Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Writing Tip #23--The Problem With Prologues

(Author's note--not to be confused with a prologue: A couple of months ago, fellow Harper Collins author, Robison Wells, and I were debating the pros and cons of prologues. His take was that most people read prologues, and therefore my stand was wrong. My take was that the statistics would only prove my point. We did on online survey, the results of which I link to below.

Now, Robison may or may not be full of hot MBA air. But I want to point out that, at least prior to this post, we have been good friends. We share the same critique group, regularly have sushi together, and have taught at the same conferences many, many times. Shoot, he even uses the microphone I used for my Worldplay podcast on his Do I Dare to Eat a Peach podcast. Can you get any closer than that?

So while he my be totally off base in his thoughts here, and I must mock him mercilessly for it. We are still good friends. He is an awesome writer. And if you haven't read his amazing books, what the heck is wrong with you?

Carry on.)  

Wait, you thought I meant 100 writing tips in 100 consecutive days? That would just be silly, preposterous, er . . . um. Yeah, okay, that is what I was going for. But this crazy book thing has to come first, and lately I've been struggling a little with finishing up the Farworld series. It's harder than it looks. You want to make sure that the last book is the most exciting and powerful of all the books in the series, but you don't want to rush it. You want it to be something people will enjoy like a good meal.

But, excuses aside, I promised you 100 writing tips, and you shall have them. And just because I've made you wait, I'll jump into what may be my most controversial topic of all . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . Prologues.

Now just the title of this post might give you the wrong idea. (Not the writing tip #23, that's the right idea. The "problem" with prologues part, silly.) You might think I'm going to say that prologues are bad, that I don't read prologues, that you shouldn't read prologues, that you shouldn't write prologues, and that prologues cause cancer in lab rats. None of that is true. Let me repeat in all caps, NONE OF THAT IS TRUE. Believe me, I checked Snopes and the whole prologue cancer thing--a complete hoax. So let me state a few things for the record--just in case the troublemaker, Robison Wells comes snooping around trying to put words in my mouth.

1) I personally always read prologues. Not just prologues, either. I read introductions, author notes, epilogues. Shoot, I even read acknowledgements. And you know what? One of my favorite authors sneaks little Easter eggs into his acknowledgements. A little add on to the story. And just because I am mean, and think you should read acknowledgements too, I'm not going to tell you who the author is.

2) I write prologues. Not always. And not nearly as often as I used to. But I do. In my Farworld books I have one per section. I call them interludes.

3) I am not going to tell you prologues are good. I am also not going to tell you prologues are bad. What I am going to do is tell you why prologues are the literary equivalent of a spatula. (Let that sink in, baby!)

Wow! You know this is going to be a tricky post when I have to use three paragraphs and three bullet points just to set things up.

Let's start with the question that always comes up first. Do people actually read prologues? As it turns out, I have three different sources to answer this question.

Here's a poll done by agent turned author, Nathan Bransford, asking if people like prologues. As you can see, 12% of the respondents absolutely liked prologues, 16% did not, and the rest were undecided. Nothing conclusive. But it does give us a taste of the ambiguity prologues bring up.

Here's a poll done by Absolute Write, a writers' group.  In this case they worded it a little differently. Do you skip prologues? You would expect the result to be much more positive of prologues here, since most writers I know like to read and write prologues. And as it turns out they are. A whopping 76% of people who took the poll do NOT skip prologues. That's pretty impressive. Only a quarter of the respondents skip prologues always or occasionally.

Finally, here's a poll fellow author, Robison Wells did at a retreat we recently attended together. This poll probably has its flaws as well. Most of the respondents knew either Rob or me, so many of them are probably people who read or write a lot. But even then, we put in a question to see how many of the people answering the poll were involved in the publishing industry in some way. We also broke it down into even more detail: asking if people read prologues before buying a book, if they read them as completely as the rest of the chapters, and a bunch of other questions Rob put in because he loves charts and graphs.

First of all, let's look at the #1 question. Do you read prologues?

Holy rice on gravy, Batman. 84% of people taking the survey always read prologues. 84%! Well that's that. Robison obviously wins the debate. Right? I mean, 84 out of 100 people always read prologues, and only 4 out of 100 never do. And look at this response.

77% of people read the prologue just as deeply as any chapter.

Now, it's true not everyone reads prologues when browsing a book, as shown below.

In fact, only 20% of readers read the prologue when deciding whether or not to buy a book online or in stores. But as Rob (look-at-me, I'm-an-MBA) Wells points out, do people read anything when buying a book? He asserts that people don't read books before buying them, so this point doesn't matter. And hey, he might be right.

So it would appear this case is closed. Roll up the mat, shut the door, and turn off the light. The mystery is solved. The majority of people read prologues. But wait. Is that what the debate was about? Or is there more more to the story? Here is where the corn starch gets added to the grave. (Hint: The plot thickens.)

Earlier, I compared prologues to spatulas. And you thought, "This man is mad. How is a prologue like a spatula? You might as well ask how a raven is like a writing desk." Now, I may be mad. But bear with me. Google spatula and look at the pictures in the shopping section of the page . Go ahead, I'll wait.

Did you find this?

Or this?
Or something like this?

See, the problem with the spatula is that nobody is quite sure what it really is or how to use it. It's not that spatulas are bad. It's that you need to understand what tool you are actually talking about and what it's for. My issue with prologues is that many people don't understand prologues and they are using them the wrong way. So let's set aside all the fancy graphs and talk about something that might actually matter to a writer, like, say, writing.

First of all, let's define a prologue. A prologue is not a chapter. If it was, all the polls above would sound stupid. Do you read chapter one of a book? Duh? Of course people do. A prologue is a separate section of the book set off from the normal chapters. It comes before chapter one, and it may have a different point of view, different setting, different voice, and even a different font from the rest of the book. If chapters were knifes, spoons, and forks set on a table, the prologue would be something like a pretty rose laid in front of each place setting.

With that in mind, let's look at how and why some authors use prologues.

First, there is the slow chapter one reason. Often chapter one is your set-up chapter. It's not the most exciting thing to start with--introducing characters, setting, story, etc. As a writer, you are concerned that readers may look at chapter one, get bored, and stop reading the book. You know you need a bang to hook the reader. So you add an exciting prologue.

That can work. In fact, Rob even has a name for it. The Ice Monster prologue, taken from the prologue at the beginning of Game of Thrones. The problem is that based on our survey question above, do you read the prologue when browsing books, only 20% of people always did. So if you are using the prologue to hook a potential reader, you may be out of luck. Because most of them aren't reading it. While it may be true that many people aren't reading the book at all before buying it, I would argue that people browsing books, who haven't already made a buying decision, will normally begin reading chapter one. If they are bored, they will put it down and read something else. And if they buy the book without browsing, even in the best case scenario above, a full 14% of readers may never see the prologue and may get bored by the first chapter. And in Nathan's poll, where only 12% of readers like prologues it could be much, much, worse. Can you live with that?

Second, let's go with something else I've seen a lot in prologues. The back story prologue. This is the prologue where you have an awesome chapter one. An amazing chapter that sucks the reader in and doesn't let them go. The problem is, you have a bunch of back story you need the reader to know. Understanding that back story in chapter one may turn a reader off, you write a prologue chock full of boring back story stuff. Now you have the opposite problem. As many as 84% of your readers, who always read prologues, are going to get the first taste of your book with . . . back story. Maybe you meant to do that. Maybe.

Third, the important clue. Your first chapter is amazing. Your prologue is exciting. But you have a key clue you want to introduce early on and then come back to at the climax of the book. Put it in the prologue right? It's perfect. Except . . . here's the thing. Again, using the best case scenario above, you can only be sure that 84% of your readers will even see the clue. That might not seem like a lot. In fact, it is a huge majority. But let me put this into perspective. Let's say you sell 20,000 books. You won't hit any bestseller lists, but it's a good solid number. If 84% of your readers read the prologue, that means that there are 3200 people that won't understand the exciting conclusion. Over 3,000 people who won't have a clue how and why the story ended the way it did. 3,000 people who will say in their reviews, "The book was good, but I totally didn't get the ending." Again, I ask, can you live with that?

