Friday, March 30, 2012

Q & A With Debut Author Julianne Snow

MuseInks welcomes Julianne Snow, zombie expert, whose new book Days With the Undead has recently been released by Sirens Call Publications. Julianne graciously answered my questions about her creative process, what she learned on the road to publication, and offers her top 5 tips for surviving a Zombie uprising...

Q: You wrote throughout Junior High and High School, but stopped writing for a long time after a teacher suggested you were better suited for other things. What happened to make you rediscover your love for writing?

A: I got sick and found that I could no longer escape into the worlds that others were creating for me. Losing that outlet and having to live in my own head for quite some time brought all of the worlds and stories that I had succeeded in suppressing bubbling back up to the surface.

Throughout my illness, I formed the backbones to characters and plot lines and once I could see my computer screen again, there was no holding me back.

Q: What is your writing process? Describe an ideal writing day.

A: My ideal writing day would consist of me getting in the groove. Some days I hit it and some days I don’t. It’s that flow of words that come out of your effortlessly where each sentence makes the same sense that it did in your head. I’m a very easily distracted person so I need to space where I can shut out the world. I turn my cell phone alerts off and grab my iPod and let the words take me away.

Q: What is the most difficult thing about writing and preparing a book for publication? What did you learn this time around that you'll apply to your next book?

A: I think it’s the editing process. Each word that you write is yours. You don’t want to cut them – you wrote them therefore they must be important. I’ve learned the lesson that sometimes, less is more. Sure, I could spend three paragraphs telling you all about lemonade but what difference does lemonade make in a story about the Undead? It’s better to save those words for a time when they are needed and will offer the biggest bang for their weight.

Q: Your book began as a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project. How does the finished version differ from the NaNoWriMo book? What sorts of edits, expansions, or alterations have occurred along the way?

A: My vision started to return a few days prior to NaNoWriMo 2010 (it wasn’t until January 2011 that I really started to notice that I had regained a significant portion of my sight). I still couldn’t see more than 10% in any direction from my central frame of reference but I sat down and let the story pour out of me. I had been developing it in my head, along with a few other novels that I want to write, so once I was able to see enough of the computer screen to type, it took shape and a life of its own.

The finished version is not necessarily longer - though technically it is - but there was a lot that I cut out of the first draft and then more that I added in for the third draft. The alterations have mainly been to take out the accessory fluff that didn’t serve a purpose to the story while the additions enhance the final product.

Q: Your first book, Days with the Undead, has just been published by Sirens Call Publications. What was your road like to finding a publisher?

A: I sent my manuscript out to Sirens Call Publications first since I knew one of their founders was an avid follower on my blog. After doing a little research and talking to them about their approach, I knew that I wanted to work with them.

Given the fact that all of the founders are also indie writers, they knew what I was facing in wanting to publish my first book and were willing to put the weight of their collective talents behind both it and me.  They offer a wealth of information that they are willing to impart, and that made me feel good about publishing with them. Knowledge is a heady commodity in this industry, and the team over at SCP has it in spades!

Q: So, you're a Zombie expert! What are your top tips for surviving a Zombie uprising? What 5 things should be in everyone's survival bag & why?

A: My top five tips for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse are: 1.) don’t wait once it all goes down, 2.) avoid the Undead at all costs, 3.) observe them whenever you can and never assume that they will do what you think they will do, 4.) keep moving, 5.) don’t dismiss the power of your own two feet for traveling, and 6.) remember that not everyone is going to be your friend. Okay, that’s six, but they are all important.

What are the five things that everyone should have in their survival bag? Duct tape, waterproof matches, bottled water or something to boil water in for purification, protein bars, and a weapon of some sort (you need to choose what will work best for you).

Q: What 3 books do you consider essential Zombie-genre reading? Why?

A: 1. The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks – not only is it a guide to help you survive but it contains a great story as well.

2. Herbert West – Reanimator by HP Lovecraft – it’s a classic and helped me to develop such a love of the genre that anyone that holds a special place in their hearts for Zombies should give it a read.

3. Monster Island by David Wellington – it’s a fantastic read and a concept that is so fresh you feel like you’re reading more than a Zombie tale.

Q: How involved are you in the marketing plans for your new book? What advice would you give to a new author about marketing and promotion?

A: Absolutely involved, which is just how I wanted it to be. The best thing that I can say is to find a way to promote your book and be yourself about it. Don’t just tweet links to your book and ask people to buy it – find a way to draw them in and make them want to read it.

