Saturday, October 31, 2015

Leave a Writer's Voice Alone

by Velda Brotherton

One of the worst things editors or critique groups can do is change a writer’s voice. So how do we recognize the difference in weird or poor writing and a unique voice? It’s not always easy. In fact many authors are not truly sure they have a distinctive voice.

Several qualities go to make up voice. One, of course, is a specific style we use to tell our stories. And we develop that style from childhood. Our mothers sang to us and told us stories. Our fathers recited tales of their own growing up. From the time we are very small we are developing a way of relating the way we communicate. Long before some of us become writers we have developed a specific voice.

Once we’ve decided we want to be writers, we are aware of the way we like to tell our stories. By then the rhythm we use is like a song. Of course there are specifics we have to learn to polish our writing, to make sure we are telling exciting stories. We learn to add conflict, to form scenes and sequels, to create characters and use all five senses, to add description sparingly within the action. These things can be taught.

The one thing that can’t be taught is the craft itself. Those who are talented, are creative, have vivid imaginations, and develop that unique voice, can learn to follow and eventually break the rules.

Our critique group has been around for 28 years or so, and we have helped a lot of novice writers hone their craft, polish their talent, and get published. One rule we always have tried to follow is never try to make every writer sound alike. In other words, allow them to write in their own beautiful voice.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Yo, I’ve Got a Book Over Here!

Almost six years ago, I heard those words we who write yearn to hear; a publisher said yes. The next step, I assumed, would be to lean back and rest upon my lush, green laurels and watch my book fly off the selves. But I quickly learned, life is not a story I get to write and I don’t have any laurels. (The best I can manage is a little basil from my back porch). In reality, my book was one of 250,000 books published in the United States that year. It was one year newer than the 250,000 books published the year before and would soon be shadowed by next year’s crop of books and eager authors. So the question every new author must ask is: After the frenzy of purchases by friends and family, what makes someone want to put down hard earned cash to buy your book? These are my experiences in trying to answer that question.

Soon after my first book was published, Facebook contacted me with a proposition. They would advertise my book on Facebook to millions of members free of charge and only if someone was interested in my book and clicked on the cover would they charge a few cents to my pre-setup account. Great publicity, I thought. You can target people based on their likes. People who “liked” NCIS would see the cover of my crime lab mystery. The more refined I got, the higher the cost per click. I put together a very witty slogan and CLICK, CLICK, CLICK within a week I was twenty dollars poorer, my advertisement was popular but no books sold. Witty draws people in but not to buy books.

I changed the slogan to BUY THIS MYSTERY; fewer clicks but the same results. People are not on Facebook to buy books. Note to self: sell your book where people want to buy books. My next marketing strategy was Fantastic place; readers wanting to read books, authors with books to sell. I signed up to give my book away. The end result…. 2682 people signed up to try and win a copy, 248 people clicked that they would like to read my book, 5 people read it and gave me some nice reviews. Not a slam dunk in sales but affirming.

So, back to the question, what makes someone want to put down hard earned cash to buy your book? After being on local radio stations, several newspaper articles, talks at book clubs, book signings at bookstores, book signings at libraries (libraries did much better than stores), book fairs and book festivals – in the end, the one thing that reliably sells your book is you; a connection with you, a smile from you, a question to you or a talk by you. At my first but book fair, I had a chair, a folding table and five books. Over time, I have added things to draw people to my booth; to make a connection. I can make enough through sales of the other products to pay for the festivals and have been to some of the biggest. Two excellent ones are the LA Times Festival of Books and Tucson’s Festival of Books. Few of us have laurels, even fewer can sell a book on our name alone but all of us can say, in our own way, “Yo, I’ve got a book over here. Come look!”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Marlon James and the Man Booker Prize: A Caribbean Perspective

Marlon James
The Caribbean is my birthplace and my current home, so it's with more than a soupçon of pride that I read the news last week that the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2015, the biggest UK book award, is none other than Jamaican Marlon James. The winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is the first by a Jamaican author ever to be shortlisted. James joins Trinidad-born VS Naipaul who won in 1971.

James's path to glory is frighteningly familiar: we hear variations on this story in the publishing world all the time. As a gay man in a violently homophobic country, he could not just "be himself" and his dark nights of the soul brought him close to ending it all. "I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane," he writes in "From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself", a March 10, 2015 essay in the Times. Despondent after receiving 70 rejections for his first novel, John Crow's Devil, he deleted the story from his hard drive, recovering it at the urging of a writer friend. It was finally published in 2005 and became a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award. A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) won the fiction category of the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature before going on to win the Man Booker.

The Caribbean region has had its fair share of writers who have won prestigious international prizes, including the Nobel Prize in Literature (Trinidadian novelist VS Naipaul in 2001, St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott in 1992, Saint-John Perce of Guadeloupe in 1960) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Trinidadians Earl Lovelace, VS Naipaul and Lawrence Scott, Jamaican Erna Brodber, and others). Several others have been shortlisted. Then there are the diasporic Caribbeans, usually children of Caribbean migrant parents, such as Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy who between them have won the Man Booker, the Orange, the Whitbread and others.

