The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Genre and Trope and Stuff

Sometimes I am a dumbass. I know you find it hard to believe, but it is true. Some of my professed dumbassedness is self-inflicted. I go against my gut, or more often, my schedule, and I get myself dug deep into some pit of Hell I don’t want to be in. This happens with good intentions initially (admittedly it happens much less often these days because an abundant amount of dumbassedness had magically transformed into hardassedness) because I want to do something a little different, or help someone.

But it sometimes happens and I accept a freelance project that I don’t really want.

That’s a lie.

I did want it. I just didn’t spend enough time in the pre-editing phase to accurately judge how much time and work this monster, uh, I mean, manuscript, would actually take. If I had, I might had passed on it. Usually, I am a pretty good judge of my time. I know that I can edit a generally well-polished manuscript at so many pages per hour. Before I accept a freelance job, I read through the story, usually focusing on the beginning and the ending, with some skim through the middle. I can usually tell what kind of edit needs to happen, and how long it will take, and how much it will cost (the author or publishing house).

But sometimes, the writer has polished the beginning, and worked on their ending, but left everything else alone. There are hidden demons lurking in the depths just waiting to jump out scare the crap out of me as an editor. My mouth will start speaking of its own accord, “How the (censored-bleep-censored) fix that?”

And that is how I got stuck slogging through a Hellish middle of a weirdly mixed-genre story.

What started out as a particular genre story, say for example a historical romance, took a turn for the worse and rode the rails to genre Hell. It only matters because if you tell your reader that you are giving them a particular genre, a romance for example, but somewhere along the middle it turns into a YA-thriller-with-only-a-minor-love-interest-and-no-real-romance…it’s can be a problem. Your reader bought your book expecting a romance and they will be very unhappy that they didn’t get what they paid for.

Wouldn’t you be?

So, over the next unspecified block of time, I am going to focus on genre-specific information. I am sure I will digress with other topics as I am prone to do. Hopefully, these posts will be helpful to all. I do believe that a well-crafted story is a well-crafted story regardless of genre, so even though I may write something focused on mystery, there will hopefully be something that can apply to everyone.



The Writer’s Bag of Tricks


Last week we considered the question of What If with regard to creating complex characters. I thought it would be good to push the Muse a bit more and continue with the What If conceptidea to help us brainstorm our book ideas. You can use What If to create characters and plot. You can also use What If to work through motivation issues. You can use What if to help figure out setting. You can use the What If concept for most things, actually.

So, let’s say we have our dichotomous character (see last week’s post for details) and we want to create a story premise that we can use to figure out our plot and outline.

What does the character’s dichotomous contradiction suggest with regards to what could happen? What if your character is a computer hacker with a conscience because their parents were activists for race equality, and the repercussions of the activism had affected our character in both positive and negative ways? And what if our hacker got a job at a big corporation, and discovered some information that put the security of the nation at risk? And what if part of that threat involved putting a certain group of people in peril and the only way to know when and where a bomb would go off would be to hack into a government database, held by the corporation, which was illegal? And what if our hacker found the information, but then got arrested for the security breach? You can use the complex characterizations to create your plot just by asking what if.

What would motivate your character through the conflict? What if our hacker was in love with someone who was in the group targeted by the corporation? What if hacking into the government database went against what our hacker believed in, but if they didn’t find the information the love interest would die? What if love was enough to push your character into action? What if it wasn’t? What if the information would also redeem the hackers parents who were on a terrorism watch list because of their activism? What if the character knew the parents were innocent and the information could change their lives? What if the parents were guilty? You can use the dichotomous characterizations to work out the motivation. Do you see how it works?

What kinds of things would trip this character up? Ask what if questions and come up with things that would create conflict for our hacker. This is a good exercise to get the brainstorming muse rolling.

What emotions could be evoked by your dichotomous character that you could use to come up with a universal premise? Think about all the potential emotions that arise while asking what if.

