The Rules and Art of Paragraphing

It was pointed out to me by my wonderful Tails of the Apocalypse editor Chris Pourteau, that I tend to write longer paragraphs, and that particularly for ebooks, where screens can be smaller than paper books, the tendency is now to break up those paragraphs more so that the reader is not presented with a wall of text. He suggested breaking up a lot of my paragraphs in “The Poetry of Santiago” my contribution to the anthology. Interestingly enough, I had also received this feedback from an early proofreader of A Pair of Docks two years ago. As a result of Chris’s feedback, I have been very conscious of my paragraph length in A Grave Tree. In going back in to edit A Pair of Docks last week, I was stunned to see how long some of my paragraphs were. I have clearly already come a long way.

But is it far enough? I decided to check out the paragraphing style of some famous writers and see how mine measures up. But first, I wanted to review the rules of paragraphing.

We all know that a paragraph can be as short as one word or can be several pages long (right?). The critical aspect of paragraphs is that they must serve the story. Paragraphs are utilized to organize your sentences, control pacing, and give the reader a chance to pause.

There are some kind-of hard and fast rules of paragraphing (although as with anything in fiction there are those who break them). There is also an art to paragraphing.

The Rules of Paragraphing (mostly guidelines, really)

First, the rules, or sort-of rules. Generally speaking, you start a new paragraph for the following:

1. Changing speakers in dialogue.

If you switch speakers in dialogue, you always (except for the most stalwart of rule-breakers) start a new paragraph. So, you have:

Paragraph 1, speaker 1’s statement or question

Paragraph 2, speaker 2’s answer

This is true even if the other character responds with an action instead of words. This helps readers keep track of who is speaking. Correct paragraphing also helps to reduce the use of dialogue tags because readers can keep track of who is speaking based on the paragraphing. But you often keep the actions, words, and thoughts (if the character is a POV character) of one character together in the same paragraph in dialogue sections. So for example (note: this is not an actual example from one of my novels):

Caleb rolled his eyes. “Why would we do that?”
Abbey stomped her foot. Why didn’t Caleb ever listen to her? “Because it’s the only way out.”

But this last is just a guideline, and in more complex scenes where there are many people engaging in actions and longer dialogue, this is not always the case. For example, in this sequence, you can see that Abbey’s thoughts are linked to Ian’s actions and therefore are in the same paragraph:

“I somehow doubt they would forget,” Ian said. “They’re assets, and they’d be a heck of a lot safer prepared. What if something happens to you?”
“It’s not up for discussion,” Sylvain said.
“Marian isn’t always right.” A darkness crept over Ian’s face, replacing his normally insouciant expression, and Abbey wondered again if he could be trusted—and who he had been pointing the gun at that night in Abbott’s Apothecary.

Just remember new speaker, new paragraph unless you like confusing your readers.

2. Moving forward or backward in time.

This is pretty important, and borders on rule-like status. You may also, depending on the amount of time elapsed, want to start a new scene.

3. Switching from the action and thoughts of one character to the action and thoughts of another character.

This one is not precisely a rule. Obviously as per the first rule relating to dialogue, you are going to start a new paragraph when you switch speakers. You would also do this if you are switching from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another character (which means basically that you are shifting POVs and head-hopping, which as I have outlined before, is not my preference, but for god sakes if you do it, please start a new paragraph for your head hop).

But you also often start a new paragraph in non-dialogue action sequence scenes when you switch from the thoughts and action of one character to the action of another character especially when one of those characters is the POV character. So if Abbey my main character (and my POV character) is thinking or doing something and I then describe what Caleb (a non-POV character) is doing, I will often start a new paragraph.

HOWEVER, if I am doing a summary of what everyone is doing with no dialogue, I will not create new paragraphs for each new actor. I might create a new paragraph when I shift from the thoughts or actions of the POV character to the non-POV characters, but I will not create a new paragraph for the actions of each of the non-POV characters. For example:

Ian shifted his gaze to Abbey, Caleb, and Mark. Digby had emerged from Ian’s pocket and was perched on his shoulder, happily consuming a piece of filo, his whiskers twitching. Farley had taken up a post beneath Ian’s chair, his wide pink tongue hanging out of his mouth and his eyes fixed on Digby.

Digby is a rat by the way, in case you were wondering.

4. Switching from describing one thing and to describing something else.

This is a guideline only and there are often cases where this rule is broken. However it presents a good opportunity for breaking your sentences up and creating shorter paragraphs. If your paragraphs are getting long, and you need to break them up, breaking them where you switch to describing something else is a good rule of thumb. However even when you are describing the same thing, if the paragraph gets too long (e.g. over 8 to 10 sentences) you might want to break that up too.

The Art of Paragraphing

Overall, paragraphing is more of an art than a science. Although the above rules and guidelines are helpful, there are other ways of looking at paragraphs. Some of the art of paragraphing includes:

1. Viewing the paragraph as a camera scene.

Ray Bradbury suggests that you think of each paragraph as a single camera shot in a movie. Every time the shot changes (e.g. change in camera angle), start a new paragraph.

2. Setting the tempo or pacing.

At what tempo or pace do you want your character and reader to experience the events. If events are moving very rapidly and there is a lot of action, you might want to use shorter paragraphs. If the character is thinking or the action is moving slowly, use longer paragraphs. Very short paragraphs of only a few words or sentences can increase the urgency. An extremely short paragraph of a word or two placed in the middle of a series of long paragraphs can have a significant dramatic or humorous effect.

3. Revealing character and frame of mind.

Shorter staccato paragraphs can convey that a character is tense, worried, short-tempered or taciturn. Longer paragraphs can indicate a character is in a good mood, long-winded, relaxed or prone to deep and rambling thought.

4. Varying your prose and making your writing more interesting.

Writing paragraphs of the same length all the time is boring and will put your reader to sleep. Just as sentences have a rhythm and should be varied in terms of their length, so too should paragraphs.

How Established Writers Do It

It would not be me if I did not consult some of the books on my shelf to check out how these rules and the art of paragraphing are applied in practice.

I pulled five books from my shelf (two genre fiction, two literary fiction and one in between), and reviewed paragraph lengths for a two page non-dialogue scene. I chose a non-dialogue scene because if we are following the rule of starting new paragraphs for each speaker then there is not as much to be learned from dialogue scenes, but next week I may look at some of the dialogue scenes (next week is kind of like tomorrow around here).

So what did I find?

See any patterns? I do. I know it is completely unscientific. But definitely the literary fiction writers tended to write longer and fewer paragraphs. This is not a surprise. But what surprised me was how short some of the sentences of the genre fiction writers were. Look at how many one-sentence paragraphs Nora Roberts has. As always, this is just food for thought. My paragraph lengths are definitely more consistent with literary fiction writers, and since I write more genre fiction, this is something to take under consideration. I may do a more scientific survey some day (tomorrow, right?).

All right, that took longer than I thought it would, and my hair is back on fire. If you like what I have to say consider signing up for my blog mailing list. I will give you freebies, and you will never miss a post.

 

 

Source: http://bit.ly/agravetree

Writing for a Cause

This is an announcement only post because I’ve just got so much exciting news to share. I will do a post about paragraphing (an exciting but oft overlooked topic in writing) tomorrow!

First, we’re now only 27 days from the launch of Tails of the Apocalypse, an anthology to which I contributed, which if you haven’t guessed, is about animals in an apocalyptic setting. It was super fun to write and it is also for an important cause. You can read more about it below. Second, we are even less than 27 days from the launch of the third book in my Derivatives of Displacement series, A Grave Tree, which is right now in the hands of my trusty editor, David Gatewood so he can work his magic and make hilarious comments about my errors.

In conjunction with the launch of A Grave Tree, which will be no later than November 17 (but could be sooner—stay tuned regarding the launch date and ARCs), I’m running a promo on Books One and Two in the Derivatives of Displacement series, A Pair of Docks and A Quill Ladder (including a Bookbub on November 4), so if you haven’t picked those up yet, then would be a good time. I’m really in need of more reviews on A Quill Ladder, so if you’ve read it, but haven't left a review, I would love it if you could take like thirty seconds and leave one. Here's the link. If you haven’t read it, but would be willing to do so and post a review immediately, email me at jlelliswriting@gmail.com and I’ll gift you a copy.

An update on the pen name. I’ve launched a fourth short and sales continue to mystify me. Some days they are quite high and other days they are zero (there seems to be no in between). Since I don’t advertise, it really makes me curious about how discoverability works on Amazon. I’ll keep you posted on this one.

Writing for a Cause: Pets for Vets and Tails of the Apocalypse

“There are a number of unique aspects of this anthology, but the thing I’m most proud of is our partnership with Pets for Vets.”

That’s how author-editor Chris Pourteau talks about his latest project, Tails of the Apocalypse. Described as The Walking Dead meets The Incredible Journey, the collection includes short stories written by 14 innovative independent authors. Tails of the Apocalypse examines world-ending scenarios—from nuclear war to natural disasters to planetary pandemics—featuring animals as main characters.

The idea came to Pourteau last spring after publishing his own short story, “Unconditional” about a dog searching for his boy, lost to the zombie apocalypse. The overwhelmingly positive response from readers made him think that maybe he’d hit a cultural nerve. And the idea for Tails of the Apocalypse was born.

Over the next six months, he recruited writers--including four USA Today bestselling authors--edited their stories, developed cover art, and produced an anthology that R. J. Pineiro, author of The Fall calls: “one of the most original and captivating collections of end-of-the-world ‘tails,’ shown through the eyes of an amazing cast of unforgettable furry and feathered characters.”

