Tag Archives: writing advice

Absolute Write or Wrong?

AWAs a reader and a writer I enjoy reading other author’s blogs.  By doing so, I pick up valuable advice, and you come across the current issues facing the independent writing community.   The big issue of the day is the Amazon v. Hatchette debate, but I’ll save my thoughts on that matter for another post.

One of the other issues I’ve seen cropping up is the controversy over the writers’ website, Absolute Write.  On their site they have an extremely well trafficked forum called the Water Cooler.

The site was created in 1999 by an admirable freelance writer named Jenna Glatzer (who left in 2007).  Absolute Write (AW) boasts 60,000 users, and averages 8,000 posts a week, all on issues dealing with writing and publishing.

Over the past few months I began noticing AW popping up in a lot of conversations.  Some people claimed to love it, that it provided them with assistance finding an agent, getting a query letter polished, or critiquing their writing—while other’s absolutely hated the site, even going so far as to say they’d been banned for speaking their minds or they’d been the victim of cyberbullying by the members there.

Not belonging to any writers’ forums, I decided to check out AW.  Please understand, I did not go to their site with an axe to grind or any pre-conceived agenda.  I’d seen people speak for and against the site and was simply curious as to the truth of the matter.  So I put on my journalist’s hat and decided to do a little field research.

I spent a week ‘lurking’ to see if the site looked worth joining.  What I found was a bit overwhelming, a touch of information overload.  There are eighty active boards in the forum covering a plethora of subjects; everything from dealing with rejection, writer’s block, grammar, research, publishing scams, novels, short stories, poetry, literary agents, publishers, freelancing, songwriting, script writing… their list of topical areas is extensive.  Whether you want to talk to other writers working on westerns or greeting cards, you’ll find a home for it on AW.

Most of the areas of the site are open to everyone, but a few require you to have a minimum number of posts or six months of time logged on the site to access.

There are so many topical areas on AW that I’m willing to bet that most users gravitate toward their areas of interest and hang out there.  To visit all of the boards and read all the new posts everyday would be virtually impossible.  The boards that I visited, while some of the threads were silly, for the most part the users were respectful, encouraging and supportive of one another.

After two weeks I decided to join, and was a bit surprised when it took them three days to ‘approve’ my registration.  Not that it truly mattered.  Not being approved simply meant I could not post anything.  There was plenty to read.  Each board had their stickies with instructions and there were a mountain of FAQs to peruse.

Once approved, there is a board for new members, so I created a thread there and introduced myself.   About a dozen people welcomed me aboard.  So far, so good.

Over the next week or so, on the various boards I visited, I began to notice a certain amount of negativity pervaded many of the conversations.  People were depressed because they were getting rejection letters, upset because they had too many ideas and didn’t know which one to work on, gridlocked by writer’s block, unable to write because they were dealing with ADD…

In an attempt to be helpful, I decided to create a thread on ‘Famous rejection stories,’ and shared about a half dozen stories about famous writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Dan Brown and J.D. Salinger, who were rejected numerous times before ever getting published.  My thought in starting this thread was to try to encourage people by showing how all authors have to deal with rejection.  It’s something all writers share in common, even the famous ones.  And if you persevere, you just might get lucky like they did.

After creating the thread, someone posted a response saying that he’d heard God had been rejected numerous times before ever getting the Bible published.  Ha, ha.  Sarcastic, but not a personal attack.  Next someone posted a comment that they hated hearing that J.K. Rowling was only rejected 12 times before Harry Potter found a home.  They went on to say they’d been rejected 400 times.  Someone else picked up the idea and added that that J.K Rowling was a horrible example of a writer having a hard time getting published, that her experience was nothing compared to the pain and suffering the average AW writer experienced.  Oi.

At this point I commented that if the posters were having such a hard time dealing with rejection and getting published, why not try self publishing?

This is where my experience with AW went horribly awry and I began to understand why certain people accuse them of cyberbullying.  I was too new to the site to realize it, but I’d stumbled into one of AW’s pet peeve subject areas.  All I had to do was mention self publishing and a dozen people, most of whom had in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 15,000 posts on AW, jumped on me and began ripping me to shreds for daring to even suggest such a course of action.

The basic line of thinking expoused by the hard core AW members was, self publishing is for losers, self publishing is too hard, self publishing is too expensive, self published writers don’t get read… on and on.

