"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, December 17, 2010

Building Your Platform

I wrote this blog for Get It Together Productions blogspot, where it first appeared on November 26 2010.

We writers continually face the challenge to not only to keep our writing fresh for today's readers but to also be knowledgeable about new technology and marketing trends. We are expected to be able to describe our book and its concept in one line and to state our a platform right up front. The platform has, in fact, become increasingly important to agents and editors before they will consider a contract. They want a ready-made audience and a way to create a buzz for your book. In this tough market, it isn't sufficient anymore to assume the publisher will handle the marketing so you can sit back and write your next book. They want you involved.

So what is a platform for a writer? According to Merriam Webster, a platform is simply "a plan, a design." It is: (1) "a declaration of the principles on which a group of persons stands," (2) a "device or structure incorporating or providing a platform," and (3) a "place or opportunity for public discussion."

We spend months, sometimes years, plotting our books. When the book is finished, it's time to take a good hard look at ourselves. What have you got going for you--other than having written a marvelous book--with which to get readers' attention? If you look through Writer's Digest Magazine, you'll see some of the "Breaking In" writers state their platforms as social networking; i.e., a blog and an audience on Twitter and Facebook. This might also include doing guest blogs and having a website. Some writers write articles for magazines, ensuring a byline. Other writers speak at conferences and talk to writers' and readers' groups, or they teach writing classes. It's always smart to join a writer's organization that reflects your genre. This will open more doors with which to reach readers. If you have special expertise pertaining to your book it will give you more credibility. For example, you're a doctor and you've written a medical thriller.

What if you feel you don't have any particular expertise with which to build your platform? No title behind your name. No Masters or PhD. Does it doom you and your book? No, just dig deeper. Be creative. Perhaps you did an incredible amount of research for your book. Perhaps you spent a year talking to locals and exploring the Australian outback where your book is set. Is there a way you can "brand" yourself? To identify yourself in some unique way?

A platform boils down to any means you have to get your name and your book out there. Start building your platform early on, even before your book is finished. A solid platform will help you get published and maybe even become a "name brand" writer. But, first and foremost, write the best darned book you can! Everything else aside, your book will stand on its own legs. It will be the foundation for your platform.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Defense of Prologues

There seems to be quite a buzz lately about prologues. Many agents and editors have apparently developed an aversion to them. Some agents have said on their blogs that if they get a submission that contains a prologue they will automatically reject it because they see it as laziness on the author's part, the "easy" way out to present backstory. Others have said they will not read the prologue but go straight to chapter one and see if it makes sense without the prologue. (And, no, it probably won't make sense because the author wrote chapter one knowing that certain things were explained in the prologue. Why explain them again in chapter one?) One agent says that to have a prologue means the reader has to start the book twice because there are two beginnings.

As a writer, I disagree with all of the above. I'll explain in more detail. But first, out of curiosity, I decided to see how many authors took the easy way out by using a prologue. I looked through thirty-six books I have laying around my office. They were in a variety of genres. I found it was divided right down the middle: half had prologues, half did not. Some of the authors who used prologues and made their readers start the book twice were Mary Higgins Clark, Karen Marie Moning, Tami Hoag, Barbara Delinsky, Carla Neggers, Wendi Corsi Staub, Dorothy Garlock, and P. J. Parrish. I felt much better about my own prologues after seeing that I was in good company with these bestselling authors!

Now, let me explain from a writer's perspective why we use and like prologues. (By the way, I got feedback from other writers as well to ensure that I wasn't completely wrong in this belief.) I can sum it up in three reasons: prologues are effective, easy, and they show (don't tell). How many times have we had the latter pounded into our thick skulls?

Okay, so why are prologues effective? A prologue is indeed backstory, but it portrays an event from the past that will directly affect your character's life in the present. It can be hundreds of years ago, or minutes ago, but it should lead to a turning point in a character's life, something that will change your character's life forever. The turning point is the reason the rest of the book exists.

