Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb

A few months ago, I made a goal for myself to read at least one craft book per month. Um, that's craft as in writing craft, not as in arts and crafts. Unfortunately, I don't have time for those kinds of crafts these days. Anyway, I started by trying to re-read Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel and the accompanying workbook, but they weren't really grabbing me. I'd already read both a couple times and wanted something new, so I kind of fell off the wagon.

But staying up on our craft is important. We can always improve, right? So I promised myself I'd get back into it. As mentioned, I've been reading Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure a Great First Draft by Laura Whitcomb - my June craft book of the month. Because we're all short on time and don't want to waste what little bit we have on useless craft books, I thought I'd share my thoughts, to hopefully help you. goes.

What I Liked About This Book:
  • Real techniques you can use - Whitcomb doesn't just share theory and ambiguous ideas to help improve your writing. She provides real tips and methods to put into practice right away. The "shortcuts to a scene" method, for example, which, as I said, I found quite useful.
  • Examples that we're familiar with - I've picked up a few craft books where the author shares examples of their ideas from books I'd never even heard of, let alone read. I'd not only heard of the vast majority of Whitcomb's examples, but I'd either read them or, at least, was familiar enough with the story to understand what she was saying. I didn't feel like I needed to add a bunch of books to my already teetering TBR pile to ensure I understood a key point.
  • Easy to read - Whitcomb isn't trying to impress us, other writers, with high brow theories, prose or vocabulary. Rather than using our brains to figure out what she's saying, we can use them to figure out how to apply what she's suggesting to our own writing.

What I Didn't Like About This Book:
  • "Shortcuts for first draft" idea - Maybe it's just because I'm more of a pantser, but I couldn't see myself using any of these techniques for writing the first draft. I've actually used outlines for my current two WIPs and have come to like them, but the techniques in this book are so specific, I just don't see how you use them before you even have a draft to work with. For example, she suggests identifying the "crosshairs moments," the main ones that are turning points for the story, as well as the minor ones - the turning points for each chapter. In fact, she says to even identify the crosshairs sentence in a chapter. Well, maybe for a few scenes, you already know in your head what that phrase is, but otherwise, how can you know it for each chapter until you've written it? So, to me, this is more a book for the second draft.
  • Poor examples - Okay, so I just said I liked the examples, but for that, I meant the books she referred to. Here, I mean the specific examples she provided to show a before and after. In many cases, I didn't see the point or didn't see how the after was much improved. It was different, sure, but not necessarily better. Maybe this is a style thing. I don't know. I just wasn't impressed.

My Favorite Parts
Since this is a book about techniques, here are my favorite ones:
  • Crosshairs Moments - As mentioned, these are the turning points of your novel and of each chapter. You should always be writing toward that moment or away from it. Identifying the crosshairs moments - the big ones and little ones - should help you see whether a scene or paragraph is even necessary.
  • Shortcut to the Scene - I wrote about this and put it into practice with impressive results.
  • What to Do When It Stinks - Whitcomb provides some excellent ideas for improving the draft...obviously after you've written it.

Recommendation: Yes, I'd recommend this book to any writer needing some new ideas for either the first draft or revisions. Is there anything groundbreaking? Meh, probably not. Is it among my top recommendations? No, not really. But if you sometimes just need to hear something differently or want to know what works for other writers, this is a good book to have on hand.

Let me know if you've read it or if you do. I'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It Worked!

My little experiment worked! Or at least, something did. I finally finished draft two of Genesis.

Will I use this method before the first draft, as Whitcomb does? Meh, probably not. I'm too much of a pantser to use it for every scene, especially if not written yet. But it is a new tool to add to my writer's toolbox.

Maybe it'll help you, too. Let me know if you give it a try. I'd love to hear your results.

Have you discovered any new tools lately? How did they work out for you?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Oh, the Pain and Suffering!

Okay, maybe the title's a little melodramatic. Then again, maybe not. I'm in the midst of the second draft of GENESIS. Uh, yeah, the novella that's supposed to be out in a few months. And I really need to get it to crit-partners ASAP if I'm ever going to make that deadline.

I'm at a point, however, where I feel like I've been cut open and my insides have been pulled out and twisted around, kind of like that scene in "Braveheart." Except they're also being stuffed back in, but won't fit. Yes, it's quite painful! Not to mention gross. This is also where I am with revisions of DEVOTION - the reason I put it aside for a while to focus on GENESIS.