The region is always inordinately proud when our people "make it big" in the wider world, for a number of reasons. Even though the Caribbean archipelago stretches almost two thousand miles from the Bahamas in the north to Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam in the south, most of the nations are mere flyspecks on the map when compared with the rest of the English-speaking and -writing world. The population of the entire region can probably be encompassed in one major metropolitan city, so in terms of numbers alone, the odds appear to be against us when it comes to winning major prizes.

There's more than just geographical fragmentation at play in the region; there's also the legacy of a historical reality where multiple races, ethnicities, religions and languages were all thrown together in the sink-or-swim scenario of colonization that involved dehumanizing systems of slavery, indentureship and genocide with all the attendant social and psychological fallout. Our history is ever with us, as evidenced by the deep-rooted insecurities, shaky identities and the persistent need for external validation. We battle our complexes on the cricket pitch, on the soccer field, in academia--and in our literature.

The history aside, the complications aside, there's the simple delight in seeing yet another of "ours" receive high accolades for work exceedingly well done. Good job, Marlon. We in the region are very proud your achievements and your contribution to our rich literary heritage.

~Liane Spicer

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When It's No Longer Fan Fiction

I’m often asked how what I do—writing media tie-in fiction—differs from writing “fan fiction.” There’s been a slight increase in this sort of thing in the wake of Simon & Schuster’s announcement that they’re reviving their Star Trek: Strange New Worlds writing contest, which was an annual competition for a decade beginning in 1997. At least a few of you may recall that my so-called writing career was launched thanks to this contest, way back when.

Some news sites and individuals have incorrectly described this as a “fan fiction contest,” and I have to respectfully disagree with that labeling. I’m not trying to diminish fan fiction, or make any sort of judgment toward anyone who writes it. Instead, I simply feel the need to distinguish between fan fiction and writing for a licensed property such as Star Trek, Star Wars, or any other film, television, gaming, or other media entity you’d care to name.

“But aren’t those novels just approved fan fiction?” someone might ask, and I suppose it’s true to a certain extent. After all, I’m a huge Star Trek fan (read: “nerd”) and I write a lot of Star Trek fiction, so sure, one level what I do could be considered fan fiction.

'However, the way I see it, the main differences between fan fiction and licensed fiction boil down to two questions: 1) are you paid to write it; and/or 2) is it subject to oversight by a property owner, such as a film or TV studio, game company, and so on. Fan fiction doesn’t have to worry about meeting either of these criteria, and licensed fiction does.

That’s it. Neither of these measures is intended as a value judgment so far as the quality of a story, be it fan fiction or licensed material. After all, there's a lot of great fan fiction out there, some of the best stories date back decades. Will writing fan fiction lead to an opportunity to write a licensed novel or other product for a tie-in property? Most likely not, but “never” is a word I tend to use with great caution, particularly in this business.

Also, those interested in writing for licensed properties aren’t entirely without options. Amazon has taken an interesting lead in this department, with their “Kindle Worlds” concept, which offers several media and author-owned properties to which authors can contribute stories. Ever want to write a G.I. Joe, Pretty Little Liars, Vampire Diaries, or Veronica Mars tale? Now you can, and get paid while doing it, and there are dozens of other “worlds” which also are available, covering a broad spectrum of genres. Again, as with the larger entities like Star Trek, Star Wars, Disney, Marvel, and so on, the writer gets paid, and these stories are managed and approved by an editor and the owner of the property in question.

So, if you’re itching to play in someone else’s literary sandbox, this might be a way to do it. There certainly are worse ways to have a bit of fun and maybe get paid to do it, after all.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Your Novel Is a Race Horse

 I guess everybody knows American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, the ultimate honor in horseracing and the first horse to accomplish that in thirty-seven years. 

I thought about all the preparation and work that went into accomplishing such a feat.  And then I thought, “That’s much like writing a novel.”

For the racehorse, there’s lots of training over some years, something like the work and preparation necessary to develop the writing skills. A racehorse must be lean and strong, just like your writing – lean and strong. Neither the racehorse nor the book can have a lot of fat.  Both need strong bones (structure). For either to win, it needs superior muscles (strong verbs).

When the race starts, the horse must be out of the gate fast to secure a good running lane.  Your book needs to start fast, with a compelling hook on the first page.  Without a good start, the horse will have a long race of catching up.  Forget the enticing hook at the beginning of your book and the reader may put it down and never read it.

With horse races and books there is a danger of a weak middle. This makes it difficult for both animal and writer to ever regain the lead and finish a winner.

