Sunday, September 30, 2012

Random Ways Down the Road

Writer's block - the single greatest fear of an aspiring author.  We've all heard about it, and most of us have experienced it on occasion.  There come a point in every story where we aren't sure what comes next.  Worse, sometimes we try jotting our ideas on paper, only to find that all of them suck out loud.

I experienced this on the novel I'm currently working on not too long ago.  Usually, this happens when I begin to sprint past my outline.  Ever seen one of those Road Runner cartoons where the Coyote runs off the cliff and just hangs there in the air for a few seconds before plunging several hundred feet to the bottom of the canyon?  Well, that's what I feel like when I outrun what I've planned in my journal.  I'm just hanging there with no idea what to do next, and it seems like the only thing I can do is hold up a white sign on a stick that says "Uh oh."

I played around with several different things - should the main character get a new member of his team?  What would that new addition look like(believe it or not, I toyed around with a Sheldon-type character from The Big Bang Theory, then wisely chickened out)?  Should I bring out the central point of the investigation now, or would I be better served by extending the suspense a little longer, and how would I even do that?

Like I've said before, most people view the creative process like goofing off.  However, as a writer, you sometimes have no choice.  So I sat in my trusty leather recliner and threw things against the wall.  Then, as has often happened, things just came together, and from the place it usually does - the story I've already written.  The disparate parts were already in place, and I just needed to bring them back together.
(Just think - this started out as separate ingredients)
The answer to my conundrum was present in the earlier part of the book.  A character I'd intended to be a minor contributor to be forgotten by the halfway part of the book became the obvious solution to get involved and make take on a greater role.  His personality and connections established in chapter four helped the tale go in new directions that helped advance the story without being too cheesy about it.

This isn't the first time I've done this.  I rarely know where a story is going to go when I begin writing it.  Sure, I might know the beginning and have a general idea of where I want it to end, but getting from point A to B is always an adventure.  Additionally, point B has been known to change.  Most writers know that a story has a life of its own - no matter how snobbish it sounds to say that - and it's up to us to guide it down the road.  In previous stories, some minor plot point that I thought was a throwaway has come back to factor in in a major way I never dreamed of when I put it in there.

It's like the Invisible Hand that Adam Smith wrote about - something moves the story(or the market) in ways you can't see or even anticipate.  I'vv had characters I thought would be a big part of my book simply fade away by the middle of it, and I've had a twist in the action that I put in just for the sake of enjoyment end up creating an entire divergent storyline that I never foresaw.

The point is that, as a writer, never dismiss what you put on the page.  Sometimes that dent in the car's rear bumper was just something to describe the feel of it, but other times it morphs into the clue the detective needs to figure out who was involved in the hit and run.  Only as you move down the road do you find out what really has meaning and what doesn't.  The useless isn't always so useless, and maybe your brain was adding something it knew you needed, even if your conscious mind didn't.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Differing Perspectives

One of the hardest things to figure out when telling a story is deciding on a point of view to tell it from.  Do you want to come at things from a first person perspective so that the audience gets the feeling of intimacy with the main character?  Do you want the audience to know everything that is happening from a third person omniscient point of view so they can read all the characters' thoughts and try to figure out the varying ways they interact with each other?  Each one will greatly affect how you tell your story, which will, in turn, affect how your target audience views the tale.
(She sees things a little different)
Most writers pick one perspective and stick with it throughout most of their career.  I usually use third person limited - the main character is the focal point of how I get the story across, but I rarely let the main character know everything.  I use it because it helps build suspense without giving too personal a look into the soul of the protagonist.  Some of my stories are raw enough emotionally as it is, so I have to have the reader maintain a little bit of distance or the experience could be too personal and might cause discomfort.

I also favor third person limited because most of my favorite authors use it.  JK Rowling weaves in a little omniscience, but not until the later books in the Harry Potter series; her first few show the world entirely from Harry's point of view, and this helps keep the audience guessing about what will happen next.

That's not to say I haven't experimented with other styles.  In Wrongful Death, a story still looking for a different title for, the main character is a teenager, and a lot of teenagers can be jerks(I know I was, but fortunately for all of you, I grew out of it!  Don't laugh, I did so...).  In order to create an empathetic bond between the character and the audience, I had to allow the reader to get more intimate with the protagonist than I normally do, so I went with a first person limited point of view.  This showed the reader that Christian was a likable person underneath his teenage bravado, and it kept the suspense that goes with not knowing everything.

Some people go with second person omniscient, like the way Christine Rice did in Freelance Writing Guide: What To Expect In Your First Year As A Freelance Writer.  Most of the books that do this are "how-to" books that are trying to allow the reader to envision himself or herself accomplishing the tasks set forth.  Whether it's writing freelance, building a deck, or learning the various positions of the Karma Sutra, in second person omniscient, the reader needs to be able to truly believe he or she can do what they are reading.  This isn't some distant character that they need to develop an attachment to - it's themselves personally, a person hopefully they already give a shit about.

