really muddy those waters so it’s not so easy to say this character or that one is the “bad guy” or the “good guy”.
I mean let’s go back to one of my favorite examples; the movie “Titanic”.  Pretty quick we pick up on the Jack character as being the “hero” at least to Rose. But what about that guy, the one she is supposed to wed, the one who by every account is willing to spoil and indulge her. Who while is very typical of his era is still very proud that such a woman is going to be his wife. Who is willing to also take care of her mother. What about that guy? Do you even remember his name? I do but only because I love the actor who played him (Billy Zane). He was Caledon (Cal) Hockley and he was cast as the “villain” but really what were his faults? He was dominating, but that was the way of men, especially successful men, of his time. A little condescending, but again it was the era. And he did throw a bit of a fit, smashing the china and all but really the woman he had been supporting (along with her mother), the one he was intending to make his wife, was stepping out on him AND if our hero had been so inclined to show a bit of jealousy we might have thought it passionate not evil. In truth I have always felt a little sorry for Cal, I did hope that after he arrived safely back in America he did find a woman who loved him and married him and I am sad still knowing he would eventually kill himself … well isn’t that how all “villains” end? Dead.

But Cal Hockley is a perfect example of a character that is not a simple archetype. Now that he devolves as he sees things he wants slipping from him as his manhood is challenged by some street artist and the very people he believes should have had his back are cheering on the “imp” is more about development than archetype. The writers certainly could have let Cal gracefully step aside, they could have had him ungracefully step aside and demand Rose reimburse him for all the expenses. But that he, in his way, fights for her makes him far less the villain then most archetype villains are. And that is good writing.
So how do we write those characters? How do you make a hero not seem like someone Walt Disney would be proud of or for that matter make the villain a fav of old Walt?

I think the answer is to not use stereotypes. As a writer you have this vision of your characters in your mind. You know everything about them from which side of the bed they sleep on to which shoe they put on first. They are not like anyone else’s characters, although they might be like real characters in your life. So why would you cheapen them by not writing their uniqueness, by not giving them those quirks and nuances?
A hero doesn’t have to show up in shining armor, he can show up in scuffed cowboy boots with dirt on his clothes and a scar on his cheek. And a villain doesn’t have to be out to destroy, murder or completely ruin anyone, they can simply be caught up in their own circumstances and in trying to save themselves they harm others. That movie “Ghost” (with Swayze) comes to mind.

A hero can have some bad habits even some really bad habits as long as you leave him at least a toe’s distance from crossing that line. And a villain well there is hardly any limits to what you do with the antagonist’s character. He can be a total psycho or someone you might date or both.
Archetypes are a starting point. Archetypes are those characters the reader knows but never remembers. He or she is described as “that guy” or “this woman” by someone when who has read the story and is giving a synopsis to someone.

Characters though, characters are the people readers fantasy about, who they seek out in real life. And a really good character will be in a readers mind every time they pick up a book. They will name their children or their pets after characters. When they recommend the story it will be because of the characters.
So when you are getting ready to write your story, remember your story IS the character’s story. They are your surrogates your representatives. They are your readers guides through the story and how deep or shallow you “create” them will be the depth at which you involve the reader in their part of the tale.

Don’t cheat either your reader or yourself by only sticking with the archetype. Be daring, be creative, be bold.
And as always READ ON!!

Writing Tip #6 – Plotting or Pants-ing

A few days ago I was “chatting” with a young man who is contemplating trying his hand at writing a novel. His questions though, about the process, got me thinking.
See he was asking things such as what kind of “villains” do people like the best, and what story “premise” is most popular? It occurred to me then that if he was asking these questions and using the answers to direct his story was he really telling HIS story? And really how often do we as writers do the same thing before we begin our own next great novel?

Certainly trends in the writing and movie culture will play a part in what writers try to craft. If vampires are the “in” thing we might try to write a story which includes one. Still most writers, I think, believe, hope, write what THEY want to write and give trends and popularity only a passing consideration.
But how do we decide what to write? Going back to a past tip, we write what we know, we write what we would want to read but beyond premise and heroes and villains how do we get from start to finish?