Giving Tails a Purpose

Even as the anthology took shape, Pourteau felt like he was missing something. The point of these wonderful stories about animals caught up in dystopian situations was about giving voice to those without the ability to speak for themselves. He decided he wanted to donate some of the profits to an organization that helped animals.

One of the authors, David Bruns, a US Navy vet, suggested Pets for Vets. The name and the mission of the non-profit immediately resonated with Pourteau. Founded by animal trainer Clarissa Black, Pets for Vets matches shelter dogs with military veterans. Personnel train the animals as special companions for veterans suffering from emotional trauma, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“Three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year,” says Ann Black, president of Pets for Vets. “And it’s estimated that 20 percent of returning vets suffer from PTSD. Bringing them together provides a loving home for the pet and a caring companion for the vet. It’s a win-win.”

Pourteau plans to donate $1.00 to Pets for Vets from every copy of Tails of the Apocalypse sold through the end of the calendar year, regardless of format—e-book, paperback, or audiobook. “I’m honored that Pets for Vets allowed us to adopt them as a cause,” Pourteau says. “My goal now is to write them a big check on January 1st.”

Want to Lend a Hand?

We’re calling our project Tails for Vets. If you’d like to be part of the Tails for Vets movement, here’s how you can help:

1.     Join the Tails for Vets Street Team — Get email updates and shareable content by joining the Tails Street Team. Facebook banners, a “badge” you can post online to show your support, and chances to win paperback and audiobook copies of Tails of the Apocalypse are all available to the Tails Street Team.

2.     Buy the BookTails of the Apocalypse launches on November 20th, but you can preorder on Amazon now at http://amzn.com/B016E5JIRU. Remember: $1 from every purchase goes to Pets for Vets.

Speaking for myself, it is really exciting to be part of this project. Pets have played a central role in my life and supporting the well-being of animals and veterans is something I can really get behind.

That's all for today. Tomorrow, paragraphing, I promise. If you like what I have to say and want to receive my blog posts on a regular basis, be sure to sign up for my reader/writer mailing list here. There are some great freebies! If you prefer to just get new release announcements and the freebies, sign up for my reader mailing list here.

Writing in a Hot Genre Category

So almost four weeks in, it’s time to report out on the big pen name experiment. But first just a couple of announcements. Book three in my Derivatives of Displacement series, A Grave Tree, is almost done. I finished the second draft yesterday and it will be off to my editor once I finish the third draft on October 15. I also now have a cover courtesy of the fabulous Design for Writers. Look for announcements regarding review copies sometime in late October. If you haven’t read books one or two yet, now would be a great time.

I’ve also been asked to participate in several panels at VCon in Vancouver in less than a week. I will be talking humor in middle-grade fiction, self-publishing, and paranormal romance. If you're in Vancouver, come by and say hi!

Also coming up in November will be the release of the long awaited Tails of the Apocalypse anthology to which I have contributed a story about an elderly cat named Santiago. All of the stories are about how animals deal with an apocalyptic situation. There is a great line up of writers so be sure to check out this anthology when it comes out. I will also be doing a review copy announcement on that one in a few weeks and of course there will be a Facebook party with great prizes.

Setting Up a Pen Name

Photo Credit: Sebastien Weirtz / flickr /Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Sebastien Weirtz / flickr /Creative Commons

I watch the Amazon market a lot, and on occasion when my books have shot to the top of a category for a variety of reasons (sale, mention somewhere, pure dumb luck), I have noticed a preponderance of certain types of books at the top of those categories. Some of these books seem to have staying power at the top of those categories selling thousands of copies each day. Intrigued, I honed in on an unusual category that is a huge seller on Amazon these days, not just in its own category, but across the charts.

So I started buying and reading a few of these books, and found that not only were many of them only mediocrely written (to downright awfully written) and very formulaic, but they were also short. Surely I could toss of one of these in a week, and fame and fortune would await.

At the end of August, I was a little stuck on the ending of A Grave Tree, and decided to do an experiment. I would set up a pen name, write three of these genre fiction shorts, and see what happened. Given that I’ve now been in the biz for almost two years, I would also do everything “right” by including links to the next book at the end of the first book, putting them out in rapid succession, branding them just like the bestsellers in their category and so on. I also decided that I would keep costs very low by doing the covers, formatting and editing myself. I’ve already blogged about the covers and formatting.

I also decided that I would have to set up a small “platform” and established a limited content website, and a twitter account for the pen name.

Since I write middle-grade fiction, and have somewhat of a serious career as a consultant, I am not going to reveal the new genre, but suffice to say it is a bit spicier than my normal writing.

The Results

I correctly estimated that each short of about 15,000 words would take me about a week to write at a pace of about 2000 to 5000 words a day. Add in a few days of editing time, as well as a day to do the cover and format, and I would say that each one took about 10 days of effort. Lest you think I totally just put out garbage, I did take it pretty seriously, studying the formula and techniques utilized by other authors in the genre and working to ensure I was developing the best story possible within the boundaries and time frame that I had set (I have studied the release dates of the successful authors and know that they are working as fast if not faster than me). I'm actually rather pleased with the resulting stories and covers.

I released the first short the first week of September, and one each week after that. With no platform to speak of (I think I had like 40 Twitter followers and no website views on that first day), I was not sure how well they were going to do. To my surprise, they started selling right away. No platform, no awaiting audience. Also to my surprise, my Kindle borrows started lifting off immediately. The sales and borrows held pretty steady for four weeks and have only just started to drop this week since I have now not had a release for two weeks.

Each one cost me $80 to produce—$40 each for the two stock photos it took to make the cover.

So how many did I sell? Before you toss aside your own writing and start writing vampire time travel erotic romance, my borrows and sales for all three shorts total just over 350. The sell through rate on the series was pretty decent, with the first being the best seller with 44% of the sales/borrows, the second having 37% and the third having 19%.

Unfortunately just as I was doing more research on my newly chosen genre, I discovered that not only does it sell like gangbusters, it also is a completely saturated genre with literally hundreds of new releases every day. Next time, I might do some more research and try to pick a hot, but more obscure genre (although maybe these don’t exist).

But, considering that was for three weeks work, my pen name had zero platform, and that is just the first month, I’m not totally unhappy. Unlike my other work though, I have garnered almost no reviews, and I wondered if this meant my stories had missed the mark for the genre. However my Goodreads ratings are pretty decent so I think readers of this genre don’t review on Amazon as often. I even got some subscribers to my mailing list.

The Ten Things I Learned

  1. It was remarkably freeing to write true formulaic genre fiction. I did not worry as much about my sentences and words, other than of course to make sure they were correct and reasonably interesting. I also, given that they are formulaic and uncomplex, did not have to spend hours researching and pondering plot to get that perfect wrap that I have to do with my science fiction and fantasy. My characters were also less real, but nicer and sexier. The stories were actually pretty fun to write.
  2. Title branding is very important. In my research of the genre, I discovered that all of the successful writers include a long title that includes the genre after the story title. So they would put “A Sinner: A Sweet Paranormal Romance” (this is an example only – I am not going to reveal my new genre). I think this helped to increase my discoverability dramatically.
  3. Kindle Unlimited is an absolute must in certain genres. Borrows comprised 79% of my ‘sales’ and without them, this would not have been a worthwhile undertaking, except as an experiment.
  4. Rapid releases seem to be key. Two weeks after I stopped releasing one a week, my sales started to drop off. I will report in on the long tail in a few weeks though.
  5. Shorts are easy to produce, but the royalty is a kicker. A longer work would have been the same number of words to write, but would have had lower costs as it would have required only one cover, and then I could have charged more and gotten the 70% royalty on Amazon. Although my borrow earnings would have been the same, I would have earned twice as much on the sales.
  6. I've learned lots of great new Twitter strategies. I already have just under 500 Twitter followers on an account that I started less than four weeks ago. It took me several years to achieve that on my own Twitter account where I tend to be my quiet, unaggressive self. I also have learned a lot more about Twitter strategy by following only people in the same genre. Using hashtags, retweeting others liberally, quoting from your book, and using photo teasers are all ways to get more followers, get your own stuff retweeted and get more eyes on your book, and I believe more sales. I am transferring some of this learning to my actual Twitter account.
  7. Being another person is both liberating, odd, and time-consuming. My pen name can do things that I wouldn’t necessarily do. But I also have this strange compulsion to be honest with people. I wanted to post an actual picture of myself so that I would be a real person, and have this desire to talk about my kids on my pen name Twitter (and my pen name doesn’t have kids). Also finding the time to tweet, blog, and write for one person is challenging enough, doing it for two people is exhausting!
  8. Setting up a pen name on Amazon is easy as you can just use your regular account. I have noticed a slight uptick in sales on my non-pen name books in the last few weeks, which makes me wonder if Amazon regards any activity on your account as being good activity no matter what name, and starts to promote your other stuff. I have no idea how the mysterious Amazon algorithms work, but I thought this was interesting.
  9. I learned a lot about making covers, formatting, and self-editing and feel a lot more confident on these fronts.

Next Up

I’ve had to take a break from the pen name to focus on my other work, but I think I’ll be revisiting my pen name in the future with a box set, another series and a full-length release, when I can find the time to be two people again! Maybe I could hire someone to be me.

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DIY Cover Design

Okay so not much to announce this week. Things are going well with the super secret pen name. I wanted to try writing in a really popular genre to see how much that would affect sales. I have released a short and it is already selling better than my regular stuff with no platform. I’ll report in on longer-term sales and progress at some point, but suffice to say it’s interesting. And sorry, my third Derivatives of Displacement novel is being a tiny bit delayed by this detour. But it's about 8000 words from being finished and I’ll be back on track with that in two weeks. Unfortunately the last 8000 words are always the hardest to write!

