Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Writing Conferences

Over the past two months I have taken part in five different writing events. In some of them I was the only presenter. In others I was one of many presenters. And in others I was part of a panel of writers. Early in my writing career, I attended several of these types of events as a conference attendee. I remember not being sure how to go about things, and being nervous I’d either miss a chance to make a contact or offend someone by being too pushy. Then I began attending the events as a presenter, which brought its own unique challenges. At this point in my writing career, there’s not a lot that fazes me in these events, so I thought I’d offer some advice from both sides of the fence.

Things to know as a paid attendee:

First and foremost, if you have aspirations of becoming a published or even just a polished writer, you MUST attend writers’ conferences. I’m not going to say you can’t get published without going to a writers’ conference, because I did. But I honestly believe you can get more out of a conference of published authors and industry professionals than an entire semester of creative writing. Not to mention the fact that making contacts with editors and agents is invaluable.

Take lots of notes. There is nothing worse than learning something really valuable and after getting home, realizing you can’t remember what the presenter said. Sometimes it’s as simple as a couple of bullets which apply directly to the novel you are working on. If you do lose your notes, try e-mailing the presenter with a question or two.

Think about what classes to take in relation to where you are currently at. Does it really make sense to take a class on internet marketing when you are nowhere close to completing your first book? Most conferences try to provide a variety of tracks and skill levels.

Most conferences have at least a couple of panels. Research them and think about questions in advance. It often surprises me how many people are sitting in front of a panel of publishers and can’t think of any useful questions. This is your chance. Use it.

Be brave and schmooze. Networking is a big part of why you should attend these things. Yes some people take networking too far by dominating the time of a particular author, agent, editor, or whoever. Don’t do that. Ask a question or two and give someone else a chance (after asking for a card) if others are waiting. But don’t be afraid to step up and ask questions. They will be especially impressed if you’ve done your homework. Ask an author about why they wrote a certain scene a certain way instead of asking, “So, what do you write?” Often the most valuable networking is done after the day’s classes are over, so don’t be in a hurry to leave if you can help it.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. The instructor has presumably been chosen to teach the class because they know something about the subject. If you have a question, raise your hand and ask. But don’t start giving rambling opinions on what you think about the subject. The other attendees are paying to hear the presenter. Feel free to chat with whoever you want after the class, but usually the schedule is tight enough that there’s barely enough time for legitimate questions as it is.

Do not under any circumstances bring copies of your manuscript to give editors, agents, authors, or whoever will take them. First of all, it is bad form. No one wants to go home with a suitcase full of paper, and if we take one person’s work, everyone wants us to take theirs as well. Second, most conferences schedule one-on-ones just for the purpose of pitching ideas. If you don’t have the chance to attend a one-on-one, send a query to the agent or editor right after the conference thanking them for coming, and pitch your book. Often editors who don’t take un-agented work will make an exception for attendees. Great question to ask for those panels huh?

Just a last thought. Sometimes you’ve spent everything you have on the conference. If so, more power to you. Hopefully it is a good investment. But if you have a little extra cash, consider buying books from an instructor who really helped you out. Most of the time instructors make little or nothing for teaching a class. Agents, editors, and keynote speakers typically make at least enough to cover their travel, but the authors teaching classes are doing it to sell books and spread good will. Say thanks by purchasing a book or two. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll get a signed book which will one day sell for millions on E-Bay.

Things to know as a conference presenter:

You’ve finally made it big enough (or know someone on the organizing committee) to stand in front of the classroom. Now it’s on you not to forget how you got there. If no one gave you a helping hand along the way, you are rare indeed. So how can you pay it forward?

First be friendly and open. Realize that many aspiring writers are scared to approach a “real author.” If you bury your head in a book or quickly scoot off to the green room, you are doing a disservice to the attendees and to yourself. Make a couple dozen friends and you’ve probably just added a couple dozen people who will buy your books. Look for people to talk to. Don’t sit at the table with all the other authors. Plop down with a bunch of people you don’t know.

Be encouraging to the newbies. The last thing they want to hear is how hard it was for you and how little chance they have of ever succeeding. They want to hear how you overcame rejection and how they can do it too. By all means ask them what they are working on. As a sales manager, I always have to remind my CEOs how much a word of encouragement or a pat on the back from the head of the company means to a sales rep. The same goes for a published author to someone trying to break into the market.

With the exception of a little commercial at the beginning or end of your class, avoid talking about yourself in your classes. People are attending your session to get take away points which they can use in the own writing, publishing, or marketing. It does them no good whatsoever for you to spend twenty minutes telling a funny story about how you and your agent met over lunch at that little deli on 28th street and saw Tom Cruise. On a related note, if you are going to read, it is highly desirable that you read from someone else’s book, and keep it under three minutes. As authors, we want to give examples from our own work and it’s easy to overlook how self-serving it appears to class members.

Don’t dominate panels. You don’t have to answer every question. Take a couple of questions that you feel comfortable answering and pass the mike the others on questions they might be better suited to answer.

Be funny. Can’t stress this one enough. You know the old saying about how people don’t care how much you know until you can make them laugh. That’s not the way it goes? Well it should be. Prepare your lessons with solid take away points and plenty of laughs. Even if you are not a comedian by nature, you’ll find it is extremely easy to make people laugh in an environment where so much is serious. This is especially important if you are lucky enough to be an MC or keynote speaker. If people like you they will buy your books. But be really careful of anything too off color. Humor can turn to offense quite quickly.

Lastly, realize that not everyone has the money to buy your book right now. Bring other handouts: bookmarks, business cards, flyers. The person who takes your bookmark now is the person who buys your book next month. And if you are asked to sign a bookmark, do it with the same enthusiasm you would offer if you were signing a book.

I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of things. So speak up. What has worked for you? Or what questions do you have?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Series Business


Sorry it’s been a couple of days since I last blogged. I was on the road through Wednesday night for business, then took part in a wonderful Salt Lake City writers’ conference Friday and Saturday. All in all it was busy, but a lot of fun. At least the conference part—I love getting the chance to talk to other writers. This business is way too solitary otherwise. The business travel—not so exciting. Although I always like Boston, even when it’s raining.

First let me just pass on a lesson to all you other writers out there. If you get back a Q&A from your editor just before you jump onto a plane, wait before posting to your blog. Don’t just think, “Hey I’ll whip off a couple of lines and post this baby before my flight leaves.” Editors are notoriously picky about typos on blogs about them. Especially when all of their smiley faces get turned into capital J’s. Enough said. Fortunately, Lisa was also at the conference and she doesn’t hate me for life. Also, I came back from the conference fully energized and excited about new blog ideas. So let’s get to it, hey?

Early on the first day of the conference, one of the attendees asked me about my new book. When I told her it was the first book in a five books series, she wrinkled her nose. Assuming she didn’t have to sneeze and relatively confident I hadn’t passed any unpleasant odors, I asked her what was wrong.

“I hate series books,” she said. “You have to wait a whole year to find out what happens next, and by then you’ve forgotten what happened before. I won’t read them until they’re all out.”

I thought about that much of the conference, because in general I really like a good series. It makes me not feel so bummed out when I come to the end of a book I really like. I have four kids ranging in age from 7 to 20, and we all excitedly attended the midnight releases of every HP book from 4 on. Not sure if they had those before that, but if so, we didn’t know about them.

So what makes a series bad or good? In my mind there are several things. A series is bad if each book leaves you hanging in the middle of the action. A series is good if each book wraps up one storyline while leaving several others to be solved in future books.

