Saturday, June 30, 2012

Guest author Damon Stentz: Self-Publication is What You Make of It

Damon Stentz was born in New Orleans and raised in Thibodaux, Louisiana, near Bayou Lafourche.  He is an attorney who has worked primarily in criminal law both as a prosecutor and in criminal defense.  Damon has loved writing from the time he was able to pick up a pen (or crayon) and write words on a page.  After many years, he finally decided to publish one of his works.  The Kraken Slayer is his first self-published novel.

This is a very interesting time for the book business.  So much is changing.  The query letter-to-agent approach is still by far the preferred approach, but certainly not the only approach.  Self-publication is now a viable contender with the literary agent market.  Agents don’t like to hear that, but they know it’s true.  Once they hear your book is self-published, some (not all) agents will write it off as unmarketable.  That’s not a fair treatment, in my opinion.  There are a lot of really bad self-published authors out there, yes, but there are also a lot of really good ones.  I could say the same about authors with agents, as well.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whoever gets picked up by an agent and who doesn’t is mostly arbitrary.  Before I self-published my novel, I did the query letter song and dance for years.  Out of my hundreds of rejection letters, some actually went on and on with praises for my manuscript, only to end with, “but it’s not what we’re looking for at this time.”  I therefore would like to tell all the unpublished writers out there to not be daunted by anyone who tries to scare you from the idea of self-publishing.  If you’re trying to land an agent, by all means, don’t give up; but self-publishing is not going away, and it’s getting bigger.  What it needs, however, is more legitimacy and respect from the writing community, and that begins with the self-published author.

Before self-publishing your book, you need to have it edited.  I could copy and paste that sentence about a hundred more times, and it won’t get through to everyone.  And notice I used passive voice.  Don’t self-edit your manuscript.  If you do, have someone else edit it as well.  You will not catch all your mistakes, no matter how many times you read through it.  Trust me on that one.  If you can’t or won’t get your book edited, you might as well stop reading this article right now, because a poorly-written self-published book will not sell well.

If you want your book to compete with the professionals, it has to look professional.  Most self-publishing companies do a great job with creating an eye-catching cover, and the quality of the end product is often compatible with what you’ll find in the bookstore.  So do your homework and look at the services these companies provide.  To get a good-looking book, you sometimes have to put in extra money.  Balance what you want with what you can afford.

If you want to be a successful writer, you have to know the business.  Know what your target audience is looking for, but at the same time, be unique.  Don’t write another Twilight, please.  To know where the market’s going, you need to read what other authors are writing.  Talk to readers and see what they like.  Take seminars to hone your craft.  Your education is never complete.

If you’re self-publishing, chances are you don’t have a publicity staff employed, so get ready to do a lot of work.  If you get your book printed but do nothing to advertise it, no one will ever know about it.  You need to make use of the media: newspaper, radio, Internet.  Get some posters and push cards printed.  Organize some book signings.  If there’s a book fair in your area, ask to speak there and/or do a book signing.  In short, get your book and your face in as many places as possible.  Promoting your book is very similar to running for public office.

I think the one thing that hurts self-published authors the most is their lack of commitment to their writing.  Selling your book is a time-consuming endeavor, but all that hard work and effort will prove to the rest of the industry that you’re not an amateur, but a professional writer who can stand toe to toe with the best of them.  And when your writing is good, and the book looks good, and you can make it available to a large audience, no one will even care that you’re self-published.

Damon Stentz

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Oh the places we will go!

My post is late today. Please accept my apologies, but the movers came today. Every time the movers come I envy the people who live the same place all of their lives, the ones who have had the same deep-freezer for 15 years, the same neighbors and the same friends.

Yesterday I said goodbye to my girlfriends in Ghana with a note and a gift that I hope they will wear and think of me and then today, the movers came.

It is interesting to see the differences in my children's reactions when the movers come.  My son won't eat; my daughter's suitcase has been packed for a week.

When people ask me "are you moving to the US for good?" they have no idea what a difficult question that is. The answer varies from "I have no idea" to (as my daughter would say, 'no offence but ...') "I hope not."  I'm not in a witness protection program, but I have 12 moved times in the last 25 years to different countries and different homes within these countries and I have no idea what it means to live anywhere 'for good'. I only know that each new place is a new page in our lives and each place brings with it important live lessons.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing really, it is just what is real for me because the movers came today. I would love to say that traveling and seeing the world has strengthened my ability to write realistically about new places, but the truth is that our imaginations (and a bit of research) can take us as far as we need to go to write wonderfully interesting, inciteful and realistic stories.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cheney: the Power, the Madness, the Definitive Biography

Sometimes even the most indefatigable fiction writers branch out into other genres.  Midway through penning the salacious finale to my epic “Fifty Shades of Puce,” dismal finances forced me to detour onto a more lucrative project.

One of the fastest growing book genres is biography.  And why shouldn’t it be?  We’re fascinated by the lives of others.  We want to know every last sordid detail; the rises and the falls, and more about the falls.  We’re hungry to learn of the deals and the affairs, and more about the affairs.  

So I decided to write a biography about Cheney.

“Cheney will never talk to you,” people told me, but he did.  I was candid with him about my intentions.  “It will be eye-opening,” I told him.  “I’ll be asking some tough questions about the war, about the secret deals, about the offshore accounts.”

“Why not?” he said.  “It’s about time the real story was told.”  