If you take the time to work through these questions in detail, you will, very quickly, come up with your plot, character, conflict, and theme, by the way, also known as the story premise (See 11/25/15 post for more information on premise). The premise will help keep your story on track as you plot it, help you with pitching your story to publishers, editors, and agents, and help you with marketing your book as back cover copy when you publish it.

It’s a simple concept, putting dichotomous things together. Taking a few extra minutes asking What If about all those contradictions will help you formulate an interesting premise. It is a priceless practice for brainstorming your novel ideas.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

The Novel Idea

Ideally, before you begin writing, you have the details of your novel worked out. But, before that, there is that flash of random inspiration of something that could, at some point, become a novel. Those flashes can come from anywhere. You could see a news story, and suddenly you have a dynamic plot that comes together like a toppling of dominoes. You could be shopping and come across some esoteric stranger, and suddenly you have a character with their backstory, character flaw, and primary motivation. Subconsciously, your brain is playing the What If? game and the visual somehow triggers the tidal wave of inspiration. I don’t know how that works necessarily. I just know it is exciting when it happens.

That inspirational flicker happens to many writers. The problem is that going from miraculous inspirational thought to novel is hard work. It takes time. And the would-be writer has to be tenacious enough to keep at it, sometimes for years.

So…How do you do that? How do you move from flash to finish? Everyone has their own process, but I thought I would discuss some potential techniques.

Whether you start with a plot idea or a character idea, the reality is that you have to fill your novel with interesting, real-appearing people who have traits, and flaws, and who act or fail to act in whatever situation you are inclined to put them in.

It might help if you thought about your characters as walking dichotomies. Think about what could be the two worst possible things thrust together inside of one person. Play the What If game to find opposites.

What if your main character was a Fireworks Designer? A firework designer is a chemist who designs fireworks with chemicals for the purpose of creating beautifully colored explosions. Fireworks Designers obviously have to be smart people. But what if they have an accident and lose their ability to see color? What if they are afraid of fire due to a childhood experience? Do you see the juxtaposition? The job contradicts the emotional motivator, and the result is an instantly more complex character. What if the Fireworks Designer is one of the few people in the world who knows how to manipulate a particular chemical combination, and the Secret Service just called because they found a chemical bomb in the White House? Do you see how this grows the potential for the plot and story? You could begin to write your story premise with just this much information.

Let’s try it again.

What if your character was a Fortune Cookie Writer? This is the person who comes up with the sayings inside your dessert cookie at your local Chinese restaurant. But what if your writer hated their job because they thought fortunes were ridiculous so they started writing atrocious fortunes? And what if somehow your Fortune Cookie Writer discovered that the fortunes they wrote were mysteriously coming true and people were dying as a result? And what if they just wrote 1,000 really horrible fortunes that were going to print in 24 hours? What if your writer needed to stop the presses before the time was up?

Now I haven’t thought these through to any logical conclusion for an actual story idea, but hopefully, you can see the point I am trying to make. To make your characters complex, give them problems to deal with. The complexity will help you move toward completed novel because you will have more fodder to feed the Muse.

It’s a start, right?

Next week we push the Muse a bit further.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Unprofessional Horror Stories

I’ve been talking about writing as a business for the last few weeks, and for those of you in the back row mumbling about my topic of choice, I have a tiny bit of banter left, and next week we move on to something you might actually want to read. Okay?

But, for now, I thought I would share some publishing horror stories. You know, as sort of an informative concept of things not to do. Of course, I know none of you would ever do anything even remotely unprofessional, but you might know someone who has, or does, and who finds it funny.

A little background.

People in publishing know other people in publishing. If I don’t know a particular person, I can reach out to that someone and they will respond most likely. The point is that publishing is a relatively small industry.

And people talk to each other.

There are chatrooms and conferences for people in publishing, where publisher A can ask for help from editor W, or chat over a cocktail. It’s that sort of thing. These groups are also places for publishers and editors to blow off steam.