Also an exciting bit of news: Tales of Tinfoil: Stories of Paranoia and Conspiracy was free and had a Bookbub deal last week and it went to number one (like really, number one) in the Kindle Store for free books and stayed in the top 20 for the duration of the promotion. Also, if you are an Apocalypse Weird fan, the long awaited Apocalypse Weird Cookbook is out. In addition to recipes, it has lots of bonus material, so check it out!

I guess that was actually a fair bit of news, which just shows how much I’m generally running around like a lunatic, trying to get all my writing done. Actually I’m not running around at all, I’m sitting at my desk getting the words out, but I digress. No need to talk about my head being about to explode from having so much going on (not to mention two identities to manage) here.

Why I Tried DIY Cover Design

Last week I covered Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates, a great DIY tool for indie authors and this week I’m talking about Derek Murphy’s DIY Book Covers.

Now, unlike formatting, doing your book covers in-house is not for the faint-of-heart or completely graphically-challenged, and for the work that I put out under my own name I definitely go with a professional designer. Nevertheless I’ve always wanted to try cover design, even just so I can be better at designing graphics for promotions, and I also didn’t want to spring for $400 a cover for an experimental pen name (when the pen name becomes more famous than me, maybe I will). When I stumbled across the DIY Book Cover site (ironically on Joel Friedlander’s Cover Awards page), I thought I would give it a try.

What You Get With DIY Cover Design

The basic gist of the DIY cover design site is that you can make a pretty darn decent cover in either MS Word or on their free Cover Design Tool, which is web-based, but you save your files to your own computer. The site offers a huge number of things for free including:

  • a whole bunch of cover design tutorials that are absolutely awesome. Watch them, you will learn a ton.
  • a written quick start guide explaining how to make your own covers in MS Word.
  • tutorials on how to use the Cover Design Tool.
  • access to the Cover Design Tool.
  • templates of pre-made covers that you can add pictures and text to make your own cover.

That is a lot of great free stuff. Not realizing all of this stuff was free, I signed up for the $97 membership, for which I got access to more templates. It also suggests that I will get access to more tutorials and info in the future, but I have not yet as they are not yet available (when they will be and what will be included was a little unclear).

The tutorials and guide walk you through how to build a cover from setting your page size, finding appropriate pictures, getting the appropriate license, layering your pictures, making your text look good, and adding effects, filters and vignettes. Then you are on your own to start building. You can start with a blank page, or one of the templates. I chose to start with a template and work in the Cover Design Tool. I’ve worked with graphics before in MS Word and found it really frustrating because sometimes pictures don’t go where you want them on the page.

After a day and a half of swearing, fiddling with the tool, turning out terrible products, and being convinced that I would never be able to do this on my own, I finally had a pretty decent cover. With a few little tweaks, I was pretty happy with it, and my second cover (for my second story under the pen name) turned out even better (and required a lot less swearing and banging my head against my desk).

Positives of going with DIY Cover Design

  • The tutorials and guide are invaluable. They break it down in a way that is understandable. There is no way I even would have known where to start without them.
  • The templates are pretty useful. There are all sorts of things on the templates, like banners or glowy sections (don’t ask) that I would not know how to build myself. So I can just start with that template and add my own pictures. Things will get more difficult when I want elements that appear on two templates as I don’t know if you can cut and paste, but I might be able to save them as jpegs and import them.
  • The Cover Design Tool gets around all of those problems with pictures jumping around in MS Word (am I the only person who has this problem?).
  • I got two covers designed specifically to match my book and preferences at a cost of $80 each (the cost of two stock photos) and I will be able to easily do matching covers for other books in the series.
  • I learned so much and will now be much more able to do other basic graphic design on my own as needed.

Challenges of going with DIY Cover Design

  • The Cover Design Tool can be a big glitchy (Murphy is upfront with this and indicates that some of these glitches are being worked out). Sometimes (I suspect when too many people are using it), you can’t even open your project for hours, which is frustrating (don’t ever count on making last minute changes to your cover). I might try a Word design in the future as a result. The effects tool (which adds things like glow and feathering) doesn’t always work quite right, or at least I have not figured it out.
  • The Cover Design Tool has a bunch of great fonts built in but unfortunately does not indicate whether they are free or not. Most of them are not free, so if you want to use it on your cover you have to pay for the appropriate license. This is not explained very well and since I did not want to pay for a font, I had to go through and look up all the fonts and figure out to the best of my ability which ones were free (I looked them up on fontsquirrel and fontsgeek) but even this took some figuring out.
  • I doubt my covers look totally professional, because, well, they’re not. There are definitely limitations to what you can do yourself. Unless you are a talented artist, you are pretty much limited to using stock photography and doing a layered look. The DIY cover design tools are not going to suddenly make you able to do amazing illustrations or other funky designs on your own. So you’re not likely going to win any cover design awards. But that was not my goal.

Bottom Line

I’m really happy with DIY Cover Design. I got two pretty solid covers and learned so much. I’m not totally sure going all in and buying the templates was necessary, but I have used them and would have been pretty lost without them (but if you are more resourceful than I am you might not need them).

I also learned that part of good design is patience. I was convinced that my cover was terrible and unfixable and that I had just wasted $80 on stock photography, but all I had to do was rearrange the photos and other elements a few more times to make it work. It really showed me that patience and playing around is critical (and that good designers earn their pay—not that I ever doubted that).

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Indie DIY Tools that Really Work - Formatting Templates

No big announcements this week. I just finished my short story “The Poetry of Santiago” for an upcoming anthology, Tails of the Apocalypse. Tails will be coming out in November so watch for announcements about it then. I also finished a short that I will be releasing under a secret pen name as it’s… well, a little different than my other stuff. Finally, I am moving along in the third book in my Derivatives of Displacement series, although I took a little time off (as it is pretty intense to write) to finish those two shorts. I have also been a regular guest participant on SciFan; a Science Fiction and Fantasy podcast with Ed Giordano, Tiffany Langston and Kristi Charish, where we review a science fiction and fantasy book every week. It is super fun and you should check it out.

This month I wanted to talk about two indie DIY tools that really work: Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates (this week) and Derek Murphy’s DIY Book Covers (next week).

Why do things In-House?

As an indie author, I’m always looking to do as much stuff in-house as I can. There are several reasons for it. First, I always want to try to cut costs, as of course fewer costs can contribute to higher profit, provided I can do the job as well as the professionals.

Doing more myself also helps to streamline my process, as I don’t have to contact other professionals and line them up for slightly uncertain deadlines, and/or wait until their schedule is clear. It also means I don’t have to pester them to fix minor errors, or make adjustments down the line to get things perfect. This again of course is provided I can do the job in reasonably the same amount of time.

Finally doing it myself helps me to learn every aspect of the industry. What goes into making a good book cover? How do you lay out a book? I always like to pick up new skills and using these tools has made it easy and given me the confidence that I may eventually be able to do simple covers and layouts without the tools. It also helps me to be more confident when working with professionals, which I still do depending on the project, and know that I’m asking the right questions and making the right choices.

That is not to say I will not still hire professionals for some aspects of my book production and for some projects, but I have found these tools to be really useful when I want to do it myself. But as with any product, there are things I like and don’t like about the tools. If you are interested in using either of these tools, read on and learn more about my experience.

My Previous Experiences with Book Layout

Joel’s book templates, which come in 2-way form so you can do both your e-book and paperback book layout in Microsoft Word, first caught my attention almost two years ago.

I first looked at them as a print option when I was having the paperback version of my first book professionally laid out and struggling with the professional I had hired. It was mostly my fault. Given that it was my first book, I didn’t totally have the production order worked out and booked the layout before I had all the mistakes identified, and worse, I didn’t like the initial layout. So I had to go back and forth with the professional many times and beg her to make changes. I wanted to pay for the changes so I didn’t have to feel guilty, but she insisted on doing them for free, which made me think twice about every change I made. My subsequent forays into professional layout were more positive, but in one case very expensive, because I had it done in Adobe InDesign. The bottom line is though that when you have a professional do it, you don’t (generally) have the source files and when those small little typos are identified or you want to update your back matter, you have to bug (and potentially pay) somebody else, which takes time and energy.

The same goes for e-book formatting. I tend to be the kind of person who makes lots of little changes to my books after they are published and I want them to look just right, so contacting someone every time I wanted to make a minor adjustment felt like a real hassle. (Note that this is often just my reluctance to bug someone, not because the professionals I worked with were anything less than totally helpful and wonderful when I did contact them).

Before I tried the book design templates, I tried doing both my paperback and my e-book formatting myself and failed each time. Even though I’m reasonably technically proficient, I could get both files almost there, almost perfect, but not quite to the state I wanted them. There were always some funny indents or the table of contents failed to render, or something, and it took me way longer as I had to deal with a bunch of technical glitches, or technical scratch-my-head moments. I also always had niggling doubts that even though they looked okay on my screen, something was technically wrong with them that would show up later on someone else’s screen.

Using the Book Design Templates

Because of all of those experiences, when it came to formatting Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, I bit the bullet and bought one of the templates. The templates come with a long PDF that explains the technical aspects of using the templates. It’s a bit technical, but if you are reasonably comfortable using most of the features of Microsoft Word, such as styles, page breaks, and headers and footers, then you should be able to figure it out. If you are not conversant with Word, you might find it too difficult, or it might just take you longer to figure out.

I loaded my manuscript into the template, formatted it, and then saved two versions of it—one for print and one for e-book and made the appropriate adjustments to the front and back matter for each version. It took me a couple of days and a bit of finagling, but I did it. You are allowed to adjust the formatting from the template e.g. if you want bigger font, or smaller margins or whatever, as long as you credit Book Design Templates for the original design. I took advantage of this, but I’m pretty conversant with Word, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not.

