writing

The Short, Sad Saga of Mississippi Jones

Don't eat me!

Scary. Freakin’. Fish. That is all. Move along.

Some names stick with us.

Bridget Jones, Holden Caulfield, Nero Wolfe — these names are all indelibly stamped into our literary consciousness.

Those names are evocative. Memorable. Unique.

Some writers are incredibly good at coming up with names.

I am not one of them.

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Categories: For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Uncategorized, writing, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top 3 Questions of Aspiring Writers

Thriller Author Interview

with Yours Truly

I’m always happy to answer questions from aspiring authors. This week, I got some tricky ones:

Q: How do you know when to end one chapter and start the next chapter?

A: You end a chapter as soon as the lead character either achieves their goal or fails.

The best place to end a chapter is immediately after you raise a new question in the reader’s mind. The desire to answer that question will make them turn the page. Continue reading

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How to Outline a Novel (Even If You Hate Outlines)

how to outline a novel

Outlining a novel is kind of like building a wall — one brick at a time. Flying monkeys optional.

Getting overwhelmed at the prospect of starting (or finishing) your novel? Feeling the pressure of hundreds of blank pages staring at you, waiting to be filled?

No sweat. Planning out a story is like building a wall:

You just do it one block at a time.

Just like a towering brick wall is made up of individual bricks, your manuscript is made up of individual parts.

You just have to break it down into small, easy-to-handle chunks, and then build it up from there. Here’s how.

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Categories: For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why You Should NEVER Carry a Notebook

Levenger Index Card Holder Pocket Briefcase

Don’t carry a notebook in your pocket. Instead, carry index cards!

For many years, I carried a writing notebook with me everywhere I went. That’s what all serious writers do, I’ve always heard. But in truth, it’s a terrible idea.

Here’s why.

  • First, when you write in a notebook, your notes are locked in rigid sequential order. If you tend to think of things randomly (and who doesn’t?), you’ll spend a lot of time flipping back and forth through your pages to find something.
  • Second, it’s difficult and time-consuming to transcribe your notes from your notebook into the files for each project. I suppose if you’re the sort of person who only works on one story, ever, then this isn’t such a big deal. But I’m always working on a huge list of projects.
  • Third, notebooks get gnarly quickly. They get creased, folded, bent, ink-stained… It’s not pretty.

The Un-Notebook Solution

The secret is deceptively simple:

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Kill Your Laptop: Extreme Ways to Finish Your Novel

I get a lot of emails from writers who think they’re suffering from writer’s block. But are they? See if this sounds familiar to you:

“I keep going back to fix things.”

“Sometimes, I hate the words I just wrote.”

“When I watch what I’m typing, I write much cleaner sentences with less typos, but I feel like I’m never going to finish my novel.”

Ring any bells? Continue reading

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Don’t Make This Legal Mistake in Your Novel

Q: Is it legal to write a novel based on a true story, and use the real names of the people involved?

A: Yes, but it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth. Since I’m not a lawyer, none of this is legal advice of any kind, FYI. But here’s what you’re up against:

Writing about a living person who is not a public figure may put you at risk of libel allegations. For that reason, journalists have to keep painstaking notes so that they can prove everything they put in print.

For example, I can write “Joe Lefty is a one-armed man” if I can back that up with a photo of Mr. Lefty sans limb. But if I want to write “Joe Lefty is a one-armed hit-man,” then I’d better have proof that he was convicted in some kind of murder-for-hire scheme, or I could be hearing from Lefty’s lawyers: Dewey, Cheetam & Howe.

On the other hand (sorry), you might have more leeway if Lefty is a public figure, like a politician, since the court might consider him to have given up a right to total privacy.  Still, you need to be careful. Writing about a real living person is fraught with legal issues, so if you’re serious about it, check with a lawyer first.

But wait. Before you give up completely, remember that you’re a fiction writer. A novel is a fictitious work, meaning that you can write whatever you want, as long as you don’t present it as fact. Even if your story is a thinly-veiled version of the truth, you can still change the names, insist that it’s a work of fiction, and get away with… well, I don’t know about murder, but you can get away with a lot.

Hope that helps. Have fun writing!

Do you have a question about writing a novel? Ask it here.

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The #1 Writing Secret Every Writer Should Know

Q: Hi! I’m currently writing a book, and I want to get it published, but I’m in high school and that makes things a lot harder. Could you please explain the basic process of how it would get published?