I've just started to use a bit of a hybrid in my most recent work.  I usually disdain third person omniscient, but aspects of it have become necessary to show the breadth of the story.  I'm not even sure it's truly an omniscient perspective since what it really does is bring together several third person limited perspectives, but the effect is the same - the reader has greater knowledge of what is happening than they would if they only followed one character, and the reader also knows more than the main character is capable of knowing.  It's challenging to keep these points of view separate, but it's necessary for so the story can have the depth to achieve the desired effect.  Harry Turtledove does this a lot in his alternate version of America if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, bringing everything together in the final chapters.  If I can pull it off half as well as Turtledove does, it'll be a resounding success.

What's your favorite perspective?  Do you like to think you're in the middle of the action, or do you prefer to watch from a distance and empathize with the main character, and what books do you think pull off your preferred technique the best?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Regardless of how much we'd like to pretend otherwise, none of us is very objective about our own writing, and I'm not just talking about the storyline.  We miss all kinds of mistakes in the body of the work because we breeze right past them.  After all, it makes sense to us, and we'd pick up on it if there was something wrong.
(That wall looks fine to me)
I consider myself to be pretty good at proofreading my own stuff, but even I'm not crazy enough to think that I'm going to catch every mistake.  I've given my novels to a few people, even after I supposedly polished them, and every person has come back to me with something along the lines of, "You don't mind if I marked up the typos do you?"  Therefore, prior to putting anything into the public sphere, I will have a third party look it over, and by that I mean someone who can make a fair assessment without worrying if I'll disinvite them to my house.

There are a couple of books I've read recently that could've used another round of proofreading.  One Second After by William Forstchen was a pretty good read, even if I disagreed with his view that our society would completely collapse.  However, he makes a mistake throughout the text that drove me absolutely crazy.  In places where he obviously meant to say, "I could've used that information last week," it came out as "I could of used that information last week."  The book is full of mistakes like that every ten or so pages, and it makes me want to scream.


So I'm a little bit anal about things like that.  I don't consider myself a Grammar Nazi - I couldn't tell you the difference between a dangling participle and an indirect object - but mistakes like the difference between "would've" and "would of" are like nails on a chalkboard to me.  Language is the basic way we discern intelligence, and when a person does something so stupid, it grates on me.  It also interrupts the flow of the story and forces me to try and return to the momentum I had before this kind of crap forced its way into my field of view.

Another book I'm reading uses language that makes me trip over myself.  In a lot of places, the author uses the word "whilst."  This word can be effective if used sparingly.  However, it gets under my skin if...used...every ...other...word.

"Whilst the Germans rolled over France, the British evacuated Dunkirk.  However, Hitler failed to press his advantage whilst he enjoyed air superiority, and it cost him dearly.  He should have used the Luftwaffe more often whilst the boats moved the Soldiers back to England."


A good copyeditor would have caught these kinds of mistakes and at least given the author a chance to think about whether or not they were appropriate in those places.  Someone with an English degree could've jerked Mr. Forstchen by the collar and said, "Listen you idiot - this is the kind of mistake I expect from a 5th grader, not someone who has made the New York Times Bestseller list on several occasions."

Yes, a copyeditor is going to cost money.  Decent ones will probably run around $1200, but if you plan to make this whole writing thing a career, you need to fork over the cash and try to be professional.  If you don't, your readers will notice, and you'll quickly go from new literary genius to cocktail party joke.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Poopy Language

Given what I currently do for a living, I know it's shocking - shocking I tell you! - that I can swear like a Soldier.  Although I monitor where I'm at, I can let loose with a string of epithets that would make Trey Parker and Matt Stone blush.  And sometimes that language comes through in my writing.  A couple of people have even said that my cussing makes them uncomfortable.

Well fuck me sideways with a cane pole.

I use what Joe Peacock calls "poopy language."  I don't swear every other word, but it's in my vocabulary, and it's just part of who I am.  I write the way I speak, and sometimes my language isn't appropriate for children.
(Any more words in there?)
Language has to be tailored to the audience.  I've written a book designed for younger audiences(around high school level, not really young kids), and I've taken any of the potentially offensive language out, but the other ones I've done, have it peppered where appropriate.  The characters don't go around and just say, "fuck fuck fuck, shit shit, cock, cock," but there are parts where they'll use language that enhances the scene.

I thought a lot about this recently and wondered if maybe I had gone a little off the rails.  Then I pulled a few books I love off the shelf.  Stephen King is notorious for his foul mouth, and I wouldn't say anyone thinks it limits his audience.  I re-read Guns of the South, and the stuff in there is tame compared to Harry Turtledove's later work(some of his later work would make a lot of people blush to be honest, but I still enjoy the stories...and given how many Turtledove has sold, most folks either overlook it or expect it to an extent).

My first drafts are rife with poopy language.  Like I've said before, my first draft is always a free flowing process that I intentionally let go wherever my mind will wander.  However, in the initial edit, I'll cut down a great deal of it.  My the time I'm on the third edit, I'm really trying to decide if the language used is appropriate to the situation, or if it was just that I was in a bad mood that day.