We met at a deli.  If you want to read the entire book, you’ll have to wait until publication (still to be negotiated), but here’s a sneak preview of my expose of the life and times of Boise-area claims adjuster Ludwig Cheney:

The Early Years
“My family moved around a lot,” Cheney told me.   We were sitting at the deli counter.  “First we’d move to one place, and then another.”

“And that’s what first unhinged you,” I ventured.  “It’s what made you question the stability not only of your family, but of your very future?”

“Yeah.”  He shrugged.  “Are you going to eat that pickle?”

I could tell he was starting to open up to me.  I had to dig deeper.

The War
“You could say I sat that one out,” Cheney admitted.  “I really don’t remember too much of it.  I was smoking a lot back then?”

“Marijuana?” I suggested.  “It’s what got you started.  From there you moved up to methamphetamines, maybe a little heroin?”

He frowned at me.  “No, Marlboro Lights.  I never did any of that stuff.  What are you talking about?”

“Nothing.  So you don’t remember too much about the war?”

He shrugged.  “I’m not even sure which war you’re talking about.”

His memory was clearly unhinged, likely the result of deep-seated guilt.  I bought him a cheeseburger.  He was going to need it to absorb my next questions.

The Affairs
“I met Bernice in high-school.  We went steady through senior year.”  He paused to eat a fry.  “We broke up after graduation, but by the end of the summer neither of us had found anyone else, so we kinda got back together.”

“And that’s when you started visiting the prostitutes?”  I had to ask.


“Sorry, the escorts,” I corrected myself.  “And so began a decade of late-night, gin-fueled, guilt-ridden, jazz-accompanied illicit liaisons.”

“What?  No.  But one time I kissed Enid Roper at the office party.  She’s in sales.  Bernice never found out about that.”

“A life of lies.” I shook my head.  “The guilt must be overwhelming.”

“Well, it was just one kiss.  And Enid doesn’t see that well without her glasses.  I’m not sure she even knew it was me.”

I rested my hand on his shoulder.  Guilt can ruin a man, and I wanted Cheney to know he had a friend.

The Secret Deals
“I’ve never told anybody this, but I can’t see the harm now,” Cheney began.  “When we got the new white board for the break room, Rick Dorniss’s name should have been above mine, on account of him having more seniority, but I  told Enid I’d sure be grateful if she put my name up first and she did.”

Enid,” I repeated.  I grinned.  “She was the one you slept with at the Christmas party.”

“What?  What are you...?  No, I didn’t sleep with anyone.  I just kissed her, and that was Enid Roper.  I’m talking about Enid Baxter in HR.  She was from Sioux Falls originally.”

“So you conspired against RIck Dorniss, the two of you.  Did he ever exact his revenge?”

“Nah, Rick moved on later that month.  He got a sales job down in Provo.  Large appliances.  He always did know a lot about range hoods.”

The Offshore Accounts
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t want the tax man to find out,” Cheney confided.  We had moved onto pie with ice cream, and it was good.

“Let me guess, an account in the Caymans?  You have a little something stashed away in case if ever gets too hot for you, don’t you?  A little slush money for entertaining?”

He shrugged.  “Nothing that fancy, but we made about $600 at the rummage sale last October.  Bernice sold most of her mother’s old canning equipment, along with that bread maker we never used.  Let’s just say that money never made it onto our IRS forms.”

We both winked conspiratorially.

The Future
“Bernice has a cousin up in Bozeman, so we’ll likely drive on up this summer,” Cheney confided.  “Other than that, I’ll probably spend some time scrubbing out the fish pond.”

“So what’s next for Cheney?”  I prodded.  “Where do you see yourself six months from now?”

“I still have that two-for-one coupon for the steakhouse at the mall.  We might have to go back there before long.  Bernice likes the baked potatoes.  And then sometimes this summer we need to get the brakes looked at.  The Buick isn’t getting any younger.”

But none of us are, I realized as I left Cheney at the deli.  He’d given me a lot to think about.  The secret to biography, I realized, as I began the daunting task of writing this all down, can be distilled into three simple steps:

1.       find someone fascinating
2.       ask the probing questions
3.       honor, hone, and celebrate every last sordid detail

For my next project, “Trump: The Makings of Empire” I’ll trace newsstand-owner Nestor Trump’s rise from paperboy to newsstand owner.  You can read highlights at

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lost in Translation

Though this follows on the heels of KeVin’s blog post Reading Like a Writer (Again), this topic was something I began thinking about long before.  The inspiration for this post was an event that occurred while driving in the car with my four year old daughter.  There is a song she listens to on CD constantly.  The Lyrics are “Peter, James and John in a sailboat, all on the deep blue sea.”  While driving she was singing that song loudly, but instead of Peter, James and John, she sang “Peanut butter and Jam in a sailboat.”  Somehow the lyrics of the song were lost in translation.

KeVin alluded to that in his post when he presented the Venn Diagram about what scholars said the author meant to say, as opposed to what the author actually said. As a reader, we interpret what the author means whether it is literally or figurative.  Therefore as writers, the onus is on us to ensure that we communicate clearly what we mean to say.  It is rather difficult sometimes.  While we know what we mean, and what we want to say, saying it in a way that clearly gives the reader a view into our thoughts is not that simple.  Using a few key words we have to communicate sight, sound, emotions, texture, smell, and color without being tediously descriptive or verbose.

At the same time words evoke different emotions in different people.  For example, the word cartel evokes in me a negative emotion.  That is because I have forever heard it used to describe the leaders of the illicit drug trade: the drug cartels.  However I have seen it used to simply mean a coalition of like-minded groups and kept waiting to find out why those groups are “bad”. 

