What is That Thick Skin Everybody Talks About?

You hear it everywhere.

“If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to have to grow a thick skin.”

“You are going to have to work on thickening that skin up.”

“I wanted to help her with her critique, but she’s too thin-skinned. I don’t want to waste my time.”

So, what is thick skin, anyway?

Let’s talk about art for a moment. Art is many things. It communicates. It uplifts. Art can open up a brand new world or show you a part of the world you didn’t know existed. Art is subjective. Not every viewer has the same experience. One person might view a painting by Mark Rothko and be transcended. Another might deem it ridiculous crap. A third might love it because it matches their couch.

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Some might say that this lunch bag I made for my fiance would benefit from a better font for the name.  Brian, he just thinks it’s cute.

The thing to remember is none of those people are wrong. There is no bottom-line truth in art; there are only people’s reactions to it and opinions about it. No opinion is wrong. One may or may not agree with it, but it isn’t wrong. Personally, Rothko’s paintings don’t do anything for me. It’s not because I am uneducated about the style or unenlightened as a person, those paintings simply don’t speak to me. Other people find them fascinating, and that’s okay. Art is subjunctive. That’s part of the joy of all art, that each person has their own unique experience.

Art is personal to the artist as well. Honestly, no one sweats and slaves over a piece of art because they think it will suck. We worry over our art, pour our souls into it, and hope that some small piece of that labor of love will shine through to those that view it.

Then someone says it sucks.

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Some might think this Parasect sucks.  It’s kind of out of proportion and the colors aren’t great.  Brian still thinks it’s cute.

Oh, it’s going to happen. No matter how long you work to improve your art, no matter how much you master it, it’s simply not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s all right. No one piece of art is going to please everyone. It’s not personal.

This is where that thick skin comes in. Writers are artists. They slave over those words. When the time comes for critiques or reviews, the negative ones can feel like someone is taking a knife to your baby.

That isn’t what’s happening. Almost all of the time, reviewers and people offering critique are doing it out of a spirit of being helpful. They want to help the writer improve their work. They want to help future readers make good choices about where to spend their book budget. Sure, there’s the odd troll on Goodreads or Amazon that hops around leaving one-star reviews just to cause trouble, but they are few. That person that leaves an in depth critique explaining how all of your characters sounded the same and they couldn’t tell who was speaking, they are trying to be helpful.

When someone is criticizing your art, it can feel like they are criticizing you. Writers who have developed a thick skin are able to remind themselves that it isn’t personal. They are able to take a small step back and view the critique objectively, without letting their emotions make them defensive.

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Now, if someone were to criticize my Oddish, I might have an emotional response.  I’m very partial to him.  Brian thinks he’s cute.

“They think all the characters sound the same? Well, what do they know? Who are they to tell me how to write? They think I’m stupid!”

“Huh. I didn’t think all the characters sounded the same, but that’s the third comment I’ve gotten that mentions it. I should take another look at my manuscript and see if there are improvements I can make to my dialogue.”

Which of the above is the thick-skinned writer? Pretty obvious.

Now, having a thick skin does not mean that every time one reads a critique, they run to make changes to their art. It means that you set the emotional reaction aside, consider the suggestion with an open mind, and decide for yourself if the suggestion has merit. Then, and only then, do you consider how best to make any changes necessary.

Why should you grow thick skin? That’s simple. How can your art improve if you don’t know where the issues are? A thin-skinned writer is a writer that isn’t improving their craft, and that’s a shame.

Getting Critique:

When working with people who are offering critique of your work, be gracious. I saw a bad example of this on a forum today. The writer in question asked for opinions, got one they did not like, and jumped all over the person making the suggestion. The writer was rude and negative. Listen, it’s all right if you don’t agree with a suggestion. Not every suggestion is going to be right for your art. However, reacting in an emotional and negative way is not going to help your cause. The emotional reaction will keep you from seeing possible merit in suggestions, and the defensiveness will dissuade others from wanting to help you. You gain nothing by pissing off the people trying to help. If the suggestion isn’t useful to you, thank the person who made it, and then ignore it if you want. Got that? Thank them and move along. Believe me, they don’t need a dissertation on why you think they are wrong. If something is unclear, feel free to ask questions and clarify, but don’t tell folks they are wrong.

Because opinions are never wrong. Also, it makes you look like a dick.

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Now, my nephew suggested that Magicarp’s fins were a little off.  I ignored him because it’s just a lunch bag.

Getting Reviews:

When it comes to reviews of your published work, there is one easy rule: don’t read them. I’m serious, don’t read them. Okay, if you have to read them, the same rules apply. If many people are mentioning the same issue, you might have to do some re-writing. If it’s one person’s opinion, ignore it. Not everyone will like your work, and that’s okay.

If it’s an obvious flame, say a reviewer says you are a waste of oxygen and they want to burn your house down, you can report it to the moderators of wherever the review appears. Listen carefully here–it still might not be taken down. Reviews are rarely taken down, even if they contain threats, but a threat is one of the only reason’s it might be. Threats, racial slurs, etc, are the only reason to ask for a review to be taken down.

Never respond to reviews. It is neither necessary nor wanted and you run the risk of looking like a dick.