Another big thing is to support the community that you are a part of; read other Indie authors and take the time to review their books once you’ve read them.

Q: What will be your next project? What can readers and fans expect from your next book?

A: My next book will likely be the second book in the series – I have so much more to explore in the world that I have created so it’s going to be a project that I will be working on for some time. The next book will continue right where the first book left off and let me tell you, there are some crazy things afoot.

I do have plans to write other books and I’m always submitting short stories to anthologies so you will be seeing more of me. Writing is my passion and now that I have reclaimed it for my own, I’m not about to let it go.


It was watching Romero's Night of the Living Dead at the tender age of six that solidified Julianne Snow’s respect of the Undead. Since that day, she has been preparing herself for the (inevitable) Zombie Apocalypse. While classically trained in all of the ways to defend herself, she took up writing in order to process the desire she now covets; to bestow a second and final death upon the Undead. 

As the only girl growing up in a family with four children in the Canadian countryside, Julianne needed some form of escape. Her choice was the imaginations of others which only fostered the vibrancy of her own.

Days with the Undead: Book One is her first full-length book, the basis of which can be found in her popular web serial of the same name. You can find Julianne’s The Living Dead of Penderghast Manor in the anthology Women of the Living Dead and stories in upcoming anthologies called Childhood Nightmares: Under The Bed and Twisted Realities: Of Myth and Monstrosity from Sirens Call Publications.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Words You Need To Hear (If You Wonder Whether You Have What it Takes to Be a Writer)

NOTE: You may not need to read this post today. You may not need to read it tomorrow. But if you're a writer, especially one still looking for his or her first byline, you will need to read it at some point.

One day you're going to get a rejection that stings, or see a less talented rival's name on the bestseller lists, or hear "it's just not right for us" one too many times in a week, and you're going to wonder-- "Is this writing thing really for me?"

That will be the time to go back into your bookmarks and find this post. It will be here, ready and waiting for you, with words -- honest words that even your mother might not tell you -- that you really need to hear.

From the in-box:

"I think it is that time where I do a life eval again.  Hate those.  So anyway, I was browsing the new releases aisle at my local ma and pop book shop (favorite place to be as it is an old timey joint with no caffeine and the actual smell of books to it.  Love it) and was reading a few dust jackets.  Aside from the fact that I can't believe the drivel being printed, I noticed a frightening mass of books in my genre and style of writing.  Makes me wonder how well my book (should it ever be printed) is going to fare.  

"Not only that,  but I've been chatting around my hook line [of current project] just to see how it would be received.  That's not going so well either.  My friends "get" the concept. Yet there was little excitement on the idea.  That gave me pause.  Was it a dud?  To date, I have written five duds. Five!! 

"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt"
"Regardless of all this, I know I can write.  I finally figured out my voice and how I like to move my stories.  I have the plot for [current project] mapped out with a shocking twist that even surprised me at the brilliance of it. However, I don't want to fall in love and get my heart broken yet again and again and again.  

"Did you know: all of my writer friends (7 total) have been picked up by agents? Six have publication dates and 1 with a deal on the table.  I've been at this for four years and I still can't take my books past a partial or a full request and a boat load of rejections. Makes me wonder. What is in my writing that I am missing?

"I've met a lot of amazing and creative folks. Maybe I'm not one of them and ya know what?  I'm becoming okay with that..."

This is the second time in as many weeks that a writer wanted me to comment about the "dud-ness" of his or her book. I responded to both writers in the same way. Then I thought I'd share my thoughts on dud books & determining the merits of a project with other writers who might have the same questions but were afraid to articulate them to anyone but themselves.

Wonder if your book is worthwhile? Here's how to tell:
Live! L-I-V-E!

The only one who can determine whether or not a book is a "dud" is you. Not the public. Not the editor. Not the publisher. Not the readers. If you love it and are willing to fight for it, rewrite it to within an inch of your life, polish it till it gleams like chrome, and promote the heck out of it when it's finally in print, then it's not a dud. If you're not willing to do those things, then it's dead as soon as you drop it.

See, IMO, the writer provides the book's heart, spirit, brain, and soul. The author is responsible for the book's very existence. The author is the one who conceived it, carried it through to completion, wrestled it into reality, and unleashed it on the world. If, at any time, the writer turns her attentions to a different creative project or outlet, the book's development stops. It literally requires the writer to enervate it and breathe life into it.

