Monday, September 15, 2014

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II)

The following is the second in a two part, guest blog post from Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, whose short story, “Poetry by Keats,” took home the grand prize in WD’s 14th Annual Short Short Story Competition. You can read more about Trupkiewicz in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest and in an exclusive extended interview with her online. In this post, Trupkiewicz follows up on her discussion of dialogue with an impassioned plea: stick to said

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Welcome back! Part I of this two-part post talked about two key aspects of writing dialogue. First, dialogue isn’t usually the place to use complete sentences because most people in everyday conversations speak in phrases and single words. Second, effective dialogue takes correct punctuation so the reader doesn’t get yanked out of the story by a poorly punctuated exchange.

Remember, the goal in writing fiction is to keep the reader engaged in the story. But don’t give up on writing to spend the rest of your life doing something easier, like finding the Holy Grail, just yet. There’s one more key aspect that makes dialogue effective for fiction writers.

Problem: The Great He Said/She Opined Debate

In Part I, I mentioned learning from my grade school English teacher about complete sentences. Another subject she covered in that class was the importance of using synonyms and avoiding repetition.

To this day, that discussion drives me absolutely crazy.

Thousands of budding writers all over the world heard those words and deduced that they would be penalized if they repeated the word said in any work of fiction they ever wrote. So they dutifully found thesauruses and started looking up other words to use.

I’d like to submit that thousands of budding writers have been misled. Here’s my take:


Do not touch your thesaurus to find another word that means said.

The attribution said is fine. In fact, when readers are skimming along through a novel at warp speed, the word said is just like a punctuation mark—it doesn’t even register in readers’ minds (unless used incorrectly, and it would be hard to do that).

But if you draw attention to the mechanics of your story with dialogue like this, you’re guaranteed to lose your reader in total frustration:
“Luke,” she opined, “I need you.”
“Raina,” he implored, “I know you think you do, but—”
“No!” she wailed. “Please!”
Luke shouted, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“You’re being so mean to me,” Raina wept.
With an exchange like that one, you might as well run screaming out of the book straight at the reader, waving a neon sign that says: HEY, DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS ONLY A WORK OF FICTION AND THESE CHARACTERS AREN’T REAL!!!

Why would you nail yourself into your own proverbial coffin like that?

Here’s my advice. Don’t reach for the thesaurus this time. Leave it right where it is on your shelf. You might never need it again.

Instead, if you need an attribution, use said. If you must use something different for the occasional question, you could throw in “asked” for variety, but not too often.

An even better way to use attributions in dialogue is to use a beat of action instead, like this:
“I just don’t know anymore.” Mary folded her arms. “I think I’m afraid of you.”
Harry sighed. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I’m not very good at this.”
That way, you know who’s talking, and you’ve even worked action and character traits into the conversation. It makes for a seamless read.

Two final thoughts:

First, dialogue cannot be smiled, laughed, giggled, or sighed. Therefore, this example is incorrect:
“Don’t tickle me!” she giggled.
You can’t giggle spoken words. You can’t laugh them or sigh them or smile them, either. (I dare you to try it. If it works for you, write me and let me know. We could be on to something.)

Of course, if you’re using said exclusively, then that won’t be a problem.

Second, let’s talk adverbs. If a writer can be convinced to use said instead of other synonyms, then he or she becomes really tempted to reach for an adverb to tell how the character said something, like this:
“I don’t want to see you again,” Lily said tonelessly.
“You don’t mean that,” Jack said desperately.
“You’re an idiot,” Lily said angrily.
The problem with using adverbs is that they’re always telling to your reader. (Remember that old maxim, “Show, don’t tell”?)

An occasional adverb won’t kill your work, but adverbs all over the place mean weak writing, or that you don’t trust your dialogue to stand without a qualifier. It’s like you’re stopping the movie (the story playing through the reader’s mind) for a second to say, “Oh, but wait, you need to know that Lily said that last phrase angrily. That’s important. Okay, roll tape.”

Why rely on a telling adverb when you could find a better way to show the reader what’s going on in the scene or inside the characters? Try something like this:
Lily turned away and crossed her arms. “I don’t want to see you again.”
“You don’t mean that.” Jack pushed to his feet in a rush.
She glared at him. “You’re an idiot.”
Beats of action reveal character emotions and set the stage far more effectively than an overdose of adverbs ever will.


While a challenge to write, dialogue doesn’t have to be something you dread every time you sit down to your work-in-progress (or WIP). The most effective dialogue is the conversations that readers can imagine your characters speaking, without all the clutter and distractions of synonymous attributions, overused adverbs, and incorrect punctuation.

When in doubt, cut and paste only the dialogue out of your WIP and create one script for each character. Then invite some friends (ones who don’t already think you’re crazy because you walk around mumbling to yourself about your WIP, if you still have any of those) over for dessert or appetizers sometime. Hand out the scripts, assign each person a part, and then sit back and listen. Was a line of dialogue so complicated it made the reader stumble? Do you hear places where the conversation sounds stilted and too formal, or where it sounds too informal for the scene? Does an exchange sound sappy when spoken aloud? Are there words you can cut out to tighten the flow?
And don’t give up your writing to search for the Holy Grail. While the search would be less frustrating sometimes, writing dialogue no longer has to look demonic to you. You know what to do!


In your current WIP, what sticking points and challenges do you find about writing dialogue? Is a character’s voice giving you trouble? Do you worry you’re overusing an attribution? Do you have a totally opposite opinion about adverbs? The rule about writing fiction is that there really aren’t many hard-and-fast rules, so don’t hesitate to share!

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Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz is an author, poet, blogger, book reviewer, and freelance editor and proofreader. She writes full-length thrillers as well as short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her blogs are Engraved: All About Writing ( and Daily Poetry Prompts ( and you can find her on one of her websites at or Refiner’s Fire Editing ( Follow her on Twitter: @ETrupkiewicz. She lives and writes in Colorado with cats, chocolate, and assorted houseplants in various stages of demise.