For some the only logical way is to plot out the entire story. Almost as if they were writing a nonfiction book. They have chapter outlines and designated goals for each scene they have intended dialogs to carry the story forward. They plan out when a character enters and when the exit they even know all the twists the story will take. When done with all the planning all they basically need is connecting words to complete the story.
I think, and this is just me, for a beginning writer this is a very good method. It certainly allows a writer to determine if they have established a firm GMC upon which to build a story. Plotting gives the writer a chance to know in what ways the characters will be growing and developing. Plotting too helps establish writing goals. A plotter, someone who plots can easy say “today I will write chapter 5” and then they can pull out that outline they planned out and write chapter 5.

But this organized, methodical, way very professional way of working on a MS isn’t the only way to write. There is at least one other way to go about it….
The “pants-er” method. You know what I mean, the writing by the seat of your pants whatever comes to mind at the moment not really knowing if any of what you write will actually work in the script or if when you stop for the moment you will have written the greatest thing since “Gone With the Wind” or something more suitable for use as kindling in a fireplace.

This is a valid method though. I think it’s even in some ways the true description of a real writer. There is no labor intense manufacturing of plot and character. No forced meeting of goals or twists or cleaver dialog. Pants-er just let it flow. It comes out as fast as it can be imagined and it meets all the criteria of storytelling and novel writing. Sure the method may require more editing on the back end and maybe even the deletion of entire chapters and scenes but the story gets down before any of the vision gets away.
There are drawbacks though to this method. The biggest one would be when nothing comes to mind that day to write. The dreaded “writer’s block”; when the voice, or voices, in your head decide to sleep in or simply not speak to you. This is not really a problem of the plotter who can if one chapter isn’t working that day they can skip ahead to the one they “feel” is writable. Still when everyone in your head is quiet you can get some editing done.

Now if I sound like I have a bias towards pants-ing it, I do. I completely believe in getting the story down first. Getting the words on a page before frustration can set in, before all the things glaringly wrong can be pointed out, before doubt in ability is builds before the actual work involved in writing is realized. But in no way am I saying one method is better than another or any other besides the two I mentioned is worse.
The writer’s ultimate goal is to tell a great story. To tell THEIR story, in THEIR voice. And if you are thinking about writing and you are not sure how to go about it try several methods. Try plotting, try pants-ing, try talking into a recording device, and try whatever makes you write. I guess what I most want to advise you is that no matter how you do it as long as you do write you are doing it right… correct.

Hope you find this encouraging and as always   READ ON!!

Writing Tip #5 – What We Write

So this is less a tip and more just something to think about.  This post has come about because of an online discussion that was started with some friends in an online writer’s form known as Nano Writer’s Mecca.  If you are not familiar with the NANO Writing forms I suggest you Google them and join (its free).
I have mentioned before that a good writer writes what he or she knows.  But here is what had us in a frenzied discussion.  How do we know what we know when we are writing what we know and how do we decide if we know it enough to write about it?

Yeah, mouthful.  But it’s a valid question for today’s writers.  How do we know what to write about?  How do we know our genre, know the standards for the genre and when we can “break the rules” for that genre and still be successful?

Old school thought tells us we know our genre because we are avid readers of the stuff.  People who write romance, read romance, people who write thrillers read thrillers and so on.  So we know the fundamentals because someone else laid them out and we followed.  So it begs to question, does this prevent the writers from creating new stories with new plots and new climaxes and new twisted ending for those readers who do not write?  If the standards have been set are they so strict as to restrict us from creating something new and exciting?

I mean think about it?  I use to like both reading and watching the James Bond stories by Ian Fleming.  I mean for the time they were the political, adventure, thrillers and the gadgets were pretty dang cool.  But after a while I stopped because I started to be able to predict the plot, to see the twist before it happened and really know the end before the end.  Reading and watching the same thing over and over is not really entertainment.  And besides, after Sean Connery the sex appeal kind of dropped away.
I think as a reader people are looking for something new, something that hasn’t been really done before, hence the success of JK Rowling and Harry Potter and Twilight fame of Stephenie Meyer.  I mean sure we all know the magic and vampire genres but these two ladies, artists, put a new twist and really shook off some of those “rules”.  Ms Meyer’s vampires are certainly not the embittered, monstrous murdering creature created by Stoker a century ago and yet it was Stoker who set the genre standards and those standards are what people learned before writing their own story.