Let me repeat that, never respond to reviews. I don’t care what they said, I don’t care if they never finished the book, or missed a clear element, I don’t care. Never respond. No reader wants to think the author is lurking around, ready to jump on them, and being concerned with what they say. Reviews are for readers. Sure, authors with good reviews take advantage, as well they should. Just remember that they aren’t there for you, they are there to serve other readers.

The only exception to ‘never respond to reviews’ is in places like fanfic archives, where it is a tradition that readers expect and enjoy feedback from the writer.

What’s the takeaway from all this? Grow and cherish your thick skin. Wear it like a badge of honor. Put your work out there for critique, and when the emotional reaction happens (and it will) step back, take a breath, and look at the issue objectively. Consider what is being said, and decide for yourself whether to make changes. It takes some time and practice, but your art will be better for it.

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Everyone agrees that Zubat is awesome, despite his over-large ears.

 

Posted in Art, writing, Writing Advice | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Writing to Market- What Does it Mean?

Should a novelist write to market? Should they avoid writing to market like the plague? Should they write to trend or to tropes? What does it all mean?

Take heart, gentle reader, I will do my level best to tell you what it means.

To start with, my research shows these terms to be a bit fluid. If you ask different people in the know, you might get different answers. The following is my understanding of the terms and what they mean.

Writing to Market-

What it means- Writing to Market simply means that you are writing types of books that are known to sell well. If you are writing romance ebooks, you might write a paranormal romance or a romance mystery, both being top selling genres in ebook romance. You would pay attention to the criteria of the genre and not go far outside those guidelines. For example- a main criteria of romance is that there’s a happy ending for the couple. If you write one where they die a hideous death, your book isn’t a romance. Writing to market means choosing genre and style of your book with salability in mind.

What it does not mean- Writing by formula. Formula writing means that by chapter two this has to happen and by the midpoint this other thing has to happen. Or, there has to be a rival for the heroine’s affections, or the dreaded misunderstanding. There are perhaps writers who write to formula, but that isn’t what’s meant by writing to market.

Not to be confused with- Upmarket Writing. Upmarket writing is a fairly new term in the literary world that means a book that is genre fiction combined with literary style. “Fancy genre fiction” if you will.

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All melodramas must have train tracks to tie the heroine to!  No, wait, that’s a trope, not a genre criteria.

Writing to Niche-

What it means- Writing to Niche means the writer is purposely writing a book in a genre or sub-genre that is less popular. If you write cannibal comedies, that’s going to be writing to a niche audience. Cannibal comedies are not a genre that is going to interest a wide audience or tend to attract readers from other genres. A reader is really going to have to be a fan of the genre to be interested. Your book will be a big hit with the smaller group of readers who simply can’t get enough of funny books about cannibals.

What it does not mean- Staying true to your artistic vision. Writing to a niche can lead you to a small fan-base, thrilled with your work and begging for more, which is awesome. However, simply because one writes to a smaller reader-base, it does not mean one’s work is more valid or artistic. Authors who write with marketability in mind are not sell-outs who have given up their artistic vision, and those who write to niche are not rebels refusing to lower their standards. They are both legit ways to go, and each has its own merits. It comes down to a matter of choice on the writer’s part.

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Contemporary romance that takes place at historic mills with water wheels would be a very  small niche.

Writing to Trend-

What it means- Writing to trend is when you notice a popular trend in genres and you want to join in. Perhaps paranormal is hot, and you want to get in on that. It can be risky. What’s trending in fiction today might be long over by the time your book comes out. But, maybe you have a great idea for a piece about sirens and you can’t wait to get your fingers on the keys. You are more than willing to risk the trend still being trendy when your manuscript is ready to go.

What it does not mean- Writing to Trope. Tropes are storylines have been done so often that everyone is sick of them. They were once popular, but now they are nothing but a cliché. In romance, love triangles used to be a popular subgenre, but now they are considered old-fashioned and boring by many. In paranormal, it’s the vampire falls in love with a werewolf when the two groups hate each other. Or the young girl falls in love with the vampire. These are stories that have been done, and been done well, but then so many people wrote similar stories that readers got tired of the entire thing.

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Then you write that breakout thriller about the gem mining business and start a new trend singlehandedly!

What does all of it mean to you? What should you write?

That depends. What do you want from your writing?

If what you have your heart set on is writing that vampire and werewolf love triangle, then write it. Know that it’s a bit tropey, and that you may never have a huge amount of readers. However, if what you want most is to hold that wolfy triangle book in your hand and say “I wrote this!” then do it.

If you want to write that series of cannibal comedies then do it. Know that your reader-base may be small, but they will love you to pieces. You may not make the big bucks, but your fans will adore you.

If you want to reach a large reader-base, and have a chance to make more money, you might want to write to market. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to take the path of writers such as Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. It does not make you less artistic or a sellout.

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Now, my brother’s dog is a total sellout.  He’ll do anything for a piece of cheese.  He has neither shame nor standards.

Now, all that said, it takes more than writing to market to get a book that makes money and has oodles of readers. It takes more than writing to a niche to get that smaller but fanatically loyal fan-base. You also may write that cannibal comedy so well that it gets attention from readers across the board and starts the next big trend. You can’t predict how your book will do once it’s published.