Now, at about this point, I imagine you are thinking I lied at the beginning of this post when I told you I wasn't going to tell you whether or not to write prologues. It sounds like I am against them. I am not. I am all for prologues used well.

What is my definition of a well-used prologue? First of all, write an amazing book--a book that can stand on its own without a prologue. Give me an interesting chapter one with some conflict. Give me all the clues I need to read and understand the book. Give me back story in judicious amounts spread over the course of the tale. Then, and only then, give me an exciting, interesting prologue that will add to the joy of those who read it and not detract from those who choose to skip it. Make it the cherry on my sundae, the rose on my plate, the clever after-the-credits Easter egg scene in my movie.

Now, that you understand the tool and how to use it, what if you still want to hide a clue in your prologue? Fine, you know what you are doing, make the call. Want to use it as your Ice Monster? I won't argue. You know the risks, and you're willing to take them. Like every other writing tip I have given before now and will give after, you can use it or not. It is an extra tool in your tool box.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Writing Tip #22/100 Motives

The next five writing tips are all going to be about motive. "Five tips?" you ask. "Seriously? Is motive really that important?" Actually, you wouldn't ask that, because you know motives are hugely important. How important?

Consider these stories.

What if Hunger Games was a story about a girl who had to kill a bunch of other kids to get everything she ever wanted? Would you still be rooting for her?

What if Harry Potter wanted to kill Voldemort so he could get his name in the paper?

What if Cinderella wanted to get the prince to make her sisters cry?

A lot of times when I talk to writers about their story, they tell me what the character is doing. But as soon as I ask "Why?" the character is doing that, they start to stutter.

Ask yourself this about your character in every story you write. What do they want most right now? What has happened in their life to make them want it? What happens if they get it? What happens if they don't?

Going back to Hunger Games, what does Katniss want most when the books starts? To protect her sister.

What happened in her life to make her want that? Her father died and her mother had a breakdown.

What happens if she gets it? Everything is cool.

What happens if she doesn't? Someone will pay.

As a reader, I need to root for your character. The motive is what makes me root for them. I may not root for a girl to kill a bunch of other kids. But I CAN root for her to take care of her little sister.

Can your character's motives change? Tune in tomorrow.:) Good night and good writing!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Writing Tips 20 and 21

I'm getting behind! The sky is falling! Ahh!!! Must start posting two at a time. Okay, maybe the sky isn't falling, but my good friend Mark Forman is right. I'm slacking off on this. So, let's do a couple of fun ones.

Tip 20: Let your readers know your character better than the character does.

At first this sounds a little counter intuitive. Don't you know yourself better than anyone else? In some ways you do. You know your favorite candy bar, you know the most embarrassing story of your life--the one no one will ever hear, you know who you had a crush on in third grade.

What you don't know is the way everyone else sees you. You also are often the last person to realize when you are acting dumb, or how much you were affected by an event you've been trying to forget about. It's not until your best friend says, "Dude, Tiffany is never going to give you the time of day and you've totally been neglecting your real friends to chase after her," that you see what you've been doing.

And lots of times, even when you are told what you've been doing, it's hard to verbalize why. You have all these jumbled up feelings, and you're not sure who you really are on any given day. Sometimes, it isn't until years later that you can look back and go, okay, that's what was really going on in my life. (Wow, deep. At least for me!)

How does this translate into creating a character? Well, let's say you want your character to be blame herself for her parents' divorce. There are several ways of communicating that to the reader.

  1. Samantha blamed herself for her parents' divorce.

    Well, it's definitely not beating around the bush. You get the point across very clearly. Unfortunately, it's sort of like interior decorating with a sledgehammer. Any intelligent reader is going to feel like they've been hit over the head. Let's move on.
  2. Samantha stared at the spot at the table where her father always sat. It felt like someone had taken a piece of her life and cut it out with a chainsaw. Was it because she hadn't been a good enough daughter?

    This is better. And it's what most authors do. At least it has moved from straight showing to a little bit of telling and a little bit of showing. It sounds like the way a teenage girl might think. It will do in a pinch. But you don't want to be just okay. You want to be good, or even great. Let's go with a little defter touch.
  3. Samantha slammed the door and cranked her music. A minute later, the door swung open and her mother stuck her head inside.

    "Can we talk?" Mom asked, her words almost lost beneath the harsh rhythms of Samantha's grunge music.

    Samantha rolled her eyes. "What?"

    Mom sat on the edge of the bed and turned off the MP3 player. "The last few weeks, you've been a different person."

    Samantha knew her mother was trying to help, but she was just so sick of everything going on in her life, she wanted to claw out her eyeballs. "The last few weeks I haven't had a dad to talk to." The minute the words left her mouth, she wished she could take them back. The hurt on her mom's face was so raw it could have left bruises.

    She expected her mother to blow up. That's what she would have done. Instead, her mom laid a hand on her arm. "You aren't blaming yourself, are you?"

    Samantha nearly fell off the bed. "Of course not!"

    What makes this better is that Samantha doesn't see it. Even when asked directly, she denies it. That's the way life usually is. It's so hard for us to see what's really going on in our head. But the reader is going, "I'll bet she does blame herself." This advances from entry-level writing to something with some depth. But there is an even better way.
  4. Let us see through Samantha's actions that she blames herself for her parents divorce without ever mentioning it outright. Readers LOVE to know more than the character. I'm not saying make the character dumb. I'm telling you to give the reader clues they can pick up like bread crumbs. Samantha is suddenly getting better grades, cleaning her room every day, bending over backwards to be the perfect child, all while inside, her life is falling apart. As a reader we see what is happening. We know that there is a ticking time bomb inside Samantha. But what makes this so readable is that Samantha doesn't know it yet. 
See how we went from an ax to a scalpel? The best stories are the stories where the reader knows what's going on without being hit over the head. 

Writing Tip 21: Kill your babies.

If you've gone to enough writers' conferences, you've probably heard this before. But do you know what it really means? I've heard people describe it as cut out the best part of your writing, and that's not it at all. What it really means is, don't be so tied to a paragraph or a sentence or a scene that you close your eyes to the fact that it isn't working.

One of the best examples of this is first sentences. You come up with a great first sentence like, "The day purple Jell-O squirted out of my mom's nose was also the day I took over the world." Now that is a pretty cool sentence. I mean it definitely beats, "Sarah Eden thought back to the first J Scott Savage book she'd ever read; it was magic." I don't burn books. But, man, I would burn a book with a beginning like that.

So great, you have this awesome first sentence. But then, as you start writing the book, you realize how difficult it is to make your character take over the whole world. And the scene with the purple Jell-O isn't working at all. But you fight against fixing your story because then you'd lose the cool first sentence. The first sentence has become your baby. Kill it! Smash it! Feed it to blood-thirsty vultures.

In a current WIP, I had a really cool bullying scene. It was fun, because the kid getting bullied ends up giving the bully bullying advice. It was clever. It was funny. It was unique. And you know where it is now? Gone! I killed it because it didn't fit the story.

I know it's hard. But the story is more important than any one scene or sentence. If it makes you feel better, save all your babies in a document called, Really cool stuff I cut. Then, when you are a rock star, you can release all those awesome books in a special limited edition authors cut.      

Any questions?


Friday, August 9, 2013

What is Success Writing Tip 19/100

Publishing deadlines, a new project, and a couple of days in the mountains without internet have slowed things down a bit. But I still plan on doing 100 tips in 100 days.

Today's tip has less to do with how to write your story than it does with what it means to be a writer. Of all the questions I get asked the most, "How do I get published?" is probably at the top of the list. I have discussed the ins and outs of agents, publishers, query letters, and all that good stuff at other places on my blog. But the thing is, the publishing world is slowly changing.

It used to be that there was a kind of process to things. It went something like this:

  • Write short stories
  • Publish short stories
  • Get an agent
  • Write a novel
  • Sell the novel to a big publisher
  • Sell more novels
  • Win awards
  • Hit bestseller lists
  • Get a movie deal
  • Sell foreign rights

Sound familiar? It was kind of the writer's dream. You could tell how successful you were by where you were on the list. Got my agent? Check. Sold my second book? Check. Foreign rights? Not yet. You knew if you did certain things and hit certain numbers or won certain awards that you were doing well.

