Book Reviews and Writing Tips

Book Reviews and Writing Tips

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Brainstorming to Develop Characters

Sunni's Artwork

I do a lot of reading about writing, if I’m not working on my own WIP, or reading a book to review.  Somehow, this has become my whole life in the last few years.

Naturally, I do a lot of research for stories I’m writing, but it seems I’m doing much more than I ever thought I would.  In the course of research for my freelance work, I have ended up on some amazing sites with information that’s useful in all writing.

Today I thought I’d share an exercise about developing characters.  Unfortunately, I can’t point to any particular resource here because I gather info from many and formulate my own strategy.

It is very important to keep characters straight and to give them a voice of their own that stays consistent throughout your novel.  One way I’ve found to do this is by using a list of sorts.  I’m hooked on lists because they keep me straight in all aspects of my life.  In writing, you’ll find if you have a few secondary characters they won’t stick in your mind as well as the main characters and it’s easy to mix up features, style, beliefs, backgrounds, etc.

A good way to start is making a list that you can keep close by to refer to if you are stuck, or to use in the editing phase.  It is important to know everything about your character before you get too far into the book.  You need to make a note of all the pertinent information, even if you won’t use all of it in your story.  I used to write all this info on scraps of paper I kept in a WIP file with the name of the work at the top.  This get s bit cumbersome after awhile when you need to find something quickly and you have to search for the right scrap of paper.

This evolved into sticky notes that I had everywhere – on my office wall behind my desk, all around my monitor, etc.  Generally, anywhere I could stick one.  I’m the queen of the sticky note and use them to remind me of everything – not just for my writing.

I finally decided upon a better method by keeping a pre-designed form on my computer.  This works well for me, it may work for you too.  It will take awhile to come up with your master, but when you do you can keep it and use it over and over for each story you write – just name it something different each time using “save as.”

I use Word and tables for this.  I’m sure you could do much the same thing in other word processing programs.  It works to create two-three tables on the page for all of your data, or you can turn your page to the horizontal setting so you have more space.  I find I need more categories across the top, hence three tables on a page, and I use the left side to list my characters down the page.

Now the question is what do I need to know about each character?  List these things across the top of your master page, or in your different tables.  Character’s name, hair color and style, eye color, age, build, nationality, where and how raised, mannerisms, beliefs, habits – bad and good, annoying or positive traits, occupation, life goals, schooling, siblings and family, other background info, etc.  You get the idea.  The first column to the left is for each character in your novel.  You can even color code your names if you like to distinguish between your primary and secondary characters.  This is a good way to start out for each book.

Of course, as you are making your master copy, you will not be filling out any of this character info, only organizing your categories for later use.  Keep in mind that you can always separate this form into two-three sections, if you have a few characters.  Doing this may make it easier for you to fit in more background info for each character.

Do the same thing with places in the story, if you have a lot of them to keep straight.  This would be on a separate form of course.

When you’ve finished, be sure to save these as your master copies before you start using it for your first story.

If you try this, let me know how it works for you.  I’m always interested in hearing other ways of doing things too.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Six Sentence Sunday

This is from my WIP "The Bus to Nowhere"

No one at all came to her aide as she looked about in the gloom of morning.  Once to her feet, she shivered and beat at the rat with her small hobo bag.  “Shoo, get out you vile thing!”
Wham!  Wham!  She hit it repeatedly over the head; finally, it jumped at her and was off down the isle toward the back of the bus.  She slumped in the seat exhausted and trembling with fright.
“What’s the matter with you people?”  She half-screamed her question to the passengers that sat like zombies in their seats.  There was no answer.

For those new to this, the rules are simple:

1) pick a project – a current Work in Progress, contracted work or even something readers can buy if you’re published

2) pick six sentences

3) post ‘em on Sunday

See? Easy. Want to play? See the site for information on how to do just that:

If you have a Twitter account, you can add the hashtag #sixsunday to your tweets when you tweet a link to your Six Sentence Sunday post. If you’re a writer (regardless of published/unpublished status) come join us!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What would you do if You Woke One Day to find your life had Completely Changed?

