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Archive for the tag “writing tips”

Writing Craft: Staying out of the reader’s way

The intention of the writer of a novel is to guide readers into a dream-like state where the story comes alive in their minds, and they forget about everything else. Including – especially including – the fact that there is an author manipulating their emotions. Every time any reader is for any reason made aware of the presence of an author writing the story, that reader is tossed for a brief moment out of the emotional bond you have been working so hard to create.

via Make Your Writing Invisible – Indies Unlimited

The best authors and writing teachers have been saying this for years. Gordon Long approaches the idea a little differently in the way he leads into the paragraph I’ve quoted here. One way to allow his ideas to sink in, is to look for his examples of what you shouldn’t do while your reading novels in your favorite genre. Once you start noticing the flaws, it will be hard to “un-see” them. That may impact your pleasure reading for a while. But not forever because you’ll get used to putting up with authors’ mistakes and getting past them–unless they’re your own which aren’t too broke to fix.

As usual, helpful advice from Indies Unlimited.




Without a sense of place, your story floats in limbo

“Place matters. That’s what so many people seem to have forgotten. Is it because they spend most of their time indoor or online–so that they’ve lost touch with their environment? Is it because every city contains the same neon-and-concrete gauntlet of Targets, Little Caesars, Subways and Great Clips–so that every place looks like every other place else?” – Benjamin  Percy, “Move Mountains, Activating Setting,” in “The Writer’s Chronicle.”

I wish every aspiring writer would read, study and discuss this article because–in my view–if they fail to deal actively with the places where their stories are set, they will forever remain aspiring and never emerging.

Percy says that some aspiring writers are vague about place–or perhaps, too lazy to consider it–because they want readers to think their stories and novels could have happened anywhere. I agree with Percy when he says, “huh?” Stories don’t happen in nowheresville; they happen at specific places, and if you handle them well, the reader will still see that those stories have universality running through them from start to finish.

There's a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

There’s a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

I noticed this article because I feel strongly about the statement “place matters.” Percy has done too good a job with this feature article for me to try an sum it up in a post. But here are two things that stand out–possibly not the two things he would pick, but so it goes:

  1. Never start a story with dialogue. Yes, that can work. Usually it doesn’t. Why not? Because the voices doing the talking aren’t anywhere–words out of the fog in no room or house or field or forest. When you do this, the reader is lost, and s/he remains lost until you finally deign to say where the conversation is happening.
  2. Place–in modern stories and novels–isn’t a dry recitation of facts. Some readers say they only scan descriptive text (especially in the older novels we were assigned to read in high school) because nothing’s happening. The way to “fix this” is to show movement, characters or natural phenomena, so that something is always happening there.

I’ve approached this in multiple ways in my Florida Folk Magic Series. People move through places, talk about places, fight strange weather in places, talk about the magic lurking in places, and live in places that look one way and not any other way and go about their day to day activities in a setting rather than on a blank slate. When people talk, they might be sitting on a sofa on the back porch, spitting tobacco juice into the back yard, listening to the creek or throwing things off the bridge over the creek. They exist in a place the reader comes to know well.

Percy quotes a favorite passage of mine from the Great Gatsby to show that the description of a place can have activity and movement, a style that’s certainly more interesting than saying a room had some chairs and windows in it:

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

“The only completed stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Okay, so may not like this novel or even this passage. I won’t try and convert you. But it shows movement rather than dry objects. You can do the same with a sex scene, a car chase, or a killer stalking his victim through an old house or a dense forest.

Food for thought, but for more of a full course meal, read the article or check out the fine writing books by Donald Maass, including Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Writing Exercises to Put the Instruction into Action.



Poets & Writers Information Clearing House

I enjoy reading this magazine. I also enjoy its online presence from writers’ news to the database of grants and competitions. However, the page filled with links to Poets & Writers articles is a must, especially for new writers. This solid information is so much better than the quasi-SPAM webinars and pitches that appear in our e-mail in-baskets and litter our Facebook newsfeeds.

Here are the topics: Literary Journals and Magazines; Publishing Your Book; Literary Agents; Creative Writing Contests and Competitions; Vanity Publishers; Copyright Information for Writers; Book Promotion & Publicity; Writers Conferences, Colonies, and Workshops; MFA Programs, Literary Organizations; Self-Publishing.

And here’s the link:

Click on the graphic.

Click on the graphic.

