Monday, December 17, 2012

A Poem for Writers (and a mini-break)

The holidays are upon us! After contemplating an in-depth post on filmic structure for novel writing  today, I realized I'm all wound up in holiday planning already instead. I'm guessing most of you are, too, so maybe we all need a little less intensity and a little more ahhhh to ease us into the holiday spirit. I discovered some of that feeling in a wonderful book I found as a Christmas gift for a friend.

Did you know that Ursula K. Le Guin, whose name is tops in the world of science fiction writing, is a poet? I did not. People who've never read science fiction but are interested (like me) are often told to start with Le Guin because she's such a fabulous writer.

It turns out she's always been a poet. That was her first love. She started writing fiction—short stories—many years ago, and was submitting them absolutely everywhere after much trial and tribulation trying to get them published. She got scooped up by a magazine that was publishing science fiction. She's reported to have been stunned, because she never ever thought of her work as science fiction. That, apparently, was the beginning of what became her fabled career as a novelist in the male-dominated science fiction field.

Okay, that's the background as I know it. Those of you who know more about Ursula K. Le Guin, please chime in and add on or correct me if I've gone askew.

To get back to the writers' poem, I was in Barnes & Noble the other day, perusing various shelves for Christmas gifts. (I love brick-and-mortar bookstores.) Le Guin's name caught my eye on an attractive book of poetry. I picked it up, opened it randomly and read, and knew I had to have that book. It's called Finding My Elegy. (I'm keeping this copy . . . will have to get another for my friend.)

Here, from this volume (p. 113), is a poem written for and about us.


Fortunate those who fill their hands
with stuff of the imagined thing
to shape the cup, the carven bird;
whose fingers strike from key or string
the ringing, single-complex chord,
actual, heard.
                      A writer's work
is with the insubstantial word,
the image that can only find
its being in another's mind.
We work with water, with the wind,
we make and hold no thing at all.
All we can ever shape or sing
the tremor of an untouched string,
a shift of shadows on the wall.

Happy Holidays, everyone.  I'll be taking a mini-break from blogging this coming three weeks. See you back here the week of January 7!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Three Great Scenes, and No Weak Ones, Make a Successful Story

Do you have a manuscript that flies off in too many directions, or maybe the opposite—doesn't have enough going on in it to sustain a long-form project? Or even worse, in my opinion, is your manuscript plotted so minutely that the creativity is lost? Well, I can relate!

I'm writing historical fiction now, and unlike suspense (my other genre), there's no built-in intuitive structure to make it flow in sensible fashion. The plotting part is a much bigger challenge (at least for me) in historical. 

Plotting is primary and key, even if it's not something a writer is comfortable focusing on at the early stages.

Whether the challenge is to pare and contain a massive amount of story detail in a way that creates a page turner, or to expand a linear and/or simple plot line into a story that is complex enough to be compelling over the length of a novel, you need to know how the plot unfolds and where to zero in for impact to make your book work.

One of my favorite pieces of advice for tackling this issue comes from James Scott Bell, who quotes John Huston (movie director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen) as saying that "the secret to a successful film is three great scenes, and no weak ones."

Bell points out that great scenes make memorable fiction, too. (p. 160, The Art of War for Writers).
What does Bell mean by a great scene? One that is packed with conflict, emotion, and surprise. "Passions run high; stakes run higher. What happens in the scene affects the rest of the story, and in a big way." (ibid.)

Conflict: crank it up. "How? Through emotion. Make sure readers see the stakes to the inner life of the character. Surprise: the unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events." (ibid., p 161)

He suggests we think about the scenes in our stories, figure out which are the ones that readers are going to remember most when they finish our book, and "think about where they [the great scenes] might land in your structure. A climactic scene near the end is a good place to start." (p. 160) Then, write toward these great scenes. And when the first draft is done, go back and look for weak scenes. Would a tired, overworked editor be tempted to put the ms. down there? If yes, it's weak. Either cut the scene or make it matter.

I find this advice to be excellent, and enough to work with when I'm thinking of overall structure. I thought about my novel and realized  that, of the most powerful scenes (four of them—novels often have more than three major scenes), three are action scenes that illuminate huge stakes (external and internal), and one is gentler, but equally powerful on an emotional level. I'm now happily writing toward them.

One of the best things about this approach is that it shows you your story arc (the real one, which may not be exactly what you thought you had). Plot out your three or four or five great scenes on an arc line. Where do they fall? Is your first great scene not until the 1/4 mark on your arc? That's about page 75 in a 300-page book, or page 100 in a 400-page book. We usually need a great scene before that. Maybe you need to cut the opening chapters. Pull the critical elements out of them and sprinkle them into your action scenes later in the book, or, if you really need those critical elements to set up the story, condense them into a chapter that's necessary to the rest of the story). Looking at your story arc from the great scene perspective can give you the courage to kill your darlings, and the understanding of why you want to.

But let's dig a little deeper. I feel like it's useful to have more specific advice on how a great scene is generally structured, as well. Elizabeth Lyon (A Writer's Guide to Fiction), says that these big, fully-realized scenes, which can be short or can go on for pages and pages, include:
  • setting details
  • physical sensations of the point-of-view character
  • immediate emotional reactions by the characters to the unfolding events
  • show of "turns" when emotions shift and reverse, and
  • clarity of shifting emotional truths and needs of protagonist and main characters
Now we're getting to the nitty gritty! Lyon also says that these scenes have high dramatic intensity and end either with disaster or surprise; they are crisis scenes or triumphal

This is all a lot to digest, so let's see if we can find a couple of well-known "great scenes" as examples. I'm going to use a movie rather than a book to provide examples, simply for space reasons. All the fully developed scenes I want to take from books are just too many pages to include in an already-long blog post. With a movie, the visuals that take up so much space in writing are on the screen simultaneously. If you've seen the movie, you'll remember the visuals.

Since the climax is almost always a great (fully realized) scene, that's a good place to go for a demonstration. But let's also look at an earlier scene in the same movie that's in the fully-realized category.

Let's use the classic movie, Casablanca. (The old classic movies offer fantastic, clear examples of these principles. If you haven't seen this movie, rent it. Watch it for its structure if nothing else. Every necessary beat is hit with clarity and made powerful through action/reaction, dialogue and atmosphere.) 

