How to Brainstorm Your Way to Your next Novel

Writing a novel can be such a pesky beast. And sometimes it seems creativity just flies south for the season, and we become stumped about how to catch it again.

How to Brainstorm Your way to Your next Novel

How to Brainstorm Your way to Your next Novel

You may have a great idea for a book.  You may start out writing like a lunatic, putting out page after page of fabulous fiction.

And then hit a wall.

Or, get through the beginning and middle, and then problems arise with how to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion.

Or, you know where you want it to go, but the start of it has you stymied.

At a litany of junctures when writing a novel, you can face that wall or chasm and just not know where to go from here.

And that happens to not only those who write from an outline, but those who write from discovery as well.  Sooner or later, you’ll encounter a deep pothole and not know how to traverse it.

So what’s a writer to do?

Before we start the actual brainstorming, first off, get clear on the structure of novels, which is how yours needs to play out in the end, no matter the genre.

I know—this doesn’t sound like a creative step, but oddly enough, having the framework handy allows your creativity free rein, as you’re no longer on that tightrope without a net.  You can see clearly where your book is struggling. Where it’s sagging.  What needs to happen at every juncture.

This is about the arc of the storyline.  It’s where major plot points need to come in, and then the minor ones leading into the major ones, to keep your story moving.

And don’t worry—this can and should change.  It’s to get you going in the right direction.

Now, here are 4 tips for how to brainstorm your way through your book:.

  1. Ask ‘what if’ questions.

What if my hero gets fired?

What if his wife leaves him?

What if his dog turns into Cujo?

What if he finds out his sister is really his mother?

The list of these is endless, and none are too outlandish.  In fact, as with all brainstorming, the more “out there,” the better.  The point is to let your subconscious mind—the part that does the creating—fly into the stratosphere.

  1. Get to know your character. Write scenes, short stories, etc., which put your main character in difficult/odd/bizarre/whatever circumstances, and see what she does.

By going with her “off stage,” so to speak, it takes all of the pressure off of you.  Because, this isn’t part of your novel.  It doesn’t need to be perfect, or even good.  This is a simple exercise to see her in a different light.

Ideas will come surging in as to where she can go in the novel.  Different turns she can now make, as you’re armed with new knowledge about her.

  1. Write in long-hand.

Not only does this put you in a stream-of-consciousness brainstorming session, but the act of actually hand writing the letters requires more work from your brain than does typing. The result is it keeps your brain sharp.  And, it encourages more creativity.

Even better, a 2012 study on pre-literate kids found that when they handwrote their letters, they activated the brain’s reading circuit.  Now we’re cooking!

  1. Return to Structure

I know, the boring part.  But now you’re armed with lots of ideas.  So let’s brainstorm your scene.

Ask yourself these questions (and write out the answers on a 3 x 5 card) before going into the scene (before you write it):

How did the conflict come about?

What were its roots?

How is each person involved?

How is the reader involved?

Who, Where, How long in Story time is the conflict to last?

We need at least 4 twists and turns

What is the Disaster at the end of the conflict?

What is gained?

What is lost?

These tools work at any time in the process, whether before you write a word, in the middle, at the end, or in major revision.

Creativity can be elusive, but many ways exist to court her back to her lovely, giving self.  Soon you’ll be racing along again with all of your skills providing the wind beneath your wings!

11 Rules for Writing Fiction that You Need to Know

Ah, rules. Fiction writers tend to cringe at the very idea.  I mean, this is a creative endeavor, no?  Creative license comes with the territory, right?

11 Rules for Writing Fiction that You Need to Know

Who wants to think about stinking rules when your imagination is running free and you’re chasing characters across the page?

There is all of that.

So let’s think of this in terms of tips for writing a novel.  In terms of not what you have to do, but what will help you with how to write a novel. 

That’s easier to swallow, no?

Because the thing is, these tips will actually make penning fiction easier for you, and provide the structure so that your imagination can soar.

And it doesn’t matter in which genre you’re writing—these rules apply to all fiction.

  1. Whose Story Is this?

That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it.  But identifying—and staying with—a protagonist trips up so many writers.  And while yes, it’s fine to have an ‘ensemble’ cast, someone still has to take the lead.

Simply put, the Protagonist, the hero, the main character is the person with whom your reader settles in to travel through the story.  Once you identify him, a few rules will help you stay focused and not fall into holes where you have to dig out before you can start again.

֎ First off, we meet him early.  Page 1 is best, but he can begin the first chapter if you have a prologue.

֎ Second, we spend most of our time with him.  About 75% in his viewpoint.  So, we’re not away from him for long periods.  Because again, he’s our guy—the person we’ve signed on with to go through the novel.