It’s like a goldmine. Maybe better.

Here’s hoping all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying a day off, or possible a day fighting a locusts’ plague of shoppers out at the Black Friday sales.




Top Five Ways to Have an Awful Book Cover

“I’m constantly looking at book covers as part of my “job” here at Indies Unlimited. On top of that, I run into authors posting their covers in groups all the time, asking for input. So I see a LOT of covers. And most of them all have the same issues.”

Source: Top Five Ways to Have an Awful Book Cover – Indies Unlimited

Like K. S. Brooks, I wonder why we see the same nasty issues causing horrible book covers when there are so many of us pointing out why those book covers are horrible: like dark type on a dark background or light type on a light background.

She may have a good idea. Since some authors aren’t following any of this advice, maybe the thing to do is right a post that suggests doing all the wrong things in hopes that fractious, roll-your-own-disastrous book cover will stubbornly go out and do the opposite things.

You might want to show this post to the usual suspects on your Facebook friends list.

My brother, who’s an artist and who’s taught art at the college level, once told me that unlike other prospective talents, our ability to draw or paint gets stuck at a grade school level because the schools don’t teach much art. So why are we doing our own covers?


How do I make my character think, talk and fight at the same time?

Mainstream fiction and every writing genre often present readers with action scenes where many things seem to happen at once. The authors of war, espionage and police novels seem to write such scenes effortlessly. But, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Emerging authors, especially those who focus on the issues of everyday people in everyday life are often stumped when they need one of these everything-happens-at-once scenes. Why? For one thing, authors who are used to conversation, description and interior monologue to tell a story about coming of age issues, love and betrayal, raising families and going to work, and other domestic plots, seldom have to worry about fast-paced fighting scenes, much less the realities of describing weapons and tactics accurately and realistically.

opcenterWhen we were kids, we often joked about whether a person could walk and chew gum at the same time. When authors look at their first action scene, they discover their characters can’t think, talk and fight at the same time. No matter what the authors do, their characters seem clumsy, scenes that should happen fast drag out in long paragraphs, and hanging over the whole process is the sense that maybe real-life bullets, kicks and fists can’t do what they’re doing in the story.

Every once in a while, I run out of books to read and end up picking up a paperback at the grocery store to tide me over until the next shipment arrives from Amazon or I have time to drive to the Barnes & Noble store on the far side of town. Since the grocery store shelves are filled with romances and spy novels, I end up bring home the spy novels. The latest was Into the Fire, a recent addition to the series of counter espionage/counter terrorism stories in the Op-Center series created (but not written by) Tom Clancy.

Reading Action Novels is Good Research

Those who want to write fiction are told to read a lot. The trouble is, many authors read the kinds of books they like to write. If so, they have little or no exposure to action scenes. Clancy has often been accused of having no style or voice; a similar criticism has been leveled at those inspired by him, including the authors of the Op-Center series. When reading an espionage novel for the first time, you’ll notice:

  1. The chapters and other sections are short and jump between multiple good guy and bad guy points of view. This not only gives the reader a large-scale view of the action, adds intrigue by disclosing information the primary good guys don’t yet know, and keeps up the pace by handling slower-paced actions “off camera.”
  2. The characters and authors know a lot about weapons, weapons systems, defense community and military protocols, ships and aircraft, and supposedly the military/espionage/political styles of the counties involved. Of course, readers of these books like weapons and systems and often ask such questions as “Will weapon ABC beat weapon XYZ.” If the good guys are outgunned, that adds tension and intrigue as they figure out how to make do. Chains of command and weapons capabilities, while complex to the first-time reader of an Op-Center-style novel, also confine the kinds of action likely to occur in the book. This reduces ambiguity and indecisive events, both of which are scene killers in an action novel.
  3. Even within a concise scene, the primary characters don’t have to worry about how certain people or hardware arrived on the scene. The real-life drudgery of pulling all that together is glossed over. The protagonist either expects people in his command and other commands to do their duty or notes as the action unfolds that, say, a U.S. drone with hell fire missiles has appeared overhead to help his out-numbered crew defeat the enemy commandos. Meanwhile, the protagonist is also provided with a great deal of information in short snippets that has taken teams of people (“off camera”) a lot of time to figure out.
  4. Worst case, such novels can appear like video games where the stakes and odds are high, where the bad guys fire thousands of rounds and never hit anybody, and where new resources appear as needed due to the dedication of people other than the main character. Best case, the developing story seems believable enough to actually happen. In these novels, the protagonist is not only on the hot seat in the main action scenes, but has used his/her wisdom, knowledge and intelligence to simultaneously orchestrate the non-action-oriented material.

