Tag Archives: Writer’s Digest

Writing on the Spot-Prompting Waves of Anxiety

I never appreciated the value of writing prompts. They struck me as devices other writers used when they couldn’t come up with original ideas. After last weekend, I’ve changed my mind.

On June 1, I attended a fiction writing workshop presented by Ken Cormier, writer-in-residence at the West Hartford (Connecticut) Public Library. Ken’s pre-workshop instructions were to bring a pen and pad and leave the laptop at home. We would be writing on the spot, using prompts. Nothing brings terror to me like being asked to write on demand. What sort of rubbish would spew from my pen? Though I am a pantser, when I come up with an idea for a story, I do a lot of pre-writing in my head and then I prepare a basic outline of milestone events before I sit down to write. I would not have the luxury of this type of preparation this time. I was at sea without a life preserver.

Ken read to us a hilarious flash fiction piece about a crazy, drunken grandmother at Christmas, which set the stage for his first prompt. He instructed us to write about an episode involving one of our relatives. We were given 15 minutes. Sticking with the grandmother idea, I wrote about my Nana, who was deaf, and her attempts to carry on a telephone conversation with her sister, Theresa, who was also deaf. The words just flowed. I wouldn’t call it brilliant but it was the best work I’ve done in weeks.

The second exercise was interesting. He asked us to write a basic character sketch (name, age, address, occupation, most important person, and that person’s relationship with the character). Then we handed our character sketch to the person on our left and they had to write a story based on it. Again, we had 15 minutes to do it. The results were fantastic. Every writer in the room wove a vivid narrative that made each character come alive. I was amazed to see what a talented group of writers could do without the time to think.

I left the workshop feeling energized. I had been suffering through a serious creative block the past few weeks, for a variety of reasons. These writing prompts unblocked me.

To read more on writing prompts, check out these sites:
Writer’s Digest resource

Creative Writing Prompts

The Teacher’s Corner

Good essay on the value of writing prompts

Poets & Writers page

Do you use writing prompts? Do you find them helpful?

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What is the Ideal Word Count for a Novel?

Novice writers often ask what is the ideal word count for a manuscript? Is 100,000 words too many? What about 150,000? It’s best to aim lower—much lower.

Let’s say a writer is pitching a first novel. He has a sure-fire Pulitzer Prize winner on his hands, but the manuscript is a weighty 250,000 words. Does he dare mention the word count in his query letter? Not only should he not mention the word count, but he needs to go back immediately and trim that manuscript. Cut it in half or divide it into two books and pitch it as the first part of a sequel. Why? In addition to the reality that most first-time writers probably over-write, it’s a matter of simple economics. More words mean more paper, and printing and shipping costs. A publisher is simply not going to spend the extra money publishing a tome by a first-time author. Agents know this.

When I finished my first novel, Small Change, it was 126,000 words. I mentioned the word count in my query letter. Meeting with an agent once at a writer’s conference, the agent took one look at the word count and shook her head. Get it down to less than 100,000 words, she said. A word count of 80,000 would be a good target, she advised. I eventually trimmed it to 103,000 words and I self-published Small Change.

The best essay I’ve read on word counts was written by Colleen Lindsay, a former agent. Read the post.

Lindsay noted that beginning writers often see fat science fiction books on the shelves of bookstores and believe they have to write a book of similar heft. “Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers,” Lindsay wrote.

She met with several fiction writers and compiled a comprehensive list of target word counts for each genre.

Here are some of the word counts listed by Lindsay for various genres, based on feedback she received from editors:

  • Middle grade: 25,000 to 40,000 words, with an average of 35,000.
  • Young Adult: 45,000 to 80,000 words.
  • Paranormal romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Category romance: 55,000 to 75,000 words.
  • Cozy mysteries: 65,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Horror: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Westerns: 80,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Mystery/thriller/crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Sci-fi and fantasy: this encompasses a wide range of genre, but generally the word counts fall between 90,000 and 100,000.

As a general rule of thumb for new novels, I believe 80,000 words is the right target, regardless of genre. Of course, there are examples of excellent novels with much shorter word counts. Ian McEwen’s brilliant short novel, On Chesil Beach, comes to mind. The novel is only 40,000 words, but it is exceptionally crafted and packed with meaning.

For another perspective on word counts, check out this article published in Writer’s Digest by agent Chuck Sambuchino.

What are your thoughts on word counts?