Now that has all changed. True, if you hit bestseller lists and get your book made into a movie, most people will consider you a pretty successful writer. But what if you decide to self-publish? An indie author can sell lots of books, make lots of money, hit lots of lists without ever touching an agent or a publisher.

And how much do numbers matter. 50,000 books sold is a pretty great number. But what if you gave them away for free? Is it still as good? What if you sell them for $0.99 each? That's $50,000. Pretty darn good. But is it as good as if you sold 50,000 copies at $14 each? Or what if your story was only read by ten people, but it changed one of their lives? How do you put a dollar value on that?

It's this weird sliding bar. No one really knows what the definition of success is anymore, because it's changing all the time. And hey, here's a crazy thought. What if you write an amazing story and never publish it at all? Isn't there a lot to be said for creating art in the first place?

I guess this is my point. Write the best story you can. Take whatever path you want. Set your own definitions of success, and don't worry what the next guy is doing. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see your book made into a movie. But if that's the only thing that will make you happy, you may never be happy. If you only consider hitting the NYT Bestseller list successful, you might always look at yourself as a failure.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying give up your dreams. Dreams are what make this business so fun. When I was a kid, I loved fishing, because, while I might never catch anything, I might catch a huge fish. One of the most exciting things about writing a book is that it really could become a bestseller some day. Dreams are what make us strive to be better.

But I've seen myself and many of my friends go through the process of selling their first book, getting an agent, going to a book signing--all things that we dreamed of--only to realize our goals had changed. You think you'll be happy if you just get an agent. Then, you'll be happy if you just sell a book. Then, it's a certain number of sales.

Your dreams and goals shift as you reach them. They are what drive you. But happiness comes from something else. Even after publishing a dozen books, I still get a thrill from writing "The End" on a new title. I still love getting a scene from inside my head down onto a piece of paper. That's the key. Dream big. Have goals. But don't let your happiness be something you can only achieve if and when X,Y, and Z happens.

Enjoy every step of the process. Taking a story from your head and capturing it so other people can read it is magic. Enjoy the magic.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

This is something I posted on Facebook today and thought was worth sharing here as well.

Several years ago, I was having lunch with an author whose book had been expected by pretty much everyone to debut on the New York Times bestseller list, but hadn't. I knew how depressed he must be feeling. I couldn't imagine what a failure I would feel like if I was in that situation. How had I let down my publisher, my readers, my family, myself?

But he told me something that day, that I've tried to hang onto ever since. As an author, all you can control is how much you write and how good it is. All the rest is out of your hands. You can't control if an agent will like your work, if a publisher will buy it, what kind of marketing and publicity it will get, what stores will carry it, who will review it and how. And most of all, how much it sells. That is totally out of your control.

Some people think that self-publishing will change all that. And while it does give you a little more control over some things, it doesn't have much effect at all on most of those things. There are amazing books that I read and think how did this not sell millions of copies? Then I read other books and think how did this even get published, none the less hit bestseller lists?

I've had times when I thought my publisher must hate me. There was no other reason for how badly things were going. I've also had times where great things happened that I would never have predicted in a million years. And the crazy thing is, the writing in those books was exactly the same.

It would be so great if all you had to do was write a great book and it would soar to the bestseller lists. Then, if your book did badly, at least you could blame it on bad writing. It would stink to know your book was garbage, but you'd know where to point the blame and you could make sure the next one was better.

The only thing I can say to people having those same frustrations I've experienced is do not stop writing. You have this incredible talent and if you don't use it, you're wasting it. Through all the ups and downs, the only thing that has remained consistent is that I keep writing books and keep trying to make them better.

I won't lie. I have dreams of hitting the lists. I'd love to walk into bookstores and have people know who I am (or even know my books!) I'd love to sell a million books. But if it doesn't happen, I don't want to be because I gave up.

Where to Start Writing Tip 17/100

Again, thanks so much for the comments. It's nice to know I'm not just talking to myself. I teach lots of writing conferences and various classes where I can see and interact with my students, but I don't always no if I am connecting here. So, yay! Keep commenting.

Also, this is a great post about a really amazing MG writer talking about why he writes for middle grade and how to do it. I couldn't agree more with his all points.

A lot of the writing tips I give are mistakes beginning writers tend to make a lot. It's sort of funny when I start out with a class full of beginning writers and lay out a list like this up front. By the time I'm done, every head is hanging. Then I have to remind them that if everyone didn't start out doing these things, there would be no reason to teach about them. And every one of these things that you can learn now and fix in your work in progress is going to make it that much better.

So, next on the list is starting your story at the wrong place. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts how important it is not to start with a flashback, an infodump, or detailed descriptions of the scenery or weather. That's because according to at least one survey, by far the biggest reason people stop reading a book is because it's too boring.

Sometimes writers who understand this, try to address the problem by starting with some incredibly exciting event. A murder. An explosion. A kidnapping. That can work, but it can also feel forced. We talked about unearned emotions. Blowing up people you don't know or care about can have that effect.

You do want to keep your beginning exciting. But one of the best ways to do that is knowing where your story begins. Typically your story begins where something happens to either change the main character's life or force them into some sort of action.

Let's take Hunger Games as an example. The story begins when Katniss enters the Hunger Games. That moment changes her life. Yes, that's not what happened on page one. Not even chapter one. The author wisely let us see what the lottery was, the odds of being chosen, and the relationship Katniss had with her younger sister and Gale. But the story starts with Katniss waking up and knowing it is the day of the lottery. Everything that transpires from there is tied to the fact that "Today is the lottery. Today is the day that I might get chosen to go die."

In a character driven story, your story starts with something happening to make the MC's current life situation unacceptable. In an adventure, something has to happen to force the character on her adventure. In a mystery, a murder or other crime happens which must be solved. You can do a few other things first, especially if you use secondary conflict. But that's where your story begins and you must write with that in mind. The longer you make us wait for the beginning of the story, the more likely we will close the book and start something else.

Friday, August 2, 2013

What if My Story is Too Much Like . . . Writing Tip 16/100

Okay, quick, name the story about the boy whose parents die and he has to go live with evil relatives, until a magical person sends him on a quest.

Harry Potter, right?

Or is it James and the Giant Peach?

Or make it a girl and it's Cinderella.

Or it's one of a hundred other stories which start the same exact way.

I have people tell me all the time, I'm writing a story, but I just realized it's kind of like XYZ. The truth is, it doesn't matter. Unless your story is a complete rip off, like it's about a boy who discovers a giant peach and floats off with a bunch of huge insects, it doesn't matter if it sounds a little like another story. Because the bottom line is even if I gave three authors the same basic concept, they would all come out with something very different.

So worry less about your story sounds to much like something else, (or that someone will steal your totally cool concept) and write the darn thing!

Unearned Emotion Writing Tip 15/100

I've fallen behind a little bit on the writing tips. But never fear, we will catch up.

Today I want to talk about something I call unearned emotions. Let's say you want to start your book with a woman crying over a breakup. Or maybe you want to shock your readers by having your MC's wife get brutally murdered.

The thing you have to be aware of, is that you haven't yet created an emotional link between your reader and your main character. So when I open the book and Sarah is weeping over her lost love, I don't feel her pain, I don't weep with her. In fact, if it goes on very long, I'm really bugged by it. I want to slap your main character and say, "Stop sniveling and get on with the story." Not a good way to hook your readers.

Likewise, if you kill off the protagonist's wife, but we haven't had a chance to see the relationship, it doesn't mean as much to us. I finally got around watching World War Z last night. You see tons of deaths. But none of them mean as much as the deaths of the people we get to know--even if it's for a very short time.

[SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN"T SEEN IT] For example, there is the Spanish speaking family the MC and his wife and daughter are briefly taken in and feed by. Just that short connection makes us care much more when the zombie break in their door.[END SPOILER ALERT]

The moral of the story is that if you want us to feel your character's emotions, you need to let us see who they are and what they care about. Then we can care along with them.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Writing Tip 14/100

Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad to hear that a lot of you are enjoying the tips. It's been a good thing for me to get back in the habit of blogging. Jacob asked a great question yesterday. "How do you bridge the gap between a realistic scene and a scene that feels forced?"