And to use myself as an example, I write romance, that’s just the genre.  I can sub categorize it five or six times but the genre is romance.  And yes I do on occasion read romance.  I read more when I was younger before I thought about writing it and certainly for the same reasons I stopped liking Bond I stopped liking romance.  It was predictable.  It was the reason I started to write, I wanted to do something new and different with a genre I enjoyed at one time.  But I learned quickly the industry didn’t want “new” they liked their standards.  So I said “Okay” and set aside the idea for a while.  I started reading what I now read most of the time nonfiction history books.  But I still really loved to write romance.  So I did I wrote the historic romance that I as a reader would have enjoyed and when the industry still said NO I said then I will do it some other way.  And of course with the technology age I have found the platform to take that next step.
With so many more inlets and roads available to writers now will genres have to accept changes to their standards?  I think they will.   I know longer think you will have to know what “rules” apply you will be able to paste together your own and define your voice through your writing.  But this doesn’t change the fact you will still have to KNOW what you write.

What will change is how you know it.  It’s more likely you will know what you write from many varying sources.  Not just authors of your genre, but from movie and TV and certainly from the internet and World Wide Web.  You might write an action, thriller that has a sci-fi element.  Or maybe you will write a mystery with a horror element.  The combinations as well as the potential audience you will generate are going to open up for you as long as you have a good voice, solid GMC, developing characters and strong writing abilities.  It’s no longer you have to KNOW mysteries to write mysteries.  You can be a huge fan of sci-fi horror and still generate a great story.  But you will still have to know what you write.

So think about a little, let yourself imagine what kind of story you want to tell and then ask yourself does this story “fit” with eth genre standards or this going to be something that has no perfect match and then decide if you still want to write that story.  It might not fit, you might have to find an alternative way to get it out to an audience but if it’s a good story with good writing you will be successful.

Writing Tips #4 – Show, Don’t Tell

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov

I have critiqued many manuscripts and had a great many critiqued.  The one remark I have always found most useful and the one I remark often is that the author should “show don’t tell”.  Now are you wondering what the heck does that mean? After all are we not “telling” a story with our writing effort? Well of course we are, but we are not JUST telling a story we are inviting the reader into a world, a vision, an idea unique to us but relatable to everyone who reads.

To make a story relatable we must allow some vision. Your MS is not just words it’s a mental motion picture and if you do not SHOW the read you fail to involve them in the story and that is in reality what they want, to escape into a different life for a short time.

So what do I mean to “show” well let’s stick with the movie reference: Let’s look at a very popular movie with lots of “showing”. TITANIC, most everyone can recall that movie with ease. So I want you to go to the scene where Rose and Jack first become aware of each other. Remember Jack is on the Steerage deck with Frabristio and he looks up and there is Rose at the railing.

Here is what we are SHOWN (no one tells a thing) we know Jack is completely attracted to her and that the difference in their social class makes little difference. And we know that Rose is at the very least intrigued by Jack. How do we know these things? We are shown. We are shown by Jack’s continued bold stare and the expression on his face and we know by Rose’s inability to stop glancing back even while she tries to play the uninterested socialite.

There is no narrator in the back ground telling us “… and then jack spots the pretty young woman and he falls in love at first sight while for the delicate Rose DeWitt Beaucator she cannot understand why the manner less stares of the man below her class makes her feel seen perhaps for the first time” Not at all, no one says a thing and yet the viewer knows all this without a doubt.

Okay so now you know what it is to “show not tell”, but how do we as writers do that? Well it’s not easy I can “tell” you. I have struggled with it for years. Often what I find is that in my first draft everything is a tell. It’s simply easier to get the vision of the story down in a telling voice. But, knowing that is half the fight because when I go back for a first rewrite most of those glaring tells are reveled and easily fixed.