On the flip side, unless we are doing technical writing where we want readers to interpret what we write only one way, writing fiction gives a lot of room for interpretation.  We want our fiction to be open to different interpretations as long as it does not throw the reader out of the story.  Just saying a person wore a frumpy black frock, tells a lot about the character, the personality and can set up a whole story.  It is the readers’ interpretation of frumpy, laced with the connotations that the word “frock” evokes that we rely on to set the story and have the readers understand the character.  And it varies from reader to reader.
Some books, especially literary fiction, lean toward the figurative and can be interpreted to death.  There are thousands of books that dissect Shakespeare’s work, and a discussion of one scene from one book could go on indefinitely.  But for most readers who are just looking for light entertainment, an unclear book, regardless of its caliber of poetic prose, could be tedious.  So my advice to writers: don’t get lost in translation.  Be as clear as you can and leave it up to the reader’s imagination to do the rest.

As for that peanut butter and jam in a sailboat, I did correct my daughter.  But my nine-year-old ran with it and began singing, Peanut Butter and Jam in a sandwich.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Passages: Rosa Guy

Two revered authors passed on this month: Ray Bradbury, whose tribute I wrote on June 7 in California, and Rosa Guy in Manhattan, New York.

Rosa Guy, without ever knowing it, was responsible for one of the great serendipities in my life. When I started the query process for my first novel I discovered a website that listed literary agents who accepted e-mail queries. My current agent, Susan Schulman, was one of those who responded immediately to the first batch of e-queries I sent. I later learned from Susan that my query had stood out initially because I'm from Trinidad, the birthplace of one of her favourite authors - Rosa Guy.

Ms. Guy, who hails not only from my homeland but also my home town, did not hang around Trinidad for long. She went to join her parents in New York at the age of seven, but her mother died shortly after. Within a few years her father also died, and her round of orphanages and foster homes began. Her young adult (YA) books draw heavily on her experience of coming of age in New York without parents, money or family stability.

In her obituary in the NY Times, she is described as "one of the 20th century's most distinguished writers for young adults". Ms. Guy pioneered the exploration of tough, realistic themes in YA fiction - themes such as race, class, poverty, death and sexuality. In one of her books a teenaged character embarks on a lesbian relationship with another girl, a subject which was taboo in children's literature at the time.

She is best known for her trilogy of YA novels, The Friends (1973), Ruby (1976) and Edith Jackson (1978). Her novels for adults include My Love My LoveMeasure of Time, and Bird at my Window. She was one of the founders of the Harlem Writers Guild in 1950 and a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Her gifts to literature and to humanity are immeasurable.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Blogging End, A Blogging Beginning

After three years, I'm leaving Novel Spaces as a blogger. I'll still be around as a lurker and occasional commenter, but this is my last post here.

Thank you, fellow Novelnauts, for having me as one of you. Thank you, readers, for your visits and comments.

 2012 has brought several exciting new projects, and I have not kept up with them, partly because of illness, partly because of bad time management and underestimates of the time required by projects. For example, I mentioned in a February post that I would be putting out my dissertation as an ebook within the week. Here it is, the first day of summer, and my dissertation only went live on today.

Although several projects need more of my time, I'm leaving Novel Spaces because of one particular project, a new Website meant to build an audience for a book still in the conception stage. As you may remember from earlier posts, my publisher, Hadley Rille Books (HRB), has a series of novels set in archaeologically interesting times. HRB publisher and editor Eric T. Reynolds came up with the idea of publishing a cookbook that ties in with past and future books in the Archaeology Series. It will stand on its own as a cookbook, and it will also increase awareness of HRB and its Archaeology Series among people interested in history and archaeology.

Such a cookbook, though, will take time to create because of the huge amount of research needed in a wide variety of fields. In the meantime, Eric of HRB, Classical scholar Jenny Blackford (another HRB author), and I are starting a blog: "Meal Times: Ancient Foods for Modern Cooks" at It will be a food and cooking blog with a wide scope, from recipes to photo essays, from novel excerpts to posts on archaeology, history, ethnobotany, and more.

Eric, Jenny, and I love history, cooking, and eating, so this blog will be a fun project for us. But it will also help us with the cookbook in several ways:
  • I always research more broadly and deeply than the scope of my article, short story, or book. I think it essential to understand my subject in its historical and cross-cultural context. The blog is a place where we can share some of the interesting things we learn in our research that is beyond the scope of the book.
  • As we research and process what we learn, we can use the blog for drafting possible sections of the book, both to try out ways to organize the material and to gauge readers' interest. The development of the cookbook thus will be an interactive process with the blog readers.
  • Over time, the blog will build an audience of people interested in history, cooking, and eating—the perfect audience for the eventual cookbook.
  • As the cookbook's publication date nears, we can use the blog as one of our marketing tools.
  • Once the cookbook is published, the blog posts—past and future—become supplements to it, expanding its value. For example, blog posts can have color pictures of unusual ingredients, food plants, and steps in the preparation of a recipe; interviews with or guest posts by scholars and people who are experts in their ancestors' food traditions; cross-cultural comparisons of uses of foods or dining customs; and posts that enhance the cookbook owners' enjoyment of the cookbook, such as posts on historical gardens, food in ancient art, the history of pottery, and other topics related to the cookbook but outside its scope.
I don't know what Jenny and Eric have in mind for their first posts, but I will start with some posts about recent research on the first farms in Europe, the domestication of cattle and horses, and how scientists can learn what ancient people ate by studying the calculus built up on their teeth.