֎ Third, she’s the one who has the biggest effect on the story.  She’s who finds the Holy Grail, whatever that Grail may be.  Rights the wrong.  Wins the day.

֎ And finally, she’s the one who grows and changes the most.  She’s not the same girl we met to open.  She hasn’t entirely changed, but is wiser, stronger, something-er, in a positive way.

  1. Who Are the Secondary Characters?

This cannot be a cast of thousands.

Your book itself can have a large cast, but the secondary characters are few, as they all have to have their own arcs of the storyline, which then fit into the whole.  This can be somewhat daunting.  So choose them with care.

And remember: each secondary character believes the book is about him. 

  1. Which Characters Get Viewpoints?

Viewpoint is such an enormous issue, and it’s really a stumbling point for most writers, especially when trying to find their sea legs.

Simply put, viewpoint is whose eyes, ears, feelings, etc., through which a scene is being created. 

A few sub-rules are helpful here as well:

֎ Use only 1 viewpoint character per scene.  I.e., you cannot switch viewpoints in a scene.  Doing so causes the scene to lose focus, and your reader to become confused as to what the scene is about, and to whom it’s most important.

֎ Strictly limit this.  Only 2 major (which includes the hero) and 2 minor viewpoints.  Again, all these folks have to have their own character/story arcs, and more than that causes the book to sprawl and ramble.  Plus, having more makes it danged easy to start just telling about things . . .

  1. What Is the Main Theme of the Novel?

This is the overriding idea of what the novel is about.  It’s kinda like your elevator pitch when you’re talking about it to an agent or editor.  This isn’t the details of plot, but: How a man comes to understand the value of existence and his place in family life.  Hamlet-like.

  1. What Is the Basic Plot?

Now, a lot of writers write from discovery—which is absolutely fine.  But at some point, even if that point is in major revision, the plot itself has to be defined and hold up.

The plot is more than that ‘value of existence’ sentence above.  It’s what happens in the storyline, to get you from point A to point Z.  It’s specific, well defined, and leads into:

  1. What Are the Plot Points?

We have 2 sets of these.

Major Plot Points are vitally important, imperative, and come in at very specific times.  They form the major movements in the story.

֎ The first one takes your character from normal life into committing to the journey of this story.

֎ The second brings your character into the depths of himself, as he gears up to fight the foe.

֎ The third one brings the events to a climax.

Minor Plot Points lead up to each of the major ones in a steady, believable progression.  Even if you have a lot of twists and turns (good!), you still want your reader to believe these things can occur, so he’ll believe the next plot point, which will move the story in a new direction.

These are about character building, alliances, foes, learning new tasks, facing unforeseen events, etc.

Although called ‘minor,’ these are deceptively important!  Craft them with care.  They’re what truly keeps your story moving along, so you don’t get caught up in sagging middles.

NOTE: Plot points form the arc of your storyline—what the character goes through to achieve his goal. This is how plot changes characters, and characters drive the plot.

  1. What Is the Story Question?

Every book has one.  That’s the point of the book, no?

The story question incorporates both theme and plot, and meshes them together.

There’s something the main character has to do in order to get from the beginning to the end.

֎ This needs to open the book.  Or at least come in very, very early.

֎ And each and every scene needs to have some piece of this question.  It has to do primarily with the point of the book, and why we’re reading it.

Craft this with extreme care.  

  1. Does the Climax Cause the Character’s Internal and External Worlds to Mesh?

Because that’s the thing—the climax of the book requires that the hero has marshalled all of his forces, both his internal growth and his outward mastery, in order to save the day.

Which also means this internal/external dynamic has been mirrored throughout the story.

  1. Show Don’t Tell.

I know—writers are really sick of hearing this.  And I’ve watched with a bit of amusement in writers’ online forums these days saying that’s ‘old news,’ and you don’t need to do it.

Well, you pretty much do.

Because our point here is to create a world, to create characters, and give the reader the experience of being there, rather than have a story told to her.

Now, that doesn’t mean you ‘show’ everything, or your book would be 500K words long!

It’s a balance.  A beam you learn to walk.  But rule of thumb:

Create the important parts.  For that which the reader just needs to know, use bridges across which you tell those things.

  1. Tighten.

This isn’t about minimalistic prose (although it can be).

The point of tightening is to dig through all the superfluous stuff, whether prose-wise, or character history, to leave only that which is truly important to your reader.  Not to you, the author, but to the story and the read.

Because you want your reader focused on what matters, no?

There’s an old adage in this business: Be careful of taking your reader down an ancillary road that doesn’t matter much. He may just take that road and not come back (in other words, put the book down and not pick it back up). 

