Craft, General Writing, Technique, Tips, Writing process

A Few Thoughts on Editing

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During a recent course I was teaching on researching for historical fiction and nonfiction, we got to discussing a bit about editing, as I mentioned that as an author, you can dump in everything that you learn that fascinates you on the first draft, but that much of it will need to be removed during the edit, to keep the story from dragging because of an info dump.

Not for the first time, I encountered a student who seemed horrified at the very idea of editing himself at all. I tried to reassure him that, when an author does it on his own work, it’s not really considered editing but simply rewriting. “Writing IS rewriting,” I told him. “No one nails it on the first draft, not even Stephen King.”

He was crestfallen. Clearly, the whole idea of having to go back over his work with a critical eye was absolutely mortifying. And of course, he’s not the first writer to have this reaction, but it did bring home to me how many folks really believe that everything that flows from their fingers on the keyboard or their pen on the pad is sacrosanct as written; held dear and precious, as though graven on tablets and handed to Moses on the mount.

I admit that at one time, I was one of those people. But having minored in writing in college and worked as a professional writer at least part time since about age 25 (I’ve since doubled that lap around the block and more), I long since got over any notion of precious writing. So I always have to remember that my students haven’t usually had that much time to adjust their thinking and grow a thicker skin.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they will have to get used to the notion that rewriting (or self-editing) is a necessity for serious writers. I hesitate to use the term “editing” for this process, because I don’t believe any writer can or should perform final editing on their own work. It’s really impossible: once you’ve spent that much time with a piece of work, you just know it too well. You’ve seen it too often to spot the errors, and simply cannot be objective enough. So it MUST go to a second party with fresh eyes (and adequate skill) to be called a true “edit.”

Until then, I consider all secondary activity by an author after the first draft to be “rewriting.” And I consider it a requirement of anyone hoping to be published (or even to publish themselves with any measure of success) to rewrite at least one round. Yes, there may be the rare exception to this rule, but I’ve never seen one. I’ve never encountered a single writer in all my years whose first pass won’t benefit from a fresh look, either from themselves or someone else qualified to evaluate writing.

So, with that thought, I offer this link to a great piece by Anna Elliott from Writer Unboxed, on The Dos and Dont’s of Editing. I hope you find it useful in your self-editing/rewriting, before you submit it to a real editor. Because I believe that first draft writing is largely about the creative and the technical, but the real craft of writing is in the rewriting. It’s where we get out of our Creator mind and into our Critic mind. Both are necessary to produce excellent work, but generally they do not happily co-exist at the same time in any given piece of writing. Good luck!

Benefits of writing, Craft, Inspiration, local author, writers conference

Recharging Those Batteries

Since the economic meltdown of 2008, I’m probably not alone in saying it hasn’t been the best of times for writers and marketers and publishers — all of which I am, and that’s how I make my living. Still, I make it a point to find the means to attend at least one writers’ conference a year if at all possible.

I worked so hard to be able to call myself a writer, not so much for what it means to others as to believe it myself. I come from a family of writers, so it’s kind of in my genes, I guess. But being able to make a living this way is hard for pretty much anyone, unless you’ve reached those dizzying heights of bestsellerdom. And even then, there’s no guarantee the party will go on forever.

So we do what we have to do to be able to write, and for me, one of those things is recharging my writing “batteries” each year. I belong to several writing organizations, all of which offer great conferences. I usually find myself having to choose between them, so I try to rotate among them from year to year.

This year, I not only got to attend, but to present, at one of the finest regional writers’ conferences I’ve experienced: The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group conference, “The Write Stuff.” And what a delight it was!

Not only were my sessions a blast, with engaged, interested audiences and fantastic questions, but I also got to attend a few sessions myself. My favorite, I must admit, was author Kathryn Craft‘s “Writing That Matters.” This seminar fed my writer’s soul in a way that I haven’t experienced in a while, and led me to finally purchase her newest novel, The Art of Falling.

The Art of Falling, by Kathryn Craft

I just finished that today — reluctantly, I’ll admit; as I neared the end, I had been rationing pages because I didn’t want it to be over. It turned out to be more than a book: It made my head explode with a simple yet profound insight on a personal struggle I’ve been facing; insight that’s been much sought and badly needed. I closed the book with tears of gratitude in my eyes. This…THIS is what writing is all about, folks.