I invite you all to visit the new blog. Later in the summer, once it has some posts and some followers, you are welcome to contact me at if you are interested in writing a guest post or want me to be aware of your own food blog or your research.

Thank you for three good years.

—Shauna Roberts

Monday, June 18, 2012

Reading like a writer (again)

A few years ago a Venn diagram supposedly illustrating the difference between what a writer wrote and what academics – English teachers, literature instructors, and/or literary critics – said the writer meant by what she wrote. The fundamental assumption behind the joke is that the self-styled literati of the world pretend they're able to perceive depths and shades of meaning that elude the common man. It's generally held that such "experts" obscure reality beneath layers of pretentious "analysis" intended not to enlighten or discover but to make their audience feel inadequate and insensitive. Vocab without content, like wine tasters.

Whenever this author/teacher Venn was posted – and I saw it in a dozen places – the comment threads were filled with "lol" and "I know, right" and more than a few anecdotes about stuffy academics who stunted the lives of thousands of students by conditioning them to hate reading. I have to admit my initial reaction to the diagram was similar – which is to say wrong.

Of course there are literary pedants guilty of this sort of posturing - creatures of their ilk haunt every field - but to assume a writer means nothing more than the words she uses to tell the tale is to risk missing much of the story.

As I wrote last year the writer may have levels to her story not apparent at first reading. In fact, I do not know a writer who does not enjoy the use and play of language - who thinks about the shades of meaning in every word and phrase she employs.

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose advocates what she calls deep reading, devoting as much as an hour a page to considering the meaning and potential implications of every word the writer used. Not the first time you read the story, of course. She's describing brick-by-brick deconstruction of a work you find powerful and meaningful in order to discover all that the writer meant and how she chose to communicate that meaning. My own oft-repeated advice for reading like a writer is to read like a reader: Read for fun, read what catches your eye and entertains or enlightens you, read widely and often, read outside your comfort zone, read. If six months after you put it down a scene or story is still on your mind, if you find yourself reliving it or thinking about what you would have done, go back and reread it. Study it. Take it apart and see what the writer did that made that scene or passage or story so memorable. (Though I've never deconstructed to the level Prose recommends, I can see how that could be useful.) As I've often said, seeing how that writer did it to you is the first step in learning how to do it to others.

I suspect you will discover, as I have always discovered, that what makes a piece of writing effective is not a simple function of words spelled correctly and in order. It's the layers of nuance and meaning, the texture of the words, that give them their power.

Then you might want to go back and apologize to that middle school English teacher who tried to tell you this when you were too young to understand.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

They Like Your Money!

A week or so ago, I got an e-Mail from someone inviting me to submit my book(s) for an award!

I’m not going to name them here, but the group identified in the e-Mail wanted to let me know that, assuming I met the criteria as determined by their panel of volunteer judges (“comprised of published authors, writers, publishers, editors, professionals, experts in a variety of fields, and prolific readers”), I’d be eligible for all sorts of cool stuff, such as:

  • A “professional” press release, ready for distribution to media outlets!
  • Neat little foil award stickers to place on my book covers!
  • Identification from this group that I—that’s right, little old me—am an Award-Winning Author/Writer! (I’m assuming this last bit is an either/or kind of thing.)
  • The “potential” for increased sales!
  • Recognition that I and my book are just that gosh-darned special!
  • Appreciation for my significant monetary contribution!
  • Pride and confidence that I, too, can be Awesome!
  • A Certificate of Awesomeness!
What did I have to do? Simply fill out the award entry form, in which I tell them why my book(s) meet their Criteria of Awesome. Do I need to send in a representative sample of the work(s) in question? Well, heck no! We’ll get to that later. For now, they can judge my Level of Awesomeness just from the 25 (or fewer) words of description that I include in the entry form. Once that’s done, we can get to the important part of the whole process. What’s that? Why, the payment, of course: One for each Awesome Book you plan to submit, if you please.

(Yes, I know I used “Awesome” a lot up there, but by golly! This is just so great!)

My Spidey-sense already tingling, I ventured to the website included in the e-Mail, and several of the telltale warning signs were there: No contact information, other than the standard e-Mail drop. No information on the people running the site or conducting the judging. No explanation as to what use(s) the exorbitant entry fees are put. No insider info as to the distinction between “author” and “writer,” or what a “professional” on this panel might be if they’re not already a writer, publisher, editor or other “expert in a variety of fields,” or how any of these people might be qualified to bestow an award for anything.

And no real “award,” either.

As Colonel Sherman T. Potter might once have said on an old episode of M*A*S*H, “Buffalo bagels!”

Remember the old adage, “Money flows to the writer?” For those wondering, it’s a battle-tested nugget of wisdom, passed down from veterans to aspiring up-and-comers, and often illustrated with examples like, “Don’t pay to have your work published,” or “Don’t pay an agent anything up front” and so on and so forth. As more experienced word-slingers know, there’s an entire industry out there devoted to separating the hopeful and naïve novice writer from his or her money. Vanity publishers, scam agents, “producers” looking to make off with the movie/TV rights to your work, writing “contests” that never award any prizes. The list goes on.

