Tag Archives: novels

Market Your eBook: Ereader News Today

entThis week I opted to try promoting my book through Ereader News Today.  They send out a daily email to their 400,000 members advertising 1-3 ebooks and provide a link to your book on Amazon.  Their service is strictly for Kindle users.

To get promoted in one of ENT’s emails you have to agree to two things:  lower the price of your book so that their members are receiving a deep discount and pay ENT 25% of whatever sales you make that day.

For me, that meant lowering the ebook price of The Wandering King from $3.99 to .99 cents.  Not sure yet what they will charge me, but I can see that over their one-day promotion I received approximately 270 ebook sales.  I’m guessing I’ll owe ENT something like:  270 x .99 = $267 x 30% Amazon royalty rate = $80 x 25% fee = $20.  Twenty dollars is a negligable price to pay for getting my book into 270 additional readers’ hands.  Plus, their fee is coming out of new sales, so it’s not really costing me a dime.

ENT also has a Facebook page where they encourage authors to interact with their members.  By doing so, ENT claims it helps get your book noticed.  I posted 2 messages there.  Whether it helped increase sales, I have no way of knowing, but I figure it didn’t hoit.

All in all, I’ve been quite happy with ENT’s service, and have noticed that even after I raised the price back up to $3.99, I continued to get a spike in sales, possibly from their members who spotted the email after the promotion.

If your primary goal is to make money, ENT may not be the way to go.  But if your goal is to get read,  ENT can help immensely.  I also have 270 additional word-of-mouth advertisers out there promoting my book and 270 potential reviewers that I may never have found otherwise.

bookbubThere is similar service called BookBub.   Like ENT, they offer to send out an email promoting your book to their subscribers.  What’s different is that:  (1) they’ll provide links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, (2) you don’t have to discount your book price, and (3) you do have to pay a fee for their service.

The price BookBub charges is based on the number of subscribers they have in your book category and the price of your book.  For instance, they have 430,000 historical fiction subscribers.  If your book is free they charge $200, less than $1 they charge $400, $1-$2 they charge $600 and over $2 they charge $1,000.

If I were to keep the price at $3.99 and to receive a similar number of sales that I got through ENT, I would spend $1,000 and end up making $800.  Odds are, at $3.99 instead of .99 cents, I’ll get less sales, so it could end up costing a pretty penny.  Even if I were to lower the price to .99 cents, and even if I received 270 sales, it would end up costing over $300.

Might sound foolish, but I am determined not to spend money marketing my book.  So for me, I don’t see where BookBub makes sense.  If others have tried it, I would love to hear about your experience.

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Smashwords: Access to Multiple e-Bookstores (sort of)

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Though initially excited about getting my book, The Wandering King, onto the web site of the e-book seller Smashwords, ultimately the results have been disappointing.  To explain…

Getting your book on Smashwords is an ordeal akin to one of Hercules’ labors.  Like Amazon, they provide you with a free guide on how to format your e-book for Smashwords.  Unlike Amazon’s clear, concise booklet, the Smashword’s manual is over 100 pages long.  Oi.

Not wanting to go through their novel length ‘how to’ book, I tried uploading my existing e-book file that had worked with Amazon.  No luck.  Tried the same with the file I used for Barnes & Noble’s Nook.  Strike two.  All right, time to crack open their 100-page opus.

Smashwords’ distribution channels

One of the things I didn’t realize about Smashwords, is that when you format your e-book for their site, if you do it according to their specs, you can qualify for something called ‘premium status.’  If your book makes the grade, not only can you put it for sale on Smashwords, they give you access to 12 sites like Apple’s iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, even public libraries. 

The first thing they recommend in their formatting guide, is to strip out all of the current formatting in your MS Word doc.  You can do this by copy/pasting the entire book into a program on your computer called WordPad.  Putting it into WordPad knocks out all of your italics, tabs, links, font styles, etc.  Then all you do is select your entire document in WordPad and copy/paste it back into MS Word.  Then you begin the laborious process of adding back all of your formatting. 

Smashwords’ guide walks you through each step, including how they want you to set up the links in your table of contents.  As every ancient Greek word in my book was italicized, it took me a long time to get all of the formatting back in my book, but according to Smashwords, by starting with a clean copy, you eliminate any possible quirks that may have wormed their way into your original MS Word doc. 

Too, because every e-book seller seems to use their own format (such as ePUB, PDF, MOBI, LRF, RTF, etc…) it’s wise to follow Smashword’s instructions to ensure it meets their formatting requirements, because when you’re done, if successful, once you upload the book to Smashwords, their internal programming automatically saves your book in multiple formats (such as ePUB, PDF, MOBI, etc.) giving you access to Apple iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, etc.