The e-book version rendered perfectly, although I had to convert it to epub in Calibre and then upload it to KDP to convert to mobi to get the result I was looking for. The print book also rendered perfectly, although converting it to a high enough resolution PDF took some doing and required the use of the full version of Adobe Acrobat, which I did not have, but was able to borrow. I did have to read the manual several times, get some assistance from a computer programmer, and make several attempts to get this to happen.

I always have to consider my time factor in any of these DIY projects because I charge out for my environmental consulting work at a reasonable hourly rate, and any DIY project that takes longer than eight hours or so has a pretty steep cost, versus paying a professional to do it at the same price as two or three hours of my time. But there is also the learning factor, so if I think that something is going to take me half the time or a quarter of the time the second time around, then it may still be worth it. In this case, it probably did take me at least eight hours, but I’m confident that it won’t take as long the next time I do it.

Bottom-line

I’m totally happy with the results and this product. It did however require some technical know-how and assistance, lots of trial and error, and access to Adobe Acrobat. There was also a minor learning curve. However my layouts look great and I can now make the changes to my files on my own time as needed. You do have to buy a separate license for each book that you format, but at the price of just under $60.00 (and occasional sales on the templates), it is well worth it.

If you like what I have to say, don't forget to sign up for my mailing list here.

Identifying and Avoiding Deus Ex Machina

Just a few announcements this week. I’m closing in on the completion of the first draft of the third book of my Derivatives of Displacement series. Book three should be out early this fall. I’m also running a giveaway as part of a blog tour for Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist. You can enter to win a free ebook or a $10 Amazon gift card until August 20th. Some of you new subscribers have probably already entered, but everyone else should check it out. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to enter.

I’m also going to split my mailing list soon into readers and writers so that people who are primarily interested in promo and new release posts will just get those, whereas those who are primarily interested in craft posts will just get those. You will be able to select what you want to get (and you can pick both as well). Watch for that email, which will be coming soon.

Photo Credit: Amanda Hatfield / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Amanda Hatfield / flickr / Creative Commons

This week I'm looking at deus ex machina (pron: Day-oos eks MAH-kee-nah) or DEM for short. Make sure you learn how to pronounce it because saying it wrong among those in the know marks you immediately as an amateur. What does DEM mean? Are there different levels of DEM? Is DEM always a bad idea? And are all unsatisfying or surprise endings to a novel or movie examples of DEM?

What does Deus Ex Machina mean?

Deus ex machina (DEM) is when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly impossible situation in a novel or movie in a sudden, unexpected way. If the secret documents are in Chinese, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they can read Chinese. If a protagonist falls off a cliff, a pterodactyl that had not previously appeared will suddenly appear to catch them.

Photo Credit: torbakhopper / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: torbakhopper / Flickr / Creative Commons

The term is Latin for "god out of the machine" and originates in ancient Greek theater, where a crane was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play.

To be DEM, there are a number of requirements that must be met:

  • The unexpected development must be a solution. DEM is never an unexpected development that makes things worse or changes the understanding of the story.
  • The problem a DEM fixes must seem unsolvable or hopeless. If the problem could be solved with common sense, the solution is not DEM.
  • DEM solutions must be sudden or unexpected and not foreshadowed earlier in the story. If the solution is foreshadowed earlier in the story, it must not seem like a viable solution to the problem.
  • ·DEM solutions must be improbable or seem be at the hands of some intervening force.

In an excellent post on deus ex machina, Michael J. McDonaugh makes the following comparison to illustrate what is technically a DEM solution and what is not. If the characters are in the middle of a historical battle and the cavalry which was in the area, rides in to save the day at the eleventh hour, this is not DEM because it is not that surprising and not implausible. However if a woman is being attacked in a contemporary novel in a park down the street, and the cavalry rides in to save her, it is much more likely to be considered DEM.

There are many arguments in online forums with regard to what actually constitutes a DEM. Some critics would say that every Neil Gaiman book, every Harry Potter book, and almost every Star Trek episode end in deus ex machina. Lists of DEM endings abound and this one here is a particularly detailed and useful one.

Many of the best examples of DEM are from movies, which are even more prone to DEM because they have less runway than books writers sometimes have to wrap the plot in short order. But there are still many disagreements regarding what constitutes DEM. For example in Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones, Yoda shows up with a clone army at the end to save the day. Some would say this is a DEM because the army just “shows up” and rescues the protagonists from a seemingly impossible position. However others would argue that it is not because the audience knew that the army existed and that Yoda had gone off in search of it. It is this foreshadowing that to some makes this not a DEM. A DEM has to come out of nowhere for it to be a true DEM. For example, in Jurassic Park 3, the protagonists are surrounded by raptors only to be saved by the unexpected appearance of the US Navy (which also coincidentally occurred to end Lord of the Flies which is also considered by some to be a DEM ending). However, it has been noted though that in Jurassic Park the fact that Sam Neill made a call to Laura Dern indicating they were in trouble was sufficient foreshadowing of the arrival of the navy. It is also argued that the T-Rex showing up in the first Jurassic Park to save the protagonists from the raptors is DEM. But others note that because everyone knew that the T-Rex was out there that it’s not, but that if King Kong showed up to save the day (which would be totally unexpected) that would be DEM.

So you can see there is often little agreement on what constitutes a DEM, what is sufficient in terms of foreshadowing, and what constitutes implausible (although I agree that King Kong in Jurassic Park would definitely be a DEM). Throw in endings where characters suddenly discover talents such as magical powers, remember lessons they had the previous year, or find some weapon that just happens to be in their pocket at the eleventh hour, and it gets a little more murky in terms of deciding what is DEM.

Are there levels of DEM?

To complicate matters, some would say there are levels of DEM from a total DEM to a partial DEM.

A total DEM is where the solution is resolved by a plot element (intervening force, ability, found item) that didn't previously exist and has no logical explanation behind it. An unexplained pterodactyl shows up in a contemporary novel, the protagonist just happens to find a gun in his pocket, the protagonist suddenly develops x-ray vision, or the protagonist proves to be a martial arts specialist (if the character at least knew he had the skill, this is called Suddenly Always Knew That; if he didn’t, it can be called New Powers as the Plot Demands).

Partial DEMs include cases where:

  • something is established ahead of time but its use in the particular situation is jarring or implausible. For example, it is established that there is a cavalry in the area but them bursting into an unknown farmhouse where a crime is being committed just at the right moment is inexplicable.
  • the situation is resolved by something that is established ahead of time (e.g. a gun or power) but it seems poorly established ahead of time, like the author needed a way for their hero to escape a situation and went back to write in a few lines about the character putting a gun in his pocket (which he then clearly forgot about until the last minute), or mentioning that he knows Kung Fu in a conversation.
  • the situation is resolved by a something that apparently happened ahead of time but is explained in the moment. For example, “Hey remember that lecture that we had in class about explosives and breaking into banks,” or “Hey remember when you won the world martial arts championship. Now’s the time to bring those skills out.”

There are also cases where the writers are too clever or subtle for their own good and have not foreshadowed effectively enough for the audience to pick up on it and the solution seems like DEM. But these aren’t true DEM so we will skip them.

Why is a DEM considered bad?

DEM is seen to be the mark of a poor plot and writing that the writer needs to resort to random, insupportable and unbelievable twists and turns to reach the end of the story. DEM is a considered sign that the writer wrote themselves into a corner and could not figure a clever way out of it. DEMs are considered an authorial cop out, and readers and audiences who have invested time in a book or a movie are frustrated that there is no satisfying ending. True DEM endings also indicate that the writer has no idea what they’re doing and just need the story to be over.

Context is important and some argue that DEMs work best in comedies where anything goes and readers expect some tongue in cheek. Monty Python movies for example often have DEM endings. DEM is considered less acceptable in serious works where people expect a realistic conclusion to the story.

When people see a DEM ending, they feel like the writer is in essence flipping them the bird and saying “I’m done writing and I don’t care about your investment in this story.”

Are all unsatisfying or surprise endings to a novel or movie examples of DEM?

It is important to be careful here in deciding that an ending is a DEM. Some readers and audiences get upset and call DEM on a wide variety of unsatisfying endings, surprise endings, or endings where the writer couldn’t figure a clever way out of the corner that the reader or audience didn’t think of. However some people are a bit too quick to call DEM on an ending that was not totally to their liking. Many surprise, unsatisfying, or imperfect endings are not in fact DEM and it is difficult to deliver a perfect ending.

First of all, the criteria that the solution must be something that the reader or audience didn’t think of is a bit challenging. Readers and audiences can always think of potential solutions, and if there was foreshadowing (which there must be to avoid true DEM) then they should be aware of some of the potential solutions. Remember true DEM is where something is introduced (such as King Kong in Jurassic Park) that the audience or readers could not possibly have thought of because it is completely manufactured.

Second, on some level, readers and audiences expect writers to write themselves into a corner in action and adventure stories. To make stories exciting, writers are forced to continually up the stakes and put their characters in seemingly impossible situations. Seemingly impossible situations create tension and the opportunity for the dark night of the soul. If the solution was easy and everyone could see it then there would be no tension. Seemingly impossible situations by definition require a solution that can seem like DEM because they are by definition impossible. We would not think they were impossible or exciting if we knew perfectly well that the character had all the powers needed to crush the villain or that the US Navy was on the way and had left in plenty of time to get there.

To make them impossible, we can’t believe or know those things, at least not totally. To get out of their seemingly impossible situation, the characters either have to do something surprising, find something that helps them to escape, or someone has to arrive in the nick of time. I agree that some of those powers, abilities or objects that they discover, or the person who arrives to rescue them can be more or less clever and more or less foreshadowed, but they can’t be completely foreshadowed or known or there would be no tension or surprise.