While vanity presses were (and remain) by and large traps to be avoided, the new era of independent and self publishing in the print-on-demand and electronic realms has forced us to reconsider the old money flow principle in certain respects, such as paying for cover art, copyediting services or marketing and promotion services, and so on. Because of this new reality, we must remain ever vigilant for the latest schemes from the “too good to be true” or “this makes no sense if I think it through” crowds. “Awards” like these are just another flavor of that. A casual investigation via Google of the group in question told me little about it or the supposed significance of its award, but did point me to known and trusted writer’s forums (example:,, etc.) where the general advice was to avoid it.

Is this group a scam? Well, that’s an interesting question. If you read the information on their site, it’s worded in such a manner that they’re not actually lying. They’ll give you everything they’re proposing, but if you consider the package, you realize it doesn’t amount to anything, except a chance for you to buy more of whatever it is they’re selling. In this case, you’d be paying somebody anywhere from $75 to $95 per book to be told by a bunch of people you don’t know, “Your book is fantastic, and so are you!”

Hey, I’ll tell you that for only half their asking price, and I won’t even call you “sucker” under my breath as I’m pocketing your money. See me after the show.

Anyone else have any juicy scams they want to share? Maybe you got this same invitation, so you know the group I’m describing. Let’s swap war stories.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Guest screenwriter Art Holcomb: How to Eat a Whale

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter whose work has appeared on the Showtime Channel. He is a comic book author of such comics as Disney/Marvel’s X-Men and Acclaim’s Eternal Warriors. Art is a regular contributor to Storyfix – voted the #1 fiction writer’s website on the Internet. A number of his recent essays appear in the collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life (Amazon Books). He appears and teaches at San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions.  

Scenes are the way we come into the world.  Memories, one of our strongest motivators, are almost completely made up of scenes. They are stories in miniature - bite-sized, easy to digest, and easy to remember and retell.  They are the building blocks of all narrative writing.

The scene is also a microcosm for the whole.  It has:

  • a beginning, middle, and end as well as
  • its own conflict, goals and obstacles;
  • its own tension and release through pivot points;
  • its own surprises and revelations  . . .
  • its own stakes – some stand alone to the scene, some part of the greater story;
  • Like a poem that’s crafted for maximum impact with a minimum number of words, scenes alone have the power to create moments within a story, the very moments that the audience might remember after the performance is over.

Authors like James Patterson and Robert B. Parker use the same concept in their non-scriptwriting fiction, building a novel with a hundred or more short scenes or chapters.  The length of their chapters becomes shorter as the pace and tension builds. Each chapter or scene is a vignette, a small chip of ceramic placed in a greater mosaic, bringing together the smallest of things to make great beauty and power.

If, as we write, our goal is to develop the above elements, we have to assemble the tools we need to make great scenes. As you write, consider these techniques:

Enter the scene as late as possible – this can maximize the time you have inside the scene; remember, if you’re shooting for two-minutes scenes, then every little bit of saved time or space can be put to better use.

Let the action inform the reader as to setting and tone.  Much of exposition in a screenplay or novel is actually reference and inference. There’s an old saying that the real story begins in chapter three; why not try starting there without the build-up and see how much back-story and information comes from the action?

There must be an identifiable beginning, a time before the problem or attack takes place (this is known as the Inciting Incident).  Make your beginning striking. You can place readers suddenly in a situation that heightens their senses or lulls them into being comfortable before hitting them with the stark contrast of the main conflict.

Create a middle that pivots us around. The main character is fighting his way in one direction – now, spin us around! Give us something that we didn’t see coming.  Conflict us, confound us, do something bold and unexpected.  Make the decision points of the story clear. Doing this part well provides depth and roundness to the scene. Your readers will thank you for it.

End the scene.  Too many writers ignore this point.  They let the action stop, trail off, or have a character leave the room (literally or emotionally) or fail to make a decision.  These can be valid parts of a scene’s ending but by themselves are not enough to propel us into the next scene, to the next pearl in the strand.  The ends of scenes contain one of the greatest dangers a writer can face because this is a natural point for readers to decide whether they are going to continue reading.  Find a way to hook your audience so they come back.

Every word, every phrase, or exchange must have a purpose.  If not, you should ask yourself whether you really need it. The real estate on the page is too precious to waste with literary weeds and overgrowth.

Always know what the objective for the scene is. Every scene should have at least two:  One is the objective for the story: what the characters must accomplish or what they need to feel in order to march ever forward to their goal.  But also there is an objective for the reader.  You are the one telling the story; you are in control.  What is it that the reader wants to feel from this passage? Your skill plus their own personal experiences dictate what they get out of your tale.  You need to do your part to give them the ride they paid for.

Drive the narrative smoothly from one scene to another; each scene must make a fluid link between the scene before and the scene that follows.

Finally. try to  accomplish at least two of these three things in each scene:

Expand the narrative: move the story along (escalate).
Deepen the characterization: reveal more (give details  and emotion).
Promote the subtext and theme.
These strategies will serve you well regardless of your story’s format. It’s simply quality storytelling.

For more information, try Larry Brook’s excellent chapter on scene development in his Story Engineering or some of the passages dedicated to scene writing on Storyfix. In addition, I recommend The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.

Oh, and the answer to the question in the title: how do you eat a whale?

Why, one small bite at a time . . . of course!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Spoken Word

Oral tradition is a very important part of West African culture. Although their languages have had a written form for generations, one still finds that a lot of importance is placed on story telling and oral communications. You can see this in everyday conversations. People will seldom get straight to the point; a conversation must begin with a detailed greeting to set a friendly tone.