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Monday, September 8, 2014

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part I)

The following is a guest blog post from Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, whose short story, “Poetry by Keats,” took home the grand prize in WD’s 14th Annual Short Short Story Competition. You can read more about Trupkiewicz in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest and in an exclusive extended interview with her online. In this post, Trupkiewicz details the importance of creating realistic dialogue and punctuating dialogue properly in order to keep the reader invested. Even the slightest of errors can draw the reader out of the story.
Be sure to check out the other half of this post, where Trupkiewicz tackles said and other attributions.

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If the devil’s in the details, that makes dialogue for fiction writers one of the most demonic elements of a story or novel. Just thinking about it makes me want to shut down my laptop and take up another career. Something less taxing, like dedicating the rest of my life to finding the Holy Grail.

Think about it. It couldn’t possibly be any more frustrating a career choice.

On the other hand, without dialogue to break up the monotony, stories get wordy and dull. Paragraph after paragraph of description or action eventually bores a reader into throwing the book against the wall and declaring a moratorium on any future reading.

Which is a death sentence for authors.

The goal, instead, is to engage the reader so he/she never even entertains the possibility of tossing aside the book.

Here’s a quick-reference guide to writing effective dialogue in fiction.

Problem: What About Complete Sentences?

When I close my eyes, I can see my middle school English teacher, in a black broomstick skirt and print blouse, as she stressed the importance of “always writing in complete sentences.”

Any student hoping for a glowing report card would’ve taken the edict to heart. I started writing short stories in which the dialogue between characters read something like this:

                  “Good morning, James. It’s nice to see you again.”
                  “Thank you, Lisa, you as well. How have you been?”
                  “I’ve been very well lately, thank you, and you?”

Who talks like that?

Unless you’re writing dialogue in complete sentences for one character in your work of fiction, perhaps to emphasize a cultural difference or a high-class upbringing, few people really talk that way. What worked for Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice isn’t going to fly with today’s readers.

Now what?

I’ll let you in on a secret. You’re going to have to disappoint your grade school English teacher.
Try an experiment. Go to a public place and eavesdrop. It helps maintain your cover if you’re not obvious about it, but just listen to the flow of conversation around you. You’re likely to hear snippets:

                  “Hey, man.”
                  “Shut up.”
                  “Get lost, will you?”
                  “Pregnant? Julie?”
                  “I can’t— no, I don’t feel—”

Not many of these are complete sentences, by grammatical standards. Where are the subjects and the predicates? Could you diagram these examples?

Sure—they’re called words and phrases, and they’re what people generally use in conversation.
It’s not a crime to use a complete sentence—“Get away from me, Jim, before I call the police”—but opportunities don’t come up very often. Dialogue will flow and read more naturally on the page if you train yourself to write the way you hear people around you speaking.

Problem: Punctuating Dialogue

Periods, commas, ellipses, quotation marks, tigers, bears … you get the idea.
 Don’t panic. Punctuating dialogue doesn’t have to be complicated, and your editor and proofreader will thank you for putting in the extra effort.

Here’s what you need to know about the most common punctuation in dialogue:

  • When dialogue ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark, put the punctuation inside the quotation mark:
                  “Sam came by to see you.”
                  “Come home with me?”
                  “I hate you!”

  • When punctuating dialogue with commas and an attribution before the dialogue, the comma goes after the attribution, and the appropriate punctuation mark goes inside the quotation mark at the end of the dialogue:
                  Mom said, “Sam came by to see you.”

  • When punctuating dialogue with commas and adding an attribution after the dialogue, the comma goes inside the quotation mark:
                  “She came home with me,” Will said.

  • When you’re punctuating dialogue with commas and adding a pronoun attribution, the comma goes inside the quotation mark, and the pronoun is not capitalized:
                  “I hate you,” she said.

  • With dialogue that trails away, as though the speaker has gotten distracted, use an ellipsis inside the quotation mark:
                  “I just don’t know …” Jenny said.

  • When dialogue is abruptly interrupted or cut off, use an em-dash inside the quotation mark:
                  “Well, I don’t think—”
                  “Because you never think!”

  • For a non-dialogue beat to break up a line of dialogue, use either commas or em-dashes:
                  “And then I realized,” Jane said with a sigh, “that he lied to me.”
                  “Without the antidote”—Matt shook his head—“I don’t think we can save him.”

  • When the speaker has started to say one thing, and changed his or her mind to say something else, use the em-dash:
                  “I don’t want to—I mean, I won’t hurt her.”

Note that semicolons and colons are rarely used in most contemporary fiction. They tend to appear too academic on the page, and if you use one or the other, or both, you run the risk of reminding the reader that they’re reading a story. Try not to do anything that breaks that fourth wall and calls attention to the mechanics of the story itself.

Look for the discussion about the great debate between “said” and other attributions in Part II of this post.


What “rules” about dialogue do you remember from grade school, writing conferences, classes, workshops, or books? Which rules drive you crazy? Which ones do you find yourself struggling to solve? How have you tackled those frustrations? Share your wisdom so others can benefit—writing takes a community to succeed!

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Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz is an author, poet, blogger, book reviewer, and freelance editor and proofreader. She writes full-length thrillers as well as short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her blogs are Engraved: All About Writing ( and Daily Poetry Prompts ( and you can find her on one of her websites at or Refiner’s Fire Editing ( Follow her on Twitter: @ETrupkiewicz. She lives and writes in Colorado with cats, chocolate, and assorted houseplants in various stages of demise.


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Monday, September 1, 2014

Traditional publishing is 'no longer fair or sustainable', says Society of Authors

Chief executive of 9,000-member UK group argues that while 'authors' earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing'


After figures released this week showed professional authors' median annual incomes have collapsed to to £11,000, The Society of Authors' chief executive has claimed that traditional publishers' terms "are no longer fair or sustainable".

