Sunday, August 14, 2011

Author branding: I am, I love, I believe (and I write)

In a guest post on, Laurel Marshfield (Blue Horizons Communications) describes authors' brands as messages they put out about themselves.  Marshfield says "Your brand is your author story ... you need to consciously make use of the intersection between your personal life story and the story your books tell. And then, you need to use that intersection to dialogue with interested readers."  She cites author Jodi Picoult’s webside as an example of effective branding.

This may not be the ultimate definition of "branding," but it's one I think I understand.  So I ask myself, do I have a brand?  Maybe so.  My two novels-in-progress share some characteristics, and they do reflect who I am, what I love, and what I believe.  (Also the kind of books I like to read). Here's a partial list.

1. Appreciation for ordinary people in a distinct cultural setting--in my case, wilderness, rural, and small-town.  In my reading, this shows up in preference for books set in other cultures:  A Fine Balance (Mistry), Brick Street (Ali), Cutting for Stone (Verghese), State of Wonder (Patchett).

 My two WIPs, The Girl on the Mountain and Ridgetop are set 100 years apart in the same Appalachian region. 

2. Fascination with the mountain wilderness, maybe because much of West Virginnia's terrain and flora present challenges and difficulties to overcome as well as spectacular views.  I never tire of the view from my windows. 

3. Love of history, especially the history of industry and everyday implements used by our great-grandparents.  I love old things.

4. Respect for people, because all creation is precious.  I think this means I will never have a villain who isn't partly sympathetic. 

Enough about me.  How about you?  What's the connection between you and your stories?  What's your brand?

See Laura Marshfield's full post:
What's an Author Brand?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Breakup: When to divorce your project

Do you have at least one novel, short story or poem you've been editing for years?

Do you find tweaking words easier than starting something new?

If so, you may need to divorce that project.

Breaking up is hard to do.  Describing gamers' addiction to FarmVille in a Wired Magazine article ("Gamed," July 2011), Dan Ariely explains why it's hard to stop working on our creations.  "Once people take all the little steps to build a farm, they become invested in it--and thereby value it more highly.  The more complex and difficult and time-consuming a process is, the more we fall in love with our creation and the more we become interested in the game."

Complex, difficult, time-consuming, and hard to give up. Sounds like my addiction.  Does it sound like yours?

It's great to be invested and to love what we do.  But attachment to an old project keeps us from going forward.

Nine months ago, burned out from working too intensely on Wacky Road, I divorced that sucker and embarked on painful weeks of brainstorming a new story, The Girl on the Mountain, something very different.  I blogged about this earlier in Writing from Scratch.

Now Girl is undergoing the critique process, and I've transitioned to something new, inspired by John Locke's How I Sold 1 Million ebooks in 5 Months!   Locke says that a reader who enjoys your first book is likely to look for another of your books right away.  Therefore, bringing out two or more at the same time can give you a bump in sales.

Everybody acknowledges that generating ebook sales is tough, maybe next to impossible for those of us who don't write in highly popular, sensational genres.   We need all the help we can get.  But here's something encouraging:  Joe Konrath, in his blog A Newbie's Guide to Publishing mentions that ebooks will last forever.  Forget shelf-life.  Your ebook has a chance to sell over time, or at least until popular tastes change.

So now I'm happily romancing a story I divorced almost ten years ago.

Separation from your story doesn't have to be permanent.  You can fall in love again, and write better, the second time around.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Write chapter summaries as you draft

I've always hated to write summaries, but in working on my current project,  I actually found them useful. 

Instead of waiting till the final draft to tackle the dreaded task, I started writing a summary as I finished each chapter.  But I didn't begin to do this until I was more than half way through the first draft, so I had to catch myself up, reviewing and writing summaries for all the chapters up to that point.

The first good thing about it was the way it ended my confusion about what was happening at particular points in the story.  That's why I did it.  I was lost.

The second, unexpected good thing was how the summaries showed problems, contradictions, and inconsistencies.  I found chapters where there was nothing much happening, or too much.  Plot threads I'd forgotten about and hadn't carried forward.  

I still hate this kind of writing, but heartily recommend you write summaries as you go along.  It's easier when everything's fresh. Use the summaries as a reference to keep yourself straight.  When you write the next draft, revise them as necessary.  When someday a publisher asks to see your first fifty pages and your chapter summaries, the summaries will be seasoned veterans.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The pause before the end

Here's the current problem.  Come to think of it, it's my typical old problem.  I'm near the end of a first draft, and reluctant to write the finish.   Instead of plowing ahead, I decided to explore why, maybe do a better job when I get back to it.

It's not burnout.  I know what that feels like.  This pause feels more like fear that I've missed something.  It feels like staying up late because the day was boring, like checking the house before going on vacation. 

The story may not be ready to end.

Even if it is, there's good reason to pause.  Readers expect something satisfactory to emerge from the situation, conflict, or chaos, so there's a responsibility to deliver it.  Just not as usual, and not as might be expected. 

A good ending comes as something of a surprise to the characters as well as to the readers, yet it illuminates the beginning and middle of the story.  Seeds of the ending are present in the very first page.  If a WINNER emerges in a BIG SCENE, the ending helps us understand what winning means.

Occasionally I read an ending so perfect that I am reluctant to close the book.  I hold it a short while, admiring and getting used to the fact that it's over.  Darn.

The movie "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" ends with a great symbol: the Denzel Washington character bringing home milk, as instructed by his wife earlier in the day.  The ending works because it's so ordinary, a contrast with his extraordinary action throughout the story.  It says, "Life has been restored." 

In a satisfactory ending, someone we care about goes on. 

The End.

Not to be taken lightly.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Finding a true voice

Usually I read blogs for information, but I'm drawn to several by the conversational style of the blogger.  The writers sound like fun people with keen minds.  I think I'd like to read something by them.  But when I read a sample of their fiction, I'm disappointed.  It's not the voice I expected.

I've also read critiques with more snap and personality than the characters in the critiquer's stories.

I'm sure it's not necessary to write fiction in our own voices, whatever that means.  Stories don't have to be about ourselves.  But some writers have a conversational style that's more interesting, fresh, and honest than their fictional creations.  

Why is this?  Possible answers:  self-imposed controls, inexperience, imitating models we like.  Writing instructors talk about the need to set the subconscious free and to turn off the internal editor, in the first draft, anyway. 

What can we do to find our personal style and carry it into a story?  How can we get from here to there?  I think it helps to begin with heartfelt emotion and characters who share some trait or experience we can identify with, including antagonists.  It helps to think about issues, places, personalities and events and distill them to conviction (point of view!).  In any story worth reading, the writer shares lot of herself, not necessarily personality or experiences, but those convictions.

I’ll never forget a paragraph written by a student who avoided F's only because he was always present and attentive and bravely struggled through homework.  The assignment (based on Robert Frost's Mending Wall) was to write about a personal wall.  His wall, he wrote, was his inability to achieve more than a "D," no matter how hard he tried.  His words were heartfelt, his voice true, and his paragraph, a stellar creation.  Everybody else wrote what they thought the teacher wanted.

As writers (and maybe in real life), we must not be afraid to show ourselves as na├»ve, ignorant, or even worse--boring--at least not in the first drafts.  We should not adopt styles we think everyone wants to read.  Sometimes they're not as good as our own.

Bad blog! Bad cookies!

I've not been able to post to my blog for several weeks, nor to comment (except anonymously) on any other blogs, and I've been too busy to discover why.

This morning I learned many people have had the same experience, suspected to be caused by bad cookies.  I followed directions for deleting cookies and clearing the cache several times with no success.  Then I did another thing, suggested by a top blogger help contributor:  I unchecked the "keep me signed in" box before logging on.  It worked!


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

ebook honeymoon

What I love so far about reading ebooks:

Sample chapters: much better than browsing shelves and reading first paragraphs.
Review sites:  I bought my first ebook (and a Kindle) based on a review by Marion Sipe on GoodBookAlert ( ). After reading her review and sampling the book, I realized I was missing out on good writing if I didn't immediately buy an ebook reader.  (Marion, you should get a cut from Kindle). The book, a bargain at 99 cents, was Ice Blue, a cleverly written mystery by Emma Jameson.  My second ebook purchase was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a young adult novel featured by Mooderino in a blog post analyzing the first chapter.  (  Thanks, Mood—I not only liked the book, I learned a lot.  Third was The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarity.  I can't remember where I found this one, maybe Kindleboards.  Price--one cent.  Can you believe that even at one cent, I downloaded the sample before purchasing?  Loved the book.  A few days later I saw its price had risen to something like $5.35.  If the one-cent price was a marketing scheme to raise the book quickly in the Amazon rankings, it worked.

The ebook reader itself:  easy on the eyes, wonderful for one who gets eyestrain from too many hours staring at a computer screen.  Like the words to that old song…"lovely to look at, delightful to hold, and heaven to [substitute "read"].  Thanks, Diane, for the red leather cover.

Ebook hunting:  I might be able to pay more but I love to pay less.  I love the fact that many authors are independently publishing at prices that are good for them as well as for buyers.  (Authors get a small cut of traditionally published books.)  Unless it's a book I think I must have, I'm bypassing ebooks over $5, especially if I can buy a cheaper used copy in excellent condition.  Of course, no money goes to author or publisher that way...publishers, pay attention!

Textbooks:  Much as I love glossy, gorgeous textbooks, I look forward to the day when learners from primary school to college will not have to lug around pounds and pounds of books.  This will not be good for textbook printers, but hopefully the prices will be good for everyone.

Magazines and newspapers:  I'm not there yet, but I think the honeymoon will last. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A good "B" story

A friend told me she would not attempt to write a novel if it could not be of the highest quality.  It felt like she was criticizing me for trying. 

A reader on my favorite critique site said a chapter I'd posted showed no particular literary quality.  His critique was kindly put, so I didn't take offense.  I can't remember his exact words, but he did say it was "standard prose."  I think he said I paragraphed well.  The token praise pleased me anyway.  After all, good paragraphing is necessary.

Suspecting he's a reader with good taste, I understood what he meant.  I love substantial writing, images that stimulate recognition and recall, well-expressed ideas that complete my half-formulated thoughts, and characters and stories that broaden my awareness.  And of course, words used in eye-opening ways.  I call those stories A+.  They win prizes, are translated in many languages, and appeal to all kinds of readers.  There are never enough of them.

I don't expect my writing to reach a high literary quality, though I continue to work hard.  But while I admire many novels with great language (simple A's, maybe), sometimes their stories don't hold my attention.  I do often enjoy good B stories (in 'standard prose'), and would be proud to add one to their number.

Write on!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Handy-dandy AutoCorrect

You can save time and avoid mis-typing difficult words like strange and unpronounceable character and place names with a feature in Microsoft Word and OneNote called AutoCorrect.  Other word processors may have a similar capability.  In Word and OneNote, the icon is a little lightning bolt.  It's under the tools menu in OneNote, but harder to find in Word 2007. 

I use AutoCorrect like shorthand for character names, but it works for phrases too.  When I type the first letter of a character name, like M, the letter is immediately replaced with the name I've entered in the AutoCorrect options dictionary: Morningstar.  If I have several characters or place names that start with M, I can create other abbreviations:  Mb, Mx, Mfg.  If I don't have dozens, my shortcuts are not hard to remember.

The AutoCorrect feature is easy to find in OneNote.  It's on the "Tools" menu at the top of every page.  It's harder to get to in Word 2007, but you can add the icon to the top bar.  More about that later.

First, OneNote.  (Directions here for adding a word to AutoCorrect's dictionary also apply to Word, and--this is neat--the two applications share the same dictionary.)  From the Tools menu, select "Auto Correct Options." 

Near the bottom of the options box is a scrolling list of the current dictionary entries. Above that scrolling list is a "Replace" field and a "With" field.  If I type H in the "Replace" field and Hramxtvm in the "With" field, my correction is added to the dictionary. 

The AutoCorrect option is on the tools menu of older versions of Word, but in the 2007 version you locate it through the "Office Button" at the top left of the document screen.  From there you go down to the bottom bar of that menu to "Word Options."  The full path is Office Button/Word Options/Proofing/Auto Correct Options.  If I'm making a lot of AutoCorrect entries, that path is a pain.

But Word gives us the ability to put our favorite icon short-cuts on the toolbar.  To get the AutoCorrect icon up front once and for all, follow this path:  Office Button/Word Options/Customize/Choose Commands From (a drop-down menu)/Commands not on the Ribbon/Auto Correct Options.  Highlight "Auto Correct Options, click on the "Add" button, and the lightning bolt symbol will pop over to the box on the right.  Click OK.  Your AutoCorrect symbol should now appear on the very top bar of a Word page and be available whether you're in the Review pane, Home, Page Layout, etc.

When you've finished a project, you may want to remove the entries in your AutoCorrect dictionary.  Just scroll through the dictionary and remove or replace them.  Otherwise your old characters may show up in your new book.  But wait--that might be a good thing. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Faced with writer's block, listen to your minor characters

You wrote a furious first half, then faltered.  Blocked.

You'd  set up the situation of your story and put your characters in motion, felt good about what you'd done, and suddenly could not find your way forward.   Oh, you could keep writing.  You had a plot outline, and you weren't totally blank, but you didn't like any of the possibilities that came to mind.  Or something like that.

Hopefully, your work didn't fall into a drawer or the trash at that point.

Facing a block today, I remembered an exercise from a writing workshop--writing a first-person monologue from the point of view of a minor character in the story.  The purpose of the exercise was to add depth to characters and learn more about our developing stories.   Writers like to say "learn" as thought the story is waiting to be discovered.  That's how it feels.  It may be more accurate to say that there can be many reasons for a character's actions, and looking through the eyes of the POV character isn't always the best way to understand them. 

Guess what, learning more about the story can help a writer get over a block.  Seems obvious.

I gave today’s monologue to a character named Bright, a man antagonistic to the main character, but unlikely to affect events in a big way.  He'd appeared only twice, and I chose him for the exercise because I knew he needed to get into the story again.  I've noted before that we can't introduce characters and forget about them.  That happens in life, not in fiction.  Well, maybe in some types of fiction, like if dropping people is supposed to be the point.

In the monologue exercise, Bright redefined his role from his point of view.  Result:  a new scene, new possibilities.  Block over.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

POV choices and the External Narrator

My current project is a first attempt to write a story from a single point of view.  It seems harder than using multiple viewpoints, that is, having several characters who tell portions of the story as they experience events. 

Using a single point of view limits choices to what the POV character does, sees, thinks, overhears, or is told by others.  This method is called "limited omniscience," meaning I don't let the reader know everything--just what the POV character knows.  It means I can't write a scene without the POV character in it. 

I'm also using third person (she, they, instead of I, we), and no obvious narrator.  More about that in a minute.

In a first person story, the main character can say "My story began [or begins] at a railroad crossing… ."  She can comment on her story as it plays out.

Changed to third person pronouns, this might be, "Her story began [or begins] at a railroad crossing."  Writing it like this implies the presence of a separate narrator, a lightly or heavily felt voice in the story or even a participant, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.   Look at the line again.  You can hear the narrator’s voice. It's an ancient and perfectly legitimate device, though not what I want to do.

I prefer to write "She stood at the railroad crossing..." because the action feels more immediate without a narrator, who has to be telling us about something that happened in the past.  My choice uses past tense, but readers accept past tense as present action.  In the above example, no narrator interprets the character's presence at the crossing as the start of a chain of events that will become the story, though if it's the first line, we'll figure it has some significance.

After years of being out of fashion, omniscient narrators may be making a comeback.  In Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News (1993), a narrator guides us into a unique, poetic rendering of the main character's backstory:  "Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle..."  If you're wondering how backstory can be strong and poetic, check it out.

One narrative device is not better than another, though most readers no longer enjoy Charles Dickens' narrators, who let us know their opinions as much as those of the characters.

I've not studied the narrator's voice in The Shipping News, but I think it's important and subtle.  "And so Quoyle began [to tell a story to his daughter]."  The voice of this narrator seems to elevate the tone of a dark story and point to the heroic quality of Quoyle, "A great damp loaf of a body."  A few times the narrator shows the minds of other characters, but mainly the point of view is limited to Quoyle.  I'd call it third person limited omniscience with an external narrator, meaning one who isn't also a character in the story.

Beginning writers need to be aware of their narrative choice and control it, because inconsistency can cause readers to lose focus.  If you want to show several points of view, it's safest to confine your POV characters to different chapters or distinct sections within chapters. 

If you happen to be curious about the return of the omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction, see

Friday, April 1, 2011

Writing Techniques: Lessons I've learned about characters

You’re a step ahead, writers, if you instinctively avoid these pitfalls when you introduce characters.  I've stumbled into most of them.

Showing or talking about several new characters in short order, say within a page.  Even well-regarded novelists do this at times.  Readers with heavy intellect might be able to peg and remember these people but the rest of us skim or read back for clues to who they are.  Or close the book.  If the main character goes into a room and meets five people, let them be encountered slowly and one at a time, with dialogue or action in a little scene.  Of course, such scenes can be boring if they serve only to introduce these people.  But if the main character meets them while engaged in his immediate goals, the introductions take on a greater purpose and the scenes can be more compelling. 

Introducing with too many physical details.  Details can be as dull as an info dump.  For example, a story begins with the main character observing a beautiful woman.  There's a sentence about her hair, one about her lips, her limbs, her supple neck, eyes, etc.  Who cares?  If there is no attitude embedded in the description and the reader does not yet know the main character, detail may not work.  As the reader, I don't know what to think—I don’t know the point of view.  The woman’s description could be introduced with attitude, revealing something about the observer (he's sleazy, lonely, repelled, whatever), but it's easier and more dependable to first let the reader know something about him.  I don't know how well this succeeds, but If I can't describe a character with one great line (and usually I can't), I try to mix the details with action and filter them a few at a time. 

Having one or more characters who never appear.  They may be dead parents, or exes, or mentors, often part of the main character's back story, somehow influencing the current situation.  While they're real in the writer's mind, the reader probably needs to see them to understand the MC’s feelings about them.  I say "probably," because a great writer may find a way to make the relationship real while keeping the character offstage.  But seeing is believing, right?

Having characters with no clear role in the story, or who serve the same role as another.  Any character who is more than part of the setting needs to be included for a reason, either what she reveals about the main character or events, or how she affects the story.  By the end of a first draft, I hope to have only essential characters with clear roles.  A character with some presence in the beginning who fades away before the end without significant impact may need to be revised or written out.  But throughout that first draft, the characters can be loose.  For example, in my current project, the main character has received a present that makes her uncomfortable.  She doesn't know who sent it but has two, maybe three suspects.  I think there might be a fourth, but I'm only halfway through the first draft, and that character is still loose, so I don’t know yet.  I'm enjoying the suspense.

Good techniques--things to do--are easier to practice and establish than good style, which is more dependent on artistry--word choices and unique ways of seeing.  And important as they are, good techniques, like well-constructed sentences, do not guarantee that characters or story will make readers care.  More about that later.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A two-dollar kindness

People who give hundred dollar bills to strangers at Christmas always make the news.  But it doesn't take big bills to make someone's day. 

My friend Marija Sommer told of a recent kindness that brought her to tears.  She'd stopped at a toll booth but was waved on by the worker, who said, "The person in the car ahead paid your toll and said to tell you to "have a blessed day."  Two dollars, and a blessing. 

While vacationing in Florida, I had an encounter with a local policeman.  He pulled alongside as I walked through a supermarket parking lot and asked, "Where in West Virginia are you from?"  He'd seen our license plate.  We had a short talk about West Virginia and he asked if there was anything he could do for me, like provide maps or directions.  I sure was proud of that West Virginian.

Marija's example happened in Florida, and her car has a Florida license plate, so her experience was not one of state connections, but I have to say I've experienced many small and major kindnesses from strangers in West Virginia, among them, being rescued twice when I ran out of gas.  I never saw those people again but I love them still (while keeping a sharp eye on the gas gauge). 

Unexpected kindness from a stranger creates a powerful, unusual feeling, like unbounded gratitude, or amazement.  Pass it on, and have a blessed day!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Using Tables to Generate Ideas

    When I don't know what to write next, whether the next action, solution for a character, or a brand new story, a word processing TABLE always helps.  I find those empty cells a lot more stimulating than a blank sheet of paper.

    I type a word in the upper left-hand cell

    and try names




    and situations.
    Possible actions
    Effects on story
    Tells a lie.
    Saves friend but the lie brings trouble for himself.
    For words, tables are better than spreadsheets because the cells expand to fit the content.  The cells can also be easily dragged to resize them.  In the next table I added a column to the right and a row below:
    Possible actions
    Effects on story

    Tells a lie.
    Saves friend but the lie brings trouble for himself.


    I use tables to learn about and expand my characters.  The empty box commands me to put something in it, right or wrong, it doesn't matter.   I don't always use these ideas but reading them later helps.
    What is difficult for this person?
    Waiting. wild thoughts. understanding. going ahead. thinking about anything else. doing nothing. sleeping, being realistic
    organizing, planning, going ahead with things, caring about anything
    being away,
    sharing thoughts,
    sharing himself,
    being loved;

    What result of the difficulty?
    tears for discarded, unwanted things;
    throws away her old work clothes;
    wants to buy a dress for her funeral; Asks Olive to take her
    stuck in time, marking time, waiting,
    The work self and the home self; affection side of him in the valley where he has more pleasant role;
    What is the person hiding?
    how much she wants to live; how little faith at this time; how focusing on any service lies close to her desire to live; what can she do for someone today?

    guilty that she’s glad Marsh is out of her life;

    does not like his job; has only work associates, no friends;
    As far as I know, tables in Word and OneNote operate similarly.  Tables are better than spreadsheets for blocks of text, because the cell will expand vertically, and it accepts a "return" or "enter" for a new paragraph without going to the next cell.  If the cell's small size breaks your text in odd places, the size is easily adjusted.
    If you're a visual thinker, making a table can help you plan and organize anything.
    For those who haven't used tables:  You can create a table with the number of rows and columns you want (See "Insert Table" under TABLE on OneNote's top menu; or in Word, "Table" under the "INSERT tab).  You can easily add and delete columns and rows later. 
    You can find video tutorials about tables, or you can learn by experimenting, or start with an official tutorial, here.