Category Archives: Writing

Writing Creative Nonfiction

In my prior life as a university English professor, all I did was nonfiction writing. I taught it. I wrote it. I lived it. And I discovered something in the process: there is a strong tendency to want to divorce creativity from nonfiction writing. When you take a “creative writing” class in school, no one teaches you about crafting an essay or a research paper. You learn to write poetry and fiction. You learn about descriptive writing and crafting compelling characters. Unfortunately, I’ve never yet come across a creative writing class that focuses on the elegance of the written medium: crafting compelling sentence constructions, learning to manipulate the music of the language to delight your reader…even if you’re writing about astrophysics or remodeling your bathroom. I’m a huge believer in the power and beauty of language. And learning to appreciate and use this tool is truly “creative writing”.

The Beauty of Order

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When we’re organizing our table of contents, we don’t often stop to consider that we’re creating something beautiful. But just as there is beauty in the structure of a snowflake and elegance in the symmetry of a flower’s petals, there is beauty and elegance in the logical ordering of a topic. Headings, subheadings, topics, subtopics, indices, appendices…all of these contribute to the order of a work. For nonfiction, the topic determines the ordering techniques. A work of literary criticism won’t have the same structure as a DIY handbook of home repairs, but both will have structure. As you determine how best to organize your work, do it with intention. Is a topical grouping approach best for your topic, or does it require a more architectural approach, with each chapter building on the last? Your book’s structure is integral to the work as a whole, much like the skeleton is integral to the human body. A badly structured book is not likely to be successful, because, ultimately, it won’t be understandable. So consider carefully how to lay out your project, and don’t be afraid to rearrange things in the editing phase if the structure doesn’t flow.

Order operates on both a macro level — the table of contents — and a micro level — the ordering of words and sentences and paragraphs. Both are critically important to the success of your project, and both are opportunities for you to be “creative” in your use of your tool (language).

The Elegance of Prose

Yes, fiction is also prose. And it’s helpful to remember that! Just because you are writing about the works of Mary Shelley or the physics of motion doesn’t mean that you have to avoid figurative or descriptive language. But it does mean that your language needs to suit your topic. Elegance and beauty in language can come in many different forms. Language doesn’t have to be ornate and flowery and full of metaphors and descriptors to be lovely. There is beauty in simplicity and clarity too.

Know your topic, and know your audience’s expectations. If you’re writing a serious medical text, humor probably doesn’t have a place. But a book on dieting for mass consumption might call for a dash of humor to lighten up the topic. (Did you notice the food and diet imagery in that sentence? Don’t be afraid to have fun every once in a while! It’s good to make your readers smile.) Proportion is key: too much play with your subject can become tedious, so use it judiciously.

Delighting your reader is one of the best ways to keep them returning to you and your writing. No matter what you write, you will develop a unique style that sets your treatment apart from other books on the same subject. Your style is what keeps your audience coming back. Your readers learn to identify your name not only with a certain unique approach to the subject matter, but also with a mode of expression. The way you use humor, the way you break complex ideas into digestible pieces, the way your sentences flow, the vocabulary you use…all of these contribute to your unique treatment. It’s not too much to say that your style is part of your brand, and it carries through everything you write, whether it’s on your blog or in your latest book. So pay close attention to the way you craft your prose — it will become a hallmark of your work.

Elements of Nonfiction Style

As you work on your project and consider your style and approach and presentation, pay special attention to these four areas: diction (word choice), sentence structure, syntactical order, and sentence length. Let’s work through a short example so you can see how powerful tweaks to these elements can be, and how “creative” writing can make an enormous difference in your nonfiction project.

Version 1 (rough draft)

Getting a baby to sleep through the night is a task most parents dread. Sleep training methods seem either harsh (letting a baby cry it out until she falls asleep or the timer goes off) or too time-consuming (some gentle sleep training methods take weeks, if not months, to get results). Parents may feel added pressure from grandparents or friends to “do something” about their baby’s sleep habits. Adding this to exhaustion makes for a desperate situation. 