Though it took a while to fix all of the formatting in my book, it was well worth the effort.  The third time I tried uploading the book to Smashwords was a charm.  It passed their internal checks and even qualified for their premium status, giving me access to a number of new booksellers.

Should you format your book first for Smashwords instead of Amazon? 

In hindsight, I wondered if I should have started working with Smashwords, instead of Amazon, as both Amazon and Barnes & Noble are among the distribution sites that Smashwords gives you access to. 

Once my book was on Smashwords and they began distributing it to other e-book sellers, I realized, no, I was glad I started with Amazon and did it myself with Barnes & Noble.  Why?  The main reason is you have more control over your book and how it appears for sale on those sites.

Amazon is the biggest bookseller on the planet.  That’s where I’m getting 95% of my book sales, both e-book and paperback.  If I want to change my book description or the search engine keywords, it’s a snap on Amazon.  You make the changes online, and within hours they are live.

This is where I have a problem with Smashwords.  Yes, my book appears on their site and they’ve gotten it on most of the sites they advertise, but I’m guessing they don’t send along the keyword search string to these sites.  For instance, when I do a search on Kobo or Sony under ‘ancient Greece’ or ‘Sparta’ my book does not appear.   In fact, the only way you can find my book on these sites is to do a search for my name or the book name, ‘The Wandering King.’  Otherwise, my book is invisible on those sites.  Nor has it ever shown up on the Apple iBookstore. though Smashwords claims it is there.  I guess I just need new glasses.

To smash or not to smash?

I don’t know that Smashwords’ services are quite as good as advertised.  Nor are the sales.  In the 2 months my book has appeared on their site and the multiple other sites they distribute to, I’ve made a whopping single sale.  Whoopty-do.

The other area where I have a problem with Smashwords is the description of the book that appears on sites like Kobo and Sony.  Smashwords asks you to write a long book description and a short one, both of which appear on their site.  Unfortunately the short description is about three sentences, and that’s what they feed to most of their distribution partners.  Make a change to your book description on Smashwords, it’s hit or miss whether it gets posted on the other sites.

So although it sounds great that Smashwords will help you get onto all these other e-bookstores, you end up with no keywords for people to find your book, and you end up with a minimal book description.  No wonder I have not received any sales from these sites.  Readers have no way of finding my book, and when they do, there is very little to tease them into buying a copy.

About the best thing I can say about Smashwords is that they format your book into multiple e-book fomats for free.  If you need an ePUB or MOBI file of your book, Smashwords does the heavy lifting for you.  Other than that, my experience with them thus far has been far from a smashing success.

Creating Fictional Characters

While writing The Wandering King I picked up a few things about creating fictional characters that may be of some use.  Some may be adages you’ve heard before, some may help inspire new ideas.  Use them as you see fit.

1.  Give your character a goal

This is an oldie, but goodie.  Simply put, what is your main character trying to achieve?  Does he want to be king?  Is she trying to earn her father’s love?  Are they trying to get a sport’s scholarship?

If you think about the good books that you’ve read, you can usually pinpoint the main characters’ motivation.  Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s murder.  Romeo wants to marry Juliet.  Macbeth wants to become king.

Giving your character a goal, gives your reader a reason to turn the page.  Will Hamlet kill his own mother Gertrude and his uncle Claudius to avenge his father?  Even though the Montagues and Capulets hate one another, will Romeo still get the girl?  Though Macbeth has pangs of conscience, will he kill King Duncan and steal the crown?

While working on The Wandering King, I made a list of my characters and ascribed a simple, one sentence motivation to each.  Once they had a goal, now I knew how they would behave in each scene. 

For my main character, Euryanax, I went a step further.  I placed his goals right in the book, right up front on the second page.  He states, “All I ever wanted was to earn my father’s respect.  To win a woman’s love.  And to become a Spartan citizen.”

Those three goals might sound easy, but they’re not, and they’ll take Eury several books to accomplish.  Giving him clearly defined goals and making them difficult to achieve, is what propels the plot and hopefully keeps the reader flipping the page.

2.  Describe your character’s physical appearance

Unless you tell us what a character looks like, they’re a faceless blob to the reader.  If they’re worth introducing, they’re worth describing.  You don’t have to spend three pages telling us about their hairstyle, just give us a quick snapshot of your character in a paragraph or two.