First, a bit of background to refresh your memory of the story, or give you the essentials if you haven't seen the movie: In Casablanca, we have Rick, an American expatriate who runs a saloon (Rick's Cafe Americain) in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. The war is raging in Europe, but America hasn't entered it yet. Rick, however, had gone overseas and fought the good fight against the fascists where he could. But Europe, hard as it fought, wasn't strong enough to stand up to the Nazis; the good fight wasn't good enough. Now Rick has given up, he's soured and bitter as he sees the Nazis powering through Europe, destroying as they go. (He barely escaped Paris as the Nazis entered; he would have been captured and executed for his past heroism had he stayed. Significantly, while he was in Paris, he met and fell in love with Ilsa, a young woman who doesn't tell him everything about her past. When he left Paris, she was supposed to escape with him, but she never showed up, further destroying Rick's faith in goodness.) Now he's a cynical saloon-owner who doesn't mind bending the rules, and he has a serious self-destructive streak. He's an anti-hero. Into this setting, one night, walks Ilsa, on the arm of the husband she'd never told Rick about, Victor Laszlo, War Hero, underground leader of the great cause against the Nazis. Even if you haven't seen the film, you no doubt know Rick's drunken, bitter line after Ilsa leaves Rick's Cafe with Victor that night  . . . "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,  she walks into mine."

Meanwhile, there's the cop with no morals— good or bad—Louie, who runs the police in Casablanca. He and Rick have an understanding. Louie cheats at the gambling tables in Rick's Cafe, and Rick lets him, in exchange for not having his gambling tables shut down because gambling is illegal. And then there are the Nazi soldiers, led by the evil Major Strasser, who have arrived in Casablanca and are doing their best to take it over, although Morocco is not officially part of the War. The Nazis want Victor Laszlo so bad they can taste it. 

The drama revolves around not only Rick and his disillusionment and need for Ilsa, but around "papers of transit"—the open sesame that can get whoever holds them out of Morocco and onto a plane that will take them to a safe country. There are papers of transit for two people that have become available in Casablanca. The names just need to be filled in. Rick has them.

Okay, now to the great scenes. The first one below comes a while before the climax, and serves to thicken the plot and heighten the tension to the point where something is going to have to give, one way or another. 

Great Scene One:

Ilsa wants those papers of transit for Victor and herself, and she'll do anything to get them. There's a night curfew in Casablanca, but she risks being caught and arrested to go to Rick's living quarters above the saloon late at night, after Victor has slipped out of their hotel room to go to an underground meeting.  Ilsa is conflicted. She's still in love with Rick, but she reveres Victor and she is, after all, his wife, and she knows what's right. When Rick comes in and sees her he's shocked that she's there, but plays it cool. With all the dignity she can muster, she asks for the papers of transit. Rick says no. He's no hero. To hell with Laszlo and his unique value to a noble cause. Rick's heart has been broken, and he's got no mercy. She pulls a gun on him, but when he steps close and says, "I'll make it easy for you. Go ahead and shoot. You'll be doing me a favor," she breaks down in tears, the gun goes away, and she falls into his arms. Ilsa can't resist Rick and he finally has the chance to spend his life with her. They cook up a scheme to get Victor on the plane to safety. Victor won't know that Ilsa isn't coming with him . . . that at the last moment she will stay behind so she can be with Rick.

Conflict and emotion? You bet. The stakes couldn't be much higher. And you clearly see what the stakes are to the inner lives of both characters, as well. Surprise? Ilsa pulling a gun is a surprise, to Rick as well as to us. And as much as we know Rick is self destructive, we are surprised and upset that he invites Ilsa to kill him and put an end to it all. When Ilsa falls into Rick's arms that's a big reversal of intention, or what Lyon calls a show of "turns" when emotions shift and reverse.  And there is certainly clarity of shifting emotional truths and needs of protagonist and main characters at the end of the scene.  The other things Lyon tells us a great scene needs: setting details, physical sensations of the point-of-view character, and immediate emotional reactions by the characters to the unfolding events are clear as can be to the viewer in the cinematography.

Great Scene Two—the final, climactic scene:

Late the next night, Rick enlists Louie's support to get Ilsa and Victor on an airplane to Lisbon that will be leaving shortly. Louie has to sign off on the papers of transit, so Rick has no choice but to involve him. Louie quickly agrees, but when Rick isn't looking he telephones Major Strasser, pretending he's calling police headquarters. Through careful language he alerts Strasser to get to the airport to capture Victor Laszlo. (Louie always hedges his bets, he's likable but untrustworthy.) Rick and Louie rush out to the airport in Louie's car. It's a foggy night. At the airport, they wait in the cold, then a black car pulls up and Ilsa and Victor get out and come to them. Louie turns away (turns a blind eye). Ilsa and Victor come over to Rick. Victor thanks him with great eloquence. Ilsa's conflict is written all over her face, but she covers it for Victor's sake. The airplane's propellers start up out on the tarmac, and they all turn toward it. Rick hands over the signed papers for Victor and Ilsa and tells them to go. Ilsa is dumbstruck. This wasn't the plan. She won't move. Rick pulls her aside and gives the speech we all remember about what really counts, that ends with, "It doesn't take much to see that in this crazy world the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans." Then Rick faces Victor (who's no dummy and has figured out that his wife is still involved with Rick) and tells him that the night before, Ilsa came to him to ask for the papers and was willing to do anything for them. "I let her," he says, and adds something about her being noble, implying that she only did it for Victor, and Rick would not hold her to any promise to stay with him. Victor listens gravely, nods, and says he understands. Then he and Ilsa turn toward the airplane, her looking back with anguish but relief at the same time, and walk onto to the tarmac to board the plane.

A moment later Major Strasser's car screeches into the airport. Rick whirls on Louie, who has no remorse. Strasser runs over, but the airplane is taxiing down the runway. Strasser runs to the telephone to alert someone to stop the plane and Rick pulls a gun on him. Rick tells him to stop or he'll shoot him. Strasser, on the phone, whips out his gun to shoot Rick, but Rick fires first and kills Strasser. The airplane takes off. 

Now what? Sirens are everywhere as the police rush to the scene, having been alerted that there was trouble at the airport. Rick looks at Louie. Louie looks at Rick. Strasser's body is lying on the ground, still warm but very dead. Louie turns to the officers, who are his subordinates. There's a moment's pause, and then he says, "Round up the usual suspects." Rick is shocked. The officers rush off to round up the usual suspects. Louie points out that neither he nor Rick can stay in Casablanca now. It's too dangerous for them. Rick and Louie walk off into the sunset . . . oops, I mean the fog, and Rick utters the immortal line, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."  THE END.

The conflict, emotion and surprise are all over the place as everyone is trying to survive and achieve their own agendas (which are at cross-purposes) in a desperate situation. The conflicts are both external (Strasser) and internal (Ilsa and Rick, Ilsa and Victor, Rick and Louie). The external stakes are life and death. The internal stakes are right up there with "reason to live"— to have love or not, to be honorable or not.  The show of "turns" when emotions shift and reverse and  the clarity of shifting emotional truths and needs of protagonist and main characters are not only with Ilsa as she accepts Rick's sacrifice, but with Rick when he  realizes, at the last moment of the movie, that he's just rejoined the world of people who fight the good fight, and that's what he and Louie are going to do.