Not bad, but not great. It’s a bit of a yawner. The audience for this piece is clearly exhausted parents who are confused about the best way to help their baby sleep. They’re a bit desperate and strung out, and they may be feeling sensitive or even defensive about the decision they need to make. So let’s try livening this up by addressing the four elements I list above.

Version 2

Whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” never had kids. Helping a baby learn to sleep on her own is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, not least because of the dizzying array of sleep training methods out there today. Should exhausted parents set the timer for their baby and just walk away, fighting down tears as their baby wails in her crib alone? Or should they invest weeks — or even months — in a gentle method that may not provide a solution soon enough? And in our social media culture, grandma isn’t the only one sharing her opinion — everyone has something to say about the decision. It’s almost too much for the sleep deprived mind to process.

What do you think? It’s more fun and more relevant, and the flow is much better. There’s a bit of humor in there as well, because this is an emotionally charged topic for many parents, and a smile can cut through some of that frustration.

We could continue to tweak this passage, but I think you get the picture. Creativity isn’t just for fiction writers, so add facets to your work until your gem of  a project truly sparkles. Fascinating, creative, and well-organized writing will keep your readers coming back for more! 

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Vivid vs. Violet Verbiage — The Vivid

Now that we’ve cleared up the meaning of purple prose, I can talk a little bit about what makes great prose so beautifully vivid.

Please note that, for all I’m warning you to avoid the overly-ostentatious verbiage, I’m not recommending reducing your vocabulary to the grade-school level.  No, your writing should always bring some challenge to the reader — it should expand their horizons, imaginative, philosophical, and intellectual.

Now, what makes prose beautiful?  Quite simply, it is using good words well.  Besides all the things we’ve talked about elsewhere (rhythm, cadence, sound), it is fundamentally about using the right words at the right time.  For instance, both “foggy” and “murky” can describe an obscured environment, but they convey this sense in two totally different ways.  Foggy has a more pleasant connotation, whereas murky suggests latent evil and mystery.

Likewise, “gloomy” and “murky” both have dark connotations, but in different ways.  Gloomy has a feeling of something sad, repressed, weighted down, rather passively bringing people in that environment into the same sort of state.  Murky almost feels more actively evil…something that tries to entangle hapless travelers in confusion and danger.  (It is not for no reason that Tolkien called the dark, sinister version of the Greenwood “Mirkwood.”)

All right.  So, we know that we need to use the right word for the job, and to construct our sentences carefully, descriptively, and rhythmically.  But what else?  Is there anything else?

I’ve read some great fiction where the writers used clear, expressive prose.  Sentences flowed with no jarring rhythmical errors, scenes came to life with bright and lush description…. And that was fine.  I love those books.  They are beautiful, well-written, and have their own flair of poetry and lyrical merit.

Lately I’ve discovered something else, though — a new way to bring life to prose.  I first noticed it in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races.  Some people may think she went overboard on her metaphorical prowess, but simply the fact of what she did made me completely reevaluate how I thought about “poetic” prose.

For instance, in The Raven Boys, she talks about how Ronan “dissolved what was left of his heart in electronic loops.”  This simple sentence is sheer. utter. genius.  Just look at how much she conveys, how vividly she conveys it, in so few words.  The dissolving suggests just how loud the music is playing.  Instead of telling us exactly that Ronan is listening to techno or electronica, she suggests it through “electronic loops.”  And the best part of all is that she says “what was left of his heart” instead of “his heart” which in just a few words clues the reader into a hugely important aspect of this kid’s character.

So what exactly did Stiefvater do?  She used fairly typical language — but in remarkably unexpected ways.  I remember in The Scorpio Races she talked about bicycles “bucking off” their riders, or how someone’s breath is “dark, the underside of the sea.”  For one thing, we don’t usually think of someone’s breath being “dark”…but what a vivid picture that paints!  And describing it as the “underside of the sea” links the character to the wild, mysterious, and deadly sea.  She employs a metaphor without ever using “like” or “as”, but in a way, the comparison is even stronger.

