Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Portrait(s) of a Writer

What my friends think I do:

What my mom thinks I do:
© Ivan Josifovic |

What my spouse thinks I do:

© Goran Kuzmanovski |

What my characters (if they were real) think I do:
© Irina Paraskevova |

What total strangers think I do:
© Stacy Barnett |

What my accountant thinks I do:

What my competitors think I do:
© Anatoly Tiplyashin |

What my publisher thinks I do:
© Ivonne Wierink |

What I think I do:

What I actually do:
Photo by Tom Devecseri
(Inspired by the FaceBook postings my friends keep putting up on various topics and professions.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The 4 (Sad But True) Stages of the Writer's Journey

The journey from idea to publication takes the writer through some strange and troubling times. At every turn the spectre of rejection appears, ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Still, we soldier on, marching to the beat of our own private drummers, dancing to the personalized theme songs only we can hear.

I present the following illustrations of the Writing Life:

The Newbie Writer

There is a moment -- a split second, perhaps -- when the "I Think I Want To Write a Book" bug has bitten us, but the bite has not yet become a raging, systemic infection. Before then, we could turn our back on the Creative Muse, walk away, and live a normal life. Afterward, however, we are never quite the same.

We discover that the wonderful way with words we always prided ourselves upon having is not nearly as prevalent as we had been led to believe. Words, those tiny little chunks of communication, suddenly cease to be our friends and declare endless coups on our creativity and our confidence.

 We've all been there at one time or another. The Newbie Writer looks much like this:

Sadly, after years of hard work, the scenario doesn't change all that much.

The Query Rejection

It's done! The magnum opus is finished! Edited! Polished! Vetted and gilded till it sparkles like a brooding vampire in the sun. It only took you a summer year decade to finish! The synopsis caused only fleeting thoughts of suicide and bouts of severe self-loathing. And the query, after 5 25 250 rewrites is as good as you can make it. So you send it out to 10 agents that you've cyberstalked researched.

Then you wait.

And wait.

Then, one day, it arrives:  The Form Rejection.
"Thank you for the opportunity to consider your work.  It isn't quite what we are looking for, and we do not feel strongly enough about your project to pursue it further."

It's the equivalent of this:

The Partial Manuscript Request / Rejection

Occasionally, the Law of Averages works in one's favor (much as the odd winning lottery ticket eventually occurs) and the Query gets past the Disco Ball of the Gatekeepers. Then the Powers that Be request a partial manuscript. Confetti flinging and mental bank account padding ensue, followed by an obsessive re-reading of the requested pages before sending them out, fingers crossed, praying to the publishing gods that THIS TIME someone will forget to say "No."

Time passes.

We start to think we've made it. Then, this:

... and the Broom of Doom sweeps away any thoughts we had of success.

Yet we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and live to query another day.

The Moment of Acceptance

It's here! We've finally made it! After years a lifetime of refusing to give up, the law of averages has finally tipped the scales in our favor! We haz acceptance! A bona fide publisher loves our work! Our book is going to be published, and we have the advance check to prove it!

This calls for a moment of private celebration:

Ah, but the celebration cannot last forever. No matter how old we are, the Muse is a harsh mistress. She demands our attention and respect. We cannot dance in the attics or rest on our laurels for very long. Time is fleeting, and there are books that still beg to be written...

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Quick Glossary of Literary Terms

Today's post comes courtesy of Lisa K., a member of my weekly Writing Practicum. Lisa is a teacher of children's and young adult literature at a branch campus of Western Michigan University. 

At a weekly meeting, one of our Practicum members asked Lisa for some basic notes on literary terms that she uses when she teaches her literature courses. She obliged with the following glossary of terms she uses in her lectures. With her permission, I'm sharing them here. They provide a good jumping-off point for understanding common vocabulary used in the "writing world."   

Allegory – When objects, persons, and actions in a piece of literature, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the literature itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy.

