Of Love Notes and Track Changes

February 28, 2014

beagle hugsI love a good note. I write them to myself all the time. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t remember to buy chicken tenders and toothpaste. I even leave myself little notes in my writing. When penning Donovan’s Paradigm, I left myself love notes that were almost as long as the manuscript itself…”Insert heart attack scene here.” or “Ask about drugs used for patient allergic to morphine.” or “Insert screaming match here.”

I totally get love notes – you’re either creating a chapter foundation and don’t want to interrupt the flow, or needed to go back and research a bit more. But it might be a better idea to insert these love notes in the margin so it stands out. It’s too easy to miss a love note that’s in the manuscript. Even if it’s another color. I know because I see them in submissions. [Insert chess scene here], or [Change names of everyone in this scene]. This is like seeing a manuscript’s lacy Victoria Secrets. I don’t wanna see this. I want a finished manuscript.

Track Changes

Same thing goes for the Track Changes feature. Authors forget to Accept or Reject Changes and turn the Track Changes feature off. So I’ll see all the little love notes between the author and their beta readers or indie editor. “This part is really rough, you need to beef this up.” “An editor will skewer you if you leave this in.” Ouch. Talk about seeing lacy Vickie Secrets.

Don’t be in such a hurry to bang a manuscript out to an editor’s desk if she asks to read your full. Do yourself a favor and insert all your editorial notes in the margin…which is hideously easy. In Word, there is a Track Changes feature, which allows you to do all sorts of things, and inserting a comment is one of them. In later versions, you’ll find this feature in the Review tab.

Love notes and Track Changes are great, but they’re meant to be private. Oh, and that reminds me that I’m almost out of designer doggeh chewies…


Chapter Content – Too Much or Not Enough?

February 10, 2014

pondering
Have you ever read a book and thought a chapter or three went on for too long? Or not long enough? Or worse, they seemed to be a confusing mish mash of information all piled on much like the old college prank of stuffing a VW bug? This aberration comes from a lack of proper organization. Sounds simple, no?

The answer? Re-organize, and you have great chapters. Okay, if it were that easy, we wouldn’t have this problem of wonky chapters, right? Here are some of the things I look for when I edit.

Chapter Intent

I look for chapters that are clear about what they’re saying. I want them to have a clear direction. It’s like the time when we first moved to Pittsburgh. We were trying to find a particular furniture store, and Zelda (what I’ve named my phone’s navigation app) took us on the wildest goose chase that I’m still shocked we didn’t end up in Ohio. Bitch. If she had just gotten rid of all the ups and downs, turns and twists, we would have gotten to the store in fifteen minutes, instead of forty-five.

It’s the same with chapters. If a chapter introduces a character, then zaps over to backstory, then teleports over to the history of the setting, I’m going to request the author’s bloodletting, because there’s no sense of direction.

A lot of us just sit down at the computer and barf out our chapters. It isn’t until subsequent drafts that we begin to refine and define. This is why an outline can be helpful at some point in the revision process. It forces you to stay on task and prevents you from wandering off the railroad tracks…or from going on and on and on and on…

A chapter should have a beginning, middle, and an end…which leads me to…

The Middle Stuff

If you’re clear on your chapter intent – example: “This chapter explains why I have Rescue Beagles in my employ, and why I won’t allow them to answer the phone anymore” – then the middle stuff needs to support that intent. If you keep it clear, then it makes it easier to know how and where to end your chapters.

Chapter Ending

There have been times when I’ve reached the end of the chapter and turned the page looking for the rest, because I didn’t realize I’d reached the end. Instead, the chapter left me hanging and had zero impact. I call that Endus Abruptus. To me, abrupt is only effective when the Rescue Beagles of Questionable Breeding breeze into my airspace to polish off my margarita. The only solution is to shout out an abrupt, “Get your own damn drink!”

Endus Abruptus shouldn’t be confused with a cliffhanger, which is equally abrupt. Oh nay nay. These offending chapter endings leave a scene unfinished. It’s like a punchline that makes no sense, and you need further explanation in order to get its meaning.