About authors.

Mind you, this doesn’t happen often. Most authors are spectacular. MY authors are spectacular. But, every once in a while someone special comes along…

…and submits something to somebody somewhere, and that somebody found the manuscript to be not right for their publishing house at that particular moment. That somebody sent a rejection to the author. That is standard, right? Don’t you think? But then the author responds back and tells the poor somebody how stupid they are, and how they are a **********!! for three pages. Seriously. This happens in real life. And more often than you would expect.

So guess what? That somebody tells somebody, who tells somebody, who tells somebody, who will probably then go to one of the online groups and tell everyone present, or mention the author at the next conference. And now there are many somebodies who know that author’s name. And since publishing is a business, and accepting or rejecting a project, which is a financial risk to the publisher, is a business decision…why would somebody want to get into business and work with that author?


There are also things like author signings at bookstores. The bookseller (who knows other booksellers, etc…) is THE person who will make the decision about whether to put an author’s book on a particular shelf. You should be nice to the bookseller. If you act like an (insert word here) when you are doing an appearance, you can bet the bookseller will not order your book for their shelves, and they will talk to other booksellers. People talk. And if you are signing at a bookseller conference for example, where there are 500 booksellers present, and 100 publishers, and a few editors and agents, and you act like an (insert word here) and throw yourself on the floor and wail because things are not as you demand them to be, well, people talk.

I haven’t seen another book put out by that particular wailing author for the last several years. Bookselling is a business, and who would want to work with someone who acts like an (insert word here)?

You get my drift. These are things I have seen and experienced. No third-hand stories for you. I have some names of authors in the back of my mind that I don’t want to ever work with, I hate to say. And if someone asked me about such-and-such-author, yeah. I would share the horror story. People talk.

Writing is a business. Publishing is a business. The point of books is to sell them. View yourself as a business with good customer service and create the best possible product and you’ll be fine.

That’s all.

I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Next week, we press on to something interesting!

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

More on Business, Oh My!

Social Media Primer

I know that you don’t want to hear this, this whole writing is a business topic. Really. I do. It is important, though, and so I am going to continue on before I return to my regularly scheduled topics.

As I mentioned last week, publishing is a business, and you, the writer, are also a business. It makes sense to think of yourself this way, to make a budget, and all that boring stuff, because it will help to set you up for success in the future.

One thing that you should definitely be doing now BEFORE you publish is set up an author platform. Social media might not be your thing and you don’t want to feel like a car salesman on twitter. But, here’s the thing. I have seen some really great books get rejected because the authors didn’t have a social media platform. The rejections were a business decision that the publisher made because the publisher is able to reach their own followers and readers about new books, but the publisher can not reach the AUTHOR’S followers and readers about the author’s new book. Only the author can do that. And if the author doesn’t have any readers, they don’t look like a very good risk to the publisher who expect them to do some marketing along the way.

Developing a following on social media takes time, but if you start now, before you publish, even before you have finished chapter one, you will have a leg up. You can start building your social media following with just five minutes a day. If you are wondering what the heck you are going to say in your tweets, and Facebook posts, you aren’t alone. It’s a common issue. But what you should not do is post 500 times a day telling people to buy your book. For me personally, it’s the fastest way to get me to unfollow you on Twitter.

Let me ask you a few questions. What are you passionate about besides writing? Do you like seahorses and do you have a salt water tank full of them? If you took a picture of those cute darlings and said a few words about what is happening with your seahorses, you will build a following. If you talk about your seahorses 80% of the time, and about your writing 20% of the time, your prospective readers will eventually catch on that you are writing a novel, and because you have spent time every day developing a persona online there is a much better chance that they might buy your book when it comes out. Your topic can be anything, but it has to be genuinely something that you love, and that makes you, well, you. Maybe you really love thrift store bargain hunting. Maybe you really love picking up garbage. Whatever it is, use it to grow your following.