Dud or bestseller? Some see dead fish. Some see tasty trout.
Asking whether or not a book is a dud is like asking if one's child is a dud. There are many, many, many books out there that I, personally, would have considered "duds" long before they got published. ("Twilight," for instance. "50 Shades of Grey." Anything by Nicholas Sparks. ::shudder::) Those books don't speak to me. Regardless of the stories they have to tell, IMO, they're so poorly written, with such cardboard characters, and so reliant upon emotion rather than reason, that they could all benefit from a major edit & rewrite. Which certainly hasn't stopped them from being wordwide bestsellers. Their "dud-ness" is not up for debate, because their writers loved them enough to keep pushing them out into the world.

I hate to tell ya, sweetie, but you WILL fall in love and get your heart broken again. It's going to happen. Also, you can't judge your writing merits (or the lack thereof) against your agented, published friends. That would be like judging your worth as a woman by whether or not you have a husband. Or children. It's a dangerous, slippery slope of self-loathing. And it's bullpuckey. So what if your writer friends have agents? So what if they have multi-book deals, and movie deals, and are being feted by press and public alike? They aren't you. They haven't written the books you've written. Their success has nothing to do with your lack thereof. You are just on a different rung of the same ladder.

Lots of good, if not great, authors are out of print. (For a fascinating look at the vagaries of the publishing world, watch the documentary "The Stone Reader" some time. Eye opening on many levels.) Lots of crap, no-talent writers get published. The question is not one of "dud-ness," but one of diligence.

Keep on keeping on. If I'd given up after 4 years of not being published, I'd still be unpublished.
Turning 30 was extremely hard for me. I wasn't published & felt that life just wasn't going according to my plan. In hindsight, I see now, that it was probably all for the best. If I'd have experienced early success, I might have thought that it was because of something *I* did. I might not realize how fickle the industry is and might not be willing to work with struggling writers now -- something I really love to do.

Early success doesn't mean your book is great.
Just as lack of success doesn't mean it sucks.
Lots of writers who experience early success think they are Hot Shit on a Silver Platter when, really, their easy accolades rapidly render them merely cold turds on a paper plate.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: All books have merit, as long as their writers remain passionate about them. Just because your book isn't ready to shop around yet doesn't mean it's a lost cause. If you are tired of working on it and never want to see it again, that ultimately renders "unsavable" because it will have lost its champion before it was ready to be cut loose.

What's missing in your writing? Difficult to say. Chances are, if there's something really missing in your mastery of craft, you know what it is. You know if you have trouble with dialogue, or grammar, or character. You know in your heart of hearts if your plotting is predictable or your pacing flat. You owe it to yourself and your future readers to work at improving your craft. But even before you fill in all the missing pieces, you can find publishing success.

Mastery of writing is a process -- a lifelong love affair with words. It is a thing quite apart from finding a willing publisher or a rabid readership. One does not necessarily lead to the other. The common thread that unites your craft and your commercial success is your passion. As long as you have that, your words will live.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

3 Writing "Cheats" for Making Dialogue Work Harder & Ring True

Fight Club. Ghostwriting.
The same rules apply.
The first rule of ghostwriting for a client is: You Don't Talk About Ghostwriting for The Client.

But in order for the first rule to have any teeth, the second rule of ghostwriting must apply. To wit: What You Ghost Must Sound Like The Client, Not Like You.

If you screw up the second rule, the first rule is moot. For a crash course in writing words that ring with a distinctive voice other than your own, ghost a book or two. You'll find the experience invaluable when crafting dialogue for your characters.

If ghosting isn't your thing, however, here are three simple "cheats" to pull from your Writer's Toolbox to craft dialogue that rings true:

1.) What's In a Name  One of the most common (and most glaring) errors in dialogue has to do with how often one character calls another by name. Often, writers will have characters shamelessly name-drop as a way of telling the reader who someone is. But if a character does something in the story strictly for the reader's benefit, then the motivation for that action is false.

In real life, people call each other by name quite infrequently -- except for small children, for whom every other word is "Mom!" When we do use another's name, we apply specific societal rules and rarely stray from them. These same rules also apply to our writing, if we want it to sound authentic.

2-Day Cheat / Fix:  Make a mental note (or keep a physical list) of how many times in a day someone addresses you by name. Every time it happens, write down who said it, what they called you (1st name, last name, whole name, nickname), and the context.

THEN, on a different day, make a mental note (or list, same as before) of how many times YOU address another person by name. Again, every time you do so, write down what you called them, the context, and how well you know this person. Use this research to inform your use of name-calling & name-dropping in your dialogue.