Earlier this week, the Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society released a survey of almost 2,500 writers which found that the median income of a professional author last year was £11,000, down 29% since 2005 – a period in which median earnings for UK employees have fallen by 8%. By this year, according to the survey, just 11.5% of professional authors said they earned their income from writing alone, compared with 40% in 2005.

The ALCS set its findings against Department of Culture, Media and Sport figures which show that in 2014, the creative industries were worth £71.4bn per year to the UK economy. "In contrast to the decline in earnings of professional authors, the wealth generated by the UK creative industries is on the increase," it said. "If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK."

Nicola Solomon, who heads the 9,000-member strong Society of Authors, said that publishers, retailers and agents are all now taking a larger slice of the profit when a book is sold, and that while "authors' earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing".

"Authors need fair remuneration if they are to keep writing and producing quality work," she said. "Publisher profits are holding up and, broadly, so are total book sales if you include ebooks but authors are receiving less per book and less overall due mainly to the fact that they are only paid a small percentage of publishers' net receipts on ebooks and because large advances have gone except for a handful of celebrity authors."

On top of that, said Solomon, "publishers are doing less for what they get. There are still important things they do – a traditional publisher can edit, copy edit, design, market, promote, make your book better, deal with foreign sales. With ebooks, though, publishers' costs are less, so authors should get a better share. They do not have to produce, distribute or warehouse physical copies. Even on traditional books, publishers' production costs have gone down but authors have not benefited from these costs savings. And, increasingly authors are being asked to do a lot of marketing and promotion themselves."

Earlier this week, the award-winning children's writer Mal Peet told the Guardian that his royalties for the last half of 2013 were £3,000. Evie Wyld, who has won prizes including Australia's Miles Franklin award, said that she earns around £8,000 per year from writing novels. "This is because although I got a generous (I think) advance for my last book, it takes me a long time to write the books," she said. "On top of that I write articles which are time-consuming, which I don't necessarily enjoy, and that I'm not terribly good at, and do events, as well as running a bookshop. Winning the awards has been vital for staying afloat this year. It's meant, most importantly, that I'm able to start a new book."

The ALCS survey of writers – which covered members of ALCS, the Society of Authors, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and the National Union of Journalists – also found that writers are still making most money from printed books, but digital earnings are on the rise. Compared with a 2007 survey, when "only a small proportion of writers had received any money from digital publications", digital books were found to be the third largest sector in terms of financial importance to writers.

Self-publishing, meanwhile, is becoming an increasingly attractive option for writers, according to the survey, which found that just over 25% of writers had published something themselves. Writers were investing a mean of £2,470 in publishing their own work, with the median investment at £500, and typically recouping their investment plus 40%. Eighty-six per cent of those who had self-published said they would do so again.

Mark Edwards is an author who topped Amazon's charts with the self-published thrillers he co-wrote with Louise Voss before landing a deal with HarperCollins. Unhappy with his deal, he then returned to self-publishing, and released The Magpies, which he says sold 160,000 copies before Amazon Publishing acquired rights.

"I spent 15 years trying to get a deal before self-publishing. When I finally got a deal it was a disappointment so I returned to self-publishing, which rescued my writing career. Lots of writers are seeing other writers having success via self-publishing and deciding to try it themselves. I would encourage any mid-list author to try it. A lot of writers who've got back the rights to their novels are now self-publishing them and having a lot of fun in the process," he told the Guardian.

It offers, he said, "freedom and control", and higher royalties. "As the writer, you will always be the person who cares most about your work, and if you can channel that passion and energy and know what you're doing, this can be more effective than having a team of people who have 10 other books coming out that week." But it is not a simple route. "Some aspiring writers think it will be easy, but your chances of success are as slim as getting plucked from an agent's slush pile. Writers shouldn't see self-publishing as an easy way to find success. It's hard work and you need to be obsessive, smart and talented to make it work. But if you do, the rewards can be great."

The Society of Authors includes self-published writers among its members if they have sold 300 copies of a single title in print form, or 500 copies in ebook form, within a 12-month period. According to Solomon, most writers would "still prefer a traditional publishing deal but the terms publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable".

"What a writer needs to do is to consider very clearly, at the very beginning, what they are getting into," she said. "It's a Dragon's Den. You could go out and do it yourself, or you could go with a traditional publisher. There is still an imprimatur of quality from going with a traditional publisher, and you may well sell more copies, particularly in physical, but you are giving a vast amount away for that: probably well over 90% of the list price of the physical or ebook. More importantly almost all publishers ask for those rights for the whole lifetime of copyright with very limited possibilities of getting your rights back, even if sales are woeful. Authors need to look very carefully at the terms publishers offer, take proper advice and consider: is it worth it, or are you better off doing it yourself?"


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Monday, August 25, 2014

The problem with self-publishing: “Just because there are lottery winners doesn’t mean playing lotto is my retirement plan”

Mostly, it's money. Also, are you ready to be your own editor and publicist and marketer? And did I mention money? 


Ted Thompson is the author of the novel "The Land of Steady Habits." He answers questions about being a debut novelist here. Previously published on the Little Brown Tumblr.

In which thompsonted, author of “The Land of Steady Habits,” answers your questions about writing, publishing and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.

Anonymous asked: Is there a good reason to seek to be published through Little, Brown and Co. rather than self-publishing as an e-book?

This is a question I initially skipped because it seemed a little too practical, and I am by no means a publishing expert, or anything close to it. But then I found myself talking out my answer in the shower, and again at night before I drifted off to sleep, and I guess that’s an indication that there’s a lot more to this question than I initially thought.

