Feeding the Beast

 

Hilari Bell

 

 

by Hilari Bell

Last January, I decided not to write a novel this year so I could tackle an ambitious advertising plan. I hoped to get it all done—or at least, up and running—within the year. And to learn to enjoy advertising as well, because if I want to be a hybrid-published author I’m going to have to get good at it.

That was January.

Now in August, I’ve been forced to admit that getting that plan “up and running” is going to take at least two years. In part, this is because “it always takes longer than you think it will” is one of Murphy’s best kept laws. But the other reason I’m behind is because I’ve been pulled (let myself be pulled?) into a couple of side projects. One of them may make some money, someday. But the other one is going make pretty good money right from the start: a friend and I have had an outline accepted by Choice of Games.

For those who’ve never heard of COG, do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular back in the ’80s and ’90s? They’re written in second person so “you” are the protagonist. You’re confronted with choices throughout a story: if you choose A you go to page 23, where you encounter something different than if you choose B and go to page 16. Sounds perfect for a digital format, doesn’t it? In fact, the digital book is so perfect for multi-path novels that Choice of Games can put out much longer and more complex stories, for adult readers—and I have to say, they’re a kick to read/play.

I think it’s going to be a total blast to write one. There will certainly be aspects of it that are hard work—we’re going to have to figure out their ChoiceScript coding process, and put everything we write into that format. But first we get to write the story…and to me (after 8 months of plugging away at non-creative work) this sounds like abandoning steamed veggies for munching on sherbet and popcorn. While watching a circus perform. Ever since we started working on the outline, the rest of my work life has felt a bit brighter…and when I contemplate writing Sorcery (is) for Dummies, it feels downright sparkly.

I have some hopes that this will also improve my craft. I tend to get my protagonists into pretty hard situations, and when I’ve finally managed to come up with a way they can get out of it, it’s usually complex and dramatic enough that I don’t go on and think up yet another way out, and then another. For Sorcery I’m going to have to do just that. It’s also going to challenge my overall plotting abilities in a way they haven’t been challenged…I was going to say “in a while,” but I don’t think they’ve ever been challenged like this. And Choice of Games “house” style tends to run to snark, which I can write, but could certainly practice more. And they also run heavy on action and dialogue and light on description, so I’ll have to change up my writing style a bit. It’s going to be my first time collaborating with a co-author, too.

But none of those challenges are why I’m so eager to dig into this job. I want to write it because I’m in love with the story. The scenes are coming alive and beginning to sing to me, and I’m just itching to get them out of my head and give them form and substance. My creative side, which I put off when I decided to do PR this year instead of writing a new novel, is waking up, stretching its muscles and beginning to roar. And this makes me really, really happy, even as I contemplate shrinking savings, and the fact that I’ve got to get my advertising plan going if I’m going to survive financially as a writer.

Yes, I’m going to have to finish that PR work, eventually. But looking at the way I feel about starting a challenging creative project, I realize that I also need to strike a balance between the two aspects of my job. That I need to feed my creative beast to give it enough energy to pull the cart. (And yes, to me advertising feels very much like dragging a heavy cart. I’m sure it will get easier with practice. It had better.) But for now, I’m throwing off my harness to go run in the field and roll in the grass. And I think I’ll be the better for that, in many ways.

So what feeds your creative beast? What project are you excited about?

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4 comments to Feeding the Beast

  • It’s a hard balancing act–but right now, I’m having so much creative fun I don’t care!

  • Nancy Bentley

    COG sounds absolutely perfect for you! No wonder you’re passionately loving it. Can’t wait to see what evolves.

    For me, I’m feeding the creative film beast. This summer I produced a documentary film on the murals (100+) in Colorado Springs. Am just working on finishing editing touches. It’s been wonderful. Come to the Film Opening in the Springs on Thursday, October 8th if you’re in town!

  • Beautifully said, Hilari. I’m going through the same thing as I try to balance my writing, teaching, and other aspects of my career and life that I love. The creative beast must be fed or everything else suffers! Thank you for reminding us.

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Whiney Remembers


Whiney Writer

By Whiney Writer

Squeak, squeak, crackle. Whiney stops rocking and frowns. Usually, time spent on her porch brings her joy. Not today. In the nearby park, children play, laughing and kicking an oversized ball back and forth. Their eyes sparkle. Was she ever that innocent and carefree? A tear comes and she brushes it away.

What went wrong? Perhaps if she had outlined–like her friends suggested–instead of just letting the plot unfold. But who’s completely in control of their stories anyway? And now one of her favorite characters won’t be available for the sequel. Her next novel must do without the gentle cat with the big heart and clever way with words. How would that change the story? She would miss that cat.

Squeak, squeak, squeak, crackle. If she could just keep things in perspective and have faith… For some reason, she didn’t really understand, it was more difficult this time. Still, thinking of the wonderful cat always made her smile. And surely she has found her way into an even better story. Whiney picks up her favorite novel. Though she’s read it ten times, it still brings her comfort.

Squeak, squeak, crackle.

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Five Keys to an Effective Query

Claudia_lg

 

 

by Claudia Cangilla McAdam

There are lots of articles, books, blogs, and the like that lay out how to write the perfect query letter. I don’t claim to know the keys to writing the “perfect” query, but I can share the things that I do when crafting the letters that have led to publishing contracts.

1) Show That You Know Your Stuff

In my queries, I like to make it known from the get-go that I am familiar with that particular publisher and the types of books they put out. Therefore, I tie my book to the company’s mission or stated “need” or perceived reader market. I compare my work to books they have published.