What Can You Take Away From Reading Such a Book?

opcenter2Obviously, we aren’t going to write in our own way, switch to a  Tom Clancy approach for the action scene, and then back to our own style as soon as the action ends. What we take away from an action novel is an appreciation for what is skipped over, left off camera (so to speak) or otherwise would bog down the action scenes themselves.

During a fight scene, the thoughts of the protagonist in that scene or chapter are not shown in detail. There is little or no interior monologue. There’s no time for it. A character who, let’s say, is surprised by the inept or surprising actions of others, is more likely to briskly think “What the hell are those clowns thinking” than to sandwich in a lot of interior chatter about “those clowns” while s/he’s running from room to room firing a AK-47.

If you’ve ever watched an old song-and dance musical with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelley, you’ve seen amazing sequences on the screen. What you don’t see is all the practice it took to make those sequences amazing. That’s all off camera. Your action scenes have to look like that. You can’t show the practice, the characters’ baggage, the irrelevant activities of characters or events that have no direct impact on the moment before the reader, or much (if any) description of the features in the scene which have nothing to do with the action focus. If a character hides behind a couch, he hides behind a couch, not a couch with a particular kind of color, fabric or style. None of that matters.

When bad guys bust in the front door with guns blazing, the primary action-oriented responses will be to fight, run, hide and call for help. At this point, having the characters think about or talk about the motivation of the bad guys will only slow down the action. Motivation may become relevant later.

Since it’s not possible to sum all these ideas up in one blog post, my thoughts are these. If you’re already the author of action-oriented novels, keep doing what you’re doing and work toward making it better with each new book. If you’re the author of non-action-oriented novels and you need an action scene, study a few of those scenes in a popular police or espionage thriller and look at how the characters, talk and move and what you need to say about it and what you don’t.

The main problem with a badly written action scene is usually this: the author has said too much.


4 Ways to Verify Your Story Concept Is Strong Enough

“Many a cool story concept has turned into a wasted story. But that’s not going to be you! Vet your your story ideas with this simple 4-question process.”

Source: 4 Ways to Verify Your Story Concept Is Strong Enough – Helping Writers Become Authors

When I maintained a blog feature called Book Bits, I frequently included “how to” links to K.M. Weiland’s blog because of her practical advice.

Here she talks about “story concept,” mulling over what it is and how you make sure it’s strong enough to turn into a novel. Food for thought that tastes good on this Wednesday morning.



Don’t forget to submit your audiobooks to AudioFile Magazine

Once your audiobook is done, it isn’t done until you submit a review copy to AudioFile Magazine. The submissions guidelines are here. They’re considered “the Bible” for AudioBook reviews and it’s a big plus to get your book mentioned there. If they really like it, you might get an Earphone Award. This shows up as a pair of red earphones in the book’s review.

audiofileBIf you’re considering having an audio edition of your e-book or paperback made, this magazine is a good place to see who some of the top narrator/producers are.

A good review from AudioFile makes a great promo blurb on your website, Facebook page, and in the editorial reviews section of the book’s Amazon listing. These are added via Author Central. At present, you can only add your excerpt under the book’s e-book or paperback listing due to Amazon’s current rules. Needless to say, editorial reviews are a huge factor in differentiating between major books and self-published books.

AudioFile doesn’t review everything. I just submitted two more books to them and it’s too soon to tell whether they’ll get a review or now. Of the two books submitted several years ago, one was reviewed and one wasn’t.  Here’s what there reviews look like (naturally I’m showing you mine);


I excerpted the following out of this review for the book’s Amazon listing: “The story is high on humor but light on plot–a vehicle for sex,cigarettes, steak, and zinfandel. Stewart, a print journalist, is a likable dinosaur in a changing world.” – AudioFile Magazine

If your books are published by a small press, your publisher will probably submit the book for you. I prefer that since it’s still the traditional method magazine/newspaper reviewers receive review copies.

Good luck!