Despite what my high school English teacher might say, sometimes coarse language enhances a story.  When a character calls out another person in the story on something that person is trying to pass off, the word "bullshit" works a lot better than "baloney."  When my protagonist is arguing with the detective from another police department, calling the guy a "cock" is much more effective than calling him a "jerk."
(Not everyone likes the cock)
It's an acknowledgement of the current state of society to write in ways that reflect society.  Refusing to engage society on the terms it understands is to put your fingers in your ears, close your eyes, and shout in a really loud voice that you can't hear anyone.  Sure, I could write about how "that bestial man flung himself into the distracting deceit of the woman," but no one talks like that anymore.  You could write something like that, and it might end up in the "literary" section of the bookstore, but few folks would buy it.

Those that don't care for the occasional spicy word or phrase should go read something else.  This is who I am and it's the way I write.  To do otherwise would be to compromise my own creative process.  I'm sure that'd result in success that would make Ryan Leaf look like a Hall of Fame QB, and no one wants that.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Feelings That Just Won't Die

We should trust our instincts.  As writers, we know where we want the story to go, and we know when we've hit the mark.  That being said, we also know when we're coming up short, and we should be honest enough with ourselves to say when that's happening.

I've begun my next work.  It's a supernatural murder mystery relies on keeping the reader off balance in order to create the right effect.  I have a goal of writing at least 1,000 words per day, and I'd like to reach 2,000 words per day when I can.  However, I've recently found that I can get so caught up in reaching the daily word count goal that I forget to move the story along.  Some days I write what I call "filler material" - material that doesn't really advance the plot and exists solely for the purpose of giving the novel bulk.

I just finished a stretch of the work that seems very much to be filler material.  The action scene is forced and the dialogue is stilted.  I've read it and re-read it and I don't think it measures up to the standards I believe the novel should have.

Things like this have happened to me before, and I can almost always pinpoint where the problem is - I didn't spend enough time with my outline figuring out where the story should go.  I know that some of you can write by the seat of your pants and churn out the next Harry Potter book, but I'm not like that.  I don't want everything in such excruciating detail that the fun is gone from the creative aspect of the writing, but I have to know where the novel is headed.  The few times I've tried to write without an outline, the book simply fizzled.

So while my daughter does her nightly chest therapy for her CF treatments, I need to sit down with my trusty notepad and actually think about where I want this road to take me(to the layperson, this looks an awful lot like goofing off).  I've X'd out entire sections of the outline because it didn't work, and I have little problem with that because my outline is free-flowing, and just daydreaming is one of the most fun parts of writing.

However, I do have a problem when I have to throw out pages of work because I screwed up and didn't think things out in advance.  I've talked about this before, and it always kills me when I have to rip up pages I poured my heart into.  You think you've reached a daily goal and are chugging along nicely, when all of the sudden you feel like not only are you not moving forward, but you're now retreating.  It's an absolute kick in the balls, but it's necessary if we want to churn out a quality product.

Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame once said that he'd been known to rip up weeks of material that he didn't think was any good.  Those of us who love Calvin and Hobbes would have loved to have seen those stories because we're convinced that they're every bit as good as what we've come to expect from Watterson.  What we're missing is that we're such huge fans precisely because of the commitment to excellence.  We've come to expect a certain standard from Watterson, and if we looked at what he was unhappy with, we'd probably be disappointed.

It's the same with writing.  We have to put our best foot forward and know when we're falling short.  I'm not talking about total perfection, just that we can all tell when we're not giving our best effort.  There's an inner sense that lets us know that we should go back and try again from the last place we were doing well.  It's painful and a process I'll have to go through at some point soon, but hopefully it'll ensure a better novel in the end.

One of these days I'll find a way to hook my brain directly into my computer so I can get it right on the first try, but until then, I'll just have to endure the heartache of ripping up what I've done so I can get readers a better product - they deserve no less.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Have a Stash

In today's world, a writer can't be content to simply write.  You have to be an advertiser, salesperson, and overall businessman.  Regardless of how we want the world to work, it's not possible for most writers to just pump out their next work of art and then sit back to wait for the accolades to roll in.

Since we have to be much more into the business aspect of this than we used to have to be, we need a solid business plan moving forward.  I believe that the old model of moving on from one book to the next is outdated, especially for a debut author.  What that means is that you need a stash of books ready to go.

"But Russ," you say, "writing just one book is a hell of an accomplishment.  How am I supposed to have more than one ready to go if I don't even know if my first one will be successful?"

If that's how you want to run things, then go ahead, but don't come crying when you're not making it and have no time on your hands to make a serious run at things.  I think that anyone truly intending to make this a career should have at least three books ready to publish before they get started.  Why?

The reasons are myriad.  First, as an unknown, you are going to have to put in a tremendous effort to get yourself out there and get read once you're prepared to go, and that's regardless of whether you're going indie or traditional.  There will be readings to do, appearances to make, and personal contacts to cultivate.  Tim Zahn can rely on the fan base he's built over the past 25 years, but you have no fan base yet.  That means a lot more time convincing people that your work is worth their time.

Second, you're going to want to strike while the iron is hot.  If people like your work, they will seek out other things you've written.  I don't think you should deluge the market, for each book requires some careful planning for its release, but I do think that you need to have something ready to go not too long after your first.  Readers will be patient...up to a point.  If they know they'll see something new in six months, they might wait.  But if they have no idea when your next novel will be out - shoot, you might not know when your next novel will be out - they'll be less inclined to wait around and will give someone else a try.

