Tag Archives: Rachelle Gardner

Avoiding the Social Media Time Suck

Writers blog about it–the amount of time they spend on social media: monitoring blogs, writing blog posts, tweeting, facebooking, leaving comments on other blogs. It’s a huge time suck, and yet writers still do it. Guilty on all counts.

I’m still trying to figure out how to spend less time on social media time and more time on my passion–fiction writing. I don’t have the answer yet, but let me share what I’ve learned:

Be selective about the blogs you follow regularly. At first, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Every week I would discover a new writer’s blog and add it to my favorites. I spent hours on social media and my writing output suffered. Now, I follow a few blogs religiously: Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Kathryn Magendie, K.M. Weiland, Jody Hedlund, Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman. Well, I guess that’s more than a few, but you get the point.

Set aside time for social media and time for fiction writing. That’s an easy rule to set down and a much tougher one to obey. How many times have you said, “I’m just going to check my stats, respond to a few comments and check a couple of blogs and then I’ll start working on my work-in-progress?” Three hours later, you haven’t put a word on the page. It takes great discipline to treat these as separate activities, but the writer must.

Use technology to manage your blog feeds. There are a number of tools available. Subscribing to your favorite blogs through email is one that I find helpful. Getting your favorite blogs on Twitter is another useful way to keep up, while not impacting your writing time.

Devote large blocks of time to writing and use social media as a reward. I’m a binge writer. If I’m not feeling it, I will produce drivel, but when I’m on fire creatively, I can crank out 3,000 words in one sitting. OK, it might not be riveting prose, but in some cases I’ve done my best work while on such creative rolls. The trick is to tell yourself you are going to write for three hours, four hours, whatever, and stick to it. Then treat yourself to a couple of hours on social media.

Go someplace else to write. This is a sound strategy. Pick a place–your local coffee shop or the library. Find a quiet table. Sit down with your laptop, find some music that inspires you and plug in your ear buds, and write for two or three hours. Try it sometime. Do your social media at home or on a mobile device, but not at your writing place.

Is social media a time suck for you? How do you find the time to write?

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How Much Back Story is Too Much?

Respected literary agent and blogger Rachelle Gardner discussed in a post how much “back story” is appropriate to include in a work of fiction. Her conclusion? Less than a paragraph. This view is echoed by many agents and publishers.

Fifty years ago, authors liberally used back story as a means to introduce the reader to the characters and their motivations in a novel. Today, back story is something to be avoided. Why? First, let’s define back story. Back story is everything that has happened before the story begins. It includes the characters’ history, events, upbringing, and major life milestones.

The problem with back story is the reader doesn’t need to know all of the mundane details of a character’s life—especially when presented in a multi-page info dump. It is considered bad writing because it takes the reader out of the story. The reader only needs to know those details pertinent to the story and those details must be told in a manner that heightens the inherent tension and conflict of the novel.

This presents the writer with a dilemma. How does the writer set up the story, reveal the character’s hopes, dreams and fears, without delving into the character’s past? There are ways to do it without making it sound like back story. Visualize delivering back story through a sprinkler rather than a firehose. Giving to the reader all at once will knock the reader over with the sheer force of the water, but sprinkling it throughout with deft droplet in dialogue and action scenes is an effective technique..

Let’s say your main character is a man who has failed at every business he has attempted, but still dreams of untold riches. His wife knows differently and the gap between his dreams and reality is a source of tension in their marriage. Now the writer can spend pages chronicling the man’s business woes, but that would bore the reader. How about a dialogue scene that would read something like this:

Man [sitting at laptop]: Honey, come here. Check out my latest business plan. This one can’t miss.

Wife: Sure, I’ve heard that before.

Man: No this one’s a winner.

Wife: Look, I’ve had it. We both know that every half-baked idea you’ve hatched turns out to be a rotten egg.

The dialogue could continue in this vein as the man’s wife points out each one of his business failures. This way of letting in the back story is superior to exposition because it also reveals much about the couple and the underlying tensions in their relationship. It also speaks about a man who doesn’t give up on his dreams, and creates a degree of sympathy in the reader.

Another effective strategy for divulging back story is to wait until the time is right. Don’t tell the reader the main character can’t swim until his friend is drowning and it’s up to the character to save him.

When I was working on my first novel, Small Change, the original version of the story started when the main character was 10 years old. I couldn’t get the voice to work, so I chopped out the first four chapters and began the story when he was 14 years old. My first thought was that I lost a lot of essential back story, but when I finished the manuscript, I found I didn’t lose much at all. I was able to weave the important attributes of the main character and the essential family history into other scenes.

It’s essential for the author to know the back story, but she must be careful in how much and when to reveal these details to the reader.

What is your view on back story? Is it ever appropriate?

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When Is It Time to Kill Your Novel?