  1. Polish, Polish, Polish.

How easy it would be to turn over your masterpiece to some editor, and say, “Fix the grammar, syntax, etc., etc., etc.”

But you know what happens when you do?  Your voice gets changed.

I cannot begin to convey how many writers come to me in horror after having worked with an editor who “changed my voice.”

That’s not an editor’s job.  An editor’s job is to help you uncover that shining voice.  Which means that you, as the writer, need to roll up those sleeves and toil and toil until you can’t get the work any better.

To make your prose and your story shine.

So the ‘how to write a novel’ is a pretty simple thing in the end.  Sadly, nobody ever said simple was easy!

Writer’s Conferences In The Brave New World Of Publishing

Every year, I speak at writers’ conferences. I’m a conference proponent, as I’ve blogged about before. The information is almost always useful, and the networking, a huge boon.

Writers’ Conferences in the Brave New World

But as the publishing world changes, so too do writers’ conferences.

Yes, they still offer sessions on the nuts-and-bolts of writing, author panels that address experiences, expert sessions on technical issues such as police procedures or poison deaths in mysteries, research for historical novels, and literary-agent sessions detailing working with an agent, etc. The focus is still on writing great and believable books.

But a seismic shift has occurred in the “business” angle these days. Because before, the focus regarding that was on agents and publishing-house editors. And now, given equal billing (and sometimes more), that focus is on self-publishing—addressing book printers and book covers and e-book conversions and marketing the finished product.

Today, as we’ve seen the e-book revolution turn traditional publishing on its head, writers come looking not only for writing tips, but also entrepreneurial skills and business acumen.

Wow, what a brave new world it really is! We’ve all watched our “revolution” spin publishing in a 180-degree different orbit, in such a very short time. And now many conferences where I speak have changed direction with the shift.

So many writers plan to self-publish from the get-go.

We are in a new world. And as has happened since time immemorial, those who adapt progress.

I spoke last year at the NETWO conference, which before has pretty much focused on traditional publishing.  But changing with the times, at least equal billing (if not more) was given to marketing in a self-publishing world.

One thing that was in stark contrast with this conference was the camaraderie.

At so many in the past, writers entered wide-eyed with terror at having to convince agents and editors of their books’ worth. Because, those folks spelled life or death for any writer’s dream. And while I always work with my writers about letting go of that fear (agents and editors are just normal folks, trying to make a living as well), it’s an uphill battle.

The thing in most stark contrast for me, however, was that at conferences of old, you could feel the competition between writers, as if there were only a precious few seats at the table (which in reality, there were), and one had to “best” another writer to grab that spot. This isn’t true, of course, as agents and editors just look for something they can sell! But writers felt the pressure nonetheless, and often left feeling jaded and unappreciated.

At NETWO, the attitude was 180 degrees opposite. The feeling was that everyone was in this insanity together, and I can’t even list all the times I saw folks helping one another, making connections, touting each other. “You’re selling how many books? How’d you do that?” Response, “Let me show you!”

I’ll confess to being a true Pollyanna; I like for us to all get along. But you have to remember I’m a pretty danged jaded editor myself, so when the converse happens, I’m not surprised. However, when the true spirit of cooperation and support occurs, it makes my heart sing.

Writing and publishing have always been such difficult endeavors.

And that remains—getting a truly publishable book out there requires copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears. No way around that. But how fabulous to watch writers finally be on the same team, cheering and helping one another along.

Now, that’s a brave new world I’m proud to be a part of!

How to Not Get Bored when Writing Your Book

 

You’ve begun a great novel or nonfiction book.  Ah, the inspiration!  Your fingers have been flying across the keyboard, words appearing at lightning speed.

How to not get bored when writing your book

These characters are fabulous!  And ah, the twists and turns of a perfect plot running through a storyline created by the gods!

What could be more of a rush?

Nothing. At least to writers.  Absolutely nothing takes the place of racing along after your people and words.

And then . . .

Usually about the middle of the book, sometimes sooner, although most of us get through the first 1/3 still on the go, but somewhere after that, things slow down.  The scenes don’t quite run off your fingers through the keyboard and onto the page.

At least not as they had been doing.

Worst-case scenario: you find yourself in the slog of sagging middles.

Even best-case, however, usually leaves you in some sort of lag.

And when that happens, it’s easy to get bored with the whole thing.

I can’t tell you how many writers give up at this point—I know, because they tell me.  And even if giving up isn’t an option (good for you!), dealing with that boredom beast can be tricky indeed.

Because you know that if you’re bored writing it, you’re reader has already gone off to something else . . .

The first thing to do is to diagnose the problem. 

Are you really bored with these people?  This story?  Or do you just not know where they go from here.