You have to start by writing a great book of whatever genre you pick. You then have to either put the work in to get an agent or publisher, or publish it yourself and be willing to do your own promotion and marketing. Your writing has to be what sets you apart, the rest are no more than paths your writing takes to get to your goal. It’s a smart writer that spends some time considering which path they want to take. That doesn’t make you untrue to your art. It makes you an artist who has a goal for their art and makes a plan for how to get there. There is nothing wrong with art for art’s sake, but if you want people to buy your art, then you need to have a plan.

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Images from this post are from Metamora, Indiana.  A fun place to go in the summertime.  It has just the right mix of historical and tourist trap.

Posted in getting published, writing, Writing Advice | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Three Reasons Why Your Query Letter is Important

Many times I have read rants and stories regarding writing query letters to agents about one’s novel. Inevitably there are some folks who cannot believe one business letter is worth the agony, frustration, and hard work that authors put into them. They speculate that the prize of getting an agent is locked in a secret vault and the many applicants spend too much time trying to charm the guard and not enough writing the books themselves. They don’t see the point in ‘wasting time’ trying to write that perfect query and chastise writers for spending as much time writing the query as they do writing the book.

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When’s the last time you saw a menu with no food descriptions?  They could just say at the top, “Everything’s good!”

That’s a gross exaggeration. The most well-written query did not take as long to create as the book itself. However, I would go so far as to say that the most well-written query was written with the same care and attention as the book was.

Is it that important?

Of course it is. A good query won’t get a bad book published. A good query might get attention for a good book. Why is that letter so important? A query could be a simple business letter that says “Here’s the first few pages of my book.” It isn’t, and here are three reasons why:

1- The Agent Needs to Know the Entire Story.

The first few pages of a manuscript are not enough for an agent to make a judgment call. They need to know the entire story in order to decide if they can sell it. Even if the first few pages shine, what if the rest of the plot is too similar to a project they are already submitting? What if the books plot starts out awesomely but then takes a strange turn to Weirdsville? A simple business letter and a few pages tacked on isn’t going to cut it. Agents need a description of the entire novel.

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This picture might be awesome, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.

2- You’re a Writer. You Will Be Judged On All Your Writing.

If you want to call yourself a writer, then get used to the fact that you will be judged on everything you write. Your webpage. Your blog. Your query letter. Of course you will. Why wouldn’t you be?

Imagine, if you will, that you are a costumer trying to get a fantastic job at a top rate theatre. The theatre is having a costume party to greet all the applicants. Do you think the costumer with the thrown together at the last minute costume, or the one with the uneven hem and badly sewn zipper is going to get that job?

Do you think the fashion designer wearing the out-dated and badly fitting suit to a job interview is going to be the next big thing in fashion?

Do you think the hairdresser with the bad haircut is going to get that spot in the fancy salon? Or the tattoo artist with the bad tattoo will be hired by anyone in the tattoo business?

If your artistic medium is writing, and you are writing a query letter to an agent, of course you have to put as much effort into that writing as you did your book. It is your medium and you will be judged on it. Why wouldn’t you? Would you hire an editor that had typos all over their webpage? Of course you wouldn’t

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If you are a health guru, you can’t post this on your twitter and say it’s your lunch.  You’d lose clients immediately.  Good thing I’m not a health guru.

3- A Good Query Letter Shows You Are Willing to Do the Work.

While most agents are interested in new writers and fresh work, they might not be interested in working with a green and naïve writer. I’m not judging them. They have multiple clients and have limited time to work with each.

Let’s go back to our costume shop analogy. A theatre costume shop needs a new stitcher for the upcoming season of plays. The season is going to be a busy one with many large productions. They have two applicants they like. One is a person who has never done costumes, but has sewn all their life. One is a fresh-faced theatre major with great attitude and a willingness to learn, but little practical experience. While the shop is attracted to the theatre major with good attitude, the person with sewing experience is going to get the job. The shop is going to be up to their ears in sewing projects and they don’t have the time to teach the theatre major how to sew.

Having a professional query letter shows an agent that you have done the research. You may never have been published, but you have done some homework on how publishing works. Working with a new writer who has at least some idea of what to expect is going to be much easier than working with the naïve but enthusiastic writer who becomes shocked and disappointed when their publishing deal isn’t for $200k or their book isn’t going to be made into a movie.

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When my fiance and I went out west several years a go, we drove from Indiana to California and back.  We wanted to see all the things, so we put in the work.

Do your homework. Read about how the agent and publishing world work. Find out how to make a query professional and engaging. it’s worth the time, I promise you.

Posted in getting published, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Query Letters | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Charlie the Grasshopper wins Blog Battle!

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Way to go, Charlie!

My short story, Charlie the Grasshopper, won the Blog Battle short story contest last week. Charlie is thrilled, and wants to thank everyone who read and voted.  He is very proud of his Blog Battle badge.

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You can read about Charlie here.

And visit the Blog Battle page here:

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Making Your Own Book Cover (If you have to.)

It’s not the best idea to make your own cover. Even if you have some art background, you don’t have book cover design background. That’s a problem. Chances are, no matter how hard you work on the project, it isn’t going to look professionally designed.