Nor should this be a laundry list of statistics, like Stan was 5’9″, 165 pounds, had blond hair and a laid back demeanor.  That’s pretty dull stuff.  Tell us what makes Stan unique.

Here are a few examples of character descriptions from an author that I admire named Richard Powell:

Character:  Arthur Peabody Goodpasture

“I did not enjoy shaving; not only is my skin quite sensitive, but also every look in a mirror leaves me depressed.  Mine is not the grim, strong face of a typical Goodpasture. Such a face is spare and angular, as if welded from steel plowshares, whereas my features look as if they had been hastily whittled out of balsa wood. I have limp blond hair, near-sighted blue eyes, a snub nose and a chin that barely escapes being weak.  It is such an insignificant face that sometimes people fail to see me when I am right in front of them. The typical Goodpasture usually looks ready to complain of having received poor service, whereas I usually look ready to apologize for having given it. As a boy, I used to practice jutting out my jaw, so that I would look grim and strong, but it merely gave the impression that I had a toothache, so I gave up.”

            Don Quixote, U.S.A.

Character:  Ward Campion

“The young man from Philadelphia who walked on the station platform at Waycross, Georgia, was obviously a member of the upper classes.  In 1895 upper-class people wore clothing that set them firmly apart from persons who made their living at manual labor. Thus the young man wore polished black shoes, a well-pressed suit, white shirt with a high stiff collar, gray cravat with a pearl stickpin, Chesterfield overcoat with a glossy velvet collar, and  black derby on which no speck of dust was allowed to linger.  In spite of the propriety of his clothes, however, he had muscles that could not have been developed at a desk or on the grounds of the Merion Cricket Club. His hands were big and square, and had once been heavily calloused. In many ways his face could have served as a model for Charles Dana Gibson in drawing the ideal mate for the Gibson Girl: high forehead of the type people like to call noble, blue eyes, Grecian nose, well-formed lips, and firm but dimpled chin. A gently reared young lady might have felt impelled to swoon in his arms, confident that when she recovered the young man would be on his knees (having first pulled up his trousers to save the crease) to propose matrimony. 

“After a second look, however, the young lady would have noted the hard thrust of the dimpled chin, the way a glance from the blue eyes seemed to spear whatever they looked at, and the fact that the fine nose had once been broken, perhaps by something as crude as a fist. At that point any sensible young lady would have decided to stay fully conscious and alert in his company.”

           I Take This Land

3.  Reveal your character’s personality through words and actions

In addition to describing a character’s outward appearance, we get to know them through their actions and dialogue.  Here is another example by Richard Powell:

Characters:  Great Ajax and Little Ajax

“Will Great Ajax tell us his thoughts?” Agamemnon said.

Great Ajax rose slowly from the floor, going up and up, until his head bumped a rafter.  He cuffed it pevishly, which shook the hut.  “Uh, what thoughts do you mean?” he asked.

“We have captured Helen,” Agamemnon said speaking slowly and distinctly.  “Should we go home or continue the war?”

“How do I know?” Great Ajax said.  “You fellows decide what to do, and I’ll go along.”

“LIttle Ajax?” Agamemen said.

The Locrian bounced to his feet.  “Why do you always call on that big clod ahead of me?” he cried.  “I get tired of this Great Ajax-Little Ajax stuff.  Why not Stupid Ajax and Wise Ajax?”

“Little man,” Great Ajax rumbled, “some day when a worm hole in my ship needs caulking, I’m going to shove you in it.”

“Just try it mutton head, just try it,” Little Ajax cried.

Here several men grabbed Great Ajax and held him back, while Achilles restrained Little Ajax with one hand.

         Whom the Gods Would Destroy

Though Powell gives us no physical description of Great Ajax and Little Ajax, we get to know a good deal about them, and can even picture them in our minds, based solely on their words and actions.

4.  Tie your characters to people you know

Creating fictional characters out of thin air is difficult.  The job becomes easier, and your characters become more multi-dimensional if you connect them to people you already know. 

For example, in The Wandering King, I’d determined that the character Pausanias was going to be a bully.  What better bully to draw on than my greatest nemesis growing up, a kid in school name Billy?  Billy had treated me cruelly on plenty of occasions.  I knew how he behaved, how he spoke, and how his mind worked. 

Pausanias is based on a real historical person, so he doesn’t look like Billy, but he acts the same way Billy did.  The reader doesn’t see or hear Billy, but I do.  Doing so, helped me determine what Pausanias said, how he sounded, and how he reacted to different situations. 

When I started my story I made a list of my characters, and tied them to people I knew, which gave each one of my fictional characters a way of speaking and behaving, and it gave them multiple dimensions.  It gave them life. 

