Friday, January 30, 2015

Ten Commandments for Writers

by James Scott Bell

1. Thou Shalt write a certain number of words every week.

This is the first, and greatest commandment. If you write to a quota and hold yourself to it, sooner than you think you'll have a full length novel. (I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days or life intrudes and you run yourself down. I also take one day off a week.) So set a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts.

Don't edit yourself heavily during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Your plot and characters may want to make twists and turns you didn't plan. Let them go! Follow along and then move on. At 20K words I "step back" to see if I have  solid foundation, shore it up if I don't, then move on to the end.

3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy Lead.

The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the Lead character.  Keep turning up the heat. Make things harder. Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down.

4. Thou Shalt put a stronger opposing force in the Lead's Way.

The opposition character must be stronger than the Lead. More power, more experiences, more resources. Otherwise, the reader won't worry. You want them to worry. Hitchcock always said the strength of his movies came from the strength and cunning of the villains. But note the opposition doesn't have to be a "bad guy." Think of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive."

5. Thous Shalt get the story running from the first paragraph.

Start with a character, in a situation of a change or threat or challenge, and grip the reader from the start. This is the opening "disturbance" and that's what readers respond to immediately. It doesn't have to be something "big." Anything that sends a ripple through the "ordinary world." 

6. Thou Shalt create surprises.

Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.

7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story.

Don't go off on tangents that don't have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.

8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts.

Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down. No trouble, tension or conflict is dull. At the very least, something tense inside a character.

9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin.

Don't take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.

10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life.

Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain insights. At the same time, we study. Brain. Read surgeons keep up on the  journals, why should writers think they don't need to stay up on the craft? If I learn just one thing that helps me as a writer, it's worth it. 


James Scott Bell is a bestselling suspense author. The former trial lawyer was the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest Books and an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft of writing are among the most popular today.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Bell's interesting interview.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What is a Story? An Etude in the Key of C

by John M. Daniel

I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  ~Huck                                                                                                                                                          

Rust Hills summed it up thus: Something happens to someone.” That’s it. Plot (something happens) and character (to someone).Okay, but what happens? Change. Or someone is, at the end of the story, a different person from the one who she or he was at the beginning.

How does that come about? It could be because of chance (a trolley runs over his foot, so he will never be able to tap dance again) but more often, and more interestingly, it’s because the character has made a choice.

The choice arises from a conflict. Remember: no conflict, no story. Conflict resolution, which comes in many forms, is what results in choice, and therefore in change. By the way, the conflict is often the outcome of a crisis of conscience, and results in a shift in the balance of power.

Yes, the choice itself has a consequence. The change, yes, we talked about that. But maybe a greater change. The moral center of gravity may have shifted. To make our story important, make that choice consequential. Write about what matters: the human condition. Write about love and death.

This critical moment of change, this catharsis, for reasons as old as the creative process, and even the procreative process, usually happens at the climax of the story.

If you don’t believe me, ask Huck Finn.

So as we write our stories, let us remember all of these ingredients listed here in alphabetical order:

Catharsis, Center of Gravity, Chance, Character, Change, Choice, Climax, Condition (human), Conflict, Conscience, Consequence, Creative Process, Crisis, Critical Moment . . . and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few.  

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, Medallion Books. Read his interview to learn more about John M. Daniel. The book is available in print, ebook and audiobook editions.)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Inspiration, Setting, and Reader Enjoyment are Integrally Linked

by M. M. Gornell

My initial inspiration for writing came from--and has been reinforced throughout my life--by all the great mystery authors who have led the way. My earliest memories are of falling in immediate love with Agatha Christie--her style, her plots, her murder methods, her protagonists, her characters, her locations.Christie was my rock star! These days, I am continually inspired and re-energized by the work of P.D. James. (I am an admitted and unashamed anglophile.)

Along with characters, a key ingredient for my enjoyment of a book is being "taken away." For example, with P.D., I just love being transported to her wonderful locations in Britain. And seeing London and environs through the eyes of her protagonist, Adam Dagleish, is marvelous.

For each of my own novels, my inspiration and first kernel of an idea has come from a location that has reached out, grabbed me and wouldn't let go. That sounds a big silly, and it's not the whole story, but truly, so far, I've been inspired to start a story because a location said, "Me, me!" Write about me." From the location, I've then wondered who would have lived there, or come that way. What is their story? In the case of my first published novel, Uncle Sy's Secret--during my many dog walks, a particular place along the Snoqualmie Valley Trail kept calling out, "What a perfect spot for a murder." And in the case of another my books, Lies of Convenience," a near collapsed quonset hut near Route 66 never failed to tug at me. Indeed, Route 66 is my current writing impetus, and I think will hold my imagination for a long time to come. So many stories along the way.

Consequently, I hope my readers are taken away for a few hours into an interesting world that captures and captivates--either because it's so different from theirs, or because they identify with the characters and location. Especially with Route 66 and the desert, I'm hoping that through my characters' senses, the "feels" of the place comes through and grabs them like it did me.