Aside from the fantastic reading it provided, The Art of Falling reminded me of the powerful nature of truly engaging, compelling writing. Often, we as authors get so wrapped up in the work of it, the technique of it, the pickety-pickety nature of the writing and publishing process, that it’s easy to forget that what we’re doing is nearly always a labor of love, and that there was some reason that drove us to do it in the first place.

That reason differs with each person, but I daresay they all have one thing in common: We want our writing to leave a mark on our readers.

I left The Write Stuff having enjoyed the company of other serious writers, having spent time with delightful people such as keynote speaker Hank Phillippi Ryan (whom I was so happy to sit next to at the book fair—what a fantastic human being!) and the wonderful event organizers who worked their butts off to make the event the success that it was.

I floated on a cloud all the way home, reminded of why I write, and how lucky I am to be surrounded by so much real talent here in my little corner of Pennsylvania.

Books, Characterization, Craft, Creative process, General Writing, Genres, Plot, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research, Setting, Technique

The Year of Teaching

Last year, after several years of being asked to consult with other authors and indie publishers, I finally formalized this part of my marketing business into a consultancy called The Indie Navigator. Since then, I’ve been pretty busy making appearances in that incarnation, helping my fellow writers become authors and indie publishers, and helping those indie publishers become better at the business of publishing.

Print

But I haven’t forgotten the whole reason we’re all doing this: Because we love to write, and want to get our work into the hands of as many readers as possible. So one of the things I made up my mind to do this year is learn more about the technical craft of writing for myself, while I help my fellow authors with marketing, promotion and self-publishing.

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To make that happen, I’ve been busy the first part of this New Year scheduling appearances as the Indie Navigator in venues where I can do both of these at once. I’m excited to announce that I’ll have the chance to do just that coming up in March, when I’ll be teaching two seminars at The Write Stuff annual conference, hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group.

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I first spoke at this conference back in 2009, and was so impressed by how professional and well-run it was, I joined the writer’s group that hosted it. I’ve been a proud member ever since. GLVWG (pronounced “GLIV-wig”) is a friendly, very active group, large enough to support many helpful and enjoyable activities and resources for its membership, but not so large you feel lost or insignificant. I strongly recommend joining for anyone in the Lehigh Valley area who may be struggling with living the writing life and needs some support. It’s a truly warm, welcoming organization wholly supportive of its members success, whether that be as a part-time amateur poet or a full-time professional author…and anything in between.

Author Mary Shafer speaks at the Cat Writers Association Conference

On Friday, March 21, I’ll be teaching a four-hour seminar from 1:00-5:00 pm, titled “Indie Publishing Intensive: A Quick-Start Guide to Self-Publishing.” The first half will be the “what-to” part – an expansion of my popular seminar, “Identity Crisis: What Is A Publisher, and Should I Become One?” It’s an overview of the book publishing industry, including a brief history of traditional publishing and how that background has shaped our current world of indie publishing. This helps potential indie publishers understand why things evolved the way they have (when so much of it seems not to make sense otherwise). Then it delves deeply into

  • What it really means to BE a book publisher vs. an author
  • Why it’s important to perform a reality-based “gut check” to determine if you have what it takes to be a long-term book publisher
  • The processes and paperwork you need to complete and for the appropriate agencies who can authorize you as legally recognized book publisher in the United States
  • Moving from manuscript to printed, bound book and ebook
  • Getting your book listed with the major online retailers, onto store shelves and into readers’ hands
  • The all-important promotional component

The second half of the session will be the “how-to” element. This seminar, titled “Switching Hats: Moving From Author to Indie Publisher,” gets to the gist of how to go about all the “what-tos” covered in the first half. It’ll cover all the nitty-gritty that’s possible in a single session, supported by a generous Q&A session during which attendees can ask anything they want about the whole indie publishing process.