You certainly can create characters from scratch, but it’s easier to borrow from the people you know well.

5.   Do NOT model your main character after yourself

A lot of writers cast themself as their main character.  I tend to think this is a mistake.  Now your book is no longer about Greece or high school or a Polish family – it’s about you.  Please, don’t work out your life in the pages of a book.  Work it out with your counselor.

Okay, so you screwed up in college by not marrying Anna Marie.  You’ve been a wreck ever since because your life didn’t work out the way you wanted.  So you decide to work out your life by re-writing it so that you get Anna Marie in your book. 

This type of personal writing should be kept in your journal.  No one is interested in your fantasy of what could have been if you hadn’t been such an idiot and dumped Anna Marie in favor of taking the job in Boston.  This is not the material that novels are made of.   This stuff only matters to you.   Hate to be cruel, but we just don’t care.

I don’t mean to upset people by saying this, but I speak from experience.  When i was young, I wrote dozens of stories with myself as the protagonist, trying to work out all of the things that went wrong with my life.  It’s only when I took myself out of the picture, that I became a true writer.  Once I stopped trying to work out my past mistakes in my stories, my writing improved immensely.  The Wandering King is not about me.  It’s about a character named Euryanax, and the story is so much the better for it.

Work out your life with your therapist.  Don’t saddle your main character with your problems.  Give us a main character we can cheer for, not a character we feel sorry for.

6.  Make your main character unique

This is an addendum to #4 above.  The main character in The Wandering King, is not based on anyone I know.  Euryanax is not me.  Not at all.  I wouldn’t have the courage to deal with half the situations Eury deals with during the course of the story.

I suppose I could have modelled Eury on someone I know, but I didn’t.  I wanted him to be his own person.  He’s the main focus of the story, the book is told from the first person perspective, so I put the majority of my efforts into developing his character, nor did I want him to be based on my brother Matt or my Uncle Charlie.  I wanted Eury to be his own man. 

If The Wandering King is creative at all, it’s because Eury is not like any character you’ve ever met before.  He’s the product of his father Dorieus, who was a great general, so Eury becomes a master tactician.  He’s a product of the hero of Othryades, who taught him how to fight.  He’s the product of his mother Phile, whose very name in ancient Greek means ‘love,’ and he’s the product of a Spartan upbringing that taught him such conflicting lessons as to value honor as well as how to steal and kill.

Your main character really should be your work of art.  Make them memorable.  You do that by making them truly one-of-a-kind.

Hopefully some of these tips have helped.  If you have suggestions of your own, please feel free to share them.

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Plot Sequence: Linear vs. Flashbacks

When I started writing The Wandering King and first outlined my plot, I decided that I wanted to start the story right in the middle of battle.  I’ve seen other authors do this and it works well.  From page one the reader is thrust into the action.  I thought this was an effective way of immediately grabbing the reader’s attention and getting them to flip the page.

By starting in the midst of a battle, I discovered that I wasn’t going to be able to talk about the events that led up to the battle, or the events of my main character Euryanax’s youth, so I devised what I thought was a clever way around this: the use of flashbacks.

The battle in the opening of The Wandering King was a small skirmish discussed in Herodotus that kicked off a series of events that led to the formation of the world’s first democracy in Athens.  This seemed the perfect way to tell the story of Athens’ democratic revolution. So the first section of the book told the tale of how the Spartans sent a small expeditionary force to Athens to free them from the rule of the tyrant Hippias.  This entire section was about one day in the life of Euryanax and a small band of 300 Spartans (the number 300 turns up a lot in Spartan history) as they fought against Hippias’ mercenaries on the plains of Phalerum.

At the end of the battle Euryanax suffers a head wound that leaves him half out of his mind.  This is strictly a plot device to be able to discuss the events that led up to the battle, The second section of The Wandering King consisted of Euryanax recovering from his wound and dreaming about various events that led up to battle.  This way i was able to inject stories about Euryanax’s youth and about his adventures wandering around the Mediterranean.

The third and final section of the book, brought the story back to the ‘present’.  Naturally Euryanax recovers from his wound and as one of the few survivors of the Spartan expedition to overthrow the Athenian tyrant, he becomes involved with the revolutionary parties inside Athens, whom he joins and helps overthrow Hippias, which ultimately leads to the formation of the world’s first democratic state. Good way to tell a story right?  Wrong.