A professional cover for your project can cost anywhere from $35 for a pre-made stock cover to $600 or more for original art. Let’s face it, not all of us can afford to spend money on a cover. A pre-made stock cover using stock images might land you with a cover that looks like someone else’s book, but other options get pricey fast.

Let me be quite clear, graphic artists work hard and deserve the money they charge for cover design. I’m not saying that a professional cover isn’t worth the money, it is. Good looking covers sell books. However, some of us simply can’t afford that professional cover, especially if you are starting out in self publishing or publishing something yourself just so you can hold it in your hands.

I can’t afford a professional cover at this time, but I have a project I’m preparing for a Kindle Scout Campaign. Here’s how I created my cover.

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This is the house that inspired the book.  Keep in mind that you do not need permission to
use a picture of a building, so long as you can take it from a public place without trespassing.

I started with a picture I took myself. I’m wary of using other people’s photographs. Even if you use a “royalty free” image, they often have “personal use” clauses. That means to use these pictures on the cover of a book that you are going to sell requires that you purchase rights to the image. You also run the risk of another author using the same media for their own book. I’ve seen it happen.

The picture I decided on was cropped, and then run through several filters I found online. First I changed the color. I needed a moody cover for a paranormal mystery. Then I did a smoke effect to break it up a bit, a vignette to darken the edges, and a filter that added a night sky effect. It wasn’t that straight forward; it took a lot of trial and error to find something I liked. While the cover was being vetted in an online forum, someone suggested adding a moon. I did so in Paint Shop Pro by adding a light blue circle and putting some texture over it with a brush. I also painted a few stars, and toned down the blue in the sky slightly.

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Color shift, smoke, vignette, space, and sky toned down with hand painted moon and stars in PSP.

I had my cover art, then it was time to add the fonts. It sounds simple, but this took the most time, and the most versions. In the forum where I asked for opinions, the art was quickly accepted, but the fonts and placement took work. The first one looked a little Scholastic to me. You know, the publisher that prints books for school children. The second version ended up looking too precious, more suited to a romance than a mystery.

I liked version four at first. After I slept on it, it looked too young for an adult book. It had gotten a little Goosebumps. Someone suggested drop shadow for the text, and that really made it pop. This is where online helpers also suggested that for a digital book, I really needed a tag line. They were right. Most digital books have tag lines these days. The first version I tried was too precious, and I hated the placement.

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Final version! I went with a much simpler font. I simplified the tag line and put it in a more traditional spot. The title drops slightly, and there’s my book cover!

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I’ve skipped small changes for brevity’s sake.  The final cover was version ten.

Is it as good as a professional cover? No, it really isn’t. However, it’s not bad. It was worth the many versions and the time I took to get other people’s eyes on it.

If you need to make a cover yourself, keep these things in mind:

-Choose pictures or art that makes the genre clear. Look at other books in your genre and see how the art or pictures reflect the genre.

-Keep fonts simple. There are some truly lovely, artistic, fonts out there. Sometimes you can use one that’s a touch artistic. Keep in mind that it has to be legible, even in thumbnail size. Readability trumps fancy every time. Once again, make certain the font you choose reflects the genre. What’s great for a romance won’t work for a thriller.

-Be careful of color and saturation. We have to see those words! If you use art that’s very light in some places and very dark in others, consider letter-boxing it in some way and putting the text over a plain color. Not all art will work with letters on top of it. Don’t make your text hard to read.

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Look at version one next to version ten.  Small changes make a big difference.  Plus, I learned how to blur drop shadows!  I rock!

Posted in Art, Book Covers, writing, Writing Advice, Wyrd House | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Let’s talk about Narrative Point of View!

There’s much confusion about the different styles of Point of View (POV) in novels, and exactly what each of them mean. I’ve just read a plethora of comments on the subject, and some clarity is desperately needed. Here I am, intrepid reader, to explain it as best I can. I’m not a POV expert, I don’t even play one on TV.

First Person- The entire story is told by the main character. The MC is the narrator. If the MC doesn’t see it, hear it, experience it, neither does the reader.

I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.
–Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

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I was very sickly as a young kitten.  So much so that the giant food givers took me from my feral mother and forced me to live inside their strange cave.

Second Person- The entire story is told by a character secondary to the MC. It is told from the secondary character’s eyes, and anything they don’t directly experience, the reader doesn’t either.

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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I don’t know why Scamper was such a sickly child, but I took her under my wing and showed her how to live in the giant food giver cave.  The tiny thing caused a great change in the cave, and with her influence, the squishy food appeared more frequently.

Third Person Omniscient- The narrator is not a character in the story at all. The narrator is God and knows all the things, whether or not the characters themselves know it. The narrator is telling you the story, often while telling the reader the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters as well as happenings removed from the characters. The narrator may explain or define events for the reader.

For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.
–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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Scamper got well and began to grow like a weed.  Butters looked after her and tried to steer her clear of alcohol and catnip abuse.  For Scamper’s part, she was happy to be out of the cold.  Butters, he loved the company.  Neither realized an uncomfortable problem was on the horizon.

Third Person Objective- The narrator is not a character. The narrator is completely neutral and relays no feelings or opinions of his own. The narrator does not know the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters. They are the “fly on the wall” relating what can be seen and heard. Dual-Narrative and Multi-narrative often fall in this category, though they can occur in other Third Person narratives as well.