Review of Daimones by Massimo Marino

That’s exactly what happens to Dan, his wife Mary, and their daughter Annah, in this debut novel by Massimo Marino.  This book gives the reader a different view of the apocalypse.
Dan and his family had the almost-perfect life in the French countryside until a mysterious windstorm in February.  Nobody realized that anything unusual had happened until it was time to drive Annah to school.  Vehicles of every type littered the highway, their dead drivers still behind the wheel.  Dan decided to return home and instructed Mary to stay put instead of going to her teaching job.  No one was answering the phone at any of the emergency departments.  The family didn’t know what happened, so decided to go check on their friends next door only to find more death.
Once they discovered that they were the only survivors of some catastrophe, Dan decided it was best to stock up on emergency supplies.  Therefore, instead of looking for a new job, which was the plan, he went to the mall and began to collect food, medical supplies and other things the family may need, not knowing what was coming later.
Luckily the internet still worked, so Dan decided to launch a massive campaign to find any other survivors in hopes of learning more about what they were facing.  While they waited for a response, not expecting any, they continued to collect supplies, even going as far as befriending some neighborhood dogs and arming themselves with survival gear.
At first, it was hard to simply go into the stores and take things without paying for them, but of course, there was no one to pay.  The whole world had become a ghost town.  After awhile that got easier and Dan even allowed himself a few luxuries, as well as the needed supplies.
At home, to keep a sense of normalcy, they went by the calendar and home-schooled Annah.  After school and on weekends they trained the dogs and practiced shooting with the arsenal Dan had gathered.  Everyone tried to stay busy.
However, more changes came as the months went by and their lives took some turns that even they could not have ever predicted in their wildest dreams.  Yet, now, it was a case of survival and adapting to what came their way.
The down-to-earth writing style of this story makes it an enjoyable read, with a bit of humor as Dan contemplates things along the way and even scolds himself for some of his thoughts when they turn morbid.  The characters are real as they face their challenges; the descriptions of the countryside and Geneva are beautiful, bringing the reader into the story to hear the birds chirping, see the blue sky and witness nature taking back the towns and villages.
The conclusion is surprising, giving the reader lots to ponder.  In fact, it is so much information that I had to read it twice in places and think, perhaps, this could have been broken up into smaller increments making it easier to take in.  The ending brings some closure about the catastrophe to this family, but also lays a heavy burden and responsibility on Dan.
The entertainment value of this story deserves five stars, but I’m giving it four only because there are a few editing issues.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Proofread like a Pro in a Few Simple Steps

First, this doesn’t take the place of using an editor for your manuscript, but this could result in your work being better prepared, thus saving editing time, which means saving you money.

The following tips will improve your skills whether you are a newbie or an old pro.

Always double-space your document.  Reading will be a lot easier and you can always adjust formatting later.  Don’t use anything less than a 12-point font either and preferably one that is easy to read.

Do not rely on software grammar checkers alone.  As you all know, these will not catch homophones (words that sound alike but are different, such as here and hear, there and their, to, too and two, etc.)  I always have a problem with from and form too, so I pay special attention to those.

Print out your work or use “track changes” to make your corrections.  I’ve done it both ways.  Sometimes I just want to get my eyes away from the computer screen so I’ll print out some pages to edit.  If you’ve double-spaced your work, you can easily make corrections by marking changes above or below the line.  Always use a red pen or some color that will stand out from the rest of the text.  If you’re worried about paper use, you can print on the reverse side of scratch paper.

Track changes are a feature in Word tools.  I find it invaluable.  You can turn it on and off as needed.  This feature will mark your changes in red on the margin.  After you’ve read your document, just go in and accept or reject the changes you’ve made.  It’s very slick, but with this method, you do have to proof the whole thing on the computer and not from your easy chair.

Don’t attempt to proofread if you’re tired.  It is hard enough after reading the same story five or six times.  After awhile we just skip over corrections, as well as missing punctuation.

Read your work aloud.  You’d be surprised what this will do.  You can easily catch missing words this way, if you go slowly.  This will also give you the opportunity to select better word choices.  If reading from the computer, make sure to turn on your paragraph marker, on the toolbar, so you can double check your spaces as you go.  Most documents these days use one space between sentences instead of two.  Many times, I’ll use two because I think it is easier to read, but that’s a personal preference.  Whatever you do, keep it consistent throughout the document.

Always check capitalization and character names.  I keep a list of this kind of stuff that I use in each story, so it is easy to refer too and you don’t accidentally put in the wrong character’s name or the wrong place.  You can also check character descriptions this way if you’ve made a list of characters (looks, mannerisms, dress, eye and hair color, etc).  You don’t want to make a mistake with proper names and timelines.  In addition, you don’t want Sally to have red hair in one scene and blonde in the next, or give her the wrong eye color.

