WriteTip: 8 Things You Must Know About A Character To Write Them Well

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

Readers want your characters to seem like real people, whole, alive, believable, and worth caring about. People become, in our minds, what we see them do, so first thing first, your character is what he or she does.
But just seeing what someone does isn’t enough in good storytelling. To truly know a person, we need to understand their inner self, their motives. Motive is what gives moral value to their actions. And what a character does, no matter how good or bad, is never morally absolute. A character is what he or she means to do, but we all make mistakes, we all have flaws. So, the intention they have and the ideal they desire to be and will become by the end of your story is even more important. Even if their motive is concealed from readers for much of the book, as often is the case with the antagonist, and even if they themselves are not always certain what is driving them due to some psychological trauma or issue, you need to know their motive clearly as you write, and they need to have one.

Here are some key things you need to know about your characters to write them well:
Their Name—This may seem obvious. But every once in a while, you get some person who thinks they are clever and decides to write a mysterious unnamed character. This is very hard to pull off and poses and number of problems, but even if you try it, you still need to know their name. Names tell us lots about a person, from their background and history to ethnicity, culture, age, and more. A name is invaluable to helping know your character and to helping readers know them as well.
Their Past—Our past, however we might revise it in memory, is who we believe we are. It shapes our image of ourselves.
Their Reputation—Characters are also restricted and affected by what others think of and expect of them. How are they known? Who do others think they are?
Their Relationships—Who is important to them? Who do they love? Who do they have relationships with that are good, and who do they have bad relationships with and why? And how does this affect their motives and actions and their self-perception? Not all of these relationships will be used in the story or appear on screen, so to speak, but they are part of who the character is and is becoming and what drives them, so you need to know them.
Their Habits and Patterns—Habits and patterns imply things about a person. From personal tics to emotional patterns, we form our expectations based on these characteristic habits that suggest how they will behave in any given situation; often these traits communicate unspoken things about the character’s state of mind, emotions, and more. Many story possibilities can emerge from these. And they make the character seem more well-rounded and realistic because every real person we know has these aspects if we take time to study them.
Their Talents and Abilities—Talents do not have to be extreme to make them a part of a character’s identity or even important to their fate. But what they do well and don’t do well does matter to us, to them, and to those around them, and also to how they take action and respond to the world around them throughout the story.
Their Tastes and Preferences—Someone can like all the same things you do and still not be someone you want to spend time with or would trust to care for your pets or kids. Tastes and preferences tell us a lot about someone while also opening story possibilities and potential conflicts that can help drive the story and build characters and relationships.
Their Appearance—What color are their eyes? Do they have any handicaps? What color is their hair? These are not characterization alone, but they add depth and they can affect self-esteem and how characters are perceived by readers and by other characters, so they matter.

In filling out a character profile that identifies all these characteristics, observe people you know. Think about people you have seen and encountered. What stands out about them? What annoyed you? What did you love? And can any of these things be used to make a real, interesting, dimensional character?

There are three questions readers will ask that must always be considered. And they expect good answers at some point to hold their interest. In fact, your honeymoon with readers lasts only a few paragraphs, so you must constantly keep such questions in mind.

  1. Why should I care about what’s going on in the story?
  2. Why should I believe anyone would do that?
  3. What’s happening?

Fail to answer these questions at your own peril. It may sound harsh, but do your job and it will almost never be an issue. Uncertainties can be part of storytelling, but even intentional uncertainties must be clear, so readers will know you meant it to be that way and continue to trust you to pay it off later. Trust between reader and author is key to any novel’s success. As always, you need to know a lot more about your characters than readers may need for understanding the present story. Some of this stuff may never get written directly into your book, but knowing it may profoundly impact how you write your character and will be very useful in keeping clearly in mind who they are and how they move through the world and interact with it.

WriteTip: What Is A Premise and What Makes It Good?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

The Premise

In his bestselling book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey describes a premise as “the E = mc2 of novel writing.” The premise, he contends, “is the reason you are writing what you are writing … the core, the heart, the center, the soul of your expression.” He defines it as “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in a story.” Agent Donald Maass defines a premise as
any single image, moment, feeling or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages, or perhaps serve as a finish line: an ending so necessary that every step of the journey burns to be taken.

While you might say to yourself: What’s the big deal? A premise is an idea—a premise is so much more than that. Ideas are common. Original ideas are almost nonexistent these days. Everything’s been done. So, what makes your premise special is not the basic simple idea but the unique spin and angle you bring to it. A premise is as much in the execution and unique approach to a concept as it is the idea itself.

Again, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey compares a novel to an argument and writes: “The premise of an argument is a statement of the conclusion that will be reached through the argument. Each part of the argument must contribute to the premise if the argument is a good one … the premise of a work of fiction is not provable or arguable in the real world … not a universal truth. In a novel, the premise is true only for the particular situation of that novel. But nonetheless it is proven by all that leads to it. Your novel’s premise is the conclusion everything in your story leads to.”

In his bestseller Writing the Breakout Novel, mega-agent Donald Maass writes of a premise: “Not just any idea, though, but one with soil rich enough to grow a highly memorable novel; one that will both feed the author’s imagination, and, finally, nourish millions of readers.” An idea is not enough. It must be backed up by all the details of character, setting, conflict, and theme. It’s an idea with something unique and special to say, something we haven’t seen, told in a way we haven’t encountered that pops off the page. Maass calls it “a breakout premise,” implying that truly hit, breakout novels start with something special at their core. I’m sure we’d all love to write a hit novel that breaks out. So, what is it that makes “something special”?

First, a premise should describe an experience that is unusual, one not encountered by everyone, at least not firsthand. The experience also takes place in a vivid, wholly realized world that is compelling in its details and stands apart as unique yet real and fascinating on multiple levels.
Second, a premise should involve a character or characters who are larger-than-life, who talk, think, and act in ways not everyone does or can. These types of characters have a boldness, drive, and determination to pursue journeys we only dream about and take risks and actions we only wish we had the courage to take ourselves. In the process they undergo growth and changes we admire greatly, that inspire us, embolden us, and leave us breathless with admiration.

To create such a premise takes effort. It may not arrive fully formed right off the bat. Some great premises are discovered in the course of writing and discovering a story, but all successful writers learn to identify them and cling to them with all their might when they do. The best premises have the power to illuminate and confront, challenging our most deeply held beliefs, our hopes, our fears, our faith, even our very wills and nature. They engage readers’ imaginations and emotions and raise questions, hopes, fears, and more that have them yearning to turn the pages, cheer for the heroes, boo the villains, and reach the inevitable climactic confrontation that sets everything right again and resolves the mystery and uncertainty it evoked when it began.

Such a premise is so much more than just boy meets girl and falls in love or boy sets out to save the world. There’s something unique and special about the boy and the girl, what draws them together, where and how they come together, and why they are willing to fight for their love. The boy is someone special who believes he might actually save the world, after all. No ordinary Joe would dare undertake such a noble quest. It takes a certain level of courage, even determination, a refusal to surrender to insecurity and incredible odds, and an undeterred drive to keep going no matter what. I don’t know about you, but while I have met such people, I have found them to be few and far between. And those few-and-far-between people are the heart of good, successful stories. So, your premise requires one. Character is story. Story is character. Story flows from character. There really is no chicken or the egg question here about who came first. Who always leads into What.

So, to write your novel, you first need a really good idea with premise potential. You may not devise all the pieces before you write, but you must write looking for them to fall into place, and you will certainly need a solid concept to get you started. How you come up with it is something I cannot teach. It really is between you and your muse. Singer-songwriter John Denver used to say the ideas for his songs came from the aether—just floating out there waiting to be discovered, and he was the lucky soul who connected at the right moment to find them and give them life. In some ways, this is the way stories tend to work as well. Your ideas will come from your life, people you know, places you’ve been or want to go, things you’ve done or want to do, etc., and then your imagination should take over and start working on the rest. There is a certain magic to storytelling that can be neither easily described nor taught. That’s where the talent comes in. But it will take more than talent to write your novel. It will also take determination and a drive to push through the struggles and keep going no matter what. And so, the more passionate you are about your premise, the more likely you are to succeed. If nothing else, pick a premise that fires you up, not just the first seemingly viable one that comes in your head. Find the one that hooks you and won’t let you go. That’s where your great novel will surely come from.

Let’s look at some examples Frey gives of premises from famous novels:

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (the story of the Corleone Mafia family over generations): family loyalty leads to a life of crime.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (the story of an old Cuban fisherman who struggles against a marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the Cuban coast): courage leads to redemption.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (the story of a miserable, cheap, bitter man who is visited by ghosts of past, present, and future and learns the meaning of Christmas): forced self-examination leads to generosity.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (the story of patients oppressed at a mental hospital): even the most determined and ruthless psychiatric establishment can’t crush the human spirit.

In effect, a premise is like an argument. A story can have only one premise, because you cannot prove two arguments well at once. Your story’s conclusion will have a cause-and-effect relationship with what came before. In most cases, the argument within the premise is about a dilemma the characters confront. If you start first with characters and think about your premise, you may come up with it as you consider the characters’ flaws and the obstacles they face, as well as their goals and needs. Frey writes: “There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or situation, give the character a dilemma, and then meditate on how it might go.” By opening your imagination and letting it run, usually the possibilities are endless, and your premise will come to light in the process. Frey quotes Egri as saying: “Every good premise should contain an element of character which through conflict leads to a conclusion.” So in essence, what are your three Cs (Character, Conflict, Conclusion)? Identify them and you have your premise.

Since the story of characters changing because of dramatic conflict makes good fiction, your premise will define such a situation. Old high school friends meet after 20 years and fall in love despite her terminal illness. The coach of a small-town basketball team with a history of losses recruits the first black player to help lead the team to a championship. A tough technophobic cop must team with an android partner to solve his partner’s murder. Can you see the three Cs at work in all these examples?

A good premise will give your novel focus and power that carries readers through to the end. It will hold their attention. Keep them turning pages. Make them long to know what happens next. And it may well do the same for you as you write. In fact, it should, even for the dedicated outliners. Everything in good fiction propels and leads you to the conclusion of the story, which is also a decisive conclusion or answer to the argument of the premise. Anything else should be cut and dropped. So a well-conceived premise is inherent to a well-written novel and key to your success. You must know where you are going to successfully complete any journey. The premise is the target on the map of your storytelling journey. Start without it at your own peril.

The concept, idea, or premise is a start. Craft and work will do the rest.

Write Tip: 5 Basic Plot Elements All Novels Must Have

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies five basic plot elements that all plots must have. They are:

A sympathetic character
Conflict
Complication
Climax
Resolution

So, every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well-developed plot.
We’ve already talked about how the plot is a series of questions asked and answered, so now let’s look at a key question we must always ask to make our plots stronger: What’s the worst that can happen?

You start with conflict and then consider what the complications might be. In doing so, there may be a temptation to like the character too much and not want to make things too hard on him or her. But that is the death of good drama. Instead, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and consider the more dire possibilities. This is what makes good drama. Maass writes: “What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.” So, don’t go off the deepest end necessarily, choosing something so dire and outrageous that it seems too hard to believe. You want to complicate and create disasters and dangers, not create incredulity in readers.

What you do want to do is push your problem far beyond what readers might imagine. Maass suggests: “Push your characters into situations that you yourself would never go near in your own life.” Remember that the characters should speak and act in ways we only wish we had the courage to do. This is what inspires us to admire and follow them. So they will be capable of facing situations we wouldn’t dare take on ourselves. The key is to push things to utter extremes while still managing to make them feel familiar to readers. Not outlandish, then, but familiar. In other words, possible.

When we create conflict that is credible, relatable, and familiar, we create stories with tension on every page. These are the kinds of stories that keep readers turning pages and coming back time and again to the same authors for more. John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Maberry, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Heather Graham, J.K. Rowling, Rachel Caine—these are examples of authors who have mastered this technique. If you want your plots to become breakout, hit stories, you must create tension on every page. Make us desperate to know what happens next. Create urgency in the questions the plot asks. This will drive the story forward, increasing the stakes and tension with each scene and page, until readers may feel they or the characters can’t possibly take anymore, but they do every time. And we are dying to know how they manage it and can possibly survive, so we stay up all night reading to find out. We’ve all read and loved books like that, right? Imagine what it would be like to write one.

One technique that aids this kind of tension is nonlinear narrative. Grisham is a master of this: constantly holding information back from his readers to surprise them with later. Nonlinear narrative is storytelling that increases tension by telling the story in a nonchronological fashion, using flashbacks and other such techniques. Basically, you start telling the story in the center of the action at the most dramatic place and then go back and fill in the backstory and details as necessary through the course of the novel.

For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: Developing A Novel’s Theme

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

“If a powerful problem is a novel’s spine,” Donald Maass writes in The Breakout Novel, “then a powerful theme is its animating spirit … It starts with you having something to say.” Theme is one of those topics that makes many people’s eyes glaze over. They think of the theme papers they hated writing in school, perhaps. Or find it abstract and hard to conceive. But theme can and should form the unifying narrative structure of your well-written novel. What is theme? Theme is what a story, at its heart, at its moral core, is really trying to say, what it’s about. It’s why you are telling the story. It is what you have to say. Theme, in essence, is not the argument, but the moral derived from it. It is the lesson(s) and life truth(s) embedded and demonstrated through your story.

In Theme and Strategy, Ronald B. Tobias defines theme as “the central concern around which a story is structured.” He writes, “Theme is your inertial guidance system. It directs your decisions about which path to take, which choice is right for the story and which isn’t.” In essence, theme is what unifies the whole and informs it beyond just a story about a guy or girl who did so-and-so into something memorable with lasting impact that speaks to the human condition. Choosing the right theme will help you unify your story. It isn’t something you should just wing or make up as you go, but something you should think about early on, even as you plan your story, and keep in your mind with every scene you write.
Maass suggests three facts to keep in mind:

All stories are moral.
Readers tend to seek out stories that are in line with their beliefs.
Fiction is most compelling when it pulls readers into points of view that are compelling, detailed, and different.

Readers crave insight on the world around them. They want to be pushed to expand their minds and see things differently, through different eyes. Readers become most engaged when the characters’ beliefs capture their attention and make them think. Whether you know it or not, you have something to say, and having the courage to say it through your story and characters will imbue your novel with power that makes it memorable and lasting. Deep down, all writers believe they have something that must be said, some insight on the human condition the world cannot do without, and these demonstrate their own morality and views of right and wrong in the universe. Ask yourself what that is, and let your story speak to that. Have it in mind as you write. This will create a unified story with resonance far beyond just entertainment. As Maass writes, “stories without fire cannot fire readers.”

Because readers are moral people, they inherently look for the moral compass that drives characters in fiction. Whether they agree with it or not is not the primary concern—understanding it is. Powerful beliefs and messages imparted through characters are far more effective than writers preaching or teaching directly, because characters who have beliefs that drive them will take concrete actions that reflect those beliefs. The consequences of these actions then speak powerfully about life, people, and more in ways that direct lessons can never accomplish. The key is embedding these morals and beliefs in the characters’ actions. When characters live what they believe, readers will accept the validity of those beliefs and be impacted by the results.

Tobias suggests several major patterns, which can be summarized as follows:

Plot as Theme—Much of popular fiction is driven by this theme, in which plot is paramount over any other concerns. Escapism is the goal here, and as such, while the novels may not carry long-lasting moral messages, they earn big points with readers and generate bestseller after bestseller. They are not striving for great literature but rather great entertainment, and this has made them hugely successful. Agatha Christie, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Dan Brown, John Grisham, and many more create works that fall readily into this category.

Emotional Effect as Theme—Terror, Suspense, Romance, Comedy—in this case the emotional effect of the story is the driving theme. Works by authors such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Gini Koch, Christopher Moore, John Grisham, Heather Graham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and more deal with this theme.

Style as Theme—This theme encompasses a small minority of movies and books because the theme is the artistic style and approach rather than other concerns. The art films and literary novels by auteurs such as John Hawkes, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Margaret Atwood, and more have this focus.

Character as Theme—Character studies, like style-themed art, also lend themselves to literary concerns. The focus here is the characters, their growth, and how the world and events of the story affect them. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, and films like Raging Bull, The Great Santini, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather embody this approach.

Idea as Theme—Of all the patterns, this one is most successful at creating memorable events and characters that jump off the page. Idea-themed works affect us profoundly, change the world, change lives, start wars, or at the least, make us think because the whole point of ideas is to make us ponder them, ask questions, discuss, and draw new conclusions. These are often the books whose themes are erased during conversion to movies, leaving us to complain that “the book was better.” Idea as theme is less cinematic, less exciting, but its power cannot be denied. Examples include Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, The Graduate, and Shane.

Moral Statement as Theme—The most dangerous of theme categories, this one is most likely to become preachy and heavy handed and turn readers off, so it must be used with great care and attempted only by skillful hands. If the characters are sincere and the plot gripping and storytelling is your focus, though, you can pull this off. According to Tobias, Fatal Attraction and Wall Street are two examples of films that fall in this category. In both cases, the moral results from the story rather than the other way around.

Human Dignity as Theme—These are the stories where the fight to hold on to dignity in spite of circumstances is the focus. Stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, On the Waterfront, Gladiator, and even Roots employ this type of theme.