Do you truly believe the plot isn’t holding water?  Or have you written yourself into a box that you don’t know how to get out of.

Are you afraid you can’t finish this book successfully?  Or is there a deeper fear of failure of success.

Yep, all writers face these questions.  And the answers hold the key to which direction you’ll find your way out.

The mid-section of the book can seem like a slog.  But in reality, a lot needs to happen here.  Yep, the pacing ebbs and flows through this more than in the beginning or the end, but action and movement still drive the plot forward.

If you’re bored with the people, take your main character and write a story from his childhood, or her teenage years.  Something entirely different from this book, and probably not to be included.  But take her on a hike of the Himalayas (literally or metaphorically), and have her face beasts there.  That’ll get your creative juices pumping.

If the plot has you boxed, brainstorm the most fantastical ways your hero can get out of it.  You know, the MacGyver method!  Let whatever comes come, no matter how crazy.  Before you know it, you’ll be laughing—and laughter takes creativity to the nth degree.

If you’re afraid of failure, well, join the club—all writers are.

And if you’re afraid of success—pretty much ditto.

Those are two sides of the same coin.  Tell that beast you hear him, that he’s probably right, but right now you need to write that scene where your hero faces the zombies and they melt into a puddle (even if, no—especially if—you’re not writing zombie books.  You want to see what your hero in any genre would do if faced with the dead folks walking).

If none of this works (or even if it does—as something will), take a break and read.  Read something entirely different from what you normally do; different from what you write.  Let your brain shift.

See how other writers get out of boxes.  Be in awe (or not!).

Read humor. Dave Barry always works for me.  If nothing else, your mood will lift.  Over 50 years of research has proven the humor/creativity link, and this one is fun to boot.

You’ll return to your book refreshed, with renewed vigor, which will translate to the page.

If this boredom recurs down the road (which it likely will), rinse and repeat.

How do you deal with boredom in your writing?

STRUCTURE AND THE NOVEL: The First 50 Pages

We talked before about a novel’s opening line, and how important getting it just right is.

A "prince frog" looking on an oversized book that says, "Once upon a time" with plenty of space for your text.

The First 50 Pages

So, now let’s say you’ve written that bang-up first line, and now let’s focus on the rest of the book’s beginning—the first fifty pages.

Isn’t that just the hardest part? I hear from so many writers struggling with where to start, how much to convey up front, and how active page one needs to be, etc., etc. And the answers vary—a lot. Depending upon in what genre you’re writing, for one thing. A Thriller must begin very differently from a Western or Category Romance or even a Cozy Mystery. But as far as novel development is concerned, the inherent factors remain the same.

The best way to begin a novel is just to begin it.

In other words, quit obsessing and write. If you’re serious about the process, no one will ever see the first draft anyway. And even if you’re of the sort who specifically outlines from alpha to omega, much will change once you get to that initial “The End.” At which point, you’ll always go into revisions by rewriting the beginning. Often, many, many times.

All right, so the original creation process is finished, and you’re into revisions—the actual book editing. What do you want to accomplish with your opening? HOW you do this, again, will vary by genre. But WHAT you want to get done in the beginning crosses them all.

By far the biggest glitch I see is that the novel really begins about fifty pages in. Writers, especially before finding their sea legs (no matter how long they’ve been at it—learning to write is not a matter of time so much as it is of willingness, dedication, and application), ramble along for a good way before finding the track of their stories. Even seasoned writers do this, especially those who write from “discovery”—not knowing exactly how to get where they’re going until it opens before them.

The difference is, professionals then go back in order to cut and begin again, and aren’t afraid of killing their own words to do so.

Your editing arm will learn to point out where the pacing lags, or how much ancillary material needs slicing because much of that was necessary for you, the writer, to know, but not for the reader. Remember: Your reader is trusting you to convey to him ONLY those things that pertain to these specific characters in this specific story. The rest is just background material for you, the book author (and is merely noise for the reader).

The next problem I see has to do with the book’s hook.

Now, entire volumes have been published regarding this subject, so I’m not going to delve into it deeply. In fact, I really believe too much has been made of it, in that now writers are so sensitive to setting hooks that their books’ beginnings are often contrived.

Settle down here. Yeah, your book needs a good hook, which is no more than a reason for me to keep reading. And yeah, I need a sense of where the book is heading and who the main folks are from the get go. But I don’t need a crash course in the characters’ histories (called an information dump), or an intricate foreknowledge of what’s to come. That produces the opposite effect of what you seek—turning off your reader with so much detail that he spits out your lure and swims back into the bookstore’s sea.

A hook can be nothing more than a quirky character about whom I want to know more (unless, of course, this is a Suspense Thriller!). Or a bizarre event that tweaks my interest. And yeah, it needs to come in early enough to catch my curiosity so I keep going.