My problems began when i completed the book and started thinking about its sequel.  Before the democratic revolution at Athens, when Euryanax was a teen, he wandered all over the Mediterranean with his father Dorieus and his army.  That’s the story I wanted to tell in Book Two of the series.  Only it meant telling a story that occurred before the events covered in Book One, and it began clashing with the flashback sequences.

Argh.  Suddenly what I thought was a neatly laid out story with a clever twist in the middle, suddenly was becoming a jumbled mess.  Analyzing my story I realized I’d goofed by inserting flashbacks into the center of Book One.  Double argh.  I knew I would be better off telling a linear story from start to finish.  Which meant that Book One could not start in the middle of the battle.  Ah well, it was a nice idea, but it wasn’t working.

Instead i decided to start the story with one the flashbacks, about when Euryanax was a young boy and competed in one of Sparta’s festivals called the Planistai, or The Festival of the Plane Tree Grove.  There would still be action in the opening, but it would be a different kind of battle, a battle between 12-year olds.

The Planistai is one of Spara’s many ritual rites of passage.  It involves two teams of young boys and girls.  In the middle of the Eurotas River that winds around Sparta’s five villages, is an island covered with plane trees, called the Plane Tree Grove.  On either side of the river are bridges that lead to the island.  On one bridge is a statue of Herakles and on the other bridge a statue of the lawgiver Lycurgus.  A team of youths is stationed on each bridge and on the signal to begin they rush across the bridges onto the little island where they proceed to fight it out with their fists, feet and teeth.  The goal of the contest is to throw the other team into the river.  Whichever side throws all their opponents into the Eurotas wins.  This was one of the flashbacks contained in my original tale, but when I realized I wanted to tell the story in a linear fashion from start to finish, I realized it was the point in the story where Euryanax was the youngest and it would make an excellent place to start my book.

Once I began re-writing, ripping out the flashbacks and placing everything in sequential order, I realized that what I thought was Book Two in my series, the story of Eury’s wandering across Libya, Italy and Sicily, was now the subject of Book One, and the story of Athen’s democratic revolution would have to get pushed back into Book Two.  Ironcially, Book Two was more than half finished, but I needed to create most of Book One from scratch.  A little frustrating as most of the work I’ve already put into the series is now residing in Book Two, but I was not about to release Book Two before Book One.

After going back to the drawing board and working feverishly on Book One, about Eury’s wandering with his father and their army, is now about 75% complete.  I’m working on the ending chapters now.  My goal is to have it finished early in 2013 and if  all goes well I’ll have Book Two out in 2014.

I’m setting all of this down in my blog simply to point out that even when you think you know your story, sometimes you don’t.  You learn as you go.  It was aggravating to think I had my book done, only to realize there was a better, smarter way to tell the story.

Although somewhat frustrating, in the end I’ll end up with a better series of books that tell the story from start to finish, rather than confusing the reader with flashbacks spliced in here and there.  Initially I thought the idea of using flashbacks was a clever plot device, but in the long run I’ve learned that because I’m writing a series of books, I’m better off telling my story from start to finish in a simple, linear fashion.

Writing Advice for Prospective Bards

Please take the following as suggestions for consideration.  This is not a Biblical gospel inspired by God.  Having worked as a journalist, English teacher and advertising copywriter, these are simply a couple of important lessons I’ve learned along the way that may help you when writing fiction.

1. Be clear

Clarity is your first goal as a writer.  If people don’t understand what you are talking about, you have failed in your mission.  When you can take a complex subject and make it easy to understand, you have arrived.

For example, there is nothing more maddening than people who write poetry that requires an explanation.  This happens a lot in creative writing classes.  Someone reads a poem they’ve written and the class spends the next twenty minutes trying to figure out what the writer is talking about.  Usually these types of poems are strictly personal in nature, and therefore will make no sense to anyone else in the room but the writer.

When I was teaching high school English I told my students:  keep that kind of writing to yourself.  Don’t share it.  We don’t want to read it.  It’s meaningless to us.  Keep it in your private journal.  When it comes to writing poetry, be universal.  Express things that have a deep personal meaning to you, but do it using clear-as-glass language that anyone on the planet can understand, feel and appreciate.

Clarity is everything.  If the reader doesn’t ‘get it,’ you’re wasting the reader’s time.

2. Show, don’t tell

Journalists tell.  They report what happened.  Telling imparts information, which is fine if you are reading a newspaper or a blog like this one.

John Hersey wrote:  “Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers the opportunity to live it.”

Creative writers do this by showing rather than telling.  A fiction writer does not give you facts, like all good art, they evoke feelings. The good writer does this by providing the stimuli that allows the reader to have the experience.