I think there are two kinds of series. The first is where there is an ongoing character, but each book is a standalone with an entirely new plot. That would be like Fablehaven or Twilight. You could read just the first book and be totally satisfied. Of course you want to read more, and the next book picks up where the last one left off, and there are overarching elements to the story, but you aren’t left hanging per se. Then there are series like Harry Potter, where each book is its own story, but you would be very unhappy if another book didn’t come out, because there are many, many threads left hanging. Finally, there are books like the Wheel of Time series, where it’s essentially one long story broken into parts. Yes certain things get wrapped up, but many more are opened.

In my Farworld series, each of the first four books deals with a quest to find the next elemental, but there are lots of other ongoing storylines. You clearly understand when you go into the series that you must read all of the books, and read them in order. But it’s not so bad that you throw the book on the floor and scream curses at the author when you finish each volume—like, say Terry Brooks’ “Armageddon’s Children” where it ends with a couple of kids falling off a tall wall. Talk about a cliffhanger. So I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle.

A series is bad if the story is so convoluted you can’t remember what happened a month later, no less a year or more. A series is good if the story is clear, exciting, and at least somewhat organized. It’s good if the reader doesn’t have to go back and reread the previous books (unless they want to) before the new book comes out. It also helps if you stick to a yearly release. At the conference, Lisa said that I should quit complaining about waiting for my book to come out and get writing number two. I promised her I’d have it ready before book one is released in September.

A series is not necessarily bad, but at least not as good if the characters don’t learn and grow. A series is good if the characters progress. It may be in how good they are at magic, or how they deal with other people. They may fall in love or out of love. They come to understand themselves better. But they need to change. Nothing is more boring for me than a series where the main characters are exactly the same in book three as they were in book one.

A series is bad if the only recurring characters are the main ones. A series really gets me pumped when a character I liked but almost forgot suddenly reappears. The red tipped arrow flies through the air, or you hear a familiar whistle, or see a white stallion, and you go, “Oh my gosh, that’s old so and so. . .” It’s like when you’re a kid and you rediscover a favorite old toy at the bottom of your toy box.

A series is bad when it feels like the author had no idea where it was going when they wrote the first book and is just making it up as they go along. I hate it when the storyline feels forced. I love it when a story surprises me—when clues that were placed clear back in book one show up again in book four. Or when a pattern emerges that I didn’t see until I’d read several of the books in the series. It makes me happy when an author really delivers with a plot that was well thought out from the very start.

Last of all, I really like a series to stay with the same artist. I know the author has no say in that, and sometimes the publisher doesn’t either. But I like to line up my books side by side and have them match. I like to compare covers and maps. I really, really, like when covers convey something. Like when how Shadow Mountain is going to have the jackets of Farworld 1-4 actually look like the elements, water, land, fire, etc.

Okay, so I’m easily amused. How about you? What do you like and dislike in a series?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Q&A with Lisa Mangum, Aquisitions Editor at Shadow Mountain Publishing

Okay, so I was going to begin this post by lavishly praising Lisa as a saint to downtrodden authors, who gives her lunch money to starving children and is the picture of beauty, wit, and intelligence. Then I saw her answer to the last question, which was clearly sent in by some wise and insightful reader. So with that in mind, here's Lisa, some woman who I met at a writing event.

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Q&A
1) If I wanted to publish with Shadow Mountain, how much would I have to pay to get the book published? What fees does the author pay and what fees does the publisher pay?

There are essentially two different kinds of publishers. A publishing house like Shadow Mountain doesn’t require the author to pay any money up front to get a book published. The author signs a contract and receives a royalty. Of course, since it’s essentially free to submit a manuscript, we get lots and lots of submissions and can only pick a select few to publish.

In the self-publishing or vanity publishing world, the author pays upfront for a large portion of the costs to have their book published. But, since the author is paying, self-publishing or vanity publishing outfits don’t have to be as selective in their decisions.

2) “Leven Thumps" and "Fablehaven" have such amazing, elaborate websites, and, as a professional graphic designer, I know that those could not have been cheap! I just wondered if Shadow Mountain, being a relatively small publisher, has the means to do that with all its new titles or maybe just the "New York Times Bestsellers"?

Many of our titles have some presence on the Internet and we are doing more every season. We felt it was important to have a strong website for our children’s fantasy titles since many of those authors go on tour to promote their books.

3) What kind of material is Shadow Mountain looking for right now? What kind of things do they NOT want?

Short answer: We’re looking for the next big hit. :) Our door is always open to all kinds of submissions—fiction, non-fiction, children’s, young adult. Publishing is such a fluid business that it’s more of a “we’ll know it when we see it” situation than it is a “send us X manuscript now.”

4) What's the process after they receive a submission?

Once a submission arrives, I log it in and send the author a postcard to let them know we received it in good condition (and whether or not we receive a SASE). Then I start the submission through the review process. We have several people in-house who help with the review process and if the submission gets enough more “thumbs-down” than “thumbs-up” from our reviewers, then we’ll send a rejection letter back to the author. But if the submission gets more “thumbs-up,” then I’ll pass it along to one of our Product Directors, who will make the final decision about whether or not to publish the project. Once the decision is made, we’ll send the author a letter or an email (or sometimes call on the phone) to let them know what we decided to do.

5) On Shadow Mountain's website, it mentions sending query letters and either a few chapters or the entire manuscript. They prefer physical hard copies. My question is, can a query letter be sent via e-mail, or should it be sent by "snail mail" as well?

I don’t mind if query letters are sent via email, though I prefer hard copies. I tend to do better at tracking a submission (and responding to it promptly) if I have an actual letter or envelope or package that takes up space on my desk instead of an ethereal, easy-to-miss email buried in my Inbox.

6) Also, their site mentions children's books. What types of children's books are they most interested in right now?

Again, we want children’s books that will stand out from the pack, that are unique and original. The kind of children’s book that we just couldn’t pass on publishing. :)

7) What kinds of things do you see in a query letter that make you go, “Wow, I want to read more?” What kinds of things make you pass?

I think it’s really important for fiction queries to include a detailed plot summary. A two-sentence summary isn’t going to help me make a decision and sometimes it’s easier to just say “no” to those kind of queries than it is to say “send me three chapters.” I also think it’s important to include in a query letter some hint of what your marketing plans are for the book, or some indication that you’ve done your homework about competing products and how your project is different.

I hate query letters or cover letters that are filled with errors and typos. Or letters that are missing important author contact information. I’m just an editor, not a mind reader, so always include your full name, full address, and as many phone numbers or email address as you have.

8) How was Shadow Mountain so fortunate to get such a handsome and articulate author as Mr. Savage?

Oh, we only picked up Savage because our current rising star and best-selling author James Dashner suggested we take a look at him. And since James is so talented and handsome and articulate, how could we deny him anything? :)

All joking aside, it’s true that networking is a powerful tool that can sometimes help you to get published. Get to know potential publishers and what they are publishing; get to know their editors and what they specialize in; get to know their authors and what they are writing. The more you know about the business, the better chance you’ll have of matching your work to the perfect publisher.


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Alright fine. Since I know she really loves me more than James and was clearly speaking tongue in cheek. Lisa is an amazing person and editor. It is because of her belief and encouragement that I have the opportunity to publish the Farworld series. Shadow Mountain is lucky to have her. I owe her at least half my royalties--not that I'm going to give them to her after that. But she richly deserves them. Not to mention that she penned this Q&A in arterial blood from her death bed. Thanks, Lisa! You are awesome.

Monday, March 17, 2008

What, Me Worry?

I was on an airplane most of the day today (Hi Boston!) and didn’t have an e-mail from Lisa in my mailbox. So I’m assuming the poor thing is still sick. That being the case, I thought I’d share a story I mentioned briefly in my last blog. Those of you who are published or aspire to be published should be able to sympathize and maybe even get a laugh or two.

