Monthly Archives: November 2015

Three Common Mistakes Made by Newer Writers

(Also this morning, I have a post on the mindset of revision – including an excerpt from my new book – over at The Kill Zone.  Please return here, though, for a refreshing guest post from a passionate young writer.)

I receive frequent requests from writers who want to post here on Storyfix.com.  That’s a nice compliment, but even so, as the gatekeeper, I find myself a bit on the picky side.  But this one, while perhaps revisiting familiar ground, struck me as worthy of our attention. I value the fundamentals, and this is a nice refresher. And so I bring you…

A guest post by Leona Hinton

In today’s writing world, making your mark is rendered more possible with the availability of a vast array of available tools. Books and websites that help you craft a story that will attract readers. Editors and designers who will help you polish the final product. Conferences where you might just meet the perfect agent.  Venues that will not only sell your masterpiece, but also help you format and digitize it, and then pay you a 70 percent royalty in the bargain.

These days you don’t need to be a millionaire to get your book published. Those days are long gone. But you do need to understand the steps involved, both creatively and technically, and the high standards you must reach to have a shot at success. And while much of the technology is new, one thing that hasn’t changed is a high level of craft, often years in the making.

Given the new nature and level of competition for readers, this is more true than ever.

Part of the journey involves avoiding the mistakes that cause other aspiring authors, especially newer ones, to stumble.  Toward that end, I offer you three of the most common traps and pitfalls that await.

Mistake #1: Failure to decide who your readership will be before you write the book.

In other words, know your genre.

Your audience will respond not just to the plot and to empathy for your hero, but on an ability to understand your language, as well.

Perhaps this is most especially apropos when writing a children’s novel. You may indeed have a swashbuckling tale to tell, but  you must deliver the theme, the plot and the characters with English that your young readership will not only understand, but will relate to.  Got a Gen-X novel?  You better not sound like your old high school English teacher. Unless you are writing adult literary fiction, each genre has its own tropes and expectations, the essence of which can and should be learned before diving in.

Mistake #2: Failure to develop your book’s plot along a viable dramatic spine.

In any genre the author’s challenge is to engage with your readership, keeping them  engrossed and hungry to move onto the next page or chapter. Exposition should be strategic, growing tension while ramping up to the climax , where tension and stakes are highest.

There are models and tools for that, as well. Structure – as Larry has told us many times – is like gravity.  It just is.  You may think you get to make it up for yourself, but as your story develops and feedback arrives (including your own sense of a need for another draft), the story will begin to align with the forces of structure, which are frighteningly similar in virtually any modern novel, in any genre.

Readers should be intrigued by the nature and source of conflict (internal or external) that drives the story along that structural spine. If you don’t understand – or better yet, haven’t discovered – the generic structural model for successful storytellers use, then avoid the mistake of taking it for granted.  Or worse, ignoring it as formulaic.

Gravity isn’t a formula, either.  It just is.

Mistake number 3: Failure to fully develop the characters in your book before you stamp “final” on any draft.

Everyone who is part of your story should be both unique and relateable (those are not mutually exclusive terms). That means each character should be described so that the reader can literally visualize them, that they could sit down with a piece of paper and a set of colored pencils and draw your characters from the exact expression on their face to the type of clothes they wear.

And then, to make the character – at least the main characters in your story – multi-dimensional, with pasts and inner landscapes that come to bear on the actions and decisions they make within the present of the story itself.

Critics call these characters vividly drawn, and the analogy is apt: as authors, we are drawing our characters in multiple dimensions of depth and resolution, inside and out, past and present, with a future that logically links to all of it.

When you’re finally done…

… and when you’ve decided to self-publish…

… at some point in the near future you’ll face the need to advertise your book.

Wouldn’t it be great if once you could be an automatic success without having to venture into the dark and scary world of promoting and even advertising your novel? Unfortunately this is not the case.

Your Facebook profile is a good starting point. Many Facebook followers are on the lookout for anything dynamic and new, especially if they’re your “friend” and know you are an author. The theory is this: once they find your book, buy it and love it, the news will spread through the Facebook community.  Other venues are available, as well, such as blogging, speaking and other means of getting you, and your story, out in front of readers.

Find your voice.  Then strive for stories that create a framework that invites readers into new worlds, or new spins on familiar worlds. Give us something fresh and new, delivered with emotional resonance that results in a vicarious reading experience.