Ambiguity - A statement which can contain two or more meanings

Antagonist – the force that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. Does not have to be a single character or characters at all; it can be a force of nature, or circumstances beyond the protagonist's control.

Choose your words carefully...
Characterization -- The method a writer uses to develop a character. The method includes:
 (1) showing the character's appearance
 (2) displaying the character's actions
 (3) revealing the character's thoughts
 (4) letting the character speak, and 
 (5) getting the reactions of others.

Diction - An author's choice of words. Since words have specific meanings, and since one's choice of words can affect feelings, a writer's choice of words can have great impact in a literary work

Dramatic Monologue - the occurrence of a single speaker saying something to a silent reader.

Elements of Plot:
  Setting - Determines Time and Place.
  Rising Action - The part of a book which begins with the problem and sets the stage for the climax
  Climax - The turning point of the plot to which the rising action leads.
  Conflict – The struggle. (A good novel should have 3 out of the 4 conflicts if not all of them)
  1. Character against character
  2. Character against self
  3. Character against society
  4. Character against nature
 Falling Action - The series of events which take place after the climax.
 Resolution – Tying up loose ends of the plot.

Flat/Static Character – A character who has few character traits and does not have an emotional change in the story.

Flashback - Action that interrupts to show an event that happened at an earlier time which is necessary to better understanding.

Foreshadowing – The use of hints or clues to suggest what will happen later in the story.

Irony – The result of an action is the reverse of what the reader expected – 
  1. Dramatic irony - the reader knows something that the characters do not.
  2. Verbal irony - the contrast between the literal meaning of what is said and what is meant. A character may refer to a plan as brilliant, while actually meaning that (s)he thinks the plan is foolish

Metaphors – Direct comparisons made between characters and ideas.

Mood - The emotional attitude the author takes towards his/her subject. A work may contain a mood of horror, mystery, holiness, or childlike simplicity, to name a few, depending on the author's treatment of the work.

Personification -- Giving human qualities to animals or objects.

Point of View - Literature contains a character who is speaking either in the first person (telling things from his or her own perspective) or in the third person (telling things from the perspective of an onlooker). The perspective used is called the Point of View, and is referred to either as first person or third person

    If the speaker knows everything including the actions, motives, and thoughts of all the characters, the speaker is referred to as omniscient (all-knowing). 
    If the speaker is unable to know what is in any character's mind but his or her own, this is called limited omniscience.

Hero? Villain? Round or Flat? You make the call...
Protagonist – The hero or central character of a literary work. In accomplishing his or her objective, the protagonist is hindered by some opposing force either human, animal, or natural force (see "Antagonist").

Round Character - A character who has many character traits and undergoes a dramatic emotional change in the story.

Style - Several things enter into the style of a work: the author's use of figurative language, diction, sound effects and other literary devices.

Symbols – A device in literature where an object represents an idea.

Theme – An ingredient of a literary work which gives the work unity. The theme provides an answer to the question What is the work about?

Tone -- The attitude a writer takes toward a subject or character: e.g. serious, humorous, sarcastic, ironic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, solemn, objective.

Types of Narratives:
-       Nonfiction – All true
-       Historical fiction – true setting/time period but made up characters
-       Realistic fiction – characters and setting are easy to identify with; takes place in today’s society.
-       Fantasy fiction – one element is completely made up. Generally feature two worlds the author creates: Primary World = the realistic world// Secondary World = magic or a setting beyond our grasp.
-    Character driven -- The focus is on the character. Character's development and journey is the most important part of the story.
-    Plot driven -- The focus is on the story. Story's action is more important than character development.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

One Writer's Guide to Cheating Time

Often, I'll hear Writer Wannabes bemoan the fact that they have worked on a single project for years -- without completing it or anything else in that time.

A working writer must be able to do several things well. Many of those things relate to wordsmithing and craft. However, two critical non-Muse-related skills are the ability to multi-task and to finish something.