I cane face to face with the impact that oral story telling can have when I had the opportunity to speak to 325 children at an international school here in Accra. I sat with each class in the elementary section, read a story and then answered questions. The kindergarteners were my toughest audience. In the photo on the left, I am reading "Chee Chee in Paradise" to one of the kindergarten classes. The children paid rapt attention. As soon as the last word of my story had escaped my lips, a young lady piped up: "But what about Chee Chee's brother?" It was a great question and an indication that the story had touched and captured her. Their feedback was so useful, so humbling.

I firmly believe that the process of the reading had a significant impact on the way that the children saw the story and it made me feel very protective of my story. I wanted to pull the books off of Amazon and sell them one by one, only to parents who signed a contract to read the story with expression and drama. Don't worry, that madness has since subsided. I am ready once more to trust the words and the images to do the job for me.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fahrenheit 51: In Honor of Ray Bradbury

On Tuesday, I joined the crowd gathered at City College to watch Venus pass in front of the sun.  I told my two boys to get a good look because the next time it happened, they’d be 109 and 111 years old, respectively. 

But all I could think about while peering through that spotting scope was Margot, the little girl who got locked in the closet on Venus in Ray Bradbury’s ‘All Summer in a Day.’

I must have read that story thirty years ago, but it was clearly unforgettable.  From there, my thoughts wandered to Hollis, the doomed astronaut who blazed through the atmosphere at the end of ‘Kaleidoscope.’  That’s the kind of story that makes you rethink your whole day.
I grew up reading Ray Bradbury.  He was the subject of all my book reports from 1979-1983.  He got me excited about science fiction.  He’d famously claim that he wasn’t at heart a science fiction writer, but he was. 

‘The Martian Chronicles’ kept me up at night wondering about future histories.  ‘Fahrenheit 451’ made me worry that we might not have any future at all.  And ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ instilled in me a lifelong fear of demonic circuses. 
Ray Bradbury made me want to be a writer.  Strange then, waking up on Wednesday to learn he had died.  Best of luck, Ray.  Like the small boy on the country road at the end of ‘Kaleidoscope,’ I’ll join the world’s sci-fi readers and make a wish.  And because I could not resist the temptation, a small tribute:

Fahrenheit 51

“Damn totalitarian government,” Gary Montag growled, inching his way into the frigid water.
“Stop your complaining,” Mildred scolded, shivering in the hot tub.  “Once you get in, it’s not so bad.”
Montag glared at his wife.  “What would be the crime in heating the water?”  He finally took the plunge, collapsing into the icy froth.  “I’m growing weary of this dystopia.”
“You’ve heard the stories,” Mildred reminded him.  “Back in the day, people got so relaxed in their hot tubs that productivity suffered.  The economy all but collapsed.  No, I think the new law makes sense.”
“Well, I’m not going to take it anymore,” Montag announced, reaching for the thermostat.
“That’s forbidden,” Mildred shrieked.  
“It’s time somebody stood up for the people,” Montag said, flipping the switch.  The heater roared to life.
Mildred dialed 911.  “You’re in hot water now, baby,” she said as the SWAT team moved into position.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Stretching the Truth

The news has been swamped with clips of the America’s Got Talent contestant, Timothy Poe. For those who may not be familiar with the story, this contestant won the hearts of the judges, not just for his stellar performance, but also for his personal story and the odds he overcame as a soldier injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, inconsistencies in his story ranging from unverified injuries to presenting false photos have caused quite a stir on the airwaves. There are even reports of death threats.

Now while I don’t endorse lying or exaggerations, some authors have been known to exaggerate personal stories in order to sell more books. Of note is the embellishment and outright lies in the autobiographic memoirs of James Frey’s bestseller, A Million Little Pieces or as some articles describe it, A Million Little Lies. Then there was the Herman Rosenblat memoir in which the events that made the book endearing had been fabricated. The repercussions were swift as his contracts were voided.

But what about a little exaggeration? I’m not talking about touting fiction as a true biography or memoir. I’m talking about authors claiming to have experiences that they don’t have; fabricating little personal stories to gain interest in their books, even if those stories have little to do with the books they write. It’s often considered as an alternate “persona”. There are even some who write “how to” books who invent qualifications that they don’t have. I’ve even heard of authors who exaggerate the difficulties they experience on the road to publication just to look like the underdog overcoming obstacles.

Why do authors stretch the truth? The answer is simple: it sells books. The more interesting the author’s story, the more intrigue, the more sales. But the repercussions when the truth is discovered could be horrendous. Once people feel that they have been deceived by the artist, the art itself becomes lost. There is no doubt that Timothy Poe is a talented artist, but the focus now is not on his singing. It’s on his fabricated or exaggerated personal story. In the same vein, if you do a Google search for James Frey, you will find more articles about his scandal than about the books and screenplays he’s written since the scandal.

Personally, I don’ think stretching the truth is ethical and it certainly isn’t worth it. So what do you think? Is it ethical to stretch the truth a little about your personal story if it would increase book sales?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury: A Legend is Gone

When I saw on the news yesterday that Ray Bradbury had died in California, my first thought was that I'd had no idea he was still alive. This was partly due to the fact that in my mind, all the the truly legendary writers have already passed on. He was 91.

