Tag Archives: writing process

The Agonizing Process of Titling Stories #amwriting #writingtips

For most books, I have little trouble with titles. By the time it’s gone through revisions, I have a solid enough grounding to spitball some ideas and mush words together. Sometimes, I start writing with a title already in mind, as with the Spirit Knight series after book 1.

For short stories, that’s a whole different ball of wax. I hate coming up with short story titles. There’s no functional difference between titling a novel and something shorter, but I still view it in a similar fashion as this:

Nope. Nopity nope nope with a side of nope and some nopesauce on top.

Ah, the stuff of nightmares. Here’s what I do to come up with titles when they don’t spring forth.

  1. Look for words or phrases that pop up often, aside from common words. This is where Girls Can’t Be Knights came from.
  2. Use the main character’s name, title, or job as either the whole title or part of it. This is the source of Al-Kabar and Street Doc.
  3. Make a list of words similar to the one I use for writing the blurb. Smoosh them together until you find something cool. This is where the titles from The Greatest Sin come from.
  4. Get frustrated when none of the above work and spitball stupid titles with friends until something accidentally fits or is close. This is how I wound up with Dragons In Pieces and the rest of that trilogy.

The title is important for a book because it’s one of the elements on the cover. As such, it needs to contribute to the ability of the cover to sell the story.

See? It kinda helps. You want to read this, at least partly because of the title. Really, you do. Trust me. I’m super trustworthy.

With a short story or other piece not intended to stand on its own–because it’ll appear in an anthology, ezine, or similar venue–the title isn’t as important. In that case, the title is more about differentiating stories by the same author and giving some context to the story. The title isn’t going to appear on a cover, and it’s not going to sell anything on its own. In reality, we could probably all just number our short stories and achieve the same effect.

Sadly, no one seems to think that’s acceptable. “Story A4.3” Probably wouldn’t work for a fantasy or romance title anyway, so this may be for the best.

To find some exemplar short story titles, I mined a few award nomination lists and ezines, trying not to select famous ones on purpose.

Selkie Stories Are for Losers
If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love
A Green Silk Dress and a Wedding-Death
Today, I am Paul
Ten Half-Pennies
The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family
Jackalope Wives

As you can see, there’s a lot of variance, which means you can do whatever you want. Ideally, a story title will offer some insight into the story by providing a piece of context the reader might not otherwise grasp in a nod to the theme. If that’s too daunting a task, smoosh words that fit the theme together until something makes you happy. That’s kind of what writing is like anyway.

Why I Love and Hate #BeautyAndTheBeast @DisneyStudios

I took my daughter to see the new version of Beauty and the Beast. She’s about the same age now that I was when the original came out. As far as I can tell–she has fairly severe autism–she enjoyed it. The music is mostly familiar, she already knows the story and characters, and the visuals are stunning. I liked it quite a bit.

When I first saw the original, I was an unsophisticated teenager who preferred action movies. I am now a professional writerfolk who prefers action movies. The difference is minor, as I’m pretty good at shutting off my brain and enjoying visual media in the moment. But there is a difference. That difference lies in how much I think about the story later.

Perhaps predictably, the Stockholm Syndrome memes and discussions popped up before the new movie even came out. I don’t subscribe to this view of the story, and I’ll explain why in a minute. The homosexual tones of LeFou didn’t bother me, as it felt as authentic as anything else in the story. Really, it explains a lot about LeFou the original movie left vague. In fact, I quite liked that many plot holes in the original were filled by adding bits and bobs to the characters and their stories. Bravo, writerfolk! And thank you so much for explaining the whole weird seasons thing. That’s always bothered me. A lot.

On to the main point!

Stockholm Syndrome: strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.

I think the accusation is unfairly applied to this particular story. People point and say here’s a captor and a victim and they fall in love. Textbook definition! But the reality of the story is more complex than that. Here’s why:

In this version of the story, Belle does not have a character arc.

If you take some time to consider the plot and what really happens, you’ll notice that zero female characters have actual arcs. Only men do. Gaston’s arc takes him from almost-charming, not-really-that-bad narcissistic town hero to brutal villain. The Beast’s arc takes him from selfish asshat to empathetic human. Maurice’s arc is about learning to let go of his fear of losing Belle. It can be argued that LeFou has a bit of an arc, but that’s questionable since he really only reacts to how Gaston changes.

That’s it. Those are the character arcs. No one else grows or changes. Yes, Belle falls in love, but she doesn’t do that because she changes. Belle starts as a smart, empathetic person and ends as a smart, empathetic person. She begins capable of sacrifice and compromise, and also ends that way. The scene where she lifts her bowl to drink from it instead of using a spoon isn’t a growth point, it’s an obvious gesture because she’s compassionate. The things she learns reinforce her viewpoint without challenging it. She stands up to the Beast the same way she stands up to Gaston and everyone else.