Do this, and begin to put in your 10,000 hours of apprenticeship in this craft, and you will never regret the time and investment of self required.  That’s the beautiful thing about telling stories – we are our own readers, and from that high bar success becomes achievable.

Leona Hinton is a young editor and passionate educator from Chicago. She can’t imagine her life without creative writing and finds her inspiration in classic literature. Contact her on Linkedin.

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Coping With Trolls and the Irretrievably Lost… but Thankful for You

I’ve had a bit of a tough week.  If I wasn’t the type who wants to please everyone, then the source of my temporary anxiety (a close cousin to temporary insanity, from which all sorts of bad things emerge), could be trivialized… but that’s me.

So here I sit, vacillating between two extremes.

Part of the tough week, of course, stems from the situation in Paris, where I was vacationing with my lovely wife (I wrote about that HERE) exactly one month ago.  Having just been there makes the news clips more immediate and vivid, and the emotions – including rage – that surface without arms-length recourse (because I’m an arms-length recourse kind of guy) are frustrating.  Unlike things we can excuse-away with a pithy “just part of life, dude!” rationalization, this stuff burns into the soul, while also showing us how people from all walks and corners come together as one mind and one heart.

From that alone, hope emerges.

Not so much with some readers of my book, it seems.

Closer to home, this week has been marred by three one-star reviews, one each for my three writing books.

Now, if you look closely, you’ll understand why this is just as embarrassing (to even mention it) as it is troublesome.  Each review was preceded by five or six glowing 5-star reviews, which for the more mentally healthy author would make the one-star hatchet job nearly invisible.

But any one-star review gets your attention, and you’d think it would be from any valid criticism delivered.  Not so.  It’s the crazy, clueless, misunderstood and downright vitriolic intention of some of them that irritates and festers.  People hide on the internet, saying things they’d never dare say to someone’s face… especially mine. If you’ve seen me, you get that.

Valid criticism is a gift.  It makes us better.  The clueless ramblings of the lost and angry reader… that’s just sad.

These aren’t my first encounters with the dreaded one-star, or the collision with someone who is bent on raining insults my way.  When the first troll popped up in the Story Engineering review thread a few years ago – a guy named Bunker, who had never published a word, then or since – I made the mistake of engaging with him, which turned ugly fast (he said he wanted to come to my house and throw books at me… I gave him my address and begged him to show up, but of course he didn’t, because this type of reviewer is cowardly to the core; the invite is still open, by the way).

I wrote one of my writing guru buddies (James Scott Bell) about it, and his response was as brilliant, nourishing and as enduring as it was brief.

He said: “Pffft.  A gnat.”

I have finally learned to not engage with gnats, because it never turns out well for either side.

Nonetheless, three more showed up online this week.  

Mean spirited, as if I’d just insulted the entire history of their family tree.

One of the them, in particular, a review (if you can call it that) for my new writing book (“Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant“) chock-full of inaccuracies, misperception and misplaced vitriol.  And I choose to respond here simply to set the record straight, in addition to a much briefer response as a Comment below his review, which Amazon refused to take down (I’m always amazed at Amazon’s support of unfairness and clear slander in reviews, yet they take down responses that seek to clarify for readers who might be tempted to assign credibility; I’m also amazed at the number of people who click on finding such reviews helpful… that’s scary to me).

It takes a thick skin to publish anything these days.  Trust me on this.

This review makes several inaccurate claims.

First… that I promise definitions of important writing terms, but don’t deliver them.  Not true.  I not only deliver them, I shine a light on them in context to the writing proposition itself.

Definitions of important story elements and essences appear – each under a thick black graphic header that could be missed only by someone who really never read the book (or doesn’t think they’ll get called out, or is thick-headed enough to not understand what they were encountering, which in this case were the very definitions this reviewer claims aren’t there) – on pages 46, 62, 93, 102, 109, 112, 115, 127, 128, 133 and 136.  

Also, he claims the book is full of buzzwords.  Interesting.  This is like reading a book on, say, golf, and then claiming that words such as “chip shot” or “the rough” or “closest to the pin” are buzzwords.  The only person who could possibly find a random buzzword in my book is someone completely new to the writing game.  Which, in this case and supported by the review in whole, is clearly the case here.

Also, the reviewer says the book offers a “secret” to be revealed later (not true), and then claims I never deliver.  This is where I refer you to the 18 five-star reviews (out of the 22 posted thus far) who disagree, and to the Foreword by Michael Hauge, who is one of the most famous writing teachers in the entire world, who used the word “brilliant” in describing it.