The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.
–Ernest Hemmingway, Hills Like White Elephants

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The cat peered at the woman from his place on the green chair.  The woman made a clicking noise with her tongue to keep the cat’s attention while she took several pictures.

Limited Third- (Sometimes called Close Third or Deep Third.) The narrator is not a character of its own right, but tells the story from the point of view of a single character. If it doesn’t happen around the MC, the reader doesn’t know about it. Limited Third lets the reader experience the thoughts and feelings of the MC.

“Do you remember me telling you we are practicing non-verbal spells, Potter?”
“Yes,” said Harry stiffly.
“Yes, sir.”
“There’s no need to call me “sir” Professor.”
The words had escaped him before he knew what he was saying.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Some will say that the Harry Potter series falls into Omniscient, because the entirety of the work is not from Harry’s viewpoint. However, there is no godlike narrator present. We experience around 95% of this story from Harry’s eyes. It most closely resembles third person limited with a few spots where the viewpoint is cheated. This “cheating” is done well and to good effect.

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There was no doubt that Butters loved his kitten.  Sometimes he thought the kitten loved him a little too much.  There were now periods of strange yodeling and Scamper kept sticking her butt in his face.  He wasn’t certain what was going on, but he knew he didn’t like it.

Head-Hopping- A derogatory term to refer to a narrative where the viewpoint jumps quickly from character to character, confusing the reader. Often mistaken for Omniscient by the writer who creates it, but there is no godlike narrator present. A normal switch in POV from character to character in a Dual or Multi POV occurs at a chapter or scene break. Head-hopping occurs when the reader is presented with several character POVs in the same scene.

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Lying on your back is the best way to sleep in the world. She likes to snuggle up next to him, but thinks he’s very wiggly.  If only the giant paw would pet my belly.  Maybe I’ll bite it.

In conclusion:

Now that I’ve told you all of that, I’ll tell you it’s all wrong and useless! All right, not exactly. The above is a bare generalization of POV characteristics, but there are no hard and fast rules. POV is malleable. The above examples can be mixed, bent, and cheated, and done so in an effective way that does not take away from the story. However, as with any chunk of grammar or writing style guidelines, writers who break the rules need know the rules in the first place, and break them with intent and purpose rather than through laziness.

Another issue is not everyone agrees what the rules and characteristics of each POV are. You will find articles that argue Close, Limited, and Deep Third are three separate things, while most agree they are three words used to describe the same thing.

Keep in mind that what’s popular in POV changes with the times, just as it does with other writing style choices. First Person and Limited Third are very hot with readers right now, and Omniscient is far less popular. Different genres also have specific POVs that are popular in that genre. That said, write in the POV that suits your story best. If it’s well written, it will be read.

My best advice to writers starting out is to pick a POV for your book and stick to its rules without cheating. Wait until you are conversant with all the traditional styles before you start to mix and match. Look for head-hopping in your narrative and kill it with fire. If what you want is Omniscient, then write Omniscient, create your godlike narrator and don’t head hop.

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Butters and Scamper want me to tell you not to head hop.  It annoys them no end.

Posted in Narrative Point of View | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Short Story- Charlie the Grasshopper

Today, I’m taking part in Blog Battle. It’s a short story battle for fun and entertainment. This week the story criteria were as follows:
1,000 words
Genre: Tall Tale
Word: Resolved

You can see the Blog Battle post with a list of all the stories submitted here. 

And, you can vote for your favorite stories. I plan to read them all!

charliegrasshopper

Charlie the Grasshopper

Charlie was the most handsome grasshopper in Kansas. Since the day he was hatched, all the other grasshoppers remarked on what a fine specimen of Orthoptera he was. His thorax was brown and he had broad patches of green. Red racing stripes graced his long jumping legs, and his antennae were twice as long as any of his clan. All his young life, Charlie was told by the elder hoppers that they expected great things from him.

The clan was known for its heroes. The founder of the Leafhopper clan was a mountain of a grasshopper named Thorn Highjumper. They said old Thorn ate a farmer’s entire crop of lettuce in one night, causing the hated farmer to pack up his pesticides and move away in disgrace. The clan still danced in the sunlight of the abandoned farm, free from meddling farmers with their poison and their cats.

When the Great Tar Barrier was erected near the clan’s nest, Thorn Highjumper single-handedly moved every egg pod to safety. He battled an opportunistic garden spider and won. Though he spent the rest of his life with only five legs, he remained the hero of the hoppers.

“That Charlie is going to be the next Thorn Highjumper.”

Charlie heard it a thousand times. So often did he hear the clan proclaim that he would do great things, he believed someday the world would give him his time to shine.

The days passed, and Charlie grew older. His body became long and he grew a handsome pair of wings that set off the racing stripes on his legs. While waiting for his great destiny, he practiced the music of his people day and night. The voices of the clan changed.

“When are you going to stop playing that crazy music and do something with your life?”

“When are you going to settle down and make egg pods?”

“What a disappointment. He’s no Thorn Highjumper.”

One day, when Charlie had heard one disparaging remark too many, he decided he’d had enough. He left the clan lands and hopped farther away than he had ever hopped before. Near the Great Tar Barrier he threw himself down in weariness and despair.