Social Comment as Theme—Criticizing or shining a light on our culture can be accomplished with great power using fiction. The trick here is finding the right story. Great examples are The China Syndrome and The Grapes of Wrath. The key is to let the characters’ convictions argue for you.

Human Nature as Theme—“What is Man?” is a question that has been explored for centuries and still captures readers’ interest. Stories that fit here include Deliverance, Lord of the Flies, and Robinson Crusoe. (Note: Stories can combine more than one theme. More on that later.)

Human Relations as Theme—Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People, Love Story, many a Nicholas Sparks book like The Notebook or The Wedding, and more all explore this theme where the relation of humans in community, small or large, is the focus.

Coming of Age as Theme—This one I know a lot about as it has been the theme of six of my novels and several short stories to date. The exploration of finding one’s self and confidently staking one’s place or recognizing one’s role and purpose in the universe is a theme found in Star Wars, Rocky, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, and many, many more.

Once you know your theme or themes, you must then decide several things:
1. Who are the characters who can best embody this theme?
2. What plot is best suited for the theme?
3. What kind of setting will best fit the characters and actions necessary to portray the theme?
4. What voice and style is best suited to the theme?

All together, structurally, Theme works with Plot and Character as shown in this diagram.
Your theme informs all these decisions, which is why knowing the theme first is so important. As the diagram demonstrates, theme is at the center of the core elements of your story’s structure. Additionally, many stories explore more than one theme. If the themes are compatible, this is a very powerful and easy thing to do.

As moral people, readers will turn to fiction for affirmation of their values or the values that underpin the world as they see it. They seek deeper understanding, answers to questions, and more in great stories, driven by the desire to know that what they believe is right. Maass suggests it matters less whether the moral is widely accepted than that it is developed in depth. “The key is your antagonist,” he writes. “If we believe in him, we will believe what he believes.”

We buy into Star Wars because Luke Skywalker believes so passionately in his cause—the Force, the right of the Rebels over the Empire, good versus evil, and what is just. The same can be said of Rocky and many other films, even The Godfather, wherein the protagonist is a criminal corrupted by his world and relationships over the course of the film. The viewer’s agreement with the decisions being made is less important than the conviction of the character. It is in the character’s anger, weeping, fear, and determination that we are inspired to believe, that readers feel it is imperative to know their stories. This is how knowing your theme and developing every scene from that perspective can transform a simple, ordinary story into a life-changing, memorable classic.

So, whether you are a planner or a pantser, outliner or discovery writer, thinking about theme and allowing it to inform your writing will make the difference between your novel being plain or something special, blending in or standing out from the pack. Theme is that vital, that key. And so, as you move forward to plan your premise and the structure that will best bring it to life, theme is an important component of your process which must be considered and carefully weighed.

For what it’s worth…See you next Wednesday.

Write Tip: How To Structure A Scene

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

The scene is the basic building block of dramatic structure for any story. If written correctly, each scene leads to another scene and another. According to Jack M. Bickham, in his book Scene & Structure, all well-written scenes use the following pattern:

Statement of goal

Introduction and development of conflict

Failure of character to reach his goal or a tactical complication/disaster which creates a new goal

Notice how these parallels the three-act dramatic structure of the entire story. It is not an accident. Scenes have three acts just as the entire story will. Scenes are not static. At their heart lies conflict. One character or group has a goal and others have other goals, and these meets and create obstacles to be overcome. Hence, conflict. Most scenes start with the point-of-view (POV) character walking into a place with a clear goal in mind. (As discussed in Chapter 4 the point-of-view character is the character from whose vantage point a particular scene is told.) Success of the scene dramatically depends upon your ability to interpose obstacles between your hero/heroine and the obtainment of this goal. Sometimes the goal carries over from the previous scene. Sometimes it is the overall goal in the story. Other times, it is a sub-goal required as part of the many steps to reaching the overall story goal. In any case, usually the goal is stated early on either through internal monologue or dialogue of the character.

For example, Luke Skywalker enters the workshop and cleans the droids per Uncle Owen’s instructions (goal). In the process, he finds something jammed in a slot on R2-D2 and tries to free it, unleashing the video of Leia pleading for help. When the message is unclear, he asks R2 to play the whole message and R2 refuses by first pretending not to know what he is referring to, then saying that the restraining bolt is preventing it in order to get the bolt taken off (obstacles). The disaster comes as R2-D2 escapes, forcing Luke to chase him down.

To work well and increase dramatic tension, all scenes must end badly. Whatever the goal going in, whatever the action taken, the result must be a failure of some sort. It can be an actual failure, a twisty complication, or additional unexpected tasks, but it constitutes a delay to success regardless.

But there is another key element at play as well. When the character’s goal is stated, the reader asks a question.

Goal: To get the golden key to the temple where I can retrieve the sacred scroll.
Reader Question: Will (character) get the key?

Whatever the question, the resolution (or answer) must be a negative. Sometimes a character does the get the key, but other objects are required to find the temple or open the door, and the character must go seek them before getting the scroll. The answer to the question, the disaster, the end of the well-written scene, always creates further complication on the character’s journey through that story.

There are several key points to keep in mind when determining goal, conflict, and resolution:

1. The goal of each scene must clearly relate to the larger story question; the question evoked in readers by the stated goal of the character for the major story arc.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be external, not within one’s self. Either with an object, animal, or person or more than one.
4. Point of view should be maintained from goal to resolution in the same scene. It is best not to break it up into different points of view to avoid confusion and loss of tension.
5. Disaster always works by pushing the character away from his or her goal.
6. Readers will tolerate much if you keep making things worse and worse in every scene. This is how you build tension and suspense and create a compelling read.
7. Since the end of each scene dictates what will happen after, scenes cannot be written in isolation from the overall arc, goals, conflict, etc. of the story itself if they are to work well.

Plots are made up of a series of interconnected scenes that create a larger story. Since a plot is the storyline arc of the overall book, and the book is a story that is like an argument with a premise, a plot consists of a series of questions asked and answered. What you ask when, and how soon you answer it, affects the tension and pacing of the overall story. Some questions get asked and answered in the same scene or chapter. Some carry over multiple scenes and chapters. Some may carry over to another book. Some carry from chapter 1 to the final chapter. The questions have various levels of stakes to them. More intense, important questions tend to take longer to answer. One great way to figure out if your story makes sense and has good pacing is to go through and identify all the questions asked and answered and when and where they are asked and answered. If you are missing any answers or questions, you have a problem that needs fixing.

Since some stories have several plots—usually an overarching main plot and subplots—and not all scenes relate to each plot, but all relate to the main arc in some way or affect it. All plots and subplots have three acts just like the overall story, so sometimes identifying which plot and subplot(s) relate to each scene is key to making them work and determining in what order the scenes need to occur to best tell the story. To be clear, a subplot is a lesser plot that is less important than the main driving plot and sometimes focuses around a specific character, location, or aspect of that larger plot and points readers back to it.

It is also important to know which characters are in a scene. Too many characters can make a scene confusing. And too few can make it ineffective. Most importantly, the person with the most to lose is usually the best POV character for that particular scene, so keep in mind whether you have multiple POV characters or not. That will determine your character use in each scene. Remember also that individual characters can have conflicting goals, and that can further complicate scenes by creating competing tensions or conflicts that add layers and depth to the scene and further obstacles to the resolution as well.

In Medias Res

The last point I’ll make is the number one rule of good dramatic writing I learned in film school: Get into a scene as late as possible in its action, and end the scene as soon as you can after that. The literary term for entering a scene when the action has already begun is in medias res.

Scenes are more dramatic when they start within tense moments of action or conflict, so skip all the slow buildup and setup like greetings and small talk, how the characters got there, etc. which would slow things down, and instead get right into it. Telephone scenes, scenes sitting around a table, on couches, or in a car, etc. have a casual, slow feel that does not lend itself well to drama, so these use sparingly. The pacing and power of your story will go up in spades, and your readers will thank you for it.

Here’s another example, one of my favorites: the opening scene from the film Lethal Weapon 2.

The film opens with Riggs yelling and pounding his palms on a dashboard as horns honk and traffic roars. Then he and Murtaugh are arguing about speed and strategy. They are in a car chase. We don’t yet know who they are chasing or why, but we are immediately thrust into the center of tense, fast-paced action, and the details will come. We soon learn there are two car chases with two teams of cops, and as they fight traffic and near misses with other vehicles and race to keep up with the fleeing criminals—Murtaugh driving his wife’s station wagon, which hardly seems up to the task—the bad guys start shooting and taking more and more chances. The goal is to catch the bad guys. The conflict comes from disagreements between cops and from all the obstacles.

When the bad guys ditch them in airport traffic, Riggs jumps out and continues the chase on foot until Murtaugh untangles the station wagon and catches up. Riggs then insists on driving, and he pushes the car even more to its limits, practically destroying it in the process. So now they are fighting each other as well (more conflict). Then the other chase ends at an intersection, where cars collide and a helicopter comes in to rescue the bad guys with automatic gunfire leading to a shootout with cops (Failure 1). Riggs and Murtaugh, meanwhile, continue their chase until their baddie flips his car over a black-and-white cop car that blocks its path and crashes into a building. By the time Riggs and Murtaugh get to the car, the bad guy is gone (Failure 2), but they find Krugerrands, the currency of South Africa, and so their quest begins.

This is a great example of getting in as late as possible and out as soon as possible (in medias res) while still including all three core building blocks of a great scene.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Write Tip: Four Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

The four-act structure is a more recent rethinking of three-act structure. Proponents claim it is much better and more effective because it more naturally follows the flow of dramatic story. I certainly agree that for motion pictures this is probably the case, but I am not sure about novels. Regardless, the rule in writing is to use what works for you, so I present it here as an option that might be more helpful to some of you than the three-act structure.


Fundamentally, the difference between the three-act and four-act structures is that act two is now two acts, with each ending in a plot point or establishing point. Act one ends with an establishing point where the hero has a life-changing event that spurs him or her to action, essentially enabling circumstances that lead the hero to launch into the quest or journey that makes up the rest of the story and results inevitably in a confrontation with the antagonist in act one. In act one, there is no midpoint but instead an establishing point that generally consists of a hero-ally confrontation in which the hero is forced to give up his or her flaw. Act two becomes about establishing a relationship with the ally while the hero tries to hold onto his or her flaw and still complete the quest. The establishing point here reveals that the flaw is an obstacle which must be overcome to achieve success.

After that establishing point, instead of a second half, we enter act three, which ends with an establishing point where the flaw is finally resolved, and the hero enters the ring against the opponent in preparation for act four’s final confrontation. Act three thus consists of the hero demonstrating the growth of overcoming the flaw or at least conquering and controlling it as he or she prepares with the ally to take on the antagonist. Act four is the climbing into the ring where the hero faces his or her opponent to see who will triumph.

In theory, using four acts makes writing the longer middle easier for writers by breaking it into two logical halves. It also puts more emphasis on a hero-ally confrontation where the flaw is confronted and overcoming begins. This can be a physical or emotional confrontation, but it is a key turning point that functions much like the midpoint in the three-act structure. This often serves to strengthen the relationship between the hero and his or her key ally.

A great example of this four-act structure can be found in the film Rocky, which is considered one of the best-structured films of all time. In act one, Rocky is on the mean streets of Philly and considers himself a loser, but is a nice, bright guy who won’t even stoop to breaking legs for work with loan sharks or other things. Then he gets the chance to fight for heavyweight champion of the world, his establishing point or life-changing event.

In act two, Rocky tries to react to this challenge but is dragged down by his lack of self-confidence. Allies come in the form of his wife, Adrian, and manager, Mickey, who push him to believe in himself, but he can’t do it until he finally confronts the memory of his father telling him he was too ugly and stupid to be anything but a boxer, so he’d better be good. Once he articulates and faces this, he regains a sense of purpose and confidence in an establishing point wherein he determines to prove his father wrong.

Act three is then the training surge when Rocky prepares for the fight with Apollo Creed and begins to think of himself as capable and strong and smart, not a loser, mentally changing and transforming into being ready for the fight.

Act four is the final fight against Creed.

As you can see here, the four-act structure depends more on character development for its turning points than the three-act structure does and really defines and clarifies the characters in a different way, which may be helpful to some of you in structuring your story and thinking it through before writing.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Write Tip: Three Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

A sketch that will inform your outline, the three-act structure nonetheless identifies the core dramatic points of a story. Some of you may be discovery writers like me, preferring to let the story unfold organically. But at some point, you will be required to outline as a professional writer. And when faced with a tight deadline, the more organized you are, the more efficient you can be. The first thing you need to do is understand the dramatic structure that underpins your story. So we are going to talk about a very simple, basic way to identify key points that can help you write more quickly and efficiently to meet a deadline.


While outlines are multiple pages of detail, the structural diagram will be no more than a brief paragraph or a few sentences describing each required point accompanied perhaps by a paradigm sketch. The paradigm shown is based on Screenplay by Syd Field, a classic writing teaching book employed by many film schools, but in Western literature, the principles also apply to any dramatic story, including those told in prose. The outline is for three acts. In a screenplay, those are act one, which is 30 pages, or a quarter of the text; act two, which is 60 pages, or half; and act three, which is 30 pages, or a fourth. Your page numbers will vary, but the fractions for each portion should wind up roughly the same.

The key turning points between acts are called plot point 1 and plot point 2. These are events which force the protagonist, and sometimes the antagonist too, to turn in new directions and take new action in pursuit of resolving the conflict. Plot point 1, at the end of act one, will require agency, or action, from the protagonist in pursuit of finding the solution and determining what must be done. Plot point 1 propels the protagonist into act two, which is an ascending action involving discovery and a journey to find the solution and achieve the goal without yet knowing all that is required. In the course of act two, the questions will be answered until you reach plot point 2. Plot point 2, at the end of act two, will occur when the protagonist discovers what must be done and where, and with whom, to resolve the conflict and achieve the goal. And thus, it propels him or her into act two, which is the climactic, descending action to reach that point.

When I write any story, I always start with some idea of what my plot points will be and how it will end, to give me a sense of focus and direction as I write, even when allowing it to unfold organically. Now, just as the overall story has three acts, so will each plot and subplot, and each act. As such, each has a mini turning point called the midpoint or pinch that twists the action a bit and propels us into the second half. In the first act, this is called the inciting incident. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine—something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking. But it intrigues us and sucks in Clarice and leads to the rest of the story. Other examples are Indiana losing the golden idol to Belloq at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which then sets up a rivalry that drives the later journey as Indiana Jones seeks to get the Ark before Belloq. Morpheus choosing Anderson in The Matrix sets up all that follows after. In The Sixth Sense, without the opening confrontation and gunshot, nothing else that follows could occur.

In act two, you have a pinch point for each half, and in act three, you have the climactic confrontation before the denouement. These may not be as dramatic as the inciting incident of act one, but they nonetheless inspire the protagonist or antagonist to take further action and move forward on the journey. Whereas the plot points are both major dramatic developments, the inciting incident, midpoint, and pinches can be more internal than external but of significance to the characters’ hearts and minds such that they cause them to change course and move in a new direction or with renewed vigor toward the goal. These are like lesser plot points, in a way, but nonetheless significant points in the framework of the overall dramatic arc that drives your story.

Let’s talk examples. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident starts with Darth Vader’s ship attacking Princess Leia’s rebel ship and forcing her to load the Death Star plans into R2-D2, the droid, and send him to escape. He lands on the planet with his companion, C-3PO, and they wind up in the hands of the hero, Luke Skywalker. When Luke discovers a message from a princess that reports danger and points him to a mysterious figure named Obi-Wan Kenobi, he sets off to find out what it means, and that leads him to Old Ben Kenobi, whose shared surname is an obvious clue. Kenobi rescues Luke from Sand People at the midpoint of act one and takes him back to his own home. There, they view the message and Kenobi gives Luke a lightsaber and tells him about the murder of his father, a story Luke never knew. The Empire and a Rebellion, which until now have been mostly rumors far away, have entered Luke’s life, and when Kenobi takes him home, they find that the Jawas who sold Luke’s family the droids have been murdered and torched. Fearing the worst, they race to Luke’s home and find Luke’s aunt and uncle have been murdered and their homestead torched. Plot point 1 is when Kenobi tells Luke they must go rescue the princess together and find a way to deliver the plans hidden in R2-D2.

Act two starts with their trip to Mos Eisley spaceport where they must find passage, and they end up recruiting Han Solo, evading Stormtroopers searching for the droids, and head off for Alderaan. Then, we see Luke in training for the inevitable confrontation, while Vader and Tarkin attempt to extract information from Leia, and ultimately destroy Alderaan. Luke, Han, and Kenobi’s discovery of this is our pinch point for act one. That determines they must rescue Leia themselves and deliver the plans. Then they are caught in a tractor beam and pulled aboard the Death Star. The midpoint comes during the attempted rescue in the Detention Block when they are trapped. The pinch point for act two is when Kenobi confronts Vader to help his friends escape with the droids to the rebellion. Plot point 2 is after they fight their way clear and escape to the rebel base, where the plans reveal the Death Star’s flaw. The Rebels unveiling their attack plan propels us into act three. Act three is the Rebel attack and the Imperial counterattack, and the climax comes as Luke faces off against Vader in the trench run and ultimately destroys the Death Star with surprise help from Han.