Rule of Thumb in Murder Mysteries is that the killing should occur on page one. If you can’t hook ‘em with some sort of unique slaying, you need to pick another genre in which to write.

In all categories of Romance, my heart should stir in Chapter One.

In Mainstream, I should find a character compelling enough to cause me to want more.

And in Literary, the writing needs to take my breath—at least for moments, on page one.
My very favorite opening to any book goes thusly:

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of the great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

I would have followed that author to the ends of the Earth. And did.

Here as well is where you establish the Protagonist—the person with whom your reader is to travel the course of this novel. And, you must give a sense of his/her conflicts—even if the catalyst for the conflict (be it man or beast, internal or external, supernatural or drought) isn’t itself in evidence. The point of the conflict on the main character is the important thing, not the conflict itself. We have to move our hero out of his comfort zone—to begin the novel.

But again—beware of information dumps! This needs to come in through action as the plot gets going.

Here is the place as well to firmly set the tone.                                                                                   If this is to be a Murder Mystery of some sort, someone gets killed straight out of the gate, thereby setting an ominous tone (if it’s well done). If the book’s a Literary one, the writing itself must effect the resonance that you seek.

On page one, we also find the Story Question, which we’ll talk about in the next installment of Structure. Because that Question will weave through each and every scene of your book.

Yep, a book’s beginning is tough to get right. But once you do, your reader has bought that ticket to ride—the first obstacle to overcome!

Should You Go To A Writer’s Conference?

Writer’s conferences abound. Even today, as publishing changes mightily.

Ready to get published? | Should you go to a writer's conference

To conference or not to conference

But is going to one right for you?

It’s tough sometimes to know whether a conference would pay dividends, at this specific time in your writing career. A., most cost a pretty shiny penny, and B., also require time and often travel.

So, to go or not to go? My writers ask me all the time whether a conference would help them.  Whether it’s worth the time and expense.

And in almost every case, my answer is an unequivocal yes.

First off, I speak at a lot of conferences. And with every one at which I’ve presented, the conference coordinators strive to give writers break-out sessions that are truly helpful. Whether these sessions deal with the elements of plot, or how to write a great query letter, or simply picking an agent’s brain, there’s a ton that can be learned here.

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned writer trying to break in, you can always pick up more tips and pearls to help hone your work into a shining gem.

The folks who present know the game, and are there to teach it to you.

You can learn not only from the presenters, but also from other writers as well, who are sifting the wheat from the chaff as they go along their paths. Sometimes you learn what not to do by visiting with them! But we can all learn from one another.

Second, publishing on the inside is a far different business from how it appears on the outside. The industry is actually very specialized, from what an editor at a house does in this day and time (and those jobs are differentiated depending upon whether said publishing house is of the big New York variety, or a smaller, regional press), to how books are selected for individual lists, to what agent sells to which imprints at the particular houses and to which editors working where.

In other words, this is a multi-layered industry, and nothing is much as it seems from the outside looking in.

Now, you don’t need to understand the inner workings of publishing in order to break into it with a bang-up book, but it sure helps to get a grasp of the way it works.

You can’t just write a fabulous book, sit back, and say, “Publish me!” Having at least a working knowledge of how the business runs helps you sort through where you might fit, with the kind of work you write.

Third, as the industry changes, and more and more writers are self-publishing, conferences these days pay special attention to marketing.  Lots of sessions cover platforms, PR, all the things that go into getting your book noticed once it’s out.

And funny thing—whether you intend to self-publish or hope for a contract with Random House, most of the marketing will still be left to you. And even if the latter, one of the first things an agent or editor will ask is: what’s his social platform.

The business has changed indeed.

Finally, conferences are networking bonanzas. Although this is a word-on-the-page business (and the right words absolutely have to be on the pages, in the most creative ways), it’s also and somewhat oddly very much a people-oriented industry.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve introduced to agents or editors (or both, sometimes forging a publishing deal over coffee, right there) at conferences, which led to book sales.

Here’s a big industry secret: Agents and editors are folks just like everybody else, and it helps them to put a face with a name as well.

But most importantly, they can sift through quickly whether a book is right for them.

Most conferences offer manuscript evaluations with the presenters — fifteen minutes or so of one-on-one time, after the evaluator has gone over your work. The only way I know for an aspiring writer to meet an agent or editor, face to face, is to sit down or mingle with one at a conference.

So, take the plunge. Research different conferences and go. Find one in your area, or across the continent that has agents and editors and authors you want to meet. An added bonus is you’ll meet like-minded folks, and realize you’re not alone on this crazy road to writing and publishing — a great boon for anyone who knows what it’s like to sit quietly in a room for time on end, writing and writing and writing . . .