Add the double whammy that readers and audiences often want a happy or at least satisfying ending, and you have an even more difficult situation for the writer. Often the realistic outcome of an impossible situation is that the heroes die, or fail. Frodo and Sam get killed by evil minions after the ring is destroyed, the Enterprise gets blown up, Luke fails to destroy the Death Star and dies. Nobody wants that. Well not many people anyway.

So the writer is in a difficult predicament. Create a story with impossible situations, high stakes, and an ending that is happy, surprising and clever, but not DEM.

Of course, true DEM endings are to be avoided. For example, having a lightening bolt, or a bus, or God suddenly take out the bad guy, or the protagonist suddenly discover some doohickey in his pocket that he didn’t know about before and just picked up by accident, and can turn back time, (or as someone noted on Star Trek have Geordie suddenly realize he can remodulate the Hoopendorf discombobulator and defeat the enemy's force fields we've never heard of the Hoopendorf discomboulator before) are probably true DEM endings.

But having a character suddenly realize that an ability he’s been developing over time can vanquish the villain, or a friend suddenly coming back at the last minute to help (such as Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope), or the characters suddenly patching together some solution using objects that we know they have found or have been carrying (as in MacGyver) have to be okay. Because readers and audiences demand both tension and surprise and how else is the writer to deliver it?

There are many tropes that can help a writer establish surprise endings or for heroes to get themselves out of scrapes that are not DEM endings. Some of them may seem clunky and overused, and can be well or poorly executed, but writers should familiarize themselves with them. These have multiple names such as Chekhov’s Gun (the hero finds or puts a gun in their pocket early on in the narrative) or Some Day This Will Come in Handy (where the hero has some arcane knowledge or receives some seemingly useless knickknack that will later save the day), Chekhov’s Lecture (the hero gets a lecture on something that will be relevant to extricating themselves from the impossible situation later), and Chekhov’s Skill (the hero trains in some skill that will be required to get themselves out of the impossible situation). It is critical for these that they are introduced ahead of time in sufficient depth to seem realistic (and therefore not partial DEM). There are a variety of means of introducing them ahead of time that can make them seem more or less realistic. For example in skill development, it can’t be completed too quickly or it is considered Instant Expert. It must be actually shown, not mentioned, or it is a Chekhov’s Hobby.

Moreover there are many anticlimactic, unsatisfying, or poor endings that are not DEM (e.g. the protagonist dies, the action just ends with no resolution, a story with a logically sad ending ends happily) so it is important to review the criteria for DEM before deciding it is such.

So yes, deus ex machina is almost always bad, but not all surprise or unsatisfying endings are deus ex machina.

Whew, that was a long one. This post was spurred by a review that I got recently about there being too many found and useful objects in one of my novels, and since my characters in my current WIP are just in the process of discussing how a found object could be used to get them across a crumbling dam, I panicked and thought deus ex machina, deus ex machina. Mine is not, but it’s always worth checking in on your own plot. Even after reading this post, if you can’t always tell what DEM is, at least you should be able to pronounce it. Right? Ugh, I better go practice it myself. If you like what I have to say, be sure and sign up for my mailing list and get posts like this one, new release announcements and freebies such as my Down the Indie Road publishing guide.

My Environmental Failings

Sorry for the long time between posts. I have been blazing through the third novel in my middle-grade time travel series trying to hit my self-imposed deadline of July 15 for a first draft. I’m just past the 70 percent mark and the end is in sight. Well, more accurately, the 85,000 word mark is in sight, which I hope will be the end of the novel, but sometimes it’s hard to tell--story arcs being not quite as predictable or malleable as I would like. As a result, I’ve been a little focused on daily word count lately. (Okay a lot focused, and it is possible that I may have also fallen into a few Internet ratholes, and spent a bit too much time taking borrowed dogs for runs, on occasion. It is summer after all.)

Just to let you know, my story from the Tales from Pennsylvania anthology, “Resistance,” is now available as a single for only 99 cents. It's set in Michael Bunker's world of Pennsylvania and was super fun to write. I think it's pretty fun to read as well, so check it out.

Robin Miller and her husband, Isaac, a strip-club owner, eke out a decent existence in New Pennsylvania—until the morning when Isaac announces that, for their own safety, they must leave the City with their two young sons and return to his Amish roots in New Canada. Although Robin and Isaac couldn’t be more unlikely candidates to become Plain People, they work hard to gain acceptance into the Amish community. Yet even as her family settles in, Robin fears that Isaac hasn’t told her everything about why they’re really there…

In addition, “The River,” my time travel love story is now free on Amazon. Those of you who are subscribers to my blog probably already have it, but if you have a friend who would like to check out my writing for free, send them on over.

Why I Write about the Environment

Photo Credit: David Goehring / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: David Goehring / flickr / Creative Commons

Those of you who read my writing know that it often has environmental undertones or outright environmental themes. My day job (when I work, which is most of the time, but not always) is as an environmental researcher, and I do a lot of climate change related projects. In case you don’t believe me, here’s a link to a climate change indicator literature review that I actually did. (Sometimes I don’t believe it myself as I'm often more at home in my writer persona than my researcher persona.)

There are lots of reasons I include environmental themes in my writing. I write about environmental issues because I know a lot about them, because they’re important (because we’re giving the environment a s*#t-kicking and it’s our life-support system), because we need to change the way we live, and most of us need a little knowledge and encouragement (both of the gentle and scare the crap out of you variety), because I love the natural world, and because there's a lot of scope for story about environmental issues (because there are so many conflicts and uncertainties relating to how bad things are and what we should do about them).

I also write about environmental issues because there is a critical role for fiction in addressing the environmental crisis. As David Brin, author of The Postman, Earth and now Existence, noted, fiction and movies can scare people into acting to prevent worst case scenarios from coming true more effectively “than a thousand arguments or demonstrations.” I would like to think that by exploring environmental themes through fiction, I can make more people talk and think about their own choices that impact the environment, and potentially make different choices. Because if everyone else was making better environmental choices, I might do better myself!

So, in the spirit of Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, I decided to do a post about my biggest environmental failings. Even though I work in the environmental field, I do things that aren’t great from an environmental perspective and justify them in various ways (or sometimes I don’t justify them, I just live with the guilt). Many of us don’t like to air our environmental dirty laundry, but I think the more everyone talks about their own environmental failings, the more we can also talk about the things we do right, without making each other feel uncomfortable or seeming self-righteous. And the more we can talk about our environmental practices, the more we can make environmentalism accessible and people might feel comfortable working to reduce their environmental footprint instead of hiding it. I think, anyway.

My Biggest Environmental Failings

So what are my five biggest environmental failings? Note that these are listed in order of what makes me feel most guilty, not necessarily what I know to be total impact.

1) I eat meat almost every day and generally eat beef twice a week.

This is a biggie, and in terms of overall impact, this is definitely my biggest environmental offense. According to a recent study, eating beef contributes massively to carbon emissions and I would be better to give up my burgers than my car. I have tried buying only organic meat, but it was very expensive and sometimes not tasty. I also tried being a vegetarian, but gained a lot of weight, as my body seems to run better on some meat. I am completely allergic to fish, so that is not an option and some other fairly serious food allergies and sensitivities significantly limit my other food choices. So sometimes I feel stuck with meat, and I’ll be honest, I really like meat (especially bacon).  I do try to buy some organic meat and try to minimize my meat portions. But it is still my biggest environmental failing.

2) I colour my hair.

From an environmental footprint perspective this might not be a huge failing, but the unused and rinsed out dyes do go down the drains and enter ecosystems. There are also health risks associated with dying your hair (and honestly after reading about them a bit for this post I'm thinking of giving up dying my hair yet again). I started going grey when I was thirty-four and have tried just letting my hair go grey many times and in many ways (highlights, semi-permanents, cutting it off, just letting it grow out) but it looks pretty dreadful (as it is not a uniform grey) and it makes me feel old. I end up going back to the bottle every time. But wanting to look young doesn’t fit some of the principles of environmentalism in terms of what’s really important about a person (hint: it’s not our looks), so I consider it a pretty big environmental failing. I absolutely completely applaud those of you who have decided to just go au naturel. I am working on it!

3) I don’t always recycle everything.

Of course I recycle cans, jars, hard plastics, paper, and corrugated cardboard that can go in the curbside recycling. I also reuse plastic bags and take used toys, books, clothes and household items to the Thrift Store. I compost most of the time, but not when the fruit flies or bears get out of control. But I don’t recycle my soft plastics and a whole array of other stuff for which there is no blue box (there is just so much packaging on everything), and sometimes when recyclable food containers are really gummed up with something, like mold and other strange growths say, I throw them away because I have to wonder if the water required to clean them before I put them in the recycling exceeds the environmental benefit of recycling. But this is probably just me justifying. Even though I do a lot of recycling, the amount of garbage we produce scares me. I could definitely do better.

4) I buy too much stuff.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t buy a crazy amount of stuff, but let’s face it, we probably all buy too much stuff. I like nice clothes, although I try to keep that very under control. We all ski and my kids like stylish clothes too. I'm also very cognizant of the fact that stuff at this point is the center of the economy, and there are a lot of people in my small town who make their living off of selling stuff. I try not to by too much cheap, throw-away stuff and I never go on shopping sprees, but over the years, I somehow seem to have accumulated a large amount of household stuff. My stuff, although mostly well-used and aging, is still a lot of stuff. I also find that the more I work, the more inclined I am to buy stuff, because I can afford it more easily and because I don’t have as much time to consider where I could find alternatives, or make things myself. So there’s another reason for me to quit my job (ha ha!). I know many booklovers do not love Kindles, but at least my Kindle has dramatically reduced my book ecological footprint.