Unlike what you see in movies or on TV, the process of getting a book accepted for publication can be quite time consuming. It’s not like ripping the pretty paper off a Christmas present, more like watching grass grow. Very, very slow grass. In my case, I sent Lisa the typical query package—first three chapters and a synopsis in the fall of 2006. She asked for more (after having my query inadvertently lost in the slush pile for awhile.) later that year. Over the next three or four months, she read it, recommended some changes, then sent the updated ms. on to Chris.

So far so good. Except there was a slight miscommunication with my regional publisher and in late April, Chris sent me a letter saying that while he’d received my manuscript, he couldn’t consider it because of my contract with the other publisher. Of course I got the letter Friday after work, when I couldn’t reach anyone and could only stew. By Monday morning, I was a raving lunatic. Fortunately the publishers worked everything out, order was restored, and Chris agreed to read the manuscript.

Fast forward several very long months. Finally Chris gets back to me and suggests I have lunch with him and Lisa on the 19th of June 2007. This sounds great right? Except that I’d already received the one rejection letter, and I knew that both Brandon Mull and James Dashner had their first books rejected.

My wife is saying, “Don’t worry. They wouldn’t ask you to lunch if they didn’t want your book.”

And I’m going, “Of course they would. It’s practically a sure thing they will. How can I even stand to wait the two weeks until the lunch, knowing they’re going to turn me down anyway? Couldn’t they at least have been humane and told me right up front I stink?” Have I mentioned authors are kind of neurotic? Thank goodness for calm spouses.

Finally the two weeks went by (with the speed of frozen molasses,) and I get an e-mail from Chris. It turns out he needs to reschedule the lunch from the 19th of June to the 28th. Is that a problem? No of course not. I’ll just gnaw my fingertips off while I wait. (And still no hint about whether he likes it or not.)

So we reschedule. Then the day before the lunch, he e-mails to say he won’t have as much time as he thought. Should we push the lunch back another week? I think he could tell from the screams that echoed all the way across the city that I would prefer we go ahead and meet even if we don’t have a lot of time.

At last the day comes. I am meeting with the two people who can truly launch my career in a restaurant at the top of a downtown hotel. The stuff movies are made of right? Except in the movies they don’t show how you can’t sleep at all the night before, because you are so sure tomorrow is going to be the worst day of your life. (Did I say I’m not fond of rejection?)

I told my wife I’d call her as soon as I knew anything. She told me if I thought I was going to the hotel without her I was crazy. She’d wait in the lobby so she could see my expression as I got off the elevator. No pressure or anything.

I take the elevator to the restaurant a full 45 minutes before the lunch. I mean it pays to be early just in case the elevator gets stuck or something right? It could happen! Of course they end up running a little late, so for sixty terrifying minutes I sit in front of a little fountain watching my hands shake and wondering if any of the other people going in and out of the restaurant could possibly be going through anything like what I am suffering.

At last they show up. I’ve met Lisa before, but this is my first time seeing Chris in person. Turns out he is not ten feet tall with eyes of fire. But . . . he is carrying what looks like my manuscript with a whole bunch of little red flag sticking out of it. What does that mean? Is it good that he has marked things? Does that mean he wants to make changes and publish it? Or are those all the reasons he is going to turn me down?

I try not to let them see my legs have turned to Jell-O as we walk to our table. It’s possible I may even have smiled—although it was actually a rictus of fear pasted to my face. I did manage to keep somewhat regular breathing which was good. Passing out would not have helped my cause.

As we studied our menus, I tried to read something from their faces, but I might as well have been sitting at the world series of poker. They gave away nothing. I think I ordered the salmon, but it could just as well have been the lemon soufflé. I didn’t think I’d be able to taste anything anyway. After ordering we talked all about my book right? Wrong. We talked about Disneyland. Our families. Vacations. Everything BUT my book.

Then our food comes and Chris finally picks up my manuscript. Without any preamble, he opens it up and starts talking about things he liked and things he thought could be better. Then he starts talking about school presentations. And editors. Then he puts my manuscript back on the ground. Meanwhile I am mindlessly pushing food into my mouth and trying not to spill anything.

At last I couldn’t take it anymore. Trying to sound even a little calm, I ask, “So, then . . . do you think . . . you might want . . . to, um, you know . . . publish this?”

Chris gets this funny little smile and says as if it should have been obvious all along, “Oh, definitely.”

I tried not to scream like a little girl at the table. I think I actually held it in until I reached the lobby and saw my wife. I didn’t even need to tell her. It was written all over my face, and she did enough screaming for both of us.

Now when people ask, “Were you nervous about whether or not they’d take your book?” I smirk. “Of course not. I knew it all along.” And my wife kicks me in the back of the leg.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's Not About Falling . . . It's About Getting Up

Unfortunately Lisa got sick on Friday so it looks like I won’t be able to post her answers to your questions until at least Monday, but today I thought I’d talk about something every writer deals with. I know what you’re thinking. If you’ve been writing very long at all, you’ve been told many times that a writer has to have a thick skin so they can deal with the dreaded “R” word. REJECTION! Rejection is a part of writing. You have to learn to live with it. Those are the mantras you hear at every writing convention.

But nope. I’m not going to talk about rejection. Why? Because I hate rejection. Who doesn’t? We all pretend it’s okay. We say things like, “Rejection is good for you.” And, “Each rejection brings you one step closer to getting published.” To me that’s like saying, “Falling down the stairs is good for you. Each time you fall down you get closer to reaching the top.” Does that make sense to you? If someone gave you that advice as you started to climb a staircase would you take it? If so, remind me not to stand behind you.

What I want to write about is not getting rejected, but succeeding. Let’s say you wanted to ask a girl to go out on a date. (If you are a girl feel free to replace girl with boy.) You’ve talked to all the other girls and this is the one for you. She’s funny, smart, attractive. She can hit a 3-2 curveball, bowl 217, and she loves the Lord of the Rings movies. This is the one.

You walk up to her and say, “Hello, would you like to go to a movie with me Saturday night?”

She looks you over, wipes a crumb of egg salad sandwich from your chin, and says, “Sorry. I’m going bowling with my family that night.”

Conventional rejection wisdom says you should nod stoically, square your shoulders, and say, “I understand.” Then walk away and find someone else to ask out. After all, she’s a busy girl. She probably wasn’t a good match for you. Getting turned down will make you stronger. Learn from it. Next time check your face for crumbs. Work on a better pitch. Besides rejection brings you one step closer to getting accepted. Go home and eat a candy bar. Get enough sugar into your system and soon you’ll feel better.

I hope that sounds like total bunk to you. Wouldn’t you check to see if Saturday was better? If she was that great wouldn’t you at least put up a fight? If not, maybe you didn’t deserve her after all.

Let me tell you a little secret about getting published. It’s not about how many times you get rejected. It’s about how persistent you are. I don’t know the details of Obert Skye. But I can tell you Brandon Dorman had the first book he submitted to Shadow Mountain rejected. James Dashner had the first two books he submitted to Shadow Mountain rejected. I initially had Farworld rejected. That’s three out of four Shadow Mountain fantasy authors rejected.

What did Brandon Dorman do? He asked Chris Schoebinger what kind of book they’d like to publish. What did James Dashner do? He scheduled a lunch to discuss book ideas, but decided to write a synopsis and three chapters to send Chris and Lisa before the lunch. What did I do? I e-mailed Chris and Lisa and called them, to understand why they rejected Farworld and to see how I could get the issue resolved. Now rejection proponents might say we succeeded because we were rejected. I say we succeeded because we were persistent.