Double-check the extras.  This includes any graphics and captions you’ve added along with mathematical equations.  Everything should add up and be in the proper place.

Pay attention to spelling.  Always double check and pay attention to words like lie and lay.  Also, be aware of hyphenated words and compound words.  If in doubt look it up.  Often I see different spellings for characters names too, so pay attention to this one as well.

Don’t mix up possessives and contractions.  It is easy to do with your fingers flying over the keyboard.  You may not even notice if you added an apostrophe or left one out.

Review verb tenses as well as punctuation.  This is very easy to mix up.  I’ve done it many times.  Don’t forget you have a “find” feature in your software program; you can search out your “ing” words and your “ly” words that way and see if you can replace them with a positive voice, which will make your writing better.

Pay attention to quotation marks and dialogue punctuation because it is easy to leave some out.

Don’t forget your headers and footers.  You need to proofread them as well.

Once you’ve finished, run your spell and grammar checker.  I always turn on everything that Word allows.  You can find this under tools and options.  This will alert you to passive voice, extra long sentences and fragments, as well as the usual stuff.  If necessary, replace what's necessary.  I don’t worry much with fragments in dialogue because that may just be your character’s voice.

Always review again for anything you missed, even if you think you’re finished, and look at all of your formatting.  This is when you can change it back to single space, if you like, and change your document size unless the editor wants to see it like it is first.

If anyone changes your document into ebook format, make sure you read it again before publishing.  Of course, this also goes when you receive it back from your editor.  It may be tedious, but you really can’t read it enough.  If you get tired, walk away awhile.  It will still be there when you return.

Finally, don’t expect your loved ones to correct your document for you.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Are Self-Publishers Lazy?

The reason I chose this subject today is that there is a very heated discussion going on between some other writers I follow in regards to some remarks made by Sue Grafton about self-publishing.

Most of you have probably heard of Ms Grafton, the mystery writer of the Kinsey Millhone series (A-Z). The summary of her interview with the Louisville Author Spotlight stated that she thought self-published authors were LAZY. Of course, this started a firestorm among the self-published authors I interact with on a regular basis. Her feeling was that many self-published works needed a good editing, among other things. I agree that some books need more editing, but some books from traditional publishers also fall into this category. In reading, I’ve found many errors by big name publishing houses. Self-published authors should not be lumped all together in one big unworthy group. I’m sure that when Ms. Grafton started out, she also struggled before landing that publishing contract.

All authors strive to be successful at their craft. The readers ultimately decide which books are worthy, no matter how that publishing came about. Some may consider mainstream books classier than the self-published titles, but, along with the good stuff, there is plenty of trash published by the big publishers.

Many of the authors publishing today, through the big publishers, are celebrities and media people, who have their stories ghostwritten by us regular people. Generally, the publishing house gives these people a substantial book advance to get their stories, so I’m sure they would never go the self-publishing route. The big publishers are eager to get these books they consider instant moneymakers, it means big bucks for the publishing house. They’re willing to take the gamble on these books, rather than unknown people like you and me.

Choosing self-publishing is extremely difficult and a lonely road we must travel in order to get our name out there in the marketplace among the jillions of books. It is not for everyone that’s for sure. I wonder how many of the big names would make it without the army of professionals behind them, when they are left hanging out there to get it all accomplished themselves.

The big names may have the prestige of having a big publishing house behind them and perhaps this is worth more than the royalties they receive, but if you have the wear with all to self-publish, you are in control of your own destiny in the publishing world. We are the entrepreneurs who can spot new opportunities, seize them, and use that to make an impact in this new world of writing.

In the course of all this, I read that the NY Times bestseller list is possibly starting to do what the music industry is doing: reporting how many CD’s they contracted to booksellers (record stores), not actual sales to the public. This is not confirmed and has to be checked out, but this could shed a different light on things.

All of this reading and thinking led me to do a bit more research on this. I ran across a few blogs that offered some worthy information on the self-publishing industry. The rumor about the NY Times list will have to wait if I want to get this posted today. After all, I’m supposed to be working on a freelance project right now.

I wanted to summarize what I read on the blogs of Kristen Lamb, J.A. Konrath, and Bob Mayer. These blogs contain some interesting info for self-publishers.

In general, self-publishers make five big mistakes.