5) I waste too much food.

I like to cook and eat, but somehow we don’t always manage to quite use up all the food we buy. Sometimes we make too much and there are leftovers that linger until they become unidentifiable furry objects. There are always those few crackers in the bottom of the box that go stale, the potatoes that rot in the cupboard, or those chips or granola bars that nobody liked. In Toronto, the average family throws away 270 kilos of food a year, and I am sure we easily hit that mark. That doesn’t even cover the amount of food that is wasted before it even gets to the grocery store. I’m working to improve this, but still have to get better at making the right amount of food, and not buying those quinoa crisps that nobody likes.

So there you go. Those are my biggest environmental failings, or at least the ones I feel the most guilt over, which is probably related to the fact that I think they are also the ones that I could most easily change. Some honourable mentions include using the air conditioning sometimes when it is stinking hot here, skiing (which I love, but it’s not the most eco-friendly sport), not hanging my clothes to dry, and flying once every year or two for holidays (which if we’re honest, is really bad for the environment, but travelling is just so hard to completely give up). I also do a lot of good things too, like growing some of our food, using cloth grocery bags, eating mostly organic, keeping the thermostat low in the winter, and limiting my driving. But I still don't think I qualify as an environmentalist.

My novel, Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist tries to address these kinds of environmental failings in a lighthearted way. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I tie myself up in knots about things that I could be doing better. I know there are those who claim that the biggest environmental impacts are by corporations and other countries and that my steak and new skis have little relative impact, but I’m not sure. I still think lifestyle choices, especially those of North Americans, play a big role in the environmental crisis, and fiction can play a role in bringing some of our habits and the difficulties of living a truly environmental lifestyle to light, and helping us to potentially change them. Maybe.

If you like what I have to say sign up for my mailing list and check out the great freebies that I have to offer. I'll be posting about craft next week. Until then it's all about the daily word count.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/99...

Analyzing your Sentence Starts

I went to a course on layered editing this past week given by an esteemed figure in literary fiction here in Canada. Although my writing tends more to genre fiction, I’m always looking to improve the depth of my prose so I thought the course might be fun. The instructor had us move from looking at our work at the micro (word and sentence) level to the more macro (paragraph and scene) level.

While some of the techniques we learned, like removing all (yes, all) of the punctuation from our pieces, were probably not applicable to my writing, others were quite useful. One of those was looking at how you start all of your sentences to see if you have sufficient variation and identify any bad habits. This involved going through three pages of text and underlining the first few words in each sentence and considering the sentence structure.

Photo Credit: Robin Hutton / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Robin Hutton / flickr / Creative Commons

Obviously, you should not start all of your sentences in a first person or third person narrative with “I” or “He” or you will drive your readers crazy.  Ensuring that we did not do so was part of the exercise, and it was a great exercise. But what is the ideal amount of variation in sentence starts? What should we be aiming for?

I wanted to take the exercise a step further and try to answer that question. So if you are not interested in graphs or geeking out on sentence structure, read no further my friend.

Types of Sentence Starts

After looking at my own work, I divided my sentence starts into seven broad categories. including sentences that start with:

  • The POV character pronoun followed by a verb (e.g. He walked…)
  • The POV character’s name followed by a verb (e.g. Samantha played…)
  • Another character’s name, or a pronoun referring to another character or group of characters followed by a verb (e.g. He jumped… They disliked…)
  • Another character’s name/pronoun and the POV character’s name/pronoun followed by a verb (e.g. He and Fred went…)
  • A proper noun referring to a thing or place followed by a verb (e.g. The mountains jutted…)
  • A pronoun such as it, there or that, followed by a verb (e.g. It was…)
  • A prepositional phrase (e.g. On Sunday, … When the cars finished racing, …)

I also created a category called fragments for sentence fragments as they can start with a wide variety of words and so therefore don’t really count, but should probably be acknowledged.

After going through the first forty-five sentences in my piece and counting the number of times each type of sentence start appeared, I had a frequency table for my own work and knew that I varied my sentence starts to a reasonable degree. But while interesting, this was somewhat meaningless (to me) without knowing how it compared to the writing of others, and in particular the writing of those who are considered to be great writers. I also wanted to know if there are differences between genre and literary fiction.

Sentence Starts in Other Books

I pulled three books off my shelves—one by one of the most famous genre fiction writers in the world, one by a well-known writer of literary/genre fiction, and a beautifully written piece of literary fiction that also happens to be an international bestseller. I reviewed the first forty-five sentences in each (skipping all dialogue as it is too all over the face of the map) and prepared frequency tables. Then I graphed the sentence starts of the three books next to mine. Yep…geeking out to the max.

Here is my nifty graph. I am in the purple, while the literary fiction novel is green, the literary/genre fiction novel is red, and the genre fiction novel is blue.

Lessons Learned

So what did I discover? Not surprisingly, the beautiful lyrical literary fiction writer seemed to favor the use of prepositional phrases, whereas the famous genre fiction writer preferred more straightforward sentences and sentences starting with the POV character pronoun—in fact, interestingly, she did not use his proper name once. My use of prepositional phrases seemed to be right in line with the literary/genre fiction book and so was my use of sentences with the POV character pronoun and name. Because I have some literary fiction aspirations, my writing, like the literary fiction novel tended to be a bit more descriptive and therefore had more proper noun (place or thing) sentence starts than the genre fiction or literary/genre fiction book.

Keep in mind though that these results are affected by the particular forty-five sentences chosen. In all cases, I attempted to choose a scene as close to the front of the book as possible without a lot of dialogue. In all but the literary/genre fiction novel, the POV character was alone, whereas in the literary/genre fiction novel, she was with one other person, which likely contributed to the fact that it contained more sentence starts with another character and a verb. In an active scene with a lot of characters, this particular type of sentence start would likely be much higher.

Overall, this was an interesting technique and one to keep in mind when you are editing. I am just relieved that I have a balance in my sentence starts and that my practices seem to reflect those of the greats.

I would be interested to hear what you find if you decide to take a look at your own sentence starts.

If you like what I have to say, don't forget to sign up for my mailing list here. I offer ARCs, a free novella and giveaways on a regular basis.

Three Books and a Boxed Set

It's an exciting week in indie publishing. Well, exciting for me, and exciting for you readers if you like to read great fiction at great prices and be eligible for a couple of giveaways! No pithy words on craft this week as I'm traveling across the province to a developmental editing course today, and will be sure to do a post about it next week. It looks very literary so I am expecting to have to go deep into my writing. So just a post about some great books for you to check out!

Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist

So first up, my novel Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist is now live on Amazon. If you requested an ARC and can leave me a review, I would so appreciate it. Sending your thoughts directly to me is also okay, and thanks so much for taking the time to read. The paperback copy is coming in a few weeks. Initial feedback is good. If you like funny, romantic novels that have environmental dementors, chickens, and a zany cast of small town characters, Confessions is for you.

Brother, Frankenstein

Second, Michael Bunker's Brother, Frankenstein is on sale this week only at 99 cents. This is a fantastic deal and you should go and pick this book up.

Body of a killer, mind of a child, heart of a hero…  

When a troubled scientist – trying to save a young boy, and maybe himself – steals the dying child of a simple Amish couple and transplants the brain and cardiovascular system of their 11-year-old autistic son into an incredibly lethal DARPA robot, the dark forces of government come looking for their investment.Dr. Alexander and the monster escape into an Amish community to hide among the plain folk while Frank, the boy trapped inside the body of the world’s deadliest robot, learns how to leave the world of autism and understand what it means to be human and Amish.

Tensions arise as the Amish begin to suspect just what kind of technological monstrosity is hiding among them, and before long, hard men who do the government’s most dirty deeds will arrive looking for a killing machine… only to find a boy named Frank who has the power to defend a closed society from the worst of the world.

Praise for Brother, Frankenstein

“Brother, Frankenstein is Michael Bunker at his best. He just keeps getting better.” ~ Ernie Lindsey, USA Today Bestselling Author of Sara’s Game and Skynoise.

“I just finished beta reading Michael Bunker’s new heartbreakingly awesome novel and I have this to say: Hugo Material.” ~ Nick Cole, bestselling author of Old Man and the Wasteland and Soda Pop Soldier.

“Brother, Frankenstein is Michael Bunker’s finest work yet. A novel for both the heart and the brain. The best book I’ve read this year.” ~ David Gatewood, Editor of Synchronic and Tales of Tinfoil.

From my perspective, Michael's writing is always fresh, different and gripping, and the 130 reviews of Brother, Frankenstein support my opinion! Michael is also super supportive of up and coming indie writers and the indie industry as a whole. You can't find a better person, or a better writer.

I will be giving away a signed paperback copy of Brother, Frankenstein, AND a review of your manuscript by either Michael or Nick Cole (you get to pick which one does the review) early next week. The email with the sign-up buttons will be going out to my mailing list on Sunday. There will be no requirements for entry. Just hit the buttons (or email me if they don't work for you) and your name will be entered in the draws. Another great bonus for being part of my mailing list.

Tales of B-Company

Joining with Michael in his release is my friend Chris Pourteau, who has just released the omnibus version of Tales of B-Company, which is also on sale this week for 99 cents. Tales of B-Company takes place in Michael Bunker's fictional world of Pennsylvania. Pourteau is rapidly gaining a reputation for exceptional military sci-fi, so if that is your thing, get a copy now while it's on sale.

I think Chris is a great writer and I loved his Tales of B-Company stories.