He was special. He knew he was destined for greatness. The clan could say what they wanted, none of their words changed anything. It was hardly his fault that the clan lived in such peaceful and happy times. There was no evil farmer to thwart or ravenous spider to destroy. Charlie could not be blamed if the world refused to send grand adventures his way.

If the clan didn’t want him, he’d leave. He’d find adventure himself. When he returned, his clan would sing songs about his feats of greatness.

Resolved, Charlie ventured even further away from the abandoned farm of his people. He hopped to the very edge of the Great Tar Barrier. Lost in his own thoughts of destiny, the foolish young grasshopper never saw the shadow descend.

A great pinkish thing with wriggling appendages covered Charlie and lifted him high into the air.

“He’s so cute!”

He had no idea what the goliath was saying, but it became clear as the wriggling appendages opened, that one of the smaller man-beasts had captured him. He’d never get to have his adventure if the man-beast ate him.

“Dad is never going to let you keep that, Lucy.”

“So, don’t tell Dad. He’s cute and I want to take him home.”

“You can’t take him all the way to Indiana.”

“Sure I can. Help me find something to put him in. This driving trip is so boring. It’ll give us something to look at while we’re stuck in the car.”

The man-beasts were making loud noises, but they didn’t seem in a hurry to eat him. Charlie wanted to jump out of the pink thing that had grabbed him, but he couldn’t find an opening. Soon, the pink thing opened and he was tumbling through the air.

He landed on something so slick that it was hard for his many feet to find purchase. He could see the world around him, but some sort of clear barrier knocked him back when he tried to jump away and escape. A wave of green sifted down around him and a strange sound came from above. Whatever the clear barrier was, it had some sort of top on it. The ceiling of his small, see-through room was dark and had many tiny holes in it.

The green stuff turned out to be dandelion leaves. No sense worrying about what he could not help. It wasn’t the grasshopper way. Besides, they were very tender dandelion leaves.

For several suns, Charlie lived in his strange small room. While the sun shone there was a feeling of great movement that vibrated up from his feet. At night, all was still and quiet. The little man-beast took his top off several times a day, removed the old green stuff, and put fresh things in his room for him to eat. Often there were strange plants, foreign and delicious.

The constant movement stopped. The little man-beasts made many noises.

“We’re home now, Lucy. What are you going to do with hoppy?”

“I guess it’s not very nice to keep him in the jar too long. I’ll let him loose in the garden!”

“Don’t let Mom catch you doing that.”

His room bounced and jostled, the ceiling was removed, and Charlie tumbled through the air. He landed on a cabbage plant. Well, that was unexpected, but it was certainly preferable to eat than to be eaten.

In time he met a small clan of grasshoppers that lived in the garden. The new hoppers were a smaller race than Charlie, and admired him for his great size and red stripes. They sang songs of him and his great journey from a far away land. Charlie Worldhopper became the leader of his new people. As destinies went, it was pretty fine.

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BB Badge

Charlie won the blog battle!  Way to go, Charlie!

 

Posted in Blog Battle, Short Stories, writing | Tagged , | 16 Comments

Why Exclamation Marks Suck!!!

Every day my fiancé goes to work, he texts me when he gets there. He knows I have anxiety issues.

“Here safe! Love you!”

Every day I respond, “Love you and stay safe!”
(Sometimes I add hearts or smooches. I’m girly like that.)

My goodness! Look at all the explanation marks! We are very excitable people!

What’s absolutely fine in your everyday texting is not fine in your novel writing. I have spoken to writers who don’t know they should limit their exclamation point use, and also writers who don’t know why. Never fear! I’m here to tell you all about it.

To start with, in this world of texting and social media, the meaning of exclamation points has become muddled. See above, where I said my fiancé and me are excitable people.

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Look!  It’s Francis’ new Vespa!  It’s so exciting!

While exclamation points may be used to denote strong feelings, they are primarily used for one reason: to denote shouting. What you’re average EP does is turn up the volume. If you are using them in your non-social media writing for added emphasis or excitement, STOP NOW!

O0000. Not only did I EP you, I did the dreaded all caps, which I almost never do. That’s how strongly I feel about this situation, and that’s how loudly I said it.

“So, how should I use exclamation points?” you seem to ask.

Never use EPs to denote excitement.

My first book had a problem that I fixed with my exclamation point removing ax in the first re-write. I mowed down great swaths of them. The issue? I had a character who was a teenage girl. Elizabeth was very excited about everything. Nothing wrong with that, she was a teen and she was a ghost. She had much to be excited about.

Unfortunately for me and my EP removing ax, EPs are not for excitement. The words you chose for your MC and the feelings and mannerisms they use, that is how you show that she is excited. Using EPs to try to build a false sense of excitement is unfair to both your writing and your MC. Don’t use cheap shortcuts. Let the writing shine.

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When I walked onto my old college campus for the first time in over twenty years, I was both enchanted to see all the buildings of my college life again, and nervously out of place because I didn’t belong there anymore.  See?  Not one exclamation point.

Never use EPs in the prose of your tale.

There are rare (Quite rare. Exceedingly rare.) exceptions to this. For the most part, the narrator of your story should not be shouting at the reader.