There are a couple of ways to approach this. One is to ask yourself if the scene is the right thing to have happen at that point in the story. More than once I've had an editor point out to me that a scene isn't working because I'm trying to force it. When that's the case, I usually go back and rewrite the scene.

However, sometime you need the scene to occur, but it's just not believable. Your protagonist is doing something that's out of character or not justified by their current motivations. That's when you have to look at the force that's keeping them from doing what you want and come up with a stronger force to make them do it.

Want your MC to enter the haunted house? What if she hears someone in danger inside? What if something even scarier forces her into the house? Want your couple to fall in love after they've been arguing like cats and dogs? Is there something they can discover about each other they didn't know? Can they become united against a common evil?

In Zombie Kid, I needed Nick to go into the swamp behind his grandmother's house because that's where he finds the amulet. The problem is that the swamp has alligators in it, his parents have forbidden him to go in, and it's night and the swamp is spooky.

In order to offset those, I had him be mad at his parents, follow the cat, get a note telling him to trust the cat, find a trail with his great aunt's footprints, and tell himself he would only go a little way in. By themselves they might not have been enough. But together and done in the right sequence, they seemed to work.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about forcing emotion.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Writing Tip 13/100

Okay, back on track. This tip is going to seem obvious, but it's one I see a lot.

When you are writing a scene make sure your characters are acting the way real people would and not the way you "want" them to act.

Often, as writers, we create a scene in our heads and write it without giving it the reality test. Recently I was working with a writer who had a great scene where two girls wake up in a locked room with no memory of where they are or how they got there. Because the author knew what was really happening in her head, the girls were fairly calm, exploring the room, opening drawers looking at clothes, comparing notes, etc.

The problem is, that's not how real people would behave. If most people woke up locked in a strange room, they would freak out. They'd be yelling, pounding on the door, trying to break the window. Later, when they discovered what was going on, or when they realized they couldn't get out, they would take stock of the situation. But not at the beginning.

This problem is very common in almost all genres. In romance, your characters fight or smooch because you need them to, not because there are good reasons for it. In thrillers, your character goes into the haunted house because you have to have her attacked--when in reality she would be running at top speed away from that place.

Of course, you can have your characters go in the scary house, smooch, explore the locked room, or not. But you have to give them good reasons.

Also, be careful of the "that really happened" excuse. This is where you have something implausible happen by pointing out that it happened in real life. "I know it seems unlikely that the man and woman would randomly meet on the other side of the world on the very date of their original wedding, but it really happened."

Your job as an author is to create an illusion of reality. This means that it has to be believable to the reader. If it really happened, but it is incredibly unlikely, you have to create a better reason than coincidence or you will lose your readers' faith.    

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Writing Tip 12/100 To Outline or Not

Got off a day with traveling back home from California. So, I'll post two writing tip and catch up.

First, let's start with the age old question: paper or plastic? (The correct answer in the Savage household is, "Neither, I have my own cool Disney-themed bags.")

Okay, that's not the age old question I was talking about. This is a question that seems to separate the writing community down the center. Are you an outliner or a pantser? Outliners create an outline of the book before they start writing. Pansters jump in, writing by the seat of their pants. (Which does sound a little painful and hard on your keyboard.)

Rather than telling you one is better than the other, I'll list the pros and cons of each.


  1. Makes it much easier to sit down and write because you know exactly what you are going to write.
  2. Is usually better for getting a book out quickly or under deadline.
  3. Saves you from having to delete big chunks of your writing that didn't work.
  4. Makes it easier to to use foreshadowing, set up plot twists, etc.
  5. Avoids writer's block.   
  1. More freedom to let your story go where it wants.
  2. Often feels less restraining.
  3. Gives more room for characters to take off in unexpected directions.
  4. It's often more fun and feels less like work.
  5. Some people can only write this way.
I've done both. Early in my career, I was a total pantser. Over the years, with tighter deadlines and a better idea of what I wanted to write, I've tended to be more of an outliner. I love the feeling of knowing exactly what I am going to write that day and focusing on the prose instead of worrying where things are going to go.

I still give myself the freedom to to change things up as I go--like walking on a trail, but wandering off when I see something interesting in the woods.

The best advice I can give, is try both and find what works the best for you. If you find that your stories die out before you reach the end or that you suffer from long bouts of writer's block, try outlining. If outlining feels too stifling, and you lose your love for the story, try pantsing. You can also start without an outline and create one as you get into the story or start with a general outline and throw it away if needed.   

Friday, July 26, 2013

Writing tip 11/100

Let's jump to dialogue today. There are lots of things we could discuss: tags, pacing, etc. But for now, we'll start with something I like to call ping-ponging. In real life, conversations sound something like this.

""What time is dinner?"
"Six thirty. Did you get the pork chops?"
"No. I forgot. Can we just have meat loaf?"
"I don't have any hamburger."

There is nothing wrong with this conversation, other than being a little boring. But it doesn't pop. Each line is a direct response to the one before it. There's no conflict. No zing. Instead, try seeing if you can carry the conversation forward with having each line not be such a direct answer. Here's an example with the same conversation.

"What time is dinner?"
"Did you get the pork chops?"
"I knew I forgot something. How does meat loaf sound?"
"How does Wong Boy's Chinese sound? I don't have anything in the house--which happens to be why I asked you, not once, but twice, to pick up pork chops on the way home."

It's still a pretty boring conversation. And we need some action. Some response. A tag or two. But add those, and we could have a nice little scene here.

"What time is dinner?" Steve asked the minute he walked through the door.
Dana noticed his empty hands and sighed. "Did you get the pork chops?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"I knew I forgot something. How does meat loaf sound?"
Dana wanted to scream. Couldn't he just once do what he promised? It was like being married to a three year old. "How does Wong Boy's Chinese sound? I don't have anything in the house--which happens to be why I asked you, not once, but twice, to pick up pork chops on the way home."

See how these moves things along so much better? Look at a couple of conversations you've written recently and check to see how much of you can improve them with a little ping ponging.

Here's an example from my upcoming Making the Team.

Carter pulled off his rat head. His face was sweaty and his bright red hair was matted to his scalp from the rubber of the mask. He pulled the plastic fangs out of his mouth. “I like the owl. It makes the scene more creepy.”

“It makes the scene more lame,” Nick said. He turned to Angelo. “Tell him he sounded like a kid trying to hoot.”

“Maybe we could edit in a real owl,” Angelo suggested. He flipped open his monster notebook and scribbled a reminder to himself.

Carter tugged at the thick gray mittens the boys had changed into rat paws. “Are you sure we have to do the whole giant rat thing? A werewolf or a killer lizard would be so much cooler.”

“And done about a thousand times.” Nick snorted. “Dude, we’ve been over this. It’s a tribute to The Princess Bride.”

“An homage,” Angelo added—never afraid to use big words. “To the Rodents of Unusual Size from the fire swamp.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writing Tip 10/100

Yesterday we talked about the fact that readers form most of the images in their head not from the words on the page, but from their own imagination. As an author, you can take advantage of this by giving just enough information to let the reader see what they need to, but not so much that you slow the story down.

Brandon Mull wrote the popular Fablehaven series, which featured a brother and sister. I regularly ask readers if they can see these characters in their head. They all can, despite the fact that fact that Mull never gives a detailed description of their looks.

Instead of telling me your main character has shoulder length, carrot-red hair, a bony build, is 5'7" and has lots of freckles, tell me she is an athletic redhead and move on to her other characteristics. Focus on what you can do best in writing, which is to show us what's inside the character and let the reader form their own image of the outside.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing Tip 9/100

One of the things most beginning writers don't understand is that 80% of what a reader sees in their head from a book is not actually on the pages. You hear readers say all the time how the actor or actress playing a part from a book doesn't look the way the reader saw them. That's because the writer doesn't usually give a detailed description of a character or a setting. They give just enough for the reader's brain to fill in the rest.