Juggling for Fun and Profit

The capacity to work on multiple projects at the same time is essential. On any given day, I'll work on several different projects in varying stages of completion.

The first thing in the morning is reserved for tying up any business-related loose ends that arose during the night while the Coffee Genie clears out the cobwebs in my brain.

Then, I'll work on drafting "creative stuff." Any time the words stick, rather than obsess over them, I'll take a break and do something else. If I just need a little down time, I'll do something short (blog and FaceBook updates fill the bill nicely). If I'm at a big inspirational block, I might shelve the creative writing and work on a chapter of a project that needs editing.

If the creative impulse starts to wane, I'll often switch gears and work on PR and marketing stuff for projects or for clients.

That's what works for me. An entirely different approach might work better for someone else. The point, however, is to KEEP GOING. A writer's job only starts with the blank page. It certainly doesn't end there. If the Muse is not responding, that doesn't mean that you can't have a productive day of writing.

Making the Most of Writing Time

A writer must be able to finish a project. This does not mean that any project will ever be perfect. It simply means that a project will be publishable.

And so, for what it's worth, I thought I'd share my Top 3 Time Cheats for Getting Stuff Done.

1. 15 Bite-Sized Pieces

I heard somewhere -- probably in a movie; almost certainly from a suspect source -- that the average book had 15 chapters. Regardless of the credibility of the information's origin, there is something to it.

Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" beat sheet has 15 beats to it. It is an excellent jumping-off place for outlining creative projects of all ilks -- from screenplays to books.

Even if not saving felines, an easy "time cheat" for not only getting started on a book project, but for creating a road map that helps ensure I finish the thing, is to make a 15-item list. Each item on the list gets a title that has something to do with the sequencing of the book. This list becomes a default Table of Contents.

Then, it's easy to take each of those 15 chapters and synopsize each chapter. I write in present tense, much as I would do for a non-fiction book proposal. In very little time, I end up with a workable game plan.

I'll add or subtract chapters later as necessary, when the project starts taking real shape.  In my experience, this works better than an outline. It's faster, too!

2. "Say It. Out Loud."

Edward's command to Bella in Twilight might not qualify as great dialogue but it makes for excellent Time Cheating advice.

No matter how fast I can type (Maybe around 80 words a minute. 100 on a really good day...), I can speak much more quickly. An inexpensive, recordable MP3 player / jump drive is the writer's Best Friend. So is the built-in MP3 player option on my cell phone. I think I talk to myself on my phone more than I talk to anyone else...

I dictate my thoughts as quickly as they come. Then, I just download the audio file and transcribe it. A cursory edit is inevitable during transcription and voila!, a workable first draft!

3. Do What Ya Gotta Do

Know what it will take to complete a project, then build the staircase that will take you there.

Don't focus on writing 15 chapters. Focus on identifying 15 story beats.

Then turn those 15 beats into a 15- chapter outline

Then focus on synopsizing those chapters.

Then give yourself a reasonable amount of time (one or two weeks, for instance) to write each chapter.

Write your deadlines on the calendar. ("March 1. 16: Chapter 1 drafted..."). Revise as necessary, but stick to your general schedule.

Keep the entire project at the same level of completion. In other words, don't edit your early chapters into oblivion and ignore the rest of the book. If at all possible: DO NOT EDIT until the rough draft is finished. Editing differs entirely from the creative process. Save the editor's hat to wear after the Muse has gone.

Remember: Progress, not perfection.

If you steadily continue working on each step, meeting each smaller goal that you have set for yourself, you'll finish the thing. And you'll still have time to live your life, to run your errands, and get groceries, and pick the kids up from school, and spend time with your honey, and practice the piccolo...

Life is too short to spend it wishing you had lived. Finding the time to write isn't something that will magically happen someday. If it's important, you'll find a way to cheat time now. There is no better time to get started.