I received an e-mail from a very good author friend of mine who lives in Houston. She’s just received a rejection from Shadow Mountain last week. Typically when I get rejection messages, they are very depressing. Understandably, the authors are hurt, they feel lousy, they want to quit. Often chocolate is a major topic of discussion. But let me tell you what my friend asked in her e-mail. Turns out she has a 1on1 meeting with Lisa next week at a writers’ conference. My friend really liked the feedback Lisa had given her and wanted to know whether James and I would suggest reworking the bad parts of the book between now and then, or coming up with more ideas. She really felt SM would benefit from what she had to offer and was looking for the best way to convince them of that.

Here is my answer to her. First of all, you totally rock! I am so dang proud of you. Not only are you a great writer, but you also believe so completely in yourself that giving up was never an option. I would recommend you do both. Rethink your rejected story, so you can discuss how you would fix it if Lisa is open to that. But also come prepared with a handful of ideas for other stories. You’ve got fifteen minutes to get an editor at an awesome publisher excited about what you have to offer, so go in with both barrels loaded. True you only have a couple of days until the conference, but making a good impression on someone like Lisa is what it’s all about. Find the time.

Last year at this time, I was at the same conference. Back then, Lisa was in the middle of reading my manuscript. I honestly was too scared to talk to her, but James, who is the ultimate brown-noser, made me go over. I actually had a close call where I nearly sat at Lisa’s table wearing my wife’s name badge, but thanks to a helpful tip from a fellow attendee, I averted if not disaster, then at least serious embarrassment. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to think when Lisa started off our conversations with things she thought I should fix in my book. But I did fix those things, she passed it on to Chris, and ultimately I got invited to lunch with them (which is a pretty funny story in and of itself.)

How many times has persistence paid off in my life? Well my literary agent rejected me twice before taking me on. My wife totally blew off my first date request. In fact she told me she’d call me back with a day that would work, and I didn’t hear from her for over a year. The publisher of my previous books told me she was sure Shadow Mountain had no interest in Farworld. I’ve probably rewritten this book easily ten to fifteen times, and I’m still making minor tweaks.

There’s a poem called “The Race,” that says something to the effect of, “It’s how many times you fall. It’s how many times you get up.” I don’t believe in falling down the stairs. I believe in getting to the top. If I could get there on my first try, I’d do it. If I fall, I’m going to be ticked off about it. But I’m not going to sit there and cry. I’m going to try again, and again, and again.
My good friend’s name is Tami. I tell you that because I want you to watch Shadow Mountain’s coming releases. I don’t know when it will happen, but I have every confidence that in the not too distant future you will see her name as one of their authors.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Questions for Shadow Mountain

First let me say thanks for all of the support and encouragement on the blog tour. Out of nineteen votes on the poll, eighteen people said they’d be willing to buy a book they read about on a blog. Of course I guess you could expect that from bloggers. But still that’s even better odds than the dentists who recommended Trident for their patients who chew gum. I’ll take those odds.

I talked to my editor today and it looks like the ARCs will be ready in early May. So I should be able to start moving forward with the blog tour in April. I’ve got about 30-40 bloggers who expressed interest—either through comments or e-mails. So now I’ve just got to figure out a grass roots way to reach another 100+ bloggers. Maybe word of mouth will spread once I actually start signing people up. Thanks for the Librarything idea. As soon as I have a book available, I’ll join as an author and see if there is more interest there. I assume Shadow Mountain will do the early review copies there as well, like they did with “The 13th Reality.”

I also have a meeting with the art department to discuss my cover on Friday. It’s like getting a little hint at what might be wrapped under the Christmas tree. Can’t wait!

Since several people have asked me about my publisher and the process of selling a book, I was thinking maybe we could do a Q&A with Lisa, the acquisitions editor at Shadow Mountain. If you’ve got any questions you’d like her, post them here and I’ll see if I can get her to answer them before the weekend. She’s pretty busy with a lot of projects, but I’ll see what I can do.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

In Search of Buzz


It looks like the scheduled on sale date for Farworld is September 5th. Basically, that’s about six months until the first book hits store shelves, give or take a week. Between now and then, my publisher will be busy with things like finishing up the artwork, doing final edits, collecting the blurbs, printing ARCs (advance reader copies), and creating posters and bookmarks.

Shadow Mountain has done a great job of building up a name for themselves in the YA fantasy market with Leven Thumps, Fablehaven, and now The 13th Reality. Leven Thumps has sold hundreds of thousands, Fablehaven hit the NY Times bestseller list for children’s books, and even though The 13th Reality has just been released, it is selling well, and Borders has decided to feature it for the month of April in their “New Voices” section.

Onece Farworld comes out, Shadow Mountain will send me on a two week multi-city tour where I will visit lots of schools and do lots of book signings. In addition, Shadow Mountain will have ARCs of my book at BEA (Book Expo America, the largest book show in the US,) and several other shows. Clearly this is all a dream come true for me. Unless the Earth spins off its axis in the next six months, I should be selling a bunch of books in the fourth quarter of this year.

The question is, what do I do for the next six months? The book is written. Other than final edits of the galleys, I’m not changing the story at all. Of course as an author, you always think of things you’d like to do better. But based on getting a lot of feedback from a lot of readers, I think people will find this book exciting. I’ve spent a lot of time studying reviews of other YA fantasy novels, and the three biggest complaints I see are: “Not enough depth to the characters.” “Too slow.” And, “More suited to younger kids.”

I think I’ve avoided all of those pitfalls. Marcus and Kyja are not cardboard characters. They deal externally and internally with real issues. I’ve had many, many adults tell me they liked the book at least as much as their kids. I’m not going for silly with this series. And if there isn’t enough action in this book, you may need to read it while swimming with killer sharks or something. So the writing will either sink or swim.

But I don’t want to just sit back and wait. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think what I can do to help build up momentum until then. I think the bottom line is that word of mouth is what will sell the book. If I’m right, and my book is good, people will tell other people. Hopefully I’ll get good reviews for some of the biggies like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. But what can I do to get the ball rolling until then? How do you create word of mouth before your book is out?

The first thing I did was to start this blog. If I keep the content fresh and helpful, people should start telling other people and the number of visitors will steadily increase. That seems to be happening. For me, the concept of the internet is fascinating. As I look at the map of who is visiting my site, I see people from all over the world and most of the regions in the US. Is there a way I can use that to start building up what industry people call buzz?

Here’s what I’m thinking, and I want you to brainstorm right along with me. The best way to get the word out is to approach the people who talk to the most people. If I were already a big name or had unlimited time and money, I’d start traveling across the country right now. I don’t have money, but I do have ARCs that will be available in May. Shadow Mountain prints a ton of these. I’m not sure they want me to say exactly how many they send out, but it is quite a few. They will send out copies to all the big book reviewers both on-line and in print.

Again, if my book is as good as I think it is, that should generate some talk. But what about a grass roots effort? What about all the people who have blogs, but aren’t huge reviewers? I think I’ll probably have 100-200 books that I can give out. Let’s say I gave out 200 books to people who have their own blogs. If each of those blogs averaged say thirty unique visitors (some will have many more, some will have less) I could reach 6,000 people before my book even comes out.

Honestly, if you sold 6,000 books your first week, you’d probably hit the NYT. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think all 6,000 people would rush out to buy my book. But it’s definitely better than just sitting back and waiting. So the next question is, how can I reach those people and what can we do to make the blog posts interesting enough to get some attention?

Here’s where I need your help. I’m still pretty new to this blogging stuff (at least on a national level), but I know many of you spend quite a bit of time with your own blogs and reading others. What if I did this?

