Sunday, April 29, 2012

Are You Really Ready to Publish?

If you're reading this post, I find it safe to assume you feel you are ready to begin the publishing process and are looking for a direction to go in. Great. But before you dive in, there are some very important things you need to make sure you've covered.

You may feel your masterpiece is finally complete, but is it really? Are you sure it's the absolute best it can be? Have you had any professionals (editors, agents, published authors) review it? If so, have they fueled your fire to drive onward? Have you completed the perfect synopsis? Jane Friedman wrote a great post concerning these questions. She asks three wonderful questions that you should read and pay close attention to. Visit 3 Questions Every Creative Person Must Ask.

If you've answered yes to these questions then you are probably ready to dig in. Now, get an agent.

The publishing business can be a tricky world to play in. You have to be up on the rules or you could lose the game. For example, when querying agents you need to understand that not all agents are alike. They have different tastes, feelings, and guidelines that you must understand before submitting a query. Check out Agent Query for information on writing a great query letter. Make sure you know the agent you are submitting to. I can't say this enough - make sure you know the agent. If you don't follow the agent's guidelines exactly you could find your great work of art at the bottom of a slush pile without so much as a read of the second sentence. Know your agent.

Put together the best you can. This is your foot in the door with agents, your "one shot deal" so to speak. Make it good. 

Suggested Reading:

I'm Looking For Feedback!

I finished a draft of a cover for my new book entitled The Consequential Element and I would love to hear what you all think.

Also, please read the Prologue (in the right hand column of this blog page) and let me know your comments.

Thanks so much.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eyes and Ears Are Not Enough

When writing a book, we must remember that our readers are dependent upon on our descriptions in order to bring them fully into the story. We not only need to make them see the story, and hear the story, but to also feel it, smell it, and taste it. 

In my experience, smell and taste are two of the most neglected senses in writing. Pick a scene from one of your stories and review it for the five senses. Can you see where you could have added one or two to enhance the scene?

A while ago, as I was driving along a winding country road on my way to the west coast of Florida, I began to see "Smoke Area" signs. In Florida, when the season is exceptionally dry, they have what's called, 'controlled burns'. These are intentionally set fires to clear the dead brush to reduce the possibility of a fire catching and spreading.

For some reason on this particular day, I slid the window open and inhaled deeply. I prepared to experience the exquisite "taste of home". As I breathed in the aroma of burning vegetation, memories of outdoor campfires and old wood-burning stoves flooded in from my youth. A smile creased my lips as I relished in the joyful innocence of adventure, wonder, and the comfort of home. The smell of smoke brought it all back to me in its full glory.

You see what I mean? Senses have everything to do with writing. That's because writing is metaphoric. That's what storytelling is: sharing universal truth through metaphor, delivered from the heart. 

Writing from  your senses doesn't just involve making sure to include at least a few senses like to your narrative. To write well involves much more than the simple description of a sense. To not connect a described sense to a memory or emotion is to miss a very important opportunity as a storyteller. You have the opportunity to enlighten the reader on some aspect of the POV character experiencing the sense (things like their history, the quality and nature of their relationships, their viewpoints, education, prejudices, how and what they've experienced in their life).

Here are some examples of what I mean:

#1: Judy walked into the Closed Closet Pub and caught the tantalizing aroma of garlic and peppers amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. The amber light enhanced the rich tones of nautical oak. She saw some friends drinking in the corner and sauntered toward them, smiling.

#2: Judy hesitated at the Closed Closet Pub door, inhaling the exquisite aroma of garlic and peppers amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. For a moment she was back on the boat, reliving the party that changed her life. She'd stopped eating peppers after that. She caught sight of her friends drinking in the corner, beneath the amber light. She sauntered toward them, a huge smile pasted on her face.

The first example describes; the second example emotes. The first one describes the place but it doesn't provide us with any information about Judy, except that she likes the aroma of garlic and peppers. We don't know why. In the second example, her senses are used to hint at intrigue linked to memories that, in turn, are linked to the associated sense--in this case the smell of garlic and peppers. This is the power of writing with your senses. You need to bring it home for the reader.

Adding detail to our writing can sometimes be a difficult process. We don't want to overwhelm our readers, but we want them to be able to visualize the details of our stories. Adding descriptions of senses will help them do this.

Watch as I add sensory details to one of the scenes in this realistic fiction story:

"Charles rushed out the door as he headed to his first day of college. He slung his book bag over his shoulder and quickly made his way to the school auditorium."

Although this is a great scene, I need to add more details so the reader can visualize and understand what Charles is feeling. I might add the following to the scene:

"The chill of the wind froze him to the bone as his feet crunched on the ice under his feet." This tells me a lot about the scene. The reader knows it's winter and Charles is probably cold as the wind blows in his face and he has to walk slower than he wants because there is ice on the ground.

I can also include what he smells and tastes, but sometimes it isn't necessary to include all the senses. We have to be careful not to be overly descriptive. 