 

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Should I Read or Write?

I have a confession to make. I read more than I write. I don’t write each day (except during National Novel Writing Month), but I cannot go a day without reading. Writers should read widely across all genres and read nonfiction as well as fiction. Most writers do just that, but many struggle to keep up their reading.

In a guest post on Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog on Writer’s Digest, author Dayna Lorentz made a persuasive case for why writers should read.

In summary, Lorentz gave four reasons: reading nourishes your writing, it builds confidence, it enables revision and it helps the writer to sell by allowing the writer to see where her work fits in among popular novels and genres.

Read Dayna Lorentz’s Writer’s Digest blog post

Writers know they should read, but it’s another activity the writer must fit in amidst writing, keeping up with social media, blogging and marketing.

My best advice is to carve out separate blocks of time for writing and reading. Generally, I write during the late evening and I read right before I go to sleep. Reading helps me to unwind and decompress from my writing session.

Reading can help your writing. By focusing on how writers develop stories and scenes, a writer can unlock her creativity. I find when I am reading a particularly good book, I get energized about my writing.

Stephen King reads 80 books a year. He brings books with him everywhere he goes. If he has a few minutes of down time while waiting on a line, King cracks open a book. I even saw a shot of him reading a book on TV during a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

I’m currently plowing my way through Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. I’m probably spending too much time reading them, but my writing hasn’t suffered.

Reading, like writing, is a habit that is woven into our daily lives. Let’s always take the time to read.

How much do you read? Do you find it difficult to read and keep up with your writing?

 

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Top Ten Lists For Writers

David Letterman’s famous Top Ten lists are a staple of his Late Night Show. I came across a great Top Ten list in a Twitter feed from Writer’s Digest magazine. Brian Garfield wrote the list, Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction, in a 1973 Writer’s Digest article. The list reportedly paved the way for John Grisham to write his breakout novel, The Firm.

Here are Garfield’s top ten rules for suspense fiction:

  1. Start with action; explain it later.
  2. Make it tough for your protagonist.
  3. Plant it early; pay it off later.
  4. Give the protagonist the initiative.
  5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.
  6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, then shorten it.
  7. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
  8. Know your destination before you start out.
  9. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read.

Though Garfield geared his list toward suspense fiction, these rules apply well to any type of genre fiction. A common thread in these rules is for the writer to create challenges for the protagonist. This will move the story forward and keep the reader’s interest, whether the genre is romance or mystery.

Another great list is Elmore Leonard’s oft-quoted ten rules of writing:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he  admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

While more oriented toward craft of writing than plot, a writer cannot go wrong following Leonard’s advice.

For more on Leonard’s ten rules, you can buy his book

I thought I’d take crack at coming up with ten rules. These are some of my bedrock beliefs about fiction writing. Here goes:

  1. All stories start with characters. Take the time to develop memorable characters.
  2. At the core, all stories are about relationships. Look for “relationship potential” when building your characters. It doesn’t have to be a relationship with karma and great vibes. Bad relationships make for good fiction.
  3. Build conflict into the story from the beginning. Conflict leads to tension, which is the fuel that moves the story along.
  4. Start with action, but make sure the action sets the stage for significant later events.
  5. Plot is over-rated. Think “story.” The plot consists of a series of major events in the story. Make sure these events flow organically from the consequences of what occurred before.
  6. Strive for clarity over florid prose. Nobody will be impressed with your vast vocabulary. The shortest word is often the best word.
  7. Know the essence of your story. Hone in on the essence and expand upon and polish it.
  8. Avoid author contrivances. Fantastic coincidences might be convenient for the author, but they are a big turnoff for the reader.
  9. Make your ending pay off. As more than one writing guru has said, your ending should be both unexpected and inevitable.
  10. In crafting scenes, strike the right balance between action, narrative, and dialogue.

What are the rules of writing for you?

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Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?

 

 

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Do Book Sales Mean Anything?

Authors should care about their book sales. That’s obvious. Strong sales provide income to authors and validation for the work. The work must have value if so many people buy a writer’s books. But is the converse true as well? Does the work have no value if few people buy it? Not necessarily.

When I published my first novel, Small Change, in February through the Kindle Direct Publishing program, my expectations for sales were low. I was an unknown author with a blog, but no real platform. The redoubtable Jane Friedman, in an article in Writers Digest, advised writers not to self-publish their work until they had built a significant market for it. That makes perfect sense, but a writer could only wait so long. How long should a writer continue to dispense his alleged expertise and advice without delivering the goods? So I launched my novel before I built my market, even though I believed Jane Friedman’s advice was right on target.

