Tag Archives: writing

The Plot Thickens . . .


I did a signing Thursday at Westwood Library, which is featured in Sneak Thief. Cover-beagle Julia’s pawtographs were a big hit. I had to go sit next to her just to get my picture taken. You can see her to the left, mugging for the pup-erazzi. You’d never know it was her debut, she was such a diva.

JuliatheDivaMe, I had to spend 30 minutes talking about myself without looking like an egomaniac. I had to answer questions. Sound like I know what I’m doing.

Claudia, who is currently co-writing her first novel, asked me what the hardest thing was about writing. I said, “Plotting. Knowing what happens next.” I gave a little advice, signed some books, and went out for fish and shrimp tacos, satisfied with a job well done.

I woke up in the middle of the night with one thought in my head: “I left stuff out of my answer to Claudia.” I know Claudia’s book will be great without my help, but I feel compelled to flesh out my advice anyway.

This advice is not for outliners. Outliners are an alien life form, and nothing I say has any relevance for them, just like oxygen has no relevance to the natives of the methane planet Golgaranth. I’m what you call a semi-pantser. I start with a few key concepts and toss them like salad to see what happens. I have a couple of scenes that I know will take place. I keep a vague idea of the next few chapters and the end game in mind, then I dive in.

I discover the story through writing it.

It Starts With Concept:

Write the Book You Want to Read Think of all the books you love, then think of everything that’s wrong with each one of them. If you’re a true writer you love books, but always leave them with a “yeah, but . . .” or “If I wrote that I would’ve . . .” (Except Harper Lee. There is nothing you can do to improve To Kill A Mockingbird. The book lives to taunt the rest of us.) Take all your “would’ves” and “yeah buts” and “I wish someone woulds” and toss them together. What do you come up with?

Trash Your First Idea  It’s almost always the most obvious one. If you thought of it so easily, then so did your readers. So twist it, make it do back flips, turn it inside out. Know your genre well enough that you can make your reader think you are being obvious, and use that to lead them merrily down a garden path. Deliver the goods when they are most complacent.

Do What Doesn’t Bore You If you’re not having fun, it’s likely that your readers won’t, either. Have a love/hate relationship with Mr. Darcy? Spice it up. Toss in zombies. Yes, That’s a real thing. Look it up. While you’re at it, look up Dinosaur Porn. One caveat: while having fun is essential, never do so in a way that demeans your readers.

When You Don’t Know What Happens Next:

Take Role Call  Check in with all of your characters. What do they know and how are they reacting to events and revelations? Usually this is enough to shake things loose. Great books are character driven. While we want events to surprise our readers, they must make sense in relation to our characters.

Just Start Writing  Some of us channel our stories more than invent them. The right brain (where all your great ideas hide) doesn’t communicate directly with the left brain, but it sometimes comes out of your fingers as you are typing. Start with what you know and keep going. See what happens. I discover some of my best plot twists this way.

Amp It Up If the logical course of events is falling flat for you, consider exaggerating the situation to make it funnier, scarier, sexier. A monkey scratching his butt at the local convenience store is enough to make you laugh IRL, but on paper it’s pretty ho-hum. What if it’s eight monkeys loose in a bridal shop? Take your experiences and juice them till they grab you.

Don’t Know What Happens Next? Write What You DO Know  Skip ahead to that scene that you haven’t written because the story isn’t there yet. The one that’s half-fleshed out and teasing you with ideas. Go ahead. Just keep moving. You can always come back later.

If You Don’t Know How to Write it, Write it However You Can  You know what happens, but you can’t get a handle on how to write it. Just get it down any way you can, and move on. This is where you give yourself permission to write badly. Let it go. The back of your brain will work on the issue with out you banging your head against the wall. Inspiration will occur when you least expect it and you can rewrite it.

Take A Break  This one is dangerous, but sometimes necessary. I find that ideas flow more readily the more I write, and other authors I know feel the same way. Stopping when you are frustrated can lead to procrastination. So, take a break, but Make Sure You Come Back.

Must You Torture Your Characters? That’s the current advice. Torture them, then torture them more. Never give them a break. “Readers LOVE it.” This one doesn’t.

It might work for one novel, but today the market is in series and character identification. If you never give your characters a break, if they never have any fun times, then what’s the point?