I've been advising you on how to incorporate the five senses into your writing to bring the characters to life and help your readers to become part of the story. Now I'd like to mention that omitting one of the senses here and there can also add tension, fear, etc. to the story. Consider this scene:

Your a small child lying in your bed, all alone. Desperately waiting for your eyes to become accustomed to the dark, you hear it - a soft, scratching noise - and it's coming from under the bed. It lasts only a moment before it stops. You wonder if you're hearing things, and you're desperate for the darkness to lighten that you forget to blink. The blackness seems to swirl around you, cloaking you in a thick, black fog, through which no light can penetrate. The sound begins again, only this time the scratching becomes louder, seems closer, and last a little longer this time. You hold your breath so the darkness doesn't know your there. Without your sense of sight, you figure by not breathing you will be able to hear the sound more clearly, and identify its location...

The description above relies on the complete absence of the sense of sight. This is where fear comes in and can play a major role - in this case, blind fear. To compensate for the loss of sight, hearing becomes more acute, you, as the writer, can introduce other horror-inducing thoughts and impressions.

You are at an advantage as a fiction writer. You get to create a real life environment, and enhance that environment any way you wish, to any degree you wish, by the use of sensory writing. Real life can be far more interesting than fiction.

Send me a scene of yours and show me how you've incorporated the five senses (or as many as needed to make the scene work, without overdoing it). I'd love to read them, and they will be useful examples to our fellow readers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Want to write better dialogue?

I just happened upon this over at Jon Winokur's Advice to Writers:

    1. Dialogue should be brief.

    2. It should add to the reader’s present knowledge.

    3. It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.

    4. It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.

    5. It should keep the story moving forward.

    6. It should be revelatory of the speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly.

    7. It should show the relationships among people.


After reading this list, I figured it wouldn't hurt me to go down the checklist and make sure I've been staying on target in my own writing. I talked about this list with a few of my writer friends and the overall consensus is that numbers 3 & 4 seem to be the ones that trip up almost every inexperienced writer. I've had several agents tell me that my dialogue is very strong, fluid, and believable; just the words a writer wants to hear from an agent! I've had to work hard in other areas (description, for example), but I can write dialogue in my sleep. (I am not a strong plotter, but I can write a compelling conversation, which is a must for anyone submitting character-driven novels to the traditional publishing houses.)

If you're not sure what Bowen means by "routine exchanges of information" here's a hint:

    "Jack, it's been ages! How have you been?"

    "Just great. How about you?"

    "I can't complain. How are the wife and kids?"

    "Good. Yours?"

    "The same. How are you liking that new job?"

    "Lots of new challenges. I miss the old place, though."

    "And we miss you, believe me."

All right, enough. I'm afraid I'll injure my brain if I force myself to write any more of that drivel. But you get it, right? Jack and the other guy used to work together and they haven't seen each other in a while, so now they're catching up. Do you see what's wrong with this? It reads like it was transcribed verbatim from a real-life exchange. It won't work in a novel because because novels aren't about real-life conversations. The dialogue needs to move the story forward.

If you're writing dialogue today, you might want to bear in mind that suggestion is one of the most powerful tools a writer can wield. You don't have to write a full conversation at all. Just make your readers believe that you did. Here's an example:

He hadn't seen Jack in more than a year, not since he'd left his old accounting firm, Bean, Bean, and Bean. They exchanged a handshake and asked about each other's families, and then after a nervous glance around the coffee shop, Jack leaned forward and spoke in a low, urgent voice.

    "What have you heard about the investigation?"

    "All I can tell you, Jack, is that the SEC asked me a few questions. But we expected that, didn't we?"

    "You didn't tell them about--"

    "Of course I didn't tell them. I'm not a fool, Jack!" 

See the difference? Hurry past the inconsequential stuff and get straight to the juicy parts. That'll keep your readers reading. Realistic dialogue is one of the most powerful tools at a writer's disposal, but you must remember, nothing pulls the reader out of a story faster than bad dialogue. Here are a few simple rules (yes, more writing rules) to help you along:

Listen to How People Talk

Having a sense of natural speech patterns is essential to good dialogue. Start to pay attention to the expressions that people use in everyday conversation. 

Not Exactly Like Real Speech

Dialogue is not exactly like real speech, but it should read like real speech. Confusing? How do you accomplish that? Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was "life, with the dull parts taken out." This very much applies to dialogue. Edit out the filler words and unessential dialogue -- that is, the dialogue that doesn't contribute to the plot in some way.

Don't Provide Too Much Info at Once

It shouldn't be ovbious to the reader that they're being fed important facts. Let the story unfold naturally. You don't have to tell the reader everything up front. Don't be afraid to trust your reader to remember details from earlier in the story.

Break Up Dialogue with Action

Remind your reader that your characters are physical human beings by grounding their dialogue in the physical world. What I mean by this is to be sure to add in physical details to help break up the words on the page. Long periods of dialogue are easier for the reader's eye when broken up by description. Help the reader visualize the characters, as well as hear them.

