You Need to Read to Write Well

booksMany well-known authors will admonish new authors and wannabe-authors to read, read, read. Yet, what many of them fail to make clear is why reading is so important. You’re not reading simply for the fun of it (although, that certainly helps); you’re actually reading to learn.

You need to select books that may not normally appeal to you; you need to look outside your genre and your preferences, but most off all, you need to read with awareness. You need to do more than just enjoy the story, you need to be aware of what you are reading. You need to notice the broad strokes and the details; understand and note the word choices; listen to the cadence of the author’s speech patterns; notice how the author sets the pace and note the story’s structure; pay attention to the characters and their actions and reactions; and hear the overall voice of the story. If you don’t read with awareness, you may fail to learn anything about why the book appeals or fails to appeal to you.

Enjoying books is great—I’ve enjoyed reading and books since I was about 2 or 3; however, like any artist, you need to study others in your field so that you can understand what and how they do what they do.  Writing, to me, can be every bit as complex and mystifying as a magic trick. While you’re busy watching the characters over here, the author is quickly rearranging the sets and hiding clues over there.  Therefore, to see the tricks as the magician (or author) is performing them, you need to keep your eyes and your mind open.

Some readers claim there is a formula or a predetermined framework to how stories are created, and, in some cases, that may be so. I think all good mysteries, romances, and thrillers follow a certain pattern or flow. However, I think a great story takes those same frameworks or formulas and stands them on their heads, but an author can’t do that until he or she fully understands what all the nuances and tricks are to writing a good story, first. Once you’ve discovered the secrets to building a good story, you can easily create a great one by tweaking the rules to suit yourself.

But how do you learn that formula or where can you get a copy of that structure? By reading and writing. Reading helps you identify the building blocks of a story. It shows you what is good (and bad) about plot and character development, about pace and flow, and about how much truth is required to make that fictional piece feel so real. Reading with awareness helps you see those ‘magic tricks’ so you can understand what to emulate and what to avoid when you build your own books. As you read through a story you can note the pace, the sentence and paragraph structure, and the different facets of the overall tone and voice of the piece. You need to make notes, highlight passages, and, much like you did in those long-ago, dreaded English and Literature courses in high school and college, explain why you like those passages or what is wrong with them. Explain (to yourself) what the theme of the piece was, the character’s motivations, and (yes) even the author’s motivation for writing the piece (and don’t use the old “…because they needed the money…” cop out). Really delve into the story and understand it.

And, if doing this on your own is difficult, then join a book club or reading group. These types of groups can help you refine your reading techniques and your ability to be aware of every part of that book. Reading is fun, but it’s also an exercise in understanding how to build a great story. If you want to learn to be a great author; then take the time to read…everything.

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I just love it!

I don’t know which I’m more proud of, the fact that I have a two-ebook-collection ready for sale, or the great cover that DL-Designs and Digital Art created for it on such short notice.

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So, what do you think? Isn’t it a great cover?!

To check out the 2-book set go to Smashwords.

My Review of “Elephants Never Forgotten”

I had the privilege of reading “Elephants Never Forgotten” by Ellis Nelson and quite enjoyed it. In fact, my greatest disappointment in the book was that it ended too soon. I wanted more.

The story flows around two young adults, Nigella and Kepler. After receiving some micro-elephants, Nigella becomes convinced that perhaps some true-sized elephants might still exist, and she enlists her best friend, Kepler, to help her find them. They travel to different points of the globe in search of information, while being helped along by several adult mentors.

The story was entertaining and informative. (I knew very little about elephants before starting this book, but am now so intrigued, that I have begun researching these large, gentle giants.) I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who wants a mild adventure, some intriguing information on elephants, and an interesting take on a possible future Earth.

 

How Far Should You Go?

Starstone_Front_Cover_Only - 1As a reader and author what do you consider too sexy? I have to admit that as a reader, I’m prone to skimming. That means, while I appreciate the good, steamy build up, I don’t really care to read about the consummation of the act. (I’m an adult, I get how the mechanics work. So, unless it’s a sex-how-to manual or an x-rated adult book, the mechanics only slow the story down for me). Therefore, as an author, I tend to write the steamy build ups and the glowing aftermaths; but, I leave the actual act to the reader’s imagination.

I suppose I could include all the details and let the reader decide for him- or herself whether to read it or skim past it, and I know there are plenty of authors who do just that. Yet, I can’t help thinking of all the interesting books and hunky/sexy characters that leave the reader at the other side of the bedroom door—such as Dirk Pitt, Stephanie Plum, or Rachel Morgan—and still manage to let us know that they are anything but celibate.

But, as a reader, I’ve encountered too many books where the story practically dies just so the author can throw in some gratuitous sex scenes. If I’m reading a murder mystery, I’m looking for clues so I can figure out who done it. Throwing in a hot, steamy roll-in-the-hay (while nice), is probably not providing any clues. Instead, it’s akin to flipping channels between an action/adventure movie and a chick-flick. Your reader is left going, Huh?

I also think a lot of how the scenes are written depend on the author’s motivation for including the scenes in the first place. After all, sex sells—we’ve all witnessed that in various forms and mediums. Yet, for me, I include sex scenes in my books only when they are intrinsic to the story and not because I want to sell more books. (Although, I suppose I might reconsider my position, if including more sex in my books might translate into the kind of sales that E.L. James had.) But even if adding more sex to my stories might help my sales, I’m still not sure that I would include the actual deed.

So, how about you? Do you include sex scenes in your book? And, if so, how far do you go?

 

To Swear or Not to Swear

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Do fictional characters swear?