So, now that we have seen how this plays out in a story we are all familiar with, it’s time to identify this structure for your story. Keep in mind that this is only a blueprint. Plans can change. As the story evolves, if required, your plot points, as well as pinches and midpoints, and even your climax, may change. The point of this is not to set anything in stone but to have goals to guide your work. It will help direct you as you write and set up each character and point required to reach each marker. If that ultimately requires the markers to change, it’s okay because these are tools to help you achieve a whole.

Here are the things you’ll need to know to develop this paradigm outline.
Who is your protagonist?
Who is your antagonist?
What are their goals?
What are the obstacles each faces in reaching that goal?
What growth must each undergo to make success possible?
And finally, what do you think the final confrontation needs to be?

Answering these questions is just a temporary means to an end. The answers may change, but the idea is to think through key elements of your story to allow you to write with blinders off and have some goal points along the way to work toward. That will allow you to write faster and spend less time wondering what the heck you should do next. As you actually write, these goal points may need to change, and that is okay.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Tomorrow: Part 2-4 Act Structure
Friday: Part 3-How To Structure Scenes

For these and other WriteTips, click here.

Write Tip: Character Narrative As A Plot Device

Our tip for today regards using character narrative as a plot device. Now, to begin, let me define character narrative. In the present case I am defining it as the narrative embraced by a character or person as the lens through which they view the world. We see this all the time in politics. The Democrats have a narrative. So do the Republicans. And we hear accusations all the time, not all false, of media bias wherein reporters report angles on stories that match their narrative and leave out the rest. All characters have narratives too, and it is often the differences in narratives that cause conflicts between characters. That being the case, why shouldn’t writers consciously employ narrative as a plot device?

I think they should.

We often talk of the villains being the hero of their own story. This is narrative. The same is true of every character and where those narratives, or worldviews, clash, is where we find them coming into conflict with one another. So understanding your characters’ narratives and where they come from and how they differ can be a very useful device for helping you shape your stories. And the degree to which you get into the details of it will determine how useful it is.

Good stories have nuance and nuance is depth, so the more you know, the deeper you can go and the richer the results will be. With some minor characters, you may never know their narrative. With supporting characters, you will examine it only on the surface a bit. But with your major characters, the deeper you dig in, the better they will be and the better your story will be for the effort.

So how do you build a character’s narrative? It is similar to how you write a character history or bio. The easiest way is to develop a series of key questions to ask and answer about each character and build from there. The base questions will be the same initially for every character but as you go deeper, unique questions will arise that are unique to specific characters and demand answers. You answer one, another may crop up, rinse and repeat. But the result will be a deeper look inside your characters’ beliefs, motives, personalities, and more. And what you discover in the process will be useful for all kinds of things.

You can use what you glean to help shape your character’s personality, actions, and reactions, even their internal monologue. And the more information you glean, the more specific you are, the more interesting the results will be as you discover key differences between your characters and yourself you never suspected. Building the results into your story will add a lot of layers and depth and nuance that just adds to the experience for readers and makes the characters pop off the page and come more alive like real, unique individuals, not stereotypes or archetypes. There will be nothing run of the mill about characters examined so deeply.

So consider adding examine your characters’ narratives as a possible tool to add to your writer’s toolbox. It’s also a useful tool for interpersonal relationships, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post which poses a whole different set of potential conflicts, so we’ll leave that be for now. Regardless, I hope it’s a Write Tip that pushes you to think about your stories and characters with a new perspective. For my narrative, that would be very satisfying. For what it’s worth…

5 Days Of Comic Con

I took a break from blogging regularly for a few years now, but with the publication of my latest book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals Of Fiction earlier this year, I have been wanting to revive my blog. In particular, the weekly Write Tips feature that was so popular.

So to celebrate San Diego Comic Con’s 50th, which I will be attending and participating in as a panelist, I thought what better time than now to relaunch Write Tips. So each day the rest of this week, I will feature a new Write Tip, and then every Wednesday that follows, will present another one. It is my hope these will stimulate and assist you in your writing process. I know they are things that help me.

As a bonus, Wednesday through Friday, I will be giving away free downloads of How To Write  Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction in each post.  So happy 50th to San Diego Comic Con, the original Comic Con that started it all, and happy writing to all of you.

Here’s the posting schedule for this week:

Tuesday- Character Narrative as a Plot Device

Wednesday – Three Act Structure

Thursday – Four Act Structure

Friday – How To Structure A Scene

Just look for the Write Tips logo starting tomorrow. For what it’s worth…

Novel Writing Boot Camp Starring Me

Some of you know that in late 2017 and early 2o18, in association with Inkitt, a new young publisher that is still finding its way, I wrote and hosted a series of novel writing videos which were short versions of material I later wrote in How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, my first nonfiction book which was published by Inkitt this Fall. Well, the videos—there are 10 of them—are now live and you can watch them for free. They are slickly produced and I am proud of them. They also tease material I develop more fully in How To Write A Novel, so you can check that out too here.

Here is the link to Inkitt’s Novel Writing Boot Camp.

Write Tip: 8 Tips For Getting Blurbs From Name Authors

WriteTips-flatThis week’s Write Tip addresses a question I get a lot. I have been fortunate enough to get blurbs on my books from many well known authors, and people want to know how I manage it. So here are some tips for getting blurbs from name authors.

1) Ask. — It sounds really obvious but it’s the truth. If you don’t ask, you won’t succeed. When it comes to asking for blurbs, you just target the desired authors, and politely ask if they’d consider reading for a blurb. Authors won’t put their name on something they don’t feel good about, and not every author who agrees to read the project will blurb it, but getting them to take a look is the first step. So ask.

2) Pick Appropriate Authors. — This one may be less obvious to some of you. Don’t just ask your favorite authors. Ask authors who are known for writing the genre in which your book falls. These will be people who typically enjoy reading books like yours. They will also have names familiar and most enticing to your targeted readers. There’s no point putting a blurb on your book from someone who might not be considered informed on the topic and genre. Unless it’s a meganame like Stephen King, having inappropriate blurbers may not add any benefit at all.

3) Give Them Time. — If you can get permission from your publisher, the time to ask for big name blurbs is after the book is turned in to the editor or goes to copyediting. Don’t wait for galleys. By the time most galleys show up, your turn around time is usually very short. By starting early, you can offer several months to potential blurbers which gives them a lot more flexibility to work such an obligation into their own very busy schedules and makes it more likely they’ll agree to take a look. For our Baen anthology Shattered Shields, Jennifer Brozek and I got permission from Toni Weisskopf to ask for blurbs just after we turned in our manuscript. This gave us the opportunity to ask people like Mike Resnick, John Marco, Catherine Asaro, and Ken Scholes for blurbs. All four said yes, and before we even have copyediting marks to review, three of them have sent us great blurbs for the book.

4) Pick People You Have a Relationship With. — In the age of social media, building relationships with authors you admire is simpler than ever. All you have to do is engage smartly. Strike up a conversation. Encourage. Ask thoughtful questions. And soon you’ll find yourself in dialogue with them. Over time, this can develop into a familiarity and even friendship that will make requesting blurbs not only much easier but much more likely to be well received by them. It’s not like they don’t have to do the same thing themselves. But if they don’t know your work, knowing you are cool and likeable will make them much more willing to both help you and to assume you’re not sending them crap.

5) Be Grateful. — Whether they say “yes” or “no,” be grateful that they considered it. Graciously thank them either way, and consider it a positive that you even got to interact. You never know what possibilities that may present in the future. Even if they say “no,” they may see you at a con later and ask how things are going with your book. That opens a door to dialogue and building a relationship which might lead to a future “yes.”

6) Do Not Abuse The Privilege. — Don’t over ask. Don’t ask people constantly for help. Be careful who you ask and how often. This shows consideration for both the level of your relationship and their own busy schedules. They have deadlines of their own, and those come first. Whenever you’re asking someone to take time out from those and help you, be respectful of the fact that they have limited time to do such things. They have to make choices. They are more likely to choose you, if you are considerate and don’t over impose.

7) Offer To Return The Favor. — Okay, if you’re not a known author yourself, your blurbs are likely meaningless for them. But what you can offer is to proof or review their books on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. and authors are almost looking for help with that. You can’t repay them. You shouldn’t pay them, as it’s really not standard and it violates most people’s ethics. But you can offer to do them a favor in return.

8 ) Send Them Quality Projects. — This tip may seem obvious but I guarantee it’s not. The better quality your project, the more likely the askee is to agree to consider a blurb. Make sure the manuscript is clean, copyedited, and formatted professionally. If you are self-publishing or working with a small press, this is especially important. Authors know the Big Five New York houses will clean up the manuscript to make it professional. Small presses and self-publisher are less reliable. If their name is going on it, they want to be sure it’s worthy, and besides content, that means presentation, so send them a quality project with quality presentation and they are more likely to say “yes.”

Well, there you have 8 tips for getting blurbs from name authors. Remember, they’re doing you a favor. So “no” is never personal. A “yes” is always a gift. And treat them accordingly. If you follow these guidelines, use good common sense, and are professional, you’ll likely have a good chance of getting blurbs from known authors in the future. Maybe not for every project, but then again, if you follow these tips, you won’t send them every project. Regardless, these tips have worked well for me.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, and Gaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

 

WriteTip: 6 Things Any Writer Can Do To Make Science Fiction and Fantasy Better

WriteTips-flatYou may have noticed there’s a lot of yelling going on in Science Fiction and Fantasy these days. Some yell because they’re angry. Some yell because they’re sick of the yelling. Others yell to be trolls. And the cycle never seems to end. I’m not much for yelling myself. It may serve as a great vent for your emotions, but it rarely actually serves to change anyone’s mind. Instead, it often makes people tune you out. BUT on the other hand, there are things I and every writer can do to make things better. So for this week’s Write Tip, I thought I’d suggest a few.

1) Don’t Write the World as it is but As You Want It To Be. — It’s real easy to complain about the world not changing or wishing it were better. But one of the great advantages of speculative fiction is that writers can invent worlds and make them into what they want them to be. Take advantage of it. Don’t just imagine the pessimistic world in which you live. Imagine one that’s better. Write a world that models what you’d like our world’s future to be. It’s a great way to demonstrate possible viable changes in attitude, culture, etc. without preaching at people. It’s also often a lot more pleasant experience for yourself and readers. And it certainly would help avoid a lot of cliches and rehashing that so commonly occur.

2) Avoid Placing Female and Minority Characters Solely in Traditional Roles. —  Just as the world can be whatever you want it to be in your imagination, so can people. NO housewives or Mexican gardeners. Instead, you can write of black women in power or gays in a majority, etc. You can invert the norms you see around you and imagine roles for people that might not exist yet. This is another way to demonstrate a viable future without preaching, and to promote positive change in the process.

3) If You Want Diversity, Write It. — Seriously. It’s very easy to write what you know. And sometimes that means falling back into writing about people like you. But the world is full of people who don’t look and act like you, and if you’re creating a world that can be even more so the case. So if you want to see it, make it so, as Captain Picard might say. If you can imagine it, you can write it, and what a great way to paint images that stimulate the imaginations of others by doing so.

4) Don’t Preach A Message, Show It In Action. — Yep, Show vs. Tell even applies to this. People hate being preached at. Sometimes, even if they agree with you. So instead of pounding them over the head with message fiction, just demonstrate the results of what you desire to see. Not just with the setting and characters, but the actions, dialogue and culture surrounding them. Model the future you’d like to see. Write it so it’s real for readers. Because chances are, if they couldn’t imagine it before, you can enable them to. And imagination is always a key step to real change in cultures and societies. That’s one reason the arts have always been so powerful.

5) Channel Your Passions. — There’s a lot of anger going on for many reasons in our world today. And the Science Fiction and Fantasy community is certainly no different. Channel your passion into great storytelling. Worry less about preaching or arguing with people and more about telling stories that will inspire them to change themselves and want to change the world. Sounds hard, I know, but the list of books that have influenced the world for the better is a long one.  And I know more top selling authors who avoid politics and religion and instead bring out their ideas through good stories than I do who spend hours and hours arguing and angrily decrying those who don’t share their beliefs. Certainly there’s a time and place for that, but being nasty creates an ambiance, frankly, whether you’re wrong or right, and that can affect readership and publication. Readers want to read pleasant people. And publishers want to work with pleasant authors. I know you’re passionate. You’re an artist. You have to be. But just remember that the bigger the audience and outlet, the more people hear you, and it’s easier to be heard with great art than angry diatribes. By channeling your emotions into characters and story, you can add a vivid reality to your storytelling that will speak louder than you ever could alone, really affecting and connecting with reader’s hearts.

6) Be The Kind Of Citizen You Want Others To Be. — Okay, I admit, this one is inspired by my belief in “doing unto others,” a biblical notion. But it really does ring true. If you treat others with respect and kindness, most will return the same to you. If you want equality, treat others as equals. If you want respect, be respectful. If you want to see diversity, surround yourself purposefully with diverse people. Go where you can meet them, get to know them, interact and befriend them, and hang out. I could go on and on, but I won’t. I just know that some of my best friends and best teachers have been people I met in places an upper middle class white boy from Kansas would never expect to be. And those have stuck with me for a lifetime. It’s transforming to see the world through others’ eyes, but you can’t do it if you don’t take time to know others who aren’t like you and listen to them. Chances are, if you surround yourself with diversity, readers will be encouraged to do the same. It’ll also infuse your writing and worldbuilding for all the suggestions I made above. And you’ll be seen as someone who lives what they believe, not just someone who suggests it in words alone.

Well, there you have six suggestions, some easier than others, but all truly possible, for how you can make Science Fiction and Fantasy better. I hope some of you will try them. I have been and will continue to do so. I know there’s room for improvement, but I want to make change, not just talk about it. How about you?


Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, andGaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

 

WriteTip: The Importance Of Writing Rules As Boundaries For Learning Craft

WriteTips-flatSince December of 2010, I’ve been interviewing authors, editors and others almost weekly on craft every Wednesday for SFFWRTCHT, and one of our regular and favorite question is about Best and Worst Writing Advice. It’s always interesting the answers we get. And after hundreds of guests, only a few repeats, it always amazes me how many different answers we get.  In fact, sometimes a repeat guest will answer differently each visit.

But what surprises me sometimes are the harsh rejections of mainstays writing rules like “avoid passives,” etc. I think sometimes experienced writers reach a point where old rules seem more limiting than helpful, perhaps. But I still find and believe, as an editor and author both, that those rules have an important role to play in most writer’s development and growth with craft.

There’s another old adage in entertainment that applies as much to publishing as Hollywood. It goes like this:  “No one knows everything.”

And while it’s true no one knows everything, you do need to know the boundaries before you break them, and writing rules are a great way to learn those.

For example, passives are a weaker form that when employed exclusively or excessively weaken the storytelling and act as telling, not showing. Once you’ve learned how to construct strong sentences, yes, you can use passives effectively, but in the beginning especially, I think learning to write without them is absolutely important and even essential to success.

Another thing about writing rules is that they often outline pet peeves of various people, and some care about one rule more than others. But the value in knowing them is that they tend to help guide you to a stronger path and stronger prose. And they often identify common weaknesses and missteps writers have taken which have hurt their writing, their success, and the appeal of their work not just to publishers but to readers as well. There are differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, between journalism and fiction, and so on. And sometimes fiction rules are helpful if you’re experienced with another form of writing but inexperienced with fiction, as I was.

There’s another adage that gets trotted out too: “Rules are made to be broken.”

You hear people cite writers like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman who have broken rules. And yes, they have and get away with it. But usually they get away with it because the rules are so imbedded into their process that when they stray from them, they do it with such skill that it just works in ways a lesser writer couldn’t manage.  You see, knowing the boundaries so well that they become second nature has advantages, and one of those advantages is that you can later deviate outside them a bit without falling off a cliff.

Let me say it again, knowing the boundaries is necessary before you can risk going outside them. And teaching boundaries is what the writing rules so often taught are for.

As a professional editor of both anthologies and novels, I see people violating the rules all day long. Rarely is it on purpose. Most often it’s because they don’t know the rules or understand how to abide by them. And the result is always sloppier, weaker writer, and a less effectively told tale. ALWAYS. I can’t count how many times a day I have to correct over and over the same errors and explain the same rules. It gets tedious. Sometimes it gets annoying. But it’s the job, and it’s made up for by the pleasure and joy I get in seeing the final polished project overcome these weaknesses and really sparkle and shine.

You can’t be expected to just know everything when starting out. And you won’t learn unless someone takes the time to show you, to explain. So part of my role as editor is to do that for you, gently, but firmly. And I try and do it with a sense of humor, too, to hopefully lessen the sting. But I still have to do it, and you still need to learn the rules.

Just because they seem arbitrary doesn’t mean they are. Just because they can be annoying doesn’t mean you can ignore them.

These rules have developed over decades for good reason. And although they evolve as tastes and grammar and publishing house style guides change, most of them have remained relatively the same for a very long time.

So next time you hear or see your writing hero blow off the rules, don’t take it as an invitation to do so yourself. Your journey is not the same as theirs. In fact, your journey is not identical to anyone’s. Learn the rules, practice them until they become instinct and you can recite them by heart. Learn them until you don’t even remember them anymore, you just do it. Because you’ll be a better writer, that’s what their for. And you’ll be more successful and respected.