The key is to know what we are trying to put out in a given sentence, paragraph or scene. Often it’s very basic. We are establishing a time, a place, a situation and the character’s (or characters’) physical and emotional state. So here is an exercise in going from telling to showing it’s very basic but that makes it easy to practice.

Everyone think back to the Rhyme Jack and Jill, go ahead say it out loud once or twice I won’t get into the historical significance just give the rhyme a saying and try and visualize it. Okay, you got it in your head… now I am going to write a TELLING scene about what happened the next day between Jack and Jill after the fateful “hill Incident” I will be writing from Jill point of view (POV) simply because it’s easier for me. Remember this is a TELLING scene.

The next morning Jill walked to the doorway of the kitchen and stopped. Jack stood beside the counter next to the coffee pot. He was still angry about the trip to the well and his broken crown. Jill certainly felt guilty and she wanted to tell Jack she was sorry. Jill wondered if their relationship would survive this latest incident.

Okay so I just told you everything you needed to know. I gave you a time, a place, a situation, the character’s emotions I even gave you the “GOAL, MOTIVATION and CONFLICT” (GMC) that being Jill’s wanting to say sorry (G) to save the relationship (M) but worried about jacks anger (C). Reasonable and direct… in other words TELLING.

Now let’s rewrite that in a SHOWING voice: all the same info just shown not told.

A bright shaft of light from the east window cut the room in half. Jill hesitated to enter even as the smell of fresh coffee beckoned. Perhaps it wasn’t just the otherworldly barrier keeping her back. Perhaps it was the way Jack was standing, back stiff, almost guarding the brewer. In profile she could detect the scowl on his face and tears burned the back of her eyes. A knot rolled in her belly and a lump formed in her throat. Here she was again, needing to tell Jack she was sorry, that she never meant for his crown to be broken, but it seemed at the moment that sorry might not be enough.

Okay so it’s not perfect and its way corny… but you can SEE what I did. I showed you it was morning rather hen tell you, I showed you what room they were in, showed you that Jill was nervous and guilty and Jack was at the least upset at the most angry and I still gave you Jill’s GMC…

It is very easy to lay it out for a reader. But that is not our craft. It’s not for us to say its 9AM in the morning. It’s for us to say “a shaft a light through the east window” and let the read choose if its 6AM 9 Am or moving towards noon. And we do not always need to say straight up it’s the kitchen… maybe the reader will be more familiar with a coffee pot in a breakfast nook or in the dining room. We establish it’s a kitchen through the soft descriptive we add like a microwave on the counter or Jack going to get cream from the fridge before noticing Jill in the doorway.

Now, it is your turn to practice. I find it helpful to simply go back and read each sentence. To say it out loud and ask myself do I feel like a 4th grader hearing it or do I feel like a fly on the wall in the story?  I feel that you need to show don’t tell but as with all story matters you need to take what you feel is helpful and leave what you don’t believe fits your story’s vision.

READ ON!!!

Writing Tips #3 – The Professional Writer

So, today’s tip is going to be a little different.  Today I want to discuss “writing” as a job or business.

I know grumble, because as a writer you are doing what you love so how can it be work?  And as the saying goes do something you love and you never work a day in your life.  But if you really do what to finish that manuscript, if your final goal is publication, if you want to be taken seriously by family and friends and co-workers, you must look at what you do as a job.

Therefore, let’s look at some of the aspects of writing as a business.

The place you work:  I can’t say there is any right or wrong place.  If you want to close yourself off in a small room with sound proofed walls and a do not disturb sign on the door, or you would rather sit with your laptop in a park with the traffic and children playing then so be it.  But the one thing I advise you to do is to make the place a place for working on writing.  Do not go to the park and spend the day browsing the net for shoe sales or golfing tours.  When you sit down and pull out a note pad or turn on the computer in your “place” write.  Even if you only get a few lines down while you day dream, write.  If you have to get up a hundred times to answer the phone, write.  Make that place your place to write because every time you go to that place and you write or think about what you will write you train your brain to associate the place with being creative.  And every time you take yourself to that place you will be able to fall into writer mode.  Personally I write in my basement.  I also have my bedroom in my basement so even when I am asleep I am in writer’s mode and if I wake up at 2 AM with an idea I get up and I sit down and I can write.  So pick a place and try to make it your place of business.