Good How-To Books For Writers Do Exist

Books on writing abound these days, no?

Hand and book stairs isolated on white background

Books on Writing

And people ask me all the time to recommend good ones. I mean, all the time. As they struggle to slog through the ambiguous mud of writing well—and it most certainly feels that way up to a point—writers search for ways to make the process easier, or at least help to make some sense of it.

Writing well is a difficult process.

The real truth is, you’re pushing water uphill if you want this to fall into some sort of one, two, three scenario. As with all art, the path is winding and circular and includes hills and valleys and the deep recesses of the ocean floor.

In other words, the one, two, three of book development doesn’t exist, so go ahead and lay that aside.

I’m not big on how-to books for writers. As a developmental editor, I’ve perused about a zillion of them, and most give you very little real help. They’re pedantic or mundane or sometimes downright scary in their recommendations. Or, they focus on something such as voice, and say everything else isn’t important, which leads to lots of writers using wonderful language with no story to tell. Or, the converse.

Most of the time, though, they’re just so basic that you’d have already gleaned the information by writing enough in the first place.

Often, these books do teach the basics. The result being that they teach you to write-by-numbers, which is what I see from many writers who have studied them.

All that said, however, good how-to books do exist. I’m a proponent of a very few good books.

What follows is the short and long list.

First off, for understanding language and style, grammar and syntax and sentence structure, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style can’t be beat. It’s the old standby, which still eclipses all of the subsequent books on the topic, and applies equally well for all forms of writing—fiction, nonfiction, essays, etc.

On the marketing side, if you’re writing nonfiction, you have to have a bang-up proposal (which is quite different from your fiction synopsis). These proposals are their own beasts, and many a wonderful writer has pulled her hair out trying to get it right. Mike Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal is the best guide I know, and truly takes away the headache from all of this.

Next, we bring to life novels especially, but narrative nonfiction as well, through the use of scenes. When you break down a chapter, you do so by studying the scenes involved—where they hit, where they missed, what’s flat, what’s beside the point, etc. Jack Bickam’s Scene and Structure does a great job of clearing the page about this. What constitutes a scene? What are the elements involved? How do you get from point A to Point Z, and set up the next point A? Bickam’s book will help you make sense of that.

Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens is more than the title conveys. Yes, it’s a how-to about plot. But it goes much deeper (which is where 99.9% of books concerning plot fail). What Lukeman explains from the get-go is true character development, and how that affects and defines plot. He gives great tips and exercises for asking questions of your characters that make them come alive—which is the point of all good fiction. This book is about story building, from the most basic level to depth instruction, by creating plot through characters. It’s the antithesis of write-by-numbers.

I also offer a free, downloadable e-book on Fashioning Fabulous Characters.

A book that covers the most important aspects of fiction (although it was written for screenplays) is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. It breaks down stories into plot points—why they’re important, how they further the story, where and why pacing lags—by illustrating characters’ journeys through plot. Its mythological structure likens the characters to archetypes, and why the trials and tribulations involved make for great storytelling. I must issue a disclaimer here, however. This is a very sophisticated writing book, and you have to have written a good deal to be able to relate to the discussion. I’ve had lots of writers come back confused from reading it, so I only recommend it once you’ve reached a certain point. Write first. Get critiqued or edited by top-notch book editing services. Study some of the other books. Write some more. Then read this one.

Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet for deciding if you really must undertake this endeavor.

Because it is an ordeal. Finding your sea legs is hard, hard work. Unforgiving work.

I cannot convey how many writers get back edited books and say, “Man, this looks like work!” It is. Rilke’s book will help you decide whether you’re in this for the long haul, or would be better off learning to fly jet airplanes.

My very favorite writing book ever is Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog. It is about finding your voice (although not at the exclusion of everything else!), which of course cannot be taught. Your voice is your voice—unique to you. It has to be uncovered, but it can be understood on this most basic of levels, which’ll help in the beginning to know what you’re looking for. And later, it’ll remind you why you do what you do. The book is so beautifully done. It’s a kid’s book, actually. Ms. Creech is a Newberry Medal winner. But DO NOT let that stop you. If you are to read one book on writing, let this be it.

Okay, there’s my list. Short. So use these books and they will help. But what will then help the most is for you to do two things: First and foremost, read. Read good books. I’m still amazed at how many writers tell me they don’t read (and it shows in their work).

Forget today’s bestsellers. They won’t teach you much. Read instead the best books in your market. Read the classics. Read them all the time. The second thing is to write. Write, read, read, read. Write, read, read, read. That formula’ll work every time.

Now, take up your proverbial pen and write.