And once you have that respect, then you can throw caution to the wind and go crazy. But not before.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, andGaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

 

WriteTip: On Writing What You Know As A Search For Truth

 

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First things first, it’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts. Apologies to anyone who follows the blog. I honestly ran dry in my well, because I was working on so many creative projects from writing to editing that finding energy, let alone time, for blogging was not happening. I think it was a worthwhile break for me, but I do need to reconnect with my audience I didn’t want to leave you all behind forever, and I certain value our relationship. Thanks for your patience. I am going to try and resume these once a week on Thursdays at least three times a month.

So for our first topic back, I wanted to reflect on an old mainstay, the advice to “Write What You Know.”

In a Twitter interview last night with New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternbergh about his new science fiction noir novel, Shovel Ready, Sternbergh responded to my usual question about good and bad writing advice as follows: “Worst: Write what you know. Classic workshop trope. But what I know isn’t interesting enough for anyone to read.”

On the surface, I understand his sentiments, however, I’m going to disagree. Perhaps if we dug deeper into the statement with Sternbergh, he might agree with me but for now, we’ll just deal with the statement as is.

I believe the advice to write what you know is about a quest for truth. Writing what you know is easier for several reasons. The more familiar you are with them, the more realistic the characters and situations you write will be.  Assuming you only apply this advice to a few things, you might say, “Oh, I’m a journalist, it’s been done, boring,” or “Oh, I’m a housewife, who wants to read that.” However, I think the advice goes deeper.

Whether you’re writing speculative fiction or contemporary, historical or alternate history, readers will only connect with your story if they find elements they can relate with. From characters to situations, your story’s connectivity is going to come from the truths it contains. And so I think the advice to write what you know is very important because if you want people to connect, you must tell the truth, and you can’t write truth without knowing something about it.

In a far future tale on an  alien planet, what resonates with us are the emotions of characters, their relationships, how they see the world. Sometimes those are very different from our own, yes, but that very fact can be illuminating of our own experience. Other times, those emotions, relationships and views are like ours, and in such cases we can see ourselves in the situation reacting with the character.

Regardless of which way it goes, most readers ask themselves questions as they read, like: “What would I do in that situation?” “How would I react?” etc. And so the motives of the characters, their actions, and their emotions need to reflect believable truth for us to really find the story plausible. If they don’t, it doesn’t make sense and leaves us feeling unsatisfied.

So, as cliche as the advice “Write What You Know” may seem on the surface, I have to say it’s become so common because it speaks of a universal truth. In writing, one must write things that are true for his or her story to be true enough for readers to connect with it.  In a sense, writing what you know then becomes less about writing characters, settings, etc. that are based on your real world experiences and yourself, and more about creating ones that reflect reality in some familiar way that readers will relate with. And if that is the case, then writing what you know is indeed very good advice.

Giving writing advice is tough, because so much of it can vary from person to person, even conflict with that of others. You do have to use discernment in applying such advice, of course, and use what you can, ignore what you can’t. But to me, “Write What You Know” is advice we all can use to make our fiction stronger. That’s why I think it comes up so often, and why I think it’s stuck around so long.

Dig deep. Find the truth in your settings, characters, and situations. No matter how fantastical you dress it up, that truth is what will keep readers coming back and make your stories stay with them long after they’ve turned the last page. There’s truth in characters, relationships, settings, and all sorts of details no matter how smile. Find them, use them, and they will bring your fiction depth and make it pop off the page, make it come to life. That’s what good writing is all about. It’s what makes stories successful and memorable.

To me, that’s advice worth knowing. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, andGaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

Write Tip: Creating Releases To Send With Review Copies

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Okay, it’s been a few months since I did one of these. I’ll admit, my well was running dry and needed a break to refresh. But I’m going to pick it back up now with a subject that many authors and even small publishers might benefit from: creating releases to go with review copies as you send them out.

If you’re not on a list to receive ARCS from majors, you may not have seen one. But all ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) come with a press release containing key information about the book. They are easy to create. I did mine in Word. And yet, they entice the recipient to read as well as making it easy for them to find key information about the author and book in case they want to write reviews, do interviews, or more.

I recently made these for my latest anthologies and here’s what they look like for Raygun Chronicles:

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So let’s break it down. First, your header should include the publisher’s logo and primary business address.

The footer should include the meta data about the book (as shown), including page count, release date, sale price, ISBN, format, etc.

360 pages · ISBN 978-0-9881257-5-9 · Hardcover: $29.95US/$34.95CAD ·
Publication: December 3, 2013 · Paperback: ISBN  978-0-9881257-6-6 $17.95US/$19.95CAD ·
ebook: ISBN 978-0-9881257-7-3 $6.99US/$8.99CAD

Usually centered. This is the key information for both reviews and articles as well as booksellers and others who might want to order the book.

The header and footer should be the same on every page of the release. And I should tell you, two pages is usually more than enough. In fact, most are a page and a half.

Now let’s look at what lies between.

First, at the top right corner, put contact information. An email address, name hyperlink and even phone number if you want, usually for a publicist or publisher who will serve as key point of contact for inquiries about the book. Sometimes the release date is also included in bold above this information.

Next, key quotes. If you’re fortunate enough to have early reviews or blurbs back, use them. If they’re too long, trim or use judicious ellipses, but don’t change the meaning of anything. This is very important. You will be called on it and having those kinds of questions raised in the middle of a release is not advisable. It’s an unneeded distraction at the least.

Then, centered, in large text and bold, Title and author’s name as a reminder which book this release pertains to. After all, most reviewers and interviewers get many ARCs and releases and they can be easily separated and all look alike. Make it easy for them to be matched up again if necessary.

Then a brief summary about the book, using your best exciting, sales language, of course, to make them want to read.

This should be followed by a bio of the author. 100-150 words should suffice. Less if possible. Concise and quick is what matters here. You want to excite and tease them but not make them stop reading.

Then after the bio, usually on page 2 (as shown) include blurb clips from author’s previous work. Sometimes there can be images of the book, but these increase printing cost. Often a list of the author’s other titles with ISBNs and prices is included.

Regardless, this is the standard information for such releases. The purpose is to get the recipient to prioritize attention to the book in question. And so keep it concise, clean, and positive. But also be honest and don’t overdo it. After all, the book should speak for itself. Remember, with all the requests inundating them and the fact that not every book, subject or author appeals to everyone, your book may not be chosen. Sometimes they’ve reviewed too much in that genre recently or even an0ther of your books. Sometimes, there are other reasons. Regardless, getting it into their hands and getting their attention is your job. What happens after that is not.

Printing these double sided is a good idea, but stapled double pages is also common. Regardless, they are easy to make and cheap to print and they will make even your self-published or micropress book look professional alongside the books from the majors. Provided your cover design and layout can compete, that is. But that’s a different post.

So that’s how to make your own professional Release Cover Letters For Review Copies of your books. I hope it’s useful. For what it’s worth…


Beyond The Sun revised coverBryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012), Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and is working on Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website atwww.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook.

Write Tip: Worldbuilding – Follow The Truth Not Someone Else’s Agenda

WriteTips-flatWant some unsolicited writing advice? Don’t let someone else’s selfish advice box you in on your worldbuilding.

Okay, perhaps an example is in order.

I recently read an article by a fantasy writer who suggested that if you create a world in which females are wives or slaves or not strong, then you are making a political decision to discriminate against women.

Uh no. I could not disagree more.

If you envision a patriarchal society because it fits your world? That’s legitimate. Especially if you’re modeling it after a historical patriarchal society. What’s not legitimate is to write the female characters in that world as if they are not leaders or given to strengths of their own, despite their political realities. Even in traditional western households where the father brings home the bacon, the mom cooks it and raises the kids, women are often very strong and influential in their households. In fact, many are domestic queens. And that is being strong. Just because a women doesn’t carry a weapon, does not make her weak.

I don’t think every worldbuilding you make should be based on a political agenda, yours or someone else’s. I think there’s a dishonesty in that at times, if it forces you to write a world that doesn’t fit your story or is forced into an unnatural formation for the story.

That’s why advice like that quoted above needs to be disregarded. It assumes that everyone who is not writing the kinds of women that author wants to see written is anti-women. That’s just not the case. Maybe she’s just not your audience.

I do think it’s important to question your motives and decisions in worldbuilding. But don’t let manipulative advice guilt you into bad decisions for the wrong reasons either. The real world should always be an influence, yes. Because it is the only example both author and readers have about what a realistic world should look like. That’s why most made up worlds have religions. We know of no culture on Earth without them. That’s why male-female marital relationships dominate. That’s the world as we know it. It’s also why we often see men as soldiers and workers and women caring for the homes. That refection of reality is honest, not a political decision to discriminate.

At the same time, any author, if he or she is being honest about the world around him/her, will write women in diverse roles, because that is also the world in which we live. And readers will notice if your world is modern and those elements are missing. But if you’re writing an authentic historical setting, you should very much make that setting feel real and honest and reflect those realities in your books. That doesn’t mean you can’t step outside the norm to create interesting characters and elements which stand our from the stereotypes. You can and you should. But someone’s political agenda shouldn’t play a part in manipulating it, period.

The same is true of writing different races and anything else. Allow your world to reflect the world as we know it as appropriate to the time, setting, etc. It also should reflect your experience. And I think that naturally occurs. For example, I tend to write women who are housewives, women who are soldiers, women who are politicians, women who are teachers and more. I grew up with strong women who did many things and were influential leaders at home and in the community, so the women in my stories almost always reflect that when I invent secondary worlds. When I am writing historical settings, I tend to write something much more a reflection of the historical record. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you think you’re called to write stories about strong women in non-traditional settings, more power to you. If your story comes from a different place, that should be okay, too. Even if those with a different agenda don’t care to read it. Don’t be bullied by someone else’s guilt trip. There’s a really big difference between writing the world as it fits the story, setting, etc. and forcing the world to reflect what you want it to be. Both are viable, but just because you don’t choose to write the world differently than the story dictates doesn’t make you a bad person. So don’t let the kind of advice I mentioned cramp your style. Be conscious of your decisions, but also be true to yourself and your work.

You’ll write better stories, stories that will find the right readers.

For what it’s worth…


AbeLincolnDino_CoverV2Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website atwww.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook.

Write Tip: 5 Tips For Choosing The Right Independent Editor

WriteTips-flat I get this question all the time: “How Do I Know What’s Reasonable?” about independent editors and their fees. You’d think people would consider me biased, but in truth, I’m not because although I have absolutely confidence in the quality of our work at Finish The Story and my own independent work, I understand the issue from a writer’s perspective and I want clients who hire me to be comfortable and feel they belong there, not constantly wondering if they made a mistake.

So here are some tips for choosing the right Independent Editor for you.

1) Do Your Research — Don’t take our word for it off our website or business cards and brochures, ask around. Check with people on our client list, others in the industry who might know our reputation, etc. Ask about what we do, how we do it, and the quality. Ask any question you can think of that. That’s just proper due diligence, after all, editing is an investment and your art is in the balance.

2) Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions — Feel free to ask us questions directly, too, about all of the same things and more. An editor who won’t answer questions is not one who values the communication necessary to work well with authors. It’s okay to be inquisitive. Better that than miscommunication that damages the relationship. Ask about past experience in your genre, for example. Ask about time frame and how they handle it when they exceed the quote: do they check with you before proceeding or just plow on and expect you to foot the bill?  (I always do the former.) Will they recommend your work to others in the industry if they feel it’s worthy? etc.

3) Ask For A Free Sample Edit — Most of us will edit 5-10 pages free as an example of our work. Take advantage of this.  You can get a sense of what we do, how we do it, and if it will be helpful to you in your process. We get a sense of whether you’re at a level that we can be of benefit. If I don’t think it’s worth the money for you to hire me right now, I’ll tell you honestly. Because I’d rather work with people for whom I can be of benefit, not people who need to spend more time developing craft. Because most writers can’t afford to come back again and again, and I don’t want to ghost write for you.

4) Compare Rates With Industry Standards — What are fair rates? Check the Editorial Freelancer’s Association’s posted Rate Standards here. You’ll get a really good sense from this if the editor you are dealing with is in line with the going rate. You’ll also get a sense of whether your expectations are realistic. In my experience, the latter is most often more of an issue than the former, because writers just don’t realize how much work goes into editing or what that’s worth, and they often undervalue it. If that sounds biased coming from an editor, so be it. But to do well, I have to make multiple passes of your document. I have to work with extreme focus, without distractions, and that means concentrating, and that can be draining. As a result, I set limits on how many hours I edit at a time and even per day. And I also only work on one project at a time, to avoid mixing them up in my mind. Not everyone works that way, but that’s how I get best results. And so I charge what I think is reasonable compensation. I’m still working on the low end of industry standards. But that’s okay, I’m new and still proving myself. But make no mistake, I earn your trust and I don’t have a single unsatisfied client yet. So check out my rates. I want you to know that I’m worth it.

5) Ask Their Prior Clients — Yes, I said this before but it needs to be emphasized again, because it’s perfectly fine to ask for references or track them down on your own. In the writing industry, people often know each other, and most are always happy to answer questions about someone they enjoyed working with or someone they didn’t. Don’t look to create drama. Tweet or Facebook or Email and tell them: “I’m thinking about hiring so-and-so as an editor for my project, and I was curious about your experience working with them.” If what they have to say needs to be kept private, they’ll let you know and find a way to communicate appropriately. If what they have to say is good, chances are they’ll be happy to say it loudly and often. But it never hurts to ask. I’ve never had someone refuse to be a reference in such cases.

So there you have it, five helpful tips for choosing the right independent editor. I hope these give some of you a better sense of what to look at and good questions to ask. Happy editing and continued success!

For what it’s worth…


Beyond The Sun revised coverBryan Thomas Schmidt’s debut novel The Worker Prince received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His other books include The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012), Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, or his website at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net.

Write Tip: Thou Shalt Not Sin With Commas

WriteTips-flatI know what you’re thinking: a Write Tip on commas? It’s so basic. I must admit, it’s the last subject I thought I’d ever tackle in one of these tips. But please don’t find it insulting. The more I edit, the more I find it is often the very basics of which we writers most need reminding. After all, commas matter.  It seems to be one of the more common errors my editing clients are making.  So perhaps a reminder might be helpful for us all.

Some examples:

She remained standing, firm in her resolve.

She remained, standing firm in her resolve.

Now, he knew it was over.

Now he knew, it was over.

Now he knew it was over.

Suddenly running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

Suddenly, running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

Suddenly running toward the street he realized how stupid he’d been.

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese, and carrot cake.

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese and carrot cake.

In each of these examples, you may notice how clearly the comma placement changes both the meaning and the pacing of reading each sentence. Commas provide separation of elements in series, separation of clauses, indications of where readers and speakers should pause in their inflection, and more. Lazy comma usage can do far more than demonstrate your lack of grammatical knowledge, it can also create real confusion in what you’re trying to communicate.

Here are 10 Key Rules for correct comma usage according to http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm:

1. Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things), including the last two. “He hit the ball, dropped the bat, and ran to first base.”

Okay, yes, the comma before the “and” is often called the Oxford Comma, and some consider it unnecessary, which is fine when you have control of things. But some publishing houses’ style guides require it, and, more importantly, there are cases in which leaving it out can cause confusion when two list items appear to go together in ways not intended. Using a comma between all the items in a series, including the last two, avoids this problem.

Take the last two above examples:

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese, and carrot cake.

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese and carrot cake.

Is it macaroni and cheese being served along with carrot cake? Is macaroni being served along with cheese and carrot cake? Are there two kinds of cakes: cheese cake and carrot cake? I think my point is obvious.

 

2. Use a comma + a little conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses, as in “He hit the ball well, but he ran toward third base.”

Sometimes the conjunction makes the separation clear and a comma isn’t needed. But if there is any doubt, use the comma, as it will never be incorrect in this situation. In fact, one of the most frequent comma errors is placing it after the coordinating conjunction. For example,

He ran as far as he could and, then he stopped.

or less obviously perhaps:

Her statement was obvious but, in case there was any doubt, he paraphrased for the others.

A comma before the “but” would be appropriate, but after it is unnecessary and potentially confusing. We do sometimes pause after the little conjunction when speaking, but there is seldom a good reason to put a comma there.

 

3. Use a comma to set off introductory elements, as in “Running toward third base, he suddenly realized how stupid he looked.”

Again, you may omit the comma in such cases if the statement is clear and will not cause readers to stumble, but if there is ever any doubt, use the comma. It will never be wrong.

Several examples from above may serve here:

She remained standing, firm in her resolve.

She remained, standing firm in her resolve.

Now, he knew it was over.

N0w he knew, it was over.

Suddenly running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

Suddenly, running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

I see this one a LOT in editing.

 

4. Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements, as in “The Founders Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River, is falling down.”

The term “parenthetical element” here refers to a part of the sentence which could be dropped without changing the essential meaning of the sentence, sometimes called “added information.” This can be one of the more challenging punctuation rules, as what is “added” may not always be clear.

Without hesitation, he ran.

Dropping “without hesitation” would still leave the essential meaning: “he ran.” The parenthetical, in this case, serves to add motivational i.e. emotional context to the action that follows.

 

5. Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives.  If you can put an and or a but between the adjectives, a comma will probably belong there.

A good example of this might be:

Sarah lives in a very old and run-down house.

Instead, you’d more often say:

Sarah lives in a very old, run-down house.

Here’s a good example of an exception,  however:

That lady is old and little.