2. Character Dictates Dialogue If a character is fully formed, then every word that character utters is molded by who he (or she) is. The story does not dictate dialogue. Nor does the plot. While it's true that the things said must convey necessary information, the manner in which that information is delivered depends entirely upon who is doing the talking.

Since the writer provides the original voice for every character, often the characters all end up sounding the same.  Sometimes, in an effort to create a notably different voice for a character, a writer will veer sharply off the beaten path and careen wildly down a two-track of stereotypes and cliches. Neither scenario makes for great reading.

Trait Cheat / Fix:  Once the rough draft is finished, choose a minor character. Write out 5 or 6 character traits that define that person. Include his or her flaws as well as strengths. For instance, you might have something that looks like this:

Character D Traits:
  • Egotistical
  • Forthright / Blunt
  • Honest
  • Highly Educated (Graduate Degree)
  • Family Man
(NOTE: A character's description is not a character trait. His or her attractiveness, for example, has nothing to do with his or her character. Beautiful people can be vain, insecure, confident, or awkward. Beauty is a physical attribute. Focus on character.)

Then, look at every scene that features that character. Identify what the character does to move the scene forward. Articulate the character's relationship to everyone in the scene. Make sure both the plotting and the story happen the way you want.

Once you are happy with the story aspect of the scene, look ONLY at this particular character's lines. Rewrite as needed so that every sentence the character utters evidences at least 1 of his or her traits.

To use the hypothetical character example from above:
  • If you have an egotistical character, he might begin a lot of sentences with "I," "my," or "me." 
  • If he's blunt, he's going to be like a bull in a china shop with privileged information. 
  • If he's honest, you can use this knowledge on your reader's part to add subtext to every verbal exchange. 
  • If he's educated, his sentence structure, vocabulary, and syntax are going to be fairly sophisticated. 
  • And if he's a family man, he may try to temper his blunt honesty or vocabulary when there are children, ladies, or his wife present.
This is an excellent exercise to do with every character. It ensures that everyone has his or her own unique, consistent voice. It also helps ensure that you're not relying on dialogue to power your story.

Apply the Trait Cheat to some of the lesser characters before using it on any of the more important players. The reason is two-fold.
1.) You'll quickly get into the rhythm of looking only for a character's lines & revamping them for distinction. Might as well practice on the smaller characters before tackling the big ones. 
2.) After you've done the lesser characters, you'll have given the main characters "real" people to interact with, which will make your wrestling with the main characters' dialogue much easier. 
3. Ask a Stupid Question  A common problem that plagues unrealistic dialogue is the occurrence of tit-for-tat Q & A. Two characters will have a conversation. Person A asks a question. Person B answers it. Person A asks another. Person B replies. Like this:
"How did you get here?" Aaron asked.
"Hopped a train in Portland. I'm starving. Got anything to eat?" said Blake. 
"In the fridge. Help yourself. Did anyone see you?"
Blake shrugged. "Thought I had a tail, but I lost them in St. Louis."
condolences-millie"But this is important information," the writer argues. While that may or may not be true, the reality is that such neatly-tied-with-a-bow exchanges rarely happen IRL. When they happen in print, they sound canned.

In real life, people generally have a Conversation Agenda. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to get his or her point across. Plots tend to be fairly linear. Conversations, however, rarely are. They are messy, sloppy things, fraught with interruptions and tangents.

Eavesdropping Cheat / Fix

Hang out at a coffee shop, bar, or restaurant. Shamelessly eavesdrop on conversations within earshot. If you feel so inclined, record portions on an MP3 player / phone app & transcribe them verbatim later.

Pay attention to things like unfinished sentences, topic branches, and unanswered questions. Identify underlying subtext in the exchanges. Also note character types like Conversation Manipulators, Capitulators, and Whiners. 

These are just three of the myriad ways to make what your characters say more meaningful, realistic, and readable. Do you have a favorite "Dialogue Cheat" that I didn't mention? Spill below...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I'm Not Famous: I'm Working

"I keep forgetting that you're famous," a friend said recently, causing me to do a combination coffee-spew / snort laugh that made random passersby look askance at us.

"I'm not," I said. "But my clients are."

If you're reading this blog because you labor under the misconception that you're reading the words of a famous author, I am humbly sorry to disabuse you of that notion. You obviously have me mistaken for someone else.