Let’s say I offer a free ARC to anyone who agrees to read the book and do a review along with a Q&A on their blog between the first of July and the end of August? I think they call this a blog tour or a virtual tour. I send you the book and you send me questions, Whatever questions you want, writing questions, questions about the books, silly questions, serious questions, whatever. I’ll send you back my answers and you agree to post a review and the Q&A on your blog starting July first.

Obviously I expect you to say what you really think about the book. If you love it, great. If you don’t love it so much, then say what you didn’t like. In addition, what if I could get enough extra ARCs so you could give out one free copy to someone who comments on your post? Do a random drawing, best comment, whatever. I’d even have the book drop shipped for you to the person who won it.

It seems to me that if I did this, it would really help get the word out. I honestly don’t know if I’d get tons of bloggers interested or only a handful. What I’m thinking I would do is take a date like the middle of April and announce that I would send out books to the first two hundred people who sent me the name of their blog and their mailing address.

I’d definitely get some overlap on blogs, but maybe we could try to schedule dates so everyone didn’t blog at the same time. And by doing different questions and answers, it could make the blogs unique enough that readers might read more than one post.

Oh, and for those of you who don’t have blogs, I could do some kind of drawing here as well as the chance you’d have to win a book off someone else’s blog. In fact I could do a daily link of everyone who is taking part in the tour so people could go from my blog to their blogs to try and win a book there or just check out the other cool blogs.

So what do you think? Would this work? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your comments, and I’m going to put up a poll tied to the questions of how effective it might be. I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Another Book Beginning Thread

Yesterday we talked about ways to alienate your readers (and your potential agent or editor) with the beginning of your book. As Becky pointed out, you can find writers who break every one of those rules and still get published. In fact, my first little regional book to get published started with a full chapter of flowery description and flashback. The thing is, it got published despite those things not because of them. And I can’t tell you how many people said, “I loved your book! It sure picked up after the first couple of chapters.” Ugh! Not what you want to hear from your readers.

I’m sure there are some amazing books out there that start with a dreamed flashback where the protagonist cries over a flowery description of her recently dead lover. And if you’re good enough to pull that off, feel free to write in your acknowledgements, “See Savage, you don’t know anything. So, hah!”

But assuming those really are bad ways to start your novel, let’s focus on ways that will hook your reader from the beginning. Like yesterday, I don’t expect anything I say here to be a huge new flash to you, but they definitely would have helped me back in the day, and they are still good reminders even now.

First of all, let me start with what I consider to be the one of the most important things to any storywriter. This comes from the world of cinema.

Enter the scene late and leave it early.

What does that mean? Essentially it refers to the fact that beginning writers generally want to start their books before they should. Let’s say your first chapter will have a man and woman arguing about the custody of their child. It will climax with the wife saying she wants a divorce and the husband shooting at her in a drunken stupor. Cool scene right?

As the author, I want to tell the “whole” story. I don’t want my reader to be confused. So I begin with the wife waiting angrily by the door, looking out the window for her husband who is late again. I describe the room so you can see that they are financially well off. I show the pictures of their three-year-old growing up. I might have her remember how things used to be. (Or maybe a foreshadowing of how she is married to an ex-cop who still carries his gun) Finally the car pulls up. The husband staggers to the door, she opens it and shouts, “You’re late! Again!”

Are any warning bells going off in your head here? If not, go back and reread yesterday’s post. Is there any immediacy here? Is the reader quickly pulled into the scene?

How about this?

“You’re late!” Marlene shouted throwing open the door. “Although I don’t know why I even care anymore.”

Leaning slightly to one side, as though someone had cut an inch off the bottom of his right shoe, Norman blinked woodenly. Then something seemed to catch fire in his eyes and he shoved past his wife of seventeen years. “Don’t ‘magine I missed dinner,” he said with a slur Marlene had become used to.

See how we just jump right into the scene? The cool thing is that if we give the reader a few clues, they will fill in much of the boring background for us. Marlene’s first sentence tells us her mood, the probable time of day (or in this case night), and quite a bit about their relationship.

Her second sentence let’s the reader know this isn’t the first time Norman has been late, and the first sentence of the second paragraph tells us why. This is called implied history. By stating a few facts, the reader knows what has happened before without us telling them.

If I have thirteen-year-old Jordan eye the lockers of his new school and decide there is plenty of room for him inside. What does that tell you about his old school?

I could go even further in the scene above and start with something like this.

Norman staggered backward, his palm going to the bright red hand print on the side of his face. For a moment he seemed stunned that Marlene would actually strike him. A woman didn’t do that to a man—not ever. A woman needed to know her place. Then his hand went to the inside of his jacket and he was gratified to see the woman he’d been chained to for the past thirteen years back away. His fingers closed around the cold metal of the forty-five in his shoulder holster. She’d made a mistake. Quite possibly her last one.

It’s true that the reader may feel a little confused at first. Why did she hit him? Did he deserve it? But the story grabs our interest, just like overhearing a snatch of an interesting conversation between the unknown couple sitting in the booth behind us at a restaurant. Entering the scene late grabs us right away. Leaving it early makes us want to read on. I could end the chapter with him shooting wildly at her, them struggling, her calling the police. Or I could end it with him pulling the gun. Then I could start the next chapter with her boss wondering why she is late for work. Is she dead? Maybe. Or maybe something else happened. Would you keep reading?

Typically writing instructors say that you should start where the action begins. I agree and disagree with that. As we discussed on the MICE post, there is almost always more than one storyline. Which action should you begin with? It doesn’t necessarily have to be the life changing moment of the main storyline. In fact often that jumps into the story at the wrong point.

In Farworld Water, I begin with a scene where a group of boys are waiting to beat up the protagonist. I did this for a couple of reasons. The main storyline would require unearned emotion. I want you to empathize with my first protagonist (there are two) before we plunge him into the main story. And I want you to see early on that my story will involve magic. So I begin with a scene that tells us a lot of Marcus’s history and hints at what may come next. So at least consider what storyline to begin with.

What kind of hooks grab the reader most easily?

Action, action, action

Readers of all ages love action. Do you remember the first time you saw your first Indiana Jones movie. The darts flying, the spears with the skull, the giant ball rolling. I didn’t take a single bit of my popcorn during that entire scene. One of the best ways to hook a reader early is with an action scene that puts someone in jeopardy. Even better if the person in peril is a woman or a child, because readers root for them right away.

The Explosive Beginning

While this could be action, it doesn’t have to be. Essentially it is starting with something so compelling that you have to read more. An example of that above would be the man reaching for his gun after the woman has slapped him.

Unexpected dialog

Snappy dialog is always a good way to grab the readers attention. Just make sure whatever they are talking about is interesting. Boring is bad. Repeat that ten times. If you opened the first page of a book and read, “Someone’s trying to kill me,” would you read at least a couple of lines more?

What did you just say?

I have a really fun urban fantasy I will finish one day that starts with this line. “The problem with human heads is they always turn up in the most inconvenient places.” Would you read more? The idea here is that you starting with something so unexpected and compelling you must read more. Dean Koontz is the king of this method.

Creating a bond to one or more characters

Make me care about the character right away. Often this is done through internal monologue. I once started a book like this.

“They say the human subconscious is capable of picking up hidden danger signals long before the conscious mind is aware that anything’s wrong. The senses tingle. The small hairs on the back of the neck stand. Adrenaline races through the body. It’s supposed to be a holdover from the times when having a bad day meant ending up inside a sabertooth’s belly.