Identifying the great scenes in our manuscripts and applying these standards to them is a ticket to a good, strong plot, not to mention achieving success with our scenes. Of course, there's a lot more to it, but this seems like an excellent place to start. (AND, don't forget, when you've got a finished first draft, it's time to read through it and cut or change any scene that's weak. You can kill your darlings. They'll stand out like a sore thumb if they don't support your great scenes.)

Do you have a favorite fully-realized scene from a movie or a book that inspires you to write something that good

Monday, December 3, 2012

Change of Season, Change of Focus

Hi Everyone,

Today marks an important change in this blog for me. I love blogging, and I'll still be posting about writer's craft or practical tools for writing, but instead of blogging three times a week, I'll be here only on Mondays. That will allow me to get into a bit more depth, with more examples of the techniques, I hope. There will be an addition, too, because this blog is about to get much more personal for me—I'll also be writing about the subject matter that inspired my current Work In Progress, and use elements of it to demonstrate the writer's craft topic when possible. At least that's the plan. We'll see if I can pull it off!

My WIP is a book I started years ago that means a lot to me, but that overwhelmed me at the time I was working on it. I got about half way through it and just had to put it aside and hope that I'd come back to it someday. It's a historical novel about the Shawnee Indians, set largely in the 1780s in the Ohio River Valley along the line of white settlements encroaching on Native American lands shortly after the War of Independence ended. To say that was a tense time is a serious understatement.

Believe it or not, this stuff is fascinating. At least I find it to be, because it's very powerful, and when you start digging into history you find things that are not only interesting, but shocking and disturbing. The heart of this story, though, is not the blood and battles and ideologies that shattered and shaped that time and our country, but the unbreakable friendship between two girls, one Shawnee and one white, who had to deal with the holocaust of war and its tentacles to survive.

I got so involved in digging into the history of that time, I spent about half my waking hours in the Newberry Library in Chicago (where I was living then) for a very long time. The Newberry is a research library (not lending, so you can't check anything out . . . you must be there and sit down with the resources you request and take notes). Back then—about eight years ago—none of the Newberry's material was available online, and I don't know if any is now. It has one of the world's best collections of Native American information, including very old books and treatises and original manuscripts that you are asked not to touch any more than necessary—they provide you with cotton gloves and a velvet-covered weight to place on the pages of a book to keep it open on the table in front of you so you don't have to touch it. Pencils only, no pens, for notes. Or you could take notes on your computer, but there was nothing to upload—it was old school. You get the idea. For the most part, I loved it. Until I realized I had a dragon by the tail and it was getting the better of me.

It felt akin to writing about the Holocaust all right, because these devastating events really happened and many of the characters in my book were real, too, which is why I got overwhelmed and had to stop to breathe. (The two girls and their families are fictional, but you know how it is with your main characters—symbiotic!)

Now that I've had all these years since I put my manuscript down, during which I've written one other complete (lighthearted) novel, parts of others, fiddled with short stuff, gone to many writers conferences and retreats, and been incredibly lucky to get to know and work with wonderful writers/bloggers I've met along the way, I'm itching to get back to the historical novel. I've grown a thicker skin (finally!) and also have an expanded understanding of how I want to write in general. A lot of that last part has to do with what I've learned about structure and craft.

So Mondays (except today) will be posts on writer's craft and practical tools, and, at some point in the next few weeks, will begin to incorporate posts on the world of Shawnee Indians and American settlers in the Ohio River Valley in the late 1700s.

I can't begin to tell you how much it means to be able to share this journey with all of you, and to be able to also read about your journeys and ideas and learn from what you share on your blogs or in your comments. See you next Monday!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Get Your Creativity to Explode: the Method

Think creativity and methodology are opposites? Well, they kind of are, but there's more, if you look closer. Any writer who's struggled to get the creative juices flowing knows that these two things can complement each other, and it's natural to find a method to inspire creativity. Yes, there's a method to your madness!

James Scott Bell said it well in The Art of War for Writers, one of his books on writing. (I'm in the middle of a re-read of the book, and it's so full of great information that it keeps showing up in these posts. :)  ) Bell says you have to feed inspiration, and one way to do that is develop a method for releasing your creativity. As a writer, you have to do this, because you have to become "a walking idea factory."

Walking is one of Bell's main methods of releasing creativity, and he suggests that there are few things you can do before, during, and after walking to capture the ideas that surface (pp. 54-55). To paraphrase:
  • Before you walk, get fully focused on your idea that you want to develop
  • While you walk, listen to an audiobook or do something else that will allow you to be creative without thinking about it. While you're listening, for example, ideas for your own novel will be sparked unconsciously and rise to your consciousness.
  • Write those ideas down, while you're walking. Take a pen and pencil or a voice recorder with you on your walk.
  • When you get home put all those ideas in a file on your computer, expanding each one as you add it. Let the words flow.
  • Let the ideas cool down for a day. The next day, look at them again and assess them, after you've slept on it and let your subconscious do its work.
  • Set aside the ideas you don't use, but don't delete them. They might come in handy someday.

Bell believes that if you get used to thinking this way, your creativity will explode. Makes sense to me! But I do think it pays to be aware of how important tapping into your subconscious is for this to really work. Yes, the movement of walking frees up our creative energies, but two of Bell's steps—one before the walk and one after—seem critical to making sure it's the type of idea generation we're after.

First is getting fully focused on the idea you want to develop before you walk. Do this during your writing time which is, yes, before.

Second is to sleep on the ideas before you even begin to think about them critically. Let your subconscious mind work on them while you sleep.

So, what do you think? Do you use a method like this, or something totally different?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Interview with Cory Doctorow by Bill Kenower for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association

Cory Doctorow, well-known science fiction writer, talks fast and doesn't use extraneous words, so he gets a lot of info into this ten-minute interview. For those of you who haven't got the ten minutes to spare, I've summarized a bit of what he says below. Or you can start at about minute four, which is where Doctorow gets into his process and what he thinks it takes to succeed.

Included in his perceptions of what it takes (which were honed over years of not only writing, but working in a bookstore where he got a strong understanding of what happens to books once they're published) are, first of all, believing that you can write a book, and having mentors to help in that belief and in the outcome.

He also talks about developing an understanding of what he calls "the extremely temporary nature of books" when he worked in the bookstore, by which he means the limited shelf life, sales, and presence in consumers' awareness of the great majority of published books.

Selling a book does not mean you've made it, he says, and goes on to talk about what the successful writer's life looks like.

Luck plays an important role in success, according to Doctorow. You do have to work hard and have talent, but those factors alone don't promise success. He speculates that the luck part might be partly that for some reason or other, the publisher or the writer figured out how to get the book into readers' hands better than usually happens.