Conversely, I’ve read plenty chapters that actually ended two pages ago, and the authors seemed unaware of that fact. Instead, they rambled on and on until the ending sort of faded away – in much the same fashion as my imbibing one too many Fireballs.

There are all kinds of ways to end a chapter, but they have one thing in common; they make sense. Where and How to end a chapter is as intentional as the plot and character development.They satisfy whatever transpired in that chapter by giving enough information to keep you turning the pages. They have a Mini-Me version of rising action, climax, and falling action.

Paragraph Transitions

I’m big on transitions because I can be thick between the ears. You gotta lead me from Point A to Point B in a logical fashion. If one paragraph is about a character’s thoughts on the weather, and the next one goes into firing one of his employees, then you need a transitional sentence that leads into that next paragraph because, without it, there is nothing remotely linking those two paragraphs together.

Think of transitional sentences as couplers between railroad cars. They’re the magic that keeps the entire train together. Take out a coupler, and the train falls apart. Same goes for transitions between paragraphs of differing topics.

Example:

Being a native Southern Californian, I had no idea about the dangers of snow and freezing rain when I moved to Pittsburgh. I’m an idiot that way. Most I ever had to worry about was whether to put on short sleeves and bring a sweater, or just wear long sleeves and ditch the sweater. Weather meant looking at the surf report, not ice skating on my driveway in my best shoes. Though today, it looked like ice skating would be the main course of my work banquet, since I finally decided to fire the Rescue Beagles – their antics were taking a toll on my last shred of sanity.

“Rescue Beagles, you’re fired. You can’t type, you refuse to file, and your phone manners are dismal. I give you points on your margarita-making skills, but you can’t continue biting the pizza delivery guy and expect to collect a paycheck.”

The sentence in red is the transitional sentence. Without it, the reader would do the blink blink thing before hurling the book across the room. Avoid the book hurl.

Chapter Balance

This is where I go all feng shui and call people “Grasshopper.” Balance is a delicate internal gauge that ensures the information in each chapter has the proper weight. For example, if your chapter exposes how your main character discovers pygmy yaks have been eating all her Coach purses while she’s at work, then you need to put the proper amount of literary weight behind which element you feel is most important. Is it the discovery behind who’s eating the purses, or is it how your main character caught them?

It’s easy to throw off an entire book by giving more weight to inconsequential things, while paying less attention to the really important stuff that needs explanation. Recently, I read a manuscript where one chapter talked about meeting her long lost aunt, whom she thought was dead. It was quite pivotal. But instead of talking about that, the author chose to go into backstory, and paid scant attention to actually meeting the aunt. Grasshopper wrote that chapter completely out of balance.

So, dear Grasshopper, chapters are the building blocks of your book. If they’re filled with a clear intent, are well-balanced, have effective transitions, and come to a logical conclusion, then this makes it easier to edit (which makes me deliriously happy) into a bright package of fabulosity. Go forth and rocketh your world.


Literary Caboose – Satisfying Endings

January 12, 2014

I lurve me a book with an ending that scratches every literary itch and leaves me spent. After all, endings are the literary caboose to your story. Your writing can be the stuff that bring nations to their knees and beg for a good spanking, but screw up the ending, and it’s, “Book, meet Wall.”

Your literary caboose can’t be taken lightly. Evah.

The good thing is that, like writing, there aren’t any real rules to endings. They can either knock you on your ass, or hint at the how the character’s conflict resolves itself, and they can be equally satisfying.

Balance

I look for endings that, first and foremost, are equally balanced to the story. If I read a thrilling adventure story, then I expect an equally thrilling ending. It’s a lot like my meatloaf dinner (about the only thing I cook well). I need to have an equal amount of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, so I can have a bite of each in one forkful. If it’s out of balance, I can go back and get more of whatever I ran out of. Unfortunately, the reader isn’t as fortunate, so they’ll simply say terrible things about you and throw your book to a couple of ravenous Rescue Beagles. Eeek.