From a writer's perspective, it is much more effective (and easy) to put this event into an action scene, often in a prologue, that immediately engages the reader and allows him to "see" the backstory and be thrust right into the crux of things rather than to be "told" about it in the first two or three chapters through boring introspection, narrative, and contrived dialogue. By showing this all-important event with action, the reader is immediately engaged and inherently understands the emotions, the motivation, the conflict, the stakes–everything–without being told. Even movies use the efficiency of prologues.

As for starting a book twice, I've never heard a reader complain that they had to start a story twice because of a pesky, gosh-dern prologue. If anything, it whets their appetite and they burrow down deeper into their chair and dive right into chapter one because they are now invested in the protagonist on every level. They understand inherently what is driving the story and the characters.

Sometimes prologues are not necessary because they are nothing more than a character's history. And sometimes they really are too long. I won't argue either of those points. But, as a writer, I believe prologues can be a good and simple tool with which to hit the ground running. Call it lazy if you will, but if prologues didn't work so well, writers wouldn't use them. Many times they just make good sense for choosing the best, the easiest, and the most effective way to engage your reader and "show" your story.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kindle Release

For all of you Kindle owners out there, I would like to let you know that my novel, The Last Rodeo, is now available in the Kindle Store for $4.99. I am a new owner of the Kindle--my husband bought it for me for our wedding anniversary a few weeks ago.

I'd love to hear from others about how they feel about the Kindle. I'll admit, I was a reluctant to be a traitor to printed books, but two of my daughters have one, and they love its convenience. I'm not sure it will ever replace that special feeling one gets when curling up with a book, but it's really nice to be able to pump up the font to a size that is easier on the eyes. (Okay, so I never had this problem a few years ago, but, alas, age is catching up to me.) I will also shamelessly admit that the first book I ordered was my own! What better way to get your feet wet?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Never Waste a Vacation

I'm often asked how I get ideas for stories. One way I come up with ideas is while traveling. Most people going on their summer vacations will think of nothing but how much fun and sun they can pack into a week or two before they have to return to life's daily grind. As a writer, every place I go tends to spark story ideas along with fictional characters. Some ideas have enough substance to develop into something strong enough for an entire book.

Every place becomes a potential book setting. Sometimes I go to a place with specific research for a specific book as my top priority. But regular vacations are never wasted either. Even if I don't have a book setting in mind for a particular vacation spot, I still seek out museums, bookstores, and tourist information centers where I can collect local history and tidbits that I might be able to use in some capacity in the future. And, if I never use it, the extra knowledge certainly won't do any harm.

Road trips are especially conducive to research. I like to travel across the states and see how the terrain changes as well as the people. I like to feel firsthand the heat, cold, the smells and sounds, the traffic or the emptiness, the gentleness or ferocity of the wind–or the total lack of a breeze in a stifling, muggy place. I enjoy taking pictures, sampling the local fare, observing the people and their customs and culture, listening to the way they talk, their accents, their unique way of interacting.

Writers have a natural curiosity about people and the human condition in general. If we didn't have this curiosity, I daresay we wouldn't be writers. I'm lucky to have a spouse whose degree is in history, so he fully enjoys searching out the history spots with me and going to museums where I can rummage through the remnants of lives long past and the stories they left behind just waiting to be told.

So don't waste a perfectly good opportunity. If you don't have a story or a setting before you set off on vacation this summer, keep your eyes and ears open and you might just conjure something fantastic by the time you get home.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The LAURA Short Stories Online

Women Writing the West (WWW) started a short story contest for its members in 2008, creating the LAURA award named in honor of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The winners for 2008 and 2009 are now in a WWW journal online. My short story, "The Ranch," received an Honorable Mention in 2008 and can be found on page 23. The link is: http://womenwritingthewest.org/laura.html
Click on "Read the Winning Stories."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Get to Know Publishing Law

Many authors believe that all they have to do is sit back and let their agent iron out the details of their contract with the editor. And, yes, that is the agent's job, but you, as a writer, should have some knowledge about a book contract so you can talk intelligently to your agent. Many new authors are under the misconception that their agents can work miracles with a publishing house and get them anything they want. In reality, the negotiations depend on many factors. The more you know, the more you will understand your agent's job and the limitations she might face in negotiating certain aspects of a contract. You will also know if you have an agent who "isn't" negotiating at all for you but accepting a boiler plate contract.