Both have a couple scenes that just aren't working. They need to be completely rewritten with different scenes that accomplish the same goals as the originals, only better. But if I make them too different, characters' behaviors and reactions to those scenes will change, causing a ripple effect throughout the rest of the book. Other parts would need to be changed as a result. Changes I don't like. I don't think. I don't know. And that indecision just causes more pain and suffering and indecision. It's an evil cycle, I tell you.

You probably know, having gone through it yourself. So I'm giving a new approach a try. I'm reading Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure a Great First Draft by Laura Whitcomb. She's developed a process for herself called "shortcuts to the scene" that I'm going to give a try. I think it's a little too structured for my pants-favoring self, at least to do before the first draft, but I think it will help me write these scenes. Here are the steps, using a blank sheet of paper or screen:
  1. Write a paragraph about what must happen in this scene - "the goal, the conflict, what will remain unresolved." This includes both internal and external actions.
  2. List what must be said - the dialogue. You don't have to write it word for word, but get down what needs to be said. Don't use tags, just initials for who needs to say it. Whitcomb suggests making this a different font (or color, if doing this by hand) or, at least, bold it.
  3. Do a ten-minute "heartstorm." It's like a brainstorm, but using the heart, not the head. "Feel the scene, the emotions, the sensations, the wonder.... Think of the emotions involved, the smells, tastes, scents, textures, sounds." Like brainstorming, this isn't a time to judge or censor. Just get it out. Then you highlight or bold 10 or more of your favorite phrases, making them stand out.
  4. Now print (if you did this in Word), lay the page (yes, it should be just one page) next to your keyboard and use it as a cheat-sheet. She calls it a "menu" - she orders something from one of the three parts to open the scene and then pulls together the pieces she needs to write out the entire scene. The dialogue, in its different font or color, stands out so she can refer to it easily. The key phrases she wants to use from the heartstorm are also easy to see.

I don't know if it'll work well for me or not, but I think since I already know what must happen in this scene because of what's already happened in the rest of the book, it just might be what I need to get beyond this indecision. I hope. I'll let you know how it goes.

It would be nice to feel comfortably whole again, intestines intact. 

Are rewrites as painful for you as they are for me? Do you have any special process or technique that helps you get through them? If so, please share! What do you think of Whitcomb's "shortcuts to the scene"?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Voice & The Dream

I don't watch TV hardly at all anymore. There are shows I can definitely get addicted to, but I know what it's like to quickly fill up almost every night with "must"-see TV and I really don't have the time for that. At. All. Seriously, none of it is a "must," but work, family, writing, blogging, Facebook and Twitter are musts. Okay, so maybe not those last three, but they're (usually) more productive than watching TV. Especially when you're networking with and supporting other writers. See - I can justify them. :)

But I have been trying to remember to watch The Voice because one of the contestants, Casey Weston, is local and her father is friends with many of my friends (though I don't think I've actually met him personally). I'm cheering her on and, as of tonight, America gets to vote for her and I have already hit my limit of 10 votes on a single method. There are a couple other methods at my disposal. (You can text and call 1-855-864-2302 to vote for her, if, you know, you want to. You can also vote online at You can also download her version of Black Horse and the Cherry Tree through iTunes. Just sayin'.)

Anyway, Casey is the same age as my oldest son. Just a couple weeks ago, she was walking across the stage to receive her high school diploma. Hours later she was flying back to L.A. to prepare for taking the stage tonight. Had to be the most surreal time of her life. Talk about stepping out of one world and into another.

I watch her and the other contestants and think about how they are truly going after their dream. Sure, we've seen it on American Idol, but maybe it's the newness of this show that makes it hit home again. Or maybe it's just because Casey herself does hit so close to home, literally. But their courage and perseverance just amaze me.

I suppose these qualities are required for artists, because writers are the same. You are so brave and determined, willing to give everything you have to make your dream come true, even at the risk of public humiliation - even if "public" only means your closest friends and family. You put it all out there to be scrutinized and judged. And every time you write something new, you do it again. And again.

So I feel a bit of a kinship, watching Casey go after her dream as I go after mine. We're living it. So are you, writer friends. And I'm so proud to be able to call you my friends. Don't give up on the dream! You never know where it will take you...

Friday, June 10, 2011

What Is Success?

My last two posts about going indie, when you want success and when you don't care, has me thinking about what "success" exactly means. Because in those posts, we discussed whether you want a particular book to be successful and whether you want yourself to be successful as a writer. But what does that mean?

Of course, everyone has their own definition of success. Those definitions often evolve over time as we change and grow and embark on new paths in our lives. Even if we look just at our writing. Because we might start out as writing only for ourselves and success means finishing a complete novel. When we think of sharing it with others, success might mean that they actually enjoy it. Then the goals keep moving - get an agent, get published, sell another book, land on the bestsellers list...