I’ll also be offering on-the-spot critiques of first pages during the Page Cuts session on Friday evening. Then on Saturday, I’ll be leading a session titled “Narrative Nonfiction: Finding Freedom in Form and Function.” This session will cover the nuts-and-bolts of researching and writing true-life stories with a blend of journalism using fiction techniques in a format popularized by author Sebastian Junger. It’ll be a fast-moving, info-packed seminar on this increasingly popular writing style, now employed across nearly every genre you can imagine.

I hope you can join me, along with my colleagues Kathryn Craft, Phil Giunta, Scott Nicholson and many more, at this always-wonderufl event, this year headlined by keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan, bestselling suspense novelist!

Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan enraptures her audiences.Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan always enraptures her audiences.

Author Interview, Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Writing process

Author Interview: Thriller Mistress Amy Shojai – Part II

Trailer for Amy Shojai’s thriller Lost and Found. Check out the advance praise at the end! 

 

In honor of today’s release of her latest book, we’re back this week with Part Two of our interview with bestselling author Amy Shojai. Amy’s brought her enormous knowledge of pets and animal behavior to bear on her first novel, Lost and Found. This thriller has a breathtaking premise:  An autism cure will KILL MILLIONS unless a service dog and his trainer find a missing child…in 24 hours. I’ve already read the free excerpt, and that alone was enough to get me into the story. Now I’m getting ready to read the whole book (Full disclosure: Amy has provided me with an advance reader eCopy for review). Can’t wait to dig into it!

But meanwhile, let’s learn more about the author’s writing process and thoughts about this, her first thriller. We left off Part I talking about the book’s characters:

Author Amy ShojaiMe:  Speaking of characters, which do you consider the protagonist of this story: September? Steven? Shadow?

Amy: The main character is September. Shadow is very much the secondary main character.

Me:  And I have to ask: How did you come up with the September character? Is she your alter-ego, and should we expect to see more of her?

Amy:  LOL! I attended the awesome writers conference Thrillerfest this past year and sat in on some terrific seminars presented by bestselling thriller authors. Lee Child commented that in his experience, most protagonists seem to be written as someone better looking, more athletic, taller, thinner, and smarter. Yes, there are parts of September that are similar to me, such as her love of animals and passion for them. But she’s more athletic, taller, thinner, smarter–and younger than me. Oh, and she doesn’t like bling. Pity.

Yes, I do think you’ll see more of September. There are two more books planned at this time.

Me:  As authors, we all have different hopes for each of our books, aside from wanting them to be successful. In your writer’s heart and mind, what does success look like for Lost and Found?

Amy:  Success would be readers enjoying the book, and saying so. It would be having them better understand their dogs’ behavior, realize that cats CAN be trained. And having readers ask…no, demand…to know what happens next.

Me: Yeah, that’ll always be the most excellent reaction from a reader, won’t it? I understand you have a giveaway for Lost and Found on Goodreads.com. Want to share more about that?

Amy:  Thanks for asking! Yes, here’s the link. I will give away three copies of the paperback, and happily autograph the books to the winners–or paw-tograph to their favorite pets. The giveaway runs from September 1 to November 15. Simply follow the link, click “enter to win” and fill in your mailing address. The book releases today on Kindle for those who can’t wait, and will be available in all eBook formats and print shortly thereafter.

Me:  What other events and appearances do you have scheduled to support “Lost and Found?” Anything else you’d like your readers to know about you, your newest book or your career?

Amy Shojai's new book, "Lost and Found"Amy: I’ll be appearing thither and yon on a variety of blogs between now and the first of the year. A book launch and autograph party happens locally in Sherman, Texas in mid-October – date to be determined, because I’m scheduled around a musical play co-written with a friend, that we’re performing earlier that month. And I’ll be speaking at the 20th Anniversary Cat Writers Association Conference the first weekend of November in Los Angeles, and signing books, as well as in Houston the first weekend of January at the Houston Cat Club Cat Show.

Me: Amy, as an author myself, I know what a thrill it is to see and hold your newest book. It never gets old, does it? But I think sometimes readers believe that once we get published, all our books will be bestsellers. If only, right? In reality, we all depend on our readers to support our books by helping us create the buzz they need to get attention. I understand you’ve created an easy-to-follow list of helpful things readers can do to help promote your books. Can we share that here?