Third, and not to put too fine a point on it, but, as a newbie, you simply won't have the time to write that you hoped you would.  If you want your first book to be successful, you're going to have to devote a monstrous amount of time to it and its marketing.  You'll have to work nights and weekends, and all that extra time you hoped to have to spend on your next masterpiece will instead be funneled into the success of your debut novel.  This, of course, makes writing the second book pretty challenging.  However, if you have another book ready to go, only needing to follow up with the final stages of bringing it out, you can devote the time you need to establishing a presence and not feel guilty that you're not writing.

Also, writing is a stock business.  McDonalds didn't become the number one burger chain by only offering cheeseburgers - they also got people to buy Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets and fries and Sausage McMuffins as well.  In other words, they built up an inventory of delicious items that lots of different people could buy.  It's the same in the book world in that you can't rely on a person to buy five copies of your first book; you need them to buy your first, second, and third books and still want more.  This also allows people who find your work to go back and delve into what else you have that they might want.

It helps to take a breath after writing a book rather than rush out to publish it and then bask in the glow of the rewards you know you deserve.  Focus on your great love, writing, and create multiple stories.  Then, when you're ready to kick off a career and not just a lark, you'll be ready to truly build lasting success.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Please Stop Groveling

I was checking out The Passive Voice recently and came across this article by agent Janet Grant.  The overall tone of the post is one of the issues I have with a lot of agents - it's haughty condescension that implores writers not to make waves and mind their manners or the big bad publishers won't like you.  Here we have yet another literary agent that seems to forget that she works for the writer, not the publisher.

However, it wasn't her article that annoyed me all that much.  I've come to expect this kind of garbage from an agent community that is placing itself more and more above those it purports to represent(there's more of me ensuring I'll never get one of those agents...they don't react well to recognizing that kind of stuff for what it is).  Instead, it was the tone of the writers who were trying to place their noses so far up her ass that the collars of their shirts are probably brown.

Go to the article and read the comments at the bottom.  It's alright - I'll wait.

Done?  Okay, let's take a closer look at what it was that nearly made me vomit.  The tone of all the folks who wrote(at least at first) seemed to be one of "Oh. thank you so much for letting me post on your site.  Since I want you to represent me one day, I'm going to tell you how great you are and how much I appreciate you sharing your insight with a peon like me.  May I please lick your boot clean?"

It was sickening.  The attitude of the obviously unpublished writers who went there to hear the master's words is exactly why a lot of writers are getting shitty deals.  These people are so desperate to land an agent - which is only the precursor to a possible deal...not the publishing deal itself - that they sacrifice both their dignity and independent thought in pursuit of the almighty agent.

Janet makes a couple of points that hold merit, such as a contracted author can't hold a publisher in suspense forever and not finish a manuscript(of course, a counterpoint would be that a publisher shouldn't take forever to pass on the rights to your next work, but that's another post).  However, the way she leads up to even those few decent arguments she makes is to scold the writers whose side she's supposed to be on that they've just pushed too darn hard the past couple of years to get more out of their contracts.

Imagine - a writer that has the temerity to try and get the best deal.  The horror!

However, she then goes completely off the rails and talks about non-compete clauses in contracts.  These are clauses that prevent an author from publishing more than x number of books per year(usually one).  The reasoning given by the publishers is that if an author has more than one book a year out there, that author will cannibalize his or her own sales and hurt the overall profit margin of the work.

Pardon me while I throw the red bullshit flag.

When I read something I like, I almost immediately go and find out what else the author has penned, and then I'll buy that too.  In other words, the presence of more than one work out there actually spurs sales rather than hampering them.  However, the presence of multiple books can cannibalize the sales of a particular publisher, and that's not something the publisher is willing to do unless they can be guaranteed to make gobs of money(rarely guaranteed unless the writer is named King or Rowling).

What these clauses do is prevent the writer from being as profitable as possible and keeping food off the table of said writer.  Does a football coach ever tell a QB to limit the number of touchdown passes he can make?  Does a film studio try to limit the number of films an actor is in?  If I saw something like this in a contract my agent presented me, I'd do two things:
1.  Fire the agent
2.  Run screaming in the other direction

But again, the writers commenting on the post were breathless in their thanks to this agent for limiting how much money they can make.  I was floored at the desperation I saw.

This is what agents and traditional publishers are counting on.  As long as there are more writers willing to let themselves be walked on and then beg for another trampling as opposed to those willing to stand up for themselves and remind agents that they work for us, the status quo will hold.  Publishers know that newbies are so desperate to get their foot in the door, they can demand strangling terms, and if a writer asks for something better, then publishers can kick them to the curb, secure in the knowledge there'll be another poor schlub out there willing to bend over and take it.

Do I want to be published?  Yes.  Do I want my work to be successful?  Of course.  However, I'm not willing to sacrifice my dignity to make it happen.  Publishers have nothing to publish without the writer.  Agents have no one to represent if authors tell them to get bent.  It's time for writers to stop being happy being walked on for the chance to be out there.  Until more people understand that, the writer will always hand over their power to a bunch of folks who've forgotten what the pecking order is supposed to be like.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Author Interview and Book Review

I am pleased today to review Freelance Writing Guide:  What To Expect In Your First Year As A Freelance Writer by Christine Rice.  This book is a soup-to-nuts instruction manual for those looking to get into freelance writing.  I highly recommend this work to those who would like to freelance for a living but have no idea how to break through.

