Taking the Plunge to Self-Publish

It has been a long road since I started writing my novel Blood Feud. The journey began in April of 2012. I remember it well — a month of straight writing where the ideas just flowed like water. They pooled onto the page with little effort as months of thinking about my story and characters finally found a permanent place on the page. My story flourished but my poor family suffered from neglect. So at the end of the month and about 50,000 words later, I took a break. A few weeks later I came back to my marvelous work of art to realize everything I had written was total crap. And that pretty much sums up the next four years. Awesome spurts of writing where words flowed and family suffered just to end up with… yep you guessed it, more crap.

That my friends is the way of the writer as I am sure some of you are quite familiar with.

But something happened in my fifth year of writing. During my sixtieth (and really that’s not much of an exaggeration) rewrite of Blood Feud, the crap fell away and a good story finally started to form. At least to the point where I felt confident enough to send my work to a professional author, editor, and friend (Michael Knost) so he could tell me it was crap too. And to my surprise, he said it was a pretty awesome story.

Crap, what do I do now?

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Book Spotlight: Writers Workshop of Science Fiction and Fantasy

writers workshop I ordered Writer’s Workshop of Science Fiction and Fantasy when it first came out earlier this year, knowing it would be great because of it’s predecessor Writers Workshop of Horror. Both of these books should be on all aspiring writers bookshelves, as they give wonderful insights on all sorts of writing areas.

The best part about Writer Workshop of Science Fiction and Fantasy is that you don’t have to be a writer of science fiction or fantasy to get something useful out of the book. Most of the topics touch on areas that span all genres of story telling. Just some of the topics covered in this book are;  Beginnings, Middles, Endings, Unbending Gender, Tactics of World building, and Rhetoric and Style.

Editor Michael Knost has brought exceptional authors together to tell how they do it right. It’s then up to the reader to decide what works best for them as they read and apply the techniques to their own writing.

Book Spotlight: Writers Workshop of Horror

workshop horror Writers Workshop of Horror is a fabulous book complied by editor Michael Knost who brings authors together to talk about what works for them in certain areas of the writing craft. Authors like Tom Piccirilli, Johnathan Maberry, Tim Waggoner, Joe R. Lansdale, and Brain Keene.

Not a horror writer? No problem. That’s the best part about the book. The topics talked about in this book work for any genre from romance to steampunk. Just a few topics discussed are; Point of View, Dialogue, Manuscript Formatting, and Ten Submission Flaws that Drive Editors Nuts.

After reading this book, I felt like I’d been apart of a whole weekend of writer workshops instead of at home reading a book about writing. Each topic has a unique and individualized approach that makes it fun to read as well as informative. This is a must have book for aspiring writers.

The Truth About Flashbacks

This post is another result of one of Michael Knost classes. I do highly suggest his online classes to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. Check out his blog to find out more. Anyways, this most recent class I took was all about flashbacks (and backstory, but that’s a different post). I found a few “light bulb” moments in the class that just had to share, but this post really is only the tip of the iceberg of what I learned.

The most important thing to remember… Flashbacks should not be used unless there is absolutely no other way the story can be told. Flashbacks carry a built-in disadvantage to even the best of written stories, because it stops the story. A flashback is about something that has already happened. It’s over and done with so the flashback lacks immediacy.

There are 3 advantages to having a flashback in a story…

  • helps establish character motives
  • fills in events of how the original current story came about 
  • fills in critical information that happened years earlier

If a story must hold a flashback there are 3 ways to maximize the advantages of a flashback…

1. Time travel done right
Every flashback should follow a strong current story scene. Flashbacks should never start a scene. Before dropping the past onto the reader, the current story must be established first; otherwise, the reader will become invested in the flashback and not care about the current story.

2. Orient the reader at the start of the flashback in time and space
Make sure that it is made clear that the story is moving backwards in time. Give a clear indication at the very beginning what is happening to avoid throwing the reader into confusion and frustration. There’s nothing worse than reading a story and not being able to figure out where in space and time the story is supposed to be taking place.

 3. Use verbal tense conventions to guide the reader in and out of the flashback
Conventions through verbal tense can be used to “signal” both the start and end of a flashback. This sort of thing is subtle and may not be noticed by the conscious mind of the reader, but is very effective in guiding the reader properly in and out of flashbacks. This is the best way to help eliminate flashback confusion.

Example: Let’s say you are writing a story in pasted tense (that’s my preferred style of writing). That means the first few verbs (usually the first 5 verbs) used in the flashback should be perfect past tense (had, had been). Then switch back to pasted tense. When you are ready to end the flashback switch back to perfect past tense for another 5 or so verbs. Once back in the current story, you return to using past tense verbs.

Are you confused yet? Here’s a shortened version I made to help me keep it straight…

current story (past tense) + beginning of flashback (perfect past tense 5 verbs) + middle of flashback (paste tense) + end of flashback (perfect past tense 5 verbs) + return to current story (past tense)

What if a story is written in present tense? Then you would use past tense verbs instead of perfect past tense verbs.

Here’s an example of a switch from a present tense story to flashback from Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games...

“We don’t speak. Our real interaction happened years ago. He’s probably already forgotten it. But I haven’t and I know I never will…
It was the worst time. My father had been killed in the mine accident three months earlier in the bitterest January anyone could remember. The numbness of his loss had passed, and the pain would hit me out of nowhere, doubling me over, racking my body with sobs. Where are you? I would cry out in my mind. Where have you gone? Of course there was never any answer.”

If flashbacks are used, it should be done sparingly. Flashbacks should never occur back to back. Strong scenes should separate each flashback scene.