Instead, we’d more commonly hear:

That was a little old lady.

Note the lack of commas between “little” and “old lady.”

 

6. Use a comma to set off quoted elements. Generally, use a comma to separate quoted material from the rest of the sentence that explains or introduces the quotation.

This can be difficult to remember because most of us don’t use quoted materially constantly.  But in fiction particularly, it is important when using speech tags or action tags for dialogue.

“General, we have word from the Governor,” the aide reported, handing Gent a message tube and stopping beside him.

or

Gent called back to her as he ran, “Don’t let him out of your sight!”

or

When asked about the issue, Congressman Roberts replied, “I have no comment on that matter at this time.”

But this one can also be abused and confused. As I see incorrect things like this way too often:

“Don’t do anything stupid, Keely!”, he yelled as he went to open his door.

 

7. Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast.

She smiled as their eyes met,  sadness and longing shining from their depths.

 

8. Use a comma to avoid confusion. This is often a matter of consistently applying rule #3.

I think we’ve covered this but it’s a good reminder.

 

9. Grammar English’s Famous Rule of Punctuation: Never use only one comma between a subject and its verb. “Believing completely and positively in oneself is essential for success.” [Although readers might pause after the word “oneself,” there is no reason to put a comma there.]

I see this one a lot, too.

“Mark my words, all of that garbage you’re ingesting, is going to be the death of you!”

No, no, no, no, no! The comma before “is” makes me shudder.

 

10. Typographical Reasons: Between a city and a state [Hartford, Connecticut], a date and the year [June 15, 1997], a name and a title when the title comes after the name [Bob Downey, Professor of English], in long numbers [5,456,783 and $14,682], etc. Although you will often see a comma between a name and suffix — Bob Downey, Jr., Richard Harrison, III — this comma is no longer regarded as necessary by most copy editors, and some individuals — such as Martin Luther King Jr. — never used a comma there at all.

That one’s often determined by personal taste and style guides. Just be consistent within the body of your manuscript. And be prepared for editors with other preferences to raise the issue.

 

So, there you have it, some examples of sinful comma usage to avoid, and legal ways to employ them instead. I hope this is a helpful reminder, even for those of us who feel current on our grammatical knowledge. I know I need reminders myself from time to time. For what it’s worth…


Beyond Sun Cover.inddBryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website atwww.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook.

Write Tips Guest Post: Bestseller Tips for Writing A Fiction Series by Faith Hunter, author of the Jane Yellowrock series

WriteTips-flatHey Y’all. Thanks for having me here today. I’ve been a commercially published writer since I sold my first book in 1989. I know that makes my first book older than some of you, but like any good mom, I remember the birth-day of the book quite well. However that is a post for another day. Today we are talking about things every writer needs to do in order to write a successful series. The bestselling part – well that is up to the fans and readers. They make or break you, and if they love you, you are golden. So, (in no particular order) on to it!

  1. Keep it all straight or your readers will remind you for YEARS about how you missed this or that. I live in constant fear of breaking this rule. I am about to hire a continuity editor, someone who will create for me a bible of the Jane Yellowrock world, with every character’s: description, history, weapons, skill, ability, diet preferences, clothes, house floor plan, love life, and more. Also, history of the world Jane lives in. To this point in my writing career, I’ve never written more than a 4-book-long series, and it was easy to keep up back then. Now, not so much.
  2. Blood-Trade-Blog-Tour-175Develop a thick skin. There will be good reviews and bad reviews. There will be people who love you and your work and people who call you bad names on book review sites because you did something in your book they didn’t like.  I am very careful when I read reviews to pick ones that don’t A.) Call me names. B.) Seem to have an ax to grind against the world, and picked me as the whet stone. C.) Love me and everything about my books. When I read reviews, I pick ones that do  A.) Seem rational and calm and mostly sane. B.) Seem to have actually read the book and the series that came before. C.) Offer constructive criticism. I get really good ideas from reviews that are reasoned and well thought out. But mostly I am kind to myself. No matter how thick my skin is, I don’t torture myself and end up depressed.
  3. Maybe this should come first or last, for emphasis, but let your characters develop and grow. One of the first things a writer learns is to have good character development in every novel, but in a series, it is paramount to let them change and grow through problems and really develop. If you want a more in depth overview how to make your characters develop, there a lot of really good posts a www.magicalwords.net, a writing site created by two writing pals and me years ago. Here is one I wrote back
    in 2009 http://www.magicalwords.net/faith-hunter/character-development-%E2%80%93-what-is-it-really/ where I break down the how of character development.
  4. 9780451465061_BloodTrade_CV.inddBe willing to try new things. One of the worst things writers can do is let their writing get stale. Take a break, write something different every now and again. I have been writing inside the Jane Yellowrock world, but outside of Jane’s Point of View in short stories lately, and I am really enjoying it! In the series, I am locked into a first person POV, which I adore, but it can be limiting. Writing from third person, from another character’s POV, is very freeing, and also, it lets me see my main character through eyes of the secondary characters in the series. I had no idea she was so lean and menacing. And cuddly. Depending on the POV I am writing from.
  5. Voice. I think this is probably the most important part of a successful series. Finding the different voices in the stories and keeping them true.  There are many different voices in a novel: A.) Voices of each and every character, both internal thoughts (depending on the POV, of course), and dialogue patterns. Every character should not sound alike. Just like real people, they should have unique verbal and physical tics, and unique word placements and phrasing. B.) Narrative voice. This is the writer’s voice. It is composed of many disparate things: the tone of book, the setting, the character’s temperament, sentence length and the number of detached non-full-sentence-dangling-phrases to name a very few. This voice should remain constant throughout the book.

I hope this helped. Check out my books and website, and my latest release, BLOOD TRADE, from Penguin/ROC! Faith Hunter www.faithhunter.net https://www.facebook.com/official.faith.hunter?fref=ts

Faith Hunter is the fantasy author of the Jane Yellowrock vampire hunter series and a long time professional fiction writer. Including her other pen name, Gwen Hunter, she has over 25+ published books in 28 countries around the world. Her latest addition to the Jane Yellowrock series, Blood Trade, was released by Penguin/ROC on April 2nd, 2013. She is an original creator of and regular contributor to MagicalWords.net, an industry blog for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find out more about Faith at her home on the web, FaithHunter.net, or visit her official Facebook page to connect with her and other fantasy fiction fans.

Write Tips: Shortcuts For Formatting Your Manuscript To Meet Guidelines

WriteTips-flatAs an editor, I am surprised how many writers seem to struggle with manuscript formatting–either not doing it per guidelines, not making effort, etc. There are many reasons editors ask  for specific formatting. For example, when I turn manuscripts into publishers who use Adobe InDesign (a manuscript formatting software), there are sometimes issues with importing so they need things simple and formatted to make that easier and save time. Some editors find manuscripts easier to read double spaced, etc. and since they read a lot, they need you to make it easy so you can get a fair shot. These reasons may not sound compelling to some writers but the burden is on you to make the reading experience fun not just from writing a good story but also in presentation, so you should care.

To make things easier, though, particularly in Microsoft Word or Open Office, there are things you can do to shortcut formatting. Maybe you don’t want to worry about it as you write. That’s why I use Scrivener and let it do the work for me. But if you’re doing it all in a Word Processor, here’s three handy tips.

1) Converting Italics To Underlining or vice versa — Did you know that you can use the REPLACE function to change formatting? Well, you can. If you wanted to convert all italicized words to underlining, for example, a not uncommon editorial guidelines request, you simply have to pull up replace as follows:

Replace Italics Figure 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Pull up the replace dialogue from your menu.

2. Put the cursor in the first blank and type Control-I (Italics)

3. In the second blank, type Control-U (underlining) then Control-I and Control-I again. This will tell it to remove Italics.

4. Then hit Replace All.

Yep, it’s that simple. And you can do it with converting underlining to italics, bold, etc.

Here’s another tip.

2) Select All + Set Tabs — Suppose you need to fix the tabs on your manuscript. One way ti globally fix them is to use Select All.

Select All Figure 2

 

 

 

 

1. Find Select All On Your Menu or use Control-A to select all, highlighting all the text in your document.

Tabs Figure 3

 

 

 

 

 

2) Then on the ruler, click where you want the tabs.

Most of your text will slide into position. Places where spacing or margin markers were moved instead of tabs will have to be corrected by hand but this is a big timesaver in regards to an entire document as it will keep you from having to fix each tab one at a time.

3) DocX Line Space Removal — One of the more annoying features in Word is the additional space added between paragraphs automatically. To eliminate this, you need to do the following:

Select All Figure 2

 

 

 

 

1. Find Select All On Your Menu or use Control-A to select all, highlighting all the text in your document.

Paragraph Dialogue Box Figure 5

 

 

 

 

 

2. Pull Up the Character Dialogue Box by clicking the arrow in that section of your menus.

Doc X space removal Figure 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Click the box next to “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style” and then hit OK.

This will remove those pesky spaces throughout your document.

4) Quick Styles & Templates–If there is a particular manuscript format you use a lot, you can set up a template by formatting a document with the necessary formatting, including tabs, no spaces between paragraphs, double spacing, headers, etc. To do this, use a document and go through as follows:

Applying Styles Figure 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Highlight The Text you want to apply the style to.  

Note: You have to do this for every relevant style when setting up a template. It’s time consuming but that’s the only way to define the styles.

2. Click the appropriate style button.

If the default style is not what you want, then make adjustments to the text to add italics, underlining, etc. Do this without clicking a style button again for that text. We are going to reprogramming the definition of that button.

3. You can even include graphics.

This is handy if you are making a template for stationary, say, or something similar.

Saving Templates In Word Figure 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Click Save as, select “Word Template” in the document type and then name your template and Save.

The next time you want to apply this format to your document, you can then take the following steps:

1. Open the document you want to apply a template to. On the File Tab, press the Options button.

2. Select Add-Ins option from the menu on the left side of the Options dialog.

3. Click on Manage and choose Templates from the dropdown list. Press Go to open the Templates and Add-Ins Window.

4. Press Attach to open the Template Attachment Dialog. Select the template you want to attach to your document and then press Open.

5. When prompted, select Automatically Update Styles to change the styles of your document to match the styles of your template. Then click OK.

Yes, I know. It sounds time consuming. But only for set up. Once you have the template created, it’s a huge time saver. You can apply any template to any document so set up templates for the markets you submit to most and you won’t have to worry about spending long amounts of time reformatting submissions before you send them out.

Those are just 4 big time saving shortcuts for manuscript formatting. I’d love to hear others in comments, if you have them. Meanwhile, I hope this is helpful in freeing you up to write! For what it’s worth…


Beyond Sun Cover.inddBryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: 8 Tips For How To Approach Editing Your Work

WriteTips-flatThere’s nothing quite as enlightening for a writer as editing other’s works. I’ve learned a great deal about what to do and what not to do from my freelance editing which has helped me grow as a writer. So here are 10 key tips I’ve learned for Editing Your Novel:

1) Preserve The Fresh Eye — This can’t be overemphasized. I am not possessed of a great deal of patience. Never have been. But I’ve been editing for five years now, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned that has helped me improve my work. But none of that can be applied without having proper perspective. Putting aside your work until the rush of adrenaline and accomplishment at having finished such a monumental project fades (at least 4-6 weeks) is vital. Move on with other projects after a day or two of celebration. Get your mind on other things. You’ll come back much fresher and with better distance to be objective in reviewing your own work. After all, editing requires killing babies and nitpicking your favorite words and phrases, and you can’t be emotionally attached and do that well. This is an excellent time to send the work out for beta reading or notes. While you wait for that feedback, you can’t really begin editing in earnest, right? Or at least shouldn’t.

2) Watch Out For Intruder Words — This one is so vital I did a separate post on it here, but the basics are look for words like “saw, thought, wondered, felt, knew, heard,” etc. are all ‘intruder’ words. They intrude on the action, by stating extemporaneously what can be written more actively.  They pull us out of the intimate POV of the character and throw things into telling or passiveness.  There are times when one might deliberately choose to use intruder words. But these should be done with careful thought and sparingly.   Otherwise “She felt the wind blow across her face” is stronger as “The wind blew across her face”.  Or “She heard a bang” is better written as  ”A bang thundered behind her.”

3) Don’t Abuse The Tags — Speech tags are so common that people use them without much thought, but the industry has come to lean more and more toward minimal usage. When you have two characters going back and forth, you don’t always need to identify the speaker. If one of them makes a gesture or action, you can describe that action instead, and we’ll know the dialogue in the same paragraph is from that character. Also, be careful not to use words that are not descriptors of speech patterns. “I’m coming,” Bob waved, “as fast as I can.” Uh, no. Try: Bob waved in acknowledgement. “I’m coming as fast as I can.” Which makes more sense? I’ll do a post on this later on but it’s something that can and should be looked at in revision. Eliminate as many as you can.

4)  Read Aloud — This is one I struggle with. It can feel odd to read things aloud to yourself, but it also has great value. Especially in finding run-on sentences, awkwardly paced phrasing and even repetitive words. I often read aloud when I am comparing one wording with another to find which is more natural. Just because our internal voice reads as we write doesn’t mean our words will translate the same way for others. Remember that writing is a rhythm of stops and starts. You may pause to choose words and then continue without realizing you’ve just created an awkwardly paced or long sentence, or even missed punctuation that would make it clear. Reading it aloud, or even listening to someone else do so (if you can bear it), can teach you a lot about where you need to make changes.

5) Set Daily Goals — Don’t try and edit your entire novel in one sitting. You will start skimming and skipping without even realizing it. Editing requires a very focused reading and most of the time 2-5 chapters will be more than enough to accomplish in one sitting. Finish them and take a few hours away to refresh before starting on more. It’s okay to set goals for what you want to accomplish each day, but allow flexibility that enables you to step away when you get that glossy-eyed feeling so you can preserve the quality over quantity of your editing time.  Even when editing other people’s work, I set daily goals, because I know that at a certain point I become less effective and my work suffers for it. This happens all the more so when I am editing work I’m so overly familiar with, like my own.

6) Work From A Checklist — Either based on beta reader or editor notes or you own writing experience, having a checklist can be an excellent tool. Cat Rambo provides examples here. What are the areas of weakness and strength you’ve discovered in yourself as a writer? What are things you need to focus on? Is there a particular arc or character speech pattern to examine and refine? Are there themes which you discovered as you wrote you want to work in and layer throughout? What about repetitive words? Do you need to add or trim description? Maybe you need to cut excess words? Having a checklist to refer to with each chapter can keep you from getting sidetracked by one aspect and ignoring others. It can keep you on track and remind you to address all of the issues which were on your mind when you sat down to commence the edit.

7) Evaluate Necessity — One of the most important things to do is to evaluate the purpose of every scene and character. What does this scene or character do to further the plot? How do they relate to the key conflicts? Do they advance the story? World-building is a legitimate way to advance the story but don’t overdo it. 3 pages of double spaced manuscript can be 10 pages in the finished book. Will readers really sit through that much description and detail about every day items, clothing, food, etc.? Did you really need a new character for that moment or could an existing one have been recycled allowing you to develop them further? Does that little vignette about the character’s past or emotional life really contribute to what’s going on now? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you need to be willing to start cutting nonvital characters, scenes, words, etc.

8 ) Be Willing To Work In Stages — Sometimes, especially when an area is a particular weakness, focusing on just one issue while editing is appropriate. You can do separate passes for pacing, removing extra words, character arcs, etc. if necessary. Don’t be so rushed to get it done that you don’t allow yourself the time to get it right. It’s a natural part of the writing journey that we internalize various skills as we go along and develop, but we don’t start out with mastery of them all or an ability to use them all simultaneously. Even as a professional editor, I can’t do a serious copyedit and developmental edit at the same time. I have to do them separately. The two tasks require different types of focus and thinking and one can easily distract from the other. So be willing to break your edit into separate passes or stages when required. Your book will be much better for it.

I’m sure I could think of more tips but that’s enough for today. Those are tips I find are not often remembered because editing discussions so often focus on craft and storytelling details, but how you approach the process can be just as vital to the success of it as those technical details. So I hope these are helpful in stimulating your planning and approach. I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. By the way, these same tips can be applied on a smaller scale to editing short stories as well. And they work for both fiction and nonfiction. I edit all three. For what it’s worth…


BTS & Friend take 2Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: 5 Things Every Writer Should Know About Working With Independent Editors

WriteTips-flatWith apologies, I’m a day late getting my weekly Write Tip post up.

At some point or another, all writers have to consider whether or not their manuscript could use an editor. For most pros, that’s not even a question. I’ve used editors on all novels since the beginning and all of them have brought great benefit and growth to me as a writer in improving my work. As I grew, I started editing myself and have been editing freelance since 2009. Only in the last few months has it become viable as a part time job, combined with writing to make full time. But the more I do it, the more passionate I become. I love the variety I get to experience from fiction to nonfiction, one genre to another. I love the diversity of voices and writers I encounter. But freelance life can be tough, in large part because many clients don’t really understand what we do, why we do it, and the circumstances under which we work.

So here are ? Things Every Writer Should Know About Working With Independent Editors:

1) Independent Editors are your friends. Our job and living come from helping writers make their work better, the best it can be. It’s the passion that brought us to freelance work and the risks inherent in that, and it’s what keeps us coming back for more.  We are not acquisitions editors looking for a reason to say no. We are not motivated by favoritism and we are not out to crush your dreams. We want your work to sparkle, and we’re thankful you’ve given us the opportunity to help.