Conflict

To me, an ending that puts the jam in my jelly doughnut is proportional to the conflict. Conflict gets my attention – the bigger, the better because the protagonist has more to lose. So I keep turning the pages to see how it turns out…will the protag get what s/he wants? Given the enormity of the conflict, I’m expecting a good payoff.

mommy-tinyAn example of conflict is in Kate McLaughlin’s book MOMMY, I’M STILL IN HERE. Kate’s daughter was diagnosed with one of the most severe cases of bipolar disorder docs had ever seen. Her cycling could happen in a matter of hours instead of days, and her daughter’s behavior threatened hers and her family’s life in the most horrific ways – which kept my heart in my mouth as I flew through the pages.

Because so much was at risk, I expected a huge payday…and I wasn’t disappointed. At. All. In fact, I think it was the first time I finally blinked.

So ask yourself whether your literary caboose is in proportion to the conflict. One shouldn’t overpower the other.

Evokes An Emotional Response

Testicles-smI remember reading Melissa Haynes’ LEARNING TO PLAY WITH A LION’S TESTICLES. I blubbered and laughed my fool head off throughout the entire manuscript. The animals of S. Africa (including the one on two legs) taught her so much about life and coming to terms with her mother’s passing, and I was right there along for the ride. She had me so emotionally invested in her story, that her ending was like landing on a soft cloud. I couldn’t read another book for about a week because I wasn’t ready to leave the aura of her story and the impact it made on me.

Melissa knew exactly how to tap into a reader’s soul (even those of us who don’t posses one), and give it a gentle massage.

Is your book an emotional story? If so, does your ending give the reader an equally emotional response?

Main Character Takes Action

Since your story has a main character and something is happening to him/her, and they’re working toward some kind of outcome, it only goes to reason that the ending would include the main character taking action.

Example:
Rescue Beagle #1 tries to figure out if stealing the ham off the counter is worth the risk of Overworked and Underpaid Editor’s brain blowing up. She decides that not only is it worth it – because ham is oh-so yummy, but that it would be kinda fun to see OW&UP Editor’s brain blow up. So she decides to go for it, and has Rescue Beagle #2 hoist her up on the counter.

The part in red is the action. Without taking any action, the ending – the literary caboose – falls flat.

The Great Hint

That’s not to say that you always see the main character taking action “on screen.” Sometimes a story is equally powerful if the ending hints at the main character’s action – and leaves it up to the reader’s imagination.

9781933016573-frontcoverA prime example of that (wee horn tooting here) is with my novel, DONOVAN’S PARADIGM. New surgeon Kim Donovan has gone from crisis after crisis with her new hospital and the lead surgeon (love/hate relationship), and her soul is weary, used up, spent, crapped out. She needs a change of scenery, but it scares the hell out of her because she’s worked so hard to get a new experimental healing program at her hospital, and she’s afraid to let go.

I don’t reveal what action she takes because it felt emotionally right to do so, and actually made for a more powerful ending. Instead, I leave it up to the reader to decide what she does. Hmm…slight spoiler alert, huh? I will say I thought it a great ending.

Is the Hint Ending a good choice for your book? Sometimes writers simply don’t know how to end a story because they don’t want to leave some mystery. This could be a good option to think about.

Showdown Ending

I lurve me a good showdown. You know, where the bad guy, who’s been kicking everyone else’s ass, finally gets his own come-uppance.

REDEMPTION - HIGH RES - final frontI have to think no further than Chris Baughman’s REDEMPTION – Book 2 of the OFF THE STREET series. Ho-lee-crap. This is one of the most amazing showdown endings I’ve ever read. I remember standing up on my couch and belting out a whoop and screeching, “Oh hell YES!”

The reason I was filled with such bloodlust is because Chris does such an exemplary job at making me hate, hate, hate the pimp in this case – which was actually a kid Chris had gone to high school with <shudder> – by showing the evil that drenches every cell of his pathetic being.