In a movie, it's almost all visual. You see everything, but it's much harder to show what a character is thinking. In a book, you can do the opposite. It would take hundreds of thousands of pages to describe every little detail. But we can show what's going on inside a character's head very well. The next few tips will play on this fact.

Today let's take setting. Say you want to place your character in a parking garage. You could write exactly what the parking garage looks like.

It was a five story parking garage. Each of the levels was seven feet tall and made of concrete with yellow lines painted an the oily floor. There were neon lights and the air smelled like exhaust and oil. Only about half of the spaces were full because it was a Monday and the mall was going downhill, etc.

Pretty boring.

Instead, take three things that say "parking garage" to you. They might be the smell of exhaust, the sound of tires squealing, and trash in the corners. Great. Now write the scene with just that.

Tim got out of his car, wincing at the air thick with exhaust fumes. Somewhere overhead a car's tires squealed on the oily concrete. He noticed the old newspapers and what looked like a used syringe in the corner of the garage and quickly locked his door.

That's it. Three things. The reader will fill in all the rest and you can move on with the story. Don't overwrite your setting or character descriptions.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My Best Writing Advice--Tip 8/100

I probably should have given this tip first. It's the piece of writing advice I give most, and even though it's short, it may be the most important thing I teach. Ready?

Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

That's it.

This can be taken a lot of ways, depending on how you look at it, but the simplest is that you do your best work when you are trying things you aren't sure you can do. If you only write within your comfort zone, you will never do your best work. Taking a risk means you might fail. But it also means you might accomplish more than you ever thought you could.

So give yourself permission to make mistakes. Because you are also giving yourself permission to discover new abilities. Give yourself permission to write garbage and you give yourself permission to write better than you thought you were capable of. Give yourself permission to fail. In that moment, you are giving yourself permission to soar.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Writing Tip 7/100

Cenendra asked a great question on the last post. What if you have a big reveal you need to make midway through the book? You know it's a lot of information, but it's key to the story and too much info to slip into the normal flow. Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. First, really take a look and decide if it all has to come out at once. Is it possible to start revealing the information and have it interrupted by something else? This makes it not quite as long and also raises the reader's interest. You can do this by having something major stop the scene (an attack, arrival of  someone who shouldn't hear, etc.) You can also have the person providing the information only give part of it, feeling the other person isn't ready for the rest.
  2. Don't have person A just spilling the beans. Get person B involved. Let them ask questions, make guesses and deductions. A long uninterrupted monologue feels infodumpy, but if you do something like this, it doesn't feel quite as long:

    Mike glanced toward the cheese on the table. "Mom didn't die of natural causes."

    Suddenly, it all made sense to Sherry. The journal, the sudden move to a new city, the way her relatives always gave her odd looks when she mentioned rodents of unusual size. "It was rats wasn't it? She was killed by huge rats!"
  3. Have some kind of action going on during the conversation. One of the things you have to be careful of in dialogue is something I will talk about in a future post called "talking heads." This is where you just get line after line of dialog with no descriptions, internal thoughts, actions, etc. One of the best ways to fix this is by having something else going on. That's why so many conversations in books happen over dinner. It let's you do something like:

    Jayson cut of a piece of steak and speared it with his fork. "I'm not who you think I am."

    Jillian watched her brother shove the nearly raw meat into his mouth and rip into it like an animal. "I know exactly who you are."
  4. If there are things the reader already knows, summarize. Mike told her all about his terrible date of the night before.
  5. Do NOT have the characters remind each other of something they both obviously already know to explain it to the reader. "As you know, being twin brothers we both have the same birthday."
  6. And finally, try to avoid the dreaded bad guy spills it all just before he kills the good guy scene.
Hope that helps!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Writing tip 6/100

Okay, anyone who knows me, knew this was coming. The dreaded P word. Prologues.

First let's start with all the cool things about prologues.

Well . . .

Um . . .

And, then there's . . .

Kidding. Kidding! Prologues are cool. They are like extras to the story. You can do them in a different POV. They can take place in a completely different time than the rest of the book. They can tell a part of the story that isn't in the book itself in a cool way. And, heck, avid readers like us LOVE prologues. They are like the really cool appetizer to a great meal.

Prologues are awesome . . . when used the right way. The problem is that 99% of the time I see a prologue in a newer writer's manuscript it is used the wrong way. This includes lots of self-published, small press, and even some bigger press books. So much so, that in general, I tell my writing students to just cut them out completely. Why? Read on.

Let's start by getting this out of the way up front. Even though "we" all read prologues, most people do not. Yep. Fact. About the same number of people read prologues as read footnotes. This is especially true of people browsing a book for the first time--in a store or online. They jump straight to chapter one and give it a page or two to see if they like it. As a writer, you may hate that. As a reader, you made spit upon such a vulgar action. But, IT. IS. TRUE.

So, with that in mind, let's look at some of the reasons people use prologues.
  1. To provide important information that is key to the story. Let's say that the story is about a girl who finds a key in an old chest. We want the reader to know that the key was placed there by her great grandmother just before she was killed by an evil demon who still roams the Earth disguised as a traveling organ-grinder. (The kind who makes music with a dancing monkey. Not the kind who actually grinds your liver up into a tasty pâté, you sicko!) 

    This seems like a great reason. The problem is that, since most people skip the prologue, your readers will never get that key information. Therefore they will not understand the story the way they should. Ouch!
  2. You add a really exciting prologue--say, a guy getting chased through the jungle by a tiger--because chapter one starts out a little slow.

    Again, this seems to make sense. You know that you have to hook the reader early, but your first chapter takes a while to get going. So you write a super exciting prologue, knowing that if the reader can see just how exciting things are going to be, they will be patient with the slow first chapter. Unless, they skip the prologue, go straight to the first chapter, get bored, and move on to something else. Which most of them will. Double ouch!!
  3. There's a whole whole bunch of back story information you need to provide, but you've learned that starting a book with a bunch of infodumpy stuff is bad. So you tuck it all into the prologue.

    Wellllll . . . you could do that. Then the people who read prologues could get bored with your infodump, and the people who skip prologues will be confused because they don't know the back story. Yeah. Not so good.
  4. You have a fun little thing that can be skipped without affecting the rest of the book that doesn't really matter if it's read or not.

    This seems like a no-brainer. If it isn't necessary to the book and doesn't matter, why put it in at all? But the truth is, that a cool (read interesting) prologue that can be skipped without hurting the rest of your book is one of the best prologues there is. If people read it, great! It's exciting and they like it. If they skip it, no big deal. It's like the extra scene after the credits in a movie. (Fun little side note here. I know one author that actually hides a little bit of extra story in his acknowledgements. I've always wanted to do that.)
So, what does an author do with that information, if a prologue is out?

As long as it's gripping and not an infodump or flashback, just rename it chapter 1. Really it's that easy. When I wrote Water Keep, the publisher wanted to start with a chapter in Farworld to show it was a fantasy. Because I wasn't introducing Kyja until later in the book, I wrote what is essentially a prologue that is exciting and fun, but not key to the story and called it chapter 1.

If chapter one starts out boring. Fix it. Period. Make it gripping and get rid of the prologue.

If you have a bunch of back story and extra information, let it come out in the story itself. Not in a big chunk, but being discovered a bit at a time, the same way the character learns it. Let the reader discover who hid the key in the chest along with the main character. This is actually much better writing anyway, because it keeps the reader guessing . . . and reading.

So, is there ever a good time to include a prologue? Certain genres, especially epic fantasy, almost require prologues, because we geeks demand them. So if you are writing epic fantasy, toss it in there. But again, don't make it boring or required for understanding the rest of the book, and make chapter one exciting on its own.

Finally, if, understanding everything I said above, you do throw in a prologue, make it short. Most readers want to get into chapter one where the story starts and a long prologue tends to turn them off.

Did I miss a reason or have any questions about your prologue or one you've read (or skipped?) Feel free to discuss in the comments.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Writing Tip 5/100

Wow, five posts in five days. This might be some kind of record for me. Before I get to the next writing tip, just heard from the amazing Brandon Dorman that he is starting work on the Fire Keep cover. It is going to be epic! Also, if you have writing questions you'd like me to address, just throw them into the comments.