So, at it’s heart, this is a story about two physically intimidating men who each react to the presence of a woman who’s a fundamentally better human being than them. I’ve read there’s also a metaphor involved, where Howard Ashman wanted Beast to represent AIDS in our society, and that’s noble. Doesn’t change the point.

If this story has a victim to anything like Stockholm Syndrome, I argue it’s the Beast. He’s the prisoner. He’s much more locked in that castle than she is. Heck, she climbs out the window and rides away, proving escape isn’t that hard. She helps him out of compassion, then beats him in a contest of wills. The Beast is the one who caves and changes his behavior to conform to Belle, not the other way around.

From a certain point of view, Belle is effectively a MacGuffin that Beast and Gaston each want to possess for different reasons and pursue with different methodologies. For Beast, Belle is freedom from the hellprison Agathe (the witch) locked him into. For Gaston, Belle is the reward he deserves for a virtuous life.

As for Agathe herself, in the original, this was the real beginning of Disney moving away from women always being villains. In this story, she’s the cause of the story itself, but not in a bad way. I see her as a Virgin Mary figure who’s kind of chuffed that her son turned into such an ass instead of the wise ruler she’d hoped for. Perhaps she’s even intended to be Beast’s mother who, for whatever reason, couldn’t take the throne when her husband died and fled in exile from her son’s asshat advisors. Thus, in a way, she’s actually a much more important character than Belle.

Which brings me back to the point. (I think? I rambled and SQUIRREL!) Despite being the main character, Belle is really just a set of pre-programmed behaviors–a robot with more humanity than the two men vying for her affection. This is both good and bad because it creates the idea that women are good and human while also putting women in the awkward position of being not only capable of but responsible for changing men. Thus, it’s your fault if you can’t fix that asshat, and it’s also your fault if that asshat hits you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this story. The end makes me wonder if someone nearby is cutting onions or something every time. I love seeing girls think that books are awesome because Belle thinks books are awesome. It’s great that people walk away with the idea that people’s looks don’t equate to their value. The music is catchy and fun. But I love it with my eyes open, acknowledging the things I see as faults and incorporating those lessons into my own storytelling.

And hey, at least Belle isn’t a sexy lamp. That’s Lumiere.

So You Want To Be A Beta Reader #books #indie #amwriting

Authors need beta readers. Most of us can’t afford to pay anyone for this service. As a result, we wind up getting friends, family, and/or colleagues to do it for us. But what is beta reading? What does a beta reader do? Why do we need them?

A beta reader is a person who reads the first or second draft of a novel to give critique feedback for how to revise it. Fact-checking is also welcome, especially when the work involves real history, science, or a profession the reader is involved in.

A beta reader is not a person who checks grammar, spelling, or other mechanical issues unless asked to. Most authors do appreciate the catching of typos or repeated mistakes, but it’s not the point of beta reading because many parts may wind up being rewritten.

Authors need this for the same reason any artist needs this: we’re too close to the work to see the problems. Plot points, characters, and setting bits can be much less awesome on the page than in our heads. Someone outside our brains needs to tell us so the work becomes a better version of itself.

What is critique feedback?

Critique and criticism are not the same thing. The two words are considered synonyms, but they have different meanings in the writing world. In general, the intent is the difference.

Criticism is the kind of stuff you find in negative reviews, where readers complain about bad writing, not understanding the plot, or characters who lack believability. Those who offer it generally have no investment in the writer and don’t care if they improve or not. They may or may not have ill intent, just as they may or may not be petty or cruel. Regardless of intent, criticism is rarely helpful because it doesn’t offer actual insights for improvement. Or, if it does, the degree of negativity overrides any value the recipient might get from it.

Critique, on the other hand, is about finding the problems and engaging with them. It comes from a position of wanting to help. Good critique points out positive points as well as negative. This specific difference is what makes critique valuable. If you only hear that plot point C is bad, you may not realize that plot point D is excellent, and your revisions may change both to produce something lesser on the whole.

Thus, a good beta reader does the following:

  1. Gives an overall opinion.
  2. Points out the best parts.
  3. Points out the worst parts.
  4. Avoids making it personal–this is about the writing, not the writer.
  5. Keeps their own ego out of it.

Beta readers should ask questions and tag sections that don’t work with an explanation of why (“I don’t know why” is completely valid). If you have ideas for how to fix problems, present them as opinion, not The Best/Only Way. Tag sections that work well. If you can, have a conversation with the writer to help them understand what went wrong.