I have to credit Stiefvater for opening my eyes to a whole new way of understanding vivid language.  It invokes a fresh and almost…skewed…way of looking at reality, in the sense that you’re still examining reality, but not straight-on as most people do.  You look for connections that you never knew existed.  When you make a comparison or a metaphor, you avoid the old cliched tropes, the old standbys, the familiar similarities.  You look for the unexpected, the startling, the “why didn’t I ever think of that” connections — and I don’t mean you’re trying to shock or appall your reader.  You’re trying to delight by making them see the world in a new way.

For instance, say you wanted to describe your character running away as fast as possible.  You could say, “Anna bolted, fast as a rabbit.”  Yawn.  Everyone knows rabbits are fast.  Everyone knows that when you want to describe something as fast, you use a rabbit.  Booooring.  Well, what if you said, “Anna bolted, quick as fear.”  Huhhh???  Suddenly that invokes whole new vistas of meaning.  Not only is there the suggestion that Anna is running because she’s terrified, but it also makes you think about what fear is like, maybe in a way you’ve never thought of before.  In other words — you think about the thing being described as well as the thing used to make the description.

Sometimes even inverting a description can be a fun way to convey an idea.  For instance, going back to the fear idea, we all know how “fear runs like ice through her veins.”  But what if you read, “a chill inched through her veins like fear.”  Nice.  Or, similarly, “shame rushed like blood to my cheeks.”  We all know that blood does rush to your cheeks when you’re ashamed or embarrassed, but really, you don’t feel the blood so much as the shame.  It’s a quirky way of making you think twice about how you understand both shame and blushing.

Another way of spicing up the prose is to use a metaphor which itself contrasts two things that are either vastly different in character, or vastly different in degree.  For instance, in Prism I describe a conflict between two characters as being “like watching a fight between lions or gods.”  On the one hand, I suggest the rather raw, animal anger driving them — something not human, but in a sub-human way (though the lion image is intentionally used to convey something awesome and majestic, as well as terrifying).  But on the other hand, they are compared to gods, suggesting something so high above ordinary human experience that it’s almost incomprehensible — something also not human, but in that lofty, super-human sort of way.  In both cases, you get a sense of the utter foreignness of their conflict, but in two opposite ways.  They are both these things, and yet at the same time we know that they’re just two men.

Using language like this can really add another dimension to your prose.  It’s not necessary to do it all the time (and some readers might not like it), but when you do, using language in new and unexpected ways can really delight and tantalize your reader.

Notice that, even while the descriptions are unexpected, they don’t pull you out of the fictional world the way purple prose does.  I’d almost argue that it weaves you into the world of imagination tighter than ever.  The experience of reading a book like that — for me — is so…wildly alive that I don’t want to leave.  Especially if the descriptions really do a good job of matching the narrating character’s voice.  That’s hugely important — but the topic for another post.

Finally, notice that in these few examples I’ve given, no huge long multisyllabic words were used that required the venerable Oxford English Dictionary to decipher.  You can create beautiful, vivid, unbelievably poetic prose with ordinary (though not necessarily simple) words.  In a sense the most important skill it requires is not a vast vocabulary, but an ability to see the world in an excitingly fresh way.  Give it a shot.  I bet you’ll find that it makes you a better writer — even if you don’t use these metaphoric techniques often — simply because it broadens your vision and view of reality.


Vivid vs. Violet Verbiage — The Violet

As S.K. noted in her last blog post…it’s been a crazy end to the old year and an even crazier start to the new year for us around here.  Apologies for being MIA…

At any rate, today I want to talk about something I’ve said I want to talk about many times in the past — the habit of writing vivid prose.  Now, to approach this topic properly, we first need to distinguish vivid prose from amethystine cabochons of literary splendor.  Yes.  We want to know what makes prose purple, and what makes it perfect.

So, in this post, I will give a brief overview of purpleness in prose.  Next time I’ll talk about real ways to bring your prose to life.