Which reminds me... I think I hear my chapter outlines clamoring for attention!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Making the Most of Endorsements

To continue yesterday's musings on endorsements...

The endorsements people give you have many uses. But just because you have a testimonial doesn't mean that you must use it.

No Such Thing as a Bad Endorsement

I once worked on marketing a book. It's a good book -- worthwhile, well written, full of information, and written by an expert in the field. The author, however, had neglected to talk to friends and colleagues to obtain endorsements for the work. So I made it a priority to get some.

Don't allow personal reservations to
interfere with endorsements.
One of the first people I spoke to looked at the book and loved it. This person is also an expert in the field, with connections to several related professional organizations. Not only did he agree to give the book a glowing testimonial, but he enthusiastically recommended the book to his professional colleagues, who also liked it.

I thought this was a good thing. I still do. My take on it is -- anytime anyone says anything good about anything, it's cause for celebration. Ah, but the author had differing views.

The author expressed grave doubts about the belief system, the possible political agenda, and the overall weight that the various professional organizations in question carried. "We wouldn't want to mention an endorsement by one entity that could send the wrong message to potential buyers," was the rationale.

I, respectfully, fail to understand this train of thought. To illustrate, consider a work that focuses on solutions to social problems. If a conservative Christian group decides to adopt the project and offer an official endorsement -- great! That doesn't mean that the project wouldn't appeal equally to a left-leaning, ultra-liberal organization pushing for sweeping social change. It just means that perhaps you wouldn't use the conservatives' vote of confidence when marketing the project to the liberals.

The point is, collect endorsements. Get all the raves you can. If a group loves your work and wants to buy a ton of copies to distribute to its members, that's brilliant! It doesn't matter if you disagree with the group's politics, policies, or philosophy. It's an equal opportunity market. If people love your work, encourage them to give you an endorsement. Remember -- you don't have to use it. But it never hurts to have it.

The Endorsement At Work

When using endorsements and citing their sources, whenever possible, write in the present tense. That way, the project in question remains current, rather than historical.

You don't need a lot of testimonials to make endorsements work for you. All it takes to start out is one. Places where rave reviews are appropriate include:

* Your electronic signature. Add the best portions of the best endorsements to a short sentence about your latest work, and include it as part of your e-mail signature. Something like, Be sure to read My Latest Book, which the National Board of Book Readers deems "heartbreakingly good," and Bookworms Anonymous calls "an instant classic."

* Your website. If you have anything to offer, you should have a website. On the site, it is perfectly reasonable to include testimonials about you and your work.

* Your bio. Add a short section to your official bio for "What Others Have to Say." Include excerpts from your most ardent endorsements, and be sure to cite their sources. A short sentence that includes two- or three-word raves, like the one used on your electronic signature, can also be added to online bios and profiles.

* Marketing information. Liberally sprinkling excerpts from testimonials throughout your marketing materials can create powerful purchasing motivation to prospective clients. Endorsements show that you have a cache of people who are on board with you. They can help nearly any marketing campaign come alive.

* The project itself. By all means, include rave reviews directly on the product packaging whenever possible.

* On-line review boards. If an endorsement is particularly good, you might want to ask the person who gave it to you to post it online. Such reviews are often subject to a certain degree of suspicion, however. In most online forums, including, it's easy to write bad reviews that trash your competitors' work. It's also easy to write what you wish someone would say about your own, and then ask friends or employees to post them as if they were bona-fide reviews. Still, if someone has something good to say about you, posting it as a review can be an effective way to generate online interest.

* Business cards. A sampling of the brightest and best excerpts can add instant credibility.

You get the picture. Pick and choose the testimonials that pack the biggest punch for a particular audience. As better and better reviews come in, don't hesitate to use them in lieu of earlier endorsements.

A Word About Restraint

Though endorsements are a great way to tell people that others like your work, one place I see them overused is on Twitter. You may be tempted to tweet: "Another 5* review about #MyFabulousBook. Buy it here: #ebook #99cents #IHaveNoShame."