So here are my initial, practical responses, the ones I would probably cite at a dinner party if we’d just met, Anonymous, and it seemed like maybe you were making chitchat since you’ve heard a lot about how digital technologies are disrupting traditional publishing and I maybe get the sense that the subtext of your question is that it’s a little old-fashioned or backward-looking to be doing business with a company that still primarily traffics in paper and glue (a scenario that, for me these days, happens about every other month):

1. Money

Yes, there are bestsellers that are self-published on Kindle, where the author ends up making enormous amounts of money on royalties because there are so few middlemen involved, and every time I hear one of these stories I’m enamored with them, amazed and filled with a kind of wild optimism about writers and readers and the narrowing gap between them, and the ability for words to find their proper homes in other people’s lives, despite things like the retail supply chain and its gatekeepers in tall glass buildings.

But just because there are lottery winners doesn’t mean playing lotto is my retirement plan. The fact is, a traditional publisher will pay you an advance — they’ll put their money up as a gamble and a gesture of their belief in the book — but more important, they’ll cover all the considerable expenses involved in getting the book to readers. As I’ve mentioned before, I had no idea how much work it was to get a book into stores (both physical and digital). It takes an enormous amount of person-to-person communication for this to happen, which requires relationships and trust and a reputation for not leading people astray, and all sorts of other intangible things that take time to forge. Also: money. It is possible to do this on your own, through social media, or by building a community of readers with a series, but I wasn’t writing a series, and working on a single book sucked up pretty much all of my time. So given the option, I’d still rather spend the time I have writing another book and let a huge, experienced company take care of a lot of the rest.
2. Real, professional readers

You can hire a structural editor and a line editor and a copy editor. (I happen to do all of those things freelance, and enjoy them immensely, and give those projects everything I have.) But it’s not the same as having other people with a vested stake in your book. In fact, it seems to me that having someone else whose fate is also tied to it is the only way to be sure you’ll be called out and challenged on the things you need to be. Editors both purchase your book (thereby laying their own reputations on the line) and also work with you to make it better, which they have a huge personal interest in doing. “Make it better,” in my experience, comes down to running your manuscript through their own minutely calibrated bullshit detectors. This also applies to agents, who edit as well, often extensively, and if they’re good at what they do won’t let you send anything out that’s not ready, no matter how brilliant you might think it is. One thing I’ve come to realize is that the series of (sometimes endless) gates you have to pass through on the way to publication make your book better. Like so much better. And in that way it’s actually a lot more of a team sport than any tortured writer mythology might have us believe.

3. But, really, money

There’s just no replacement for not being broke. And an advance allows you, on a very practical level, a chance to get started on the next thing. It buys you time.

But say I got the sense, at this dinner party, somewhere around the main course, that you’d decided to self-publish a few books of your own, books you were proud of but felt were maybe underestimated by the traditional publishing establishment and particularly the authors it supports. And say I liked you, which I probably would since in my little fantasy here you’re taking such an interest in me and we’re really getting along and genuinely laughing at the other person’s jokes and like some of the same books — in that case I would probably add:

4. I’m not sure I have the gumption to be my own book’s salesman, publicist and marketer

From my limited experience, publishing is about 10 percent making a book available and 90 percent talking about it. If it were just a matter of uploading a file onto Amazon and calling it a day, this would be different, but I know enough to know it’s a whole lot more than that, requiring time and skills, not least of which is a healthy dose of entrepreneurial salesmanship. If there’s anything in this world that seems to run counter to the persistent low hum of my natural self-doubt, it would be having to also constantly pitch people, to convince strangers one at a time that they should spend their hard-earned money on my writing. Nothing makes me quite as uncomfortable as being pitched (“Excuse me, sir, do you have three minutes for the environment?”), and the idea of doing that to other people about a book I wrote myself makes me want to just evaporate into a thin mist.

5. I am naturally suspicious of self-promoters and salesmen

This is especially true when it comes to creative people, and I know it’s probably not the best attribute in me, and that it comes from both a place of uptight protestant manners — I can hear in the back of my head the word “unclassy” come bubbling up with all its problematic implications — and also one of snobbishness. Salesmanship is somehow an indication of a lack of integrity, of crass motivations peeking through a curtain that, for a real artist, should remain firmly drawn. Of course we all engage in it (ahem), and even those who refuse are eventually creating a kind of persona (“reclusive,” “camera shy” or, if you’re really lucky, “enigmatic”), but for me the separation between writer and seller is already nicely built into the traditional model of author and publisher, so I guess you could say it’s convenient. Having someone else vouch for me is probably more important to me than I’d always like to admit.

But, OK, say we were getting toward dessert, and had gone through all the red and the white and a half-bottle of rose someone found in the fridge, and we already had headaches brewing and knew tomorrow was a lost cause, and say our host broke out a dusty old bottle of port she’d been given by someone who knew about such things, a good one, though at this point neither of us would be able to tell the difference, and we were swirling that dense liquid in those little midget port glasses and realized we were the last two left at the party, that the candles had all burned down to goblins of wax and that the host was off in the kitchen scraping the plates that we really should have been scraping were we better guests — here are the things I would probably say then, in that setting, the things I would probably regret the following morning, when I woke up with that headache and wondered what the hell I had said after that second glass of port (and, you could argue, therefore the real reason):