They thought they were going for a swim, but there was a rabid wombat on the beach!

No.

This goes back to the earlier EP’s are not for excitement thingy. Rarer than unicorns are the times when your narrator needs to shout. Cut these from the prose, you won’t miss them. If the moment isn’t exciting enough, pick more descriptive, more engaging language and write it better.

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A rabid wombat!  (You totally knew I was going there.)

EPs may be used in your dialogue.

Your characters may use EPs when they are speaking, but be wary of using too many. Even in an argument, your characters aren’t going to be shouting the entire time. Use all the tools in your writing toolbox. Set the scene with active verbs and evocative descriptions. If two of your characters begin an argument, and they start shouting immediately, they have nowhere to escalate to.

“I don’t know why you insist on cavorting at the beach while we have a rabid wombat alert.” Bob’s voice sounded low and tight, as if he was speaking through clenched teeth.

“A bunch of us are going to play Wombat, the Drinking Game, if you must know.” Gertrude placed the last sandwich in the hamper and slammed the lid shut. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“I forbid you to go.” He clamped a hand around Gertrude’s wrist and tried to drag her away from the hamper.

Pulling herself free, she grabbed the hamper and stomped to the front door. “You aren’t the boss of me!”

The sound of the front door slamming rang in his ears. Bob never saw Gertrude again.

*Snicker.* Okay, it’s a silly example, but you can see what I mean. Yes, sometimes your characters will shout, and sometimes they will have strong emotions, but don’t rely too heavily on the EPs. Think of them as big chunks of black pepper, lovely in moderation, but too many make the dish unpalatable.

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Yup.  Wombats lurking behind every sand dune.

You may use EPs freely for emergency information.

Your characters are shouting because there is an emergency. This is perhaps the only time  when you don’t have to figure out if EP’s are necessary or not.

“Fire!”
“Godzilla! Run!”
“Don’t go in the water! There’s a rabid wombat!”
“The sky is falling!”
“It’s gonna blow!”

This is the only place your exclamation points are going to shine. This is the sole situation where less is more, and there is not a more engaging way to convey what you mean.

That’s my best advice for when to use an exclamation point, and when not to. Take your manuscript, grab your EP killing ax, and have at it.

chainsaw

This is the model of EP killing ax I recommend.

Posted in Punctuation, writing, Writing Advice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Querying Agents- Both an Art Form and Masochistic Practice.

Oh, the highs and lows of drafting a pitch and tossing it into the water to try to hook and land an agent. I’ve spoken on this in previous posts, but there’s always something new to say. (To see my previous posts on the subject, click “Writing Query Letters” in the category list to the right.)

I started querying for my novel Teatime of the Living Dead. I’m not sure what I think of its chances. I love the book, and consider it the best thing I’ve written so far. It’s a bit of a farce, which is my favorite thing to write. It’s got some amusing bits, and I think the MC’s characterization is very three dimensional. I finished it maybe a year ago, done a handful of re-writes, and had some beta readers check it out.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m sure it’s not. No book goes into an agent’s hands without needing more work before it gets submitted to publishers. I do think it’s as far along as I can take it on my own.

“So, what’s the problem?” you seem to ask.

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Well, part of the problem is it’s 7 degrees in Indiana and I’m wishing I was here.

What if it sucks?

To start with, I could simply be wrong. The book could suck and leave me, loving it blindly, unaware of the ways in which it sucks. There could be problems in the writing that I am unaware of. I love my betas, but I miss working with someone who has editing experience. I don’t have the money to hire a professional editor. That’s the way it is. If I’m ever in a place where I can hire a professional, I will. Until then, I manage as best I can with practice, critique groups, and beta readers. Those people are all awesome. My writing has improved greatly over the years because of them, and I am not belittling that. They rock and I’m grateful. My point is that I might be in a place where I need more than what I have.

It’s a zombie book.

Next up on the list, it’s a zombie book. Let me be clear here, I have nothing against zombie books. I wrote one because it was big fun and I love the hell out of Teatime. Zombie books and movies remain popular because people love the genre. That said, it’s hard to get noticed when you write to trends. Tons of people are writing zombie novels. Enough of them are being written that there are some agents and publishers who have in their submission guidelines “No zombies.” I love my book. I don’t think it’s the same old, same old, but is it different enough to get attention? I don’t know about that.

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My sister is a zombie until she gets her coffee.

I’ve self published two books.

I have self published two books. I’ve had a few sales, but not nearly enough for either of them to be considered a commercial success. Far from it! Really far. Like the distance from the Sun to Pluto far. I self published those books because I wanted to have a couple of my books that I could hold in my hand. I love them both, but it takes hard work, savvy, and dedication to make it as a self published author. I don’t yet have the skill set. Let’s face it; I might never have the skill set.

Once upon a time, your next book was only as good as the last you had published. If you self published a book, and it didn’t get exceptional sales, that was it. Most agents and publishers didn’t want to take on an author who already had an unsuccessful book out there. As far as I can tell, that mindset began to change about 2011. Personally, I think it needs to change, and not only on my account. Self publishing has gotten so easy to do that most authors are going to do it at some time or another. I also don’t think readers choose a book predominately on whether the author’s previous books had a lot of sales. Cover, blurb, and excerpt have more to do with why we chose one book over another. Certainly having a work that’s won an award, or been on a bestseller list is going to make a reader more likely to pick that book up. I don’t think having a book that did not make the lists will turn readers off the new book if they are attracted to it.