Doctorow's closing comments revolve around being workmanlike (his bottom line); the value of finishing each day's writing in the middle of a sentence; the likelihood that blood sugar and seratonin levels play a role in a day's output; and the importance of not being "precious" about your writing or about yourself as a writer. He says he was, and talks about the process he went through that burned that out of him and made him a productive writer.

All in all, a fun and informative listen. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Three Essentials for a Successful Novel and How to Achieve Them

James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers is a book on writing I come back to again and again for pithy, excellent advice. In Chapter 24 (pp. 71-76), Bell harkens back to the hallmarks of successful novel writing that were put forth by one of his idols: John D. MacDonald. Below are MacDonald's essentials, and some of Bell's comments on how to achieve them:

Essential #1

First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties—emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they're finding their way out of these difficulties.                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                  —John D. MacDonald

       James Scott Bell's comments: Notice . . . that the reader has to wonder what is going to happen   next. To people.   . . . Create characters readers will be drawn to and put them in desperate straits soon.

Essential #2

Second, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief; I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer's devising.
                                                                                                            —John D. MacDonald
       James Scott Bell's comments: Simply put . . . (w)e have to to create the impression of something really happening in a real world to real people. So how do you do this? 

First, by being accurate. If you're writing about 1905 Los Angeles, do not include the Dodgers.  . . . You have to know your world before you write about it. . . .

And always choose the telling detail over plain vanilla description.

      "He jumped into his car and drove away."    
        Wait, what kind of car was it?
       "She was beautiful."
        Was she? I don't believe it. Describe her so I know it. Show me how other characters react to her.

Essential #3

Next, I want [the writer] to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.
                                                                                                           —John D. MacDonald

      James Scott Bell's comments: The key word here is unobtrusive. If the prose stands out too much, shouting "Look at me! I'm wonderful writing!" the suspension of disbelief takes a hit.

But if it's dull, if it moves the story along like a burro in Calexico, it creates no magic.

Example, from John D MacDonald's Darker Than Amber:

      "She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been."

Suggestions from Bell: Say you want to describe someone's wild hair. Write for five minutes without stopping. Describe the hair in two hundred or three hundred words. Let the images fly. Go back later and find the good parts and edit them down. . . . Write hot, revise cool. . . . And read some poetry.  . . . The lilt of language will help you tap into different parts of your writer's brain.

Like I said, excellent advice from Bell. I'm at the beginning of revising a novel, over half of which I wrote eight years ago, then put aside. It was just more than I could carry at the time. It's a huge, powerful story that took all I had to give when I worked on it back then, and now, after writing other, lighter stories and novels while it lay fallow, I'm back at it. I've learned a lot about writing in the intervening years. Believe me, I want to get this novel right, because I think it might be real and moving and compelling—it deserves my best efforts. More about that in a later post, but I bring it up here because when I sat down to laser-focus in on making those revisions on the opening chapters, I wanted to test the results against excellent standards. I think these essentials and comments from MacDonald and Bell are great standards for that purpose. Or any novel writing, for that matter.

Do you have a favorite book on writing you go to to test your work against? There are many good ones. I'd love to hear what works for you, and why.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Amazon Removes Author Reviews

You may have already seen this—it might be an attempt by Amazon to deal with the 'sock puppet' issues that have plagued the credibility of book reviews posted on their listings. The company has removed reviews of books by fellow authors.

Here's the article.

On another topic, I hope you're all having a safe and happy holiday weekend. Personally, I'm loving being with family and once again realizing how lucky I am in life. Sometimes I need a bit of a jolt to put life in perspective! Thanksgiving is a great holiday to remind us of all the good things we enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Publishers Weekly's (and Our) Selections

It's almost Turkey Day, and I'm thinking we all want an easy, fun few days to surround it, so instead of posting on an industry topic of controversy and/or intensity, I thought this would be a good time to just share some book selections.

Below are Publishers Weekly's choices of their top ten books of 2012. But before we get there. . .

Let's all add one or two. Here's my selection: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: it's  hilarious, and a little dark and twisty. You'll laugh out loud if you've ever had to deal with holier-than-thou parents at your children's school, or if, by chance, you live in Seattle and don't care much for certain aspects of it (or if you understand why someone else might feel that way until they get to know the city), or if you sometimes think you might be crazy and nobody understands (wait, no, none of us writers ever feel that way).

So, what's your favorite book of 2012?

PW's list: Top Ten Books, 2012


Monday, November 19, 2012

E-Book Metadata: Key to Sales

One blog reader, Chihuahua Zero, commented on Friday's post that he'd like to read more about metadata—one of the key elements identified by Jon Fine of Amazon as important to e-book sales, and discussed briefly in my post. I appreciate that request—thank you Chihuahua Zero!

Simply put, what I gather from reading about the topic is that metadata is the information about your book that describes your work, and is used to classify it for e-book sales. The e-book publisher uses the metadata you provide to categorize where your book belongs in their lexicon, and how they will present it to potential readers (much like deciding which bookshelf it goes on in the brick and mortar bookstore). 

Here's part of how Jon Fine defined metadata (as reported in a Digital Book World post):

Metadata is basically the online version of everything publishers used to sell books before the rise of digital: Book cover, synopsis, author information, book-jacket blurbs and more. Ignoring the digital versions of these things can doom a book to obscurity.

It starts with the cover. Online, an effective cover is different than what works in print.
“What looks good full-size doesn’t necessarily look good on your cell phone,” said Fine.
But it doesn’t end with the cover. Publishers must make sure their books are categorized correctly and associated with the correct keywords.
“The amount of time you go online to shop for a book and use keywords has grown astronomically,” Fine said.
Perhaps the best piece of metadata that publishers can use to help readers find their books is the text of the book itself. For publishers that enable it, Amazon will search inside the text of the book when readers use the site’s search function.
Fine went on to make a strong pitch for Amazon's approach to selling e-books and how authors should tailor their metadata to fit that approach.

Fine identified metadata in terms authors can easily relate to, such as the appearance of the cover and the content of the book blurb. But there's a whole area about how the data is used technologically and how authors should enter it into e-book publishing sites, that needs to be emphasized as well. This is not stuff that many of us relate to so easily.

One way to understand what authors need to focus on when developing their metadata is to note the emphasis placed by Fine and others on 'key words.' It makes sense that the words you identify as key words to describe your book will determine the categorization and presentation, right? Anyone who's worked with SEO (Search Engine Optimization) knows how important key words are to getting traffic to your blog or website.
So where and how, exactly, do you enter key words for your book, and what else is involved?