6. If I’m totally honest, the one thing I write for is some sense of acceptance

I know how slippery that statement is, and how uncool, and that I may lose any shred of real artist cred I might have had, but if I strip away all of the  layers of motivation that get me up and to my desk every morning, what’s left is some version of this. I think it’s important to note the difference between changing my writing to try to please some imaginary club (a trap if there ever was one, and one I’ve also fallen into many times), and writing what is truest for me, what is often uncommunicated in the daily chatter of life and yet is felt so deeply — trying to put that into words — and wanting to feel a sense of acceptance coming back at me, a sense that the work of communicating that subterranean life is worthy, and therefore, by extension, that I am worthy too. The moments of feeling this, acceptance for not only talent or craft but the substance of my unspoken feelings — whatever they are, dreams and desires and fears — are the real payments I’ve always been chasing. Of course, acceptance is probably an unhealthy drug to get hooked on, because the who of it will always continue to change, the clubs whose entry you’re yearning for will continue to get smaller and more exclusive, and there will never be a moment of arrival. (Having a book published by Little, Brown should be that moment, and several years ago to me it would’ve been, but now I see it as just the beginning, the summit of one peak that’s granted me entry into a park of towering others.) If there’s one thing I admire so much about those who choose to self-publish it’s this, this sense of sovereignty from the approval of others, which of course can translate into a fierceness of expression, though often it seems that the measure of acceptance is just transferred to sales, to the terms of the free market, which can be a blunt tool for measuring anything. I can beat myself up about this motivation, choose to see it as an indication of weakness, of a warped or malnourished self-esteem, but I also know that the yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them. I can’t imagine anyone writing anything in language they hope will communicate not wanting acceptance. In a way it’s a beautiful thing, the reason so many of us continue to take what’s internal and make it external, the reason to dig deep and share.


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Monday, August 18, 2014

Writing Your First Novel: Five Fundamentals for Your Path to the Pulitzer

by Become a fan
Author, 'A Novel Approach: (To Writing Your First Book, or Your Best One)'

Autumn is the season when word processors develop twitches in keyboards. Writers emerge from summers abroad, agents hunger for a new voice, publishers finally release the hidden gems that will save their industry. Book reviews burst with new titles and bestseller lists change faster than television cable lineup

So, where's your book? We're waiting, all of us, readers, publishers, fellow writers who have patiently stood by while you grew up, went to school, married, had kids, and found a job to keep you afloat while the book inside you burbled about until you got around to writing it. So, enough! You know how to type; sit down at your laptop and get on with it. But ... where to start? 

Here are my five fundamentals to get you going. 

Number One: What is your story? This sounds like an easy one because you have the story in your mind, but -- what is it? Try to write your story in no more than three sentences and you soon will see that what your story involves is a much different thing than what your story is. For example, was the story of Gone with the Wind Scarlett O'Hara chasing Ashley Wilkes or was it Scarlett chasing something else that was long gone, the fairy tale Old South? Was The Lord of the Rings about Frodo finding Mordor so he could throw the ring into the fire or was it about Frodo finding Frodo?
Well, then, what were all those pages about Tara and Rhett Butler and Gollum? Those were story-telling, the waypoints that the authors used to support the stories but were not stories in their own right. What's the fundamental here? It is 'write your story but don't hide it beneath vignettes and your brilliant way with words.' No matter how great it looks on the page, if it doesn't move the story, leave it out. 

Number Two: Learn the conventions of fiction writing - voice, conflict, dialogue, point of view, and setting. Practice writing not only in the first person but also in the second person as a narrator and in the omniscient voice, like a fly on the wall that happens to see everything and knows what everyone is thinking. Learn to write clearly by trying when you write settings and descriptions that your story will be read to a blind person who has never seen what you're describing. Give a great deal of thought to when your conflict will explode, how your hero will resolve it, and what happens next (Hint: 'solution' is usually followed by 'disaster.' See Scarlett, above, and think 'Melanie,' and 'Civil War.') And never, ever write in the passive voice. Trust me.

Number Three: Make your readers a part of the story by creating expectations that invest them in the outcome, no matter how impossible it might be. For example, Alexandre Dumas engineered the Count of Monte Cristo's escape from the Chateau d'If with details of the thickness of rock walls, habits of guards, and height above pounding waves so that readers believed the internal truth of the novel, that escape not only was possible but actually happened. By commencing A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian with a phone call in which widowed Dad informs grown Daughter that he is about to remarry, to a nice girl from Kiev whom he just met (and who has 'superior breasts'), Martina Lewyka hooked every reader's personal fears for their own parents' loony golden years. Write not only what you know, but what your readers know. 

Number Four: Read books written by really good authors. This sounds like a platitude, but isn't. Ideally you would study creative writing at Oxford or Harvard. Failing that, by reading authors you enjoy you will see on careful study that they have a way of writing a sentence that becomes a paragraph, then a chapter, and that there is a cadence in the structure that weaves for you, the reader, something appealing. Prop open one of their books, find a passage you like, then turn on your word processor and try to compose a sentence in the same cadence that your favorite author has done. Try to write a couple of lines of dialogue that evoke the word patterns that appeal to you -- not the words, but the patterns. (Alert: don't plagiarize, just learn). Write a paragraph, then another. Stay with it until your mind thinks, however briefly, in those patterns. By staying with this process and applying it to your story, you'll begin to develop your own unique style.

Number Five: Be serious about your writing. Write every day. Compose a thousand words on your novel, memoir, poem, or short story. Tomorrow, edit those thousand words, revise them, and improve them. Recast the fuzzy sentences into the active voice. Make the subjects and verbs agree in number and tense and eliminate the pronouns that might refer to more than one person, place, or thing so that a reader is able to understand what you intended to say. Repeat. Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a chapter of Outliers: The Story of Success to the Beatles, Bill Gates, and your seventh grade violin teacher. The Beatles, Gates and just about every other successful genius put in ten thousand hours of work, seriously, before anyone recognized their talents. Your music teacher? I don't know about your personal seventh grade music teacher, of course, but such people as a group tend to exemplify the difference between someone who may have had talent, a great deal of talent, but didn't put in ten thousand hours and, regrettably, didn't make it to Carnegie Hall. Punch Line: put in the time. And, just so you know, Facebook, e-mails, Twitter, and the like do not count toward your daily thousand words. All this sounds like work, and it is, but you can do it. Now, get started. We're waiting for your book.

Jack Woodville London is the author of A Novel Approach: (To Writing Your First Book, or Your Best One), Vire Press, 2014.