Today we are going to talk about multiple story lines. Think of a story line as something important happening throughout the book. For example, if you are writing a mystery, it might be someone killing people and the police looking for him. If you are writing a fantasy, it might be a girl searching for the magic gems to become the true queen.

Every novel has a story line of some kind. The problem is that story lines rise and fall. There are exciting times and boring times. And by now you know that you can't afford boring times in your books. That's where additional story lines come in.

Let's say that the happy little town of Pleasant View is about to be attacked by flying, steam punk monkeys. (I know, right!) You could start with the monkeys attacking in chapter 1. But the problem is, we (the readers) haven't gotten to know the people or the town, so we might not care all that much when the FSPMs begin ripping antenna balls off cars and flinging them at random pedestrians. (Who are wearing cool steam punk outfits, just because that would look awesome on the cover with the flying monkeys.)

We could start instead with a couple of chapters where we get to see the happy people and their peaceful town, then cue the monkeys in chapter 3. But that's the dreaded B word, which we want to avoid whenever possible.

Instead, what if we created a secondary story line? What if the protagonist is breaking up with her boy friend? At the zoo? In front of the monkey exhibit? We get tension and conflict and foreshadowing. We get to know the MC and her jerk ex-boyfriend. (Who will undoubtedly get killed by a FSPM-thrown antenna ball in chapter four.

And maybe we could have an evil zoo keeper whose crazy shenanigans brought the monkeys in the first place. And a romantic interest. And the MC's parents, who are considering a divorce.

The options are endless. By creating additional story lines we can keep things exciting by raising the tension in one story line while another is in a lull. Story lines can start up later in the book, fizzle out half way through, get solved mid-book. It's like taking a piece of meat and adding potatoes, carrots, baby peas in butter sauce, deviled eggs . . .

Okay, I'm out I've here. I've got to eat. I mean write.    

Friday, July 19, 2013

Writing tip 4/100

You hear it all the time, but it's still one of the mistakes I see most often with beginning writers. "Show don't tell."

What does that mean? I'll start by saying what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean only use action. It doesn't mean you can't use description or internal dialogue. It doesn't mean everything has to be visual. What it does mean is that every time you find yourself telling the reader what is happening, stop and ask yourself if it would be more effective to show the scene to the reader. For example, here's a scene where a football player walks onto the field for the first time.

Steve stepped onto the field and the crowd cheered. He was so nervous he could hardly believe it. It was a sunny afternoon and the players were catching balls and stretching. The coach noticed Steve and told him to throw some balls.

This is 100% telling. Instead of letting the reader see the scene and feel the emotions you have stopped the story to describe what is happening. Notice how this next version feels more like you are in the scene.

The roar of the crowd filled the tunnel before Steve had even reached the entrance to the field. "Fal-cons! Fal-cons! Fal-cons!" How many people were in the stands? Forty thousand? Fifty? Steve took several deep breaths before wiping his palms on the front of his jersey and leaving the tunnel.

Stepping onto the freshly cut grass, he blinked at the afternoon sun filling the stadium with the brightness of a thousand spotlights. This was it. This was the big time. "Nice pass," shouted a wide receiver as he plucked the pigskin out of the air and darted toward the end zone. The wonk of cleat on leather sounded from his right as Jeff Savage booted a football through the uprights.

Coach Wells lifted his sunglasses and spotted Steve. "'Bout time you showed up. Get over there and start throwing some balls."

We still communicate the same information. But instead of feeling like someone is telling us a story around a campfire, we are "seeing" it happen right in front of us.

The reason beginning writers do so much telling is because it's easier than showing. Telling only requires you to say that Steve was nervous. You might even say. something like, "Okay, coach" Steve said nervously. Still telling. Those are the easy way out. Showing is harder. You have to let us see Steve's actions, hear his dialog or his thoughts, and give us the information so we can figure out for ourselves how Steve feels.

Showing is harder than telling, but it's what makes the story come a alive in the reader's head.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Princess Leia Hula Hooping and Writing Tip 3 of 100

In going through my BEA phone pictures, I found this video. How many people can say they have seen Princess Leia Hula hooping? So, yeah, had to share it with you.

Now, back to writing tips. Yesterday, we talked about entering the scene late. The point of this, is keeping the plot moving and pulling your readers in. The same can be said for leaving the scene early.

In my upcoming Case File 13 novel, Making the Team, I have a scene where the kids are looking for a dead body. I want to create a sense of danger, keep the action moving, and hopefully create a "one more chapter" moment for my readers. Here's the way the chapter ends.

“You think maybe we should come back in the morning?” Carter asked. “You know, when we can see better, in case some crazed maniac decides he’d rather have live bodies than dead ones?”

But Angelo wasn’t listening. “I think I’ve got something.” He jogged to the edge of the parking lot, his sensor beeping more and more quickly. “Right here,” he said, stopping at the edge of a field of high, dead grass.

Nick leaned forward and pushed back the grass. There, just where Angelo had led them, was a pile of bones with bits of flesh still clinging to them. 

Obviously there is more to this scene, and even though what what happens next takes place right away, I moved it to a new chapter. By ending here, my readers are sucked into the next scene. This is especially important because the next chapter is a funny one to offset the tension in this chapter. I built up to the "big moment," and then stopped it before the scene could lose energy.

Remember, start where things are exciting and end before the momentum begins to slow down to keep interest high.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Writing tip 2 of 100

Wow, close call! Almost messed up on the second day. But never fear, I beat the midnight deadline.

My second tip is "Enter the scene late and leave it early."

Enter the scene late. What does that mean?

So many times as authors we want to set up the scene we are writing. We have to tell where the scene is taking place, who is there, what the back story is. We want to prepare the reader for what is to come. The problem with that is it's generally pretty boring. Instead, try jumping right into the scene. Of course as a reader I want to be able to visualize what's happening, so I will need some clues pretty quickly. But you can do those in context.

So instead of writing:

Michael, walked into the restaurant, his hat and coat in hand. He had promised to meet Julie at 7:00, and it was now 7:30. If he hadn't had that long work meeting, everything would have been fine. But now he was wet from the rain storm outside and nervous that Julie would have left already. He looked around the room and saw her seated in a small booth with several empty glasses in front of her.

(See how boring that is.)

Try this:

"You're late," Julie said, her words slurred.

Michael, slipped into the both--his hat and coat dripping on the restaurant floor--and noticed the empty glasses on the table. He checked his watch--thirty minutes late.

"I, uh, had this meeting."

This pulls you into the story and gives you much of the same information, without feeling like the authors is hitting the pause button on the plot to fill you in.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about leaving the scene early.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Latest news and 100 writing tips in 100 days

Hey everybody! How's your summer been so far? I started mine off with Book Expo America, where I signed tons of books, and got to meet some amazing authors, booksellers, and readers. I shook hands with Rick Riordan and discovered we must look a little alike, because I was mistaken for him several times.

What do you think? Do we look at all alike? I'm not so sure.

I also got lots of great books that I'll tell you about in the coming days and was nearly shot by a storm trooper.

(It turns out I wasn't the author he was looking for.)

That was followed up by several writing conferences, including Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, a week long hands-on class where I had such a good time and made more new friends, as well as renewing some old ones.

Great looking group huh?

On the writing front, I just turned in the third Case File 13 book, Evil Twins, and signed a contract for a fourth book in the series. I'm nearing completion on Fire Keep, the fourth book in the Farworld series scheduled to come out in February. I'm also working on a top secret new project that I will tell you about down the road. My next book to come out is Making the Team. This is the cover if you haven't seen it. (Or even if you have)

You might notice Tiffany, Dana, and Angie made the cover in this one. That's because they play a much more prominent role in this book. Kirkus gave it a great review, saying among other things, "The addition of the girls not only broadens the book’s appeal, but adds a humorous layer of boy-girl interaction that preteen readers will get a kick out of. It’s a battle of the sexes as the mystery leads them to an unusual private school with larger-than-life (literally) students and a mad-scientist headmaster with a demonic agenda."