Amy:  Sure thing. I appreciate every little bit of support from my readers, and here are a few tips to make it easy for them to help get the word out if they like my books:

READER-ICITY RULES FOR GETTING BOOKS NOTICED

  1. “Like” it (just click the “like” button on the Amazon or Facebook page, for instance).
  2. “Like” the author page. Here’s mine on Amazon.
  3. “Tag” it. These are descriptive words or phrases that help others find the book when they search for it. (On the book page, type TT to open the tag box, highlight the tags and copy into the box, and save).
  4. Read it. Love it. Hate it. Talk about it. Share with friends. Argue about it. Get hissed-off about it. Wag about it. Say it’s GRREEEAAAT! Say it SSSSSUCKS! And then . . . .
  5. Review it (on Amazon, GoodReads, Barnes & Noble, your blog, etc.) ONLY IF YOU REALLY READ IT!

Me:  Great tips! Thanks, Amy, for the interesting interview. And I understand you’ve got a free eCopy of Lost & Found to give away to one lucky reader of this blog — how generous! So, readers, here’s how to enter our giveaway for a FREE EBOOK of AMY SHOJAI’S NEW THRILLER, LOST and FOUND:

  1. Watch the book trailer at the beginning of this post and LISTEN CAREFULLY to the narrator, September, explain her story.
  2. Go to the Contact Form of my blog.
  3. Send me a message with the Subject line: I want to be Lost and Found!
  4. In the message field, tell me something that New York Times bestselling author James Rollins has to say about Lost & Found — it’s in the book trailer.
  5. Of all the correct entries received by midnight on Sunday, September 30, a random name will be pulled from a hat to receive a FREE eCopy of Lost & Found, directly from author Amy Shojai. (Your entry into this contest constitutes your permission for me to share your contact information with Amy.)

So ENTER NOW, and you’ll be one step closer to the edge of your seat with Amy, September and one really smart dog.

 

Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Plot, Point of View (POV), Publishing Industry, Technique, Writing process

Author Interview: Thriller Mistress Amy Shojai – Part I

Amy Shojai's new book, "Lost and Found"Okay, y’all (stop it, I’m allowed! My interview subject is a Texan!) – I’m very excited to be sharing with you the first half of an info-packed interview I recently did with an author whose work I admire, and who just happens to be one of the funniest, most interesting and truly sweetest people I know. Oh, and she also happens to be a bestselling author, did I mention that?

Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant, and the award-winning author of 24 bestselling pet books that cover furry babies to old-fogies, first aid to natural healing, and behavior/training to Chicken Soup-icity. I met her at my first conference with the Cat Writers Association, which she founded and still supports with gusto. (Come to think of it, there ain’t much Amy DOESN’T do with gusto!) You can learn more about Amy at her website, where you’ll also find her blog, Bling, Bitches & Blood. She’ll explain the title when you get there.

Author Amy Shojai, her dog Magic and cat Seren
Author Amy Shojai, her German Shepherd, Magic, and her Siamese cat, Seren

For now, I asked her a few questions about her newest book, Lost and Found, which is her first foray into fiction. But to be honest, I got to read an excerpt, and you’ll never know Amy’s not a veteran master at the thriller genre.

WOW! I can’t WAIT to read the rest of this great debut novel when it comes out in eBook on the 20th of this month (print fans, you’ll need to wait another week, but hang in there…)! She skillfully blends her background as an animal behavior consultant with her storytelling abilities, to weave a tale you’ll have a hard time putting down. But in the interests of “show, don’t tell,” I’m gonna stop here and let the interview speak for itself:

Me: We know it’s not your first author rodeo, with all your terrific nonfiction books out there enlightening the world, but Lost and Found is your first novel, right? Why a novel at this point in your career?

Amy: Yes, this is my debut fiction and I’m “thrilled” to be launched as a thriller author. The dirty li’l secret is that I first started out wanting to write fiction, and I couldn’t get published. Yes, I have five complete novels, plus one partial, under the virtual bed that will never see the light of day! Meanwhile, as I tried to write and publish fiction and submitted to agents, my nonfiction articles – and then a couple of books – were published. One of the agents I pitched for a novel said, “No thanks…but show me your nonfiction.” After that, I became so busy paying bills with the nonfiction (no complaints there!) that the fiction writing sat on the back burner, literally, for years.