Throughout the whole story, I was itching for Chris to bust this guy’s ass into next year, yet Chris shows admirable, yet frustrating, restraint. But when it becomes absolutely necessary for Chris to take action, the showdown made my intestines explode. I was exhausted, yet exhilarated, when I got to the last page.

Is there a showdown in your book?

Other niggly things that I look for in a satisfying ending also include:

Climax: This is the part that leads to the ending, so it shouldn’t be rushed. Takes your time preparing your reader for the big kapow. Okay, I could get a bit X-rated here to refine the point, but you get the idea. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am doesn’t work anywhere.

The Big Kapow – keep it short and sweet: This is the actual ending, the big wrap up. It’s what happened to the main character as a result of the Climax. It’s the closure. And it’s short and sweet – a scene, max. If it dawdles on too long, it cancels out the climax, and the reader gets bored. “Yeah, yeah, I get it, they rode off into the sunset. No need to show that Mr. Cowboy Pants doesn’t know how to light a fire and asks the Western Beauty if she brought a lighter.” That’s for another book. End it and be done with it.

Deus Ex Machina: Oh, how I detest this element. Maybe someone can come up with an example where this was used effectively. But to me, this is what inexperienced writers do, and they’re so contrived that it makes me want to mainline cheap gin. Deus Ex Machina solves a seemingly unsolvable problem by introducing a new character, object, or event, and boOm…instant ending. Blah. I say rip the skin off that suckah. I usually refer to this as the Scooby Doo ending. Double blah.

Logical/Believable: A satisfying ending means that it makes sense. If your main character is a serious surgeon who’s wanted nothing more than to practice medicine and is passionate about incorporating alternative healing methods in her surgical practice, then it makes no sense for her to chuck it all to join the circus and ride elephants. The story HAS to lead the reader to that possibility. Readers are smart, and they have a good feel for what your character would and wouldn’t do. Your ending can have a surprise, but it has to be logical. Check to make sure readers will buy off on your ending.

If you’re stumped on your ending, try messing about with it, using some of the examples I put here. It could be that your literary caboose will have nations falling to their knees and begging for a good spanking.


Friends and Lovers of Writers: Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned…

January 4, 2014

writers rules1. This warrants a quick kick to the shins of the person who deigns to ask such a ridiculous question.
2. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this question. I always tell them that I have written the latest bestseller.
3. Ok, I wanna show of hands for those of you who have heard this and wished you had a dime for every time someone uttered this. If we pooled our money together, I bet we could throw one hell of a party.
4. True story: I asked an ER doc about the weirdest thing he’d ever seen while on shift during a full moon, and he regaled me with a story about a patient who presented with a hairdryer up her hoo hoo. Now I had to research that. Hey, don’t look like that…you’d do the same.
5. My family has personal experience with this. Entire conversations took place that I have absolutely no memory of. The fallback in the Price Batcave was, “Was Mom writing when you said that?” It was my get outta jail free card.
6. Oh. Hell. Yes. To that bitchy teller at the bank…Chapter 3 is on you.
7. I…oh…um…yeah, whatever.
8. I can attest that I have NEVER done this. Ever.
9. To this I say, bless Doris Dumrauf and Annette Dashofy and their Christmas gifts…
10. Word.


Thou Shalt Only Publish Here, Not There, Nor Anywhere

December 20, 2013

I'mstuckwithyou

I received an email from an acquaintance who received a contract offer with an alarming clause, and he wanted to know if this was a standard clause.

In a nutshell, the clause forbids the author from submitting subsequent similar stories to other publishers – or self publishing it. All stories that are deemed “similar” fall under the jurisdiction of that publisher and must remain with that publisher.

