Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Free writing advice

Authors from the online community seem to have the attitude that free advice is worthless and will pay for advice from people who know nothing -or very little- and have no experience- or very little- and disregard tips from published, experienced authors.  However, in the days before the internet it was the published authors in writers’ groups who freely offered writing and marketing tips to the unpublished or recently published and helped them advance their careers. 

This is free advice/writing/marketing tips from a multi-published author who has had around a hundred works published, sold thousands of copies of various titles and, sadly, had many, many thousands of copies of her titles pirated.   As frustrating and downright infuriating as it is to have your work pirated, having nearly a half million copies of one of your stories pirated is proof that that particular book is extremely marketable- but I’ll get to that later.  

The idea, naturally enough, is THE most important step.  As multi-published author Joan Johnston said at one of the conferences/seminars I once attended, a good idea isn’t good enough.  If the idea you come up with isn’t fantastic, fabulous, something to get you so excited you can’t wait to get to work on it, then it probably isn’t worth doing because the chances are that it isn’t going to grab readers.  Marketable is an idea that is so fresh and original and exciting that READERS can’t wait to get their hands on it. 

This part is tricky.  By fresh and original and exciting, I mean a new twist on a theme with a proven track record.  Occasionally- rarely- an author comes up with an idea that’s so fresh and original that it’s untried, and that sort of idea is very iffy.  It may grab readers and it may not.  Safe is to take themes that are timeless classics—Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, sex slave, abduction …. If you’re a big reader, and you should be, then you’re already familiar with the themes that get you excited and, if you’ve done your homework, you’ve seen that these have such a huge appeal that they tend to shoot to the top of the bestselling lists over and over.  Your writing ‘voice’ will give it freshness, but don’t rely too heavily on that.  You need to come up with new twists that make it more original and exciting and yet remain within the confines of what readers go for. 

Author Dean Koontz said that a professional writer is someone who writes what the market is looking for.  He’s written books in almost every genre and keeps a careful watch on the market.  Rather than sticking to his favorite genre in the face of certain failure, he writes what will sell or is selling—and then returns to his favorite when the market opens up.  In other words, if vampires are ‘out’ this year, you might want to shelve that vampire book you just wrote, wait for a better time to release it, and focus on the ‘flavor of the month’—what is selling?  Any author who wants to be successful needs to watch the market and see what is selling—and act accordingly.  It’s easier than ever for authors to track the trends. 

In the days before the booming internet market and ebooks, the process from writing to publication often took years and that made it hard for authors to keep track of the pulse of the market.  Typically, an author would take months writing a book, months or years to sell the book, and then sit back and wait another year to two before the book hit the market.  The print books hit the stores, had one month to sell, and then any unsold copies ended in the dumpster when the next month’s releases hit the shelves. 

Now, with the internet and ebook publication, an author can usually see their work in publication within six months of contracting on the work and it will stay long enough to make as many sales as it can make.  However, here’s a hard fact—a book that doesn’t ‘take off’ straight out of release isn’t going to.  Persistent marketing can result in a reasonable return over time, but the story either grabs hold of readers or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t, you’re stuck with a long drawn out search for a handful of sales that will take years to amount to anything even close to a reasonable return for your effort.  I’m not suggesting you throw up your hands and give up on that poor, lonely child.  You put a lot of hard work into it and it’s worth the struggle to get a few more sales each month, but you need to accept that there is something ‘lacking’ there.  Somehow you failed to produce a marketable book and a new cover, new title—new everything isn’t going to make it marketable. 
* * * *
Next step—you’ve come up with a red hot story idea that you know in your bones is going to shoot to the top of the bestselling list and stay there.  Where do you start? 

This is AS critical as the story idea you just came up with.  Writers inexperienced in writing professional grade pieces seem to be convinced that they MUST throw in all of their background before they/the reader can get in to the story.  They worked HARD on their character profiles and background. 

BIG mistake!  In fact, the worst mistake a writer can make.  You have to grab your reader’s attention immediately—preferably INSTANTLY.  The first line, the first paragraph, the first page is where you grab your reader.  OK, that’s old school.  The chances are that, the way readers have become conditioned to instant gratification, if you haven’t grabbed them by the end of the first paragraph, you’ve lost them and if you do that, you’ve lost the sale. 

So as anxious as you may be to jump right into the story, now’s the time to plot.  The place to begin the story is in the middle of the action.  Don’t waste time setting it up.  Jump in.  What event is the catalyst for the story?  The abduction?  The murder?  The first shot of the war?  A chance encounter? 

Whatever that event is, THAT is where you start.  ‘Once upon a time’ doesn’t get it anymore.  Try to think of a first line that will grab the reader’s attention and tell them immediately that ‘things’ are happening and they’re in for a hell of a ride. 