I've read just two of Bradbury's works: Farenheit 451 (of course) and more recently, Zen in the Art of Writing. Farenheit is the kind of science fiction I love - great stories featuring heroic characters who are idealistic to the bone, with strong sociological themes that make them all the more compelling. These stories tend to be chilling: the dystopias they present are all too possible, even probable. Many are projections of conditions and trends that already exist in society. As Bradbury himself has said, "I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it."

When I read Zen in the Art of Writing a few years ago I discovered that many of Bradbury's famous quotations on the craft were lifted from that book. There's a reason these quotations have become common coin: they contain a wealth of wisdom condensed from the author's experience:

"Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories." (Hear that, people? Put down the danged iPhone, go outside and look at the stars!)

"I know you've heard it a thousand times before. But it's true - hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don't love something, then don't do it."  (Writers, there are no short-cuts. Grease up those elbows and get to work!)

"Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things." (Hope y'all are listening. Save the thinking for the editing phase.)

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." (Reality is a bitch. I often wonder how many of us would be locked up in jails or psychiatric facilities if we didn't have our creative outlets.)

Ray Bradbury lived his words; we can do worse than to live by them. The literary community has lost a great author, an invaluable contributor to that filigree that stretches back into the dim past from the books, films and songs of today, through the oral traditions to the stories imagined in dark caves. His bibliography - the novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, teleplays, children's literature and non-fiction - is staggering, and the works are as popular today as they were in the 50s. The author lives on through them.

Liane Spicer

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Kindle Cover Conundrum

I met a writer at the recent ConQuesT science fiction convention in Kansas City who had sold about 180,000 self-published books in the past year. I mentioned that I planned to self-publish a novel this summer, and she encouraged me to produce both e-books and trade paperbacks.

I took a look through her CreateSpace-printed books and was surprised at the quality. (CreateSpace is Amazon's hardcopy self-publishing arm.) The coverstock, inside stock, and ink looked as good as those of books produced by New York. I decided I would self-publish my novel both electronically and as a trade paperback.

But what would I do about the cover? I had designed the cover for the Kindle, and so it:
  • is very simple
  • is brightly colored
  • is bold
  • uses large typefaces for the title and author name
  • is designed to look good in Kindle's preferred 5x8 proportions
It won't work as is on a 6x9 trade paperback. Sure, I can stretch the image here and squash it there so it looks nearly identical to the Kindle cover. That would allow me use the same promotional materials for both.

But do I really want to make only minor formatting changes? What is pleasing and catches the eye in an image half the size of my thumb and on the cover of a 6x9 paperback are quite different. A book cover pleasingly complex enough to get me to spend a minute or two looking at it in person is often a blurred mess when viewed in the carousel of my Kindle. (Which I know because covers look different enough in person vs. on my Kindle that I have bought several expensive books on Kindle and then later bought them in paperback or hardback, not recognizing them. Ouch!)

I worry that the Kindle cover may be too loud and insufficiently complex for a paper book. I worry that my name would look much too large on the paper cover for a writer early in her career.

Another worry: I created the cover using Microsoft Word and some free programs. (I don't own Adobe Illustrator or any other fancy art program.) I had to do some work-arounds to create the cover I wanted within Word's limitations. The resulting minuscule flaws won't show up on the Amazon ad or in the Kindle book, but they will be glaringly obvious if I use the image on the trade paperback's cover.

I am still mulling what to do. The advantages of the same cover on every edition of a book are obvious. But so are the advantages of tailoring the cover image to the size at which people will view it and the disadvantages of having clear mistakes in the art.

I think some of my answers may lie in digging deeply into Word's more obscure features; somewhere buried under many layers of menu options may lie the solutions to the flaws created by my work-arounds. I will also try making subtle but significant alterations to the design and printing them out at different sizes to see whether I can make the image more suitable for a paperback without altering it significantly.

As more of us try out self-publication, solutions to these and other problems of designing our own books will become common knowledge. In the meantime, we each struggle with producing a high-quality book within the limited financial means we have as writers.

Thank goodness we writers are creative and can think out of the box!

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on June 21.

—Shauna Roberts

Monday, June 4, 2012

Reversion Request Approvals - An Amazing Opportunity for Authors!

I thoroughly enjoyed Lynn Emery's recent post called Working It. She has motivated me through the sharing of her ingenuity, hard work and accomplishments, because times . . . they are a-changing!

Recently I've felt the same type of excitement when I receive a letter from a publisher stating they've agreed to grant my reversion of rights request, as I feel when I receive a contract from a publisher. That might sound strange to some, but when you already have a completed book that has been available for a while, and you have an opportunity to get your rights back, own it, and promote it yourself, considering the many avenues available today, it is really exciting.

In 2009, I received the rights back to The Chocolate Ship, and immediately re-released the trade version as well as ebook version (new cover and minor rewrites). It has done very well, sometimes outselling my current titles, particularly in the summertime. I also re-released Something He Can Feel in ebook in 2011 (new cover and minor rewrites). This past week, my request was approved to revert the rights on Make Me Hot, which will now be called Morgan's Makeover (new title, cover and major rewrites). Morgan's Makeover was the original title, but the publisher changed it to Make Me Hot, which sounds erotic, and it is definitely not, so now I can call all the shots. Also, I got the rights back on my very first book, May December Souls, which was released by HarperCollins exactly 10 years ago. I'm re-releasing it as an anniversary edition ebook (new cover and minor rewrites). Thrilled!!!

