Tag Archives: authors

How to write a good book – It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

As a writer I feel my wife, critique partners and beta stormreaders are the life’s blood for my manuscripts.  I’ve never been strong in spelling and grammar, so developing a passion for writing may have been a very cruel joke on me.  I rely heavily on them, more than one should, to catch my many typos, misplaced commas, tense switches, and many other issues that plague my writings.  In this manner I realize how lucky I am to have married a teacher who has a reading endorsement.  But as much as I lean on all of them to make sure my ideas are communicated properly within the guidelines of the English language, there is so much more that a writer needs to be aware of beside worrying about the difference between affect and effect, and the three different meanings of to, too, and two.

I recently decided to try out for another contest.  In it participants must supply their query letter as well as the first two-hundred fifty words.  This seems to be coming more common in writing contests – including the first two-hundred fifty words.

It comes out to about three quarters of a standard page in an 11 or 12 point standard font, double spaced.  When I decided to enter I knew I needed to revise it if I were to stand any chance.  Why?  Well, because within these two-hundred fifty words the writer needs to communicate several things to the reader.

As any writer knows, the first line of the story is also known as a ‘hook’.  The attention grabber that will make the reader want to continue.   It makes sense, you want to make sure the readers are interested right from the start, right?

The following words need to do much more.  They need to be interesting as well, of course.  And if you were to ask other people what the first page of a book should do you’ll get a list as long as the number of people asked.  It should set the scene, set the mood, demonstrate your writing style, create a visual of the main character, endear the character to the reader, establish the personality of the character, determine the motivation of the main character, and you get the idea.

None of the above is unreasonable.  It would make sense for the first few opening paragraphs to do any one.  In fact, you can do any number of those suggestions in that list.  You can set the mood, introduce the main character and demonstrate your style.  But many also warn that you should not have any exposition.  The action should start right out of the gate.  Make sure the reader knows they are in for a ride.

While this is great advice I can’t help but wonder if readers are really that demanding.  Would a reader really toss a book away if they didn’t find out the main character’s eye color within the first page?  Is it a deal-breaker if we don’t fall in love with the character in the first four paragraphs?  Is all hope lost for the book if we don’t know by the middle of the second page that the boss is filing for divorce and the administrative assistance has been harboring a crush for her?

Can’t setting the scene take a few pages?  Can’t showing a character living a fairly normal life before all Hell breaks loose be acceptable, even if the disaster doesn’t happen until the fourth chapter?

Some of the books I read years (decades) ago didn’t start off at warp speed (and I’ve read sci-fi, so it literally could have).  But I didn’t toss it in the garbage.  Have the attention spans of readers nowadays degrade so much that if everything is not available to them right at the start they lose interest?

Has the influence of living in an age of email, drone delivery, ATMs, and immediate gratification spoiled the readers and denied authors the chance to slowly building up tension, plot, and character creation?

In Moby Dick the whale doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way through the book.  Gone With The Wind starts off with an exposition about her Scarlett’s physical features and family lineage.  Many of the classics and famous stories of even the mid 1900’s would probably never find representation by a modern agent, let alone a publisher.  Not because the author was a bad wordsmith, but because they don’t cater to the interests of the modern agent or publisher.

As writers, if we want our stories to be read we must capture the reader’s attention before they lose interest, whether that’s in one sentence or a generous full chapter.  Perhaps such high expectations force current writers to dig deeper into themselves in an attempt to bring out the most in their writing.  Even if the level of expectation may be unreasonable, it still may impel our creativity to flourish.

This may truly be the best of time and the worst of times, an age of wisdom and foolishness…

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The Non-Science of Popularity

Roulette_wheelWhat if Star Wars never made it big? Is there a universe where Fifty Shades of Grey is just sitting on the Romance/Erotica shelves of bookstores collecting dust?   Can you picture a world where talking about a boy named Harry Potter is received with blank stares and requests for clarification about who he is?  What determines success and failure?

Marketing is a big, but not the only influence.   For example, I’m a big fan of Michael J. Fox.  I think he is an incredible actor and based on what the media reports is a great person (I never met him personally).  His most recent sitcom, The Michael J Fox Show (2013-2014), was plugged for months in advance with tons of fanfare.  By the time the first show aired many followers of the 80’s actor were excited to herald in his return.  Yet, it only lasted four months before NBC pulled it due to low ratings.

The (now) highly publicized book, Fifty Shades of Grey, is an uncontroversial best-seller both in print and film.  Yet, many people have criticized James’ writing, even her fans.  The marketing for the book when it first came out wasn’t nearly as prominent as Fox’s television series.

So why is one continuing to generate millions of followers and dollars while the other one never even got to finish airing all twenty-two completed episodes?  There’s more to popularity than marketing.