You can use something like Hootesuite (or similar apps) and connect all of your social media accounts together so that when you want to post something, it will go wherever you want it to go. Hootsuite is like social media headquarters. You can even use Hootsuite to schedule your posts in the future. Spend a few minutes on a regular basis and schedule your posts for several days. Keep in mind, too, that there are many social media options besides Facebook and Twitter. If you write YA you might like Tumblr, for example. There is Ello too. The point is discoverability, and the more you are out there, the better chance you have of being discovered by readers.

I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but I do because… Be professional and kind on social media. ALWAYS. If someone makes a negative comment, either ignore it, or delete the comment, or write a KIND response. Don’t shoot back that they are a dickhead, or whatever. You can’t win that argument in public, and you will just end up looking like a dickhead. Read this on Goodreads as an example of what NOT to do.

Make setting up your social media platform and keeping it active as part of your business practice even if you haven’t written a word yet. Social Media is now a standard part of being in business.

Next week: More dread business commentary

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

A Little Bit O’ Business

Happy New Year!

I know you’ve been working diligently over the holidays. You’ve been writing new book ideas down on cocktail napkins in between bites of spinach-artichoke dip. Or maybe you hid in the closet with a flashlight and your laptop in order to knock out your story premise while your in-laws napped on the couch. However you got your writing done, good for you. You are living that writing dream!

It might be time to skew the writing dream, just a bit, though. It’s a new year, and I think you can handle it. So, sit down.

You are a writer and you have the big dream of being published. It doesn’t matter to me whether you want to self-publish or get published by a small press, or one of the Big 5. I know you want to be published. I have enough experience to know this without a doubt.

I also know all you want to do is write. But the truth is that the business of writing is not just about the writing anymore. Sure, it’s your priority and your goal is to write the best possible novel that you can write, but the reality is that there is much more to it. Here’s why. When you publish, you suddenly become much more than a writer. You have to be a marketing person, designer, public speaker, educator, contract negotiator, and all the other jobs that go into selling a book.

You have to be a business person.

You have to think of yourself as a business.

You are a business.

Publishing is an industry.

You are part of that industry.

So take a moment.

Think of yourself as a business. What is your distinctive quality that sets you apart from all the other writers in the world? Realize that that one distinctive quality is your competitive edge. Do you know that there is no other person on earth who can write what you write the way you write it? Nobody can offer readers what you have to offer. You are unique, with unique life experiences, and a unique perspective, and all of that uniqueness filters out through your writing. No one can tell your story. How can you spin that into your writing, marketing, designing, public speaking etc? Take a moment and think about that.

Do you have a budget? No? Why not? You are a business and you should have a budget. If you are going to self-publish you will need to hire an editor, a cover designer, and a marketer. You can, of course, do all those things yourself, but chances are you don’t have all of those skills. More importantly, you won’t have a whole lot of writing time if you do everything yourself. Realize too, if you are published by one of the Big 5 you still must (sometimes even contractually obligated) market yourself and chances are it won’t be free. I know that you just want to write. Sorry. It’s just the cost of doing business. You either pay money or time folks and you can’t always choose which budget you are going to spend from. Think about that for a moment. Make a budget. Even if it is an imaginary one.

Do you need an upgrade? You should never stop learning or growing in your craft. Even Jeffery Deaver, who was a keynote speaker at the last Colorado Gold Conference, sat in several workshops and took notes. And he’s a multi-time NYT best-selling author. Do you suck at dialogue? Maybe you should take a workshop on writing dialogue, and of course, you will budget for that. Think about what you need to improve.

I could go on and will next week but, for now, I don’t want you to panic. The point is to take a moment and plan ahead so you are prepared. I feel like this is your year.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Critique Groups

So I thought I would end 2015 with a discussion on critique groups. It will be a new year in a couple weeks, and as you sit back to review this past year and plot out your next year’s writing adventures, you might want to consider joining a critique group.