The body lying in the ravine looked like a twisted puppet that a careless child had tossed away.  The fall hadn’t done that—couldn’t have.  It hadn’t been there long.  A wave of horror washed over Jane as that realization sank in and the fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled.  She screamed as a hand seemingly came out of nowhere and clamped down on her arm.  She hadn’t heard anyone approach.  She’d been too focused on trying to figure out what it was in the ravine and why there was something familiar about it.

Your reader instantly knows that this is a suspense/mystery/ or thriller, a murder has occurred, and the heroine may be in danger.  Questions should immediately fill their mind so that they want to keep reading and find out what happened and will happen. 

The fog parted, revealing a dark figure limned by the light of the full moon.  Caroline’s pulse leapt in her veins.  Her throat closed around an unvoiced scream.  Her skin prickled with a sense of danger.  Despite the shadows cloaking the figure, she could see it was a man—a very large man.  Somewhere in the distance, a dog bayed.  The long, lonely cry was taken up by another and then another until Caroline had the sense that it wasn’t dogs baying at all, but wolves, and she was surrounded.

Something like this could set the stage for a vampire or werewolf tale.  Is this the heroine’s first encounter with the hero?  Or will the hero suddenly appear and rescue her, because she’s clearly in some sort of danger?

Polly had watched the glowing light come closer and closer, convinced, at first, that it was a falling star.  By the time she realized there was nothing at all natural about the phenomenon it was too late to run. Frozen to the spot, unable to think of escape let alone figure out how to achieve it, she stared in disbelief at the alien craft as it settled heavily, but soundlessly, in front of her, waiting breathlessly for the thing to open. 

Again, you don’t have to guess what kind of story this is going to be.  You’ve introduced the heroine and the ‘event’ that kicks off the story.  You’ve established conflict immediately—this is an alien and what the hell is he doing here?  You’ve got the suggestion that this might be an abduction scenario. 

The objective is to pack as much of a wallop into that first scene as you possibly can, establish enough questions in the reader’s mind/curiosity about what will happen next as you can, and try to keep them racing toward the finish thereafter.  The first line, paragraph, page, and/or scene is your hook.  The sooner you hook them, the more likely you are to get a sale—so shoot for the first line or paragraph. 
* * * *
You’ve, hopefully, roped your reader into the book with your first scene.  What’s next?  Time to pour all that background in that you worked so hard on?

Absolutely not!  All that background work won’t go to waste if it never actually appears in the book at all—at least not in the form that you’ve written it.  The background is mostly for you as the writer.  You work out who your characters are and what that history is like so that YOU know what motivates them and how they will react in a given situation.  This is IMPORTANT.  It helps you to know where to go with the story and how to plot your scenes.  For example: Your heroine has a phobia of spiders.  If a spider lands beside her she’s going to scream bloody murder and a: run or b: find something and kill it.  Example two: Your heroine talks ninety miles an hour when she’s nervous.  She has a really close encounter with a man that makes her blood race—She talks like an idiot and the hero thinks she is one.  Your hero lost his entire family and he feels responsible. 

An important thing to note here, I think, is that you should never give your hero or your heroine a background that leaves the reader with a bad taste in their mouth.  They do LOVE to see growth, enjoy reading about people that overcome their flaws, but never make them unredeemable.  If the hero actually did behave like a coward, or was off screwing around while his family was wiped out, your reader is going to FOREVER see him in a bad light. 

Also to be noted: first impressions, even in books, are VERY important.  I read a book by a bestselling author once.  The heroine’s first impression of the hero was that he had a huge red nose.  NOTHING could get that image out of my mind.  Even though the story was really, really good and I eventually fell for the hero—I just couldn’t shake that mental image of a huge red nose. 

Ok—back to the background.  You have to make a decision of just how much of that background is necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on and what your characters’ motivations are.  Once you’ve decided what is critical to the understanding, you feed this information to the reader in nibbles along and along as the opportunity arises.  NEVER stop the story at any point to take your reader down memory lane for paragraphs and paragraphs so that you can feed them the information.  As in real life, use the opportunities presented in the story—dialogue that prompts a memory or an event that prompts a memory.  Drop something significant at that point, keep it short and sweet, and look for another opportunity later to elaborate on it a little more.  NEVER have a memory scene long enough that the reader forgets what’s going on in the here and now!

It is critical to the success of the book that you keep a good pacing of forward motion throughout.  It is equally critical to the success of your story that each and every scene that makes it into your book achieves forward motion—it is working toward completion, deepening the plot, or resolving some part of the conflict.  At the same time, each scene needs to ‘show’ your reader a glimpse of your characters’ personalities in the way they act and interact. 

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