I was pretty excited to have received two really great Kirkus reviews for the first two books in the series since they can be a pretty tough reviewer.

So, yep, great summer so far. Doing all those writing events made me think that it's been a while since I've posted any writing advice. There are a bunch of little things I've learned over the years and I thought it might be fun to share them in one place. If you like to write, they might help. And even if you are more of a reader, it might help you see what works and doesn't work in books. As with all advice, take what works for you and ignore what doesn't. There are very, very few hard and fast rules. But it's good to know what the rule is and why it's there before you break it.

So with that exciting introduction, here goes 100 writing tips in 100 days.

Tip 1 of 100

Try not to start your story with any of the following:

  • Having your character look in the mirror to describe themselves.
  • Waking up.
  • A scene that ends up being a dream.
  • Flowery description of the setting/weather.
  • A flashback.
  • A bunch of back story information.
  • Anything boring.

The key to a good beginning is to pull the reader in. It doesn't need to be an explosion or other shocking event. It can be as simple as interesting dialog, an argument, or a first day at school. But it has to be immediate. It has to make the reader interested enough that they will turn the page.

One great way to start your story is with a conflict that is not the major conflict. If you've never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, go online and watch a couple of old episodes. Notice how often there is a side story going on that ends up tying into the main story and eventually being replaced by the primary conflict.

In Zombie Kid it was the new Halloween  costumes. In Water Keep, it was Marcus getting attached by the bullies at his school. The great thing about a minor conflict is that it grans the reader's attention, but doesn't give away the whole plot. It sets up the main conflict.

Check back tomorrow for another tip.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Writing and IlIustrating for Young Readers

Well just reached the halfway point in the tour. And let me say I have so much respect for teachers who do this 24/7. I am so exhausted after a day of assemblies. But at the same time, there is something so exhilarating about meeting so many amazing readers. The world is in good hands going forward.

I'm working on a longer blog with lots of fun details and things I've learned that I will post in the next couple of days. In the mean time, I wanted to mention an amazing conference I am taking part in this year. This is the most hand-on conference you will ever take part in. We are talking five days of hands on small group work with a dedicated instructor who is also a successful author in the genre you choose, combined with afternoon classes by some amazing teachers. Here is a blurb about it. Check out the link for more info.

Continuing its tradition of providing helpful instruction from published authors and illustrators as well as presentations by industry professionals, this year’s conference features a keynote address by Utah's Poet Laureate Lance Larsen, workshops by national authors Matt Kirby, Martine Leavitt, Sharlee Glenn, A.E. Cannon, Carol Lynch Williams, J. Scott Savage, Cheri Pray Earl, Kris Chandler, and illustrator Steve Bjorkman. New this year: a full novel class with Mette Ivie Harrison and day-long mini workshops covering a variety of topics including an accredited teacher course, publication for the discouraged writer, and screenwriting. Afternoon-only registration is also available. This year editor Alyson Heller (Aladdin Books),  agent Ammi-Joan Paquette (Erin Murphy Literary Agent), and agent Steven Fraser (Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency) will present at the conference.

Another exciting event this year is the WIFYR Second Annual Writing Contest and Award. The prize is $1,000 and this year, in addition, the winning manuscript will be considered publication with Familius.

For more information, go to

Sunday, March 17, 2013

An Air Keep Tour Update

Even though I've actually been on the Air Keep tour for two weeks now, this will be the first week of doing a full five days on the road. Previous to this, I did three days and a conference, then four days and a day off due to a school break. So I thought it might be fun to give you an idea what the tour schedule will be like from here on out.

This afternoon, I flew to Idaho Falls. In a kind of funny twist, I was sitting in the terminal when a hand dropped on my shoulder and a deep voice said, "Hey you're in my seat!" I was sort of freaked out until I turned around and saw Brandon Mull, author of Fablehaven, Beyonders, and Candy Shop Wars grinning down at me. Turns out we were on the same flight.

Once in Idaho Falls, I got my rental car and drove to my hotel. Tomorrow morning, I will get picked up by the community relations manager from the local B&N at 8:00. She will take me to four different elementary schools where I will do my assembly (about 45 minutes including set up and tear down.) The last assembly usually ends at about 3:00.

School visits are a blast. I've had people say, "I'd hate to do that many school assemblies." But to me it's such a rush to get kids excited about reading, teach them about how to make up stories, and inspire them to find their own inner magic. Kids are just so amazing and they almost always treat you like a rock star. At 3:00 on Monday, I'm done for the day.

You would think that doing school visits from 8:30 to 3:00 wouldn't be that tiring. But you have to remember that it's very much a performance. You are working so hard to entertain and teach anywhere from 200 to 500 kids at each school. By the time I get back from doing the school visits, I just want to go back to my hotel and fall into bed for a couple of hours.

Tuesday, we do the same thing. Then Tuesday night, we do a book signing at the store. that starts at 6:30 and goes anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on the turnout. People ask all the time if my hand cramps up with all that signing. The truth is, that I am having so much fun, that it doesn't bother me at all.

If the school visits are a chance to feel the excitement of the kids, signings are a chance to hear from parents about how thrilled they are that their kids are that psyched about buying a book. It's really a joy to have a mom or dad tell me, "My son never asks for books. But he came home jumping out of his skin, saying "Mom, we have to go to the bookstore tonight.'" I'm always afraid that parents will be ticked about having to wait an hour or more to get a signed book or poster. But that is never the case.

One thing I try to make sure of is that I spend a little quality time with each person that waits in line. I know I have to keep the line moving, and I don't spend five or ten minutes with one person. But while I'm signing a book(s) or a poster, I absolutely want each person who came to feel special. This may be the only time a kid gets to talk to a "real author," and I want it to be memorable.

Usually after the signing, I go back to my hotel and get ready for an early morning flight to the next city. In this case, the next city is Boise, and there is no early direct flight. So after Tuesday night's signing, I drive to Twin Falls and spend the night there. Early Wednesday, I'll get up, drive to Meridian, just outside Boise, and do four more schools Wednesday and Thursday. I'll do another signing in Meridian Thursday night, four Boise schools on Friday, and a signing Friday night.

Saturday, I fly back home, spend a day with the family, and do it all over again on Sunday.

Busy? Oh, yeah. Tiring? Definitely! But it's also a total blast. Over the next couple of weeks I'll share some of the emails I get while I'm on tour. A lot of authors think touring is all about selling your books. While it's true that I will sell a lot of books (At least hopefully; that's what pays the bills), these visits are so much more than that. There really is something magical about inspiring a love for a reading in a boy or girl who has always looked at books at just more homework.

Check back in a couple of days, and I'll post some pics of the different events that I do, the messages I share, and responses from the people I meet.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Day One of the Air Keep book tour

Hello from sunny St. George Utah. For those of you who haven't been here, it looks a lot like this.

And a lot of it looks like this.

Although there is a lot of this

I spent most of my day doing this

Here's how the first day of the tour started out. I flew out of Salt Lake Sunday afternoon. The flight from SLC to Saint George is one of those where you have barely taken off before they are telling you to put away your electronics--which kind of stinks since the only books I brought were e-books. Then you are stuck desperately trying to find something to read in the in-flight magazine.

When I got in, the woman at the car rental counter apologized that they needed to replace my original car with this.

I was like, apologize? I'm all over that. Until I got in and saw this.

Now don't get me wrong. I grew up driving a stick. I love sports cars. And this one is a kick to drive. But I haven't driven a stick in probably 20 years. I'm going, "Wait, what's that third pedal for?" And the only thing worse than stalling a car, is stalling a muscle car. Because you rev the engine trying to keep from stalling, the people next to you think you are trying to be impressive, and then you stall the car and they drive away and laugh. Majorly embarrassing.

Well, eventually I figured out the stick, so that was okay. Then I panicked for a while, thinking I had left the VGA adapter for my laptop back at my launch party. But it turned out it was just put back in a weird place. And I had a delightful time hanging out at the home of these awesome people.