I gave up one best-selling author last year. Every time his MC talked to someone, they died. After the fifth body, I was done. I gave up another the year before. In twenty books, you never saw her MC having a pleasant, loving, fun time with those closest to her. Instead, she opens book 21 with a rant about her main supporting character. Really? In twenty years, you haven’t figured out how to get along with this guy? You keep him around and bitch about him? Shoot me, NOW. Halfway through the second page, I was out of there.

If All Else Fails:

Ask Your Sister Or someone you love and trust like a sister. Bounce your ideas off someone who’s smart. They don’t have to be a writer. They just have to enjoy a good story.

The Best Advice You’ll Get for The Rest of Your Life

We were having a discussion about writer’s block. One of us was stuck on a book and considering setting it aside to pursue another project, a topic which always elicits a wide range of conflicting responses.


Then Russell Blake weighed in on the topic. I have to stop and say that Russell Blake weighs in like the 800 pound gorilla. He’s very successful (and getting more so by the day. Just ask the Wall Street Journal, if you don’t believe me.), and despite having the most brutal schedule of anyone I know, he’s very generous with his advice. He’ll tell you exactly how he got to where he is. As long as you don’t mind being told the facts of life by an 800 pound gorilla.

I’ve learned to pay attention whenever he speaks. What follows is possibly the most empowering and useful bit of wisdom I’ve ever heard, and perfect for the new year.

This is what he said:

“Stay the course and force yourself to finish it. Sit down, take a deep breath, and change your mental attitude. Ask yourself what excites you about the sequel, and if the answer is nothing, ask yourself what could excite you about it. Then ask yourself how you can make writing the remaining pages the most exciting experience of your life. If you genuinely demand an answer out of your brain, it will give it to you. Ask good questions and you’ll get useful answers. ‘How can I be more excited about my words today than ever before, and how can I raise the bar on my writing to where I won’t believe I actually wrote that?’ will get you a way different answer than ‘why am I having to slog through this?’ Just saying. ‘How can I have real fun, fun I’d pay for, finishing this?’

“If you believe that at any time, you can change your outlook – that you, not your environment, or circumstances, or some external or internal deterministic stimuli, can decide to change whenever you want, it will completely change the rest of your life. It’s exhausting, because instead of being buffeted about by the winds of change, you’re responsible for your course, but in the end, it’s the only way to have the life you want. If you don’t control the things you can (given all the things you can’t), shame on you.

What you believe determines your motivation. The questions you ask yourself define your beliefs. ‘How can I be the most incredible force of nature ever seen’ will get a different answer than ‘how do I make it through today?’ Take responsibility for your future. Ask better questions. ‘How can I wake up every morning eager to write the best prose of my life?’ gets you a more useful answer than ‘How do I finish this damned thing I really don’t want to write?’ Grab the throttle and give it a twist. Your muse works for you – you don’t work for it.”

That hit me between the eyes. Then Jacques Antoine, another writer following the same conversation, gave me another “WOW” moment:

“The central insight you mentioned earlier is obviously true and strangely easy to overlook, namely that if you only ask yourself negative questions, you can only get negative answers. Turning that around and asking oneself a positive, challenging question is the only way to get a different result.

Why am I so excited? I spent more than a decade in the field of addictions counseling, working to help people “get out of the problem and into the solution,” a concept many have difficulty wrapping their head around. Russell’s advice not only makes this essential attitude shift accessible, it makes it fun.

Fun is important. Fun is motivating. Fun gives you lots of lovely brain chemicals that energize you and improve your mood. Make it fun and it’ll get done, I say. Engaging with life should be exciting, stimulating and, yes, fun. If it’s not, changing your attitude and assuming responsibility is your best strategy to fulfillment.

What questions are you going to ask yourself today?

Self Publishing: Cover Tips

In my last post, A Cover is Worth . . ., I talked about the importance of your book cover. In this post, I’ll share my tips for creating an effective cover.

Create one cover for all formats
Format your cover with enough pixels to meet the specs of all your publishing venues.