Purple prose, in case you aren’t quite clear on the meaning, is the habit of emblazoning the folia of your illustrious manuscript with ostentatious expressions of literary genius.  I.e., it means overwriting everything.  It means looking up every adjective, every verb, every noun in the thesaurus and pinpointing the one that sounds the most snobbishly pretentious and erudite, on the assumption that it will make your prose more “sophisticated.”  It doesn’t.  It makes it sound ridiculous.

Besides, you run the risk of using a word that has entirely the wrong meaning for what you’re trying to convey — but because it’s listed as a synonym for the word you should have used, you assumed it has the same connotation.  It may not.  And someone who actually knows the meaning of the word is just going to laugh at you for being a rube.  Sorry, but it’s the cold hard truth.

Imagine that I wanted to describe a character as chubby.  So I look up “chubby” in the thesaurus and go through and…hmm, brawny is a great word!  Yes, it’s listed as a synonym with chubby under the word, “fleshy.”  So, without doing a double-check on my chosen word, I plop it into my sentence: “The brawny little woman with small round eyes…”  Um.  No.  That would not be the image I’m trying to convey.

Besides the risk of sounding like an idiot, purple prose can actually defeat the purpose of good writing.  I read a story once where the author used that word I used earlier — cabochon — to describe tears.  Okay, is cabochon a good word in a sense to describe a teardrop?  Maybe, in this way: a cabochon is a gemstone that has been polished into a smooth shape, rather than being faceted.  Okay, a teardrop isn’t exactly faceted, so, yeah.  Technically, you could describe a teardrop as a cabochon.  Now, does that make it good fiction writing?

No.

Why not?  Well, when you’re writing about a deep emotion, like grief or mourning, over-describing can actually work against you.  It puts up barriers between the reader and the character.  It makes the reader pay attention to the prose, rather than what the prose is saying.  So, instead of feeling the character’s grief, the reader sits back and wonders, “What the heck is a cabochon?”  NOT the effect you want.

Purple prose is notorious for distancing the reader from the story.  Using a great vocabulary is one thing.  Using inappropriately grandiose vocabulary is something else entirely.

One final note.  A writer might think purple prose makes them sound smart, but readers are actually quite adept at detecting pseudo-intellectual fluff.  They can smell purple prose a mile away.  If they get even the slightest whiff of a sense that you’re using words you don’t really understand just to make your prose sound loftier, you will not see the end of their ridicule.

Writers ye be warned.


The Lords of Askalon…Now Available!!!

It’s finally here, everyone!  So excited to announce the release of The Lords of Askalon, Book II in the Silesia Trilogy!  The ebook is available today on Smashwords!  The Kindle version should be out tomorrow and the paperback will follow shortly!

A few words of thanks are in order…

To my amazing husband and kids for being so enthusiastic and supportive of this project!

To J. Leigh Bralick, my SisterMuse, my beta reader, and my cover designer!  You are a treasure…and it is so much fun to collaborate with you!

To my parents, who always encouraged me to meet any challenge with chin up and a smile…thank you for giving me the confidence to follow my dreams!

And finally…a huge thank you to all my readers and fans who have waited so patiently!

The Lords of Askalon


How to Make a Book Trailer

As promised, here’s my post on how to make a book trailer!  I hope you’ve had a chance to view my Lords of Askalon trailer on the SisterMuses YouTube channel, but if not, here it is again…


So, now that you’ve finished watching it, I’ll explain how I put this trailer together so you can make one for your own project.  It was so much fun to do – and if you hit a writing roadblock or mental wall, doing something that uses a different part of the creative brain can be very helpful!

I followed just eight simple steps to put this together.  And be aware that steps 2-4 may happen in a different order than that in which I present them here – I just set things out this way for clarity.  But we all know that a creative endeavor is very rarely a linear process!

1. Fire up your movie making software.

I used Windows Live Movie Maker.  If you have a Mac, just use the equivalent movie producing software.

You’ll notice that you have a lot of different options – different fades or animations, different visual effects, adjusting the time allotted for each frame, etc.  Take a few moments to orient yourself to the software if you’ve never used it before.  We’ll come back to these in a later step, once you actually have content.