2) Independent Editors are freelancers. Most of us work freelance, so what that means is, we get paid by the job, when the client gets around to it. For those, like me, who depend on editing as their sole income, that means we have to set our schedules, find our own clients and set our own guidelines. While we want to help you, we have to treat all clients the same. Your job is not more important than everyone else’s. If I am on a job, the next job I accept begins when the first job is complete. But if I complete your job and you come back to me a month later with changes, you also have to wait in the queue. I cannot drop everything and go back to work for you. I also can’t wait and not take jobs just because you expect to have a manuscript for me to edit on x-date. Turning down paid work is suicide. I can’t afford it, and I can’t afford to turn clients away. So please keep this in mind when you set your expectations.

3) Independent Editors make suggestions. We suggest changes we believe will make your work better, based on a lot of criteria and experience. For those of us who are writers, it’s often things we’ve been told by editors on our own work. There are industry standards, house standards at publishers, etc. as well. Our job is to help you be aware of potential issues. It’s your choice whether or not to take our advice. So, there’s no need to be contentious about changes. It’s just an opinion, the final decision is yours.

4) Independent Editing Takes Focus and Time. Editing is detail oriented. You want someone to read carefully and consider the big picture of the manuscript, not just each page individually, but as a whole. You want the editor’s notes to reflect that. Because it’s difficult to do line and copy edits and developmental edits simultaneously, that means we may need to read your work more than once. That takes time. Because it takes focus, we often can’t edit multiple projects simultaneously. We need to keep our head in the game of your manuscript. So when  you’re our current project, all of our focus is on yours. That means, until we’re done editing your work, we aren’t free to work for anyone else. You pay us to make time and do it right. Editing is not where you want to be cheap, folks. Professional editors at publishers get paid very well per hour. Most freelancers make much less. Keep this in mind next time you complain about how expensive independent editing is.

5) Independent Editors live paycheck to paycheck. Unless you meet an independent editor with a second job, we’re counting on you to help pay our bills. We can take limited numbers of jobs per month, based on what we can reasonably accomplish, and our editing income is a primary source for rent, utilities, food and more. That means if you pay us late, we are late on bills. This is why so many of us ask for deposits up front. I have clients who pay me a month late. Sometimes longer. When I set aside time for January income and don’t get paid until March, that really puts me in a bad position.  It creates stress. Stress hurts my focus for other work. It also requires time to keep reminding you of the payment due. Billing is a necessary evil. It’s not why I got into editing. It’s not my favorite part. I don’t enjoy it. I wish everyone paid fof work they commissioned promptly with consideration for my needs. That’s not the way the world works. But keep this in mind when hiring editors. Most of us will give you an estimate and let you know beforehand if we’re going to exceed that estimate and by how much we expect that to be. Have the money in hand to pay us and please, pay promptly. You’ll make us that much more likely to go the extra mile when working for you in the future or even recommending your work.

So, when you find yourself considering hiring an independent editor, please remember these things and keep them in mind. I strive very hard, as do most independent editors I know, to exceed client expectations. I want you to have a great experience. Most of all, I want you to succeed. I feel like when a client succeeds as a writer, it’s also my success. It feels good. All I ask in return is that we have a good, professional business relationship. That way it mutually benefits both of us. And remember, I learn as much as a writer from editing you as you do from being edited.

For what it’s worth…

Raygun-Chronicles-Make-This-Happen-Banner
My latest project:


BTS author photoBryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: Keeping Out The Intruder Words

WriteTips-flatOne of the things you learn on the writing journey is the importance of word choice. Certain types of words have certain types of impacts on your story, not just in evoking emotions or images, but in setting the tone, creating the voice, world building, and more. Some words create intimacy and a feeling of closeness in point of view, carrying readers inside the mind of your characters, inside the world of the story. Others create barriers, distancing them. Among these are Intruder Words.

‘Wondered, felt, thought, saw, knew, heard,’ etc. are all ‘intruder’ words.  They intrude on the action, by stating extemporaneously what can be written more actively.  They pull us out of the intimate POV of the character and throw things into telling or passiveness.  There are times when one might deliberately choose to use intruder words. But these should be done with careful thought and sparingly.   Otherwise “She felt the wind blow across her face” is stronger as “The wind blew across her face”.  Or “She heard a bang” is better written as  “A bang thundered behind her.”

Can you see the difference?

One form describes something flatly, the other creates an experience of it.

One form is rather drab and ordinary, the other visceral and alive. And thus, avoiding such words can help you create prose that pops off the page, bringing your story to life for readers.

Like anything in writing, retraining yourself to avoid using Intruder Words takes practice. At first, you’ll have to go back through and weed them out, like the common passives “began to, seemed to, going to, starting to,” etc. These words are used so naturally in speech and daily living that they’ll pour out of you like maple syrup from a tree. And it will take building your conscious awareness to start relearning when and when not to use them.

Once you’re aware of the problem, however, the process of identifying and eliminating these words can actually be good practice. If like me, you struggle with descriptive phrasing and writing viscerally, they provide an opportunity to learn craft through lots of practice, because you’ll undoubtedly find these words invading your prose on every page. But over time, with practice, you’ll find your mind filters them as you write. “Stop, need a new word,” that inner voice will say. And then, after a while more, you won’t even think of them. At least, not automatically. And using them intentionally is the only way you want to do it when it comes to your prose.

Don’t worry. We’re not talking about something that will make you talk funny. There’s a difference between how people talk and how we must write, after all. As my English teacher Barbara Sackrider once said: “If you say y’all in my classroom, you get an F, but if you talk to me on the street and say ‘you all,’ I’ll look at you like a freak.” Okay, she was joking.  But her point was well taken by my 15-year-old mind. After all, English dialects are complicated and the rules of grammar are tailor-made to be broken by them.

Let’s compare two passages: one with Intruder Words and one without.

 

With

He gained consciousness sweaty and hot, lying on his back. It took a moment for the black spots to fade, replaced by the blinding sunlight and white sand stretching as far as the eye could see. Where am I?  The sandy landscape reflected sunlight and heat back at him as he sat up, shaking off the sleep. Scattered belongings—clothes, canteens, a shattered barrel and trunk, torn saddlebags—stretched off into the distance toward the remains of a wagon. He saw footsteps leading toward him, smeared and uneven as if perhaps he’d stumbled to where he lay. Sunlight glinted off flesh atop a nearby dune. Was someone else alive? Then he saw limbs scattered along the path away from the torso—an arm severed at the elbow, the hand still attached, fingers stiffened like claws, a leg severed mid-thigh, another cut off above the ankle—and he knew the answer.

Without

He gained consciousness sweaty and hot, lying on his back. It took a moment for the black spots to fade, replaced by the blinding sunlight and white sand stretching as far as the eye could see. Where am I?  The sandy landscape reflected sunlight and heat back at him as he sat up, shaking off the sleep. Scattered belongings—clothes, canteens, a shattered barrel and trunk, torn saddlebags—stretched off into the distance toward the remains of a wagon. Footsteps led toward him, smeared and uneven as if perhaps he’d stumbled to where he lay. Sunlight glinted off flesh atop a nearby dune. Was someone else alive? Scattered severed limbs—an arm severed at the elbow, the hand still attached, fingers stiffened like claws, a leg severed mid-thigh, another cut off mid-calf—provided the answer.

 

Which works better for you? Which is more powerful and draws you? Can you see the difference?

Don’t let Intruder Words intrude in your stories and on your readers. Instead, replace them with words that help bring your stories to life and draw readers in. It’s a sure sign of a writer who’s professional rather than amateur. It’ll help take your prose to the next level.

For what it’s worth…


The Returning Cover front onlyBryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: Advice From the Slushpile – Writing Lower Word Counts is a Writer’s Best Friend

I get asked a lot these days for tips on how to sell stories, etc. One tip, I’ve never heard a lot is learn to write to word counts. But I’d go one further, learn to write low word counts. Why? If an editor gives you guidelines with a range of 3-8k, that doesn’t mean the editor can afford to buy all 8k stories for a magazine issue or anthology. It means they want and need a range. It means, if everyone who submits sends in 8k stories, most of them will wind up rejected, even if their stories are perfectly good. That’s right.

My budget and my contract stipulate word count. With the magazine, I can go slightly over or under or just save a story for the next issue. With the anthology, once it’s full, it’s full. If I buy all 6k and 7k stories, the 20 I said I’d include drops to 15 or 16. That means that some writers who thought they had a chance, won’t because I can’t buy as many stories as I intended. It also means I am rejecting stories I really like.

Yes, that sucks. Not just for writers, for me, the editor, too.

I don’t like rejecting your stories. I like making you and me happy and buying them. But I do have to have standards. Quality and craft are among them, yes. But so are practical issues like budget and word count. Budgets are usually estimated on averages, too. 3-8 k, means I budget for 5500 word stories and hope I can get enough of a range to come in on budget. If I go over, I get paid less. Too far over, I’d be paying you out of my own pocket and not getting paid.

Since magazines and anthologies are hard to make money on, I usually have very tight budgets. So that means, if you learn how to write a story concisely, in the lower end of the word counts in my guidelines, you are greatly increasing the likelihood of selling me your stories.

This doesn’t apply, of course, to headliners.  If I can get 7k words from Bob Silverberg and Nancy Kress, I’ll take it any day over 7k words from John Doe writer. Why? Because the names Kress and Silverberg sell anthologies and the more words I have from them, the better quality and appeal I have overall for my project. It’s reality.

So if you’re not a headliner, writing lower word counts is your best friend. It’s an exercise you should challenge yourself to learn. Set a word count goal and write to it. Don’t give up. It’s not as hard as you think to cut 1k words from a story. That’s easy. Cutting 1500-3k is really, really hard. It gets harder the higher you go. You start to feel like you’re cutting your voice and style right out. But if you start smaller, you won’t have to worry about that.

There’s always a lot of fat one can cut from stories. No matter who you are.  And, as editor, I will mark stuff up in everyone’s document, headliner or not, if I think it can be cut. Now, many headliners know this and write so tightly it’s work for me to find stuff to cut. They know how to cut the chafe and save the wheat, and their stories come in crisp and tight as a result. You should aim to learn that,  too. It’s hard to say no to stories that are exactly the length they need to be. Unfortunately, the longer I edit, the more stories I read, the more I find that most stories don’t meet that standard. And so I either get the writer to trim them or I turn them down. Even if I think they’re good stories.

And you know where the first place to look is, besides -ly adverbs (the obvious choice)? Your favorite lines and baby moments. Yep. I kid you not. Those moments we write which give us the most warm fuzzies are the ones that most often become bloated, and we’re blinded to it by our warm fuzziness. The saying “learn to kill your darlings/babies” is about more than just cutting entire scenes. It’s about cutting vocabulary and word count. It applies on multiple levels.

Seriously.

I got into editing because I love working with writers. I love the squeeing they make when I tell them I liked their story. I love the smile on their face when I help them make it better or when someone else loves it, too, and discovers them because I bought it. I love creating opportunities for others to get paid doing what they love. I love helping people, period. So, you see, my telling you this is not coming from enmity, I assure you. I’m telling you to kill your babies because I like writers. I want you to blow me away. I want you to sell me a story. I want you to win.

But there are practical realities we all serve here. You have to write a story I can’t refuse, and while craft and storytelling may make up the bulk of that, practical matters you probably don’t give much thought to you also play a role. I want to get paid, too. And I want to honor my contracts. I want to buy as many stories as I can, sure. But I must do it within the limits of money and space.

So, you want advice on how to place more stories in anthologies and zines as an up and comer? Learn to write lower word counts. Practice telling a story well with less words. L:earn to kill your babies. Writing lower word counts is a key to success, trust me.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends(forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: Advice From The Slushpile-8 Common Mistakes To Avoid In Submitting Manuscripts

This week, I decided to cover something which is going to seem obvious to some but clearly isn’t: common mistakes to avoid in submitting your work. As a slush reader at Ray Gun Revival and now as anthology and zine editor, these are things I’ve seen again and again. And not just from novice writers, who might be excused for their ignorance with an over eagerness that we’ve all been through. No, I’m seeing these from SFWA and Codex members and people I know have been published and submitted a lot. And folks, there’s no excuse for them except one: laziness. So here are 10 Common Mistakes To Avoid When Submitting Manuscripts.

1) Read Guidelines-All editors have them somewhere. They exist to give you an advantage. Ignoring them is stupid. Why? a) If I’m an editor telling you what I want to see, with competition for story sales being what it is, why in the world would you not use this to your advantage? b) If I told you how I want submissions to look and be done, ignoring it is telling me you either don’t respect me, don’t care or think you’re above it. All three are the signs of not just unprofessionalism but an attitude that bodes negative things for our working relationship.

2) Use Standard Formatting-You don’t have to like it. We don’t care if you find it annoying. We don’t care if it seems old fashioned. It’s industry standard for reasons from tradition to ease of import for programs like Adobe InDesign, so just do it. Examples are rampant, but one of the most respected comes from Bill Shunn and can be found here. He even offers samples to download. Take advantage of it and get it right. Our guidelines will tell you if you except any variant, if not, show us you’re professional and at least meet the standard.

3) Use Spellcheck-Some typos fall under things we can forgive: the occasional missed word, for example. A missed period or capital letter on occasion. Words that are actual words but not the one you missed. If you read your story aloud or have betas read it before submission, you’d likely catch them, but at least they are things that can happen to anyone. In the case of words that any basic spell check ought to catch, there’s just no excuse. “Matter” and “mater” are not the same word. “Rond” instead of “round” is something that just shouldn’t be missed. If you don’t care enough to make the simplest effort to get it right, why should we read your story or care about it?

4) Keep Cover Letters Short-Folks, I am a slush reader. I get tons of submissions. I don’t want your life story. I don’t want your brown nosing. I just want good stories. Don’t write me long letters about admiring me and the zine, etc. Tell me your name, the name of the story, the word count, any relevant publications (i.e. markets I’ve heard of), thank me, sign your name and attach the file. Keep it simple. If I want a full bio or list of credits, I’ll ask for it. Unless your mother is an industry luminary, her opinion has no value to me. That goes for any other relatives or friends in your inner circle. And don’t lie about it either. I know lots of people. I can probably verify the truth of it if I get curious. Don’t make me think you’re up for wasting my time before I even get to your story. TRUST ME.

5) Include Your Contact Information-This is part of standard formatting. Again, you can find it here. But really, if I want to send you a contract, email you or mail a check, don’t make me go through twenty steps to track you down. Put it right on the story, before the title and byline. Name, Address, City, State, Zip, email, and if you’re a SFWA, Codex or other member. Phone number can be helpful too and is a good idea. That’s it. Word Count across the page. Boom. Make it easy to deal with you. We have to deal with so many writers, the ones who make it easy definitely make the best impressions.

6) Spell My Name and Title Right-Yeah, it sounds obvious but my name is BrYan not BrIan. It’s right on the guidelines. It’s on the staff page. It’s on my bio. If you don’t care to get that right, then I can assume you aren’t concerned about the details of anything else either. It’s also a sign of simple respect. Simple respect and politeness go along way in businesses where relationships and networking play a key role. This is one of them so be polite and have respect.

7) Read Up-Read copies of the magazine or anthologies I’ve edited. Read my blog. Ask writers who’ve worked with me. Find out about my likes, dislikes, etc. in any way you can. It’s probably in my guidelines, but sending me stuff that will automatically get rejected like erotica, porn, gratuitous sex and violence or often non-family friendly stuff (I state specifically for each project what the limits are) is going to waste both of our time and leave me again feeling that you’re either lazy, disrespectful or cocky. None of which makes me remember your name as someone I’d like to work with.

8 )  Use The Right Submission Address-Yes, often my personal email or editor’s box email is available. There are all kinds of reasons for this. But if the guidelines tell you to submit stories to another address, unless I specifically asked you to do otherwise, use the address as instructed. I’m a nice guy. I try and treat people the way I want to be treated. I’m not at the point where I am so tired of writers making these mistakes that I’ll reject a story out of hand for them, but I can see why editors do this. I get tons of email like anyone else. Having paths I use for various types of email help me keep it organized. Don’t think you’re an exception to the rules unless I tell you. I have the rules for a reason.

I think what makes these errors so annoying in their commonness is that they could be so easily avoided. If you writers don’t take your career seriously enough to get the easy stuff right, it’s hard to trust that you’ll be serious about the big stuff, and that tends to leave an impression that you are someone we might not want to work with. In any case, something to consider and take seriously. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is editor of Blue Shift Magazine, and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

 

Write Tip: 5 Keys To A Successful Freelance Editing/Writing Business

Well, I’ve dreamed for years of full time writing and creative work, and at least for the past two months, I’ve been living that nicely. I’m grateful for this development. I had not had full time work since May 2010, when I was laid off. I have been on unemployment and food stamps and looking for work has been my job, but instead of letting it get me down, I also spent a lot of time writing and editing and developing my network. That has finally paid off in steady work which, if it continues at the present level, should put me at $30k income by a year from now, maybe more. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m thoroughly loving it. But it’s taken a lot of effort to learn how to do this and I continue to learn more all time. I get asked for advice these days on how to build a freelance career, so here a few key tips I’ve learned which have helped me so far:

1) Diversity — You need to develop your knowledge not only of diverse software but types of writing and editing. From technical to creative, marketing to fiction, you should be familiar with Microsoft Word, Microsoft Publisher, Microsoft Visio, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Standard/Reader and anything else you can get your hands on. The needs of the jobs vary but being diverse in not only the types of materials you can offer as well as the types of software platforms you are familiar with will really give you the most opportunities. It takes time to develop this, and, perhaps, money if you need software. Some of it can be bought used for much less price. Free classes can often be taken online. Whatever the case, you should develop skills as much as possible in as many areas as you can. And you should build portfolio samples to demonstrate them.