Now, this is entirely different from a First Right of Refusal clause, which simply states that the author must give their publisher the first right to review subsequent manuscripts, and reject it or offer a contract. I wrote about it here,

This is far more overreaching, so I’ll explain the pitfalls:

Definition of “Similar”

There is no definition of “similar,” in the contract, so how is the author supposed to understand what falls under the current publisher’s purview and what he can submit elsewhere? Are they talking about genre, plot, characters, setting? Further muddying the waters is, how does the publisher possibly enforce that clause with such dubious wording?

Many authors write in the same genre, so if an author writes YA distopia, does this clause grab all of the author’s future YA distopia? Or are we talking the characters? Without having this clearly stated in the contract, the author is walking a tightrope without a safety net. The worst of all is that the publisher has ultimate control over what they deem “similar.”

Authors can’t be held to a moving target. Define by what is meant by “similar,” then maybe there’s something to work with. However, at that, I would never, never, never suggest an author sign such a ridiculous clause in the first place. And, frankly, I would question any publisher who would put that into their contracts.

Author Freedom

My friend’s acquiring editor told him this clause is meant to help grow the author’s career by cutting down on cases where the author could find themselves competing against their own work by having similar books at different publishers.

Personally, I think this is a load of camel slop because first and foremost, the publisher is inhibiting the author’s freedom to do what he wants with his writing career. What this really does is help the publisher corner the market on that author’s “similar” works, therefore ensuring maximum sales for the publisher…which, in theory, is good for the author.

And sure, I can imagine the frustration a publisher would have seeing one of their authors give another publisher a similar book. The original publisher worked hard to establish the author’s platform in the marketplace, and now they have competition. And my answer to this is that it’s incumbent upon the publisher to be so freaking fabulous that the author wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. It should be a relationship of fabulosity, not force.

You do not, not, not take away an author’s freedom. It sends a terrible message, and…well…it’s rude. A publisher is either up to the task of doing good things for their authors, or they’re not, and the author should have the ability to move on if they want. Good publishers don’t keep their authors by force.

Publisher Suckosity

And this brings me to another point. Publisher suckosity. What if you sign a contract with this clause and you find out down the line that the publisher isn’t doing a good job in promoting, marketing, distributing, and selling your book? The clause makes you their writerly slave.

Signing a contract is a happy happy time, filled with daisies, puppies, and rainbows. Authors never imagine the possibility of a Dark Lord of Suckosity surfacing, bringing slobbery, murky, bloaty gnomes whose sole job is to make you wish you’d never picked up a quill.

So the worst case scenario is that not only have you discovered the Dark Lord of Suckosity, but this lousy clause ties you to them with lightning bolts.

Any clause that gives the editor control over deciding what “similar” means is meant to favor the publisher. Trying to insist that these clauses are meant to protect the author is publishy-speak for, “Gee, I hope they didn’t see through my smoke and mirrors.”

This clause puts you in a Demilitarized Zone – you’re not free to take a step forward or backward because they own your soul and tell you what you can and can’t write.

My advice to my friend was to run. Far and fast. And if you see a clause in a contract, I urge you to join my friend. Stay safe, dear writers!


Cover Art, Tommy Johns, and Pig Farts

December 16, 2013
PH1_TATOE_160609_05

“I call my mother every day and walk little old ladies across the street.”

“Never judge a book by its cover.”

That’s been the standby moms around the world stuffed into our disbelieving ears when they were trying to make a point about looking past the surface to see the good. In my case, Mom was trying to impress upon me that Tommy Johns was probably a really nice kid and that I needed to look past the fact that he spit on us girls at recess and called us pig farts. Right, Mom, I’m sure deep down he was a real prince.

The truth is we abso-freaking-lutely do judge books by their covers, whether they’re on two feet and spitting on girls at recess, or surrounding a bunch of type-written pages.

And it doesn’t just affect us mortals. Years ago our publicity director took a meeting with one of the premiere reviewers in New York. They ooo’d and ahh’d over our books as they passed them around, commenting on the lovely cover art. They sheepishly admitted to being influenced by cover art…just like the rest of us. I’m shocked. Shocked.