A: I’m so glad you enjoy writing! I started writing short stories when I was 16, and I wasn’t sure of the next step: send it to an editor, try to find a publisher, or what? For me, reading Writer’s Digest magazine every month made a big difference, so I’d recommend starting there. Also, here are some great books about writing that you can find at your library or bookstore (or in the sidebar at left):

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham
  • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

(That last one is about writing movie screenplays, but much of what he says about storytelling applies to novels as well.)

When it comes to getting published, writers have more options now than ever before: ebooks, print-on-demand and traditional publishers. The world of publishing is complicated, but basically you have two paths:

1) The traditional route. This means finding a reputable literary agent who loves your work and can sell it to a publisher. My agent’s blog has a ton of good advice: http://pubrants.blogspot.com

2) Self-publish an ebook. This means doing all of the work yourself: the cover art, the editing, the promotion, and all of that. For some people, it works out great (just search online for Amanda Hocking), but probably 99% of self-published authors sell very few ebooks, if any.

But don’t worry about that yet. Long before you think about getting published, focus on the number-one writing secret every writer needs to know:

Before you do anything else, you need to finish writing your book.

You’ll learn so much just by doing it that by the time you get to the last page, you’ll be a much better writer than when you started. I know this from experience, and so does every author who ever finished a book. Writing your first book is an education in itself.

Don’t be tempted to go back and “fix” your old chapters as you go. Keep pushing ahead. Write one page after another until you reach “The End”. That’s an accomplishment you can really be proud of.

And above all, have fun writing!

Do you have a question about writing a novel? Ask it here.

Categories: For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Write Foreign Languages in Your Novel

Let’s face it, foreign words are cool. They can make your characters sound smarter, make exotic settings feel more authentic and even increase the dramatic tension in a scene. But before you start sprinkling a certain je ne sais quoi into your prose, take these steps to make sure your reader doesn’t get lost in translation. Here’s how to handle a foreign language in your novel:

Option 1: Write it in English.
By far the easiest way to handle a foreign language is just to keep everything in English, like this:

“I will never leave you,” he whispered in French.

Of course, this only works if your point-of-view character actually speaks French and can understand what’s being said. If not, things get a little more complicated.
(More on that in a moment.)

Option 2: Use English, with a sprinkling of foreign words.

“Give me the gun, mi sobrino,” his uncle said. “Very slow, now.”

This is tricky, because many of your readers won’t know what the word or phrase means. (“Mi sobrino” means “my nephew.” Now you know.) If you can cut the foreign word out of the sentence without hurting anything, you’re probably okay. But if the meaning of the foreign word is key to understanding the sentence, rework it. Your reader wants to live the story, not go searching in Google Translate.

Bonus tip: If English isn’t the speaker’s first language, you can mess up the dialogue’s grammar just a tad. But be careful, because the more you mangle the English, and the more foreign words you include, the more you risk losing your reader. Use a deft touch, and tone it down in the rewrite.

Option 3: Use narrative summary.
Narrative summary is a pretty heavy-handed form of author intrusion that sounds something like this:

The men argued in Russian, pointing fingers at each other and shaking their fists.

It gets the point across quickly, but the danger here is that you’re breaking from the on-screen action to take the reader aside and tell them what’s happening. (Ever hear the rule about “show, don’t tell”? This is telling.) But sometimes this is the most economical way to keep the story going, especially if your character doesn’t speak the language. What you lose in style you’ll gain in pace.

Option 4: Write it all in one long block of foreign language.

Don’t do this. Ever. Under any circumstances. I can’t emphasize this enough, mi amigo. If your reader runs into a solid block of indecipherable words, you’re toast. At the very least, your reader will be jolted out of the story long enough to skim past the wall of foreign text. But it might be so annoying that the reader just closes your book and never comes back. Let’s avoid that, shall we?

Quick recap: Foreign Language in Fiction
  

  • If your point-of-view character can understand the language, just write it in English. At the end, add ‘she said in Russian.’ Or whatever.
  • If you want to drop in the occasional foreign word, make sure the meaning of the dialogue is still crystal clear.
  • If the viewpoint character doesn’t understand the language, the easiest way to keep the story moving is to work around it with a narrative summary: She fired off an angry retort in German.

Try writing your scene a few different ways and see which method works best for your story. Remember, learning how to write a novel is a lifelong process, so look at this as a chance to learn a new skill. And who knows, you might pick up a few words too, verstehen?

Do you have a writing question? Need a writing coach to help you solve a problem with your novel? Just ask! And if you try this idea and like it, let me know!