And both need a strong finish. How many races have been lost when the horse in second place gives a little extra and finishes just a nose ahead of the frontrunner?  For the writer, the ending must be strong. It’s the last thing the reader sees, remembers.  The ending can cause the reader to immediately look for another book by this author, to tell friends about this great book, to recommend it on social media. Or, the reader can put it away, not mention it to anybody and avoid picking up another novel by that author.

A true champion horse needs little encouragement. He takes the bit and charges out. He intends to be ahead of the others in the race. He will do his best to finish first.  A great story can actually lead the author in the right direction. Characters will speak to the writer, demand to be heard, dictate how the plot unfolds. The wise jockey gives the horse his head. The smart writer pays attention to what the characters need, and often will follow their lead.

Not all great racehorses win the Triple Crown, and not all great books will sell a million copies. But the really good racehorses will win races and the really good novels will gain a following. 

Horses try to avoid being listed as, “Also ran.”  And the writer doesn’t want to be listed as “Also published.” 

Aim for more.
James R. Callan

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Celebrating Small Wins

Computers may be a boon but they can also be a hammer blow to the ego. Especially when Twitter is full of other author's good news. Book releases, good reviews, book deals, even another author finally getting an agent.

Your own accomplishments may seem paltry in comparison. I know mine always do! But the problem is you don't compare to anyone and you can't compare to anyone. Sit back and look at the things that you DID accomplish.

Lately I haven't been writing anything! I blogged about that a couple of months ago and it's all due to moving. And I'm STILL moving. Still in between having my own space and a new home. And when I'm not writing I always feel bad about it. Especially when other people are posting word counts and new projects.

But I have had a couple good things happen. I sold a short story to an anthology and got an estimated release date for Tea Times Three. My immediate thought is always  "Well, it's only a small thing. It's not like it's going to put money in my pocket or make my name." For some reason it's always easier to downplay successes as being not big enough.

The thing to remember is that a success, no matter how small is still a success. It's something you did, something you made, that someone out there liked! Liked enough maybe even to give you some money for it! Remind yourself that you did something, and things are happening even if you aren't aware of them.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Recipe for Romance

This is a recycled post I wrote for Literary Musings during my Hurricane of the Heart July - August Bewitching blog tour. Enjoy!

So you want to be a romance writer? Well here is a recipe you can use:
Serving size: 1 full length romance novel


1 really intriguing storyline
2 cups well developed lovable characters
5 tablespoons of memorable supporting characters
½ cup of conflict
1/2 cup sexual/emotional tension
Heat (variable depending on targeted readership)
1 emotional conflict resolution
A dash of comedy
Love making (optional)

Before we begin this recipe you need to prep. Here’s how you prep.
1.    Know what romance is
Have you ever read a book that’s labeled romance and found that there is everything in the book except romance? The genre romance can run the gamut. There are a million and one subgenres of romance including historical, paranormal, mystery, suspense, erotica, you name it. The heat level also covers a wide range from simple hand holding to explicit sex. So what really is romance?
Romance is a story about the love and eventual relationship between two people that is driven by the emotions with a hopeful ending.
So before you begin to write romance, make sure you know what kind of romance you want to write, the heat level and your targeted readership.

2.    Know your characters
Well developed lovable characters are essential for writing romance. Readers like to fall in love with the characters themselves. An interesting way to create multidimensional characters is by doing an interview with the main characters. It helps you to know how they think, what they would and would not do, and how they would react to different scenarios.

3.    Know your storyline
Whether or not you are using an outline know where you story is going. You must know how it begins, how the couple meets, and what would happen in the end. The middle is a determined by your imagination.

4.    Know how to create conflict.
Conflict can be either internal or external. It could be a residual scars from past relationships. It could be the person’s own insecurity or dislike for the other person. It could also be caused by other people, circumstances, or decisions that have to be made. The greater the conflict, the more interesting the resolution.

Now that you’re all prepped we can begin making that spicy romance.

To the intriguing storyline add two lovable characters. The characters should be strong, memorable and even if they are the most villainous characters, have something that readers could identify with and like. We want characters that readers will be rooting to get together.

Add a dash of conflict at the beginning of the recipe. We’ll add the rest later. Stir in a few memorable supporting characters or sidekicks.  Beat for a few minutes and add emotional/sexual tension drop-wise allowing it to build up to a fever pitch. Stir in comedy so that it blends with everything else. When mixture is nice and smooth, place it on the fire and slowly add heat. The heat depends on the targeted audience so be careful.  Let it simmer so readers can get a whiff of the HEA. Love making is optional depending on subgenre and heat level, but it should be driven by emotion. Use your discretion when adding this. As it comes to a boil add the rest of the conflict and turn up the heat. Keep stirring. When it begins to bubble out of the pot add the conflict resolution. Stir to make everything smooth.

Taste the pot (proof read) to make sure you have a lovely flavor and add or remove to improve the taste (editing). Now you have yourself an intriguing romance novel.