2. Decide on the feel (mood) you want for your trailer.

There are a couple of factors to consider in this step:

  • the mood of your story: tragic, heroic, contemplative, etc.
  • the angle of your pitch to your audience (what do you want to highlight about your story?)

Why is this step critical?  You have to identify the mood to be able to choose the right…you guessed it…mood music.  And mood images, for that matter.  So really do take some time to think about this.  In my case, Lords of Askalon is a high-action novel, but there is a significant contemplative thread woven into the story.  I really wanted to emphasize both of these, and that helped me to choose the right music.

3. Consider how to present your novel in images.

Now that you’ve decided on a mood for your trailer, you can start thinking about the visuals.  Consider your story in terms of its high points.  Try to identify the most significant plot points, twists, or turning points.   Consider also the key moments for your main character.  I suggest using the third approach, because a good story will be both plot and character driven.

For a two-minute trailer, 10 images is really the maximum you can include and still give each image justice.  You could certainly do fewer than 10, with more time spent on each frame.  So now that you have a general idea what plot or character points you want to use to convey your story, start searching for some images.

I used Foter for my image search.  Foter is a huge collection of free, royalty-free stock images.  These images are licensed under the Creative Commons license and you can download as many as you like.  Let me just offer a few words of advice:

  • DO look at the permissions given for each image.  There are different levels of licenses under the Creative Commons umbrella.  The most liberal of these is the attribution-only license (indicated by the letters CC-BY).  All that’s required here is that you acknowledge the artist – I do this in a credits page at the end of the trailer.
  • It’s probably safest to look for images that offer a commercial license.  There’s not a great deal of explanation on what constitutes commercial and non-commercial usage.  You could probably make the case that you’re not charging for the book trailer, so that’s non-commerical use, but you are promoting something you hope people will buy…so…to be prudent, you might just want to go with images that have commercial permissions.

You can also look at Flickr for Creative Commons images and browse by license type if you want, but Foter brings together Creative Commons images from a number of sources, including Flickr.

Look for high-impact, high quality images that convey both the mood and the moments of your story.  And sometimes you have to do a lot of searching to find the right images!  This step can take some time, so be patient.

4. Add your text.

This shouldn’t be too hard to do once you find your images.  And it is a fantastic exercise in high-impact language.  I tried to use powerful, mood-based words (i.e., “crouches”) as I presented the story.  You don’t need to get into insane detail – in fact, that’s really impossible.  Remember, you want to give your reader a glimpse of the story on the levels of mood and plot.  Tweak, tweak, and tweak some more until you get just the right flavor!

5. Add your music.

Finding free music is much trickier than finding free images.  You can find stock music in many different places, but if you want to make a trailer for free, your options are limited.  I found my track at Royalty Free Kings.  They had several tracks available for free – most of them pared down slightly from the full version.  They have a lot of music available for purchase as well.

Moby (yes, the band) has a free music section of their website for music that they wrote for film.  You just need to sign up and then you can browse and download what you like for your project.

You can Google “royalty free music” for some other options as well.  Freestockmusic.com has some free cinematic music, for instance.  AudioMicro also offers film music, but I didn’t find anything free when I hopped over to check it out quickly just now.

6. Play around with the effects.

Now that you have your pictures, text, and music, you can play around with the different tools and effects to finalize your project.  Make sure you have your credits pages (photos and music) and a link to your website at the end so people can navigate to find your work!

7. Beta test your trailer!

Try to have a few kind friends view your trailer and give you feedback before you offer it for general consumption.  I subjected my husband and my kids to my trailer (more times than they’d like to count, actually), and made J. Leigh and our mom watch it too!  They all gave me valuable feedback.  When you beta test, ask your viewers if

  • it made a strong impression on them
  • they enjoyed it
  • it made them want to read your book
  • if there is anything they would change to improve points 1-3

Tweak your trailer if necessary.