A very good book I think every author should have is Kirsch's Handbook of Publishing Law (1994) by Jonathan Kirsch. He also has another one called Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract (1998). There might be newer additions, but I have "Publishing Law" and it is invaluable for the author who wants to understand contracts and contract negotiations.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Granddad's Shires

Occasionally when I'm not working on something of my own fictional creation, I spend time putting together the stories and history of my family. I recently came across a photo from the 1940s of a Shire mare and her colt, belonging to my grandfather. I have always been in awe of these great horses when we go to the State fair each year. I look forward to a walk through the horse barn just so I can stare at their massive size and envision my grandfather handling them on his farm.

It's hard to imagine being able to control something so huge, but they have a reputation for being incredibly gentle for their size. An average saddle horse is around 15 hands. Compare that to a Shire that can be upwards of 18 hands. In case you're wondering what a "hand" is in horse measurement, it's 4 inches. This measurement is taken at the horse's withers.

The Great Horse of England, believed to be the precursor to the Shire, was originally a war horse in medieval times. It had to carry up to 400 pounds for rider and armor, which didn't necessarily include the weight of the rider's clothes, nor the horse's gear such as saddle and bridle.

When the war horse slipped into the realm of history, the Shire continued on as a draft horse. It became an American national treasure in the 1800s and even into the 1900s. Shires were my grandfather's draft horse of choice. He took a great deal of pride in his horses. His animals were fed and watered in the morning before he ate his own breakfast.

Like many men of his generation, he never became proficient with automobiles and tractors. He tried to keep pace with the times, though. He bought a car and built a garage for it and took driving lessons from his sons, but the first time he tried to park in the new garage, he drove right through it and out the back end, hollering, "Whoa, you son of a bitch, whoa!"

My imagination makes me laugh every time I picture that moment, but what I wouldn't give for a video of it just the same.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Women's History Month

Did you know that March is Women's History Month? This year is the 30th year for the National Women's History Project, which focuses on "Writing Women Back Into History." You can find out more about this project at http://www.nwhp.org

This is an ongoing effort to get women's stories and their accomplishments in the history books. What a worthy project! Check it out.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

To Compare or Not to Compare?

There are a lot of do's and don'ts when it comes to writing query letters. Sometimes you'll see the suggestion that you should compare your book to another one that is out there, or your writing to a popular writer. I know they suggest this for marketing purposes, but I've never done it. For one thing, what if the agent or editor to which you are querying doesn't like the book or the writer you are comparing your work to? What they really want to know is the audience you are writing for, so you might say, "I believe my book will appeal to readers who enjoy Mary Higgins Clark," etc.

In The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, Bill Pronzini is quoted as saying: "Always do your own work. Never try to imitate favorite or bestselling authors. Never follow current trends; what is a hot topic today may well be ice cold by the time a novel is written and submitted for publication. Imitators are seldom successful. An individual's unique style and vision are what editors are looking for."

So don't try to write the next Harry Potter series. You couldn't possibly improve on it anyway. Don't tell the agent that your friends call you "the new Louis L'Amour," unless you want to brighten their day with a lot of laughter. Just write the story that is in your heart and write it in your own unique voice. Will they like your story? There is no way of knowing. But I do know one thing: you can't put your soul into another writer's vision.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Email Queries: The Fast Food of the Publishing Industry

Okay, I'll admit it, I'm from the old school. I come from the days when you printed your query letters and sample material, put it all neatly into a brown manila envelope, enclosed a SASE, and deposited it into the mailbox with a pat and a prayer to send it on its way across the country. Then you waited, and waited, and waited for the day when the SASE came back with either a "no, we're not interested," or a "yes, please send the complete manuscript." Then you boxed up your masterpiece (again with return postage clipped to the cover letter) and sent it off to wait, and wait, and wait. Sometimes for months. But, the longer you had to wait, more was the hope that maybe the agent or editor on the other end was giving it thoughtful consideration. (Yes, in those days, you could actually send to editors without an agent.)