If you must tweet ads like this, please do so sparingly. No more than once a week. Really, once a lifetime is quite enough, IMO. Twitter is a place for you to engage your readers, to develop relationships with them, and to be so brilliant that they want to read more of your stuff. It's not a venue for the hard-sell or the shameless self-promotion.

The Final Word:

The over-arching purpose of endorsements is to let people know that others value your work. Whenever people are willing to say they believe a project of yours has merit, you owe it to them to help get the word out!

What ways have you used endorsements to get the word out about your projects? I encourage you to share them below.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Eliciting Enviable Endorsements

The endorsement is one of the best marketing strategies available. It's free. It's heartfelt. It's persuasive. It's believable. It lends itself to a multitude of uses. And all too often, it's overlooked or underused.

An Endorsement by Any Other Name

Endorsements... Testimonials... Praise... Rave reviews... All mean the same thing: someone other than a family member or an employee said something nice about you or your work.

A strong endorsement can do amazing things:

* It can introduce complete strangers to your work and make them feel like they know you.
* It can say things that you can't. (If you say you're great, you appear egotistical. If someone else says you're great, that just means you're competent and noteworthy.)
* It can be the "little voice" that encourages someone to open up your book instead of putting it back on the shelf.

Testimonials appeal to our mob mentality. A few raves on the back of a book mean that more than one person liked it enough to put his name on it. We read them and think, "Look at all those recommendations. I'll give it a shot." We're always looking for a good read. And the human psyche hates to stand alone -- prefering instead to jump on a good bandwagon.

Another reason for endorsements' effectiveness is the fact that they're voluntary. They aren't paid advertisements, so they often seem more credible than a straightforward ad for a product or service.

Just Say "Please"

So how does one go about getting an endorsement for a book, product, or service?

It's easy: Ask.

[CAVEAT: Before asking, first make sure that the thing you want endorsed is good. You are asking people to put their name, their seal of approval, and their reputation on the line for you. Many, if not most, people are happy to do so -- provided that the thing they're endorsing is worthy of their praise.]

Once you have something that you are proud of, however, don't hesitate to ask for testimonials. Your reviewers don't have to be famous or even experts.

Want proof? Look at the reviews on Amazon, IMDb, or Goodreads. Good, bad, or indifferent, the comments from the "Average Joes" carry at least as much weight as the official editorial reviews. (Unfortunately, this isn't always a good thing. More on that tomorrow...)

3 Steps to Getting Great Endorsements

1.) Talk to people you know, people whose opinions you value, and people who are leaders in your field. Ask them if they would be willing to review your work and provide a testimonial if they like it.

2.) Send complimentary copies to those who agree to offer an opinion. Include a thank-you note with your e-mail address and a reminder -- something like,
Thank you so much for your interest in this project. Please accept this copy with my compliments. If you like it, would you take a moment to jot down a short testimonial at your earliest opportunity? I would love to hear your thoughts on the work.
3.) If someone does not respond, a follow-up reminder a month or so later is appropriate. After that, if you still receive no response, stop. Don't nag. Instead, move on and ask for others' opinions.

Some people advocate writing up a sample endorsement and offering it as a suggestion. The rationale for doing so, they say, is that people are pressed for time and will often just sign off on a pre-written testimonial.

The best endorsements are free.
This may be true, but I'm not very good at bragging. In my experience, any testimonial I might think of writing about myself or my work pales in comparison to what someone else says.

Collecting Kudos

When someone gives you an endorsement, immediately send a warm and sincere Thank You. Be willing to return the favor at some point -- and say so.

Collect as many endorsements as possible. You don't have to use them all. But it will never hurt to have them.

As the testimonials for your work begin to accrue, start using them in your promotions. Tune in tomorrow for suggestions of making the most of your reviews.

Do you have other suggestions for getting great endorsements? Share them below!