1. Jumping in to self-publish before your book is ready.

According to Kristen, many writers don’t understand the basics of a story, or the need for editing. She believes writers don’t spend enough time reading fiction or self-help books about the craft of writing. We don’t understand the role of the antagonist in a story, or the three-part structure of story (beginning, middle, and end).

I tend to disagree with some of this thinking, as most books I’ve read by self-published authors do seem to have a clear idea of where the story is going. The characters do struggle with inner demons, addiction problems, weaknesses and insecurities, or some of those as they deal with the problems in the story.

According to Kristen, the characters faults are the arc of the character and different from the plot arc, where the character tackles the problem, grows, and changes from the conflict. I think most of the books I’ve read do a good job with this. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be mindful of the rules of writing. We do become true artists at our craft by knowing and understanding the basic rules and using those in our writing everyday. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.

My biggest issue has been with editing errors, but I find these in all books, whether traditional or self-published. In my mind, you can never edit enough or have too many eyes view your work. Many authors fall short in this area. I can’t ell you how many books I’ve read with words missing, extra words left in, missing punctuation, etc. This is quite annoying, but is fixable if you have a good story.

2. Self-publishers jump in before they know the business side of business.

I’m with Kristen here. There is some expense involved with editing, formatting, and book covers. This is all-important stuff, and depending on your time and expertise, you may be able to accomplish some of it yourself, but it is still probably worth a second set of eyes before you submit those files. The first thing a reader sees is the cover so it is important that it be eye catching and reflects the books contents.

After all this is finished to satisfaction, there are still tax issues to consider because you are in business for yourself. In addition, don’t forget about copyrights for your book.

3. Self-published writers believe if they write it, they will come.

It may be fast to get your book out there on the market, but there is still A LOT of work to do. How will people find you? There are tons of books out there. You had better be ready to venture into the world of self-publishing because hours of work lay ahead of you unless you are already on the NY Time’s bestseller list and people know who you are.

Not only do you need a well-written book, but also you need to be prolific writers. We must work our butts off on social media. Self-publishing is not for everyone. We need a big platform for success, not having the NY Times behind us. We have to spend many hours working in getting our name out there and be willing to sacrifice almost everything to achieve that dream.

4. Self-publishers misuse FREE

I couldn’t agree more with this one. There is never any need to give your work away unless you have another goal in mind. This act needs to serve our longer-term business goals, as Kristen puts it.

This is something to think about in a serious way. If a reader downloads a free book and they like your work, they are likely to go back and purchase some other titles. We have nothing to gain by giving away a freebie IF we have no other titles for sale. We have no idea if that reader will even leave a review of our book once they’ve read it.

For this reason, you can only do so much marketing. It is IMPORTANT to keep writing. We all need to have multiple titles if we are entertaining the thought of giving away free books.

Kristen goes on to mention the use of bundling to give away free books. That way it is a win for both the writer and reader. I couldn’t agree more. I’m not a believer in giving away any of my hard work for free, but it does make sense to offer a book for $4.99 and give away a freebie with that purchase, perhaps a short story. The reader will probably jump on that in a minute. This way your work retains its value even with the free status, so it is a win-win situation. You could also say something like this, buy two books at $4.99, and receive free shipping, etc. Doesn’t this make sense?

5. Don’t be guilty of shopping one book to death.

Personally, I see this done all the time. I follow many writers’ threads and I get so sick of the same messages in, my inbox on a daily basis. Yet, I know these fellow writers are desperate to get their message out there.

According to the aforementioned blogs, we should never write one book and then push the hell out of it without sitting down to keep writing. Pomos and blog tours, etc. are good, but the only thing that will sell more books is writing more books. You can’t promote to death until it becomes a spam issue.

The thing to remember is that it takes a few books to get your name out there. One thing in the self-pubs favor is that they own their own schedule and are not under the control of a traditional publisher; therefore, it is easier to get more books out there quicker. Supposedly, it still takes a minimum of three titles, but the ability to offer more than one title should enhance your success.

It is vital to keep writing. The more you write, the better you’ll get at your craft. Once people discover your work, and if they like what they read, there will be multiple books for them to choose from, thus enhancing your success. This will also help you to maximize the FREE tactic, as discussed earlier.