In response, I posted that self publishing might be difficult or expensive for some, but if you know how to follow instructions it’s actually fairly easy and doesn’t have to cost you a dime.  I went on to quote a recent research study by a group called Author’s Earnings that states 31% of the sales on Amazon are by self published authors and cited my sources.  You can find them here and here.  There are numerous articles in the media on the subject.

Unfortunately, it seems you cannot have a rational discussion on AW, not if you take up a position that goes against the convention wisdom of AW’s tenured elite.  Trying to back up what I was saying, merely caused more old timer’s to pile on.  It was as if I’d been thrown to the wolves, or perhaps more accurately, was being beaten by a bunch of old biddies using their canes and walkers.  People could see I only had made a couple of posts on their site, I was a noob.  You’d think someone, like a moderator, would have interceded and at least attempted to defend or rescue my bloody carcass, but nope.  I ended up at the bottom of a large pile without a voice raised in assistance or even in pity.

One person, with over 5,000 posts on AW, posted a novel length dissertation on the Author’s Earnings report claiming it was grossly inaccurate and that he and the other old time AW members had already concluded, self published authors never got read.  This line of thought was quickly supported by several other long time AW members.  They rather snidely told me that they’d disproved the Author’s Earnings report weeks ago.  Where had I been?  Living under a rock, no doubt.

I replied, asking as innocently as possible if the group had ever heard of Hugh Howey.  That got them howling.  I quickly learned that trying to argue or provide verifiable proof or evidence of what you are stating means nothing to the elite on AW, it only causes them to froth at the mouth.

Here I was trying to offer some simple information, stories about famous authors who had persevered and succeeded, with the goal of trying to dispel some of the negativism I saw on AW—and I was tar and feathered.

At that point, I threw in the towel and gave up posting anything additional.  I’d made a grand total of 12 posts on their site and felt like a group of vigilantes had run me off with pitchforks.

Do I see value to AW?  Yes.  Am I impressed by their long-standing members?  No.  I got the impression that they are an exclusive club, with a preset list of beliefs that you either subscribe to or they burn you at the stake.

Will I go back to their site?  For the past several days I’ve been licking my wounds, pondering that question.  If I do, it will be to read, not to share what I know.  What’s the point, when it appears their entrenched elite already know all the answers?

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Inherit the Flames

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In an author’s blog, I recently found a comment that after she had written three books she noticed a dramatic increase in sales.  She now has 12 books out, but it was after her third book hit the shelves that she felt she gained more reader attention and things began to take off.

It is going to be several months before I finish the second book in The Wandering King series, and possibly another few years before the third book in the trilogy appears. 

So I began wondering how I might be able to get a few more content on Amazon without taking too much time away from working on my Greek story. 

Don’t know if it’ll make a difference or not, but I’ve decided to publish a few short stories on Amazon.  The first of these is titled Inherit the Flames.

It’s a modern re-telling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story about a good brother and a bad brother.  Bad brothers tend to get into more trouble, so there is more opportunity for conflict, so the story follows one day in the life of Cain’s modern day counterpart, Conor. 

Both 18-year old Conor and his 21-year old brother Aidan are equally intelligent and talented, but each have chosen a different path in life; Conor to become a rock guitarist and Aidan to go to med school.  Take a guess at which one their religious parents favor and which is the outcast? 

The story is set in and around Atlantic City in 1978.  I lived in that area when I was young and as this was the year before gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, it provides a gritty backdrop to the story.  In those days my friends referred to Atlantic City as ‘Sin City’ as it was overrun with drugs, prostitution and racial strife. This is the enviroment that Conor is trying to esacpe and he’s got one day to do it. Will he succeed?  That question propels the plot forward.

Juxtaposed against Conor and Aidan are two female characters, Miriam and Alyssa, one from the wrong side of the tracks and one from a wealthy family that has given her everything. I’ve included them to add depth to the central theme of the story: do we inherit the sins of our fathers?  Are Conor and Miriam doomed simply because their fathers were evil men? Or will they escape their fate?

Though the short story only costs .99 cents on Amazon, if you’re reading this blog and tempted to buy it, wait till March 1.  I’ll be offering it for free through Kindle Select from March 1 through March 5.

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.

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.