Why did I do it? Writers must take the long view. Their first book may not sell. It probably won’t sell. Their second and third books may not sell, either. What’s most important in the early stages of a writer’s career is to produce the best work they can. The rest is in the readers’ hands, which begs the original question: do sales mean anything? For me, what was more important than the sales of my first novel was the feedback from readers—and not just friends and members of my critique group (though, to their credit, my critique group members are brutally honest and not afraid to tell the truth). Here’s what I want to know: does the average reader, who knows nothing about me as a writer, like my work? Why does the reader like my work? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my work?

If you buy the argument that sales don’t matter for the first-time author, then what should the writer expect? Here are a few suggestions. A writer’s first novel should:

  • Create awareness. Bob Mayer has blogged about the importance for new authors of creating awareness as an essential first step. A friend of mine enrolled his novel in the KDP Select program, in which Amazon can manipulate the price. During a free promotion day, readers downloaded 5,000 copies of his book. Though he didn’t realize any income, what an audience he has built. If half of those people pay $2.99 for his second novel, that’s a significant amount of income.
  • Build loyalty. When a reader has a positive experience with an author’s work, she will want to read the next book. And the writer needs to make sure the second book is much better than the first one.
  • Gain insight into your audience. Who bought your book? What else do they read? Engage in a dialogue with your readers. Get them to come to your blog.
  • Obtain feedback. Those reader reviews posted on Amazon are like gold. Read them. Take them to heart—not the mean-spirited, nasty ones, but the ones offering constructive advice. Learn from those reviews.

That adage, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” is the way I look at the writer’s career. Don’t get hung up on sales, especially if you are an unknown author who has just self-published a first novel. Do the work it will take to create awareness, build brand loyalty, and gain insights to help with your future work.

How important are book sales? Would you sacrifice sales to build a following?

 

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I’d Like My Stakes Well Done, Please

One of the reasons Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy became such a runaway international bestseller was his uncanny ability to raise the stakes throughout the three-book series. In an interview published in the November/December 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, bestselling author Ken Follett put it this way: “There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic.” Larsson did a masterful job of that. Pick up any of the three books and every four or five pages, something happens that quickens the reader’s heartbeat.

Stakes don’t have to be large. The fate of the world doesn’t have to hinge on every plot twist. Stakes do have to create tension. They have to matter to the reader. Agent Donald Maass, in another Writer’s Digest article, talked about three types of stakes: personal, ultimate and public. The type of stakes an author chooses to employ will depend on the genre. In a mystery, the stakes are obvious. Someone has committed a crime and it’s up to the main character to solve it. In a spy thriller, the fate of the world might rest with a character who must stop the bad guys from destroying the planet. In a family saga, the stakes are more personal, often involving an inner conflict or a battle of wills between two characters.

Here are some common mistakes a writer might make in developing stakes:

  • A relationship between two characters develops too fast, sucking all the tension and uncertainty out of the story. This could work in a romance when the main character wins the heart of her man, and then loses him. She then embarks on a quest to get him back, but a quick resolution will wreck the suspense.
  • The initial stakes are too high, leaving the writer with nowhere to go. If the main character is involved in a fierce firefight on page one and one thousand people die in the first chapter, how does the writer top that? A rising body count won’t do it.
  • Surprise twists that the writer fails to  tie to the central conflict or to the story as a whole. Surprises are an essential element in building suspense, but the consequences that arise out of the surprise twist must be consistent with the story.
  • Giving away too much information too soon. The best writers hold something back. They don’t drop a giant info dump that tells the reader everything she needs to know about the protagonist on page 2 of the story. They parse information, often withholding important details until just the right moment.
  • Relentless action. The reader needs to take a breath. Watch a suspenseful movie. There’s always a pause, a lull in the action, because the viewer cannot process nonstop action.

One of the best techniques for raising the stakes is to put the main character through a series of ever-more-difficult challenges. The character must summon an inner strength she never knew she had to overcome these stakes. When the stakes are significant and the main character struggles heroically or must make a difficult choice, the reader feels satisfaction.

Think of stakes as the engine that drives your story. When you feel your story lagging, raise the stakes.

What are the best examples of novels where the author skillfully raises the stakes?

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