Nearly every writer will face a moment when he must decide what to do about a work-in-progress that is not publishable. That decision is much tougher when the writer has put much time and sweat equity into the work.

I recently abandoned my work-in-progress, a political novella entitled, “Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media.” It wasn’t because of the long, unwieldy title. I killed the project after doing a thorough read-through of my first draft. I made a number of comments in the margin and then conducted a candid self-assessment of the work. Two issues were decisive factors for me. First, the story needed a lot of work. It took writing the first draft for me to discover the essence of the story, but when I did, I realized all but about a half-dozen scenes either had to go or needed massive revisions. And, I needed to write a number of new scenes to embellish the story and the theme.

I could have fixed the story, though it would have taken a lot of work. The bigger problem, though, was the main character. I never felt I got the “voice” right and I didn’t know how to fix that. Compounding that issue was the fact the story was outside my genre and my comfort zone. I’m not suggesting writers should never venture from their comfort zones. I found it liberating and fun. But in the final analysis, the story has to hang together and all the elements must work.

When you have doubts about your work-in-progress, how do you know when to kill your novel?

Here are a few suggestions:

You don’t feel passionate about it. It’s hard to generate excitement in the reader if you’re not feeling it.

You know it’s not working and it doesn’t just need a few tweaks, but an overhaul. One caveat: if you have the passion about the story, do try to fix the problems.

You cannot get your main character to work for you. I believe novels are fundamentally built on strong characters, not plot. The main character is the foundation for your story. You must feel confident about your main character.

The story doesn’t work. It’s not believable or it doesn’t hang together and it cannot be repaired.

Here are a few other great tips from guest blogger Marcus Brotherton on Rachelle Gardner’s blog:

http://www.rachellegardner.com/2011/10/a-time-to-kill-your-novel/

Have you ever killed a work-in-progress? What were the deciding factors in your decision?

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The Role of an Agent

At a recent conference, an author and an agent presented a case study about how they met at a writer’s conference, signed an agreement and the agent then shepherded the writer through the publication process. At one point, the writer made an offhand comment advising authors not to expect much in terms of marketing support from their publisher.

The comment set off an audience member, who began questioning the agent. He wanted to know why she didn’t help with marketing. Wasn’t that her job? The questioner became increasingly belligerent as the agent tried calmly to explain that marketing is not the agent’s job. I felt bad for the agent, though she handled the questions in a professional manner without getting ruffled.

The exchange reflected false perceptions some unpublished writers may harbor about the role of an agent. The agent explained her role was to advocate for the author. She championed the author’s work by contacting publishers and pitching the author’s manuscript. She negotiated the contract with the publisher and pushed for the most favorable terms for the author.

In this case, the author’s editor left the publishing house in the middle of the project and it stalled. The agent used her knowledge to locate the person at the publishing house who had the authority to assign a new editor and got the project back on track.

So what is the role of an agent? Here’s a simplified version:

  • Represent the writer.
  • Shop the writer’s manuscript to editors at publishing houses.
  • Secure and negotiate a contract with a publisher on behalf of the writer
  • Track the publication process with the writer
  • Troubleshoot any problems that arise
  • Negotiate subsidiary rights to the writer’s work.

Many agents will offer strategic advice to the writer. Some will sit down with the writer at the outset of the relationship and discuss the author’s long-term goals and then work to help the author achieve these goals.

For a more detailed description of what agents do, read this blog post by former agent and author Nathan Bransford.

Another great resource is literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Rachelle blogs daily about agenting, writing, and publishing, and never fails to give mature, sensible advice.

In this super-competitive field, where publishing contracts are hard to come by, a lot of frustrated writers vent their fury at agents. I don’t doubt there are rude agents, just as there are bad apples in every profession. I have to say I have had nothing but positive experiences with agents, and this is coming from a writer who has been rejected every time. Agents know good writing. They know writing that sells. They appreciate writers who take the time to read their submission guidelines, submit appropriate work and take the time to write a decent query letter.

I’ve had one-on-one interviews with agents. One resulted in a submission. Though it was rejected, the agent gave me some advice on the opening chapter that resulted in revisions that saved the manuscript. I thanked her when I saw her the next year at the same conference.

It’s easy to blame an agent for a writer’s lack of success. They’re the gatekeepers. Do they make mistakes? Do they reject bestsellers? Sure they do, but we all make mistakes. I’ve got a couple of manuscripts somewhere that I hope never see the light of day.

Some critics say agents are tied too closely to the publishing industry and are quick to defend everything publishers do. That’s valid, but it’s a little like saying lawyers are tied too closely to the court system. That’s their bread-and-butter.

At the same writer’s conference, I had the good fortune at lunch to sit next to a New York-based agent. I had nothing to pitch, so I was relaxed and we had a nice chat about writing, publishing and the changes in the industry.