According to the website,, when you are ready to make your book into an e-book for a sales site, you will find that all e-book converters give you a way to add or edit metadata. But it's important to realize that "you should try to embed as much of your metadata as possible into the source file" because editing it in the files (once they've been set up) is not easy. (Go here for the full discussion.) The discussion also identifies what and where metadata is stored—in what online files of the publisher, etc., along with suggestions for how you, the author, might use that information.
I've got to admit, I have the same emotional reaction to this sort of important information that I have when I'm trying to grasp the details of filing my taxes each year. It feels overwhelming. 
So, those of you who've been through this process, could you chime in and tell us about your experience with providing (inputting) metadata, and share any wisdoms you've uncovered? I'd love to hear how you made it work for you.

Friday, November 16, 2012

How To Maximize Sales of Your Book on Amazon

In September Digital Book World held a conference in New York where one of the speakers was Jon       Fine, director of author and publisher relations for Amazon. According to Fine, there are three things you can do to make sure you are getting the best sales numbers possible from your listing on Amazon:
  1. Make sure your book is available in all appropriate formats all the time.
  2. Make sure your metadata is specific and good: book cover, synopsis, author information, book jacket blurb, etc. This, according to Fine, is probably the most important piece of maximizing Amazon sales.
  3. Focus on creating a great Author Page to make it easier for readers to discover you through Amazon.
These suggestions sound excellent for all book sales, to me. For more detail on Amazon's suggestions, check out the DBW report on Fine's presentation here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

More on the Penguin/Random House Merger: A Historical Perspective on This Sort of Business Behavior

An interesting article was published this week by The New York Times that offers an analysis of what the Penguin/Random House merger might be leading to for the book business.

In "How Dead Is the Book Business?" journalist Adam Davidson says, "The entire book industry may eventually become an arm of an infotainment giant. Is that a bad thing?" This sets up his discussion of the merger from a historical perspective, comparing it to what happened around the turn of the 20th century when new technology created a new industrial paradigm in many businesses, from the steel industry to the envelope business. He says:

"There are two competing predictions about commerce in the digital age. One is that companies will get smaller and more disruptive as nimble entrepreneurs can take on giant corporations with little more than 3-D printers and Web sites. The other envisions a few massive companies — like Procter & Gamble, Apple and Nike — that design everything themselves, have it manufactured cheaply in Asia and use their e-commerce sites to gather information about their customers. Nearly the exact same conflict occurred more than a century ago in the decade that straddled 1900, which was also a period of rapid technological change. In just a few years, 1,800 small companies were swallowed up as the electrical-power, telephone, auto, steel and chemical industries grew from patchworks of tiny companies into conglomerates. In “The Great Merger Movement in American Business 1895-1904,” the Yale economist and historian Naomi Lamoreaux wrote that back then everyone worried about the same thing that authors, editors and book buyers worry about now: Are large companies good for the economy? Do they grow through efficiency and innovation or by abusing their leverage?" (emphasis added)
So which of those happened back then? According to Lamoreaux, both. 
U.S. Steel, on one end of the spectrum, stopped trying to innovate and instead bought up existing steel-related companies to create a behemoth that monopolized ownership of iron ore. This led to short-term success but long-term disaster.
On the other end of the spectrum was Sears & Roebuck, which "grew by solving market and technical problems" and innovated to stay ahead. Importantly, it didn't monopolize its industry—competition with the likes of Montgomery Ward and K-Mart kept the industry healthy.
So where does the book business fall? In the middle, according to the scholars. Consolidation, like that of the steel industry, has been going on for a long time and the Penguin/Random House merger pops as leading toward more and more consolidation to the point where "it’s possible that there would soon be only one or two publishers and that they might be folded into some larger infotainment company like Time Warner Penguin or maybe Random Viacom. There would still be books — just not large book companies."
But, Davidson points out, in a digital world where self-publishers and bloggers compete, too, monopoly is unlikely, Instead, "(e)ventually, it’s likely that book publishing will embody both conflicting visions of digital-age commerce — lots of small businesses and a few massive ones that handle big-ticket items."
Is this a dire situation? Whether we're comfortable with that scenario or not, it's functional. But, there is an underlying threat that isn't being recognized by our government or publicized by the industry right now. It harkens back to when U.S. Steel bought up all the iron ore so it didn't have to compete. There are laws now to prevent monopoly, but there is an iron-ore-monopoly type of element lurking in the book business: patents.  
According to Davidson,  "government issued patents . . .allow large corporations to buy up vaguely worded deeds that can be used to sue upstarts out of existence. This is the iron ore of the digital age and many large companies are gobbling up as many patents as they can. Reuters recently reported that Amazon (which somehow holds a patent for the "one-click shopping" button) was hiring several high-profile patent lawyers with the mandate to "identify and evaluate strategic I.P. acquisition and licensing opportunities.” The company has argued that it buys up patents to defend against the lawsuits of others. That may be partly true, but the worst fate for readers isn’t the merger of a few struggling companies in a diminishing business. It’s the threat of another U.S. Steel."
Check out the full article here for a more in-depth discussion of the arguments made.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Sorry, all, there's a bug going around town and it got me. I'd post something this morning just to keep the side up, but it would come out like this . . . ummmmm. . . no . . brain . . synapses . . working . . ahhhhhh.


See you soon in less unfocused times.

Friday, November 9, 2012

How To Hit Your Creative Stride

Kathryn Ramsland Ph.D, is a member of Sisters In Crime, an organization that I also belong to. Dr. Ramsland wrote an article for the September 2012 InSinC newsletter in which she described study findings that support two of my favorite things as states of being worth cultivating if you want to tap into your most creative self. What are they?
Meditation, and Being in a Good Mood! Awesome. Here are the findings:
"constructive tips
A regular habit of meditation appears to develop areas of the brain that are involved in mental agility. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that people who meditate for 30 minutes each day have measurable differences in their grey matter—especially in the association cortex. A study involving Buddhist monks confirmed this. They had more “gamma power” in the frontal, parietal, and temporal association cortices. This finding suggests that training can improve our brain’s functioning.
Research at Northwestern university revealed that people in a good mood are better problem solvers and use sudden insight more often than methodical calculations. Seventy-nine participants completed mood state inventories just before they performed an experimental task that involved word completion exercises. When their brains were scanned, activity in the part called the association cortex was consistent with insight solu- tions. The better their mood, the more creative they were. The researchers suggested that a positive mood broadens the scope of attention, externally and internally, which allows for a greater range of data input."
p.s. the ‘association cortex’ referred to above is described by Dr. Ramsland as follows: The association cortex is a part of the brain that "receives and integrates information from a variety of sources and then organizes our cognitive processes. The brain appears to be a system of feedback loops that constantly generate new thoughts."
So here's my plan: meditate 30 minutes each morning, and make sure part of the intention I bring to the meditation is to elevate my general mood. Sound good?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Publishing Tips from William Bernhardt, Author and Extraordinary Teacher

I've excerpted part of Bill Bernhardt's Red Sneaker Writers Newsletter below in order to share some of his insights with you about the changing publishing industry. I was in a week-long writing workshop of Bill's a few years ago, and the man's intelligence and ability to teach writers how to put together a book that will sell are fantastic. Here's some of what he has to say in his current newsletter:

"What you need to know:  Much as you might like traditional books, as writers we must realize that in the future, the ebook clause will be the most important part of your publishing contract, and the paper book clause will be an “ancillary right.”  Traditional books will not disappear altogether, but they will eventually become a luxury item indulged in by an older demographic that can afford to send money on something they can get more efficiently, quickly, and inexpensively in digital form.