Well, maybe I’m just not in touch with my inner cavewoman. Or maybe my receiver was on the fritz that day. Whatever the case, I don’t remember feeling any sense of peril, no premonitions of impending doom, as I reached the top of the rise revealing the house on the hillside.”

Do you like her? Would you read more?

Finally, keep it short and sweet—cut, cut, cut

Details are great, especially if they create a mood. But don’t dawdle. Grab my interest and hold on like you’re gripping a tiger by the tail. If you can hold me for the whole first chapter, I’m willing to cut you a break farther in. But if you lose me on the first page, don’t expect me to come back.

Well that’s it, gang. We did a week of blogs straight. Hopefully it was fun for you. I know it was for me. I’m going to take a break over the weekend. Okay, actually I starting Farworld book two. On Monday I want to talk a little bit about promotion. I have a YA fantasy I’m sending out into a world teeming with YA fantasy. How can I possibly hope to stay afloat? Even more importantly, how can I stand out? Also I have a fun new poll. And a hint about how you can get your hands on an advanced reader copy of Book One.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Beginnings, and Prologues, and Talking Bears . . .Oh My

Wow, great thoughts on villains everyone. Mostly, I try to remember that villain is spelled “ai” and not “ia.” Button eyes, though. Now that is creepy. I thought Stephen King’s recurring villain, Randall Flagg was pretty creepy. As far as Disney villains, Ursula was pretty nasty with her pet eels. Anyone remember their names without Googling?

Also, thanks for dropping by Queen of Chaos, Becky, and Onelowerlight. Love your sites. And Becky, I have no idea how you keep up with so many BLOGS.

Okay, so I promised that today we’d talk about beginnings, prologues, and talking animals. Let’s see, always begin your prologue with an animal that talks. Thank you folks, you’ve been a great audience. Please don’t forget to tip the hat girl on your way out, and remember, we’re here six nights a week.

No? Oh, alright then. Eeenie, meenie, minnie, moe. Let’s start with beginnings. The goal of your first sentence is to do one thing. Can you guess? To get the reader to read the second sentence. That’s the main goal of the beginning of your story, to keep the reader reading. If they shut the book, anything else you might want to accomplish is impossible. Did you know that agents and editors don’t make it past the first page of most manuscripts? If you don’t hook the reader in those first few lines, you are out of luck.

The problem is that the best ways to hook the reader are often the beginnings that come least easily to most writers. And the ways we tend to want to start our books our often the ways the turn off an agent, editor, and reader. So let’s begin by examining a few ways not to start your book.

Flashback/Foreshadowing


Jane remembered the first time she’d sat on this very rock. It was the day after Michael left. She remembered the wind had been blowing cold, and her face had been raw and chapped by the tears she’d shed over the last few days. Mary had arrived holding the handle of her unusual umbrella. But all Jane wanted to do was curl up in a ball, drink some lime cordial, and . . .

Or

Little did Mickey realize as he headed to the laboratory that only an hour later he would be fighting for his life with a giant but deadly mop.


First of all, why are so many authors drawn to the flashback? I think it’s because inside they realize where the story needs to begin, but they feel they absolutely must provide the reader with all of the background information necessary to “appreciate” the story. Wrong. What the reader wants is immediacy. What is more interesting? A car chase happening right outside your window at this very moment, or someone recounting a chase that happened years before? To capture the reader’s attention, you must engage them. To engage them, you must catch their interest right now.

I’m not saying you can’t use flashbacks in your story. But not at the beginning. Even then, any time you are tempted to use a flashback, ask yourself if it is essential to the story or if the background information can be conveyed via implied history, dialog, or internal monologue.

Heavy handed foreshadowing is nearly as bad. You can accomplish the same thing in the sentence above, by saying, “Mickey was sure he would be in and out of the laboratory in thirty minutes, an hour tops.” This isn’t nearly as intrusive and heavy handed, but the reader will still jump to the conclusion that for some reason Mickey is going to run into trouble.

Dream


“Now I have you!” the ogre shouted, placing his spear tip against Mickey’s throat. Mickey, tried to pull away, but the flint cut cruelly into his furry flesh, drawing blood. Mickey knew he had only one chance. He needed his wand. It was less than a foot away, but before he could think of a scheme to reach it, the ogre sneered.


“Too late, Sorcerer. Now you will taste death.” The ogre rammed the spear into Mickey’s throat. Mickey coughed out a red spray—which coincidentally matched his outfit—as his life bled onto the ground. It was finished. He was dead.


Mickey jerked awake with a moan. “Oh, boy!” he cried in his squeaky voice. “What a dream.”

The first two paragraphs are exciting right? (Okay, also a little gratuitously gory.) They are definitely immediate. The problem is the third paragraph. Again, the writer is trying to use a trick or gimmick to hook the reader. Typically because inside they know their beginning is not as exciting as it should be. Often the writer uses a dream sequence to hook the header before finding out the protagonist is actually daydreaming at his desk or waking up to go to school. Yawn!

The problem is, readers don’t like to be tricked. Nothing pulls the reader out of a story more quickly than realizing the author used a gimmick to get their attention. Agents and editors will drop a manuscript as soon as they see it is starting with a dream. This is a big no-no.

Killing off a character too early


“Can I get you a cup of coffee?”


“Certainly,” replied Jane. “With a little cream if you have it.”


“Of course.” As Tarzan started toward the kitchen, the jealous hunter stepped into the living room and began to spray bullets. Tarzan crumpled to the ground, dead.


Okay, now this is exciting. It’s immediate. It’s not exactly a trick. So what doesn’t work with this beginning? The reader doesn’t care. I don’t know who Tarzan is, other than the fact that he seems to make a good cup of coffee. To the author this may be a poignant scene worthy of many tears. But that’s because they know that Tarzan is a hunky, leopard-skin-wearing swinger who protects little kids from bullies and donates his spare time knitting vine sweaters for less fortunate seniors. The author is crying buckets as they peck out this sad, sad beginning.

But since the author didn’t take time to let us meet Tarzan first—and hopefully come to like him—they’re shaking their heads and going, “Huh. Wonder what that was all about?” It doesn’t take much, maybe only a page or so, but you have to make the reader care about a main character whom you are going to kill off at the beginning of the book. If the point is to just kill off some place holder, you might be able to get away with it, but even then it’s better if you can create a connection in some other way (tension, humor, action, etc.)

Sticking with the emotion theme, the next way to wreck a good beginning is with . . .

Unearned emotions


“Why?” Jasmine wailed, pounding her fists against the useless lamp. Hot tears dripped down her cheeks as she gnashed her teeth. It was so unfair!


“Why did he have to die?” She’d loved him so much—more than life itself. He was everything to her. Her little street rat. And now he was gone. Stabbed by a maniacal street vendor. She pressed her face against her silk pillow and wept until she finally fell asleep and dreamed about an ogre and a white-gloved rodent.

Can you guess what’s wrong with this beginning? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a lot like the problem with the last one. You haven’t earned the care of the reader yet. Again, you are relying on what you, the author, know about Jasmine’s situation. Because you know what’s happening here, the scene tugs at your heart. But to the reader, Jasmine is a whinny, snot-nosed, cry baby. If you want the reader to feel the pain of your protagonist, you have to earn it by creating a bond between reader and character.

Last, and perhaps most despicable, is . . .

Flowery descriptions


It was a warm day for early spring, and the smell of jasmine floated on the slightly damp air—the flower, not the spoiled princess. Everywhere Aurora looked, signs of life abounded. Red throated warblers warbled, sprouts sprouted, fuzzy little bunnies . . . did whatever it was bunnies do. The sun peeked down from between the branches of the aspens and maples. It was a wonderful day to be alive. If only she could find a prince to help her celebrate her sixteenth birthday.