Are Small Presses The Best Answer For Authors Right Now?

Writers have so many options when it comes to publishing these days.  When just starting out, many get quite confused on the differences in Traditional and self-publishing.

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The Beauty of Small Publishers

It’s easy to get confused!  I’ve talked about these differences in the two a lot, but for now, let’s focus on the Traditional model, and whether a small or large house is right for you.

The question from the outside may seem a bit deceiving. Writers have dreams of being published by Random House, or Simon & Schuster, or any of the big conglomerates in NY, under whose umbrella myriad imprints abound.  But going with a smaller house has many perks, and can often—even for seasoned authors—be a better way to go.

Yes, the prestige comes with the big boys.  We all know that.  A galley review coming from any of the five major publishers does get noticed more quickly, whether from Publishers Weekly or the local paper and every review outlet in between.  And usually (although even this has changed drastically in recent years), you’re also looking at more advance money.  But after that, unless your last name is King or Clancy or Rice or any of the list of bestselling authors, the benefits pretty much fizzle from there.

With the death of the mid-list author came the reality that everyone else is pretty much left to promote his book himself.  Advertising dollars go to that list of well knowns. So either way you’re left to do the promotion.

That small publishers have much fewer promotional dollars is a fact.  But, they’re quite willing to help you to promote your book, and guide you through the process.  Sometimes you’ll work with a good book editor, sometimes not, but often at a big house your manuscript has to be camera-ready before submission as well.

The main thing is, rather than a minnow being bashed around publishing’s treacherous seas within a big house, you’ll be a fish on equal footing at smaller presses.

And the small press is much more vested in seeing your book become a success—its success depends upon it, rather than a couple of huge-selling authors who are keeping the entire boat afloat. 

Small publishers are usually operating out of a labor of love, and want to see what they consider to be “good” books being published.  Especially in fiction, where small presses may come out with 10 or 12 titles a year, they publish what they truly believe has merit.  Novel development still matters to them.  Characterization makes a huge difference.  The craft of book writing remains paramount.

One of the biggest plusses of a small house is that it will keep your book in print.  The shelf life at the big publishers is about six weeks (although a lot of editors are telling me now that we’re looking at four weeks). 

Six weeks, you say?  My Lord, how on earth do you build an audience in six weeks!  Well, that’s a problem, even if you start way ahead of pub date.  But if the book doesn’t sell in that amount of time, it’s pulled from the shelves, remaindered, and dead.

A smaller publisher, on the other hand, will keep the book in print, sometimes for a decade or more, backlisted but still available. This gives authors (new and old) the time to promote and build an audience, and often books sell well for many years, even if they’re not bestsellers.  I still receive royalty statements on books that have been out for a decade.  And in a recent case, I Just Came Here to Dance keeps selling—3 years after first release, then sold to a nice small house (White Bird Publications) and re-published 1 year ago. Had it been published by a big house, the book might have been dead years ago, and not based on sales, but print runs. (It’s a complicated formula!)

So don’t sell the small presses short.  Often, they’re a much better option for any author, even those with many books to their resume.  The point is to find your audience, and often that isn’t in the mega-sea!

Structure And The Novel: 4 Steps To A Bang-Up Opening Line

So okay, we talked in overview about structure and the novel in a previous post, so now let’s dive in.  And where to begin but at the very beginning of your novel.

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This sounds easy enough, no?  You have written your tome, whether from outline or discovery, and are now ready to dive into revisions. So, what should the opening of your novel accomplish?

If anything has to be perfect, this is it.  This is the first thing an agent, editor, and reader will see, so you have to hook them from the get-go.  Lose them there, and you’re done.  We used to call this the first fifty pages.  Noah Lukeman  has distilled it down to the First Five Pages , which is much more accurate.

Because, agents used to say they’d look at those first fifty pages and of course, if they didn’t find something compelling on page one (and then page two, and some would give you until page five), they stopped. But the harsh reality is, they look at the very beginning and decide.

So, let’s focus on the first line.

Throughout your book, you have a reader to entertain, no matter through which venue you publish.  Readers are a bit more forgiving than agents and editors (the jaded section among us :).  But readers are savvy folk.  They gravitate to individual tastes, specific genres, and are used to getting their fixes right off the bat.

So, what exactly does that first sentence need to do?

First and foremost, you must grab your reader.  That opening sentence is paramount.  “It was a dark and stormy night” works if you’re Snoopy (and already have a huge readership!), but for the rest of us, our best work needs to be spit shined to open.  Think of the great opening lines of novels you’ve loved.  While It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” may seem pretty outdated today, still, you remember it (even though the actual sentence goes on for a long paragraph).