For example, an inexperienced writer will say, “Jack loves Jill.”  You’re telling me these two people are love.  I feel nothing.  Show us Jack in love with Jill.  Show him trembling at the very sight of her.  Show him nervously drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he debates giving her their first goodnight kiss.  Show us the beads of sweat that break out on Jack’s forehead as he holds her hand for the first time.  These types of details allow the reader to share what Jack is experiencing.  We don’t need to be told.  We see it happening right before our eyes.

A professor once told me, “A statement about experience is the enemy of investigation.”  By this he meant, telling us information gives us the answer and takes away our questions.  By telling us Jack loves Jill, we’re no longer curious about these two people.  Telling us about their relationship destroys our need to know and lessens the reader’s need to flip the page.  Conversely, by showing us what is happening between these two people, the reader is allowed to make up their own mind about the state of their relationship, which keeps the reader engaged in the story.

This might sound easy to do, but it’s not.  It takes discipline, attention to detail and the desire to give the reader more than just a whooping good tale.

3. Use narrative sparingly

This is an addendum to #2 above.  Though we strive to let our readers live our story, you can’t do this on every page.  To move the plot forward every writer uses some exposition or narrative.

When I write a story, I think in terms of ‘scenes.’  The scenes in the story are when the camera is zoomed in close.  We see things happening; people speak, action occurs, the story unfolds right before our eyes.  This is the good stuff, when you have your reader completely engaged because they’re living in your story.

To get from scene to scene you need narration.  Narration is what links your scenes together.

For instance, you write a scene where Jack invites Jill to the prom.  She agrees and he goes speeding across town to tell his friend Peter Piper.  To keep the story moving, we really don’t need to see Jack getting in the car, turning on the radio or combing his hair in the rear view mirror.  This is extraneous detail that just bogs down the plot.  It’s best to use a sentence or two of narration to get Jack to Peter’s house so we can get to the next scene, where Peter informs Jack that he saw Jill necking with Little Boy Blue out in the school parking lot.  You get the idea.

Some authors, successful authors, write long swathes of narration and we may stick with the story because we’re enjoying the writer’s style.  Joseph Heller, John Irving and John Updike can get away with this because they’re masters at their craft and we continue to read because like a fine meal we’re enjoying every mouthful of what they have to say and how they are saying it.

Unless you’re a best-selling author or have a Pulitzer Prize under your belt, I’d be wary of writing twenty pages of narration between your scenes telling us Jack’s family history all the way back to the Bronze Age.  If the reader doesn’t see anything happening, if they aren’t experiencing anything, they are likely to get bored and close your book.

Use narration, but use it sparingly to move your reader from scene to scene.

4. String your pearls evenly

For a writer, coming up with a good simile or metaphor is as satisfying as an orgasm.

Metaphor is the broad term for comparing one thing to another.  A simile is a form of metaphor that describes one thing ‘like’ another.

Here are some examples from the masters:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. William Shakespeare

A hospital bed is like a parked taxi with the meter running.  Groucho Marx

Holmes looked at him thoughtfully like a master chess-player who meditates his crowning move.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As you are writing, or after you are done your rough draft and going through the process of re-writing, sprinkle in a metaphor here and there.  Don’t pile them up in one sentence after another.  If you do it’s like forcing your reader to eat an entire cake when a single slice is more than enough to satisfy.

One professor told me to think of metaphors like pearls.  You don’t want them all bunched up together, you want them spaced evenly throughout your story like pearls on a necklace.

Here are some metaphors I sprinkled around in a battle scene in The Wandering King:

The Argives scattered before our attack like a flock of frightened sparrows. 

After I cast my javelin our hoplites rolled by me like an unstoppable tidal wave. 

As he charged forward, in his eyes I saw the eager expression of a young fool impulsively rushing in to a dance, a dance whose steps he did not know. 

The danger in writing metaphors is resorting to tired old clichés.  You’ve seen them before.

Cute as a button. 

Innocent as a babe in the woods. 

Giddy as a kid in a candy store. 

There are all the animal clichés; smart as a fox, dumb as an ox, slippery as an eel…

Clichés offer nothing new and are the product of a lazy mind.  Writing a good metaphor is being able to relate two things in a new way, which takes work.  Some authors have been known to spend hours on one metaphor.  When you do come up with one you like, it’s as magical as the excitement in your child’s eyes the first time they see Disneyland.

5. Write every day

Professor Richard Wertime at Arcadia University told us, “You have to write a mountain of shit before you get to the good stuff.”