2) Disciplined Hard Work — There’s no way around this. If you want to make money doing this, you must treat it as a job. Set aside specific hours, keep track of them and your tasks, research proper invoicing and rates, track expenses and dedicate the necessary time to work. I have both a daily planner and large desk calendar I use as well as my computer and smart phone to track projects, deadlines, hours, etc. I also track when I bill clients, when they pay me, how much I am owed, bills, etc. I keep a large queue of projects going: http://bryanthomasschmidt.net/2012/10/28/works-in-progress-writing-editing-projects-i-am-working-on/ is my latest list. And I prioritize both based on deadlines clients ask for, when I receive them, type of work, etc. I am honest and up front with clients when time gets off schedule and I work hard to make sure they are kept abreast of all developments. In return, I am developing some steady clients who come back to me and recommend me to others.  You must discipline yourself. You can’t be fly-by-night if you want to succeed. Clients do expect fast turn around and high quality. They have a right to when they’re paying you $25-30 an hour and expecting to get good advice. And it means you have to sometimes put your personal projects aside and put the paying projects first. The only way to keep room for your personal projects, in my experience, is to be disciplined and schedule your time well.

3) Networking/Reputation — Almost every opportunity you get will be the result of referrals or tips from someone else. So building a good network and reputation is very important. Not just a reputation as a nice person either. Although my approach of treating people the way I want to be treated is definitely paying off, so is my reputation for meeting deadlines, going out of my way to help and encourage clients, going the extra mile from time-to-time when it’s called for and always doing quality work. Consistency in all of these things will be vital to your success and I highly recommend that you figure out what they mean for you and how to deliver them early on. A big part of this relates to deadlines and billing. Every client wants it yesterday. No one is patient when it comes to this stuff. But if they want quality, they have to give you the time to do it. I always estimate longer than I need so if things come up I am covered for delivering late. It’s far better to please them by turning things in early than disappoint them by being late. The same is true of billing. Estimate higher than expected. Surprising them with a smaller bill than expected makes them smile. Surprising them with a higher bill than expected never does. In fact, it can cause conflict. So don’t create potential conflict by failing to allow for delays and unexpected circumstances.

4) Multitasking — You will have to have the discipline and dedication to juggle multiple projects. There’s no way around it. And it can be hard. It’s hard to edit more than one book at a time. For me, editing a novel and a nonfiction piece can be done simultaneously. I can also edit short stories while editing a novel. Editing two novels at the same time is too hard. You get confused on story elements, voice,  pacing, etc. and it slows you down, so I have to keep that in mind when setting up my queues.  I tell the clients where they are in the queue and when they can expect me to deliver, and if that changes, I inform them why and how much extra time they should expect. I also offer discounts for larger jobs. You can’t live on one job, so you’ll need several. I spend an hour or two a day doing marketing work, an hour or two paid blogging, and at least four hours on editing, every day. My personal writing time comes beyond that. But at $25-30 an hour, again, I am averaging $125-150 a day which, 5 days a week (I actually work 7 right now) will add up to around $30-40k a year.

5) Marketing — A big part of your marketing is word of mouth. There’s no way around it. But you should also have a website with rates, client blurbs, a list of projects, a bio, and a blog containing helpful tips, talking about your process etc. Put links to this in your bios and email signatures, and spread the word when you can. Ask clients for referrals. Ask friends as well. Let people know what you’re doing. Do some free work in the beginning to prove yourself. Also sites like www.fiverr.com offer the opportunity to demonstrate what you offer at lower rates that can help you build up your client list for later.  In the beginning, you start out as an unknown, so you have to make effort to show people you’re capable. From doing websites for people to marketing materials, beta reading critiques, story critiques, and even editing, you can get people talking about and recommending your work. That brings you to the attention of people searching for someone to help them. It takes time. I did so much volunteering for three years and now it’s paying off. From www.fiverr.com 30 minute editing jobs for $5 to editing an anthology gratis to prove myself, I did what I had to, and I’m grateful it’s paid off.

I’m sure I can do more posts on this if it interests people, but that’s enough to really get you started down the right road. I hope it helps both direct and encourage you. I know it’s worked for me, and I hope it continues to. I hope it works for you, too. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tips: Writing The Short Query Novel Pitch

Query letters and synopses are the bane of so many authors’ existence, aren’t they? I dread them and find them quite frustrating. They never seem to elicit the kind of enthusiastic response equal to that I get from my writing itself. It’s always disappointing when readers are loving a manuscript but you can’t agents or publishers to take a look. Yes, I know it’s all about numbers (i.e. percenatages) and finding the right match, but still, it’s so much easier when you can let the writing sell itself, but that’s not how the industry works.

Now, there’s good reason for that. By sheer quantity alone, agents and editors just can’t read all the millions of words that people try and put on their desks. A weeding out of wheat from chafe is necessary and there’s not a perfect way to do that. So query letters and synopses remain key elements of getting professionally published. I don’t see this changing for the foreseeable future either.

That leaves writers with one option: we must learn how to write queries and synopses. So I decided to do a series of Write Tips on related topics as I prepare for my latest round. This first one is going to deal with one of the most important but challenging: writing the short query synopsis for your book. You have to hook them in 100 words and get them to want more. It’s really tough to sum up a 130k novel in 100 words. 90k novels, too. But one of the first paragraphs and key paragraphs of any good query, research says, is the synopsis of the book. So, here’s the one I am working on for Duneman, book 1 of my epic fantasy trilogy The Dawning Age.

The Terran Lands, ravaged by wars brought on by men of faith and men of magic. As science and reason replace the now outlawed beliefs, a struggle for control of the new technologies and discoveries threatens the peace again. In the midst of this, a man of faith, Kaleb Ryder, awakens in the desert, left for dead, only to be told his wife and child are missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. With the child’s fate tied to the peace of the Lands, Kaleb’s life is on the line, and he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself. Duneman, Book 1 Of The Dawning Age, an epic fantasy trilogy.

But before we talk about that, here’s where I started and some Facebook comments that helped me get where I am. (And I am still not done.)

In a world transitioning from a war torn age of faith and magic to a peaceful age of science and reason, a man awakens in the desert, left for dead. As he begins piecing back together his identity and his past, he sets out to rescue the kidnapped wife and child who hold the answers he needs. But soon he discovers things are not what they seem—discovering skills he hadn’t imagined he had and evidence that the wife and child are not who he thought. Others are hunting them with nefarious goals and the race is on to see who will get there first. With his life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to uncover the truths about himself and his past and protect his future.

Duneman, Book 1 Of The Dawning Age, an epic fantasy trilogy by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Here are comments from my Facebook page a couple of months back when I posted this.

    • Tim Ward I’m not really one to judge query letters, but it looks like a story I’d want to read.
    • Charles P. Zaglanis I would suggest using their names. Even as an introduction, I want to get a feel for the people in the story. Also, maybe excise the bit that sounds like Total Recall, the movie didn’t do well.
    • Chelvanaya Gabriel Ooooh – I really like the sound of this! 🙂 Might I suggest: “In a world transitioning from a war-torn age of faith and magic to a peaceful age of science and reason, a man awakens in the desert, left for dead and his wife and child kidnapped/missing/lost/gone/taken. Setting out to rescue them, he soon discovers things are not what they seem – his family may not be who he thought, others are on the hunt for them and he possesses skills previously unknown to him. With his life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, the race is on for him to rescue his wife and child, protect their future and uncover truths about himself.”
    • Cindy Koepp Neato! That sounds like one I’d want to read.
    • Jay Werkheiser Here are a few tweaks I might recommend, but bear in mind that I’m no expert on writing query letters! I’d drop “back” from piecing back his identity. You use forms of the word “discover” twice in the same sentence; I would change one of them. Also in that sentence, I would drop “he had” after skills he hadn’t imagined. In the next sentence, I would drop “with nefarious goals” and “to see who gets there first;” I think both are already implied by the context. Like I said, take my suggestions with a large grain of salt; use what you like and ignore the rest! In any case, it sounds like a cool novel!
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt Jay, Chelvanya, helpful thanks. Thanks Tim and Cindy and even Joe. Charles, honestly, which part sounds like Total Recall? I am missing it…
      Also the problem with names is his identity changes over the course of the story. So it’s hard to know which name to use.
    • Chelvanaya Gabriel I like the idea of using his name but I can see why it would be tricky. If you want to use a name, maybe you could use whatever name he starts out with? I feel like using a name works best when the name is unique (even if it is going to change). OR maybe to get that same connection to the story via a name, why not give us the name of the world?
    • Guy Anthony De Marco Any time I see “In a world”, the voice switches to the guy who does voice-overs for movie trailers and I get distracted 🙂
    • Ann Leckie Ditto on using names, at least your MC. I have the same problem with my MC, and I chose one for the query. Which was very successful. I’m in agreement with the “In a world where…” being maybe not the best approach. I also think that “transitioning from a war torn age of faith and magic to a peaceful age of science and reason” is a bit awkward–I had to take a couple runs at it to separate it out. And I’d suggest that it’s information that doesn’t need to be in the first sentence. It should be there, just not right up front like that, IMO.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt ROUND 2: Kaleb Ryder awakens in the desert, left for dead, his wife and child missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and rediscover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from skills he hadn’t imagined to questions about his relation to the kidnapped woman and child. The Terran Lands have transitioned from a war-torn age of faith and magic to one of science and reason where the former are now banned. Now, with Kaleb’s life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris his wife and child missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and rediscover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from skills he hadn’t imagined to questions about his relation to the kidnapped woman and child. <–there’s a contradiction here. You tell us his wife and child are missing, then he has questions about his relationship to the kidnapped woman and child…but you’ve already told us what that is. I’d recommend introducing the kidnapped woman and child as unknowns (and telling us why he cares about rescuing them), then raising the question of how they might be related to him. I think we need to know more specifically what the conflict is and how it relates to the peace of their world and Kaleb’s personal quest to find out who he is.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt The challenge is he starts out believing one thing and so do we as readers, but it gets twisted and changes over the course of the story. How to convey that in a way that won’t have someone who accepted a query feeling deceived is difficult.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt ROUND 2b: Kaleb Ryder awakens in the desert, left for dead, his wife and child missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. The Terran Lands have transitioned from a war-torn age of faith and magic to one of science and reason where the former are now banned. Now, with Kaleb’s life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris I’d say “apparent relationship with the kidnapped woman and child”, and make the things he discovers about his world and himself a little more apparent. Also, if he doesn’t remember who he is, how does he know his wife and child are missing? Is there evidence that’s been planted to make him think that? If he doesn’t remember and doesn’t feel anyhting for them because of that lack of memory, why does that draw him through the story? (these are just questions I’ve got, which an agent might also have. I’m still trying to figure out why his quest has anything to do with the conflict between magic and science, war and peace. Can you tie that more solidly together? At the moment, I can’t figure out why he cares about the woman and child or the transition of the government from magic to science, because what you’ve given is still a bit too vague.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris I’d also just say that all your secrets don’t have to be saved until later. Sometimes you have to spoil the plot a bit in order to show off the main conflict.
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt The Terran Lands, ravaged by wars brought on by men of faith and men of magic. As science and reason replace the now outlawed beliefs, a struggle for control of the new technologies and discoveries threatens the peace again. In the midst of this, a man of faith, Kaleb Ryder, awakens in the desert, left for dead, only to be told his wife and child are missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. Now, with Kaleb’s life on the line and the peace of their world in danger, he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
    • Lauren ‘Scribe’ Harris I like that a lot better! I think it explains more. What’s still missing is what this has to do with the peace of their world. What role will Kaleb play?
    • Bryan Thomas Schmidt The Terran Lands, ravaged by wars brought on by men of faith and men of magic. As science and reason replace the now outlawed beliefs, a struggle for control of the new technologies and discoveries threatens the peace again. In the midst of this, a man of faith, Kaleb Ryder, awakens in the desert, left for dead, only to be told his wife and child are missing along with his identity and his past. Determined to save his family and recover who he is in the process, Kaleb soon finds that things are not what they seem—from himself to his world and his relationship with the kidnapped woman and child. With the child’s fate tied to the peace of the Lands, Kaleb’s life is on the line, and he must rescue the woman and child to protect their future and uncover the truth about himself.
      Duneman, Book 1 Of The Dawning Age, an epic fantasy trilogy.
Okay, that gives you a sense of where I started and how it evolved. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear in comments. Next we’ll discuss the rest of the query before we move on to the big synopsis.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: 7 Things You Should Never Do After Getting Revision Notes From An Editor

Getting a personal response on a story you’ve submitted from an editor is a big deal for most writers. At least those of us in the early years of our career. To have gotten a personal response at all puts you in the elite. After all, writers spend years getting form rejections and some never get over the hurdle to a personal response. It means your story was good enough to get past slush readers or first readers to the editor themselves. And it means that it impressed them enough–i.e. you impressed them enough–they felt you deserved the respect of a personal reply. When that reply is not a rejection but a request for revisions and invitation to resubmit that’s even better. It’s okay to be excited. It’s okay to be terrified. Such events rightly provoke both. But before you respond, you should think carefully about your next move. Here’s some things I’ve learned as both editor and in discussion with other editors and writers that you shouldn’t do:

1) Tell People You Have A Story Sale – You don’t have a sale until you get a contract, or, at the very least, a note from the editor saying he or she wants to buy the story. So don’t jump the gun. It can not only be embarrassing but it’s unprofessional. Do it more than once, not only will your friends not take you seriously when you tell them the next time, but fellow pros may not take you seriously in other contexts as well. It’s okay to be excited. It’s okay to tell people you got a personal note. But represent it for what it is and don’t jump the gun.

2 ) Send Back a Rant – This may seem obvious but writers often have a range of reactions to story notes. Sometimes, especially when the notes are simple, they’re pleased and relieved. Changes can be made quickly and easily, with no stress and hardly any effort, and the story sent back. But other times, and usually this is the case when an editor asks you to revise and resubmit, there may be substantial changes requested. Some may even seem to take your story in a different direction than you’d planned. Some may make you think the editor missed what you were trying to do. If the changes are unclear, contacting the editor is okay, but never in anger. Even if you think the editor’s stupid or wrong, that’s information best kept between yourself, your mother, your lover and your pets. Don’t discuss it on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t mention the editor by name if you don’t have to. Keep it to a small, close circle.  Sharing that with anyone else is bad news, especially the editor and other pros. It will never bring good results. It can only bring trouble. Save the Rant. Trust me.

3)Rewrite From Scratch – Sometimes the changes are overwhelming, either because they require a lot of work or restructuring, even a completely rewritten section, perhaps, or because you don’t know how to do them. Once you get past the “OMG, a professional editor liked my story enough to write back personally” phase and the “OMG I’m on the verg of a sale” phase, stop and think. By all means, reread the story carefully to see what’s asked for. Jot down notes if ideas come to you on some of the changes.  By all means make the changes that seem obvious and simple. If an idea comes to you for the more complicated ones that seems to get it where the editor wants you to go, make it. But the one thing you shouldn’t do is start over from scratch. Undoubtedly the notes will ask for changes. But along with that, they likely mention things the editor liked. If they didn’t see potential for a sale, you’d have just gotten a rejection, after all. So be sure you preserve what they liked about the story while fixing what they don’t. I had a writer almost rewrite himself out of an anthology I was editing because he took his story back with my notes and trashed half of what I loved about it in a complete rewrite.  This was a friend. And it was my first anthology as editor, so I called him and we discussed it. With a few more changes, I bought it anyway, but most editors would just pass. They don’t have the time or personal interest to put in that effort, so don’t over complicate it for yourself.

4) Bombard The Editor With Endless Questions – It’s okay to ask for clarifications if there’s something you don’t understand when an editor sends notes. It’s also okay if word changes are asked that you’re not comfortable with to explain the original choice and then ask if you can keep it. Editors send lots of changes. Not all of them are deal breakers. They know which ones they are but they might not spell it out. Wait until you’re reread the story and reviewed all the notes. Make the changes you’re comfortable with right away before contacting the editor. Then ask the rest in a clear manner, one at a time, noting page, etc. Don’t call the editor unless they invited you to do so. Do this by email or letter, depending on how they contacted you. Editors get lots of phone calls and have lots of obligations. Calling uninvited is a bit like demanding attention right now. Unless you’re a regular contributor or friend to the editor, you don’t want to send that message yet. And if you get to three emails with such questions all initiated by you, don’t hit send. Instead, stop and find someone else to bounce it off of. Trust me. Unless the editor shows clear interest and willingness to make time for ongoing discussion, you risk making yourself a pest or coming off as needy and difficult. Neither will endear you to the editor. They may pass on not only your story but you.