Old Photographs as Writing Prompts

MHS Calendar

MHS Calendar

This 2016 Montana Historical Society calendar sits right next to my desk, so I find myself wondering about the people and the situations behind the pictures. Since the photographs are mostly posed, that happened before and after probably comes down to finding clothes and props and setting up the picture and then putting everything away afterwards. But forgetting that, what might have happened before and after if the photograph had really been candid?

Where did this cute kid go in her goat cart? Did she take a spin around the property, down the road to her nearest friend’s house, or maybe into some forbidden meadow where her parents told her not to go? The calendar’s June photograph shows a woman sending a stream of milk over to her waiting cat while milking a cow. I find myself wondering if the cat shows up daily during milking the way modern day cats appear when they hear a can opener.

Since these photographs sit next to my desk a month at a time, I have multiple occasions for playing “what if?”

You don’t need to be an historical society member to try using old photographs as writing prompts. Old pictures are fairly easy to find on the internet whether they’re in a museum, national parks, or historical society archive, or simply one of the many images available when you do a Google search. Candid pictures work best for me, followed by the posed pictures of everyday people. Famous pictures and/or pictures of famous people don’t work for me at all because I’ve seen them so often.

Of course, you can do this with modern day photographs as well, though if they include your family and friends, it’s a bit harder to pretend you know nothing about their lives and can make up stuff that happened a nanosecond after the photo was taken.

You don’t have to use photographs of people. Interesting outdoor shots, spooky buildings and strange street senes might be more to your liking. See what kind of a story you can tell about what-if events the photographer didn’t see.

I find this exercise kind of fun, especially if my muse has temporarily deserted me and I need to jump start my writing.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the audiobooks “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Sarabande.”




Tips and Encouragement for Beginning Fiction Writers – Indies Unlimited

“Introducing Writers’ Font, a monthly series devoted to beginning fiction writers. My author tagline reads: Candace Williams is a late-blooming novelist who who believes you can live your dream.”

Source: Writers’ Font: Tips and Encouragement for Beginning Fiction Writers – Indies Unlimited

I will be interesting to see how this new series of articles plays out. Williams says we need knowledge and confidence. I’ll buy that. I think we also need a “just do it” attitude that changes us from the person who says (maybe for 30 years), “I’m going to write a book some day” into the person who stops making excuses and actually does it.

I hope this series will help.


Stop listening to my writing advice

On my Facebook profile and page, I blasted (once again) the high number of writers offering writing advice blogs, free advice Kindle books, webinars, and other forms of purported gospel for newer writers. Certainly, no other profession suffers from the unending deluge of drivel telling others how to do their jobs better.

adviceI thought of all this again after reading a post about the a supposed solute necessity of launching an author’s newsletter. The writer said that our sales depend on them. If somebody tells you their newsletters are creating sales, go look at their Amazon ranking and see what their sales are.

I don’t subscribe to any authors’ newsletters and I find plenty of books to read. If I were to subscribe, it would either a newsletter written by a close friend I wanted to keep up with or a well-known author who has multiple projects that I wouldn’t hear about without a newsletter.

No doubt, some writers do well with a monthly or quarterly newsletter. I take exception to the idea that the newsletter is a must for everyone.

The same can be said for a lot of marketing/writing advice. It happens to work for one writer–or they just read some posts about it and got excited about it–so pretty soon they’re dispensing that advice like it’s gospel. I don’t want to be unkind, but a lot of this advice seems to come from folks whose writing/teaching/marketing credentials suggest they don’t have the kind of track record that warrants them setting themselves up as experts.

I taught writing in college and worked as a corporate communications director in a variety of places. Naturally, I collected a few ideas about what seems to work and what doesn’t. The thing is, I like or dislike those ideas based on how they fit my personality, work schedule and sales experience. What works for me may well be disastrous for you.

A lot of advice is subjective. Some of it’s practical, allowing you to see right away whether it, say, helps you format your manuscript for Kindle or set up an audiobook. There’s no reason why one can’t experiment with the subjective advice (like seeing if you can write without an outline) or try out the nuts and bolts practical stuff.

Otherwise, anything that looks like advice is, at best, a suggestion or a notion or possibly a darned crazy idea. Take it all with a grain of salt, including whatever I may suggest on this blog. You know how to write using what works for you. I can’t possibly tell you that and, even though he’s written a very nice book about writing techniques, neither can Stephen King.


CWCaudioI’m happy to announce that the audiobook edition of Conjure Woman’s Cat came out a lot faster than I expected.



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