Some of us never worry about anything beyond hoping others like our writing. We're happy with writing for ourselves, family and friends. We feel successful because we've made them happy.

For others, though, the dream is bestseller-dom and seeing our books at the front of the bookstore, on big display. Of selling movie rights. Perhaps of amusement parks built around our book's world. We want to make it BIG.

Going indie probably won't get you to that kind of success unless you get picked up by an awesome agent and big publisher. So what do I mean when I talk about being successful as an indie author?

Well, I guess I give it my definition. See, I'm a major income earner in my family - well, to be honest, since December, I've been the only income earner. My idea of success, for now anyway, is to be in a position to write full time. I love to write just as much as those who do it only for fun. Because it is fun. And I have to write or I would lose my mind. I have tons of ideas and stories to tell and no time to tell them because I have to pay the bills. So, yeah, it would be nice to be able to write for a real living. And it would be a lot less stressful and exhausting.

So that is my definition of success when it comes to indie publishing and book sales: To sell enough books to comfortably support me and my family so I can continue writing. And that is very achievable as an indie author. In fact, my sales are pretty much there and it's just a matter of time - a very short time - where I can feel that I've achieved that level of success. So it can be done.

What is your definition of success? What are you willing to do to achieve it?

Monday, June 6, 2011

When You Don't Care - More Indie Thoughts

When I wrote about when not to go indie the other day, I mentioned a key phrase that I really didn't get a chance to explore. And I think it's really important to elaborate on it.

"I don't care if I'm successful."

I talked about why I think it's a bad idea to self-publish a book just because it's there and you have nothing else to do with it. You really want to be traditionally published but you have this one title that you've given up on. That's a case of "I don't care if this book is successful but I do care that my writing career is successful. In fact, I want to be really successful with it." That's when going indie can be tricky, if not done right.

But there are lots of us who just want to write, want to make our stories easily available to friends and family and if someone else picks it up, great. This is a whole different situation. This is, "I really don't care if I get a big publisher or make a bestseller's list. Writing is my hobby, something I love doing and I don't ever want it to become work."

And in that case, YES! Do it! Why not??? If you go in knowing that you'll get out of it whatever you put in and without expectations of making it "big," then self-publishing is a perfect solution for you. Just one little caveat...

Be sure that you really don't care, that you're really doing this for fun. Because if you change your mind later and decide that you really do want to have a successful writing career, you might have some major clean-up to do after yourself. After all, you'll have a book or several out there that never sold well. You'll have to decide what to do with them, which might mean pulling them to never see the light of day again.

Because here's the deal - publishers might want to publish something you've already done indie, especially if it's sold well. They'll likely have you do edits to improve it and then do a re-release. Most likely, however, they won't. They want exclusive first rights and since you've already published it, it's no longer first rights or exclusive. So the benefit your indie title(s) will give you is showing that you know how to market and can build a fan base, which will help with your next books. If you haven't done that, however, your indie titles can play against you. If you have poor sales and/or reviews, they're a black mark.

So, if you change your mind and have a book you really want to try to get published, you may want to pull your indies. OR...if they're good, you can market the heck out of them and focus on building that fan base before you start querying the new title. Then you have some good stuff to put in that letter. Which brings me to another little caveat...

Even if you're only doing this for fun, still put out the absolute, very best that you can possibly offer. If you don't want to invest in an editor, at least have several betas/critique partners help you. Then have someone else do a line-by-line edit and proofread. Don't put out crap. It's bad for all of us. And, if you do change your mind later, you have many more options available as far as what to do with your self-pubbed titles. You'll be in a better position to pump up your marketing and sell them. So it's in your best interest to put out only your very best, polished work.

(Of course, that last bit applies to all of us...)

Any other cases of "I don't care..."? Any questions? I'd be happy to discuss.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

When NOT to Go Indie - Thoughts Part II

As I said before, self-publishing will soon become the norm and agents and publishers will find their next authors from the Amazon and Nook bestsellers lists. It'll take a few years, but unless some industry game-changer comes along (which could very well happen!), it will get there. It's already starting. The number of indies getting approached by agents and publishers is growing. And I can't count how many writers I've seen announce the decision to go indie just in the last month or two.

For now, though, it's not for everyone. It is a lot of work. We are still finding our way, learning the ropes, creating and re-creating the best paths to take to success. To go this route, you must have a sense of adventure because the map is still being developed. For each one of us who achieves success, a different road has been taken. Some are close and parallel but no highway yet exists.