  • Smashwords and Apple require a minimum width of 1400 pixels, with the height greater than width.
  • ACX (Audible) requires a cover which is 2500 pixels, square.
  • Createspace requires 300 ppi.
  • KDP (Amazon) requires a minimum of 625 pixels wide and a minimum 1000pixels tall. Preferred dimensions are 1563 by 2500 and a height/width ratio of 1.6

Create a master cover file using a layer for each image and piece of text (in Photoshop, this is .psd), then tweak your .psd to fit different formats. I like a wrap-around cover for my paperbacks, so I start with that. I can crop out the front cover for eBooks. A wrap-around image also gives me the extra width for my audio cover. Another option is to use a front cover image that is 2500 pixels wide and crop the height for your audio cover.

Things to keep in mind:
Periodically scale your view down to the size of a postage stamp to see if your cover will pop in Amazon searches and “also boughts.” Is the title legible?

Research other covers in your genre. You want to stand out, but also follow genre conventions well enough that people will know what they’re getting.

Take your time. Look at your cover over a period of days. Today’s great idea may be tomorrow’s vomit-fest.

Your cover should reflect the mood of your book more than anything. Color is the most immediate signifier of mood. Think bright colors for fluff, pastels for romance, dark for thrillers, faded images for nostalgia.

Keep your fonts big, simple and bold.

Use the best art you can get for your cover, but don’t let it overwhelm the title and author. Don’t be afraid to overlap your image with text.

If you are using stock art, run a search on your image to see if it is overused. You may discover that it is associated with other products that would not reflect well on your book.

If you like a certain artist’s style, consider asking them about creating a custom image for your cover. It may cost less than you think.

Cover art does not need to be a literal illustration of your book, as long as it conveys an appropriate idea.

Red, yellow and orange on your cover will pop out and draw attention. A little will go a long way. Don’t overdo it!

You can use layer style settings to set off your text from your background. Subtle adjustments can make your text easier to read. Be careful about going overboard here, it can look gimmicky.

Self Publishing: A Cover Is Worth . . .

Last weekend I gave a talk about self-publishing at the Regional Gathering of the Cincinnati Mensa chapter, invited by John Cunningham (AKA “Terry Dunn”), my one-man street team. As I spent my odd moments over the past couple months compiling the distilled wisdom of my two years as a self-published author, it seems like a waste not to share this information here. This is the first in a series of blogs derived from that talk.

I couldn’t complete the title of this blog because I can’t quantify the value of a good cover. I won’t say that people buy books because of the cover (though some fans report buying my first book because of the fetching portrait of Max on the front), but the cover conveys the first impression of your book, and may be your only opportunity to grab someone’s attention.

The digital landscape that makes it possible for me to earn a living as a writer also changes the way books are viewed and bought.

At a brick and mortar store, you are given a limited number of options in your chosen genre and are likely to pull out several to flip through. Unless the publisher has paid for a front-facing display, your first contact with a book is via the title on the spine. A nice cover is an asset, but is not necessarily involved in the decision to pick up a book.

Compare this with your experience at an online book store. Whether you browse categories or search keywords, you are confronted with a glut of postage stamp sized images accompanied by text. The image that catches your eye first has the best chance of being clicked. That takes you to a product page, away from the other books.

You have 1/2 second to grab someone’s attention with your cover. If you succeed with this, you have two to four sentences to keep it with your blurb. If you succeed here, people will do one or several of the following things: Buy your book (Yay!); Skip to the “Look Inside,” where you have a page or so to sell them with your prose (or not); or check out your reviews (A portion of your product page over which you have no control).

Unless you have been referred to a specific book by some means, the entire process of selecting a book online begins with the cover. I have had one person argue that they pay no attention to covers. I would argue back, based on my background in the visual arts, that we are affected by visuals whether we are aware of it or not.

If you have to make a choice in where to invest hard cash in publishing your book, put it on the cover. Formatting can easily be done by anyone willing to read Mark Coker’s free style guide at Smashwords. As a writer, you likely know other writers you can trade with for beta-reading/proofing/editing. Unless you’ve got mad graphic skills, I suggest getting a pro cover.

Next: Tips for creating an effective cover.

Tempering Those Great Expectations

I was talking to Jessica today about everything I’ve been doing for the past week, preparing to launch Maximum Security – as I spoke, this familiar tide of excitement rose up in me along with visions resulting from the thought, “I could get a gazillion guests at my launch party, and . . . .”