I polled a different panel of agents this month, but the answers were not tremendously different:

  1. Romance—with vivid (but not off-putting) sex scenes, and a unique twist readers haven’t seen before.  The largest traditional publisher of romances, Harlequin, has suffered significantly diminished sales all year.  The success of Fifty Shades of Gray and its clones have apparently siphoned away sales of traditional romances.  We could be witnessing an enduring shift in what readers want.
  2. Paranormal teen romance--with high stakes and a unique approach.  What previous generations saw as fantasy or horror is now considered mainstream.  Note that the most popular television show in America at this time isThe Walking Dead.  This is the first time a cable show—a program not on one of the three major networks—has been number one.  I’m also pretty sure it’s the first time the top show has involved a group of people being slaughtered by zombies; and
  3. Some record advances are being paid for inspirational fiction, particularly at Thomas Nelson (which was recently acquired by deep pocket Harper Collins).


Here are my suggestions:

  1. Write every day.  But you knew I was going to say that, right?
  2. If you’re writing something you consider Christian fiction, consider whether you can give it broader appeal without sacrificing your personal writing goals.  Could it be inspirational or spiritual without specifically targeting a particular religion?
  3. What do you think is the biggest problem facing this country today?  Can you concoct a story that in the course of the telling exposes that problem?  This was the approach Dickens used when he planned his novels, and they turned out fairly well.
  4. If you’ve pitched a book and the agents are turning it down cold, you need to make the premise more unique, interesting, or large.  In the more likely case that they ask to see your manuscript but don’t take you on as a client, it indicates that your writing needs work.  Consider more revision or getting outside help."
If this resonates with you, and you're looking for a serious, good writing workshop, I highly recommend working with Bill Bernhardt. Here's what's coming up:


I’m teaching a Level 1 seminar on November 12-16 in Oklahoma City.  The class is limited to eight people or fewer.  Be prepared to work.  We meet approximately four hours a day, you will have homework, and I will read and edit your work every night (and before the seminar begins).  This requires a lot of effort, but you will see a difference in your writing by the time it's all over.  I’m also planning a Level 3 seminar for the week of April 15-19, 2013. 
For more info on the small group seminars, visit my website:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sound Effects In Your Writing

Writing is more effective when the sounds create a rhythm in the reader's mind. Whether the sentences are short and direct or long and complicated, if the words rise and fall through their impact or through their sound, or through the way they sound next to each other, then they hang together with memorable meaning.

Novelists are often told that it's best to mix short and long sentences to create good rhythm and to avoid boring the reader. Cadence, syllable length, sentence length, and word choice all count. This applies to all genres.

We are not often told to pay close attention to the sound of the words next to each other, but that is precisely what Priscilla Long focuses on in her excellent discussion of the use of sound effects in prose. In her book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, she explains the use of sound effects at the word level. Essentially, what Long says we want to do is go for the echo of word sounds.

In poetry, this is done all the time. In prose, all the time is too much for many of us. If you are a writer who values story over words, you will not want to sacrifice pacing to making the words as beautiful as possible. But it's important to realize that even the fastest-paced novels have far greater impact if the writing uses word sound effects to advantage.

Here are two of the types of sound effects that Priscilla Long identifies as effective for creating echoes in prose:

Alliteration: when first consonants make the same sound and thus set up an echo.  For example: 'Power to the People.' Slogans often use alliteration, but in prose writing it's important to use alliterative echoes without overdoing it. Too much is obvious and kitchy (my word, not Long's).

Here's an example of good prose alliteration I found in a short story called Selway, by Pam Houston:

"They threw us their rope and we caught it. There were three of them, three big men in a boat considerably bigger than ours." (Pam Houston, Cowboys Are My Weakness, p. 27, Selway)

See all those 'th's' echoing each other? Notice how the echo creates rhythm and emphasis? Also alliterative here are 'big,' 'boat,' and 'bigger.' Same effect.

Assonance: the echoing of vowel sounds. The words, 'historically, stiffness, and discourse,' for example, assonate in their hiss-stiff-ness-dis sound. Another example Long provides is about saxophonist Ben Webster:

"His tone is thick and reedy, almost as full of air as note." (Ira Sadoff, "Ben Webster," 255)

Priscilla Long points to the long 'o' sounds in this sentence: tone, almost, note.

The reader's ear hears these long o's and strings them together to create an underlying rhythm/sound to the sentence that adds resonance.

Other types of word sound effects are also explored in Long's chapter on Working With Language in The Writer's Portable Mentor, but these two, alliteration and assonance, are techniques that come naturally to most prose writers.

If you take a look through a chapter of your work, you're sure to find places you've used sound effects. If you're like me, you'll find plenty of places where you can improve the writing by realizing what you might do with sound effects to create more emphasis at key points without using more words—just better words, ones that create an echo.

Do you have a standout sentence to share that uses word sound effects well, whether from your own writing or another favorite author?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Laura Diamond's NEW PRIDE Blog Blitz

I'm delighted to help Laura Diamond, psychiatrist, blogger, YA writer extraordinaire, celebrate her launch of NEW PRIDE, the prequel to her upcoming novel release of SHIFTING PRIDE. Here it is .  . TA DAA!!!


New town, new love, new terror.

It’s here! My prequel novelette, NEW PRIDE, releases today. I’m SO stoked for it to run wild in the world.

NEW PRIDE was born from my upcoming novel, SHIFTING PRIDE (coming December 7, 2012!). In SHIFTING PRIDE, the main character, Nickie, searches for her missing father, Richard…and NEW PRIDE is all about Richard’s journey to independence and new love.


A shape-shifter without a pride, Richard Leone strikes a tenuous friendship with power hungry, Derek, from an unstable, rogue group. On a hunt in the forest, they encounter a gorgeous brunette, Molly, partying with friends around a campfire. Derek tells the rogue pride and they bristle at humans trespassing on their territory. Richard risks life and tail to protect his secret and the humans—especially Molly—while simultaneously trying to win her heart. When Molly is kidnapped, he faces taking on the rogue pride alone, but quickly finds he has to put his trust in Derek, not only to rescue his new love, but to ensure the rogue pride doesn’t wreak havoc on his new town.