Perhaps luck isn’t the accurate term, but there is a component of randomness.  Perhaps the Chaos Theory as explained by mathematician, Ian Malcolm, from Jurassic Park, can be used to explain the behavior of the publishing industry.  The industry is made up of people, and they are, by nature unpredictable.   A query sent to an agent on Tuesday may be rejected, but if it was sent on Thursday instead, the agent may have accepted it just based on the kind of day they were having, or maybe earlier that day they had a conversation that helped them relate to the query.  Timing is as important to getting representation as location is to the real estate industry.  But even getting published doesn’t mean success.  Success, if you determine it by sales and popularity is a numbers game.

Fox’s show didn’t spark interest, despite fans wanting it to.  But E.L. James’ no holds barred…uh, you know what I mean…yet grammatically questionable, erotic story was a guilty pleasure that came out at the right time.  Despite the romance and erotica sections on Amazon and in bookstores being full, she struck a chord with readers who were willing to look past whatever mistakes may have been made in her writing.

(Disclaimer: I have not read the book outside of one single line – which was for a challenge made by someone who did read it and wanted to see if I can randomly open the book to a page that did NOT contain any sexual references…I was unsuccessful.  I am only relating reviews I have read or heard, I did not read enough to evaluate Ms. James’ abilities.)

Regardless of quality, content seems to trump all.  If the people want it, someone will provide.  If people don’t want it, it will disappear.  It’s a classic Supply and Demand concept.

There’s a reason why after Twilight came out the YA section in every bookstore became flooded with vampire books.  This was quickly followed by movies, tv series, ‘Team Edward’ vs ‘Team Jacob’ wristbands, spin-offs, spoofs and fan-fiction.  Almost overnight the world embraced vampires and werewolves.  Everything was into bloody fangs and fur.

Shortly after our love affair for the handsome undead and lycanthropes, the world moved on to the ugly undead.   Zombie hordes took over the theaters everywhere, it really did seem like a zombie apocalypse hit Hollywood.

So what have we learned?  If you can predict what people will fall for twelve months from now, you can make it big in the publishing world.  That really seems to be the main factor.  It’s not luck, but it is about capturing the interests of the masses, and that’s far from an exact science.

Is it too late to write about a young attractive vampire who falls for a zombie with an S&M fetish?

The floggings will continue until morale improves.

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Sometimes motivation just escapes me.  Even when I have an idea that I believe has potential and just needs to be flushed out a little, finding the energy to bring it home just doesn’t happen.

It doesn’t help I have three full manuscripts sitting on a flash drive that haven’t caught the attention of any agents or publishers.  It doesn’t help that the average temperature outside has been in the single digits for the past two months either.

This is when people start to champion the optimist’s battle cries.  “Don’t give up hope.”  “You’ve got talent.”  “You just need to find the right agent.”  “It’s all very subjective.  But it’s a great story.  You’ll find it a home, soon.”

It reminds me of a previous job I had where, in my personal opinion, management was less than caring and ethical.  Sadly, for those who know me personally this doesn’t pinpoint the exact employer since I can say this about a few of them.

Anyway, most of the employees were not happy, and so being corporate leaders, management decided to make everyone read one of the most best-selling books of the late 20st century, Who Moved My Cheese.

Now for those blissfully unaware, this is a motivational book written by Dr. Spencer Johnson.  It’s an insightful story about finding strength to carry on even when the winds of change swirl about you at hurricane speeds.  It warns you that if you are incapable of adapting to your environment, you can find yourself in trouble.  It delivers this message with the help of a metaphorical maze populated by mice and two tiny humans.

In truth, Dr. Johnson brings up many good points and strategies within these pages.  Unfortunately for Dr. Johnson, corporate America was quick to exploit his message as quickly as governments exploit scientific findings and turned it into a weapon.

Armed with the good doctor’s wisdom, many companies, including my employer at the time, had their staff read this book and essentially said if you can’t handle change there is something wrong with you.  Apparently a strong, stable person should look at mergers, takeovers, and buyouts with enthusiasm, and look forward to cutbacks and layoffs as a child looks forward to Christmas morning.  Nothing says ‘happiness’ like a pink slip in your stocking.

I recall having at least four or five motivational speakers come in with a year’s time, and numerous inspirational theme days sprouted up including Hawaiian Day, Hat Day, and my favorite – Prom Day.  Each event encouraged employees to don the appropriate attire for the day.

When the movie “Office Space” came out I already left that job, but it brought about a serious case of PTSD.  I curled up into the fetal position and people tried coaxing me out from under my bed with pieces of cheese, promising not to move it away from me.  Well…it could have happened that way.

It baffled me that management seriously thought that hiring people to tell us to be happy and embrace change – which usually meant either being laid-off or seeing a reduction in compensation – would work.

It was a waste of time and money, and usually ended up causing more anxiety each time these mandatory meetings were scheduled.  It would have been less stressful to install air raid sirens to go off at random intervals throughout the day.

The worst part was that management tried to treat the symptoms, instead of the cause.  Of course, knowing their management style was the cause, what could one expect?

What does any of this have to do with writing, querying, and trying to catch the attention of an agent?  Not much, but it’s been a while since I enter a post in here.

However, this does touch on motivation.  While it does mean a lot to have friends and family support and stand by you when you are struggling, the bottom line is that no one can motivate you but you.