If you don’t know what’s wrong with this scene, you haven’t been listening. Is it exciting? Is it immediate? Does it make the reader go, “Yowza! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” If it does, this is not a reader you want to invite to your next party. As a writer you often begin with the scene inside your head. That’s why stories begin with things like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Scenes are cool and they add a ton of value, but very seldom are they the way to hook your reader.

Next we’ll talk about how to create good beginnings. But since this blog is getting pretty long and I promised I’d cover two more things, we’ll save good beginnings for tomorrow.

Prologues

This is almost as dicey a subject as my anti-SASE stance, which always gets me in trouble with other authors, but I’ll forge ahead at my own risk. Prologues are cool. One of the neatest things about them is that you can use any point of view, any tense, and start anywhere. The prologue is like a separate piece of the book that doesn’t have to follow the same rules.

However, there are two problems with prologues. While good readers—which means everyone who would read this blog—read prologues, many readers don’t. They see prologue and read “optional.” This is especially bad because authors often use prologues for one or both of two reasons. Chapter one is boring, so they start with an exciting prologue or key information needs to be given to the reader that doesn’t fit well into the rest of the story. Maybe it is an event that happened hundreds of years before. Maybe it is a scene the protagonist isn’t there to witness.

If this is the case, there are two choices you can make as the author. Either you write a prologue anyway, and say “Skip it at your own risk.” Or you write the story in such a way that the prologue is not necessary. Don’t like either of those choices? That’s okay neither do I. Which is why I opt for a third choice.

Write the prologue, but call it chapter one.

Finally we come to talking animals. Who doesn’t like talking animals? Without talking animals we wouldn’t have Mickey Mouse, Big Bird, or Thomas the Tank Engine. Okay he’s not really an animal, but you get my point.

Talking animals are cool. Dr. Doolittle thought so and so do I. In fact one my favorite characters in my book is a horse that tells really corny jokes like, “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Dishes.” “Dishes, who?” “Dishes the coldest it’s been in weeks.”

It’s okay, go ahead and groan. I won’t be offended . . . much. Treat your talking animals the same way you would with talking people. Make sure that their attitudes, speech patterns, and motivations are different enough that people could tell them apart even if you couldn’t use speech tags.


So there you have it. Don’t kill off your characters too soon. Do include talking animals. And include prologues at your own risk. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Are Their MICE in Your Stories?

Great new questions everyone. Beginnings, talking animals, prologues. Lots of fun stuff to discuss. Since I recently wrote an article about where each type of storyline begins, I thought I'd post some of it here. Be aware that this is not answeing Melinda's question exactly. But you kind of need to know about the beginnings and endings of storylines before you try and figure out where to start your book. So we'll do this today and do prologues, the beginning of the actual book, and of course talking animals tomorrow. And by the way, great feedback on villians everyone. It really makes doing this blog fun when everone chips in. So who is your favorite villian of all time?

A lot of times writers are unclear on where their novel should start and end. I don’t mean the first paragraph or page per se. That’s really more of a choice of what will hook the reader. What I’m talking about is the point of focus of the novel in which the story itself actually begins. I’ll be discussing this in more detail at the Storymakers conference, but here is a brief example of what I am talking about.

A good novel should usually have at least three storylines. Too many storylines, and you risk losing the reader’s focus. Too few and you go from a novel to a tale. Each storyline must start and stop at the proper point, in order to give your novel a good flow.

Orson Scott Card divides stories into four types, which he calls the MICE quotient. Stories can either be milieu (place driven), idea driven, character driven, or event driven.

A good example of a milieu driven story is Lord of the Rings. In a place driven story, the story is about exploring a place unfamiliar to the main character. The story begins with the discovery of the new world and ends with the wrap-up of the world. People who complained the third LOTR movie had too many endings didn’t understand that the story was not about the ring. Therefore it didn’t end with the ring’s destruction. It didn’t end with Frodo returning home, because it wasn’t about him. It was about the world, which is why we needed to find out everything that happened to the world.

An idea driven story is a story that revolves around a problem. In a mystery, a person may be killed. The story ends when the killer is caught, killed, escapes, or in some way leaves the story. Idea stories typically have lots of false turns and red herrings. Characters may be minimally fleshed out.

Romances are a great example of character driven stories. The character driven story begins when the protagonist finds his or her lot in life unbearable (bad husband, no husband, dull job, etc.) It ends when the protagonist either changes her life or comes to realize she is actually okay with their life.

Event driven stories are stories where the “world” is out of order. It begins when the main character tries to find a cure. It ends when the goal is achieved or when the character fails. The event can take many forms: a usurper, a betrayal of trust, or a crime unpunished.

By analyzing what type of story you have written, you will find it easy to locate the correct beginning and end.

Let’s use this tool to break down the first Harry Potter book.

Is there a problem Harry must solve? Yes it is the potential theft of the Sorcerer Stone. Who is trying to steal it and will HP and friends solve the mystery? It’s possible then, that HP1 could be an idea driven book. Except that the book does not begin or end with the mystery.

Moving on to milieu. Does the main character discover a new world? Obviously. A major part of the story is Harry discovering the world of magic. By seeing it through the eyes of a person who has never seen magic, we get to experience his delight as well. So HP1 could be a milieu. He does discover the world of magic before the issue involving the Sorcerer’s Stone, and he leaves the world after. So it could be a place story. But wait there’s more.

How about event? In almost every HP book, the world of magic and the world in general are in danger. In particular, Hogwarts itself is in danger of being shut down by one thing or another. And after Harry resolves the conflict, we learn that—for the moment, at least—Hogwarts is safe. Event? Maybe, but . . .

What every HP book starts and ends with is Harry being unhappy with his state in life. He is living in a closet, he doesn’t hear from his friends, he is possibly going to get kicked out, he has lost a loved one. And what is the last thing that happens in every book? Harry comes to settle with his current lot in life. By examining each of the storylines in HP 1, we determine that while there are elements of all story types (which is one of the things that gives the HP series such universal appeal), ultimately HP is a character driven story.

All of the above being said, you don’t have to start with the beginning of the main storyline—although you’ll almost always finish with it. It’s very common to start with a secondary story line. Tomorrow I will talk about the actual start of the book itself, including the pros and cons of using prologues. In the mean time take a look at your novel (or novel in progress and try to determine how many and what type of storylines you have going on)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Q&A #3

Keep them coming Anna. I've got four more days to go!

Q: Got any advice on how to write really awesome villains? They are so hard! The one I have now also has a pretty dumb name. I think my plot is improving though, and the over the past couple of weeks I somehow came up with some really good plot twists. Surprising, but I did.

A: Keep working on that plot. Remember, it's easier to go back and edit later, than to get the momentum back if you stop and rewrite all the time.
The key to good villains is giving them real motivations. Just like your hero needs a noble quest, your bad needs a reason for being bad, other than that he/she is evil. For example, in the first chapter of Farworld, I have a dark wizard named Bonesplinter. He is going to meet with the head of The Dark Circle. In the first draft I had him simply be scared of the Master. But in rewrites he turned into a power hungry schemer. Even while he is groveling before the Master, he is thinking about what he would do with that kind of power. By adding more depth to him, it makes him more real and gives me options down the road.

The other thing to think about—especially in a fantasy series—is the hierarchy of bad guys. If I start with the top bad guy in the first book, where do I go from there? As my hero/s become stronger, I want my bad guys to become worse, so I need to use balance and restraint in the first book.

Another thing to consider is language. I am writing a YA novel so I don’t want my bad guy to be cursing up a storm. But I do want the reader to get how bad he is. So I use imagery in his language that makes you go, “Oh, this guy is creepy.”