Here’s the opening paragraph from one such query:

By placing themselves in the shoes (or sandals) of others, YA readers of historical fiction learn more about the world around them, about times past, and ultimately, about themselves. As Gloria D. Milowitz has done in her book, Masada, my YA writing views Biblical events through the eyes of teens.

Ideally, this publisher now knows that my work will appeal to the same audience as an award-winning title from their backlist, and readers will enjoy a similar experience.

2) The Details

It’s important to describe the title of the work, the genre, the word count, whether it is a simultaneous or exclusive submission, and to give a brief synopsis. Here’s a sample:

Attached please find my 600-word picture book manuscript, The Christmas Light, an exclusive submission. In this story, Seraphina is a young girl in Bethlehem who brings a gift to the newborn Jesus, and in turn, discovers that she is a recipient of Grace Itself.

3) Next Up: A Short Bio About You

What is it in your past that uniquely qualifies you to write this book? Are you submitting a nonfiction work about beekeeping, a hobby that you enjoy? Is your query about a fictional picture book set in the Congo, a place where you spent time as a volunteer working with children? Have you served as a corrections officer in a youth detention facility (and that’s where your novel takes place)? Mention it.

In my writing of Biblically-focused work, stating that I have a Master’s in Theology with an emphasis in Sacred Scripture hopefully sets me apart as a qualified writer of the material I create.

4) How Can You Help Market Your Book?

Tell the publisher if you have a large social media presence, a huge email database, easy access to tv, radio, or print media (for interviews), a celebrity endorser for your book, etc. Whatever you can do to help sell the book will take the onus off the publisher.

In this day and age, an author cannot expect the marketing department of a publishing house to do all the work. If you show you’re ready to shoulder some of the burden, you (and your book) will be much more appealing to a publisher.

5) What’s In It For Them?

When I write a query, I concentrate a lot on the “you” benefits to the publisher. This doesn’t mean, what’s in it for you, the author. Rather, it means what’s in it for THEM, the publisher. Publishing is a business. The company is in it to make money, pure and simple. Tell them how you can help them accomplish that.

You can connect your work to a best seller, the implication being that the success of that book has blazed a path for yours. Example: I believe my book will attract the same audience that enjoyed The Hunger Games.

Or: Because I speak annually at several conferences across the country, I can give exposure of my book to thousands of potential readers.

Here’s the paragraph I frequently use: My marketing abilities have accomplished things such as elevating one of my picture books to local best seller status, being invited to the White House on three separate occasions on account of my White House-themed kids’ book, and selling out the 4,000-copy first run of another book in just six weeks.

Don’t hesitate to make claims about your book, your skills, or your background, but always make sure those claims are true. And remember, the focus of your query isn’t on you. It’s on them, the publisher. So, banish sentences such as: I always wanted to be a published writer. (You and millions like you.) And: My mother really loved this story. (That’s nice, but doesn’t she love everything about you?) Or: I can guarantee that this title will be your next best-seller. (No, you can’t.)

I hope these five points prove beneficial in constructing your killer query. Let the writing begin!

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Writing Good Description

Pam Mingle

 

 

By Pam Mingle

We’ve all heard that in order to be good writers, we must be readers first. Not just voracious readers, but analytical readers as well. Sometimes I resent the fact that dissecting an author’s writing style cuts into my enjoyment of the book I’m reading, but I seem to do it automatically, especially at the beginning of a book. Something that never fails to capture my attention is descriptive writing—both the good and the bad.

Good writers, in my opinion, resist the temptation to describe every new character as each one enters the action. In the latest offering in a historical mystery series I enjoy, I was nearly driven to distraction—literally—by this irritating habit. Since the protagonist investigates murders, he interviews countless people in each book. The author introduces each with a detailed description of that person’s looks. The bookshop owner is jowly, short and wide, with a bald pate. The publican has a long, narrow face, suspicious eyes, and is wearing a filthy apron. And so on.

These digressions take the reader right out of the story. Most of us don’t care what every character looks like. In the publican’s case, it might have been more effective to simply say he frequently wiped his hands on his apron. And for major characters, those whose descriptions really matter, details about appearance can be woven in at various points in the book and not unloaded all at once.

One of my favorite writing teachers, author Carol Berg, says, “Choose character details that link with plot, setting, mood, or tone, as well as the character’s inner life…” Obviously, we’re not concerned about the inner life of every minor character a writer introduces, but details that illuminate plot, setting, mood, or tone can apply to all. And sometimes the most important, or “telling” detail is revealed in a character’s actions rather than in description. Here is an example from Paul Fleischman’s short masterpiece, Bull Run:

Patrick entrusted Father’s glasses to a peddler who was heading our way. The man returned them to Father the next week and predicted that Patrick would make a fine soldier. Father sent him away without purchasing so much as a pin. (p. 27)

And in that short, concisely worded sentence, we know exactly how the father feels about his son’s soldiering.

Writers—and probably most readers—know that the setting grounds us in a particular time and place. At last year’s Colorado Gold Conference (Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers), mystery writer William Kent Krueger went a step further. In his session on setting, he described it as the “most important and versatile character in your story,” and said every story should “rise out of its place.” He warns of the danger of allowing a description of setting to sound like a travelogue and suggests focusing on “specific, telling, or salient, details.”

The opening of Out of Africa does this, and also manages to be one of the most elegantly worded descriptions ever written. Here is a fragment of it: 

The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.

Isak Dinesen’s farm, and thus her story, rises up out of this landscape. It’s as important a character as any other in the book.

 

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1 comment to Writing Good Description

  • I have the same problem with analyzing everything I read. I find it difficult to enjoy mysteries because of that. I usually have the plot figured out fairly quickly so unless the writing is really good, I generally put the book down and move on to something else.

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