Author Laura Diamond:

Laura Diamond is a board certified psychiatrist and author of all things young adult paranormal, dystopian, horror, and middle grade. Her short story, City of Lights and Stone, is in the Day of Demons anthology by Anachron Press (April 2012) and her apocalyptic short story, Begging Death is in the Carnage: Life After the End anthology by Sirens Call Publication (coming late 2012). Her debut young adult paranormal romance, SHIFTING PRIDE, is coming December 2012 by Etopia Press. When she's not writing, she is working at the hospital, blogging at Author Laura Diamond--Lucid Dreamer , and renovating her 225+ year old fixer-upper mansion. She is also full-time staff member for her four cats and a Pembroke Corgi named Katie.

How to find Laura Diamond on the web:

YouTube interview:

In The DM Zone—Talking about SHIFTING PRIDE

<iframe width="560" height="315"src=""frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

A bonus: 

I will be giving away copies of NEW PRIDE to several lucky fans! Please click the link below and fill out the form on my fan page to enter.


And, here's the link to purchase NEW PRIDE on the web.

*GROUP HUG* Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to celebrate with me and for helping me spread the word. This wouldn’t be happening without you. Yes, you! Without you, I’d have given up a long time ago. ;)

I hope you enjoy NEW PRIDE and SHIFTING PRIDE.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Done Deal: Penguin/Random House Merger

Well, that didn't take long. Three days ago I saw the first article on this subject, and yesterday the merger was announced as a done deal between the two companies. Actually, the expected merger date is a year away, and there's plenty of time for public discussion/lawsuits to intervene, but it does seem that the merger will probably get pushed through. Since these two giant companies are not only competing with the other four corporations among the Big Six Publishers, but also the emerging powerhouses in digital publishing like Amazon, and Apple, the thing that might have prevented the merger—laws against restraint of trade—doesn't look real viable.

As this article in the New York Times points out, this is probably just the beginning of merger/consolidation in the publishing industry to deal with the changing market environment. Smaller publishers could get absorbed or squished (not NYT language—that's mine), but the article suggests that publishers with dedicated authors and readers might find niche markets and do okay.

In response to expressed concerns from literary agents and authors (and it took until yesterday for any of the articles to even mention authors, btw—literary agents were as far down the money chain as the business brains seemed to go when analyzing the merger talks), the new chief executive of the combined companies sought to offer reassurance as follows:

In an apparent effort to ease those concerns {of authors and literary agents}, Mr. Dohle on Monday sent letters to the author, agent and bookselling communities, seeking to reassure them how much a combined Penguin Random House would value them. “For us, separately and in partnership, it is and always will be about the books. Your books,” Mr. Dohle wrote in the message.
He said in the phone interview that the merger would not result in closing redundant imprints and less editorial independence. “The idea of this company is to combine the small company culture and the small company feeling on the creative and content side with the richest and most enhanced access to services on the corporate side,” Mr. Dohle said.

Considering that all the big publishers are owned by giant media companies, which seem totally focused on profits and, it could be argued, don't fully understand or care too much about the culture of books, it's a leap of faith to accept this statement as likely.

In a separate article a couple of days ago (before the merger went through), written for the British newspaper, The Telegraph, the idea that it might not be a bad thing in the long run for the merger to go through was explored thoughtfully. Essentially, the argument is that by creating the clout (through the merger) to fight back against Amazon's relentless policy of unsustainably low book prices, the important aspects that are traditionally available from the industry that are important to make a good book can be saved. In the long run, low low book prices will be as bad for consumers as they are for authors and the industry. This article is worth a read, because good points are made, and as authors it is in all our interests to be aware of the big picture, and to be able to use the information available to position ourselves as best as possible.

Bottom line of hope: we all know that there are many, many, wonderful book people out there still. Knowledgeable, committed, savvy. We're in the trenches, many not even one step removed any more as self-publishing grows, and we see the good guys as well as the disasters. Maybe with these new mega-market forces pushing publishers to fight for their businesses, some creative solutions will be supported and the good guys will win a few key battles. Let's hope so. Let's stay informed and active, and not sit silently on the sidelines to see what happens.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Setting and Characterization: Make Them Believable and Compelling With Specific Visuals

Readers love writers who write with knowledge, confidence, and authenticity. They love it when they know they're in good hands and the story is going to unfold with detail and believability as well as style. I love that when I'm reading. Who doesn't?

To write that way, we have to be inside our characters' heads, in the room they're in and in the world they're in, and we have to be able to bring those aspects alive. It sounds like a tall order, but there are methods to help us achieve this most important form.

In her book, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, well-known fiction editor Elizabeth Lyon explains the process for us. First of all, she points out that, "As writers, we are our readers eyes. Through us they visualize the setting, characters, and events, and in their mind's eye, readers connect images with emotions and realize an event's literal, as well as its symbolic, meaning." (p. 143)

How do we accomplish being our readers eyes? Through the use of visuals. Lyon argues that every style of writing requires  visuals, whether minimalist or any other. "As an editor, I see minimalist efforts that fall far short of Papa Hemingway's deft spartan style. I also see purple prose that would make Faulkner roll over in his grave. On the whole, though, most aspiring writers err on the side of too few visuals, especially ones selected for specificity, impact, and meaning. (p. 144) (emphasis added)

Specificity in description of setting or characterization is accomplished by avoidance of cliché, selection of concrete nouns (those that can be perceived through a sense organ—eyes, nose, skin, tongue. See 7/23 post: Strong Sentences, Concrete Nouns and Verbs for examples), and creation of an original perspective. (p. 144)

Here is an example that Lyon uses to show specificity of place, from Winterkill, by Craig Lesley, a novel that describes a former thriving Indian village:

Both the sky above the garage and the flat water of Celilo Lake had taken on a slate-gray color. The old village with its salmon-drying shacks and Wy-Am longhouse was gone now that the dam's backwaters had covered Celilo Falls and ended the fishing. Tommy Thompson's home was gone too. The old chief had painted his east door a bright salmon color to catch the sun's first rays each morning.

Yellow corrugated plastic sealed the east end of the new cedar-shake longhouse, and the same plastic covered the peak of the roof, although it had been nailed on earlier and had become faded with passing time . . . . Beside the longhouse, a utility pole had a lead wire strung to a bright blue-and-white Pepsi machine. 

This description is not cliché, it uses concrete nouns (Celilo Lake, salmon-drying shacks, east door a bright salmon color, etc.), and offers an original perspective (the contrast between the former thriving village and the current depressing one).