Christine begins by outlining the various forms of freelance, everything from writing for an online audience to ghostwriting for someone else.  She gives no illusions about how you should be in this for the love of it, especially from the beginning, or you' never survive the grind required to be successful.

From there, she moves on to marketing yourself and the need to establish a presence.  The easiest way is to create your own website(as most of us do).  Should you blog or just have a site that promotes your services and work?  Christine makes it clear that these two things have different purposes - the blog is to connect with readers, while the website is basically an advertisement for your product and services.

She also touches on networking, and in this she emphasizes the need to be realistic.  If you're an unknown writer, you're not going to be chummy with the Style Editor at the New York Times.  Start by interacting with readers and those in your field.  Participate in online forums, and build your connections over time.

From here, she goes on to discuss searching for jobs and the education you'll need, if for no other reason than credibility.  These are basic things any freelance writer will require to find his or her way into the market and establish a niche.  You have to have some business savvy in both approaching editors and in tracking your business.  Then you have to be committed to a lifestyle change that will be necessary to be successful.

In summary, Freelance Writing Guide: What To Expect In Your First Year As A Freelance Writer by Christine Rice will help get you off the ground if freelance writing is where your interests lie.  Those who have no idea the elements and entry barriers will find this guide useful in preparing them for the road ahead.

And now, on to the interview!

1.  What inspired you to write Freelance Writing Guide:  What To Expect In Your First Year As A Freelance Writer?
I knew I wanted to write a book about freelance writing, because I had learned so much during my first year. I decided that I could share my experiences and knowledge as a career guide book. I thought that a book about what freelance writers can expect in the beginning of their careers would have been helpful to me when I embarked on my journey to become a freelance writer, so I wanted to help new freelance writers and save them some time that I had spent on researching and experiencing.
2.  In your opinion, what's the biggest obstacle a person looking for a freelance writing career needs to overcome?
Let me share a little story with you. I attempted freelance writing for a short time five years ago, but I quit because the income was so little. What I didn’t realize was the income was low because I was starting from scratch, so to speak. I needed to build a portfolio, learn about the career and all the opportunities available, and improve my writing skills in order to earn more money. I ended up realizing that freelance writing is a rewarding and enjoyable career for someone who has a passion for writing. So if you can look past what looks like not much money, and look instead to what is possible from investing time and energy into your true passion, you will be able to focus on working hard to grow your freelance writing business, and your life will be more enjoyable because you are doing what you love for a career.
3.  Your enthusiasm comes through in your work, and I've heard that such passion usually comes from experience.  Care to share any stories of your rise into the freelance writers' market?
When I first started writing for Textbroker (a ghostwriting marketplace), I was at a writing skill level of three and making only one cent per word. But as I wrote more and the quality of my articles improved, my skill level went up to level four and I began making 1.4 cents a word. Then I was offered three direct orders that were two cents per word each. Next, I was selected for a team project which paid more than three cents per word for two assignments. It was really exciting to see the rewards increasing with each new opportunity.
4.  What was the process like to write this book?  Did you outline, or did you just write as inspiration hit you?
One night, after I decided on the title of the book, I sat down and brainstormed. I wrote down, in note form, everything I knew about freelance writing from my experiences and what I had learned in my research. I typed it up, added more details, arranged the chapters and parts, and edited it. I think of it as a pretty formal outline, especially since I hadn’t outlined in a while and didn’t create outlines for my other books. I then wrote in spurts of anywhere from 1,000 to 3,500 words at a time, usually once or twice a week. Towards the end of the first draft, I wrote almost every day. I remember dreading the inevitable editing process, but when the time came it was actually a breeze, because I had put in good effort on the quality of the first draft. The two edits I did took about two weeks each - with a three-week wait time in between - and most of my efforts were spent on the organization of the paragraphs and subtopics within the chapters, and minor grammatical changes.
5.  How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never met you?
My writing style can change slightly depending on whether I'm writing for social media and blogging, the kind of book I'm writing, and the type of writing medium.  In Freelance Writing Guide, I use what I call a "business-casual" writing voice by speaking to the reader in second person singular (you) in a knowledgeable tone with a touch of optimism.  I would generally describe my writing style as pleasant and direct.
6.  Did you always envision yourself as a writer?
Honestly, no. As a child, there were many careers I wanted to try when I became an adult. I was interested in psychology, acting, law, fashion design, and veterinary science. I did not follow through with any of those passions for long. I did, however, enjoy writing from age nine onward. I would write short stories, poetry, and journal entries in my spare time. It wasn’t until 2006 that I decided I wanted to become a professional writer, and the passion has stuck ever since.
7.  What other projects do you currently have in the works?  What kind of timeline can we expect them released on?
In January of 2012, shortly after I began Freelance Writing Guide, I started writing Chronicles of a Troubled Girl - a compilation of all of my journal entries from age nine to age thirty. (It will be a nice companion to my published autobiography, My Not-So-Ordinary Life.) I paused from working on it due to finishing up and publishing Freelance Writing Guide. I plan to continue Chronicles at the end of September and publish it by November. In December, I intend to publish a book of all the articles I wrote as a freelance writer in 2011 called Articles for the Mind - which carries the same title theme as my two published books: Poetry for the Heart and Essays for the Soul. I am also currently working on Freedom from Fat, which is a memoir - composed of journal entries and blog posts from 2010 to ongoing - about my experiences with weight loss and reaching my health goals, which I plan to publish around May 2013 when I have reached my weight loss goals.
8.  What kind of stuff do you like to read?  Got a favorite book?
I really do not have a favorite book, because the joy of discovering a new book and experiencing the story for the first time makes every book a favorite. Plus, there are just so many great books out there. Right now, I am enjoying reading fantasy and sci-fi books, as well as occasional nonfiction books that help me in my career. I’m currently reading Blood Faerie by India Drummond, which is a dark fantasy.
9.  What do you think of the current transformation within the market concerning traditional versus indie publishing?
I think it’s great that indie publishing has become so popular. Writers have the right to get their work published, if they so choose, and indie publishing allows them to do so. I am all for individuals and self-employed business people doing what they’ve always wanted to do - publish a book - and making a living by fulfilling their dream. I am also happy that indie publishing is so inexpensive, because the author - the one true person who put their heart and soul, and precious time, into the book - can earn a more fair share of the sales.
10.  What advice would you like to give a newbie writer?
Becoming a writer is a progressive journey; therefore, your skills will constantly be improving and you will always be learning something new. Growth is what being a writer is all about. So be patient and enjoy the journey, and you will reap the rewards.
Christine Rice is the author of four books: Poetry for the Heart, Essays for the Soul, My Not-So-Ordinary Life, and Freelance Writing Guide. Her books can be found on Amazon, Lulu, and Smashwords. You can learn more about Christine on her website, her blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Creating Luck