I'll be perfectly honest. Staying anywhere other than a hotel can be really draining when you are doing a bunch of school visits. After three or four school assemblies in a row, you mostly just want to fall into a soft bed for an hour or two. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Fortunately Julie has done plenty of school visits, so as soon as she saw me drag in the door, she pointed to the bed and told take a nap.

As far as the school visits themselves, they were great. Julie and her sons came to the first assembly and when it got done, she asked, "Are they always that loud?" Yep. Pretty much. There's nothing like a gym full of kids excited about writing and reading. I love it! Really the only tricky thing was that the school visits were really close together: 12:45, 1:30, and 2:30. Since my assembly is normally 40-45 minutes that means I really had to fly.

Fortunately I had a great helper from  Deseret Book. Lexie was awesome. She packed up my magic bag ( I start with a magic trick) while I took down my laptop, then directed me straight to the next school. Tomorrow will be four schools. But I'm actually really good with that. The more schools I can fit in, the more I feel like I'm accomplishing for the publisher--and the more kids I get to see.

Finally ended the day at Benja's Thai restaurant. I didn't go with anything too spicy, opting for Chicken Satay and Cashew shrimp. One of the things I'm trying to do on this trip is eat more healthy. Eating out as much as I will be, it's easy to pack on the pounds quick. For lunch I had an egg white omelet with lots of veggies. Also, on the advice of Tyler Whitesides, I'm trying to drink a lot more water. Tomorrow night will be my first signing of the tour. 6:00 at the St George DB. I'll let you know how it goes!

I thought it would be fun to end of of my tour posts with an e-mail I get from a student. Here's today's.

"Thank you for coming to our school today (red mountain elementary school) and telling me about the four things to write a book.  It helped me understand how I can make my books better."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Golden Age of Publishing?

Wow, what a crazy couple of months. I don’t know if there will ever be another time in my life when I can say that I had three books from three different publishers come out within three months of each other. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve had some great reviews. I did some really fun signings and got to catch up with a lot of good friends I haven’t seen in a while. And the truth is that things are just getting started. I haven’t even begun my two month Farworld book tour that will fly me from coast to coast and north to south. I can’t wait!

I know I promised you I would write updates about the tour, and I really will. But today, in retrospect of three days at the awesome SF/F conference Life the Universe and Everything, I’d like to reflect for a moment on why it is such an amazing time to be a writer. Yes, I did say amazing. Not scary, disillusioning, disheartening, disappointing, or any of those other dis- words. Amazing. With a capital A.

Yes, I know there is news of bookstores closing, publishers cutting back, agents leaving the business. And those are all bad (if slightly overblown in many cases) stories. I heard more than one person at the conference bemoan how the industry is changing. So maybe it’s just my cold meds talking, but I honestly agree with Little Brown publisher, Michael Pietsch, who called this “the golden age of publishing.”

Here’s why.
  1.  There are more opportunities than ever to do what you want. As I was walking down the hall, an author I know and respect told me how much she enjoyed reading Sariah Wilson’s “The Ugly Step Sister Strikes Back.” I happen to know Sariah’s story (both book and real life) pretty well, having blogged with her in the past and helped her brainstorm the blurb for TUSSSB. Long story short, Sariah published a couple of books with a local publisher. They did moderately well, but not what she was hoping for. She took some time off, wrote a book she really loved, polished the cover, the story, the marketing, and sent it out into the world.
    This book is almost definitely one her old publisher would not have published. And if they did, sales would have been moderate. But last time I checked, Sariah had 213 Amazon reviews. TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN, with an average rating of 4.6. I have no idea how much Sariah is making off this book—and I don’t even care. 213 reviews means a ton of people are reading and loving it. Could she have done this even five years ago? No.
  2.  Contrary to what you hear, publishers are still signing new authors, paying advances, and doing multi-book contracts. I had dinner Thursday night with a bunch of friends including a group I like to call the YA babes. This are smart, witty, talented, and beautiful women who have all recently signed multiple book contracts with big six publishers. Every one of them got a good advance and a multiple book contract. And for all of them, this was their first book deal. I don’t care what you might hear. The opportunities are still out there. And you could be next.
  3.  It’s never been easier to buy a book. There’s an interesting phenomenon I see when I do school visits or conferences. Obviously I sell books at the signing afterward. It’s a thrill to have a line of kids and parents waiting to get books and posters signed and take pictures. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. But I also see a very clear spike in my online sales. A boy or girl comes home and tells their parents about my book. Maybe the parents can’t make it to the store. But they can jump on their laptop, tablet, or phone and order my book at that moment—while both they and their child are excited about it. At a conference, if I mention that the new Farworld book is out, people in the room, listening to the conference, can order or download a copy before I have even finished my workshop or panel.
  4. It’s much, much easier to have good word of mouth carry. I started writing books over ten years ago. Back then, if someone read one of my books and liked it, they might mention it to a friend. That friend might go buy the book. And maybe they mention it to a family member. That was cool. There were also a couple of online places where they might mention it. But most people didn't.  Now, with Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and tons of online review sites, if someone likes one of my books, they can tell hundreds or thousands of people at a time. I’m no longer praying a newspaper, magazine, or TV station picks up the story. It’s great if they do. But they are not the only option to get a big spike in sales.
  5. I can stay in better touch with my readers. Again, tied to the social media thing, in the past, the only way to know when a new author’s book was coming out was by checking in regularly with the library or bookstore. Now I can follow that author directly and hear it straight from their mouth or keyboard. I love having my readers go, “OH, my gosh! I can’t believe Air Keep is out. I am going to go buy it right now.” Readers of my Zombie Kid book, can already go online and pre-order the next book.
  6. I could go on and on, but I’ll finish with this. E-readers and social media are creating more readers at the same time that better classes, conferences, and critique groups are creating more and better authors. Does it really get any better than that? I met such amazing readers at LTUE these last few days. The kinds of people who really and truly cherish good books. At the same time, I had the chance to chat with new authors that really get what it takes to create a great story and are willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears.
I know, I know. There are plenty of people preaching doom and gloom. Book stores will all disappear. Publishers only want to rip you off. Agents wouldn’t recognize a good story if it hit them in the face and paper cut their nose. But you know what? Don’t believe them. There have been doom and gloomers for as long as there has been doom and gloom. This is a great time to a reader and a great time to be a writer. Enjoy it!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Launch Party Recap and Chapter 10 of Air Keep

Thanks to everyone who came to my launch party for Zombie Kid. I was terrified no one would show up. Instead, we had two hundred people there. So many great friends and family. I was relieved, excited, thrilled, and a whole bunch of other -ed words. If you missed it, here are some pics.

Great crowd! 

 Either some really ugly fans, or zombie suckers.

Doing a drawing with the awesome Rachel.

Chocolate-covered zombie brains, 

Signing books.

Getting devoured by my zombie daughter and son-in-law.

My zombie daughter and zombie-bait grandson.

And if you're really a glutton for punishment, you can even watch the whole thing, thanks to the great folks at Writer's Cubed.

Starting two weeks ago and going through the end of April, I'll be visiting schools both locally and across the country talking about reading, writing, and valuing our differences. Tomorrow I will begin posting weekly updates about the tour, what I've learned, what I wish I hadn't learned. (For example that my car automatically locks the doors when you start it. So closing the doors to clear the windows is a bad idea.)

And finally, the next chapter of Air Keep. This is the last chapter in Part 1 of the book, and the last chapter I will post on-line before Air Keep comes out . . . next month!

Interlude 1
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9

Chapter 10--The Time of Shadows

“Maybe you should think about this a little more,” Riph Raph said, hopping from the chair to Kyja’s bed and back again. “Master Therapass seemed pretty sure that bringing Marcus to Farworld was a bad idea.”
“Master Therapass thinks everything’s a bad idea.” Kyja walked to the balcony and looked out at the night sky. Two of the three moons were visible—an almost completely full pink circle and a green fingernail. Should she wait to pull Marcus over? She definitely didn’t want to put him in danger. But what if he was already in danger, and she did nothing about it?
She ran her fingers along the worn surface of the stone railing. Should she try to help Marcus but risk hurting him or leave him to something that might be even worse? There was no good choice.