Q: I’ve got a basic plot planned out for my novel, but I’m worried about being repetitive, because the story is about doing the same thing several times (the main character has a list of people he needs to “off”). Do you know of any way to pull off a plot like that without boring the reader or becoming predictable? Continue reading
Posts Tagged With: literary agents
Writing a book is serious work. Literary icons with kung-fu action grip… not so serious. Enjoy!
P.S. You can also watch the Bronte Sisters Power Dolls here.
Do you love free stuff? Do you love to write? Me too! That’s why I’m teaching an absolutely free writing class this Saturday. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this one. Continue reading
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
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!
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!
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.
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?
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!
Your book can live or die in seconds. Years ago, I used to be among the people who chose its fate on a daily basis, and by doing just one single thing, I could make someone 60% more likely to buy your book. In a moment, I’ll tell you what that one thing is — and how you can use it to your advantage when selling your novel.
But first, I want to talk about the Hey Mabel Effect. It’s an old journalism term, referring to a catchy concept that was so buzzworthy that it would prompt some anonymous reader to look up from the morning paper and call out, “Hey, Mabel! Guess what?”
My little lede about the life-and-death struggle of your book is not a Hey Mabel. It’s just a hook. Notice that it catches your attention by making you ask a question and then holding back the answer. A hook is all about suspense. Suspense is good (it’s necessary, even), but it only lasts so long. For maximum impact in your writing, you need a Hey Mabel concept that will roll around inside the reader’s head until she just has to share it with someone.
And Here’s Today’s Hey Mabel:
A customer is about 60% more likely to buy a book if you put it in their hands.
Go ahead, try not to spill that little factoid to some struggling writer you know. Betcha can’t keep it to yourself.
There’s a ton of scientific research out there that shows the positive effects that tactile sensations have on the decision to buy. And I can second that with real-world experience. Back when I used to run a bookstore, the holiday shopping season was a proving ground for new titles. People would ask me for recommendations, and I’d pick something (based on my supposedly deep knowledge of every single title in the bookstore), pull it off the shelf and hand it to them. You would not believe how many books I sold that way. Hundreds. Maybe even thousands.
People love to touch stuff. And when they touch it, they want to keep it. It’s the reason sock manufacturers put a little scrap of paper inside their new socks, to give the package a crinkly feeling. It’s the reason plastic clamshell packages sometimes have a little cutout so you can fondle the fuzzy product inside. There’s even an old car sales axiom: “The feel of the wheel seals the deal.” Let ‘em sit in the driver’s seat and they’re a lot more likely to drive that bad boy home. Scientists have studied this “endowment effect” with monkeys for decades. Let a monkey hold onto a nut, and he suddenly values it more than any nut in the world. Weird, yes — but hey, it’s a monkey.
Back to My Original Point About the Hey Mabel
A hook makes your reader ask a question. (How do I sell more books? Does the Tattered Cover carry “Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying”? Who shot J.R.?) Once the question is answered, the reader is satisfied. The attention is short-lived.
A Hey Mabel, on the other hand, gives your reader something to think about. Here’s how to create one of your very own:
1) Look through your story for unusual places or facts. It can be anything that the average person doesn’t know much about. A historic location. A scientific discovery. An odd bit of trivia.
2) Do a little research on your fact until you unearth something surprising. Does your historic location have any connection to an important figure: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, or maybe Elvis? Does your scientific fact change the way we look at a household item?
3) Plant the Hey Mabel quickly in dialogue or use it to enhance a character or scene. Don’t dwell on it. Just plant it and move on.
If you sprinkle a few nuggets of surprising information throughout your novel, you’ll give your readers something to think about. And more importantly, something to talk about, which might get other people interested in reading your book. And maybe, if they ask nicely, somebody will hand it to them.
Q: I read an article that you wrote for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers about beating writer’s block and I have a follow-up question. You start out by determining who the story is about, but in your article it’s only about one protagonist. My novel has strong romantic elements so it’s really about two people and their relationship in addition to the non-romantic part of the story. I’m curious if you have any advice for a situation like this. Thanks!
A: Thanks for asking! That’s a great question. Writing a romance novel can seem impossible to plan out, because there’s so much going on at once: her story, his story and the story of their relationship together. But with a little work, you can separate the stories and figure out each one, then weave them back together.
The trick is to focus on just one character at a time. Pick one of your main characters and ask this crucial question: What does this character want the most? And the follow-up question: Why?
At its core, every story is about somebody wanting something and not getting it. The beginning of the story is where we find out what the character wants, the middle is where she keeps going after it no matter what, and the end is where she finally gets it (or doesn’t).
You can make things more complex by having a character switch goals midway through the story, once she discovers a new and even more important objective. For example, she might start out just trying to pull off an elegant dinner party without incident… until she runs out of coffee and ends up flirting with the hunky neighbor upstairs. (Hey, it worked for the Taster’s Choice commercials.) But even if her goals change, at any given point in the story she still needs to pursue something specific, and we need to wonder if she’ll reach it. That suspense is what keeps readers turning pages.
So my advice is this: start with one character, and go through each of the steps:
1) WHO is this about?
2) What does that character WANT?
3) WHY does the character want it?
4) What will the character DO to achieve it?
5) What stands in the WAY of the character achieving that goal?
6) How are things RESOLVED in the end?
Then do the same thing for the other lead character. You might find that your characters want more than one thing — that’s good. Those other goals are subplots, and your novel will need several of them so that it’s layered and complex. Just answer those questions for each goal. Later, you can take everything you’ve written and weave it all together. You’ll write a lot of notes, but the material you create will form the basis for your entire story, one that is engaging, complex and un-put-downable.