5) Rush Through The Tweaks Asked For Without Careful Reread And Consideration Of How They Affect The Rest – If an editor has taken the time to send notes and encourage you to resubmit, they’ve probably read your story more than once. They’ve given careful thought to what you’re trying to accomplish, how it fits with what they’re trying to accomplish and how best to get you there. But they’ve also likely read the story more recently than you have. Don’t send in revisions without a complete, careful reread of your story. Do not skim. Sit down when you can relax and consider every word. The last thing you want is a hasty rewrite that messes up other elements of the story. Make sure it’s right before you resubmit every time.

6 ) Send The Story To Another Market And Ignore The Editor – You should always respond to the editor with at least a short “thank you.” Even if you decide the changes requested are not something you’re comfortable with. It is your story, after all. It’s okay to thank them for their interest and the kind time they took to read the story and offer notes. You can tell them you’d prefer to send the story as is to other markets first. But be sure and let them know one way or the other whether they can expect it. Especially with anthologies, the editor may be holding other stories to wait and see yours. They have deadlines, too.  Trust, it’s very frustrating as an editor to be waiting for a resubmission that never comes. Be Professional. Communicate. If you don’t and they later see it somewhere else, you have made a bad impression it’ll be hard to shake.

7) Throw The Story In the Circular File – This one I always thought was obvious but I’ve learned it’s not. Just because the story was not perfect does not make it a failure. Throwing out stories in haste is a fool’s game. It’s wasting potential. Even if you don’t want to make the requested changes, maybe another editor will like it. After all, if your story made it past the slush and first readers to the editor him/herself, then that’s saying something. If they made time to personally respond, that’s saying something else: they respect your talent and like your story. Even if they don’t accept it, this is not the time to give up on it. Get what you can from their notes and get it back out there. The next editor may buy it on the spot.

Okay, there’s 7 Write Tips For What Not To Do After Getting Revision Notes From An Editor. Love to hear comments if you have any more. Meanwhile, hope this is helpful. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: Collective Nouns And Impracticality For Writers (aka Word Choice Matters)

An “eloquence of lawyers?” Who comes up with these? Seriously. Have you ever run into collective nouns lists? Some of them are hard to believe. What were they thinking?

“A parliament of owls.”
“A covert of coots.”
“A murder of crows.” (You may have seen the meme on this one.)
“A pace of asses.”
“A pomp of pekingese.”
“A blessing of unicorns” doesn’t seem as bad, I mean, come on, unicorns are a blessing!
“A disguising of tailors” though is damned odd. And you already saw the lawyers one.

For more, Tiny Online has a great list divided by category here: http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/collnoun.htm

Looking at the list made me ask a very simple but important question: Are these usable?

Some are known, so no issue. But others, like the examples, not only do you risk not being understood, but you risk taking people out of a story by either laughter or just the double take they do. What would you do in such a case? Use the correct term or stick with a generic like “a gathering of owls,” “a forest full of owls,” “a tree full of owls,” or even “a group of owls?” I mean, do you want to have to explain that the owls are not a) politically organized into structured bodies with a voting system and role in societal lawmaking? or b) explain they have no official capital and building where they hold chambers?  This comes, of course, from the images and questions the term “parliament” used in this way evokes.  But let’s look at a definition via my old friend: Dictionary.com.

par·lia·ment

[pahr-luh-muhnt or, sometimes, pahrl-yuh-] Show IPA

noun

1.

( usually initial capital letter ) the legislature of Great Britain,historically the assembly of the three estates, nowcomposed of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal, formingtogether the House of Lords, and representatives of thecounties, cities, boroughs, and universities, forming theHouse of Commons.

2.

( usually initial capital letter ) the legislature of certain British colonies and possessions.

3.

a legislative body in any of various other countries.

4.

French History . any of several high courts of justice in France before 1789.

5.

a meeting or assembly for conference on public or national affairs.
Origin: 
1250–1300; Middle English:  discourse, consultation, Parliament <Anglo-Latin parliamentum,  alteration of Medieval Latin parlāmentum < Old French parlement  a speaking, conference ( see parle-ment); replacing Middle English parlement  < Old French

Related forms

an·ti·par·lia·ment, adjective
in·ter·par·lia·ment, adjective
sub·par·lia·ment, noun
Example Sentences
  • Nobody can expect a parliament to stablish what is good and what isevil.
  • The interim government will have to contend with the same cantankerousparliament that made life miserable for the old leadership.
World English Dictionary
parliament  (ˈpɑːləmənt)
— n
1. an assembly of the representatives of a political nation or people, often the supreme legislative authority
2. any legislative or deliberative assembly, conference, etc
3. Also: parlement  (in France before the Revolution) any of several high courts of justice in which royal decrees were registered
[C13: from Anglo-Latin parliamentum,  from Old French parlement,  from parler  to speak; see parley ]
Parliament  (ˈpɑːləmənt)
— n
1. the highest legislative authority in Britain, consisting of the ouse of Commons, which exercises effective power, the House of Lords, and the sovereign
2. a similar legislature in another country
3. the two chambers of a Parliament
4. the lower chamber of a Parliament
5. any of the assemblies of such a body created by a general election and royal summons and dissolved before the next election

Hmmm, no mention of owls in any of those. But plenty of mention of terms like “legislative authority, “assembly,” and “courts.” Do you see where readers might be confused?

I think word choices matter. They should fit the world, the time setting and the context without being showy or standing out.  Don’t show yourself in your work. You want readers to forget the writer and be immersed. I like learning new words, but novels aren’t the main place I go for it. If I can understand the word in context and continue reading, I’m fine with it, but if it pulls me out of the story by forcing me to seek a dictionary before continuing, I consider that bad writing. I know some will disagree, but one of my definitions of good writing is something seamless and flowing that challenges the reader without making them feel like they’re working hard. So words like these must be used with care. the argumeent “but it’s the correct term” does nothing to address the qualifications I just laid out nor the fact that if it’s obscure and rarely used, by using it, you are pointing out its oddity in a way and letting the more important goal of communicating with your readers fall by the wayside in the process.

I come from the school of readers which is more impressed with how immersed I get in your story and world than by your vocabulary. For me, the main value of diverse vocabulary is to have better words to paint pictures and vary the phrasing in descriptions as well as create dialogue unique to characters, not to show of your intelligence. But there have been many times I have read a book and wondered which goals the author had in mind. When fiction reading becomes work and not fun, I quickly lose interest, no matter whose name is on the cover. As usual, I know some writers will disagree with me, but I make this Write Tip anyway because it’s worth thinking about the choices you make, why you make them and how they affect readers.   Readers and critiques will overlook a lot of flaws if they enjoy your book. On the other hand, if you force them to work harder and look more deeply, or, even worse, annoy them, you may be in for more than you bargained for.

So I guess the moral of the story is: just because a word exists and is technically correct doesn’t make it the best word to use in your prose. Give thought to other factors before you finalize the choice. What are your goals? What are your motives? What are the possible results? Will the choice get you where you want to go with all of them?

That’s the bottom line for me. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sunforthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: Things Pros Wish New Authors Knew About Publishing And Don’t

This started out to be a top 10 list. You know the saying: “Advice is like buttholes, everybody’s got one.” And when it comes to writing, advice is like sand on a beach: everywhere. But sifting the sand to separate the pure from the soiled can be tricky. Authors seeking publication approach pros all the time seeking help, opportunity, pitching their novels and stories. And often the difference between positive and negative response lies in the professionalism of the author who’s asking. The more informed you are about the business, the better position you’re in to approach people and sell yourself. But all too many still get it wrong.

Then I asked professional authors, editors and publishers I know what advice they wish new authors knew about publishing but don’t and got such diverse and great responses, I didn’t need to write a post, so here they are broken down by category and source. I hope you find them helpful. Although the people I asked are from the Science Fiction and Fantasy end of publishing because those are my circles, most of this advice applies to writers regardless of genre.

According to Publishers:

Jason Sizemore, Publisher of Apex says:

1) Asking me to sign a pledge or promise or contract stating I won’t steal their idea. You might be surprised to know this happens once in awhile.

2) Responding to edits in an unprofessional manner. I’m one of the easiest editors in the business to get along with, so I get doubly annoyed when an author gets snotty about suggested edits. Just tell me what you disagree with and let’s have a professional conversation about them. There is a good chance I will side with the author.

3) Being impatient. Publishing is the proto-typical “hurry up and wait” profession. If that is an aspect of the business you can’t deal with, then you’re probably in the wrong business.


Brian Hades, Publisher of Edge Books, says:

1)      Publishers are human.

2)      Publishers are dedicated.

3)      Publishers have deadlines.

4)      Publisherrs have a vision of the future.

5)      Publishers want to be your partner.

6)      Publisher’s are not on-demand printers.

7)      Publishers have submission guidelines for a reason.

8)      Publishers do not have spare time.

9)      Publishers want your success as much as they want their own.

10)   Publishers have a business plan, and think you have one too.

 

Grace Bridges, Editor and Publisher of Splashdown Books says:

Relationships are the single most important factor in getting published, once you have a good story. Be professional, be polite, don’t be a jerk, but don’t suck up either. Be real, and connect.

 

According to Editors:

Cat Rambo, freelance editor and author and the former editor of Fantasy Magazine, she’s dealt with a lot of authors selling stories. Here’s what she wishes more of them knew:

Rejections are never personal.

Editors do not say “send me something more” unless they mean it.
Read the guidelines. And then read the magazine so you have a feel for what they like.
Proofread. Read it aloud or get a good proofreader to do it for you.
Your first three paragraphs determine whether or not an editor will keep going.

 

Ellen Datlow, an award-winning editor of magazines an anthologies like Omni and Years Best Fantasy & Horror says:

In the internet age: never email an editor a manuscript before querying them first to make sure it’s all right to do so–neither as an attached file or in the body of an email.

 

Phil Athans is an author and editor who has worked with Forgotten Realms, Dungeons & Dragons and more. His book The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller!  is filled with great tips for genre writers. He offered one tip:

Do it for anything but the money.

Everyone’s heard all the rags-to-riches stories behind franchise authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, but those stories are actually extremely rare. Most published authors continue to hold down a “day job” in order to afford luxury items like food, electricity, and health care. Publication is not a guarantee of riches, especially in the current Depression, which has hit the publishing business particularly hard. If you’re depending on selling your book in the next couple weeks to make your next mortgage payment you’re in serious trouble. It could take a year or more for your book to be accepted by a publisher, and another couple years after that before it actually hits the bookstore shelves. And by then, any trend you might be trying to surf has long-since passed, so don’t try to write a Hunger Games knock-off. By the time you’re done writing it, the Hunger Games thing will be over. Write because you love to tell stories and have a story of your own you’re dying to tell. That’s how you might become “the next J.K. Rowling.” In fact, that’s precisely how J.K. Rowling did it. Be patient, be prepared to work hard, and do not quit your day job!

 

According to Authors:

Grandmaster James Gunn is the author of numerous short stories and novels, including The Listeners and The Immortals. He’s also a Professor at University of Kansas where he leads the Center For The Study Of Science FictionAd Astra magazine, and the John W. Campbell Conference and Awards, amongst other things. He says:

I like Fred Pohl’s advice: Everything in a contract is negotiable except the name of the publisher, and even that can be negotiated if the book is wanted enough.

 

CJ Cherryh is a John W. Campbell, Nebula and Hugo winning author of books like Downbelow Station and Cyteen:

a) nowadays publishing houses want e-rights. They will hold their breath until they get them. If it is a big house able to do them well, this is ok.

b) never sell anybody rights that their company is not large enough or diverse enough to use. Sequester those rights from the contract. IE, you can have ‘first’ ‘North American’ ‘serial rights’ (for a story) or you can have’role-playing’ ‘gaming rights’ or you can have ‘board’ ‘gaming rights’ or you may have the ‘audio reproduction’ rights but not the ‘audio drama’ rights and not ‘audiovisual’ rights or ‘stage production rights’ or ‘motion picture’ rights. It should also say ‘all rights not assigned in this contract belong to the author’.

c) always include something like the following: ‘publication of the Work as an e-book shall not be considered publication as defined in’ [the paragraph where it specifies the kind of print publication and says what the Work is and defines the term ‘in print’.] if it is only for e-publication, be sure to include this: “When in any calendar year the proceeds from e-book sales do not exceed 300.00, all rights shall revert to the author.’ At least it’ll make them cough up enough to buy you a shopping trip.

d) be real damned careful about your shalls and wills when you are writing a contract term. Use of the wrong one can void the clause. Get a lawyer friend to glance over it.

e) terms in book contracts don’t mean the same that they do in any other kind of contract. I have had lawyers who have book contracts come to me, who am not a lawyer, to look over for stingers and problems. ‘Royalty’ is in an application unique to the publishing world, and does not mean royalties in any sense understood by the IRS. Remember this.

f) be real damned sure that in case you or your publisher should be hit by a bus, there is a provision for successors in the contract. A book is property. It can be passed to your heirs. A publishing house is a corporation: it can die, or be sold, and if it is sold, its contracts can be part of the sale. That’s why there’s an ‘heirs and successors’ clause in contracts. This prevents you having to hunt down the dogs to get performance and means they have to deal with your heirs.

g) there should be a performance clause, ie, they have x number of months to get this Work on the stands or published.

h) copyright should always be in the author’s name. Insist.

 

Bestselling urban fantasy author Kat Richardson (Greywalker) offered this advice:

For me the things that are most irritating are the electronic book clauses and the many forms they can take; in one of my contracts it’s under Electronic Rights and in another from the same publisher, it’s under Display Rights.

Also, be very careful of the agency clauses in the contracts as they define the writer’s relationship with the agency, even though that’s actually none of the publisher’s business, but they can effect the writer to the same or greater degree as the actual agency contract or agreement.

 

Faith Hunter is a bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock and Rogue Mage novels, amongst others, and member of the blog team Magical Words and said:

Finish and polish the book *before* you try to find an agent or editor.

 

Dave Gross writes for computer games by day and fantasy novels by night. His next Pathfinder Tales novel, Queen of Thorns, arrives in mid-October. He offers this advice:

The only universally useful writing advice is: Write. Write often, and write in different ways. Don’t be afraid of imitation. Copy the writers you admire, then rewrite those pieces in a different style. Do that a lot, and then set it aside. Come back to it later and write it in your own voice. Write different genres of story. Write poems. Write plays. Try writing at different times. Write in the morning. Take a nap and when you get up start writing. Write after everyone else has gone to bed.  Write in different places and with different tools. Write on the bus or in the park. Write in the middle of a food court. If you use a computer, write in a notebook. Try using a pencil instead of a pen. Write the minute after you get out of a movie while your head is still filled with strange images. Write down your dreams. Imagine the dream someone is having in the house down the street, and write that. Write plenty, and rewrite even more. Maybe you won’t see the difference in a matter of weeks or months, but eventually you will see it. When you do, write about it.

 

International bestselling author Daniel Abraham has over a dozen books in print and has been short-listed for Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. He offers this advice:

Career implosions are normal. Almost everyone who’s been in the business for more than a few years has had their career founder under them at least once. The people who got discouraged are the ones that aren’t around anymore. The folks who stayed are the ones that shrugged off the failures and started trying to break in again. And again. And again

 

Maurice Broaddus, urban fantasy author (The Knights Of Breton Court) and anthology editor (Dark Faith, Dark Faith 2) suggests:

Guard as many of your rights as possible (the publisher doesn’t need all of them).

 Make sure there are reversion clauses (they don’t need ten+ years of your digital/future formats rights).

Bestselling author Jean Johnson who rights paranormal romance and military science fiction (An Officer’s Duty, A Soldier’s Duty, The Sword, The Cat, The Mage) says:

Spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting actually do still count.

Slush pile readers, agents, and editors will discard stories filled with errors, inconsistancies, and a blatant lack of care for the craft of the written word.  Even if your name is Stephen King, they will be looking at the manuscript for how good it is as a story, and how well crafted it is as a piece of writing.  It may seem unfair, but if they see a lot of technical errors in the way words are spelled, how sentences are structured and punctuated, so on and so forth, they’re not going to want to give you a publishing contract because they will not believe you are professional enough to handle the demands of a contract.

In fact, most literary agencies and publishing houses have a standard “X number of errors in Y number of pages = toss it in the rejection pile” policy.  Whether it’s a written, official policy or not, they have too many other manuscripts to wade through to waste time on something that makes their eyes cross and their brains hurt..  Yes, you may have written a story, and you can be proud of that.  Yes, you may believe that it’s a good story, good enough to be published, and there’s nothing wrong with believing in yourself and your work.  However, that does not entitle you to carelessness, arrogance, or anything else which would suggest an unprofessional attitude.  This includes an unprofessional presentation of your written works.

There are points where you can stand up for the formatting you want, or the spelling of a specific word, particularly in genre fiction, but understand that most editors and publishers will want your novel to look its best in the eyes of your future readers.  Cooperate beforehand by getting your manuscript beta-edited by someone with good literary skills.  Cooperate during the review and editing process by carefully considering the changes suggested.  Strive diligently to look for and eliminate errors during the copy-editing and draft-editing stages.

Cultivate and cherish a reputation for producing clean manuscripts as well as the good stories we know you have inside of you.  Editors, agents, and especially your future readers will love you for it.

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I doubt I could do much better than that. Others of you out there feel free to add advice in comments. For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.