I will also admit that I find email queries a little nerve-wracking. How can you be absolutely certain that when they are opened on the other end that the line spacing will be right and the font won't come out in both Times Roman and Courier New? Worse, what if it falls into cyberspace? How will you ever know since many agents requesting email queries also state that they respond only if they are interested? This business is hard enough, but to be cast off without the courtesy of a response? That is truly a low blow to a writer.

Emails queries are, however, devilishly easy and they cost nothing. Plus, the rejections (if you get a response) come in fast and furious so you can go through a lot more agents in a lot less time! The upside of not getting a response (yes, I suppose there is one) is that you can convince yourself that your query didn't reach the agent at all, that it vanished into cyberspace. This delusionary tactic will allow you to bypass the heartbreak that goes along with a rejection letter.

So, I guess the process of sending queries has gotten easier. But sometimes after I've hit the "send" button, I get this really empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's sort of like eating fast food on the run; it just isn't quite as satisfying as a good home-cooked meal.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Right Place to Start Your Book

Note: This post first appeared on the Blue Sage Writers blog on January 14, 2010.

A good hook is essential to any book, but a terrific first line, first paragraph, or even first page won't save a story that begins in the wrong place. Neither is anything more disappointing to a reader who bought a book based on that terrific hook, only to find the story fading away after a few pages or chapters. (I won't get into the burning question as to why such a book was published in the first place. That's fodder for another blog.)

A book will sometimes cover the entire life of your main character from birth to death. That doesn't mean you should start it when the character emerges from the womb. More often than not, a story will be only a brief span of time in a character's life–a few days, weeks, or months. Hopefully, you have chosen that time frame because something is about to happen that will change your character's life forever. It will be a turning point. Don't wait until page 100 to start this moment of change. Starting a story too soon, or too late, will result in weighty narrative and flashbacks that will slow your story to a crawl. You'll get lost, confused, discouraged and might even give up on the book entirely. Chances are, if it isn't working for you, as the writer, then you haven't found that moment of change and the best way to present it.

The scene that you open your book with should set the stage for what is to follow, foreshadowing the direction the story will take. This beginning should make a promise to the reader that will be fulfilled at the end. In today's fast-paced world, the reader will want to immediately see the conflict that will be the crux of the story, and one that will be resolved. This opening scene should be one that encapsulates the theme, even if you only demur to it. The tone might even hint at an array of outcomes that will entice the reader on.

It is also important before you write one word, that you know where your character has been, where he is going, and how he will get there. You need to know your ending before you can craft a truly effective beginning.

Even though you might have a great hook that won "The Best Hook" in some nationwide writer's contest, if you can't keep the momentum going, you haven't started your story in the right place.

Here is a wonderful beginning from Carlos Ruiz Zafón's new book, The Angel's Game. See if this draws you into the story and then ask yourself if he has foreshadowed, promised, offered conflict and motivation, hinted at a theme as well as the sense that the character, who we meet in the next paragraph, is about to face the moment that will change his life forever.

"A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he coverts the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

For the New Year and the Long Haul

As we start a new year, we all have resolutions. A very common resolution is to ditch the candy, pies, cakes, and cookies that surreptitiously attached themselves to our waists, bellies, hips, and thighs during the Christmas season. As writers, or anyone who spends a lot of time at the computer, it's important to take good care of our backs, eyes, and muscles. If you're in your twenties or thirties, you might not be experiencing problems, but by the time you spend thirty years at a computer, trust me, you will.

This year you might want to take a ten-minute break at least once an hour to give your body and eyes a break. Stretch, walk around, look out the window at something far away in the distance. Don't let a minor annoyance, like a sore back, or that tingle in your fingers, go unattended. It could become severe, even incapacitating. I know how easy it is to get caught up in a story or a book deadline and before you know it the entire day has passed and you haven't moved from your computer (except to grab a cola and a few cookies to tide you over until dinner). But this year, resolve to take better care of yourself for the long haul so you will still be able to write those wonderful stories when you're eighty.