Above all, don’t go into a beta reading with the expectation of loving or hating the project. If you have a predetermined opinion of the writing, you won’t notice anything that fails to conform to your expectations. And remember, you’re one of the first people to see the work! It might change a little or a lot after your feedback is taken into account.

So You Want To Make Your Own #Book Cover #indie

The average indie author doesn’t have very much money to spend on producing books, especially when they first start. I’m with you. The costs pile up fast.

Tools (computer and software)–$150 and up. Fortunately, this is a one-time or infrequent expense.
Copyediting–$500 and up for a novel-length work.
Cover–$100 and up for something worth paying for.
Marketing–$infinity, forever.

And these are just the obvious expenses. Not included: bribing your friends for feedback, attending and travelling to seminars, conferences, and/or conventions, memberships in assorted professional organizations, ISBNs, copyright protections, formatting, proof copies, structural editing, proofreading, and on and on.

Once you realize the cost of producing a quality book has four digits, you look for ways to reduce that number. This is why we have blogs, social media accounts, and email newsletters–all that stuff is free. Many new indie authors use friends–qualified or not–to beta read, copyedit, and proofread their first book or two. But that cover? Psh, anyone can make a book cover. Right?

Wrong.

Unless you already have experience and some expertise using a robust graphics program, such as Photoshop, GIMP, or CorelDraw, stop. You cannot make a quality book cover in Paint or the Createspace Cover Creator*. Full stop. Don’t do it, because those covers scream “AMATEUR HOUR!” Understanding how to use the majority of the tools in your graphics program of choice is essential. Take a class or run through tutorials. Some folks learn best by trying to do, but you have to get the basics down before you get to work.

Once you’ve got that under your belt, learn some basic graphic design. As above, you can take classes or run through tutorials. If you can find a tutorial specific to book covers, that’s great, but overall design concepts are important too.

Ready to get cracking? Great.

Step 1: Put Photoshop away and do some research. Go to Amazon. Browse Kindle books. Click into the subgenres until you find the one your book will fit into. Look at those covers. Check the Top 100. Do this at least twice over 2-4 weeks, because the subcategories fluctuate. These covers are what people associate with the type of book you’re trying to sell. You want your book to fit into this group well enough for readers to see it belongs in that category.

Are they illustrated or designed? Simple or complex? Which ones stand out and catch your eye the most? Which ones look stupid to you? What fonts do they use? Do they feature people or things? Get the idea.

If illustration is the norm for your subcategory, take a long, hard look at your finances and strongly consider hiring an artist, at least for the illustration itself. You can still design a cover and fit in, but the subtleties of manipulation are probably beyond your skills.

Step 2: Come up with a basic idea for the cover of your book. If you have no idea, start with your protagonist(s). Warning! The more people (or any other kind of element) you put on your cover, the more challenging the design becomes to balance. Don’t use more than two people, and use only one if you can. A book cover isn’t the same thing as a movie poster. Movie posters use recognizable stars or lavish costumes/makup/critters to sell the story. Book covers use elements to explain what the book is about and project an overall commitment to quality on the part of the author.

Step 3: Find stock images. There are over a dozen good stock image sites, and you can also find free images of high quality on a number of sites. Do not use an image on your book cover unless you pay for a standard license (at this stage, extended licenses are unnecessary) or are absolutely sure you’re allowed to use it for commercial purposes for free. Random images on the internet are not free for commercial purposes unless explicitly described as such by surrounding text.

Step 4: Find fonts. If you don’t already have the most popular fonts in your subgenre, get them. You may have to purchase them, or you may be able to find them for free. If you do find a free font you like, make sure it’s free for commercial use.

Step 5: Check the file size requirements for everywhere you plan to publish your book. Ebook covers and print covers are different sizes and shapes.

Step 6: Arrange elements and manipulate them. Rearrange and re-manipulate. Look up tutorials for specific effects you want to create. Save intermediate versions with stuff you like so you can revert. Show your work to someone else for an outside opinion. Just like with the text of your book, you’ll grow immune to the glaring faults. Rearrange and re-manipulate again.

Step 7: When you feel like you’ve got a final version, compare it to the current Top 100 for your subgenre. Ask someone else to perform that comparison. If it seems like it fits in and doesn’t inaccurately depict the book, congratulations, you’ve got a cover. If not, go back to Step 6.

Looks like a lot of work, doesn’t it? That’s why so many of us pay people to do this. If you aren’t willing to invest your time in learning basic design principles and how to use the tools to create your cover, pay someone who already has. If you aren’t willing to put in the time required to find stock images and manipulate them, pay someone who is. Pre-made covers are often good quality for a low price, and an excellent way to begin your career.

Good luck, intrepid indie.

*This isn’t strictly true, but Paint and similarly simplistic programs don’t have complex enough tools to be worth using for the vast majority of covers. They work for poetry books, and that’s about it.