Today, though – as you know – publishing has changed. It has especially affected the nonfiction, prescriptive types of pet books that I write. So I’ve needed to find new ways to get the furry message out there, and fiction seemed a fun and innovative way to do this.

Me: And why the thriller genre? Those of us who know you think of your Southern charm, your bright, bubbly personality – not necessarily the kind of brooding writer you’d expect to produce a thriller. What was your intent as an author in using this approach and format? Or perhaps it’s more correct to ask why you felt this format best served your story’s needs?

Amy: What a great question – and I’m flattered. You’ve a hefty dose of charm yourownself. <smile> Maybe I’m a twisted personality. Those other under-the-bed novels were horror, or probably more accurately, psychological thrillers. That’s what I read, that’s what I enjoy, so that’s what I write.

A novel must pose a question, and challenge the characters to answer that question. How that’s done somewhat defines the genre. A mystery presents a body at the beginning of the book, and asks, “Who dunnit?” A thriller may do that, but often shows the dirty deed, so readers know “who dunnit” and the question becomes “why dunnit?”

While I’m not a fan of being scared in real life, or the blood-and-gore school of storytelling, a rollercoaster ride via a great plot and characters I can root for offers all the vicarious spills and chills without the risk.

Me: I LOVE the fact that the excerpt from your book is written from Shadow’s point of view. Is the rest of the book written that way? How did you decide which POV to use?

Amy: Thank you! My early readers have without exception noted that Shadow’s chapters are their favorites. He’s a nine-month-old German shepherd pup, and a service dog (in training) to an autistic child. Part of the reason for the dog point of view was that I hadn’t a clue how to write the point of view of an autistic child and didn’t feel comfortable trying. So any time the little boy is “on stage” in the book with the dog, it’s from Shadow’s viewpoint. There also are chapters in dog viewpoint to offer insights into the story that the human characters couldn’t possibley know – through scent, for example.

I’ve always “imagined” what my dog and cat might be thinking, and there’s nobody to tell me I’m wrong. <grin> I think most pet lovers do that to some extent. I could also do this from the background of my pet behavior expertise and debunk some common misconceptions, while shining a light on other pet realities. I very much wanted to include animal companions in the story, in part because it’s a way to “edu-tain” readers about dog (and cat) behavior and care, without a dry lecture.

And yes, there’s also a hero cat in the story, although this book doesn’t feature a cat viewpoint. Maybe that will happen in future books. But in this story, the cat is a trained kitty and figures prominently in kicking bad-guy-assets at the end of the book.

LOST AND FOUND is very much Shadow’s story, probably as much as anyone’s.  His viewpoint is featured in one-third or more of the book. I consciously alternated viewpoint characters between the humans and the dog. Just as the human characters have a story “goal” and character arc, so does Shadow. He wants to belong and be loved, he wants to be a “good-dog” more than life itself, and being a good-dog means obeying and following the rules of the people he adores. But what if that gets in the way? What if the people are wrong – in his estimate? What’s a good-dog to do?

Me: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point of conflict to propel the story forward! And the whole concept of Lost and Found makes it such a groundbreaking book in several ways: Your first thriller, a dog’s POV without it being a humorous approach, and one of the main characters an autistic child. Where did the idea for this novel come from?

Amy: LOST AND FOUND was more than three years in the making. I wanted the main character to be an animal behaviorist or trainer, and to include a dog and/or a cat. But the main character, September (yes, that’s her name!) needed to train more than puppy manners. I’ve interviewed trainers of service animals, and my own dog’s breeder has placed autistic service dogs. Once one notion came to  mind, the others followed. Also, the most interesting characters to me are damaged, too, which means they must overcome internal and/or external obstacles to succeed. September suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress, and hates the thought of leaving her safe, secure home but goes out in the blizzard anyway to find her lost nephew.

Me: As you know, in my own book Almost Perfect: Disabled Pets and The People Who Love Them, we strive to build awareness that special needs pets can lead whole, happy lives even though they may not have the same abilities as most animals. I get the feeling from the excerpt that with Lost and Found, you had to deal with that on two levels: It seems you had to straddle the line concerning how people perceive both canine cognitive abilities and how they misunderstand the cognitive dissonance that may be occurring in the minds and senses of those living with autism. In researching your novel, what most surprised you about your own understanding of autism, and as a writer, how did you leverage what your animal behaviorist self knows about the way dogs interact with and respond to their humans in service to the story?