As far as the self-published book production of May Decembers Souls, I searched and searched for a cover image recently, and it dawned on me during one of my sleepless nights that since I originally self-published it in 2000, I already had a cover designed back then, so why not use that cover? It's an illustartion (above) which was popular back then. I mean I own it, I like it, and it's free! So, we're tweaking it just a bit and it will be released this month, along with Morgan's Makeover.

One thing a lot of authors don't know is that when a publisher reverts right back to you, the reversion applies only to the text of that title, and not the cover. And also, they will not send you their text file that has all of the final edits and changes, which is their edition of the final print version that they have worked so hard to shape up. They are adamant about the fact that they own the print version their copyeditors worked on, and if you want that version, you can buy it for a price - yes, they will charge you for it. In some cases, $4 per page. No it's not fair, but it is so.

So authors, PLEASE, when you turn in a book for delivery or after copyedits, for every change that is made by you or them, please add those changes to your master version regularly. Back in the day, the publisher would send the printed manuscript by mail and the author would write on it and mail it back, most times not thinking to update his/her own original version. Nowadays, thank God, there is an electronic red-lined version for edits/changes that is simply emailed back and forth, other than when you get the printed proof pages. Try to keep your masters as up to date as possible. I cannot say that enough. I have spent days and days, reading the printed book version and painstakingly comparing it to my Word version, rewriting the story as I go, so that it's not exactly the same as their version, even though I worte the book - go figure! But, it's tough to have someone else do the comparison for you because you really do need to make changes as you go along, and some parts of it that you wrote years ago, might drive you crazy now that you've grown as an author - decide to leave it fresh as it was, or tweak it. Take it a few chapters at a time, not too many, just to give your eyes a break. (By the way, publishers will include in their reversion letter that you cannot use a photo offset process to reproduce/copy "their" edition, or else a fee will be negotiated). And FYI, they can reserve the right to sell off their remaining print copies.

So June through August will include the two reverted Marissa Monteilh titles, and two new novellas that I'd started writing a while back - one is called The Six-Letter Word (finally - my apologies to the readers who email me looking for this title), and Turnabout Is Fair Play, which was written for the A Chapter A Month concept, and will be released through my own publishing company shortly.

As my fellow novelnaut, Lynn Emery, said, due to changing indie-publishing avenues, exciting ebook opportunities, and the new avenues that readers are taking when it comes to book buying, we must be versatile and develop new strategies, especially if we've been out there for a while and have titles that we can now own. There's total power in owning our masters. And I am so jazzed about that! I hope you are too. (Even if your publisher is still selling a title of yours they've published for a while, you can still request it back - don't wait for them to offer it)

Let's try our best to be creative in our writing, and in the business of writing, so we can offer as many quality titles to our readers as possible.

Write on!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Working It

Several months back I alluded to my publishing career plans. So I’ve been busy thinking, collecting ideas and thinking some more. Oh, and networking with fellow authors (which I highly recommend). I began to take the advice I’ve shared in previous posts.
  • I finished the second in a paranormal mystery/thriller series. Between Dusk and Dawn is now on sale. the eBook version contains a promo of the first book in the series, and a jpg of the book cover (front and back matter). I also updated the eBook version of A Darker Shade of Midnight to include promo of Between Dusk and Dawn. I enrolled A Darker Shade of Midnight in the KDP Select program. This was going to be a three book series to start. I’m working on the cover for Only By Moonlight now.
  • I got a lovely surprise, like a bolt out of the blue. Harlequin reverted publishing rights back on my very first novel Night Magic. In this book I first created the fictional small town of Beau Chene, Louisiana, and introduced LaShaun Rousselle, the heroine of the above new paranormal  trilogy. So instead of starting on the next book, Only By Moonlight, I’ve detoured into getting this title done as an eBook and print version with a new cover. I may have a boxed set of four instead of the trilogy I had planned. Quick pivot in a new direction!
  • I had new covers designed for three books already released, including a “boxed set” cover. A Time To Love, One Love, and After All are now part of the Louisiana Love Series. They are priced at $3.99 each, and the boxed set (when I get it finished) will be sold for $9.99). I’ve also changed the contents to include promos of the other books in this first series. Got a second Louisiana Love Series on the way because…
  • HarperCollins sent another nice surprise, rights reversion to three romances I wrote for them (that did very well). So that’s going to be my next Louisiana Love Series (Vol. 2). Once I finish working on Night Magic, I’ll start working to get those books formatted and have new covers designed.
  • I have a new look for my website (see new header above), but I’m still working on updating the entire website. Only so many hands and hours to spare. But with new books covers and series linked by a common theme, I need to change how the book pages will look. I plan on pages for each series instead of “Romance” and “Mystery” pages that I have now.
I’m doing all this because in indie publishing readers love linked books. I was at a loss for a while because I had romances, but now I’m writing mystery. Discussions with my writing pals helped me realize that my backlist romances all have themes of Louisiana culture, family secrets and of course love. Thus the Louisiana Love Series were born.

So now I have a new set of goals, benchmarks and a new strategy that makes more sense than just getting books written or rights reverted and throwing them up.

Speaking of valued writing friends, I lost one last month. Only a couple of weeks ago in fact. My dear friend, romance author Monica Jackson died suddenly due to complications of surgery. Monica had a razor sharp sense of humor, a fiery passion for fighting injustice, and enthusiasm for starting new ventures. If you love super hot & sexy romance, suspense and laugh out loud scenes thrown in, treat yourself to her novels.

Please pray for her teenage daughter, Amethyst, and the rest of her family. I miss our daily e-mails about life and writing more than I can express.