I've heard a lot of people, not just writers, pointing to someone who has been very successful as being lucky.  "They were in the right place at the right time," they'll say, or "That person had the right connection to make it."

I think this is a little bit misleading.  Yes, there are the Paris Hiltons of the world, those born into privilege who have no talent beyond the birth canal they traveled through.  However, most people go a very different path.

I tend to believe that the amount of "luck" you have as a writer is directly proportional to the amount of work you're willing to put in.  The quality of your work and whether it gets noticed can depend heavily on how much time you put into editing it.  Did you work the whole weekend on getting just the right sentence structure and ensuring it was free of errors, or did you succumb to temptation and head on down to the tailgate party your buddies were pestering you about?  Nothing wrong if you did, but you have to understand the tradeoffs involved.

When it comes to those who knew the right person at the right time, I've very often found that the writer in question worked for years to establish those contacts.  If they met and got a book blurb from Tom Clancy, it was usually through that editor they met at the writers' conference a year or two ago and maintained a relationship with.  If they got a mention on a regionally famous radio show that led to increased sales, it was because they had the balls to walk up to the host during a panel one afternoon and strike up a conversation.

How much work have you put into your website?  Did you just throw it up there and hope people will find it through a Google search?  Or did you work for hours on quality content and then go to other websites where they allowed you to link to yours?  How early have you gotten up to participate in online forums before you went to work at The Gap?
(These displays don't set up themselves)
The point of all of this isn't to be condescending, which I'm sure it sounds, but to point out that any level of success usually comes through hard work.  Putting in long hours and engaging your brain to the task at hand is the way to create opportunity.  As writers, we like to focus on how much time we spend on a novel, but there are many more aspects we have to work hard at in order to be successful.  We need to be business savvy in order to establish contacts and know how to create a market presence.  Such things might not be sexy, but they help open up venues we thought were closed and get us in front of the audiences we want to reach.

This is one of the hardest things for writers to get.  We can't "just write" and pawn off the gritty work of everything else to others.  We are our own best marketers, and we have to exercise those skills to open up opportunities.  I've seen far too many people who have talent, but not the foresight to go the extra mile, continue to stand on the sidelines and bitch about others catching a break.  This does nothing but serve jealousy and envy, while those who are willing to do the work will get ahead of the pack.

Our level of luck is up to us more often than we'd like to think.  Yes, it doesn't always work out, but we can't sit back and let luck come to us - we have to seek it out.  With enough patience, we too can find fortune.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Background Noise

The history behind a story, as well as the background of the characters in that story, is an important part of determining the course of events.  When we found out that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's dad, it set a few paths in front of the plot that were only available due to that revelation.  Bruce Wayne could only become Batman thanks to the murder of his parents when he was a boy.

However, the challenge as a writer is to be able to weave these crucial events into our work without having those events take over or bore the reader.  I've found the best method this is to try and put them in gradually throughout the story.  I avoid the "info dump" that inundates the reader with so much information that they no longer care.