Amy: Wow. Let me think on that. I’m not sure that I’m able to fully understand how autistic people feel or think, but I am able to observe behaviors. The child character, Steven, is reported pretty much as observation – by the dog, Shadow. So I pretty much avoided – or tried to, anyway – making my own assumptions about what might or might not be happening regarding Steven. Instead, the story has the dog interpreting (correctly or in error, from his own canine perspective) what Steven’s actions and reactions mean. Therefore, when Steven claps his hands over his ears, Shadow can relate because he also wishes hands could cover his own ears to muffle too-loud noises.

What most surprised me was that one of my beta readers told me that I nailed the autistic child and adult Asperger character, as far as behavior and dialogue. Wow. This is a teacher who works with autistic children and also lives with a daughter partnered with a service dog.

END OF PART I

Isn’t this a fascinating interview? I’m learning a lot about novel craft as an author working on her own first novel! I hope you’re getting as much out of our conversation with Amy Shojai, and hope you’ll be back to join us here for Part II of this engaging interview!

Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Setting, Technique, Writing process

Creating Chemistry

Today, I’m pleased to host a guest appearance by my fellow author and friend, LM Preston, whose new eBook, Flutter of Luv, has just debuted and is making the rounds among YA fans and adults who just like a good love story. LM shares with us today some tricks to creating chemistry among your characters, and — better yet — between you and your readers! Check out what she has to say:

Flutter of Luv book coverHave you ever read a book and, when you finished, missed the characters? Or better yet, fallen in love while you were reading how a character was falling head-over-heels in love with another character?

Well, creating chemistry in your novel can be with anything:

– Between the reader and the character
– Between multiple characters
– Between the scenery or scene (that you make a connection to)

Reader and Character Love

While writing my latest release, Flutter Of Luv, I really worked hard at making the character into the reader’s friend. Writing in first person allows for this type of connection.

Have you ever had a friend tell you some juicy news, gossip or prediction that you couldn’t stop listening to, because they told the story in such a way that captivated you? Well, that’s the frame of mind you, as the writer, need to be in when you are creating your character. You want to reveal what makes the character tick, get a strong voice, and slowly seduce your reader into falling in love with your character — flaws and all.

Characters’ Chemistry with Each Other

Reading a scene in which two characters have sparks firing can bring the reader right into the action through the use of the senses, bringing believability and substance to the relationship. This is a writing trick romance writers have a talent for.

To get your writing in ‘the chemistry zone,’ think about what makes you connect with other people, fall in love, or ‘click’ in a friendship. Those tools should be used to develop and unfold your characters, to bring substance to these on-paper relationships. The key is to make the reader connect with each character, fall in love with them, before you make the characters realize their love for or connection to one another.

A Scene Or Place Can Invoke Chemistry

I would’ve never thought this, until I started reading travel books – not the books that tell you how to visit a place, but the ones that show you how to EXPERIENCE a place. These travel books and authors have a gift for bringing a place alive, creating chemistry between the reader and the locale of choice, to the point where the reader falls in love with a place based simply on the way it’s experienced through the writing.

Chemistry takes time to build when writing, and the best way to figure out how to express it is to figure out what causes your own chemistry to spark.

You can find LM’s newest book, Flutter of Luv, which is ALL about the chemistry, at Amazon. Be sure to leave her a good review there if you like it — these reviews are really important to indie publishers.

LM will be guest posting tomorrow at the Searching For An Escape blog.

She invites you to the Twitter launch party for her book next Friday, July 27th, from 5pm – 6pm EDT. Get on Twitter, follow @Lm_Preston, and use hashtag #FlutterOfLuv to participate. (Hint: It’s easiest to do a search on the hashtag to isolate the conversation, especially if you’re using Tweetdeck or some other feed management app).

LM also welcomes you to the book’s Facebook Launch Party! Log on next Saturday, July 28th, from Noon-9pm EDT and navigate to the Party on LM’s Event Page!