A Taste of Tomorrow 2

If that isn't all enough, my novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, is included in the A Taste of Tomorrow 2 boxed set, which launched TODAY. In this boxed set, you get nine novels for 1.99. It is an incredible bargain and features works from some of today's hottest indie authors. It includes:

The Last Pilgrims by Michael Bunker
The Rain by Joseph Turkot
Clay by Tony Bertauski
The Dark and Sure Descent by Saul Tanpepper
Red King by Nick Cole
In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation by Jennifer Ellis
Rules of Force by Steve Statham
The Fourth Sage by Stefan Bolz
Virus Apocalypse by Alex Myers

Don't miss out on this opportunity. This is your summer (and fall) reading all in one bundle.

Okay I'd best be off for my editing course. If you want the opportunity to be included in draws, receive ARCs, and get a copy of my free guide to indie publishing Down the Indie Road, make sure you are signed up for my mailing list.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Indie Publishing

A couple of announcements this week. First, my new guide to indie publishing Down the Indie Road is now available. It will be free to existing subscribers and offered as a bonus to new subscribers. The content for this post is excerpted from Down the Indie Road. Second, Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) for my upcoming novel Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist will also available to subscribers in just a few short days. See below for details on how to get your copy.

Down the Indie Road

Down the Indie Road summarizes some of the key things I've learned over the past two years and covers some of the basics of indie publishing including:

  • preparing your manuscript
  • finding and working with editors and designers
  • costs and potential incomes
  • publishing platforms
  • the writing life
  • tactics that increase success

It also includes links to helpful blog posts on various indie publishing topics and a list of resources that I found helpful. Down the Indie Road is a brief guide geared for beginners who are just thinking of dipping their toes in the indie world. Although experienced indie writers might find something useful, you probably already know most of it, so it might not be for you. I will add to Down the Indie Road over time, so eventually it will become a more detailed guide to self-publishing. I would love your feedback on additional topics to cover. If you are not an existing subscriber to my blog, please sign up here to receive your free copy. Existing subscribers will receive an email in the next day with your link to Down the Indie Road.

Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist

ARCs of my upcoming novel Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist will be available early next week. This is a time limited offer that will run only from June 2 to June 8. If you are not a subscriber and you think you might be interested in an ARC, be sure to sign up. Existing subscribers will receive an email outlining how to receive an ARC on Monday.

Please note that ARCs are given in exchange for an honest review on Amazon. The review doesn't have to be long, just one or two lines sharing what you thought of the novel. Note that Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist is a bit different from my previous works. It contemporary literary fiction that is part satire and part serious and explores how many of us fail to do the right thing for the environment in big and small ways. There is romance, there are goats, there is a mine in a watershed, and there are lots of opportunities for comedy and reflection. Read the full blurb here.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Indie Publishing

Indie publishing has increased dramatically in the last decade. It’s gone from being a stigmatized and expensive undertaking (requiring commissioning a vanity press and having a garage full of inventory) to a legitimate option for writers. There are many reasons for the rise in indie publishing, and the indie path has, like everything else, advantages and disadvantages. Indie publishing is not for everyone, but it is a viable option and may be preferable for a lot of writers. Review the advantages and disadvantages carefully and decide if indie publishing may be for you.

  • Print-on-demand paperbacks have reduced the need for large print runs and maintaining an inventory of books.
  • There has been a dramatic rise in the availability and popularity of e-readers (and a subsequent demand for e-books), which are easier to produce than print books.
  • A large number of high-quality freelance professionals (many of whom worked in traditional publishing) are now available for hire by indie writers, allowing indie writers to produce books of equal quality to traditionally published books.
  • There has been a proliferation in the number of marketing sites that have huge subscriber lists of people looking for deals on e-books, and cater to indie writers in getting the word out about their e-books (e.g. Bookbub, Booksends, The Fussy Librarian, and Ereader News Today).
  • A wide range of platforms that allow for self-publishing now exist, including Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP), Kobo, Nook, Google Play, iBooks, Scribd, and Smashwords.
  • There are an increasing number of readers interested in buying indie books, in part because of the lower price point, but also because successful indie writers are delivering quality, unique material.
  • An increasing number of indie writers are making a decent living, and some have sold up to 700,000 copies of their books (and are making much more than a decent living). Many writers, including traditionally published writers, are taking up indie publishing because it might offer a greater chance of making a living as a writer.

Advantages of Going Indie

  • You don’t have to worry about getting published, which allows you to spend more time writing and less time querying agents and publishers.
  • You can exercise a lot of control over your career and production schedule, which allows you to plan longer series and more frequent releases to build momentum.
  • Due to the higher royalty structure of indie publishing—and the fact that you have more control over your release schedule and marketing—you have the potential to make more money.
  • You get to have a more collegial relationship with the professionals with whom you rely on for support (e.g., editors, designers) because you are their client.
  • It allows you to be involved in—and bring your aesthetic and tastes to—every aspect of developing your product. If you have good taste and a unique style, this is a powerful thing and can be a vast improvement over the traditionally published industry, where you may have little influence regarding the editing, styling and design of your book. Although many traditional publishers do a great job with book editing, styling and design, they don’t do a great job on every book, and their choices may not match your vision for your work.
  • It allows you to learn about every aspect of book production, which will give you a better understanding of the industry as a whole and will probably make you a stronger writer.
  • It enables you to control the marketing of your book, including when to have sales and when to engage in publicity. This, in turn, allows for a much longer shelf life and much more time for your book to become successful, instead of the make-or-break six-week window (considered the standard for whether a book is to be successful in the traditional publishing industry).
  • There is an amazingly supportive and hardworking indie community, many of whom will help you if they can.
  • Indie e-books sell almost as well as traditionally published e-books in certain genres, such as romance and science fiction/fantasy.

Disadvantages of Going Indie

  • You probably won’t make a lot of money—at least not right away, and you will be out of pocket your costs. Most indie books only sell 100 copies. That will not likely be enough to cover your production costs. Many indie books, even if they sell more than 100 copies, do not generate enough revenue to cover their costs. Just keeping it real here. A lot of indie writers do make a living from their work. But let’s face it, making a living as a writer is hard either way. Many indie writers note that they didn’t really start to make it until they hit the three-year mark, so you have to be prepared to play the long game.
  • You have to do everything yourself. If you don’t like some aspects of publishing—like proofreading, learning grammar so you can vet editors, or understanding trim size and self-promotion—indie publishing can be challenging.
  • Although it’s changing, there’s still a stigma associated with being an indie writer. Some people won’t understand or might look down on you for your choices. You have to be prepared to be proud of being an indie, and keep in mind that many famous writers got their start by self-publishing.
  • To be successful, most indie writers have to keep up a more intense production schedule with some of them producing up to 12 books a year. Realistically, you probably have to be prepared to write at least 2 to 3 books a year. If you’re holding a day job to cover the bills, making that level of commitment can prove difficult.
  • The indie community is very supportive of each other and do a lot of cross-promoting and reviewing of each other’s works. You will have to decide who you’re going to support and how. This can be uncomfortable, and you have to be careful whom you throw your brand behind (as well as whom you choose not to support).
  • Platform is essential to selling books, so you generally have to be willing to maintain a blog, Twitter account, and/or Facebook presence, and build an email subscriber list. Staying regularly in touch with your readers (without ostracizing them by spamming or soliciting them too often) is key to growing your readership and, eventually, providing you the marketing base you need to make a living as an indie author.
  • Indie books generally don’t sell as well as traditionally published books in literary fiction or children’s books.
  • Traditional publishers have well-established distribution systems for print books and will be able to get your book into bookstores, libraries, and schools. This is much more difficult for indie publishers. Even though some distribution systems exist, they are mostly ineffective, and unless you become a famous indie writer, you will be unlikely able to get your book into many bookstores. However, there are some presses—like Auspicious Apparatus Press—that are working hard to get indie authors into brick-and-mortar stores.
  • It’s hard work! Being a writer of any sort is hard work, but being an indie writer is even harder. You have to be ready to spend much of your spare time (and money) working on building your career from the ground up.

Deciding what road is for you is all about weighing the advantages and disadvantages. There is no perfect road. For me, the indie road has been a great opportunity to take advantage of some of my strengths in design and platform-building, while playing to my preference for being independent. However being a traditionally published writer would be great too and I definitely haven't ruled out trying for a traditional-publishing deal in the future. What do you think? What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of going indie?

 

Three Authors, Three Strategies, Three Sales: The Results

Many of you probably know that we had a sale on three of our launch Apocalypse Weird books this month. My novel, Reversal, was one of the three, and the other two included Immunity by E.E. Giorgi and The Serenity Strain by Chris Pourteau. All three novels were reduced from their usual price of $3.44 to 99 cents from May 3rd to May 12th. Even though these three books are not indie published per se, as Wonderment Media had paid all of our publishing costs, because Wonderment is a new more hybrid approach to publishing (read more about this and why it is great for authors here and why you should consider supporting Apocalypse Weird below), all three authors were free to organize their own promotions during the sale.

Each of us spent a different amount of money on our promotions, had a different strategy and constraints, used different marketing sites, and had our promos kick in or concentrated on different days of the sale. In addition to the paid promotions, the sale was advertised via a mail-out to the Apocalypse Weird subscribers at the beginning of the sale, and at the end. In addition, various Apocalypse Weird authors advertised the sale via their own mailing lists, Facebook and Twitter. Subsequent to the sale, we did an analysis of the approaches and decided what worked best.