I wish I could give credit where it's due.
Sadly, I don't know who took this,
but I love them for it!
I am patently not famous. I pump my own gas. Get my own groceries. Muck my own stalls. Clean Move the clutter around in my own house. Anyone who recognizes my name does so only because they have read some of my clients' books.

It's true, I have been chased followed into the restroom after speaking at writer's conferences, but this is generally from a misunderstanding on the part of the stalker attendee who thinks that I am going to stop all biological functions for the duration of the conference. That doesn't mean I'm famous. It merely means some people have serious boundary issues.

Crime writer & actress Marguerite Ashton kindly featured me on her Criminal Lines blog recently. There I spilled about how I got my first book gig by nearly killing someone (not a method I would endorse, but it worked for me).

Fortunately, no other writing projects have involved life-threatening instances, though I did write a book once while in the midst of a "Your husband has a brain tumor and needs brain surgery, that's why he has no short-term memory, forgot he had a daughter, and thinks aliens are attacking the planet" crisis. When you're under contract, you can't let little things like medical malfunctions get in the way.

I'm not famous. I'm something far, far better for a writer: I'm working.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

4 Quick-Fix Ways to Improve Your Novel's Opening: Right Now

I've recently consulted with several writers who are hoping to make their current Work in Progress the one that gets them noticed, agented, paid, and published.

We paid specific attention to their opening chapters and put each writer's first page under a magnifying glass. Too many of them had forgotten the writer's First Page Imperative. To wit:

Get the reader to turn the first page.

If the reader doesn't turn that first page, he or she certainly won't turn any other. However, once the reader has turned page one, he or she has entered into a tacit agreement with the writer, saying, in essence, "I've chosen to enter your book. I'll keep going as long as you make it worth my while."

"You have my undivided attention!"
I contend that it's much easier to keep a reader reading than to get one to make that 1st page commitment.

We pulled out our Writer's Craft Toolboxes and got to work. In a very short time, we all felt that their openings had improved tremendously. Some of the things these writers did that might be of benefit to your novel as well:

1.) Start with something worth reading.

You may love your story, your to-die-for characters, and your fabulous, fabulous plot. But if all the Good Stuff happens "later," the reader will never know how brilliant you are.

Beware of beginning with Life As Usual. If your opening chapter includes any of the following, be sure you have a heckuva good reason for inflicting mundanity upon your hapless readers:
  • Hearing the alarm clock. Waking up. Getting out of bed. 
  • Eating breakfast / lunch / dinner.
  • Going to work. Commuting. Riding the train / bus / elevator.
  • Getting dressed.
  • Looking at / noticing / commenting upon the scenery.
  • Looking at / noticing / commenting upon the weather.
Quick Fix: If you have begun with Life As Usual, as an exercise, identify the place where your story starts. (This may be quite different from where you've begun your story.)  Cut out everything before the story's start. Wait until the final edit to see if you need to replace any of what you've cut.

2.) Start with someone worth remembering.

If your book were made into a movie, would an A-list actor be interested in playing your main character in his or her introductory scene? If so, why? Be able to articulate what makes that character someone your reader should spend the next few hours of life with. If not... roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Quick Fix:  You probably have a whole list of character traits that define your main character and make him or her fascinating to you. Choose one defining trait and make it shine when introducing the character to your reader. Since you've already put your character in a situation that's interesting (see #1), his or her reaction to that situation should entice the reader to come along for the ride.

3.) Show me something I've never seen before.

"But my book doesn't open with either my main character or a major plot point."

Ok. Maybe. There are no hard and fast rules. Perhaps you have a goooood reason for starting with bit players who operate outside the Big Story. You still have only one page to convince your reader to take that leap of faith and turn the page.

Quick Fix I: Read your first 500 words (1st 2 pages) out loud. Mark with an asterisk (or some other equally-strangely-named Annotative Mark) every intriguing or unique thing in those pages that specifically relates to the genre in which you are writing. If your book is a comedy, mark the funny bits that you've never seen anywhere before. If you're writing a mystery, identify each element that anchors it as a mystery in the reader's mind and does so in a new, unusual way.

Quick Fix II: Re-read the 1st 500 words out loud. Underline everything in those words that you have seen done before. Be honest. Be relentless. Then go back and rewrite everything underlined in such a way that it merits an asterisk. Tell yourself if you can't rework it into something intriguing, unique, and original, then it has to go. Make your words fight for the privilege of staying.

These are just 4 of the many possible ways to enervate and energize your novel's opening pages. What are your favorite Quick-Fixes for making your beginnings POP?