I wrote about cover art here, so I won’t rehash those particulars. Instead, I’ll bring up these points:

You Ain’t a Pro

A number of you are self-pubbing your books and happen to be handy with digital artwork, so you feel competent in designing your own cover. My advice? Don’t.

Cover design has unique properties that attract unsuspecting readers. Colors can attract or repel. Fonts can make your eyes squint. Graphics can be muddy hot messes.

I feel pretty confident that I can toss together a fairly decent garage sale sign. But cover art? I’d rather spit on Tommy Johns at recess and call him a pig fart. You need to understand fonts, graphics, colors, and visual appeal. Unless you’re a professional book cover designer, then you ain’t a pro. This is why so many self-pubbed books are overlooked. They look homemade. It’s cute for Christmas decorations, but not for a book.

Heck, I don’t consider myself a pro. Okay, maybe I have a better idea than your average bear, but I leave the heavy lifting to our lovely cover designer. I’ve had great ideas any number of times, and she’ll write me back asking if I’ve been dipping into the cooking sherry again. What I can do is tell her the feel I’m looking to evoke with the artwork, and she produces the magic. Then my sales teams rip me to shreds and ask if I’ve been dipping into the cooking sherry. Tough life I lead.

Ten Foot Test

The lucky thing is that I have a team of many to keep me on the straight and narrow. It’s woefully easy for a self-pubbed author to go wrong. Case in point, an author I knew hired an artist to do the artwork for his fantasy. The graphic was amazing and intricately detailed. However, whenever I closed my eyes, all I saw was a blob of purple. I feared this would be the takeaway perspective readers would have when they entered a bookstore. Clearly, it didn’t meet the Ten-Foot Test – meaning that the cover needed to be memorable and clear from ten feet away.

Think book signings: People come into the bookstore and see you standing in front of a pile of books. If all they see are purple blobs, then there’s nothing to pull them over to your table, unless you’re offering free shots of Fireball.

Consult a BOOK COVER DESIGNER. Only they understand how to make your book cover sing. Stick to what you know; writing.

Shrinky Dinky

Something else to consider is that your cover art will be shown in the online stores like Amazon and BN.com, along with review sites. These are thumbnail size. If your cover art is intricate, the shrinky dinky thumbnail jpg of your cover will require readers to don microscopes, and I usually leave mine in my other purse.

This is the same case for your printed bookmarks, business cards, or other promo giveaways. Your cover needs to stand up to being miniaturized a la Fantastic Voyage so you can attract readers.

Publisher Cover Art – Yeech!

Okay, so even reputable publishers can screw the pooch. So what happens if you find yourself in that position? Well, you could spit on your editor and call her a pig fart, but you may as well toss yourself under a garbage truck if you pull that trick. My suggestion is to talk to your editor. I’m not saying she’ll necessarily change her mind, but you should definitely say something.

It’s helpful if you can present solid reasons as to why you don’t like the cover art. Saying, “I don’t like it!” isn’t helpful. Is it the font? The colors? The graphic? Do you feel it doesn’t represent the tone and emotion of your story? Be specific. The more professional you are, the more willing your editor may be to offer a few changes.

Conversely, the editor should be able to defend the cover art as to why it’s a smart, visually appealing walking billboard for your book. If she can’t or won’t, then maybe she is a pig fart.

Do Your Best

The truth is that no one’s perfect with the cover art because art is subjective. What I think is gawd-awful-stick-my-finger-down-my-throat may be squee-worthy to another. The important thing is to do your best by putting your cover in the hands of those who do this for a living. Make them explain to you why their design works. Learn from them. And most of all, put your emotions aside. Publishing is a business, and the cover art is the main packaging.

As for Tommy Johns, I often wonder if he went pro with the spitting thing…


Giftie Ideas For The Writer in Your Life

December 13, 2013

grammarmugsThis should come with a bloody red editing pen, if you ask me…


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,219 other followers

%d bloggers like this: