Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Promotion: Compelling and Enticing

Reading thuRsday

Why do you choose to read a given book?

All the reasons you might give can be reduced to either you felt compelled or enticed. (Actually, our reasons can be spread along a spectrum from compelled to enticed, but it's easier to talk in terms of dichotomies than the fine shades in a spectrum.)

Books that become a cultural phenomenon (i.e., most people have at least heard of them), do so on the strength of a social compulsion. How many times have you picked up a book because everyone else was talking about it and you wanted to be part of the conversation?

As writers, there's nothing we can do to cause our books to become a social phenomenon. So the more interesting question is how, given the means in our power, can we appeal to readers. Which brings me back to compelling and enticing: we can pitch our books either as "something you gotta read," or as "something you want to read."

A compelling pitch usually centers on a situation or issue the reader might confront. There's an immediacy because it's in the world of our common experience. An enticing pitch plays on mystery, wonder, intrigue, or as the kids say, something cool. There's a fascination because it's outside the world of our common experience.

Reading a list of new YA novel recommendations, I noticed a pattern: the realistic stories had compelling pitches and the fantastic stories had enticing pitches. The former implied, "This could happen to you," while the latter asked, "Wouldn't it be cool if this happened?"

I find this a useful distinction as I choose books to read and think about promoting my own projects. How about you?

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Rule of Two

Writing Wednesday

I've argued that writing is fundamentally about creating a model. A model, as you may recall, emphasizes some aspects of the thing being modeled while suppressing others. More than simply an interesting theoretical observation, understanding a novel as a model in prose makes the author's responsibility very clear.

Readers, whether by intuition or training, understand that novels are models and are willing to treat everything the author chooses to present as significant. However, it takes effort on the part of the reader to keep track of all the details. Readers expect to be rewarded for their efforts, so the first thing to note is that:

Writer's who use throw-aways squander readers efforts and, by extension, their good will.

You've likely heard of "Chekhov's gun." Wikipedia defines it as "the literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later on." You've also likely heard of foreshadowing. I want to suggest something more fundamental that I call The Rule of Two:

Anything to which you call attention in your story must appear at least twice.

For example, if you were convinced by my call to do away with bullies in middle grade novels but you really need a bully, all you need to do is bring the bully back into the story a second time. That second appearance elevates the bully from set dressing to part of the story.

In another case, I wrote a story that involved monsters devouring someone's chickens at a key point. It was a fun scene, but it became much more meaningful after I added the chickens to an earlier scene during a revision.

This is a simple rule, in the spirit of little systems, so don't over-think it. Don't for example, try to work everything you mention during the course of the novel in to the climax and dénouement. The second appearance of something that comes up in the beginning can be later in the beginning or the middle just as well as the end.

And if none of that quite makes sense, think of it as being conceptually green: don't use an idea, character, or setting once and then throw it away in the landfill of squandered reader effort.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Loading 16 Tons

Technique Tuesday

I'm sure most of you have heard the old mining lament about loading sixteen tons ("and whadda ya get? Another day older, and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't ya call me cause I can't go, I owe my soul to the company store.").

I have a thing for numbers, so I had to figure it out:

WikiMedia: A mule pules a load of coal.
One ton is 2,000 pounds, so sixteen tons is 32,000 pounds.

That sounds like a lot.

If you have an eight-hour workday, you'd have to load 4,000 pounds (2 tons) an hour.

That still sounds overwhelming.

But if you could load 100 pounds in a minute, it would only take 40 minutes to load 4,000 pounds. I'll leave it up to you to decide how to split your 100 pound load over the course of a minute (I like the idea of two 50 pound lifts), but I want to point out that at this pace, you'd have a 20 minute break every hour.

There's no question it would take strength and stamina to keep loading all day. Still, after we break it down, the job moves from overwhelming to doable.

Writing a novel is a lot like loading sixteen tons: in general, you've got to produce somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words. That sounds like a lot. But if you break it down to 1,000 words a day (and keep up the pace) and you'll finish your novel in two or three months.

My point isn't that you should write everyday, it's that you'll be surprised at what you can accomplish if you move your project forward by a doable, sustainable amount each day.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, September 27, 2010

Making and Breaking

Making Monday

[Here's a dialog from an earlier novel that explores the notions of making and breaking.]

“Alex, do you think that making is good and breaking is bad?” Gordon asked.


“So the person that makes the chains that hold the slave is good and the person who breaks the chains to set the slave free is bad?”

“No, that’s not right.”

“Putting together and taking apart are skills. Good and bad come from the way you use those skills.” Warren said.

“Breaking is easy, making is hard.”

Gordon smiled. “You’ve learned something that many people never understand.”

“So making is better?” Alex asked.

“Making is the highest, truest expression of what it means to be human,” Gordon said. “Just like fish have to swim, we have to organize things. When you organize things in a meaningful way, you are making. There are many ways to make and people have different abilities. But the common thread that ties us all together is that, one way or another, we can all make.”

“I think you might be worrying, Alex, because breaking usually goes along with taking,” Warren said. “Everyone can make, but many people choose to take instead. Even though it’s wrong, taking is easier.”

“What do you mean, ‘breaking and taking go together?’” Alex asked.

“Many people, particularly in this world, use the threat of breaking to force others to give them what they want to take,” Warren said. “Remember that making and breaking are skills. So, if you use your skill for breaking to threaten other people in order to take what they have made, then it is a bad thing. But if you use your skill to help then it can be a very good thing.”

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, September 24, 2010

Finding Your Audience

Free-form Friday

The genre into which your book falls is one of the basic pieces of information you're supposed to include in your query.* I approach things systematically, so I've thought about genre in library terms--that is as a way of organizing a spectrum of materials (with the implicit assumption that readers were like library patrons).

When I visit the library, liking a book is a secondary (or tertiary) concern, well behind basic questions like, "Does it provide the information I need?" Even with fiction, I survey the shelves and then scan the books, looking at more than the first page, to determine my interest.

In a book store, however, the fiction buyer is generally there to find something they like, not to survey the offerings. With the exception the exception of mega-best-sellers that become an independent cultural forces, not everyone will like your work.

In fact, most people won't.

Thanks to the practical matter of only having twenty four hours in a day, I don't "like" about 95% of what's in the book store.** It follows, then, that 95% of the people won't "like" our work. That thought lead to the
epiphany that getting published is really about finding an audience.

Notions like genre are at best an approximation of an audience. So are all the rules and expectations of genres and commercial publishing. The zeal with which the gatekeepers sometimes seem to uphold these rules only shows their best guesses as to what a given audience wants.

So what does all this mean?

We'll be on a much more positive footing with both gatekeepers and the buying public if we don't try to please everybody but look instead for the people with whom our work resonates.

* Indeed, before we query, we're supposed to go to the book store, find the spot where our books will be shelved, and make a space that will be filled someday.

** Not "liking" 95% of what's in the book store isn't a matter of good or bad. It's simply that I don't have the time to pay attention to all that material.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thrillers and Mysteries: Compelling and Enticing

Reading thuRsday

What's the difference between a thriller and a mystery?

A thriller is compelling; it pushes you along. A mystery is enticing; it pulls you along.

It's an important structural distinction.

We clearly need to know what's at stake in a thriller because it is fundamentally a story about an effort to avert the peril. Worry about how to prevent the worst outcome drives this kind of story forward.

In contrast, a mystery is a story of discovery in which the scope of the peril is revealed over time. Worry about what might be hiding around the corner drives this kind of story forward.

With that background, we can make the general observation that fantasies tend to be structured as a mystery and thrillers are usual set in the world of our common experience. In fact, most fantasies are not just mysteries in an abstract form but explicitly involve some form of discovery, often a quest or voyage.

When a story is set in the real world, the author has the luxury of relying on common knowledge and convention when declaring the stakes. In a political thriller, for example, it is sufficient to say that the conspirators are working to topple the government and proceed on the assumption that the reader agrees such an outcome would be a bad thing.

But with fantasy, an author has the additional problem of introducing a reader to a world that contradicts or extends their common experience. That makes the prospect of a thriller set in a fantasy context more challenging--unless one relies on the conventions with which readers in the genre should be familiar (which is why urban fantasies and paranormals do well).

As a reader, you should be clear on the distinction between thriller and mystery because you're sure to be disappointed if you expect one kind of story when you're reading the other.

As a writer, you need to be clear about the kind of story you're telling because if you mix them up you'll deliver a thrill-less thriller or a spoiled mystery.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Patience and Readers

Writing Wednesday

We hear, from a early age, that patience is a virtue. As we go through life we see that patience is a virtue honored more in the breach than the observance.

Publishing is an industry that, compared to shiny new web things, seems to move at a glacial pace. Exhibit one: the simple fact that you're generally looking at 18 months from the time you sign a contract until your book is released.

The work of writing itself is a patient undertaking. It's hard to maintain an average output of more than a few thousand words per day. And when you factor in revisions, it's not surprising that one novel a year seems to be the average output.

There are a host of other ways in which a writer must be patient. Critique partners need time to read. Building an online presence takes time. Promotion takes a lot of time.

I thought I understood all of these dimensions of patience and was prepared to develop the virtue.

But there's one dimension of writerly patience that I didn't anticipate. I underestimated the degree to which writers must be patient with readers. You see, as an author, you're always going to be ahead of your readers because you're working on the next book while they're enjoying the one that was just released.

That means you can't talk about the cool stuff on which you're presently at work and which occupies most of your attention. Instead you must try to match your reader's enthusiasm for something you thought was all kinds of awesome last year without succumbing to the temptation to spoil their fun and say, "yeah, but you ain't seen nothing yet!"

(And you thought agents, editors, and publicists were the only ones who would school you in patience.)

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

DC4W: Dramatize ideas, appeal to noble motives, and make it a challenge

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the last three principles in the Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, the third section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, are:

10. Appeal to noble motives.

Carnegie explains that appealing to the person they imagine themselves to be is an effective way to motivate people. He uses example phrases like, "Because I know you're an honest person ...," to show how such an appeal is both disarming and enabling.

Of course, starting a query with something like, "Dear Ms. Agent, Because I know you to be a person of such impeccable taste that you will instantly see the superior merit of my book ..." is almost certain not to produce the desired effect.

As writers, this principle has more subtle application. Done right, we invite people to become better by reading our books. The potential self-improvement might be more obvious with non-fiction, but fiction offers the improvement that comes through experiencing and understanding the story.

Why do readers spend their time with our fiction? They want to step away from their common concerns and experience something different. Even if your characters and their actions are anything but noble, the catharsis of a well-told tale is ennobling.

And in terms of craft, the characters who populate our work should have something admirable about them. Event the blackest-hearted villain might have an admirable tenacity.

11. Dramatize your ideas.

In a general sense, this principle echos the mantra of the writer, "Show don't tell." Dramatizing, or showing, does two important things: 1) it allows the other person to experience the idea, and 2) it enables the other person to come to their own conclusions about the idea.

Dramatizing your ideas is a powerful way to follow principle seven, "Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers." Remember, enticing someone to adopt your idea creates a far stronger commitment than compelling them.

As a writer, it's a skill you need to master at every level, from your novel to your query. Indeed, you could make a fine case that dramatizing ideas is the heart and soul of what we as writers do.

12. Throw down a challenge and don't talk negative when the person is absent, talk about only positive.

This principle may sound most like a motivational technique: in Carnegie's book the example he uses is that of a supervisor who set up a contest to see which shift was more productive instead of yelling at the workers to work harder.

What does this have to do with writing?

(I'll see your rhetorical question and up the ante with one of my own.)

What's the purpose of the hook? Or the title? Or the cover? Or the back cover copy?

All of these, at a fundamental level, throw down a challenge to potential readers--something like, "I'll bet you want to find out what this is all about."

A well crafted story delivers challenge after challenge in the form of interesting characters, twisting plots, and rising tension, all of which entice the reader onward.

Notice that the theme running through these three principles is that it is better to entice than compel.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Professional Relationships, book 2 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, September 20, 2010


Making Monday

Makers have a sense of and a fascination for infrastructure.

If you're not familiar with the term, here's how I described it in a novel I wrote several years ago:
“When politicians talk about the national infrastructure they mean the highway, railroad, telephone, and power systems—stuff that we depend on but hardly ever notice. You know, Disneyland* has almost as many structures underground—to move power, people, and waste around—as it has above. The visitors only see half of the park.”

“It’s what makes things work but nobody sees it?”
Makers see the infrastructure because they care about how things work. Users, on the other hand, ignore the infrastructure because they fell entitled to the benefits it provides.

Heat pipe tunnel in Copenhagen (Wikimedia)
I once heard a comedian describe a flight in which an experimental air-to-ground Internet connection was available for part of the flight. When the service failed, his seatmate complained. He told the audience, "I wanted to shake the guy and say, 'Don't you realize how amazing this is? We're sitting in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air and you're upset because you can't check your email?'"

Put another way, the more you know about computers, the more you realize its a miracle that they run at all. From the chips, to the firmware, to the BIOS, to the operating system, to your applications, the number of things that depend on each other starting in the right order to work properly is staggering. And yet we waltz in, flick the switch and expect it all to happen perfectly every time.

Stop, some time, and study what it takes to make the things you take for granted work. It's an eye-opening experience.

* I confess I'd like to go to Disneyland, but only if I can tour the part the visitors don't see. The desire comes, I suppose, from being an engineer and needing to know how things work.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, September 17, 2010

What do you Write About?

Free-form Friday

Some people say they write because they want to see their name on books and perhaps entertain someone. I understand the sentiment, but there are, frankly, far less painful ways to gratify your ego and amuse others than commercial writing.

Perhaps utilitarianism is my fatal flaw, but I find it hard to imagine undertaking an endeavor as difficult as writing novels if I didn't hope to accomplish something.

"What," you may ask, "should a novel accomplish besides offering entertainment?" 

Not "a message." Having a message will almost certainly kill a story. Writers on a mission tend to force plot and character into the service of the message, no matter how unnatural the contortions. But I part company with the folks who go to the other extreme and claim that the highest and purest literature isn't about anything at all.

The words come easily when you have something you want to talk about-- ideas to explore, scenarios to play with, and possibilities to consider. Your job is to explore the conceptual landscape and invite the readers to play with the ideas uncovered along the way.

So what do I want to talk about?

I want to explore the time and space of becoming--specifically, the journey of the young adult as they try to come to terms with a world that is both more wonderful and more terrifying than they ever imagined. I want to tell stories about navigating the Great Between.

What do you want to talk about in your writing?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Characters: Flawed = Strong, Stupid = Weak

Reading thuRsday

I read a review of a book that follows its protagonist through a dazzling array of bad choices. That final phrase, "dazzling array of bad choices," catalyzed my thinking about character flaws.

I trust you've been around the block enough to know that perfect characters aren't very interesting. Superman without Kryptonite and his ethics is simply a demigod, unconstrained by the limitations of mere mortals. It's much more interesting to read about someone with an identifiable mix of strengths and weaknesses.

But there's an important difference between characters with flaws and characters who are stupid. Characters with flaws believe they are good, moral people who are trying to do the best they know how. Characters that are stupid know what they are doing is wrong or self-destructive but do it any way.

"Wait," you may say, as you rise up in righteous wrath, "there are really people like that in the world and I have a duty to tell it like it is."

"Yes," I answer. "And there are people who lead utterly unremarkable lives, who put the bore into boring. Why don't you also have a duty to tell those stories like they really are?"

To be clear, I'm not arguing stories that are all sunshine and flowers. Indeed, there's a grand tradition of cautionary tales whose purpose is to warn by showing us the full extent of the tragedy. I'm arguing for strong characters.

A character headed for tragedy along a trajectory that makes sense (at least from their perspective) is far more interesting and far stronger than a character that knowingly fails because they haven't the energy or strength of will to do anything else.

Perhaps a simple way to sum this up is with the reminder that the antagonist believes they are the hero of their own story.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Good Writing Seems Effortless and Invisible

Writing Wednesday

The question of what constitutes good writing is to writers as chum is to sharks.

It is with full knowledge of the dangers that I bring up the topic. Agent Mary Kole tackled the issue of good writing on her KidLit blog.

In response to a reader, who observed,
"What I am realizing is that, if done correctly, few readers really notice the shift in scenes or the chapter breaks. It is just when they’re awkward that they require attention."

Mary said:
"This emphasizes one of the biggest point I can make about writing in general. You know you’ve attained successful writing when, ironically, nobody notices. That’s when I know I’m in the hands of a master, at least.

"When I’m caught up in your voice sounding inauthentic, or slow pacing, or awkward dialogue tags, or in grown-up language or phrases that sound like they’re better off in a business memo, or a character acting, well, out of character, or slang that doesn’t need to be there, or clunky sentences, or too-long chapters, or one-dimensional scenes…I know that the writer is still working on their process.

"And that’s okay. We’re all always working on our process. But there’s a difference between an obvious work-in-progress and writing that has a publishable quality to it."
This is congruent with the observation that experts in any field make their endeavor look effortless.

In your own writing, one sign that you're on the right track is when reader comments shift from pointing out things like poor grammar and awkward sentences to questions about plot and characters.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

DC4W: Sympathize, see it from the other's point of view, and help them feel the idea is theirs

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the seventh, eighth, and ninth principles in the Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, the third section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, are:

7. Let the other person feel the idea is his/hers.

At one level, this principle comes down to proper deportment in our society. Whether in person or online, blatant self-promotion comes across as unseemly. Assuring an agent that you have the next bestseller or Oprah pick in your query will put you on the fast track to rejection.

Proper deportment, by the way, is another reason you want an agent. They can say they think your book will be big when they pitch to an editor because they are (in the social equation) a "disinterested" third party.

But there's something deeper at work here: people are always much more passionate about their own ideas than those they adopt from other people.

8. Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.

The applications of this principle in personal relations should be fairly obvious. But it's easy to loose sight of it when you run into opposition.

When you receive a rejection, put on your agent hat and consider why you might reject it.

When your editor asks for a change you're reluctant to make, try to imagine why you might ask for the same change if you were in her shoes.

But the most important application of this principle as a writer is to try to see your writing from the point of view of your reader.

9. Sympathize with the other person.

A sympathetic approach to a point of contention can go a long way toward smoothing over the situation. Even though it may be difficult to believe the publisher who just proposed a truly atrocious cover is on your side, the fact is that you both want the book to do well. Approaching the editor with an expression that shows you sympathize with the efforts they're making on your behalf given the constraints under which they operate is much more effective than throwing a tantrum about their lack of design sense.

Again, like principle 8, writers should sympathize with their readers. Many of the "rules" of writing can be reduced to asking yourself, "Am I writing this because it will help my reader enjoy the story, or am I writing it to show off?"

    [If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Professional Relationships, book 2 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
    Image: luigi diamanti /

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    How to be a User: The 48 Laws of Power

    Making Monday

    In 1998, Robert Greene and Joost Elffers published, The 48 Laws of Power. Their list of laws provides a crash course in being a user.

    [And for writers, it's a great help when you need to channel your inner evil overlord.]

    1. Never Outshine the Master!
    2. Never put too Much Trust in Friends, Learn how to use Enemies
    3. Conceal your Intentions
    4. Always Say Less than Necessary
    5. So Much Depends on Reputation. Guard it with your Life
    6. Court Attention at all Cost
    7. Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the Credit
    8. Make other People come to you, use Bait if Necessary
    9. Win through your Actions, Never through Argument
    10. Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky
    11. Learn to Keep People Dependent on You
    12. Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim
    13. When Asking for Help, Appeal to People's Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude
    14. Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy
    15. Crush your Enemy Totally
    16. Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor
    17. Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability
    18. Do Not Build Fortresses to Protect Yourself. Isolation is Dangerous
    19. Know Who You're Dealing with. Do Not Offend the Wrong Person
    20. Do Not Commit to Anyone
    21. Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker. Seem Dumber than your Mark
    22. Use the Surrender Tactic: Transform Weakness into Power
    23. Concentrate Your Forces
    24. Play the Perfect Courtier
    25. Re-Create Yourself
    26. Keep Your Hands Clean
    27. Play on People's Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following
    28. Enter Action with Boldness
    29. Plan All the Way to the End
    30. Make your Accomplishments Seem Effortless
    31. Control the Options: Get Others to Play with the Cards you Deal
    32. Play to People's Fantasies
    33. Discover Each Man's Thumbscrew
    34. Be Royal in your Own Fashion: Act like a King to be treated like one
    35. Master the Art of Timing
    36. Disdain Things you cannot have: Ignoring them is the best Revenge
    37. Create Compelling Spectacles
    38. Think as you like but Behave like others
    39. Stir up Waters to Catch Fish
    40. Despise the Free Lunch
    41. Avoid Stepping into a Great Man's Shoes
    42. Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter
    43. Work on the Hearts and Minds of Others
    44. Disarm and Infuriate with the Mirror Effect
    45. Preach the Need for Change, but Never Reform too much at Once
    46. Never appear Perfect
    47. Do not go Past the Mark you Aimed for; In Victory, Learn when to Stop
    48. Assume Formlessness
    Purdue has an annotated version of the 48 Laws of Power.

     Image: Bill Longshaw /

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    On the Ultimate Goal of Publication

    Free-form Friday

    I regularly hear writers without contracts talk about their journey toward their ultimate goal of publication. It's as if writing is a sort of personal quest--a hero's journey--and publication is the grail.

    Indeed, I've heard these phrases often enough that the journey and the goal are beginning to sound like the things one has to say to indicate that they're part of the group. (See George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946.)

    What strikes me as odd about this way of talking is that publication, in some form, is easier now than it ever was. Because of that, if your ultimate goal is simply publication, there are a variety of ways to achieve it that don't require the involvement of agents and major New York publishing houses.

    Of course, what we don't want to admit when we talk about our writing journey and our ultimate goal of publication is that our goal is really vindication: we want the stamp of approval from the gatekeepers (agents and editors) and establishment (publisher) which will admit us into the ranks of the "published" authors and will make us full fledged citizens of the literary city.

    And it's perfectly understandable that we should want our largely solitary pursuits validated by other people.

    It's also true that the personal experience of producing a novel is much like a journey.

    But as the publishing industry changes, it's going to be harder to maintain the pleasant fiction that it's about you and your efforts. The fact of the matter is that anyone who wants to be a commercial author (i.e., someone who gets paid regularly for their writing) is attempting to set up a business that produces and licenses intellectual property. The process by which you produce your intellectual property may feel like a journey, but your business partners (e.g., your agent and publisher) are only interested in your products.

    I'm not saying that art and expression must take a back seat to business. I'm saying that with the possible exception of memoirs (and your support group) the people with whom you do business are interested, first and foremost, in what's in it for them.Think about it: when the traveling merchant comes to your village, do you ask them to tell you about their trip or do you ask them what they've got to sell?

    Image: Photography by BJWOK /

    Thursday, September 9, 2010

    How do you Encourage Reader Interest?

    Reading thuRsday

    We all have books we like only because we forced ourselves to keep reading. Similarly, we all have books we don't like because we forced ourselves to keep reading. In both cases, our feelings are stronger because of the effort we put into reading.

    Clearly, we'll never sell anything that is impenetrable (unless you're named James Joyce) and we all want a story that pulls the reader effortlessly along, but I wonder if we spend unnecessary energy on making the story easy on the reader when we ought to focus on making it compelling?

    I think readers will persist if they have some interest. For example, I've read books whose hook, blurb, or artwork fired my imagination. I've read books whose story pulled me in from the beginning. And I've read books for market research* that I would have abandoned if I had been reading for pleasure.  In all these cases, I read the entire book because I had some compelling interest in doing so.

    What's tricky about reader interest is that there's only so much a writer can do. Reader interest can be enhanced or suppressed by external factors. How many times have you read something, not because of something about the book itself but because everyone is talking about it and you have to know too?

    So, with all that said, what beyond the basics of craft, character, and plot, do you think important for catching and holding readers' interest?

    Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    A Theory of Story Drivers

    Writing Wednesday

    I've often heard that readers' worries drive the story. I take "worry" to mean the degree to which a reader thinks about the story and is anxious to get back to the book when they aren't reading, and are reluctant to stop when they are reading. You might also call it, "getting pulled into a book."

    Stories are a mix of character, plot, and setting. Each of these is compelling to the degree that they are vivid, necessary, and purposeful. While I'm sure we can think of examples of compelling stories driven by a single element, I suspect the best books are compelling on a number of levels. To that end, I propose definitions for vivid, necessary, and purposeful for each of character, plot, and setting

    • Vivid--Are the characters distinct, interesting, and memorable?
    • Necessary--Does each character have a reason for being part of the story? (i.e., no red-shirts or Mary-Sues)
    • Purposeful--Does each character go somewhere (i.e. grow or change) in the story? Are they affected by the events?

    • Vivid--Is it clear what's going on? and why?
    • Necessary--Do the plot points make sense? Do they matter? (i.e., it's not a plot point if the character could clear up a misunderstanding with a five minute conversation.)
    • Purposeful--Does the plot go somewhere that rewards the reader for the time they've invested? Does it end in a place that feels both surprising and inevitable?

    • Vivid--Can you see it? Do you want to be there?
    • Necessary--Is it clear that the story couldn't happen anywhere else?
    • Purposeful--Does the setting feel natural and not contrived?

    What do you think? Does this framework help clarify your story drivers?

    Image: Simon Howden /

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    DC4W: Be Friendly, Let Them Talk, and Give Them a Chance to Say, "Yes"

    Technique Tuesday

    Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the fourth, fifth, and sixth principles in the Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, the third section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, are:

    4. Begin in a friendly way

    This principle is best illustrated for writers in terms of queries. Among sure-fire query turn-offs, a diatribe about how everything published prior to your book is rubbish, how the industry is broken because they haven't recognized your genius, or a promise that this is the agent's lucky day because your project is destined for such mind-boggling success that it won't be long before people say, "Rowling? Who's that?" are all near the top of the list.

    Beginning in a friendly way, whether in person at a conference or on paper with a query, is nothing more or less than saying, in effect, "I recognize you're a decent person. I hope you can see that I'm a decent person too."

    Put another way, a friend is someone who is aware of some of your needs and interests, and who, by implied social covenant, will not take advantage of that knowledge. That's a powerful foundation upon which to establish a relationship.

    5. Start with questions the other person will answer yes to

    Again, I see near consensus among agents that using a rhetorical question in a query, particularly one that the agent might answer with a, "no," is a bad idea. If you begin a query with, "Have you ever wondered what would happen if a hippopotamus appeared in your bathroom?" and the agent answers, "no," you're pretty much dead in the water.

    The more often we say, "yes," to someone, the more likely we are to agree with them. The converse is equally true. You've likely experienced a crude form of this with hard-selling telemarketers: "Do you want to save money?" (How often have you had the strength of will to say, "No, not if it means working with you.")

    While a conversation might afford you an opportunity to get an agent or editor to say yes, doing so in a written form is more subtle because you don't have the advantage of interaction (particularly the opportunity to ask a question again). Still there are implicit questions you can help your reader answer with a yes:
    • Does this writer have a command of the English language?
    • Have they taken care to correct error and typos?
    • Have they told me the name of their project and given me some basic information like genre, audience, and word count?
    • Can they convey what their book is about in a few paragraphs?
    • Do they understand that a query is a business letter and not a confessional?
    • (I trust you can think of others.)

    6. Let the other person do the talking

    Remember, people care first and foremost about their own needs. Listening, of course, is a good way to learn about those needs, but this principle goes beyond listening. A person who sells themselves on something is much more committed to the product or idea than someone who gets talked into it.

    In writing, this means that the reader's experience with the project itself is the most powerful way to win them over. Hence the oft repeated advice to write the very best book you can first and make other considerations, like promotion, a lower priority.

    Image: luigi diamanti /

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Making a Holiday Policy

    Making Merry
    Today is Labor Day in the U.S.

    In case I haven't mentioned it before, as a policy I won't post on major holidays in deference to the fact that you likely have other things to do.

     Image: Ian Kluft / WikiMedia Commons

    Friday, September 3, 2010

    Mining the WriteOnCon Query Archive

    Free-form Friday

    Among the many events during the recent WriteOnCon, agent Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary participated in a "mega query critique contest." Because the whole convention took place online, all the queries submitted to the contest are there for anyone who has a membership to view.

    I found it fascinating to read the roughly 200 queries posted there. The set includes a fairly complete cross-section of query do's and don't's. Things that may seem clever when you're working on your query quickly become tiresome after you see thirty variations on the same theme.

    If you want an overview, Joanna critiqued three queries with issues and gave prizes (10-20 page critiques) to three queries. Here are the links:

    If you'd like to study the submitted queries, you'll need to go to this WriteOnCon forum. If you haven't done so, you'll need to register (see the instructions here).

    I recommend taking a look. I learned a lot.

    Image: Photography by BJWOK /

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Vonnegut's Eight Rules of Writing

    Reading thuRsday

    Several months ago I came across a reference to the fourth of Kurt Vonnegut's rules for writing. I was curious as to the rest. I just found the whole list, presented here for your enjoyment

    In the book “Bagombo Snuff Box”–an assortment of his short stories published in 1999, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:
    Kurt Vonnegut (Wikipedia)
    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
    4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
    5. Start as close to the end as possible.
    6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

    Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    Revisions: Mixing and Enriching

    Writing Wednesday

    I believe most of us hear "revisions" and think generally of error correction. I don't deny that's a part of the process, but there's an important (and I think underrated difference) between reworking material to correct problems and reworking material to make it better.

    Surely you've heard something to the effect that what we do shouldn't be called writing, it should be called rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting ...). Before the thought of all that extra work throws you off, think about the pleasure you get from rereading a beloved book and finding something new each time.

    I've heard of people who read more complicated works topically. For example, I know people who have read the Bible looking for everything it says about love, and then read it again, focusing on forgiveness. Because there's a limit to the number of different things we can keep in our minds at any one time, the writing analogy would be to make separate passes through your manuscript focusing on each of the major characters, on scenes and pacing, on dialog, on adverbs, etc.

    BBC Local Radio Mark III radio mixing desk (Wikipedia)
    Consider the analogy from the music business. After the artists have recorded their songs, the producer goes through all the material to make sure the music is as good as it can be and determines the order of the songs in the album. Then, the album goes to a mixer who adjusts everything further so that the songs play well together (e.g., that the levels of the songs match so that you don't turn up the volume to hear a quiet song only to be blasted by the loud one that follows).

    Of course there will be errors of usage and craft to correct, but I find it much more useful to think of revisions as basically a time to mix (i.e., balance all the elements to best support the overall story) and to enrich the novel.

    Image: Simon Howden /