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Monday, August 11, 2014

Indie Authors Talk Editors

By Jennifer McCartney
We talked to eight successful indie authors who shared their editing experiences and offered some tips and advice as well.
Indie authors all agree: hiring an editor to work on your manuscript is one of the best and most necessary investments an author can make. Editing takes both time and money and can encompass anything from a substantiative (i.e. structural or content) edit—where the editor makes suggestions on character and plot development, chapter organization, and big-picture issues—to copyediting and proofreading. We talked to eight successful indie authors who shared their editing experiences and offered some tips and advice as well.
Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey is one of self-publishing’s biggest success stories—and one of its greatest champions. The author of the bestselling Wool series is a Kindle Top 100 author and a #1 bestseller in Amazon’s science fiction category. His series was also optioned by Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian for a feature film. Howey hires an editor, David Gatewood, for all of his books, and sees the process as one that benefits not just his own writing but the creative industry as a whole.
“The most satisfying part of becoming a successful artist has been the chance to support other freelancers,” he says. “My editor started out as a beta reader, working with me for free,” Howey relates. Howey insisted on paying him for his work and began recommending him to other authors—and Gatewood now works as an editor full-time. “And my former editor at Simon & Schuster is now doing freelance work,” he adds.
“The market is really changing and allowing individuals to work together cooperatively and in a way that benefits both parties more than the old system did,” he says. “It’s a wonderful time not just to be a writer, but to be one of the many creatives out there who help books come to life.”
Lisa Renee Jones
Lisa Renee Jones, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, has written more than 40 books, including the Inside Out series, which was optioned for television—and she uses not just one editor but four.
“I have found that no matter how expensive one editor is, they don’t catch everything,” says Jones. “Each catches something different.” Two of her editors are skilled at line editing, she says, whereas the others might catch logistical issues like a character’s eye color that changes mid-novel.Jones says she doesn’t employ a content editor, but advises it might be helpful for new authors. “The joy of having worked many years in the industry before self-publishing is I worked with New York editors at almost every house and wrote over 30 stories. I had time to learn my craft. Someone who didn’t have that experience might need help in content,” she says.
Jones notes, “I’ve tried editors at all price ranges and I find they are all human. They miss things.” Her solution is to hire a cost-effective service for a primary edit, followed by a “backup proofer.” She uses one main service that employs two editors for $1.50 a page. A second service charges 60¢ a page for one person. And she keeps a fourth proofer on deck if needed. “This gets me more eyes, and I find each person has a strength.”
Penny Reid 

Penny Reid is the author of the Knitting in the City series, a Chicago-based romance series about a group of young women who are all members of the same knitting group. After uploading her first book, Neanderthal Seeks Human, to Amazon—and offering it for free—it was downloaded 8,000 times in four days.

The book was initially meant for a select group of friends, but when it took off she noticed some reviews made mention of typos and punctuation problems. “I think it is inappropriate for me to expect people to purchase my books if I know the books contain copious typos,” says Reid. It was at that point she enlisted the editing services of CreateSpace so she could upload a corrected edition. “I [didn’t] want my book to suffer lower reviews because of something so easily fixable,” she says. 

Reid chose CreateSpace because it seemed like the safest bet, and she had no contacts in the publishing world to advise her—the company charged 0.016¢ per word, which meant $1,800 for the edit. The drawback was that the service didn’t allow contact between the author and editor—so she never knew who was editing her book. She eventually connected with IndieGo Publishing, which charges the same rate as CreateSpace.

After her first book, Reid figured out a system to ensure her manuscript was properly edited. She first sends the manuscript to five beta readers who she enlists through Goodreads or Amazon, and they provide a content edit. “They review the first draft for consistency, characterization, flow, pacing, overall impressions, etc., and provide feedback via a template form that I’ve created.” She rewards these beta readers with $10 Amazon gift cards or a signed paperback. Once she’s incorporated their suggestions, she sends that draft to IndieGo Publishing for a second look.

“Know the difference between a content edit, copy/line edit, and proofreading,” Reid says. She advises that while beta readers can save an author money by taking the place of a content editor, it’s more labor intensive for the author. “A professional content editor is extremely expensive.”

James Minter

A U.K. humor writer with five titles under his belt, and winner of the bronze award in the adult fiction category of the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards for his title The Hole Opportunity, James Minter says that no author can do without an editor.

“From day one I was aware of the need to respect my readers and do justice to myself and my storytelling,” he says. With his first book, his wife recommended an editor who was affordable and who also lived nearby. “Not knowing any better,” he says, “I submitted my 90,000 word manuscript to her. It came back several weeks later with an invoice for £400.” While his editor had marked punctuation and grammar corrections, she hadn’t addressed many larger issues like POV shifts, verb tense slips, and general overwriting. “It was my first book. In my heart of hearts I knew I could do better, but I was keen to get it up on Amazon, and I accepted what she’d done since she was, after all, the professional.”

For his second book, he had a better understanding of the difference between a copyedit and a structural/content edit. He contacted the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and researched its database until he found a senior editor with experience editing humorous fiction. “Several weeks and £1,200 lighter I had a heavily red-penned manuscript, but with little regard for structural corrections,” he says. “She had been thorough, but there was no conversation, no interaction between us.” Minter felt disappointed with the experience. He’d also reached out to an editor online who had agreed to do a sample edit for him—and she replied with extensive annotations and addressed various content issues. “She was the first to show me the power of the edit,” he says.

He finally connected with a prize-winning literary fiction writer who also excels at editing. “Submit your work to her and she produces a detailed report including why something is not working, or points out where a POV is breached, and any of the other myriad things you as a writer can fall foul of.”

“Remember, a structural editor is an essential part of your writing toolkit, so choose wisely,” Minter says. “Appreciate the difference between a copy edit and a structural edit—and understand the edit process is as important as the writing process, and can take months.”

A.G. Riddle 

The author of three science fiction novels that have sold more than half a million copies through Amazon alone, A.G. Riddle uses both a content editor and a copy editor.