He’s right.  Writers are not born, they are made.  You don’t step up to the starting line of your first marathon and win the race without months of practice.  Like a lot of things in life, if you want to get good, you have to pay your dues.  In writing that means banging out a lot pages that you will ultimately ball up and toss into the wastepaper basket.

I’ve always thought of snow skiing as similar to writing.  In high school the first time I went skiing I spent half the day falling down the mountain.  But by the end of the day I sensed some improvement.  Each time I went, I got better.  In skiing the gains were noticeable.

With writing it’s not so easy to see your work getting better.  The learning curve is spread out over years instead of days.  But like skiing, writing is a self-taught skill.  Sure, you can take a skiing lesson or read a blog like this one on writing, but ultimately it’s just you and the mountain.  You go it alone and if you do it enough, you teach yourself some lessons along the way.

Don’t expect to write a best seller the first time you sit down to write.  Expect to spend years honing your skills.  As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “We are all apprentices at a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

6. Daydream

Daydreaming is an important part of the creative process.  Years ago when putting together a writing manual for a major corporation, I included a brief section on daydreaming.  The company questioned it, but to their credit, they left it in.

I’m not talking about daydreaming about your girlfriend or what you’re having for dinner.  I’m talking about constructive musing about your fictional story.   For me, it’s been an integral part of constructing each chapter of The Wandering King.

For example, I know I want to write a scene about the Pythian Games (there were four ancient pan-Hellenic games, the Olympics being one of them).  Who are the players?  What events are they competing in?  Who wins, who loses?  What do the characters say and do?

Whether I’m driving on the turnpike or lying in bed at night, I’m imagining what happens in the next scene that I’m writing.  I’m not worried about metaphors or the exact wording; I’m working out the plot in my head.  I’m answering the question:  what happens?  As I lay there daydreaming about the scene, something miraculous happens.  Like I’m watching a movie in my head, characters speak, they dance, they recite poetry, they fight and fall in love.  Later, all I have to do is record what I’ve witnessed.

A lot of writers, professional writers, sit down and write without knowing where their story is going that day.  I can’t do that.  I’ve found that I work best when I have an idea of what I want to accomplish that day when I sit down at the keyboard.  I may not know the exact wording, but I know who is doing what to whom.  I figure all of that out ahead of time, not by creating fancy outlines: but by daydreaming.

Hopefully you find some of these tips worthwhile.  If you have some of your own, feel free to share.

The Trials and Tribulation of Publication

cartoon publishingThe true joy of writing a book is the daily routine of sitting down and writing.  The process of creating something out of nothing is magical.  For me, that’s been the most rewarding part of the journey.

The worst part has been trying to get my book published.  This part of the journey has been a nightmare akin to Martin Sheen’s trip upriver in the movie Apocalypse Now.

I began by going to the reference work the Writer’s Market.  You can find it in any library.  It lists all of the publishers of books and magazines in the U.S. and Canada.  It also lists a large number of literary agents.  I went through The Writer’s Market and made a list of all of the publishers interested in historical fiction, and quickly learned my particular genre is not exactly highly in demand.  Seems there are a lot more publishers out there looking for gay/lesbian themed books, cookbooks and ‘how-to’ books than they are fictional novels about ancient Greece.  When I was done I had a list of about a dozen publishers, not one of whom I’d ever heard of before.  All were small presses who typically publish 1-5 books a year.  It seems all of the big, recognizable publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster and Harper Collins do not take unsolicited manuscripts.  They only work through agents.

Having met someone who published through a small unknown publisher, and who ended up with no support and a second rate looking book, I determined right away that I wanted to get to a well known publisher.  I needed an agent.  Where to begin?

On the author Bernard Cornwell’s web site is an active forum where readers can post comments and questions.  Atop the forum Cornwell asks readers not to send him their own writing, unless it’s been published, in which case, he invites readers to send him their books.  He also states that if you are in the process of trying to get published, he was willing to help and could suggest a reputable agent.  So I began by emailing Cornwell.  His personal assistant replied giving me the name of an agent in New York City that works at a large, well respected agency called The Writers House.  I followed the instructions on The Writers House web site by sending them a 1-page query letter.