And I squashed it. Like a cockroach.

Why? I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve only been writing for 3 years, but I’ve been painting for 40, and put on countless art exhibitions. I’ve learned one thing: God rains down sudden abundance on people like Colleen Hoover mostly to test the faith and commitment of everyone else (Okay, maybe Colleen being really talented and nice and totally awesome and deserving had a little, teeny bit to do with it).

My progress comes in inches and any big leap is followed by a setback. I feel like I’m doing the Cha-Cha-Cha. This is typical. Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, talks about the many obstacles he had to overcome to get the book published (144 rejections? A gross of rejections? Sheesh!) and then get it noticed.

The excitement I was talking about is that lottery ticket moment, when they call out the numbers and the first one matches your ticket. Then number two matches. All of a sudden, all things become possible and you feel like you might burst.

Then the third number doesn’t match.

When I buy lottery tickets, I put them in my wallet and forget about them until the next week. When it’s time to buy a new ticket, I pull out the old one and let the machine scan it. That way the anticipation is minimized and the let down is miniscule.

I try to approach launches the same way. Do the best I can to promote the book and don’t think about the results. Today it snuck up on me. Why did I squash it? It’s fun to think about having a runaway best seller and having the Big Six duking it out over you, and movie rights, and, and . . . .

Save your fantasies for your books. Fantasizing about personal success is like a drug. It sets you up for a crash when things don’t play out the way you imagined, and it keeps you from appreciating the results you do get. And like any drug, you always want more.

I read something many years ago that always stuck with me. You know how Van Halen (remember them?) got their record contract? One day this record producer (I think it was a record producer. It was someone important, anyway) wandered into an almost empty bar. There was this band playing their hearts out like they were in front of 1,000 people instead of 3. He knew right then and there that they were the real deal and he had to have them.

Imagine if the band had been focused on how they wanted a big crowd? Then nobody shows up and they get bummed, and their playing shows it, and the VIP isn’t impressed and heads out the door, leaving a half-full beer on the bar. Instead, they had an attitude that was something like, “Hey, this is so cool because we’re musicians and we’ve got a stage and we get to play music,and we love playing music.”

What if someone told them someone who could make their careers was in the audience? Ever blow something because you were putting too much importance on it? Ever focus so hard on winning big that you couldn’t enjoy what you were doing or the success you did have?

Remember Sarah Hughes? She won the Olympic Gold Medal in women’s figure skating the first time she competed. I’ll never forget her. Her performance was amazing. Why? Because she entered that competition in fourth place and thought she didn’t have a skating rink’s chance in you-know-where to win against her idols. She later said she decided to just appreciate skating in the Olympic finals and enjoy herself. I don’t think she was more talented than the other skaters. The three world-class veterans ahead of her were too grimly focused on winning. It showed in their tense and mistake-riddled performances. Sarah focused on skating and radiated pure joy during a perfect performance.

Pretending success isn’t important isn’t a tactic to get the money men knocking on your door. If Van Halen didn’t get the contract, if Sarah Hughes hadn’t won a medal, they would have still enjoyed that moment for all it was worth. It doesn’t hurt that being relaxed and in the moment is likely to result in better performance, and a better performance is more likely to attract attention.

Enjoy what you’re doing. Do the work, but focus on the process and leave the results to come as they will.

The Power of Good Enough

I’ve read amazing authors, from Ken Kesey and John Steinbeck to James Lee Burke and Harper Lee, whose perfect, seamless prose carried me away to those wonderful, far places where books transport us. I never imagined I could be one of them. They never inspired me to write.

My inspiration came from a very forgettable culinary mystery I got from the library. So forgettable that I can’t recall the name of the book or the author. I only remember reading it and (after I figured out who dun it and why, say a chapter in) thinking, “This got printed, and the library bought it. I could do w-a-a-a-y better than this.”

I thought about Tami Hoag, who started out writing mediocre romantic suspense and who now pens first-rate thrillers. I had a bit of a “Doh” moment. “Just because you start poorly doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. You can get better.”

These two instances gave me the courage to proceed when I dared myself to write a novel. They created a benchmark I could beat. “I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be better than that.That will be good enough.”

It got me through my first novel, which is now in the same library with the nameless culinary mystery.