This requires patience, something I struggle with in daily life.  We so badly want our readers to become engrossed in the story, to understand  the weight behind what we're telling them, that our tendency is to just go ahead and tell them everything at once.  However, this method is both bad storytelling and it destroys the emotional suspense associated with gradual learning.  The best background comes in layers, with each one building on the next.
(Each layer is necessary for a satisfying experience)
I usually do this through two methods - the brief narrative reference and dialogue.  In the brief narrative reference, it comes out in the point of view of the character.  I'll have the protagonist, for example, remember a particular event that caused them to react in a certain way in the present.  I'm currently writing a new book in the series that encompasses Akeldama.  But Akeldama is very much a stand alone novel, and I want the next book to be so as well(I haven't yet found a title...I have two I'm vacillating between, and I'm sure I'll come up with more before it's ready).  In order to understand the next book, the reader is going to have to understand the events of the first one.  However, I can't just recap its events - readers would never stand for it.  Therefore, I'll throw in experiential references for the main character that shed light on why he acts the way he does.

The other way I'll bring it out is through dialogue.  Characters will have conversations that will talk about a part of the past, or how they need to avoid a certain mistake, and this can throw in context without being heavy handed about it.  It also serves as an emotional bridge if someone is acting different than they used to, for it can show how that person evolved.
("I got this chest tattoo after I killed the great white off that reef last year.")
While background is necessary, you have to be careful that it doesn't become the story, even if its depth could provide a story of its own.  The history of Jack Torrence's father and how he smacked Jack around when he was a boy is important to The Shining, but only in how it helped drive Jack's alcoholism and conflicted feelings about his upbringing.  Also, it's important to know that Jack beat up that snot nosed punk who slashed his tires, but only because it provided the reason why Jack needed a job at the Overlook.  Stephen King does a masterful job touching on these elements without getting lost in them.

History is important, but only in showing us where the future of the story lies, and it should come in small bites throughout the novel, not in a heaping pile all at once.  Such nuggets keep us strong, but too much at once will choke our story to death.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

True Query Problems

A lot of people have said to me recently, "Russ, you talk so much about your decision to go the indie publishing route, but what about those of us who want to see Simon & Schuster on our jacket?"  In hopes of quieting the uproar of the crowd - both of you - I will address here what I see as the biggest problem with trying to break into the traditional world - the query letter.

Literary agents and publishers are busy people who work long hours without a lot of actual literary staff.  Yes, there are tons of lawyers and marketers and accountants who toil through the everyday grind of running the business side of publishing, but those who really appreciate a good book and can focus on that for a living are few.  As a result, they can't read every book that comes their way.  Further, even for what they do read, these people see a lot more bad stuff than good.  Hence, the query letter.

A query letter, usually to a literary agent, is supposed to hook that agent, or the intern who probably reads it first.  Due to the flood of these things on a daily basis, the query has to truly stand out from the crowd in a way where the agent exclaims, "I simply must read this book!"

Unfortunately, writing a good query letter is completely different than writing a good novel.  The query is essentially a business proposal, and let's face it, most writers don't know squat about the business side of things,  Sure, they'll study and get critiqued, and then they'll stumble through the first dozen or so agents while they try to revise their query, but it takes a different kind of writing style altogether than what most are used to.

A good query letter doesn't necessarily hold the key to a good book, as evidenced by the rejections agents continue to send after asking for a manuscript(little known fact - a fair number of newbie writers tend to think that once they've had a submission request, life is golden.  Sorry, but agents still reject most of the submissions they get).  All it means is that the writer knew how to basically write a blurb and catch a particular person's interest on a particular day.

Additionally, a poorly written query can give the wrong impression about a book that might be well written.  The agent who receives a bad query will automatically assume you couldn't write your name in the snow, let alone the next great American novel.  This is where frustration and cries of "elitist gatekeepers" comes in - most writers assume they could do well if their work was just allowed to speak for itself.

Rejections for hits are as common as grains of sand.  JK Rowling famously had over a dozen people reject Harry Potter.  Stephanie Meyer saw 14 of 15 agents she queried basically tell her to take a hike.  And the book that led to a pretty fair selling movie - The Help - got turned down over 60 times.  I think it's examples like these that not only give hope to budding writers looking to go the traditional path, but they also show people like me who are shunning that path that agents and publishers have about as much foresight about what will and what won't sell as you or I do.  It baffles those of us who read books for pleasure, thus making up the market for such books, that such works that were obviously great the first time we picked them up somehow made an agent or a publisher turn up his or her nose, and that's what leads us to think they're out of touch.

So, what's the answer?  Well, there are two - you can either work for years on your query, just as you did on your novel, or you can forego that and go indie.  However, in going indie, you have to understand that the "cool kids" in traditional publishing won't ever accept what you've done as legitimate.  It's harder than it looks to not care what the in crowd thinks, but sometimes it's the only way.  By bringing your book to market despite the naysayers who're judging your business writing skills rather than your creative writing skills, you can bypass the process and let the market determine if you have any talent, and trust me - the market will let you know.  Or you can take what is currently becoming a new way to break in, which is to have indie success that gets noticed and then have a publisher offer you incentive to join them.

Regardless, the query letter is an unforgiving mistress and takes your destiny out of your hands and puts it in the hands of Fate...and she's a really unforgiving bitch.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

We All Slip

(Try not to fall off the wagon)
We all make promises that we can't keep sometimes.  We say we'll lay off the ice cream or put more money away, or next week we really will see that new movie our wife or girlfriend has been bugging us about.  It's not that we don't mean to keep these promises; it's just that we're not always as steadfast as we wish we were.