One Day More #NaNoWriMo

It’s Halloween. Around my house, this is also known as The Day Before NaNo. Tomorrow, I’ll grind out words. Today, I have to do all the things that come before grinding out the words.

My handy pre-NaNo checklist:

  • Cut all finger- and toenails. Consider painting them, then realize I only have glitter nail polish, which is super-distracting while typing.
  • Rewrite the outline that I just now realized is dumb.
  • Prep the document.
  • Tell my kids I’ll see them in a month.
  • Sign off Facebook. Alas, not forever.
  • Stare out the window for fifteen minutes so I remember what it looks like outside.
  • Tie off all other pending projects, either by completing or just finishing the current chapter, so I can focus on the three I’ll be working on for NaNo.
  • Wish I could take down the Halloween decorations today instead of taking up precious NaNo time to do that tomorrow.
  • Make sure I have a clear path between my beanbag and all of the following (may or may not intersect): my bed, the kitchen, and the bathroom. Front door is optional.
  • Remind my kids not to bother me unless the need is dire.
  • Have a conversation about the meaning of “dire.”
  • Feel smug that I’ve already voted. Mail-in balloting FTW.
  • Catch up on TV shows so I can’t procrastinate by watching them during the first week.
  • Finish the video game I’m in the middle of. Or at least get to a reasonable stopping point where I might have a chance to remember what to do when I load it up again in December.
  • Refresh my memory about basic stuff from Spirit Knights 1-3 so I don’t do anything really stupid while writing #4.
  • Stack on my desk a copy of every book I might write a sequel or related short story for. Add Plotto, my Writer Emergency Pack, and a small quantity of emergency snacks.
  • Realize I can’t stack anything on my desk until I clean it, so do that first, then pick up the stack I already made and relocate it to my desk.
  • Sneer in disgust at my Chicago Manual of Style, then stick it on a shelf where I can’t see it from my beanbag.
  • Wash my beanbag. It needs that once a year, right?
  • Prep one last make-ahead meal. Tip: cut your cheesecake into quarters and freeze each single-serving piece.
  • Panic.
  • Pretend to sleep.

Learning Curve #amwriting

Top 10 Lessons I learned from writing Backyard Dragons, my 11th self-published book, 2nd in a series of…3 or 4. Or maybe 6. We’ll see.

  1. High price editors who can take you on short notice are probably not worth it.
  2. When an editor either doesn’t ask or doesn’t say what they use upfront, always specify your preferred editing style (Chicago, AP, British, or otherwise) when handing over a manuscript.
  3. Selecting a release date three months in advance can be fraught with peril.
  4. Line editors should not be relied upon for content editing. They miss information while focusing on grammar.
  5. Good cover design is not hard, it’s just a matter of knowledge tempered by experience. A good eye helps a lot, as does a second opinion. So, it’s hard.
  6. I’ve been using certain commas wrong for at least 30 years.
  7. Always check the manuscript for ‘the the’ and ‘and and’.
  8. When an editor isn’t a member of the intended audience, take all their advice and commentary with a thousand grains of salt. Spoiler alert: adult men may not like this book that was written for young (in age and at heart) women.
  9. Readers unfamiliar with book 1 will generally be confused by the little things in book 2+ and there’s only so much I can do about that.
  10. I hate deadlines. (Just kidding, I already knew that.)

Backyard Dragons is the sequel to Girls Can’t Be Knights, and it’ll make a lot more sense if you read that book first. It’s now available in paperback and the ebook is available for pre-order with a release date of March 11, 2016. It’s also available on Kobo and iTunes.

Wampa Butts #amwriting

This time of year is supposed to be filled with denouements, light revision, and reading. Ha! And perhaps, Bah Humbug.

For the second time in my publishing career, I had to scrap a book and start over with a new manuscript. The first one was Chowndie, which is still stuck at about 1/3rd complete. The second was Backyard Dragons. This book should have been an easy slam dunk for me to write. I know the characters, I had the concept already, I’d been chomping at the bit to get to it all through October. I wrote it in a little over a week, dove in for revisions over two weeks, and sent it to someone I paid to feedback for me so I could get it back quickly.

I was so confident about this book I hired a line editor in October for work in January, and set myself up to publish in time for FLYA, a young adult convention in mid-March I’ll be attending with Clockwork Dragon.

Long story short: it sucked big wampa butt. Over the past week, I feverishly rewrote the whole thing except the first chapter. Prologue? Ditched. Plot? Ditched. New side characters? Ditched. Approximately 62,000 words were murdered and dumped on the side of the road.

As a result, I had no time to read. This week, I’ve got two plane trips between now and Friday, and I can only write so much on a plane. There will be book reviews again in the near future!