Ah, the infamous query letter.  Agents are such busy people, they don’t have time to read through dozens of manuscripts, so they ask that you to mail them a query letter first.  In one sheet of paper, you have to explain why anyone on the planet would want to read a book you’ve written and give a quick synopsis of your story.  Knowing no one would ever look at my book unless I came up with a good query letter I spent a month writing and re-writing my letter, selling myself, my idea and what felt like my soul.  I sent it off to The Writers House and to my surprise I received a one sentence email from the agent’s personal assistant (doesn’t anyone in the book industry reply to their own mail?) stating that they were very intrigued by my idea and to email them my book ASAP.  Which I did.  And then began waiting and waiting and waiting…

The Writers House web site asks you to be patient, explaining they’re very busy people, so you might not hear back from the for 8-9 weeks.  I waited 10 weeks then sent an email to the agent and his personal assistant, apologizing for writing to them, and explaining that I was eager to hear what they thought of The Wandering King.  I received a quick reply from the agent saying, sorry, but he was very busy working with authors who made him money and sad to say, he’d completely forgotten about me and my book.  He promised to read The Wandering King and get back to me in two weeks.  In about a week’s time I heard once more from his personal assistant saying that although they were impressed by the amount of research I’d done and by my writing ability, they just weren’t ‘feeling’ my main character.

So after almost four months of waiting, I’d been rejected after what I thought was a promising reaction to my query letter.  Picking myself up off the floor, I wrote back to the agent’s assistant and asked him if he had any suggestions on where I might go next.  He replied telling me to try the Publishers Marketplace, a site devoted to agents, publishers and writers.  I went through the site, picked out five agencies who stated they were interested in publishing historical fiction and sent my query letter off to them, only to be rejected by three of them – two never even bothered to reply.

I keep telling myself plenty of successful authors, Joseph Heller, William Faulkner, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling among them, were rejected before getting their books published.  William Golding’s classic The Lord of the Flies was rejected by 20 publishers, one of whom wrote to him, “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy that was rubbish and dull.”  Still, my first foray into the world of book publishing was pretty deflating.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story.  Stay tuned.

Writing a Novel: What I have Learned

Mark Twain once said, “Quitting smoking is one of the easiest things I’ve ever done.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

I feel the same way about writing a novel.  I’ve tried starting various books dozens of times.  I’d get what I thought was a hot idea, crank out 50 pages, then run out of stream and throw it into a file folder where it still sits collecting dust.

The Greek story has been different.  I’ve been working on it for over two years, have a few hundred pages, and have yet to run out of stream.

What’s the difference?

For one, I started with more than I idea, I started with a plan.  The first thing I did was create a timeline of all the events in Herodotus that interested me.  Then I used the timeline to find my starting point.  After that I divided up the rest of the timeline into four sections that I figured would make four good books.  Then I took the first section and made an outline that would become the chapters of my book.  Once I’d done that I felt like I had a track to run on, which was one of my stumbling blocks in the past, I never knew where my story was going, so I’d end up throwing in the towel.  Not this time.

Interestingly, as I was going through this process, one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell, happened to be the featured writer on Barnes & Noble that month.  B&N had set up a forum where readers could ask him questions.  Cornwell has probably written 50 novels and is best known for his Sharpe’s series, though my favorite is his trilogy about King Arthur that starts with The Winter King.  Anyway, I asked Cornwell how he wrote his books.  Did he map out the plot beforehand?

Cornwell responded, no, he didn’t have a clue as to where his books were going when he started them.  If fact, when he sat down to write he had no idea where the story might go that day.  So I asked, what happens if you write yourself into a corner where there’s no way out?  Cornwell replied, that he just backed out, and went a different direction.  He went on to say he was a rather disorganized writer, that his office was poch-marked with dozens of yellow posted notes to remind him of various things.

None of which helped me.  I couldn’t help but feel amazed that Cornwell has published as many novels as he has, all without an outline.  He obviously does a lot of research, but as far as the plot, he wings it.  Which obviously works for him, and may work for you, but it doesn’t work for me.

Knowing the beginning, middle and ending, has helped me immensely.  It’s not that I know all the details, I just have a general notion of what I want to accomplish with each chapter.  Another thing that has helped me is looking at each chapter like a short story.  Each has it’s own mini plot, which makes them easier to write.

When I write the rough draft of the chapter my only goal is to get the whole thing down.  That’s the hardest part.  But once you have the rough draft down, the rest become easier.  Then it becomes a matter of simply going back and re-writing, polishing and fine turning.  I don’t try to come up with the finished product in the rough draft, I look at it as simply getting down the bones of the story, then I go back and flesh it out by filling in the details.

As I’m writing the rough draft if I introduce a new minor character instead of fussing over his name, I skip right over it and just type in ‘XXX’ and go back and think about a name for him later.  The same thing with settings, character descriptions and dialogue.  Just get down the bare bones.  Paint in the details later.

At least this is what is working best for me.

‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg stresses the importance of getting down your rough draft first, then going back and fleshing out your story later.