8. Publish!

You’re ready to post your video!  Set up a YouTube channel for yourself, post it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, your website/blog, Pinterest, reading boards like Goodreads and Shelfari…everywhere you have an online presence!

That’s it, folks!  I hope you have as much fun putting your trailers together as I did!  And please come back and post a link to your trailer in the comments section so we can all see what you’ve put together!

Happy directing!!!

SK


Lords of Askalon Book Trailer

I’m so excited to share this with you!  Here is the book trailer for The Lords of Askalon!  Tomorrow, I’ll be doing a step-by-step tutorial on how to create a book trailer like this for your own work!

Enjoy!


Editing Focus 4: Syllabic Editing

Okay.  So.  Long overdue editing blog post: check.

This is the last Editing Focus blog post we’ll have for our Fall Blog Fest…so…hope you enjoy it!  It’s my personal favorite, as far as annoying things like editing are concerned.  😉

Syllabic editing isn’t something you’ll hear talked about a whole lot.  I first heard about it from the amazing writer/teacher/mentor Dave Farland, who has really taught me so much about the business and the…well, business…of writing.

So what is syllabic editing?  It sounds mystical and amazing, so what exactly does it involve?

Quite simply, it’s listening.  I’m not trying to be flippant.  Writing is an oral and an aural art.  Most of us, when we read, do at least some amount of subvocalization.  We listen to stories as we read them, even if we’re not reading them out loud.  But more than that, we notice things like rhythm and cadence and musicality — it’s just our nature.  Our brains are designed for that.  Just think about how most storytelling has been done throughout human history.  It was an oral art before it ever got written down.  Language is meant to be spoken.  And it’s meant to be beautiful.

When we look at syllabic editing, we’re actually focused on a couple of things.  One is flow, and one is conciseness and focus — on the level of the sentence, not on the level of the story.  I’ll look at the conciseness issue first.

Here we’re actually looking at the sentence and saying, “Am I conveying this idea as clearly as I can in as few words as I can?”  Now, this doesn’t mean we have to strip our style down to postmodern minimalism or anything, unless that is — God help you — your true style.  I’m also not saying you should excise every single adverb or adjective.  But it does mean you can get rid of useless words that tend to clutter up the stream, like little dams that choke up and bog down the story as you try to drift through it.

For instance, if you have two characters in conversation, you don’t need to say: “Bob smiled at Anna.”  You can just say, “Bob smiled,” unless it’s absolutely crucial to the story that the reader knows he’s smiling at Anna — for instance, if Bob has a phobia of smiling at people but for some reason smiles at Anna just now.  You see.  Cutting out those two words is a syllabic cut.  You’re trimming down the number of syllables so that what is conveyed is what is most important.

I think a lot of this kind of editing comes from accommodating editors/publishers who insist on a certain word count for submissions.  So, if Publisher Bob only accepts manuscripts up to 100K words and your masterpiece is 110K words, well, you need to find 10K useless words to scratch.  But even if you’re self-publishing, you should go through your manuscript with the same brutality….err…..care.  Set yourself a word limit and then find all the places where you can cut.

Limits are a lot like deadlines.  They can be incredibly powerful motivators.  And the best thing is, the tighter your manuscript is, the better it is.  Always.  Trust me.  You might make a macro cut — like excising a whole scene — that you later regret, but I’ve never come across a situation where I regretted cutting out “at Anna.”

Now, the other part of syllabic editing — and the part I think is the most interesting — is what gives that first part a positive quality, so that you’re “adding by subtracting,” as they say, and not just subtracting.  In other words, you want your prose not only to get from Point A to Point B in the most concise way possible (for your particular style/tone), but also to get there as effortlessly as possible.  And I mean effortless on the part of the reader.  A well-made movie doesn’t draw attention to itself on a mechanical level, but lets you simply live the story.  Likewise, a good novel should sweep the reader along without giving them any reason to stop and say, “Wait, why did he write that sentence like that?”

So, look.  The goal of syllabic editing is not to go from, “Bob wandered in meandering lines through the cool autumn mist with a slow, steady stride, drinking in the intoxicating scent of coming snow in the wind” to “Bob walked home through the mist.  It smelled like snow.”  Fewer syllables, yes.  Better writing?  No.  Now, “Bob wandering through the cool autumn mist, etc.” is not really good writing either.  It’s actually kind of awful.  But to correct it, you want to listen to the way the sounds fall on your inner ear, and go from there.  Test out your potential revisions.  Taste them.  Roll the syllables around on your tongue, and find the one that packs the biggest punch.

My Bob sentence above has a major problem.  It stutters and gasps and falls on its face.  My mental tongue trips over the syllables.  The words don’t sound right to me.  Reading them makes me wince and take out my mental red pen.  So how would I fix it?  Well, for one thing, watching out for prepositional phrases is usually a good place to start.  If you’ve got a sentence that strings together more than two prepositional phrases in a row, or maybe three at the most, you should look at restructuring the sentence.  “Should” pretty much meaning “must” in this scenario.

So.

Bob wandered in meandering lines…

Okay.  I don’t need to put the “meandering lines” bit in there.  It’s superfluous.  I already know he’s wandering, which suggests he’s not walking with a definite purpose.  So, SLASH. Continue reading


How to Listen to Your Beta Reader

Both J. Leigh and I have had two insanely busy weeks — doesn’t that always seem to happen right in the middle of huge and important projects?  And it’s obvious that I “missed” my self-imposed publication deadline of October 4 for the release of Lords of Askalon.  Part of that is life getting busy — and it’s a luxury (and a curse) of being self-published that you set your own publication schedule.  But the real reason why I put off releasing the book is that I took the time to listen — really listen — to J. Leigh, my beta reader.

But what does that mean, exactly — listening to your beta reader?  Doesn’t it mean just approving all those deletions and additions in Word’s track changes feature?

No.

Don’t get me wrong.  Track changes is fabulous for collaborative work like this.  And for incorporating line edits, it can save a lot of time and trouble.  But you don’t just give your beta reader carte blanche to rewrite your manuscript.  Instead, you need to internalize the criticism and use it to make your story better.  Let’s look at how this could play out, using Dr. Banner/the Hulk from the movie The Avengers (disclaimer: this is purely a thought exercise):

BR: I really want to see the Hulk become more thoughtful as the story progresses.  He should start moving from “Smash everything because it’s there” to “Smash the enemy because I recognize they’re my enemy” by the end of the film, because otherwise he’s just not very sympathetic or heroic.

Writer: Ah, I see your point.  Hmm.  I know!  If the first time the Hulk becomes the Hulk it’s purely a response to stimuli — uncontrolled and destructive and scary — and then later Dr. Banner chooses to become the Hulk to help his friends, that might convey this change in his character.  That means I need to rework this first scene a bit…and really need to highlight the shift in this later scene…and…

Edits like these are macro edits, and they take more time to “fix” than word changes or tense agreement fixes.  You have to take what your beta reader tells you — i.e., the Hulk (even for a big guy) is flat unless we have him develop as a character — and figure out what needs tweaking to make your story really successful and satisfying.

Remember, one of the most important things your beta reader does is to go through your manuscript like a reader.  You want your story to be satisfying to your readers.  If your character has hit a developmental plateau that’s becoming endless and therefore boring and unsatisfying, you want your beta reader to convey this to you.  If your plot has a massive hole in it, thus making the story boring and unsatisfying, you want your beta reader to say so.  And then you need to listen!   Don’t say, “That’s hooey.  My story is perfect just the way it is.  You’re wrong.  I’m right.”

If criticism of your work makes you cringe and feel ill and strikes at the very core of your being, then you’re in the wrong business.  And if you can’t take the criticism of your beta reader, then don’t even consider actually publishing your work for the public.  Take criticism as an opportunity to improve, not as a personal slight.

So, really maximize the usefulness of having a beta reader by discussing his thoughts on your work.  How did this scene work?  Could this other plot arc be a problem?  Was this shift in character convincing?  Is the ending a total flop?  Is the climax intense enough?  Don’t just cut and paste his line edits into your “finished” manuscript.  If you’ve gone through the trouble of asking for a beta read, then make it count.  Take your story from “just okay” to “awesome” by listening to what your reader tells you and considering how best to adjust.

Your readers will thank you for it.


September Blog Fest: Preparing to Publish

J. Leigh got us started with a bang yesterday with her fantastically funny (but sadly all-too-accurate) post on creating a YA cover for your novel.  If you haven’t read it yet, do.  Hopefully it will make you smile!

All this month, J. Leigh and I will be writing about the process of getting your manuscript ready for publication.  If you’re planning to self-publish, you won’t want to miss this series! And even if you’re planning to work with a traditional publisher, you’ll find lots of useful tidbits here on finalizing, editing, and reviewing your manuscript.

This week, we’ll talk about putting those finishing touches on your manuscript: editing techniques that will save you time and sanity, avoiding common editing pitfalls, and perfecting your prose.

Next week, we’ll focus on the pesky but necessary process of formatting your manuscript for both print and ebook editions.  Choosing a font type, setting the margins, and placing your page numbers may seem like insignificant details, but managing the visual appeal of your book is hugely important, especially for print.  We’ll also offer helpful tips for navigating the KDP and Smashwords formatting processes, which can be frustrating in the extreme the first time through.  Finally, we’ll address the review process: how to ensure that your print proof copy is gorgeous and error-free and that your ebook is digital perfection.

And then the grand finale…J. Leigh’s real post on book cover design!  We’ll also talk strategies for writing great back copy and for putting your best face forward (literally) with your author bio and photo.

Editing, formatting, and packaging…it’s the nitty-gritty of our writing profession, but that doesn’t mean it has to be  drudgery!  We’re planning some fun contests to liven up each week’s focus…can’t wait!

And last but not least…  We love all our readers, and we’re hoping to hit 200 blog followers this month!  So exciting!!!  You can help us by spreading the word and bringing a friend!  🙂

Happy writing!

SK


How to make a YA book cover in 4 easy steps!

Okay guys, this is totally a spoof entry.  But after seeing about 10 YA PNR books in a row that looked like near-identical copies of each other, I decided to tell you how you, too, can create a bestselling YA book cover!

Step 1

Find a great background.   This should preferably be something gothic or haunting.  I chose this photo of my own that I snapped up in Maine a few winters ago.

Nice Background

Step 2

Find a nice photo of a girl wearing a prom dress.  The more risqué, flowy and colorful this is, the better.  And be careful about the model you choose — she has to look steamy, pouty, angsty, tragic, or terrified.  OR, as an alternative, you can choose a back-view photo of said girl.  Oh, more requirements.  She must be Caucasian, stick-skinny but well-endowed, with long hair that is preferably blowing in the wind.

Here is my girl, courtesy of eidress.com, situated nicely against my background.  Don’t worry about silly things like lighting or perspective.  That’s not all that important.

The requisite prom dress photo

Step 3

Now at this point, you can add a title and call it quits, OR, even better, you can add in a photo of a shirtless hunky young man, looking as angsty and pouty as the girl.  While the girl must be in a prom dress, the guy must look as tattered and scruffy as possible.  He should be posed behind the girl.

I found my young man at Shutterstock, hence the watermark I left visible to show where I got it.

Shirtless Hunk – check!

Step 4

Now all you have to do is select a title.  This should be a single word, and it should be edgy, angsty, unexpected, or obsolete.  Opening a thesaurus at random and selecting the most pompous word you can find on the page is a good trick.  Or choose from a list of women’s perfume names.  The title should be written in as dramatically flowy a font as possible, or something hard, cracked, edgy and unexpected.

I think Flux is a pretty fantastic word, so that’s my title.

Voila!

And there you have it!  😉

Hope you enjoyed this very tongue-in-cheek post.  (N.B. — NO.  No. No. No.  I am NOT writing a YA PNR titled Flux.  Just no.  Hence why I did not put my own name on this…..thing.;)