It’s important to have such a benchmark when you’re writing a book because a book is never finished. You just stop tweaking it and decide to let it go. Painting doesn’t have the same problem. You can only paint so much before you ruin your work with over-painting. The skill in painting lies in learning to stop before you hit that mark. Not so with writing. You can revise until Judgement Day and beyond.

“Good enough” gets published. “Not perfect yet” grows old with you, never leaving home.

I’m in a dangerous place. I proved I could write an engaging novel with A Shot in the Bark. I proved it wasn’t a one-off with Drool Baby. Now I’m in the final hours with Maximum Security and I want to make it better than ever. I’m being lured by the idea of perfection on my nth pass, goaded by my editor’s challenges to my creative genius suggestions.

I haven’t found my new benchmark, my new standard to beat, and it’s driving me a little crazy. But the calendar comes to my rescue. In 13 days, I’ve got to stop. I have a launch party to host. Maximum Security is already better than my past work. It will be good enough.

Social Media for Authors: Adding Value

I’m trying to become more active on Twitter. For the past few days, I’ve been scrolling through my feed, checking things out. I’m following 800 people. Surely there will be something interesting, right?

Wrong. Unless you like hundreds of promotional tweets shoved in your face.

Much of Twitter is wading through truckloads of spam. It’s slightly classier than Viagra ads. Then there are those pithy quotes, from famous people and from books authored by the Tweeter. One step up are tweets of interesting articles, some of which I’ll look at. But it’s not what I want.

Finally, I spot a real, live human being (Nat Russo) who mentions losing weight this week. I tweet him back. “Good for you,” I said. Nat responds. OMG I feel like Robinson Crusoe finding Friday. He assures me that there are actual people holding conversations on Twitter and recommends a few (BTW, Nat has a whole series about Twitter on his blog, A Writer’s Journey, which I intent to gobble up as soon as I get a chance).

I’m thinking about those hundreds of writers and others, spending all those hours tweeting, whose promotions I skimmed over because I had no connection with them.

So, Rule 1: Be authentic and share yourself, connect with people. Hugh Howey and Colleen Hoover (follow Colleen on Facebook, her posts are hilarious) are extraordinary at their ability to share themselves with the public. I hunted up Nat’s blog because he talked to me.

Rule 2: People are either looking for information (otherwise known as “help”), or they’re looking to be entertained. That’s why they buy your books. This is called “adding value,” and that’s what will help them connect with you.

Rule 3: Put Rules 1 & 2 together. Connect in an authentic way while being helpful or entertaining. Or both.

Rule 4: Telling people about your book is neither connecting nor is it helpful or entertaining. Promotional posts, shares and tweets should be about 1% of your social media output.

So what exactly does this mean?

The new mantra in marketing is “Something for Nothing.” I just made that up, but savvy marketers like Tim Grahl of Your First 1000 Books say it is vital to give away your content.

If you write non-fiction, it’s easy. Give away valuable bits from your book. Tim says to be sure to give away your best stuff. Make it immediately useful. His mantra? “Be relentlessly helpful.” He says not to worry about giving away too much. It makes sense. If I like what someone has to say, I’m going to go buy their book rather than waste time digging through hundreds of archived posts or waiting for them to put it all on the internet.

If you write fiction, you can post free short stories on your site. If you post an excerpt, make sure it is a complete story in of itself, or the reader is going to be turned off. Find ways to connect with your target audience. Fiction writers typically blog about writing, post book reviews or post about subjects dear to the hearts of their target reader.

I’m still figuring this out. I’m in the process of making this site more attractive to dog owners, my target audience. I’m now creating dog memes for #WoofWednesday, and I have a gallery of my real-life four-footed muses. This is a work in progress.

Oh, but wait, there’s one more rule!

Rule #6: Give the people on your mailing list a gift they can’t get any other way, and keep giving them unique content.

This needn’t be onerous. For my emails, I send out my dog memes in addition to any notices. I add a line or two of back story about the dog or the meme to make it special. As for that special gift, be creative. I give members of my mailing list access to a drop box folder with deleted scenes from my books (Okay, there’s only one in there so far, but I have lots to add!).

For more about this, check out Tim’s book. To see if he puts his money where his mouth is, sign up for his mailing list and get his free 30 day course on building your platform.