In my mind, story inspiration and reader enjoyment are tied together by setting. Wonderful locations drew me to mystery fiction, and they now inspire me as an author. And creating that "sense of place"--through all the senses--is one of my writing goals. From my writing aspirations comes my most cherished hope--that when readers close  my books, there's a smile on their faces, and thoughts, questions, ideas beyond who the murderer was remain--but most of all--they feel a sense of regret the adventure is over and they have to leave the world of my novel.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can read Madeline Gornell's interview and learn more about her.)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Advice for Novice Writers

by Alan Orloff
(bestselling author)

Things move slowly in the publishing world. Be prepared to wait. A Lot. For your critique group to go through your manuscript. For your queries to be answered (if you’re lucky). For your partial and full manuscripts to be read. For editors to weight your submissions. For your book to wend it way through the production process as it heads toward the bookstore shelf. Best advice: have some other projects to work on while you wait.

Getting help really helps. Critique groups can help you with your writing. An agent can help polish your submission and will know where to send it. An editor can help massage your manuscript into its optimal form. Ignore these helps at your own peril. Getting published really is a village effort (so make sure you have plenty of food on hand.)

You need a thick skin. Rejections are the norm—don’t let them “spin you out.” Otherwise, you’ll never get any writing done. Persistence and perseverance are key. When it comes to reviews, read them if you want, but remember writing is subjective and a lot of those online reviewers have axes to grind. 

My conclusion? Reviewers who write good reviews are sophisticated, discerning, and intelligent, while the bad reviews are written by illiterate trolls.

Your book doesn’t “belong” to only you anymore. While you were writing your manuscript, it was your baby. You could feed it what you wanted, dress it how you wanted, play with it whenever you wanted. Now, you have to share and listen to other people’s “baby raising” advice. Once you sign a contract, your book gets slotted into a release date and is tossed onto the production conveyor belt. Flap copy, cover design, titles, internal and external sales pitches, editing, publicity, sales. It’s all done on schedule, without emotion and (mostly) without you. Get used to it.

Online promotion takes a lot more time than you think. Website, blog, Facebook, Google, Twitter, list serves, Yahoo groups, and a kajillion other social sites lure in you and won’t let you escape.These connections are valuable, but you need to exercises discipline or you’ll look up and four hours will have elapsed with nothing to show for your “writing” time except a few Mafia war hits.

Other writers are extremely generous. I’ve found other writers (published, unpublished, bloggers, Twitters, etc.) to be very helpful with their advice, comments, and time. The sense of community among writers is unbelievably amazing.

Take time to enjoy every bumpy, thrilling, uncertain, joyous main-biting, wonderful, anxious minute. No sense getting stressed about stuff you can’t control (and that encompasses a lot). Getting your first book published is a very exciting time—but sure to stop and smell the ARCs.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Indie Publishing: The Good, Bad and the Ugly

by Cheryl Kaye Tardif
(International bestselling author)

In 2003 I began my career as a published novelist. Previous to this I had published smaller works—in magazines, newspapers and one anthology. I decided to go the indie route because I was tired of trying to get published and only collecting rejection letters. It was the best decision I ever made.

In 2003 my novel, Whale Song, was released and it saw moderate success, along with two other titles, and I was able to hone my skills as an avid book marketer. I made the book signing circuit to bookstores in both British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. And I began marketing online as well.

In 2006 Whale Song was picked up by a small Canadian publisher. It was re-released in 2007. It sold well and surpassed 5,000 copies in sales, making Whale Song a national bestseller. It also made various Amazon bestseller lists: .com, .ca and co-UK, making it an international bestselling book. However, the publisher began experiencing financial difficulties, along with other problems, and I pulled out. This was definitely the “bad” period in my career.

In 2010 Amazon opened KDP to Canadian authors and I went back to my roots—indie publishing. For me it’s probably the best fit. I am by nature very independent and a strong marketer. Plus I’m an “idea person.” Even my former publisher saw this in me and often called me a “guru” or “marketing genius.” While I don’t consider myself a genius, I do know that I’m a risk-taker.

In 2012 I had nine ebooks published—most have made numerous bestsellers’ lists—and eight trade paperbacks. I’m also published in another anthology, What Fears Become. And I’ve moved from bestselling author to publisher, a move that has surprised me, yet is so rewarding that it’s hard to explain. My company, Imajin Books, isn’t like most publishers. We think ahead and out of the box.

I’m still technically indie published as I’ve published all my own titles now, but Imajin authors are traditionally published. We pay them advances and regular royalties. And we pay them more than most publishers. In many ways we treat our authors as though they’re indie published. They have more say in their books, titled, covers and trailers. We think of them as partners, even though they’ve put no money up front for publication of their titles. Like I said, I’m a risk taker.

During my career I’ve seen the good, bad and the ugly. But now I see a wide window of opportunity. Those who go the indie route will be successful if they have what it takes—marketing know-how and determination. What an exciting time to be in publishing! Especially if you’re an idea person like me.