What are thoughts on this? Please check out the other blogs for writers I mentioned. I found a lot of useful info there and tried to share a summary with you all.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Using Short Story Writing Tips to Write a Novel

Today people are in a hurry thus making way for the short story and flash fiction to become popular. A short story is usually less than 10,000 words while flash fiction is between 500 and 1,000 words. Micro fiction is also popular with a maximum word count of 300. This of course doesn’t work well for me, as I tend to go on and on, unless I’m writing a very short blurb about some cat escapade, so it would be quite a challenge for me to fit it all into this word count. Word choice is absolutely a paramount consideration. Everything here definitely has to be “show, don’t tell,” which it should be anyway, but I tend to get too descriptive to write any coherent story in 300 words. I think even 1000 words would be pushing it.

You can, however, use the tips here when novel writing. In short stories, there is still a beginning, middle, and end. You must deliberately choose every word to enhance the story and cut all others. Here are five techniques to use for setting a story into a small word count, or for using to create individual scenes in novel writing.

Choose an idea. When you’re writing a short story, there is no space for impressive plots and subplots. One small problem or situation will take all the word count. You will have a few characters in a short story and maybe the main character and one or two others in flash or micro fiction. This will still work out for scenes in your novel.

Start the story with action. There is no time for back-story. Dialogue is a good place to start with some emotion or important conversation in the middle of some action. This will hook the reader.

Immediately raise a question the reader will want answered. This is a way to invest people in the story from the first line.

Focus on a theme that will set the mood. It is important to have story continuity and not go off rambling. The story needs to be a picture of an event in time with all the pieces fitting together.

The ending is just as important as the beginning and should be a surprise, or a shock. Whatever you choose needs to sound logical to the reader, even a twist must make sense. The reader will be satisfied and glad they read the story if the ending ties up loose ends, answers questions and makes an impact.

Focusing on one event and using word choice is essential, but you can see how this technique can be a benefit in novel writing. Keeping everything short and to the point will add excitement and impact to your story.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Passing of Another Author

RIP Maeve Binchy

May 28, 1940 – July 30, 2012

Well I was going to get back to more info that is useful for writers, but I thought this deserved a mention. It is the least we can do to spend a few minutes in contemplation of an author’s life when they move on to the next plane.

On Monday, Maeve Binchy did just that after a brief illness in a Dublin hospital. She was in the hospital for a serious heart condition in 2002, but her cause of death wasn’t disclosed.

This was a romance author so maybe not all of you know her. Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate to either, but I do have one book by this author, Nights of Rain and Stars, published in 2004. I always do a short review in the back of my books after reading them, I’ve noted, “This is different writing, but an enjoyable story with a happy ending.”

Upon hearing the news of her death, I decided to do a bit of research into her life. It is always a sad thing to hear about someone with so much talent leaving us. I was surprised to learn how successful she was.

I would like to note that Maeve Binchy was a former teacher and journalist for the Irish Times, later moving to London to be their correspondent, selling over 40,000 books in her lifetime. This was way beyond her expectations when she published her first book at the age of 42. While writing her books, she continued to write for the Irish Times until 2000.

While in London, she met her future husband, a broadcaster named Gordon Snell, who is also a children’s author. Soon after they married in 1977, they moved to the village where she grew up. They had no children.

She was born in Dalkey, a small village outside Dublin, the eldest of four children. Many of her books are set in an Irish village and depict human relationships and their resulting crisis. Plots and subplots meander through her work that invariably ends with acceptance and growth.

Two of her novels and a short story went on to become films. Circle of Friends, (1990), based on her college days and a coming of age story is set at the University of Dublin, stars Minnie Driver. Tara Road, (1999), stars Andie MacDowell and Olivia Williams and is about two women, one American and one Irish, who swap houses for the summer in hopes of dealing with recent tragedies. How about You, (2008), a short story about a bunch of sour souled retirees living in a house in Dublin when a vivacious young woman shows up and changes their entire outlook on life. It stars Vanessa Redgrave. Besides this, two of her books were made into TV movies, Echoes, a 1988 miniseries, about small town Irish life and The Lilac Bus, in 1900, about travelers on a bus to Dublin.

Now I don’t know about you, but some of these sound interesting. It may be worth looking up the books when I have more reading time.

Her eighteenth novel, A Week in Winter, is scheduled to be published later this year.

She considered herself a writer of books that would appeal to people on vacation and thought she was lucky to live in the time of mass-market paperbacks.

She lived her life with the positivity depicted in her books.

Here is a brief quote she gave in an interview to Australia’s Illawarra Mercury newspaper in 2000. “I don’t think you’re happier if you’re thin, or beautiful, or rich, or married. You have to make your own happiness. My heroines do not become beautiful, elegant swans; they become confident ducks and get on with life.”