Books, Craft, General Writing

The Art of Storytelling – Thanks, Ira Glass.

Okay, let’s get away from the crass promotion aspect of being an author for a bit. It’s necessary, but let’s face it: NOT why most of us got into this line of work.

Why most of us DID get into it was to have a way to tell stories. Stories that run around in our heads and pop up at the most inopportune times. Stories that often serve as our best friends and our greatest nemeses. Stories whose characters speak to us so clearly, and so often, that they begin surfacing in our dreams, threatening to become more real than the real people we know.

What? You thought you were the only one? You thought you were alone in this sickness, this obsession that won’t leave you alone?

Please…you’re special, but not that special.

You share this particular brand of neurosis with bajillions of others. The difference is, you’re one of those who haven’t learned to put it in its place; to find a safe, dark spot to shove it into until it suffocates and its voice is extinguished.

Congratulations. You’re a writer.

And I do mean those congrats most sincerely. I fear for a world in which only what’s “real” is taken seriously (which is funny, coming from someone who primarily reads nonfiction because fantasy has never latched on to me that much). But that doesn’t keep me from understanding that the world of the possible — of the potentially real, of the imagination, where good really can triumph over evil and greed, self-interest and mistrust — is the only one that will ultimately save us from this very real world currently being torn apart by hatred, intolerance and fear.

As pretentious as it may seem, I believe wholly that imagination is the source of all art (along with other helpful playmates such as passion and hope, intuition and not a small amount of magic), and I believe that art will save the world. I do. Perhaps I must, since it’s apparent that nothing else is working and I need a reason to get up in the morning.

So, storytellers, we have a job to do, and we must do it well. The world’s counting on us. And so we must bend our backs to studying our craft and mastering its foundations.

Happily, these foundations don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shared across artistic disciplines. Which brings me to recommend a series of short videos I think really captures the root of storytelling in a nutshell. Granted, the teacher here — Ira Glass, host of Public Radio’s much-loved series, This American Life — is talking specifically about radio, and to a point, video and film. But it doesn’t matter. The ideas he puts forth are solid , storytelling-in-any-medium, gold.

So spend 20 minute or so and watch Mr. Glass, in his inimitable way, explain the building blocks of effective storytelling. Then think about how it relates to what you do every time you sit down with a pen and pad or your computer. I hope you revisit these vids more than once, to see if you missed anything.

I know I will.

Books, Craft, Promotion, Publishing Industry

A truly perfect author website

Today I ran across an author website that I think is just excellent, and want to share it with you.

Author Jenna Blum has created a compact little site that’s not minimalist but in no way cluttered; full of personality, yet confidently understated. And that seems to be the perfect showcase for her two novels, which are about deep emotional and psychological subjects that get to the very heart of what it means to be human, to be family.

jennablum.com

But from a marketing standpoint she’s got everything she needs, and it’s all there, easy to find, on the home page: links to

  • her books
  • bio
  • press kit
  • everything a reporter, editor, agent or publisher would want to know
  • And a great photo of Jenna to add that human connection.

As a marketing consultant who gets paid to help authors and other small businesspeople build effective websites, I will be referring lots of future clients to this site as an example of what they want to shoot for. Just really well done.

Authors, if you’re considering building an author site, this would be a good one to pattern on.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Research

Doing Good Research

Jonathan Maberry's website header

In between the Promoting to Schools post series, I just had to share a fantastic blog post from my friend and writing colleague, Jonathan Maberry. Jonathan is a prolific author, and one of the most successful horror writers working today. He’s a very personable and approachable guy, as well, and we’ve sat together at more than one presenter’s table at writers’ conferences.

Liars Club logo

One of the strongest points of Jonathan’s writing is the research he does, and he’s generously shared his research techniques with us in a post over at The Liars Club site! As with any author, this background work serves to establish very convincing characters, settings and situations in his stories, which makes them so very believable.

Anyone who reads in this genre knows that’s one of the keys to writing spellbinding horror: creating seamless transitions between reality and fiction. In fact, this is absolutely critical to enabling the willing suspension of disbelief required of all good fiction.

If you’ve ever read a story you KNOW is fiction, but found yourself almost unable to believe what you’re reading didn’t really happen, you’ve appreciated the results of good research. Only a thorough grounding in everything about the story will help writers achieve this, and only sound research from impeccable sources produces that knowledge.

So read on to find out what Jonathan has to say about his research method. I consider myself a veteran researcher, and I sure learned a few applicable tips! Oh, and check out Jonathan’s website to see a great example of how to do an author site well.

Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Inspiration, Technique

The Secret’s in the Sauce: Voice matters.

I watched a different kind of episode of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations” yesterday. It was a re-run, but since I’m not a regular watcher, I hadn’t seen it before. And it was really interesting.

Why? Because it was less about food and Bourdain’s chefdom than it was about his career as a professional writer. If you’ve lived under a rock for several years, or are simply  not a foodie, you may not be aware that Bourdain is an accomplished author as well as a successful restaurateur. His debut work, a half-memoir, half-exposé titled Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, was a surprise success, both to the author and the book industry. He’s had an admirable string of successful books since then.

Book cover, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

It’s not my point here to review or describe these books, but to bring up a point that every writer should be hyper-aware of: Voice matters. Bourdain says he believes he’s a better chef than a writer, so I’d love to taste his food, because my God, this guy can write.

You know he writes his own TV scripts, because they are so evocative of his own personality: incisive, witty, detail-oriented observations of whatever locale he’s visiting, the people he meets, the cuisines he experiences. And “experiences” is the operative word here, because that’s what makes Bourdain, Bourdain. He fully engages all senses in every single thing he does. And the very able writer in him shares these experiences with engaging, compelling prose packed with his singular descriptive, appreciative and often caustic narrative.

True to full-on Chef Mode, he’s got an ego the size of Montana, for which he doesn’t apologize. But his writing, whether TV script, book or magazine article, keeps this from becoming tedious because his narrative is often self-deprecating. He’s not averse to making himself the butt of the joke, often citing some foible or perceived character flaw in himself. This device also has the effect of bringing him down to our level, the “just an average joe” who’s doing the best he can despite himself. You get the feeling he’s just ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with all the accolades and attention, yet all the time fully aware of how lucky  he is to have these things.

On camera, Bourdain is the jokester, the preternatural pre-teen always testing the boundaries of good taste with potty humor and sexual references. If you watch closely, you can see just the wee-est little bit of shyness and discomfort in front of the camera. He can’t hide his constant underlying surprise that people are so interested in what he has to say about food and people the world over. Beneath the tough, New York City veneer, you can see an awestruck kid who made lots of bad choices growing up and still came out on top, but expects each minute that it will be his last as a star. It’s as though he knows this whole celebrity thing is just a house of cards, one puff away from collapsing and leaving him back in the kitchen to his own devices. The effect is both enlightening and endearing. But it’s the voice-overs that give the show — and his books — their real impact.

His commentary lifts the edge of his ego so we can peep inside at the soul of an essentially decent, compassionate man with a curious mind and an artist’s soul. It works because Bourdain writes exactly the way he speaks. Sure, he might don the chef’s coat for appearances, but he doesn’t gussy up his words with more syllables than he’d ever use in real life. He doesn’t affect a new author vocabulary. All the bodily function references and gross-out visual descriptions he clearly uses so frequently keep him honest, grounded in his reality, offering the viewer/reader his absolute here-I-am-love-me-or-leave-me attitude and worldview.

Whenever I watch his show, I bounce back and forth between “God, this guy is full of himself!” to “God, this guy can write!” And the telling thing is that I always come back for more.

Bourdain admitted in yesterday’s episode that he never “agonizes over craft” in writing. He doesn’t need to. He’s not reaching for literary immortality. But his use of voice and language is so uniquely his own, I posit that his writing is at least as exciting and evocative as that of many classic novels.

Book cover, Anthony Bourdain's Typhoid Mary

I will likely never read Bourdain’s foodie or travel books. But he’s got a novel out and a nonfiction docu-drama about Typhoid Mary. I may just have to pick those up, because ego or not (and let’s face it — what author doesn’t have one?), this guy is a refreshing, entertaining and accomplished writer whose voice another writer could learn a lot from.