In writing, this can come back to haunt us in big ways.  I constantly revise how much I'm going to write each day.  A few weeks back, it was 1500 words a day, followed by 3000 a day on the weekends.  Why, if I could do that, my next novel would be done in three months!

Well, I then find I've skipped a day, so I promise I'll make it up the next day.  But I then fall behind again, so I make yet another promise, kind of like how I'll put $100 away next month to make up for the $50 I didn't put in the bank this month.

This happens to all of us.  For all the loud mouthed self righteousness I spew about the need to write every single day in order to hone the craft, I'm not as fastidious as I wish I was.  Work gets in the way.  Quality family time demands I not spend every free moment in front of a computer.  A semblance of a social life means I have to have friends outside my imaginary world.  And so on, and so on, and so on.

My current goal is 2000 words a day, or at least 10,000 words a week.  The fudge factor beneath 14,000 words allows me to take a break during the week to prevent burnout, but even with that, I often miss my goal.  What do I do at that point?

Nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.

Guilt is a bad road to go down.  Those of us who write tend to reflect on our shortcomings more than most, so if we allow ourselves to get swallowed by the pit of despair over not meeting our goal, the monster in that pit will eat us and make sure we never write another good thing as long as we live.  We have to learn to get past our shortcomings and move on.  I liken it to an NFL quarterback who throws an interception - the bad ones will dwell on the mistake, thus leading to a greater likelihood that it'll happen again, but a good QB will push it out of his mind and focus on getting it right the next time.

That's what we as writers have to do.  If we fail to meet our word goal today, we have to accept it and move on to tomorrow.  You have to figure out where you can find more time and vow to meet it the next day.  We also have to realize that there might be days and/or weeks where we'll exceed our goals, and that should be cause for celebration, but not a strict rule to chain us to should we not meet it on our current pace.

It's okay to slip and fall - everyone does.  However, the good ones accept it and move on.  Otherwise, we'll constantly beat ourselves up, and I don't know about you, but I already have too many scars from life.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Big Ideas

(Such is the excitement level for today's "new ideas")
Allow me to predict the Hollywood "blockbusters" for the next year - five sequels, three re-makes of old TV shows from the 70s, six more cartoons about princesses and/or dragons, and two movies that take an old story, change the sex of one of the main characters, and call it original.  Is it just me, or has the entertainment industry run out of ideas?

Perhaps this is the cynic in me, but it seems that the book industry is having the same basic problem.  Don't get me wrong - there are a lot of decent books out there, but there are very few original works anymore.  Most of what's on the shelves seems like a retread of something I read a long time ago, whether it's a romance of some buxom blonde with a barechested guy on the cover, a sappy teen paranormal about a vampire/angel/monster of the week falling for a misunderstood girl/Soldier with a heart of gold/lonely single cougar trying to recapture her youth.

*whew*  I think I just previewed the releases of the next six months worth of novels at Barnes & Noble.

I honestly don't think that this is because there's a dearth of ideas from artists, but rather because of a "play it safe" mentality amongst both the film industry and traditional book publishers.  Big new ideas can take off in a dramatic fashion, like Star Wars did in 1977, or they can fizzle in a monumental way like Howard the Duck.  And for all their protestations of how they want to give life to new ideas, Hollywood is still a business, and businesses usually recoil at the uncertain success of an untested idea.  Nope, better to stick to something that worked before, because it should at least show a little return on the investment.
(Another surefire teen romance novel waiting to happen)
This is where indie publishing has an advantage over traditional publishing.  Indie publishing can take risks that traditional publishing won't.  In fact, indie publishing has to take risks that traditional publishing won't in order to carve out a niche in the market and get noticed.  An indie writer who did little more than re-tell American Gods by Neil Gaiman would get buried in a heartbeat, whereas a traditional publisher who did the same thing could mass distribute the work and use the tagline, "In the tradition of Neil Gaiman!"  At a Barnes & Noble, people wouldn't bat an eye, but in the indie world, it wouldn't get a second look.

Every great idea, whether in Hollywood or the literary world, seems to get lodged in the gut of those in charge.  Harry Potter was an awesome original idea...that spawned six sequels.  I loved Harry Turrtledove's visit to the altered America of the Second War Between the States, but it brought us a series of eight more.  Even one of the best works ever done in horror - The Shining - is bringing in a sequel to be released later next year.

I really believe that it's this lack of originality in the traditional book market that has helped contribute to the rise of the indie writer.  Without it, we wouldn't have JA Konrath telling us about demons preserved in bricks of uranium, or William Paul Young telling us about Mack meeting God in an abandoned Shack in the remote wilderness.  Indie writers can take chances that more traditional folks can't, and the results can be fantastic.  Yes, they sometimes fall flat, but every diamond once started as a piece of coal.

Don't we all, at some point, shout about the lack of originality out there?  The only way we're ever going to convince both Hollywood and the book industry to give us bolder ideas is if we reward those who come up with them.  We can't write off something different because it might make us uncomfortable.  If we do, then we have only ourselves to blame when the big ideas are left to rot, with no one to claim them for their own.
(And now for something completely different...)