There is an acceptable form of story that uses flashbacks to tell a story and that would be a “frame story”. This story can be any length (from short story to novel), which begins after all the action is over. The protagonist or author announces that they are going to tell a story and may even give out the entire outcome at the beginning of the story. Example of this type of stories are True Grit by Charles Portis and Water for Elephants Sara Gruen.

Using Body Language to Tell Your Story

I recently took an online class through my friend and fellow writer Michael Knost on body language, and wanted to share some of the highlights that I found helpful. This was a topic I knew some about from other writing sources, but his class really brought everything into prospective for me.

Body language is essential in creating believable characters. It’s the subtle things like a smile in just the right place of a conversation, or a small touch of the hand that can change the whole way a reader perceives a character. When you show a character through their body language, you are allowing the reader to size up the character without spoon feeding information that might push the reader from the story. The reader wants to feel intelligent as he or she comes to their own conclusions. It’s the writer’s job (you) to be invisible enough to help lay out the signs or clues that get the reader to where you want them to go.

Check out some of these statistics…

55% of communication consists of body language
38% is expressed through voice
7% is communicated through words

Yeah, I was kind of shocked by the only 7% is communicated through words. Kind of made me feel small and unimportant with all my writing, which then made me realize that it’s all in how you express those words. That’s the key ingredient to really great writing. So my next thought was… how do my own characters express themselves?

There are 4 major ways for a character to use body language to express themselves…

  • Facial Expressions
  • Gestures
  • Body Posture
  • Space

What are the eyes of your character saying? Is your character fidgeting from boredom or restlessness? Is your character sitting forward to soak up everything another character is telling them?  Or is your character in someone’s face for something that made them angry?

Also consider this… does your character’s actions match their words? Readers will believe body language and tone over what someone says. If a character says they’re open to a new idea, but crosses their arms or turns their body away, what the reader really sees is a character who is closed and rejecting the message, but not willing to admit the truth. This sort of “mixed signal” can be used to add to the character, or story. It can also take away from the character and story, if not done correctly.

When using body language it usually helps to build it up to a series of actions, because some body languages (like smiles, fidgeting, or no eye contact) can mean several different things. Writers should give about 5 clues within a scene to show context of an emotion (through body language) without coming out and saying it. This will help lead the reader to make his own conclusion.

Body language is your character. Make sure that that all body language is important, if it isn’t, cut it out. Also get rid of overly used gestures, or body language like… she sighed or he winked. Find new or better ways for your character to express themselves. Remember that too much of a good thing can tip your hand to make the writer visible to the reader. Great writers disappear as their story comes alive.

Word Choice: Finding the Right Shade of a Word

As a writer you are an artist. The page is the canvas and the paint are the words. Use words to paint a picture, creating a movie in the theater of the mind’s eye. – Michael Knost.

I know I’ve hit on this subject before in my Good Description series, but this topic deserves repeating because of the important and necessary role that words play in writing. This is one of the areas in my writing that I have been focusing on this year. I have found that actively being conscious of the words I chose makes a BIG difference in the way a story sounds and how successful I am at conveying the story message to the reader.

Some people look at a story as a sheet of music because of the rhythm it makes as it is read. If you are a avid reader, you might know this already. Prose is similar to music because if done right it sings to the reader.

At the highest level, the sound a writer makes on the page is music. So you can say writing is music we can all read. Instead of clef notes, sharps, and minors, full stops or half stops, and all the other symbols actual music employs, English has letters, syllables, and words. – Richard Goodman, The Soul of Creative Writing 

It’s a beautiful thing when a story comes together with all the right characters, story arcs, meanings, and emotional depth, but none of it means a thing if the symphony of words comes to a jarring stop because one word sticks out like a sore thumb. The wrong shade of a word can cause teeth to grind and the reader to become a disbeliever of the world that was created in the story.

What do I mean by a shade of a word? As you already know from all those years spent in grade school, there are many words that have similar meanings or synonyms. I strongly encourage pulling out the thesaurus or even use www.thesaurus.com to discover words that might work to keep the rhythm of the story in tune.

Example 1: 

The street was bare as she walked across to the other side.


The street was empty as she walked across to the other side.

Which do you think sounds better in this situation? Well, it all depends on the context of the story. The first thing that comes to mind when we see the word bare is to associate it with someone without clothes. Yes, it also means unadorned or open to view, but is it the right word for this situation? It might be if you have a story that is about nakedness or a character that has a quirk of taking off their clothes for no apparent reason. Then using bare would be an excellent choice to describe the street, because it’s mirroring the theme of the story or flaw of the character. Otherwise, empty might be a better choice.
Example 2:
A story has a main character who is the CEO of a company. Which do you think he would be more likely to say?
“Our numbers sucked this quarter. How the heck did this happen?” 
OR 
“Our numbers were atrocious this quarter. How could this happen? “

The second example leads me to another thing that should be considered in a story… the character. Make sure characters have their own voice and not that of the writer… you. Use words that reflect the character’s background, profession and personality to make the character unique.

What colors or smells would a sailor know that a farmer does not? How would they describe something they both have seen? Wouldn’t the different experiences of the farmer and sailor cause them to  have a slightly different skew of the world around them?

Whether you are painting a masterpiece or conducting a symphony, getting the right word is essential to making the story the best it can be. Like any painter or musician, it takes practice and plenty of patience to be good at the craft of creativity. The next time you sit down to write and run across a sentence or paragraph that doesn’t feel right or clashes on the ears, pull out the thesaurus and take a closer look at the words. Let the rhythm of the story tell you what shade of word should be used.

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Note: Some of the above information came from notes from a recent class I took by Michael Knost. A man who always knows how to blow my mind and make me see things in a different light. Thank you, Michael.