So why am I upset by one poor, sad guy – three, if you count the other two this week – who doesn’t agree?  Especially when it’s abundantly clear that he shouldn’t even be reading a book on writing in the first place?

Interesting question.  After well over 400 5-star reviews across my three writing books, I should focus on that, instead.

I should focus on the good stuff, like other authors commenting on my work, which also happened twice this week (read it HERE and HERE).

I think I’ve finally figured it out.

As a reader, writing a novel can look so easy.  So the naive flock to a new writing book, unaware of what they’re walking into.  Like someone strolling the streets of New York and wandering into a conference on brain surgery, hoping to find a free donut.

But what real writers know is this: writing a novel is complex.  It’s challenging.  It’s not something everyone can do well.  The material in my books doesn’t shy away from this truth, and because I break the craft down into elements in way that nobody really has before, the new writer/reader may be intimidated, confused, and discouraged.  Because it’s all so darn complicated.

They came for the kumbayah, instead they got theory and charts and layers of perception instead.

Imagine buying a textbook on, say, how to install your own furnace, when you’ve never tried anything like that before. And then, when you are overwhelmed, when you realize how little you know, you blame the author of that book.

That’s what’s going on, too often, where my writing books are concerned.  This has been pointed out to me, many times, in fact, by writers who get it, who see right through these clueless one-star reviews (not all of which are clueless, some simply don’t like how I wrote the book, which is fair enough, especially since they are outnumbered across the board by about 10 to 1).

Writing a novel is every bit as complex as taking out a spleen. I know this because experienced doctors who seek to become writers have told me so.  None of them, by the way, posting whiny one-star reviews because they can’t recognize what is true or principles that are more complex than beginning-middle-end… or encounter words they need to look up, but don’t.

Challenging commonly held beliefs – writing is full of them – is risky.  It makes people uncomfortable.  I’ve heard about this one, too… in this book I go right at one of those lofty ideals, that any idea is worthy, nobody can tell you that yours isn’t.  But… it just might be, and that’s the problem that explains many rejections: agents, editors and readers don’t flock to – or throw money at – a bad idea, no matter how well written it is. I might be the first writer in this niche to suggest that maybe, just maybe, it’s a bad or even a weak idea that’s holding you back.  And then, because I realize that offering this without a solution is the kind of thing that is bad business, I give you criteria and checklists to see if that’s the case in your story.

For some, that’s a solution.  For others, even mentioning this is unthinkable.  And so, they blame the messenger.

One of those angry reviewers said I sounded like a college professor.  To her I say… thank you very much.

So, after setting the record straight on those missing definitions, I’m at peace with it all.

Trolls, the confused and the totally lost and clueless are on every corner, and Amazon invites them in without the slightest vetting or remedy.  And by the way, I’m all ears for valid criticism, even when delivered with brass knuckles and a complete disregard for the author’s intentions (certainly mine), which in non-fiction is always to help the reader.

I’m constantly told I’m too wordy… so be it, I hear you.  And I’ll hear the next guy who posts that, too, as if he’s breaking the news.  And I’m working on that, but I’m a conversational, informal writer, if you want a dry textbook, go back to school.

If you’d like to comment on these reviews, or any others, you can do so in the Comment section available below every review posting on Amazon.com. And if you’ve actually read my new book, and are a serious student of writing (which mean’s you’ll know all the Big Words you’ll encounter), then you’re invited to review the book, as well.

As for me, I’ll never post a one-star review, for anything.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, is gained by it, and having been in the bulls eye of a few, I know the damage it causes, not the least of which is painting an inaccurate picture for readers who don’t know enough to know a flawed review when they read one.  Damage… not so much for the author, who will get over it, but for the poster him/herself, who can’t hide behind ignorance and the misguided chance to see their name online, which won’t happen any other way.  Readers are, for the most part, smart, and they can smell a fraud with the first awkward sentence.

Amazon won’t take it down, either… you’re forever outed there.

*****

Next April I’m participating in what might just be the most comprehensive, amazing, life-changing writing conference… ever.  Four days, only two instructors, and the deepest dive into craft you’ll ever engage with.  It’s not cheap, but if you’re serious about this you’ll want to consider it.  Click HERE to learn more… you’ll be seeing more of this on Storyfix.com as the date approaches.

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