It seems like a simple enough question, but when you really start to think about it, it’s not that simple of a question at all. There are so many aspects as to why people swear. You have to consider not only the character traits of the person, but also their societal, cultural, religious, and familial background. After all, even in our own reality and our own world, not everyone swears. Some people find it personally offensive, some were raised to believe it is wrong, others were taught it’s a sin, and some cultures punish swearing with fines, imprisonment, or death.

Then there’s the type of swearing that your character might indulge in. Is it sacrilegious, societal, or cultural swearing? My mother had a pet phrase that she used when she swore that was more of an indictment against the nation than anything else; while, my father’s word of choice was a societal one impugning female dogs.

So, what about fictional characters? Is there ever a reason to have a character spout off, and if so what terms or phrases would they use? In my case, I said yes, some of my characters would have fractuous opportunities and would need to express themselves accordingly. Of course, only those whose backgrounds, upbringing, and personality traits would lend themselves to such utterances would be allowed to express themselves that way. The others would find other ways to show their upset and displeasure.

But what type of swearing would they do? That became the hard part. If I picked a cultural phrase for one character and a societal or religious phrase for another, there was a good chance that the readers might not grasp it for what it was. However, if I picked a common phrase that could double both as a cultural and a religious epithet, the consistent use and repetitions would help secure it in the minds of my readers. Et Voila! Now to find just the right phrase.

As a child I remembered watching a cartoon series called Thundarr the Barbarian. His favorite expression was “Lords of Light!” He used that when he was shocked, excited, perturbed, and angry. How perfect is that? It seemed to be some sort of cultural reference to the cartoon character’s religious affiliation, yet it could easily replace some of the other expressions that real adults used. Now, to find a similar phrase for my characters to use.

I tried different sounds, phrases, and word combinations in my writing and in life. Instead of using the common swear word for fecal matter, I would substitute my current experimental swear word. I spent almost a year of trial and error searching for that perfect sound bite that expressed all the ranges of emotionalism from horror to exasperation, and from shock to anger. What I discovered is that all but one of my main characters were happy with the term, and the one that wasn’t…well, she doesn’t really swear anyway. So, it all worked out.

As for the others, they’re perfectly happy using the term and phrases that I devised for them:

Demons of Chaktar!

Chaktarian idiots!

Chaktar!

So, how about you? Do you think fictional characters should swear?

Attending Fantasy and Book Conventions – Should You or Shouldn’t You?

RT-conventionI asked people to tell me of their experiences in attending book or fantasy conventions, and although I didn’t receive many responses, the ones I did receive were interesting.

Among the replies, I received two that described the responder’s experience with some detail. Their stories showed me that, while their attendance at these conventions was in part exhilarating, exasperating, interesting, and nerve-wracking, it was also costly and probably didn’t gain the hoped-for results.

The costs associated with attending one of these conventions as an author can near $500, and that’s not including travel, accommodations, and food costs. Then there’s the time factor. Evidently, if you want to make the most impact, you need to be there for the entire event, or at least the key days of the event. That means, taking time off from work (if you have a regular “day job” other than author), which can be a long weekend, or a whole week (depending on the convention).

It seems as if there are two main goals of those authors who attend these events:

  • Network (with agents and publishers, and other authors)
  • Recognition (give away free copies of your book(s), give away other free items with your brand/logo on them—t-shirts, pens, coffee mugs, etc., get noticed—give a speech/reading, make an impact on potential readers)

While these seem like worthwhile goals, the second one (especially) can be done for less money and with less hassle via the Web. If you want to give stuff away, create a web site and announce free stuff; list your book(s) for free with Amazon (or other online vendors) for a day or two; announce a contest and the prize can be a free mug, t-shirt, or book, or even lunch with the author; create posters of your book covers and offer them on some of the art sites; create an electronic newsletter or blog and build an audience via your writing.

If you really crave the spotlight and want to give a speech or reading of your material, you can arrange to do so at local gatherings (libraries, country clubs, social clubs—red hat society meetings, reading clubs, schools—present yourself at career day for high school or middle school students or college campuses, give a history or writing lecture for school students or local college, etc.). If you can afford the travel expenses, then you can pursue these same types of venues in other (further) locations from where you live.

As for the networking angle…well, I’m all for meeting other authors, I think most of us are a great bunch of people. However, I’m not all that stoked about landing a contract with a “real” publishing house, and I don’t really see the advantage of sharing what few commissions I make with an agent. Now, I might be willing to share my commissions with someone who could actually help me do the marketing of my books, but since most agents and publishers don’t really help you out with that, I’m not really interested.

As it is, I’m too busy trying to build my readership and develop some name recognition to really spend time cultivating a network of agents and publishers. Nearsighted? Maybe, but I’d rather shake hands and socialize with those few people who just might want to read my stories.

So, to sum up:

Pros of Attending: Lots of chances for networking, opportunities to listen to and learn from more experienced people in the industry, possibilities for building readership recognition

Cons of Attending: costly, crowded (easy to get lost in the crush), not a great venue for introverts

Therefore, I think if I were to attend, I would go as a guest. I would get a day pass and attend conference sessions, lectures, and demos; speak with other authors; and make connections with potential readers. However, I don’t think I would bother with the hassle of renting a space and a booth, and then hoping that people would find me. I think I’d rather go out and find them.

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WooHoo!

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VPFEMRG

The paperback is now available, and the ebook is too. And to think, it only took 25 years!

For better or for worse, it’s out there now, just waiting for readers to find it.

 

Happy reading, Friends!