When all else fails . . . “Call me Ishmael”  

What I often see—literally—are novels that open with “It was a Saturday night in the city.”   Or, “Thelma Sue was the youngest child of Peter and Marsha Smith, and she grew up in Pittsburgh in a yada yada yada.”  By then, you’re already zoned out.  And what follows is a laundry list of familial characters and their histories and traits (but we’ll get to the body of the beginning chapter in another post. Right now, let’s stick with our opening sentence).

Okay, so you’ve written a four-hundred-page masterpiece.  How on God’s green earth do you distill all of that down to a bang-up opening line?

Ask yourself these four questions:

1). What is your novel about in its essence?  Tell me that in one sentence.  (You won’t use this as your opening line, but the gist will come into play.)  For example:

“You better not never tell nobody but God.  It’d kill your mammy.” 

2). What is the overall tone?  Is it poignant?  Funny?  Darkly serious?  Romantic?  We want the first line to reflect that tone:

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” 

3). Who is the main character?  What is his outlook on life?  We want that reflected here as well:

“Gestures are all I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.”   

4). And last but by no means least, who is your audience?  How is that audience intended to relate to this main character or the broad scope of your opus?  Take that into big consideration.  I know, I know—we all write for ourselves.  But we’re hoping to take others along for the ride as well!

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Finally, you can spend as much time fashioning the perfect opening line for your novel as you do in polishing the rest of the book. Goes with the territory.  So, unless you nailed it right off the bat, find your opening line once you’re finished with the entire novel.  Much of the time it will spring into your consciousness unabated as you go through revisions, like a linebacker who by the fourth quarter has found his shot to the quarterback.

So now, go bang out the best opening line in the world, and convince me to read your novel!

Book Publishing Is Changing Right Now Before Our Eyes

The times they aren’t a changin’ in publishing—they already did. We all know the statistics.  We’ve seen the monster of e-books and self-pub avenues emerge.  Even though e-book sales have been down the last year, they’ve been down from the  stratospheric heights to which they’d flown.

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Publishing’s Changing Times

Folks are blogging all over the place about what this means, and while that’s the topic for another discussion, what does it mean to you, the writer?

Years ago, one of my writers decided to make his book available through Kindle. To his surprise, in a short time, he sold over 2000 downloads. With almost no promotion. Sound too good to be true? The reality is, he hit on a number of important cylinders, all at once.

Michael Marks’ book, Dominant Species, is Military Sci Fi. At a time when publishers (and therefore agents) were focused on Fantasy, Sci Fi, while not being ignored, was soft. Fantasy and Sci Fi sit on opposite sides of the teeter-totter; when one is up, the other is down. But that doesn’t mean readers have abandoned their first loves, and in this case, the demand for Sci Fi remains high to the reading public. It’s one of those odd conundrums in publishing, where what major houses are turning out is not the same as what readers want. (But don’t tell that to publishers—they’re all fixated on what is hot this second.)

Marks started with a great concept, and knows his stuff (he’s a Marine, and an avid Sci Fi fan). “Write what you know” remains a great axiom, no matter which genre is sizzling at the time. He had written—a lot—as well as reading a ton (axiom number 2). And last but absolutely not least, he dug in after being stunned by all the elements of great writing he didn’t know, learned his craft, revised, revised, revised (axiom number 3, with a bullet). The litany of reviews raves about the depth of characterization; about how intrinsically the writer put the reader in the scene.

Talk about making me smile! And as a good buddy of mine who’s a senior editor and vp at a major house is fond of saying, “Plot is important but without characters you care about, the best writing and plotting in the world ain’t gonna save your ass.”

As self-publishing has become the rage (due in large part to the fact that anyone, absolutely anyone, can now become a “published author” via inexpensive technology), agents, editors, and readers alike bemoan the dismal lack of quality in books. And while it’s true that so many are stringing together enough words for a book, spending one’s dollars on cover art and PR will only get you so far.

What has always been, and will come to the forefront again, is great writing. The cream does rise to the top. Readers aren’t stupid (you can’t imagine how many people grouse to me all the time that they can’t find a well-written book. But I can steer them to many). They want quality, in this vast sea of promoted schlock. They may be fooled once, but if so, won’t buy that writer’s books again—no matter in what format.

What sold my writer’s book is a great storyline, a wonderful plot, truly compelling characters, and a created experience that puts readers smack dab into the middle of it. In short, great writing.

And guess what?  Marks contacted me recently to say he’d sold a book to a traditional publisher.  Details to come.

As we go through these changing times, one thing remains constant. In the future, it’s the same thing that will cause readers to buy certain authors; that nebulous quality that puts some scribes above the rest:

It’s the writing. It’s the writing. It’s the writing.