The equipment:  Now this is a matter of both personal choice and industry standards.  I think I mentioned I wrote my first several manuscripts in spiral notebooks, and then I used a manual typewriter and finally a word processor.  I have always been a bit behind the technology curve, actually I am still on the dirt road and technology has already left surface streets for the express way.  My advice here is to use what you are comfortable with.  If you like to carry a note pad and jot down a little bit as you eat lunch or if you have some pocket size super computer you can whip out and type a entire chapter into a document file and then dock that small device with a larger system well again whatever you are comfortable using.  However, make sure the equipment is reliable or you have a back up.  Remember that writers work for the most part on deadlines and there is not an editor or audience out there willing to totally forgive a writer who is late in delivery.  Computer crashes and printer malfunctions happen to everyone, they cannot “happen” to a writer.  And if they do they still cannot delay the manuscript.

Now while it is your preference where you start the story the industry will eventually require you to end on a computer with internet.  I will not say there are absolutely no publishing houses who will not consider a manuscript done in longhand on notebook paper, I believe even JK Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) started her writing this way, but the majority of agents and editors will want you to submit in a manner only possible through computer technology.  Many agents have even switched to e-mailed quarries and submissions only and editors have gone to requesting rewrites via e-mails and online “chats”.  So if you are an old fashion writer or if you are simply a technophobe (like me)  at least have a plan as to how you will get your manuscript into some type of word document ready for print and review by the people who will move you forward in the business.  In a later post I will talk about how to write a quarry, give a literary “pitch” and submission standards.

The Hours:  Well this is something hard to pin down.  Personally, I spend maybe 70 to 80 hours a week writing or editing on manuscripts.  I am also the kind of writer who can sit down for 2 days straight and complete a 150,000 word story from beginning to end AND I have a family and life which supports me doing this.  Now that I have added this “blog” thing I have decreased my writing time, increased my edit time and still not really adjusted the overall time I spend actually writing.

I guess what I am say is you have to MAKE time to write.  If you can only get an hour a day while the triples nap and the washer gets through the spin cycle then spend that hour. If you have one day a week when your mother in law will take the kids and feed your spouse then use that entire day.  The best way I can tell you to figure out how much time you will have to dedicate to your “working” on writing is to set a goal.  Tell yourself you will write 500 words (roughly 2 pages) every time you sit down.  When you find you are taking less time because your GMC is now nailed and the story is flowing increase that to 750 words (or 3 pages) and so on.  Set goals based on the plots and plot twists or character development, write through until you have helped your character or set the scene or finished a stretch of dialog.  But most important, MAKE time to write.

When to take time off of writing:  Well let’s see…. There are children to get off to school, the dog to walk, the bills to pay the laundry to do the plants to water, the neighbor to help, the church pot luck, the dinner and laundry (oh did I say the laundry twice… I should say it again as it’s my personal nemeses). Then there are the doctors and dentists and the shopping and the calling Mom for her birthday and OH MY GOSH the husband who would maybe like to have sex! Phew, now I am tired.

My point is there are a million reasons to convince yourself you do not have time to write, you can’t give your craft the dedicated time you would give any other chore or job.  But if you want to write, if you want to be a writer, you have to.  You have to set aside some of those other things or give them less of your attention and give that time and attention to your writing.  And know what it’s okay to do that.   There is nothing selfish or inconsiderate about giving yourself the time to do something you not only enjoy but something which could eventually earn you a living.  You may have to explain this to the people who expect you to do all and be all, all the time but it is still alright to take that hour or those 70 hours and do what you want and have to do as a writer

Writing is a craft but it is also a job, a business and if you want to make it in the business you have to treat the craft as you would treat any other job.  You have to have a work place, you have to have the equipment and you have to have the time.

I hope this gives you something to think on.  READ ON!