Riddle is one of Hugh Howey’s beneficiaries, finding his content editor, David Gatewood, through Howey’s recommendation. Gatewood offered suggestions about plot changes, character arcs, shortening and removing chapters, and chapter transitions, as well as flagging logic and continuity issues and offering word choice suggestions—for a total cost of $2,700. “I believe that David’s edit added a ton of value,” says Riddle. “I learned a lot during the process, and he improved the novel a great deal.”

He advises authors to find an editor who has worked on books in their genre (ideally, books the author has read and liked)—and then to be patient. “Be willing to wait if the editor’s calendar is crowded,” says Riddle. “Releasing a higher-quality novel later is better than releasing a grammatically correct draft now.”

T.L. Haddix

T.L Haddix, who lives in Indiana, writes romance and romance suspense and is the author of the popular Firefly Hollow series. “The more eyes you can get on a book prior to publication, the better,” she says.

When she published her first book in 2010, she acknowledges there was a stigma attached to self-publishing. “Common knowledge then was that writers who wanted to be taken seriously in the business were edited,” she says. “I knew that in order to provide readers with the best possible book, I had to have more than just my eyes on a book.” To do this she uses beta readers, copy and line editors, and a proofreader.

She confides that content edits can be tough, but they’re worth it. “I had a lot of suggestions to move scenes or chapters around. The most painful thing I heard was ‘this isn’t important to the story and it needs to go.’” Once she learned from that experience, she says her writing became tighter. “After a while, the focus became less on moving large chunks around than on cleaning up clunky sentence structure and the like.”

She’s also learned “not everyone who hangs out a shingle as an editor is worthy of the title.” She mentions editors who introduced errors or tried to alter her writing voice. “There’s nothing more frustrating than paying good money for an edit only to find yourself in worse shape than you were before.” She says authors should look at the reviews for books with a particular editor. “A huge red flag is if several of the authors an editor works with have tons of reviews that focus more on the errors in the books instead of the stories themselves...multiple authors using the same editor who have those errors is not just a coincidence.”

Finally, she encourages writers to hone their craft. “Do whatever it takes to learn writing English so you know if your editor is good or not. The only thing worse than having to ‘fix’ bad edits is not knowing they’re bad in the first place.”

Kristen Proby

The New York Times and USA Today bestselling indie author of the With Me in Seattle series and the Love Under the Big Sky series, Kristen Proby is a firm believer in the value of a good editor. “It will mean the difference between being mediocre and being a professional to be taken seriously,” she says.

Proby admits that because of her own inexperience, her first novels weren’t professionally edited—something she says she regretted as her career progressed. In 2013, she hired an editing service called the Formatting Fairies to copyedit all of her previously published novels. “I know without a doubt that it increased the value of my earlier books, taking them from acceptable to polished, and it makes me feel more confident in the product I’m releasing to the reader.”

While she says editing for content is important, she finds the line editing and copyediting part of the editorial process the most important. “Line and copy edits are where I find I need the most help, to find typos and to correct my grammar.”

She recommends authors send a sample of their work consisting of a few pages to several editors and ask for a complimentary sample edit before committing to an editor. “It’s important that you and your editor work well together, and that the person you’ve hired understands your vision and your goal.”

J.M. Madden

A former deputy sheriff in Central Ohio, J.M. Madden began her writing career when she decided to join the Kentucky Romance Writers group—and today she is a USA Today bestselling indie author of 16 romances. The necessity of a good edit is something Madden says she believes strongly in.

After initially placing a few pieces with a small e-book publisher, Madden decided to switch to self-publishing in order to take control of her royalties, cover art, and the editing process. While she admits she learned a lot from the various editors at her e-book publisher, she realized that in order to publish independently, she’d need to hire an editor to enable her to publish a professional product. “I realized as I went through all the levels of editing there that I didn’t know as much about writing as I thought I did.”

One of the first groups she employed was Author’s Red Room, now called NovelNeeds. “They only charged a couple hundred dollars to edit a novella, and they were unique in that the manuscript went through two editors,” Madden says. “They made content suggestions as well as punctuation and mechanics suggestions, and the manuscript was definitely better off from the attention.” She later went through several personal editors. “Some were okay and some made me cringe at what they sent back,” she remembers. “The advantage to being an indie author is that you can take the edits that you want, and you aren’t obligated to take everything.”

She finally settled with her current editor, Mary Yakovets, who re-edited a book of Madden’s that had already been released in order to prove her worth. “She sent me three pages of developmental edits, time shift issues, and punctuation issues we had missed. I hired her on the spot. And at 0.006¢ per word, she is very affordable.”

She advises other indie authors to talk to their friends and other authors to see which editors they use: “Word of mouth is fabulous in the indie community.” Most of all, she advises every author to go through the editing process—it’s an opportunity to learn.
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Monday, August 4, 2014

Values and Message: Integrating Themes Into Your Nonfiction

The following is a guest post from the grand prize winner of our 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. For more information about the upcoming 22nd Self-Pub Awards, click here.

Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge is author of the first charter school law in the nation and the award-winning book, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story

As President of Ember Communications, Inc., she is a national speaker and consultant on Breaking Barriers and Redesigning Your Future, for leaders in business, nonprofit, and government sectors.
In this post, she reflects on just a little bit of her time as a state senator and how this unique career helped her as a writer, particularly in integrating key values and strong messages in her nonfiction.

*     *     *     *     *

It was 1994. As a Minnesota state senator, I was looking forward to meeting with advocates passionate about the prevention of domestic violence. They wanted me to sponsor proposals to improve our laws on an issue I championed for years.

They enthusiastically shared their proposals, requiring significant funding for a new “per diem” formula for battered women’s shelters, mandatory supervision of children in certain family law cases, and community protocols for doctors, police and others to prevent family violence. They handed me a list of 29 outcomes they wanted to accomplish with their legislation, most of which I didn’t understand.