But what do I know? Maybe the tide is changing, but maybe having two self published books is another nail in the coffin of Teatime.

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Seriously, even if it was stormy, Florida would still be warmer than here.

Maybe my query sucks.

And then there’s the query itself. I worked hard on it. Had it vetted. Did untold re-writes. I think it’s good, but what if I’m wrong? The past couple days, I’ve been on one of those “all my writing sucks!” kicks that sometimes plague writers. Maybe my query is good, but is it good enough?

I sent a test run out to eleven agents last week. So far, three form rejections. Now, I send my first batch out to the big guys. I pick dream agents and some of the large agencies with awesome reputations. All of the agents on my list are excellent agents with good reputations. I don’t mean to imply that I start with the good agents and work my way down to the mediocre and the bad. I have a long list of agents I’ve researched, and I’d be thrilled if any single one of them gave me the time of day, let alone a manuscript request. What I did was to start with the long shots. Big agencies that get several butt-tons of queries every day. I know they are long shots and I know that my book may not stand out enough to get attention. It’s all part of the plan.

Then you get three form rejections and you can’t help but be disappointed for a moment.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been to the rodeo, it doesn’t matter how thick you’ve grown your skin, no one enjoys being rejected. It blows.

But hey, three of those dream agents were kind enough to let me know they are not considering my book. I am sad, but I am thankful they took time from their overflowing slush piles to both consider and respond to my plea. They were quite fast, as well. I’ll wait for the others to respond, tinker with my query letter a bit more, and prepare to send out the second wave of queries.

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The brave seagull gets the bread.  Be brave!  Send your query out into the world and give it your best effort!

What do you do?

You keep at it. Keep querying, keep improving your writing, keep writing the next project, and don’t let the rejections get to you too much. It’s part of it. The “no, thank you” notes will keep coming, but if you someday get that “yes, please” it will be worth it. And the writing itself is always worth it, no matter what happens to the book. Each project we complete makes our writing better. It’s always worth it.

Never give up, never surrender!

lidosunatlast

Pictures from this post were all from Sarasota, Florida and Lido beach.  One of my favorite places.  Wish I was there instead of freezing my butt off!

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Happy New Year Plans

I don’t make resolutions when it comes to New Year’s. I belong to the camp that believes making resolutions once a year sets you up to fail. If it’s a resolution for something important, such as taking better care of your health, or spending more time with you family, then you should just do it. Don’t wait for a big commotion once a year to get your butt in gear. Do it as soon as it enters your head that you should.

New Year’s is a time of reflection, I get that. It’s natural to reflect on your life as one arbitrary and meaningless marker of time ends and another begins. I do it myself. New Year’s is great for beginnings, but most people need to work on their follow through. Making a grand gesture once a year doesn’t usually amount to much, but making smaller changes to your life and sticking to them can have life changing effects.

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My great grandfather helped build that bridge.  It wasn’t built in a day. That’s my friend Francis grinning at us.

So, while I have no resolutions to offer you, I am making plots and plans. Writing plots and plans.

Descending and Leonardo Da Bunni have both been self published. It’s not the route I planned, but after you get a few books under your belt, you want to do something with them. I remain in quest of an agent, and I am currently preparing for a new blizzard of querying. Teatime of the Living Dead, my favorite thing I’ve ever written, is going through its final re-write in preparation to send it out into the darkness.

Wyrd House, a paranormal romance I wrote a couple three books back, I think is destined to follow in Descending‘s footsteps. I think I’ll do a Kindle Scout campaign with it sometime in January. If it isn’t chosen by Kindle for representation, I’ll self publish it too.

My almost favorite book I’ve ever written is Ghost in the Park. I haven’t forgotten about that one. I love it. I’ve learned some new tricks while writing the past few books though, and I think Ghost is destined for a re-write. Then it might be a Kindle Scout moment for that one too. I always wanted to make a series of that mystery novel, and KS might be my best bet to do that.

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Not an actual cover.  This is something I made for a joke once upon a time, and it inspired my book.

In the meantime, I have two more books to finish. Crucible Station, a middle school dystopia, and Nick of Time, this year’s NaNoWriMo project. Both are about 3/4 of the way finished, so I hope to finish them over the next two to three months. I’m not sure my plans for those two yet. Much will depend on what happens with the other books and their individual journeys.

I’ll also have a fanfic or two to write. I’m not taking that Kindle Scout road again without my awesome fanfic readers. I learned that lesson. I’m looking forward to it. I had such a fun time writing Night of the Nargles. It practically wrote itself.

If you go looking for my fanfic, I’ll give you two warnings. Most of it is quite naughty. Not really my style now, but it was big fun at the time. Also, that’s some of my earliest writing. I learned how to write with those stories. But it was early times in my writing life and it shows.

So that’s my plan. Finish one re-write, do another, finish two more books, and start sending my babies out into the world, one way or another. Then I’ll start a completely new book. Big busy fun writing year. I’m looking forward to it.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m already waiting for spring.

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