Let’s remember agents have a job to do and play an important role in the publishing process.

What are your experiences with agents?

 

 

 

 

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How to Come Up with a Book Title

The New York Daily News has some of the greatest headline writers in the business. Who could forget the classic headline the Daily News ran after President Ford rejected New York City’s request for federal aid to stave off bankruptcy: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” A great headline is like a great book title: memorable, dramatic, and punchy. Book titles, though, have to do more than newspaper headlines.

Creating a great book title won’t ensure success, but without one, a writer’s chances of failure increase. This is especially true for self-published authors. Traditionally published authors generally don’t get to choose the title or cover art for their books. For self-published authors, there’s a lot riding on both the cover and the title. We discussed book covers in two previous posts.

What makes a good book title? Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner wrote an excellent post on the process for creating a book cover. Here’s the post.

A book title must:

  • Grab the reader
  • Appeal to the reader on an emotional level
  • Create an expectation about the story.
  • Match the tone of the book.
  • Be brief and punchy.
  • Be memorable.

Your book title is your sales pitch. It’s your business card. It’s what readers see first.

So how do you come up with a great book title? Rachelle Gardner’s method is sound. Here are a few more tips:

  • Brainstorm. Let your imagination run wild. Write down key words or phrases that pop into your mind.
  • Focus on a key element of the story and write down words or phrases associated with it.
  • Think about your main character. What is it about her that strikes you? Think of her defining characteristic. Compare her to a symbol.

I cannot start writing my first draft until I at least have a working title for my work-in-progress. Once I come up with a working title, I revisit it after I have completed my first draft. At this point, the theme is more apparent and the title should relate to the theme.

For my first novel, Small Change was the working title, based on a remark that the main character’s mother made, which was nearly cut from the final draft. It was one of three titles I considered. I also weighed The Secret Keepers, but a quick Google search indicated there was a recent novel by that name and I didn’t want to do that to another writer. Plus, the term was used in the Harry Potter series and I didn’t want to create a false expectation about my book. The third option, which I seriously considered, was calling it, Reason to Believe, after the Tim Hardin song popularized by Rod Stewart. The song plays a key role in the story as the main character, John, and his first love, Jennifer, adopt it as their own.

I was stuck so I “test marketed” the various titles and Small Change came up the winner, hands down.

Let’s look at a popular example of a title that works in several ways: Gone With the Wind. What is it that was “gone with the wind” in Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 classic? There are the obvious things: slavery, the Old South, a nation divided, the genteel upper class. What else was gone with the wind? Tara as Scarlett O’Hara knew it, Rhett Butler, Bonnie (their little girl), her one true friend, Melanie Wilkes, a romantic view of the world, and Scarlett’s world. One can see on how many levels the book title works.

Your book title is crucial to your success. Spend as much time on it as is necessary.

How do you approach the task of coming up with a book title?

 

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What is Your Professional Development Plan?

A new year beckons. It’s a good time to take stock of where you are as a writer and what you need to do in 2012 to reach the next level.

Most good companies offer professional development programs for their employees. Writers usually don’t have the same resources as businesses do, but there’s no reason every writer should not have a personal professional development plan. Here are a few elements of my personal professional development plan:

1. Join and participate in a writer’s group or an online writer’s community. A vibrant writer’s group offers a spirit of collegiality, support, feedback, and mutual helpfulness. Engaging regularly with a group of trusted people who share your passion for writing will give you a great sounding board and a sense that you are not alone in your journey.

2. Read at least two books each year on the craft of fiction writing. Learning is a lifelong process. There’s no such thing as knowing everything there is about the craft. While you are at it, subscribe to at least one writer’s periodical. I recommend Writer’s Digest.

3. Read writing blogs at least three times a week. There are so many excellent blogs out there produced by writers, literary agents, and readers. A few I read regularly include Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, JA Konrath (A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing), Kristen Lamb, and Bob Mayer. You will learn not only about the craft, but about publishing, the role of agents, marketing, and how to use social media.

4. Attend at least one writer’s conference each year. I attend the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) annual CAPA-U meeting. In addition to offering workshops on the craft and on marketing, these conferences provide ample opportunities for you to network with other writers and some offer face-to-face meetings with an agent. This is enormously helpful to new writers.

5. Read at least 25 books a year, across all genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. What? You might say. That won’t leave any time for fiction writing. Stephen King reads 80 books a year and still has time to churn out a novel.

Bonus tip: Practice your craft regularly. You will learn so much just by writing. There’s no substitute for finishing a novel, or two or three novels. You will most likely not hit your stride with your first novel, but you will learn about story structure, character development, and scene crafting.

So there you have it: my professional development plan for 2012.

What is your professional development plan for 2012?

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