For example:

Marcus says, “What are you going to do to me?”

Bonesplinter answers, “I’d like to spend a little time getting to know you. I’d like to study you like a fine watch and see what makes you tick.”

And later

“Unfortunately,” Bonesplinter whispered, “it’s not up to me. It won’t be long before the others come looking for you, and my orders are quite clear. I’m afraid, little bird, that you won’t be returning to your nest.”

See, I don’t use bad language, but the reader hopefully will get that this is a bad dude.

So what do you like to see in your villains?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Q&A #2


This is the personalized license plate I ordered today. I'm sure that makes me really vain, but I just thout it looked so dang cool. Okay on to the next question. Which comes from the lovely and talented Anna.

Q How do you get a contract with a publishing company? It isn't as if most fifteen year olds have agents, so do you send some sample chapters in as a book proposal, or do you write the whole book and then send it? And how do you do that? I haven't finished a book yet. Once in my head, I think...but I'm working hard on plot lines and stuff right now, so I'm really curious if I'm supposed to write the book first or get a contract first. Both sound really scary, but it'll have to come to that eventually....right? I'm really enjoying your blog by the way. :)

A Anna, first let me say that I’m really jazzed you like the blog. Your question/s is/are great, funny, and um . . . long. But all of us start out wondering the same thing. So I’m glad you asked, and hopefully I can give you a good answer. For articles or short stories—which are a great way to start out by the way—you can send a query without an agent. A query is basically a letter asking if the editor might be interested in what you have written or would like to write.

So let’s say you want to write an article on how to trim the nose hair of Shetland Ponies. First you’ll need to make sure there is actually anough information to write an article. Then find out what publications do stories about horses or nose hair. Especially if they specialize in Shetland ponies. You can do this most easily by using a book called Writers Market. This book should be available in any library or you can buy a copy for I think about $20. Since it changes every year, I would recommend the library. In this amazing book, you’ll find a list of magazines and internet magazines (called e-zines) that publish on various topics.

Next you’ll want to send query letters to the publications that seem like the best fit. Query letters are a whole other topic, but until I cover them on this blog, you can find some great examples by googling how to write a query letter. (Don’t pay for this info! There is a lot of great information on writing query letters for free.) Send out your queries and wait for your responses. At first you’ll get a lot of rejections. But the more you work at it, the more positive your responses will be, until you get your first yes. Remember, you can spin most articles more than one way. One query might be about horse hygiene, another might be about how properly trimmed nose hair helps horses win shows. (Yeah I know, this is a really lame example, but I just got back from taking my kids to my mom and dad’s house and I think I ate too many chocolate chip cookies.)

Once you get a request for an article, it’s time to send in your very best work. Check for typos. Read similar articles in that magazine and others like it. Read articles about writing articles. The key is that the more you write, the better you will get. Of course you’ll get rejections along the way, but those are badges of courage. Nearly every author gets at least some and most get a lot. They just mean you are getting closer to getting published. Stephen King had a whole spike filled with rejections before he sold his first story.

Short stories are usually the same process. Check Writers Market to see how the publication wants you to submit. Some want a query, some want the whole story. Some want both.

Okay let’s move on to books. First, DO NOT try to sell a book you haven’t finished writing. It can be done, but the chances are great that it will backfire on you. Nothing takes the wind out of en editor or agent’s sails like asking for a full manuscript and finding out you haven’t finished it. So, get your book done first. That’s the cardinal rule. Once your book is done and you’ve gotten lots of feedback and done lots of polishing, it’s time to try and sell it.

Whether you need an agent or not depends on what kind of book you are writing and where you want to publish it. Many small publishers do not require agents. Also some fantasy publishers and some children’s book publisher do not require agents. You’ll have to go back to WM again to find out for sure. TOR does not require agents, and neither does my publisher, Shadow Mountain. But even if you do sell your book without an agent, it’s still good to get one as they can negotiate on your behalf, get competitive offers, sell foreign rights, movie rights, and all that cool stuff.

The other reason for having an agent is that now days almost all the big publishers will not even look at you without an agent. Since an agent works completely on commission (usually 15% of sales,) the publisher knows that the agent will only send them writing that is good. So the agent is the one that actually gets your work looked at.

Guess where you go to find an agent? Yep, that’s right. Back to WM. They have a whole list of agents, what kind of books they represent, how they want to see submissions, if they take on new writers, all that cool stuff. Most of time they’ll want a query letter first, then the first three chapters of your book, then the whole thing. The whole process can take six months or more, so it pays to submit to several agents at a time.

Okay, the chocolate chips are wearing off and I’m sure my other good author friends will cover what I missed, so I’ll call it a night. And you thought you’re question was long, huh?
Okay I’ve got five more days to fill with posts, so if you have more questions, fire away!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Q&A #1


First, let me apologize for not posting last week. I was really sick for most of the week with a stomach virus and then I had two writer events which I was speaking at. I promise to make up for it by posting every day this week.

Today I thought I’d answer a couple of questions. Please if you have any others, post them and I’ll put them on the blog. And a special thanks to some of my new younger readers who have started dropping by regularly. You are great.

Q: Lauren asked, “So, Mr. Savage, did you get to choose any artist you wanted for an illustrator (who agreed to do it, of course), or did you have a group of artists working for your publishing company you had to choose from? I've always wondered how the illustrator thing works.”

A: Good question, Lauren, but really, you can just call me Scott. I’ll tell you what I know. My publisher, Shadow Mountain, is constantly on the lookout for good artists. But there are a lot of issues involved. How much does the artist charge for their work? How quickly can they work? How much experience do they have? And most importantly, how good are they?

A lot of times, artists will bring their portfolio to publishers to try and get future work with them. In my case, I talked to the person managing my book and told him how much I admired Brandon Dorman’s work. I really liked that he could do what I call hard fantasy—illustrations that didn’t look cartoonish. I wanted a cover that would make people see it and go, “Wow! That is cool.”

Honestly, I didn’t expect to get Brandon, because he is very busy with a lot of other projects. I just wanted Chris to know what I was looking for. So when he came back and told me that Brandon had agreed to do my book, I was literally floored.

The week before last, Lisa, my editor, asked me for a list of illustration suggestions. Basically she wanted me to go through each of the four parts of my books (about 25k words per part) and suggest 4-6 possible inside illustrations. That was both fun and hard. I really try to fill my books with lots of action and adventure scenes. So I was going, “Would it be better to have the part where the dark wizard turns into a snake or where the army of undead attacks?” To tell you the truth, I will be excited as heck just to see any scenes from my book made into pictures.

It looks like the cover will be a scene from City Under the Water, since the first book is actually Called "Farworld—Water." I think the actually cover itself will also look like it is made of water. Should be fun.

The next question, asked by several people is when my book will actually come out.

A: I don’t have a firm drop date yet. But one thing I have learned recently is that until your book gains enough clout, the date your book goes on sale is not as firm a you might think. A Stephen King book or something like Harry Potter, can not be sold until the drop or release date. But books that don’t have as much clout may be sold by stores whenever the get them, even though the publisher wants you hard sell date.

The reason a publisher pushes for that hard date is that sales numbers are reported weekly. So you really want to launch your series with good sell through numbers the first week. But it takes more work for a bookstore to hold books until a certain date, so they only really stick to it if the book is big enough that they could get some backlash from the publisher or other stores.

As soon as I have a more firm date, I will let you know. I am also going to do something fun for people who have blogs, that will give you a chance to get a review copy early. And I’ll even run a little contest for people without blogs to win an Advanced Reader Copy. I expect that to be sometime in mid to late April.