If you are unfamiliar, a critique group is a bunch of serious writers sitting down on a regular basis to review each other’s work with the goal of helping each other become more successful. The group can be many or few, or two, but the purpose is to have regular readers who can give each other feedback on submitted pages so that each writer can revise scenes that are lackluster, or adjust character motivations, or fix plot holes, etc. Please note that SERIOUS is a key word. Being in a regular critique group is work. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve been in a few critique groups. I’ve also run a critique group or two. Note that not all critique groups are a good fit for all writers, and not all writers are a good fit for an established critique group. All people are unique; some work well together. Some don’t. Your job, whether you attend an established group or start your own, is to make sure that the other writers in the group are a good fit for you. If not, be polite, let them know you don’t feel it’s a good fit, and move on.

The benefit of being part of a critique group is manyfold.

You will get your pages done because you won’t want to go to group without any pages. Being a productive member of the group forces you to be a disciplined writer. If you are a flaky writer, you can’t be a flakey writer in a critique group. If you keep showing up without your pages you will probably get called out on it. If you continue to be a flaky writer, you could get booted from the group. These people are serious writers. Remember?

You will create amazing friendships.

Being in the group will get you out of the house. You can be isolated, and introverted to your heart’s content every single day, but once a week, or every other week, or whatever regular schedule your group meets, will force you to take a shower and get out of the house and talk to people. The group will stretch you as a person and as a writer in other ways you couldn’t have anticipated either.

You will become a better writer.

Realize that it may be frightening the first few times you put your pages out there to be critiqued by other writers. This is normal. These pages are a part of you. They are like your children, and you are sensitive, and criticism hurts, and what will all these people think, and, and…Remember that nothing is personal about the critique. If there are problems, the group is not critiquing YOU. They are critiquing the work with the goal of making it better. You will eventually grow a thicker skin, which you need if you publish (traditional or independent) because readers can be brutal, not to mention evil editors who send you rejection letters. Eventually you will trust the people in your critique group as you trust no one else. You will know that they have your best interests at heart and when two of them say they don’t understand what is happening on the page, you know you have work to do. You will become a better writer. I know I said that earlier but let me say it again. You will become a better writer.

Because the group is made up of serious writers, you know that when you ask for opinions or kick around story ideas, you will get opinions, or five, and they will be serious opinions. You will not hear that your idea is fine, or good like you would if you asked your mom to read your pages. Those kinds of niceties are not helpful. Instead, you will hear things like, “You need to figure out the motivation for your heroine because it doesn’t make sense that she would jump off that bridge. What if she has a passion for bungee jumping and had planned the jump in advance?” The discussions will prompt many writing ideas. Take notes. Those are gold.

There are also some cons involved with joining a critique group. You will probably have to leave your ego at home, or at least in the trunk of your car during group. Not everyone in the group will be at the same writing level. Some will be more advanced. Some will be newbies. Ideally, the group will have a mix of writing levels. You may have to be patient with other people when you don’t feel like it because you forgot to leave your ego in the trunk. I did mention stretching earlier, didn’t I? You may end up in a great group, but someone you truly love isn’t doing the work and you may have to ask them to leave. It will hurt. But you are a serious writer and you must make these kinds of decisions.

You will have to give up a few nights sitting in front of the TV because you have critiques to do plus pages to write.

You can create whatever Pro vs Con list you want. The bottom line is that if you get involved with a good critique group, you will become a better writer.

To find a critique group, look to local writing organizations, like Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers in Colorado, for example. Google “critique groups” or look on Meet-Up or Yahoo Groups for writers groups in your area. There are several online groups as well. Remember to be selective. You may have to visit several groups until you find a place you are comfortable. Be patient. Be professional. It will be worth  your time.

If you don’t find a group, consider starting your own group. I’ve put together a primmer you can download – Critique Group Suggestions

Until 2016.