Frankly, my eyes glazed over. If I, as their champion, didn’t connect with the cause, how would we ever convince the public and my senate colleagues to commit more funding to this important issue?
I agreed to sponsor the legislation on one condition: that we create a message that connected with ordinary people. How could we bring people to our cause, and not lose them in the details? This is a cause nearly everyone supports. No one should suffer violence at the hands of another.

We gathered a group of 20 people with a range of perspectives and knowledge around the issue. We started with the 30-second elevator speech. Try this: you meet a legislator in the capitol elevator. He sees you are with the Domestic Violence Coalition and asks why you are at the capitol. You have thirty seconds to respond before he arrives at his floor. What do you tell him?

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was hard work. This was a passionate group of people not used to talking in lay language or sound bites. The process took nearly three hours. But at the end of our work, we emerged with a consensus umbrella message that could steer listeners to any one of those 29 outcomes they wanted to accomplish.

Think of a message triangle. In the center, start with “We aren’t doing enough.” The three legs of the triangle go further:

We Aren’t Doing Enough:

  • To Insure Safety and Security for Women
  • To Hold Perpetrators Accountable
  • To Hold Each Other Accountable

Here’s the key: we translated our outcomes into “values” language that resonates with ordinary people. Values like Safety, Security, Accountability and Hope.  The next day we told legislators that we weren’t doing enough to insure safety and security for women, and that is why we needed to change the per diem formula for battered women’s shelters. We weren’t doing enough to hold perpetrators accountable, and that’s why we needed our family court judges to impose supervised visitation. And we weren’t doing enough as citizens to hold each other accountable and that is why we needed community training protocols.

Did the new values message work? For the first time in a decade, the legislature passed significant funding to protect women and children from domestic violence. Values messaging was the connector. Values messaging conveys passion, mission, and urgency. Values messaging answers the listener’s question, “what’s in it for me?” Values messaging resonates with the times.

Writing nonfiction is no different. Whether you are writing a short opinion piece, a magazine article, or a full-length nonfiction book, values language is essential to connect your readers to your message. Too often we get mired in the 29 details or examples we are anxious to share with the reader, and never take time to connect the reader to our cause in the first place.

Some like to visualize this approach with a picture of a values tree. Before and during your writing, think about the values within your message. Key values might be opportunity, equality, leadership, compassion, community, abundance, inclusivity, integrity, or excellence. These values are the roots of your tree. Your (29!) talking points, or examples, are the branches on the tree. But unless you connect the branches to the roots, the branches will die.

The trunk of the tree is the Values Connection. It is the hardest part to write and the easiest to overlook.

Let’s take another example. Everyone supports education. But discussion around increasing funding formulas, teacher evaluations, and testing protocols can be downright boring.

Try this messaging:

If we value our future, we must value our kids.

  • Kids can’t wait.  We must unleash the potential of every child!  (opportunity, hope)
  • Educate today for a prosperous tomorrow (community, prosperity)
  • It’s the proven return on investment (accountability).
Does this connect with you?  Likely one message connects more than another. If you are with the chamber of commerce, you’ll likely respond to the accountability value. If you are a parent, you’ll like the opportunity message. If you are a city leader, the community message may resonate with you. The advantage of the values approach is that messages can be adjusted to specific audiences by shifting to a different value focus, and yet still remain a part of the overall, consistent, umbrella message.

All well and good, you say. But how do I apply that to my nonfiction?

As you write, reflect periodically on the stories and examples in your writing. What are the values you are portraying? Identify the themes or patterns. Allow these themes to bubble up, just as the room full of advocates helped them bubble up. Have others read your writing and ask them what values they see. The values are usually there, though often not pulled out for the reader to see.

You don’t want to make the reader work hard for this. As you edit your writing, find ways to feature your values statements (the trunks of the trees) early in your story and your paragraphs. Set out the Values Connections early, then link them to your stories or examples. Repeat your Values Connections often in different ways throughout the piece.

In writing Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, I first wrote the story as I remembered it from my own experience and files. As I wrote, several themes emerged over and over. This was not just a history about the origins of public school choice and public charter schools. This was a story of ordinary people taking an extraordinary stand for change. It was a story about removing and overcoming barriers (yes, people gave chartering “zero chance of passage.”) It was a story about bringing together people to create long-term, bipartisan, and sustainable change from the middle of the political spectrum. These themes resonate with a wide range of people, whether or not they have interest in education or specific “branches” on the education tree.

The root values are pretty clear. Choice. Opportunity. Empowerment. Innovation. Partnership. Collaboration.  Persistence. Independence. The tree trunks (Values Connections) encompass the themes above, including taking a stand for change, rising above obstacles, and compromising for common ground. Nearly every chapter of the book falls under one of those themes. Even some chapter titles reflect the themes: “The Unions: Breaking Up is Hard to Do” and “Chartered Schools—The Bleeding Edge of Change,” are examples.

The beauty of values messaging is that it is easy to incorporate into nonfiction writing because we are immersed in values messaging every day. Listen closely to commercial advertising around you.  Identify the values. What resonates with you?  Do the same for your writing.  Your story will become even more powerful and persuasive and create the pathways you seek to inspire your readers and transform their lives.

*     *     *     *     *

Like Ember, you too could win $3,000 in cash, a paid trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference, and the attention of prospective editors and publishers. The Grand Prize Winner of our 22nd Annual Self-Published Book Awards will also receive promotion in Writer’s Digest (March/April 2015 issue), and much more! Check out details on all the prizes, as well as the prize packages for each of our nine first-place winners.

Enter your self-published book (must be printed and bound) into one of our nine categories (mainstream/literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, inspirational [spiritual, new age], life stories [biographies, autobiographies, family histories, memoirs], children’s picture books, middle-grade/young adult books, reference books [directories, encyclopedias, guide books], and poetry) online or via an entry form, today!

Hurry! Early bird entries must be postmarked by April 1, while all regular entries must be postmarked by May 1. All winners will be notified by October 17, 2014. All commentaries will be sent to entrants by December 1, 2014.


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