But (some may say) maybe I don't care if I'm successful. I just want to get my book out there and see what happens. It's written, it's good and since the publishers (or agents) didn't want it, I don't want it just sitting in the drawer or on my hard drive. I may as well give it a chance.

I can totally understand this perspective. And I'm all behind you if this is you. But the key phrase in this situation is, "I don't care if I'm successful." See, this is where my big "However" comes in.

At one point, not only did I agree with that philosophy, I was completely behind it. Self-pubbing is so easy and relatively cheap. What do you have to lose by putting something out there instead of letting it sit on your hard drive? By watching others with this mentality go for it, though, I've changed my opinion on this. You have a lot to lose.

There are many writers who have queried the hell out of their books, never to get an agent. Or perhaps they did get an agent but the book didn't sell to a publisher. They've given up on that particular book, but not on the thought of traditional publishing. Rather than leave that book to collect dust, they decide to throw it out there as self-published, while they continue to pursue traditional publishing for their next piece.

But here's what happens...

I've seen more than one author fall into a pit of depression, thinking they've failed and only went this way as a last resort. If they feel so negative about their decision and about their book, how on earth are they going to promote with passion? You need passion to market! You have to believe in your book and in yourself to get others to do the same.

I've seen other authors throw their book out there and then basically forget about it as they continue querying and submitting their next book for traditional publishing. There's nothing wrong with still pursuing that dream, however, when do these authors have the time to promote their self-pubbed baby? They don't! But it's not just time.

More importantly, it's focus. It's the mentality of, "Okay, it's out there. Now I really need to focus on getting an agent for this next one." Our minds (and time) are already split in so many ways - writing, revising, blogging and social networking, learning, improving and, oh yeah, those people called family, those dirty things called dishes and clothes, etc. It's inefficient and ineffective to split it even more to try to market your self-pubbed title AND query.

Then there's the whole bit that the more titles you self-publish, the faster and bigger your success. That is a proven point on the map. So if you only have one out and you're not even considering putting the next one out because you're querying it, you're losing your big chance. A single title by an unknown author just doesn't get noticed.

It all comes down to the fact that you can't be successful with self-publishing if you're not 100% into it. And if you're not successful, not only are you losing opportunity for sales, but you're also really messing with your career. Because the whole idea is to attract readers and build a following so you can become a full-time author. You gain attention to your books and your writing...and, very possibly, land a deal with a Big 6 publisher. Or, at least, get offered a deal. Then the decision is in your court whether you still want that deal or not. If you flop at self-publishing, you just might gain that black mark against you and the chances for that deal are virtually eliminated.

So that's my big "however": If you're going to choose this path, choose this path. Make it a real decision, not a throw-it-out-there-and-see-what-happens, half-ass gesture. Approach it as a business or career - this is how you'll publish your books, all of them, at least until a traditional publisher picks you up (after picking you out).

Either go all in or don't take the risk. Not now, anyway.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Living in the Real World

I know I've owed you a post about self-publishing for a couple of weeks. I kinda disappeared since then. Sorry!!! But real life called. I didn't want to tack this on to that important post, so here's what's been going on:

It's already been nearly two weeks since my oldest son graduated high school. Wow! So the week before we cleaned, cleaned, cleaned (because you know how a writer's house can get!). Then we partied, partied, partied. Family from the Midwest came into town and we had a blast with them. Then they had problems getting their flights home because of the tornadoes and storms from Dallas to Chicago. Then I came down with the flu. Then the other two sons got out of school.

Then it was Memorial Day weekend and I got a call from my aunt that hospice was on their way for my grandmother. So I dropped everything immediately so we could spend time with her while she's still coherent. We don't know how long she has. She's survived skin cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer in the last 20+ years. She's definitely a fighter. But then it showed up in her liver and has spread. Now it's in her spinal fluid and brain. Part of her still fights but part of her has accepted, too. I'm trying to accept, but it hurts.

On top of all of that, day-job business has been crazy. Lots of exciting things going on there that leaves me exhausted by the end of the day.

All of that means little time for writing and revising and even less time for blogging. But I've tried to pop in and read blogs when I get a chance. And I'm trying now to get caught up on my own blogging. I'll get that next article up soon. I have some others planned as well because May was also a month of really rockin' sales. Can't wait to share!

How was your Memorial Day weekend? Did you do anything fun? Are your kids out of school yet? How do you get anything done??? If you have any secrets for balance, please do share!