Categories: For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

5 Mistakes First-Time Writers Make

This past month I’ve gotten inspiring emails from all sorts of new writers, from high school students to retirees. One thing is clear: you’re never too old (or too young) to write a novel. If you’ve been thinking about writing a book — and who hasn’t? — remind yourself that the best day to start is today.

I’ve fielded a few writing questions lately about some crucial writing basics, like manuscript format and chapter length. If you have a lingering question, don’t make the mistake of guessing at the answer. Find out for sure. Who knows? You might be surprised!

Q: Hello there, I was just about to start my own novel and wanted to know if I double space everything or no?

A: Yes, in your final manuscript, you want to double-space everything except your contact information. It’s easy; just go up to your paragraph spacing and choose 2.0. (Or if you’re using a typewriter, just click the little spacing lever.) Also, remember to give yourself one-inch margins all around.

Q: What size of font do publishers use?

A: Your finished manuscript should be in 12 point Courier New or Times New Roman. Courier used to be the only acceptable font; now, more and more agents are requesting Times. When you’re finally ready to submit your novel, check the submission guidelines of the places you’re sending your manuscript. For your drafts, just use whatever font is comfortable.

Q: How long is a novel?

A: The exact range depends on your genre. In most cases, a novel should be more than 50,000 words and usually less that 120,000. It needs to tell the story of your main character setting out to achieve a specific goal, and then show how that character achieves it (or fails).

Q: Do I decide where a chapter ends? Or does that come later with an editor?

A: You decide on the length of your chapters. In fact, your chapters are one of the best ways to control the pacing of your novel. Take a careful look at published books like the one you want to write: How long are those chapters? How do they end? How do they begin? A little studying goes a long way.

Bonus tip: you can make your chapters as long or as short as you want; Dostoyevsky wrote chapters that went on forever; Kurt Vonnegut’s chapters were sometimes only one word. The key is to make each chapter change something in your story and move it one step closer to the end.

Q: I’m just starting my first novel. Can you recommend a good book of writing tips?

A: I highly recommend the book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham. You can find it your library or on Amazon for a buck. It’s priceless.

Got a writing question? Don’t see the answer here? Just ask me. And in the meantime, have fun writing!

Categories: For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Your Name on the NYT List: Secrets of Bestselling Authors

Who doesn’t want to write a bestseller? While no one can tell you exactly how to get onto the New York Times list, we can always ask the people who have already made it. Here are a few pearls of wisdom I’ve been given by bestselling authors I’ve interviewed over the years. Ignore them at your peril:

David Weber, NYT bestselling author of the Honor Harrington series:

First, write what you enjoy reading. You’ll do a much better job working on something that interests and excites you than you will trying to produce something simply because you think it might sell. If you enjoy reading it, so will someone else, which means there ought to be a market for it somewhere. Second, accept that if you’re going to try to do this professionally you either need to become a production writer — which means those 16-hour days — or you need to have a day job. Third, complete something before you start trying to submit your work. An editor is a lot more likely to buy a story or a novel, even if it needs a substantial amount of work, if that story or novel exists as a completed whole.


Kat Richardson, national bestselling author of the Greywalker series:

A writer I know, Blake Charleton, says his rule for writing interesting fiction is not “write what you know” but “write what you fear.” For me it’s often “write what hurt.” It’s all variations of the original adage, but the spin is what makes it compelling. People identify with adversity because most of us have had a dose or two of it, and when we as writers can take those things that hurt, terrify, or trouble us to a favorable conclusion in a story, we connect to readers and satisfy their desire for comfort and order. And it’s also fun to exorcise a few demons sometimes.

Jack Campbell, NYT bestselling author of the Lost Fleet series:

Read and write. Read lots of things, even in areas you don’t normally like, because that’s how you get ideas for stories and how to tell them in different ways, and that’s how you learn what kinds of stories others told.  Write down your own stories, too. Don’t just dream about them, write them down, and when they’re done (and you have to finish most of them so you learn how to finish stories) write some more.

And be prepared for rejection. Lots of rejection. Even veteran writers get shot down a lot. When you do get published whatever you wrote is fair game for anyone to comment on, and it’s pretty safe to say that some of those comments won’t be kind.

Mario Acevedo, NYT bestselling author of the Felix Gomez, Vampire P.I. series:

Be stubborn about writing.  Keep learning and honing your craft.  Hang on to your faith and dreams.  And don’t buy cheap vodka.

How about you? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Share it here!

Categories: For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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