Don't Overdo Dialogue Tags

Veering too much beyond "he said/she said" only draws attention to the tags — and you want the reader's attention centered on your dialogue, not your ability to think of synonyms for "said." This is a huge downfall for many-a-writer. I know, we want the reader to understand the importance of the dialogue, or the intensity, or the vagueness, etc., and we feel that adding something like: "she said bashfully" will help. WRONG! As much as possible, please try to stay with the he said/she said tags. Find them boring? Good, so will your reader. Their eyes should brush over them quickly, helping to keep them in the story, which is exactly where you want them. The tags are simply there to keep the reader abreast of who is speaking, nothing more.

Stereotypes, Profanity, and Slang
Be aware of falling back on stereotypes, and use profanity and slang sparingly. All of these risk distracting or alienating your reader. Anything that takes the reader out of the fictional world you're working so hard to create is not your friend. 

Dialogue can be a lot of fun to write, though it can be tough to do well. It’s a good idea to go back and edit your dialogue carefully after writing the first draft.

What about you? What gets you stumped when writing dialogue? Please leave a comment and let me know if you found this information helpful. Until then,

My most heartfelt wishes for your success,

Dee Ann

Sunday, April 1, 2012

You've Chosen to Publish - Now What?

Just as many of you, I am an author in every sense of the word: I dream, I 'hear' voices calling to me to turn them into characters, I research, I write, I create novels. The only difference between me and some of you is that I have chosen, up to this point not, to pursue publishing. I wrote for my own benefit, and sometimes that of people closest to me. After continuous urging from those same people, I have decided to pursue the publishing tract.

I invite you to come along with me on my journey. Together, we will learn much. Together, we will share our ups and our downs. Together, we will succeed in becoming one of the rare anomalies known as a 'traditionally published author'.

Being the anal person I am, and wanting to do everything exactly right (like that's possible), I again research with this new goal in mind. What have I discovered?

Traditional or Self-Publish?

For me the question isn't 'should I go the traditional route', for me there is no alternative, not right now at least. Until I see the self-pub market significantly improve to where high quality books outweigh the junk that's showing up there, I don't want to mix my name in among them. Sound self-righteous? Conceded maybe? Why would I say such a thing? Simply because I take pride in what I write. I go the distance to produce my absolute best. I've walked a long, hard road and put a tremendous amount of hard work into preparing my novel. I want to give it the best chance at a quality life that I can. 

(My little rant)

Like many avid readers, maybe even you, I was very excited to find I could purchase a book online for a mere 1.99! However in my opinion, I've been cheated. I've been fooled into believing I would be purchasing quality work. I've been sorely disappointed in the work being produced and self-published. It seems authors are no longer concerned with the basics such as, grammar, spelling, verb usage, and so on, let alone plot and structure. Loopholes? Abundant. I have purchased several books where the story appeared as if it would be quite interesting, only to be floored at the poor writing and errors within. I suppose the old adage, "You Get What You Pay For" rings true where writing is concerned. What about you? Have you had experiences with online self-published authors that weren't so good?

Assuming you feel the same as I do about your work, let's examine what it takes to become a traditionally published author.

Steps You Need to Take:

* Complete a manuscript that has been edited and polished. I can't express this enough. The step where the agent comes in will depend on this enormously.

* Complete a one-sentence hook line - your hook line, takes a story full of complex plotlines and high-concept ideas and breaks it down into a simple sentence, or two, that can be quickly and easily conveyed. Your hook line is your first pitch in getting someone interested in your book.

* Complete a one-paragraph pitch - like the hook line, your one-paragraph pitch is used to capture an agent and publisher's attention, as well as your reading audience.

* Once you have your manuscript and/or proposal ready, prepare your query letter. This is a good place for you to incorporate your one-sentence hook and one-paragraph hook.

* Send out those query letters to agents! I know, very scary stuff here. This is where I begin to freeze up. Everything sounds great...until I have to present it as a representation of my work. Ugh! But very importantly, make your query letter the absolute best it can be before sending it out. This is your ONE SHOT in getting an agent's attention. They'll read your query letter  before deciding whether your synopsis or sample chapters are even worth their time. A bad query letter will end your MS up in the dung heap faster than...well...flies on dung. 

NOTE: I've had quite a few questions on query letters lately so I've decided to do a full blog on them. I should have it up by Thursday so be sure to check back!

All this sounds simple, right? It is, but you’re still not ready. You stand very little chance of being published until you immerse yourself in the world of publishing. You need to know how it works. You need to provide as much attention to the details of publishing as you do to your novels. It just won't work otherwise. 

Here are some helpful resources to get you started:

Magazines: Subscribe to Writer's Digest

Websites: Agent Query
(Also, to make sure you are dealing with a reputable agent, try: Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors

I also suggest you join your local writers associations and attend writers conferences whenever possible.

In other words, DIG, DIG, DIG into this wonderful world of writing. Enjoy the journey from beginning to end.

My most heartfelt wishes for your success,

Dee Ann