Here's what Lyon says: . . . The combination of all the visuals not only provides the reader with a clear sense of a place but also delivers a mood and meaning—I feel sad about the loss of an intact culture, distressed over the displacement of people and the incursion of the bright, cheery, Pepsi machine.

Less experienced writers often hurry through the setting or character description, perhaps taking half or three-quarters fewer words than Lesley used. But it is not quantity of description that dissuades a reader. Readers stay engaged by the specificity, impact, and meaning of those images.

The same sort of technique applies to characterization, but to keep this post at a manageable length, we'll leave that for another discussion another day.

My best writing teachers made a point of asking for more detail, more specificity of description, and that I slow down and give the space needed to accomplish these things. When we're caught up in telling a story, and focused on maintaining tension to keep the reader turning pages, it's sometimes difficult to remember how important specific visuals are for bringing the characters and settings to life—but definitely worth the effort!

Do you have examples from your work, or from writers you love, where specific visuals shine?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Random House and Penguin in Merger Talks

An article in yesterday's London-based Financial Times provides a peek at the initial stages of merger talks that are going on between two of the big six publishers—Penguin and Random House. The merger would, according to the article, "create a global market leader in response to the strategic challenges of the fast-growing e-book business."

This leaves me with all questions and no answers. If the merger goes through (and there's serious doubt about that at the moment, since restraint of trade might be raised as an issue), will the new company find a way to recapture the good parts of the traditional publishing industry? More editors; more opportunities for quality products through industry-based (i.e. editorial) attention; more marketing support; more depth of purpose regarding not only surviving and making a profit, but understanding the full market and establishing a stronghold where authors can rely on the system? If wishes were horses . . .

Could this be a beginning, or might it be an end, or just more of the same with a larger corporation? Will this matter to anyone who is not part of these two giant companies? What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Heather McCorkle's blog tour: RISE OF A RECTOR Is Released!

The final novel in Heather McCorkle’s channeler series, Rise of a Rector, has released! To celebrate, and in the spirit of October, Aunt Sylvia from the channeler series is here to tell us about a scary moment in her life. Take it away Sylvia!

Sylvia: Our enemies came knocking one night after they had severely wounded my niece, Eren. They attacked us in our own home, both me and my husband. Knowing Eren and my son were just upstairs, I fought ruthlessly. These people had killed members of my family before, I wasn’t about to let them do it again. When I turned around though, Eren and my son were there, in harm’s way. I fought all the harder but there was no need. Eren and my son proved that they had the legendary fighting blood of our ancestral line running through their veins. They overcame our enemy alongside me.

Check out Heather’s blog for a new tour stop each day until November 2nd. To thank her fans, and future fans, Heather’s historical fantasy novel (a standalone novel that ties into the channeler series) will be free Friday November 2nd and Saturday November 3rd on Amazon. And if Heather gets over 1000 downloads of To Ride A Puca in those two days she’ll give away a $10 Amazon or B&N gift card! So spread the word, get ready to download To Ride A Puca, tell all your friends to download it, and drop by Heather’s blog now to enter to win the gift certificate.

You can find all three novels in the channeler series (The Secret of Spruce Knoll, Channeler’s Choice, and Rise of a Rector) on Amazon and B&N, as well as other retail sites. The channeler novella~and prequel to The Secret of Spruce Knoll~Born of Fire is currently free on Amazon and B&N and you can find a short story about Fane from the series in the FREE anthology, In His eyes. You can add Rise of a Rector to your Goodreads lists at this link.

A final note from me (Linda): many of you know Heather from all the great work she does with social media and cover design, as well as her writing, and how supportive she always is of other writers. It's a pleasure for me to get to help get the word out about her terrific (!) trilogy, and give just a tiny bit back to her for her constant generosity. Thanks, Heather, you rock!! :))

Monday, October 22, 2012

Finding Good Words

One of the changes in writing practices that has come with the internet is easy access online to dictionaries and thesauruses, both of which are indispensable to a fiction writer.

One of the drawbacks of that, in this writer's opinion, is that it's easy to slip into laziness about really searching out words that are not only not cliché, but have the rich background meanings that are just right for the nuances we're trying to convey with our most important tool: our word choices.

I have to admit I'm guilty of not consulting the best sources as often as I need to. I own a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, the Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus (American Edition), and a copy of OED's sister volume on the origins and development of words, the Oxford Etymology. But do those august volumes do me any good sitting prettily on my writing shelf?  Nooooo. These days I seem to expect that the computer should be smart enough to read my needs and give me a pop-up window with all the very best choices as soon as I think, hmmmm, what word would work best here?

Priscilla Long has a few bon mots to say on the subject of using good resources to find your most effective words. In The Writer's Portable Mentor she has a section on where to find good words. Here's what she says (pp.  26-28):

No writer should be without a Very Large dictionary. Would you hire a carpenter to build you a house who had for tools a single pair of pliers? Would you begin a cross-country road trip with one gallon of gas in the tank? No, you wouldn't, but many writers go for years with nothing more in hand than their little college dictionary. (Online app dictionary and thesaurus, anyone?)

Here are the reference books Priscilla Long recommends, with a couple of my own favorites thrown in.

for the true fanatic: Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged, 1934 copyright. (otherwise, a good, more standard Very Large dictionary will do.) Extra words at the bottom of the pages, and elaborate illustrations for many words.

The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. This dictionary traces a word back to when it first entered English [and] gives instances of a word's use from it's earliest appearance to the present. (you can access this dictionary online at the Seattle Public Library so it's worth a try to find it at your own local library.)

At least one ample, argumentative grammar-and-usage book . . . since most dictionaries describe but do not prescribe. Usage manuals prescribe. They fight to maintain the difference between ensure and insure, between that and which . . . They insist that And and But are excellent ways to begin a sentence . . . A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler is an entertaining read. For contemporary work, I would not be without my Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. (Personally, I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style. It is an invaluable resource for these types of issues.)

It is also essential to have a grammar book. One I like is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. (Whoa! I never heard of this one before. Am going to have to check it out.)

Finally, Long closes with this insightful, practical and easy-to-use piece of advice:

What guidebooks are to the world traveler, dictionaries, grammars, and usage manuals are to the writer. But gathering words should take you beyond these reference works to other compendiums of words. (My emphasis.) Clothing catalogs name clothes (chinos, cords, boot-cut jeans). Tool catalogs—try—name tools (ripsaw, bucksaw, coping saw, band saw). Go to an art store for types of brushes and names of pigments (bone black, burnt umber). Go to the United States Geological Survey for geographical features such as shrub-steppe, bog, or slough and for spooky proper names such as the Great Dismal Swamp. You get the idea.

Yes, we do, Priscilla. Thank you!!!