Strategies and Constraints

My primary strategy during the sale was to sell as many books as possible using the best promo sites that I have had experience with in the past. I also did not want to spend more than $100 on my promotions overall. E.E. Giorgi has another book coming out in May and most promotional sites will not feature more than one book by the same author in the same month. As a result, she wanted to preserve some of the best promo sites for her new release book. Chris Pourteau had more of an eye to the long game in his promotion. He was willing to spend more money and had an overall goal of building his brand and continuing to garner reviews. He also had an eye to maintaining sales subsequent to the promotion and selected longer promos that ran from a week to up to a month.

Budgets

  • E.E. Giorgi spent $25.01
  • I spent $96.00
  • Chris Pourteau spent $275.00

Promotional Sites Utilized

E.E. Giorgi utilized:

  • Booktastick
  • Book Barbarian
  • Ebook soda
  • Bookscream (which was a joint promo of all three sale books)

I utilized my favorite promo sites:

  • The Fussy Librarian
  • Booksends
  • Ereader News Today
  • Free Kindle Books and Tips
  • BKnights

Chris Pourteau utilized:

  • Book Gorilla
  • Kindle Nation Daily (a one month promo from May 6 to June 6)
  • Bookgoodies (a week long promo)
  • Discount Books Daily (a two-day promo)
  • Addicted to ebooks (a week long promo)
  • The Choosy Bookworm

Timing of Promos

E.E. Giorgi stacked her promos to kick in more near the end of the sale (the 7th, 8th, and 9th). Chris Pourteau had his kick in the earliest (the 5th and many ran for the full week) and I had mine concentrated in the middle of the sale (with one kicking off on the 5th, one on the 6th and three on the 7th).

Results

The following key observations can be made regarding the results.

  • I sold the most books overall on both Amazon and non-Amazon platforms from May 1 to 18 and E.E. Giorgi sold the fewest. I sold a little under twice what E.E. Giorgi sold during the sale.
  • Concentrating three of my biggest promos on one day seemed to provide the biggest lift, giving me the highest overall number of sales in a single day, and because this lift was in the middle of the sale, the lift lasted to some extent throughout the sale.
  • On a cost versus profit basis, E.E. Giorgi’s campaign could be considered the most effective as by keeping her costs low, she made the largest profit from the sale.
  • E.E. Giorgi probably benefited somewhat from visibility from my and Chris Pourteau’s promos so although she had the biggest profit, she may not have had as many sales without our promos.
  • Subsequent to the sale, E.E. Giorgi’s sale numbers have remained stronger than either Chris Pourteau’s or mine.
  • The sale provided somewhat of a lift to the sales of other Apocalypse Weird titles, but not substantial.
  • Chris Pourteau’s long-tail results from his continuing promotion on Kindle Nation Daily remain to be seen.
  • Chris Pourteau seems to be meeting his goal of generating reviews far more effectively than E.E. Giorgi or I (so if you liked Reversal, please, please leave a review).
  • The initial mailout to the Apocalypse Weird mailing list (on May 4th) provided a large initial bounce for all of us that helped with ranking and visibility in advance of our promos. Chris Pourteau, because he already had one promo running at this point, seemed to benefit most from this mailout.
  • For the money, in my opinion, Ereader News Today and Booksends remain the best marketing platforms out there, with the Fussy Librarian and Free Kindle Books and Tips running a close second.
  • Amazon still continues to be the platform of choice and during the promo, outsold the other platforms by almost 20 to 1.
  • Because we were among the launch books, some of us (me in particular since Reversal was available first out of the three) were beginning to fall off the first page of also-bots of the other Apocalypse Weird books since there are now enough to fill the entire page. The sale helped put Reversal back into the first page of also-bots.

So there you have it, three authors, three different strategies, three different sets of results. I think we are all happy with our results in part because we had different goals and were trying to increase the visibility of the Apocalypse Weird brand in general. I will try to update this post with longer-tail numbers at the end of the month.

Important Announcements

A couple of important announcements: First, we are getting into the final 35 hours to support the Apocalypse Weird Indiegogo campaign and we are still $3,500 short of our goal. This is a super important initiative for indie authors everywhere because it is endeavoring to take publishing back into the hands of writers. If you have a spare buck lying around or a spare ten bucks, please consider donating. For higher contributions, there are some amazing perks, including having two unbelievable authors Michael Bunker and Nick Cole review your manuscript.

Second, I have just sent my new novel Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist off to my editor. Stay tuned for an ARC announcement next week. It is a bit different from my other novels and focuses on an environmental consultant who continually tries to do the right thing for the environment but makes a few… okay well quite a few… errors along the way, including taking a job with a mining company. It was a lot of fun to write and I hope it is equally fun to read. As a bonus, I will be doing a random draw and giving away one free manuscript review by Nick Cole or Michael Bunker which I purchased as part of my support for the Apocalypse Weird Campaign. This is a great opportunity, so don’t miss it and make sure you sign up for my mailing list in order to hear about the announcement.

Last but not least, I am working on a compilation of everything I’ve learned as an indie author in the last two years including information like I have provided above on sales results and how to succeed as an indie writer. That will also be coming sometime next week free to subscribers, so another reason to sign up!!

Six Reasons to Write and Read about the Apocalypse

This week, three of the Apocalypse Weird books are on sale for 0.99 cents including Immunity by E. E. Giorgi, The Serenity Strain by Chris Pourteau and my Reversal. The sale only lasts until May 10th, so if you are missing one of these Apocalypse Weird novels for your collection, now is the time to pick it up.

For Children's Book Week, I am also participating in sponsoring a rafflecopter draw to win a Kindle Fire HD Kids through Mother Daughter Book Reviews who did such an amazing job reviewing A Pair of Docks. Giveaways also include a $200 gift card. The requirements to earn entries are pretty darn easy, so hurry on over to Mother Daughter Book Reviews and enter to win (only until May 15th).

I will also have other announcements and a cover reveal coming up in a week or two. Stay tuned.

This week’s post focuses on why people like to write and read about the apocalypse.

As those of you who have read my work know, many of my novels have post-apocalyptic or dystopian undertones and are set in part, or in whole, in the future. Writing about the apocalypse has long been a practice in literature, and the last decade has seen a flourishing of post-apocalyptic fiction in both the traditional and indie published world from The Road, to The Dog Stars, Station Eleven, The Old Man and the Wasteland, Wool and Pennsylvania.

I'm struggling a bit with the third draft of my novel Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist (which is due out in early June). I say struggling, not because I don’t think it’s turning out well, but because the final plot decisions are more challenging than in any of my other books.

Why is that? It is in part because it is the first of my novels that does not have significant apocalyptic or dystopian leanings. It has some, as my main characters are certainly considering the need to prepare for an environmental apocalypse. But it is set in the present day and everything is “fine” (or as fine as things currently are—I know we probably all have different perceptions on that front). I am confident that Confessions will turn out great, but not writing about the apocalypse is surprisingly more difficult in some ways that I will discuss below.

Why Write and Read about the Apocalypse?

In my mind, there are six reasons that people like to write and read about the apocalypse.

1) Many apocalyptic things seem to be on the verge of happening (and probably always have) and we all need hope.

If you follow the news at all, you will know that the human species seems constantly under threat from war, earthquakes, economic collapse, extinction events, climate change and a whole host of other threats. This was probably always the case. The bubonic plague and cold war probably seemed pretty potentially apocalyptic at the time. Post-apocalyptic stories help us face our fears and imagine potential futures. They also allow us to focus on the values—love, friendship, and courage—that reaffirm why we struggle to survive and keep our world intact (or intact-ish) in the first place. Most apocalyptic novels are dark, but they also contain a shred or kernel of hope, and it is that hope that is really the point of the book, because in our non-fictional world, sometimes that hope is harder to find.

2) The stakes in apocalyptic fiction are higher and clearer and more interesting.

In our regular lives, we often face a lot of…let’s face it…really low stakes decisions, and really unclear stakes decisions. Some of them are super low stakes. What should I make for dinner? Should I watch Breaking Bad or Dancing with the Stars? Should I wear my hair long or short? Who should I invite to my dinner party? Some of them may seem high stakes at the time. What car should I purchase? Should I plant a garden? Should I marry this man or not? But compared to the decisions that we may have to make in a post-apocalyptic world, they are low stakes. If I am being chased by zombies, I am not going to be worried about whether my hair is long or short or whether I bought the new Elantra or Tundra. However to exist in this modern world, we often have to focus on these low stakes decisions at least a little bit. If I am not attentive (somewhat) to my appearance, my friends will think I am strange, or have become crazy writer bag lady. I need to think about who I am inviting to my house for dinner because I don’t want to offend people, and I probably owe a lot of people dinner. These are real decisions that I have to make on a day to day basis. In the modern world, it is okay to be a bit serious and focus somewhat on high stakes decisions (should I build a bunker or not), but to fit in and not be perceived as odd, we are also expected to be somewhat frivolous, happy and superficial at least on occasion. Die-hard preppers and contemplators of apocalypse are often viewed as killjoys. Just as it is sometimes hard to strike this balance in real life, it is hard to write characters who strike this balance in books set in the modern world. Setting your novel in a post-apocalyptic world makes the stakes automatically higher and clearer (and because they are about life or death and characters pushed to the edge, often more interesting) and our day-to-day worries irrelevant.

3) Apocalyptic fiction can be cautionary and serve as a guide for change.

Apocalyptic fiction is a way of raising awareness about real and serious issues in our world in a more entertaining and potentially change-provoking manner. Many of us will not wade through a dry non-fiction account of how climate change could destroy our planet, but will watch The Day after Tomorrow or read The Year of the Flood. By making people more aware of potential future scenarios, apocalyptic fiction can perhaps create change.

4) Apocalyptic fiction can make us more grateful for what we have.

One way to emphasize all of the amazing riches of our lives is to explore their absence. Writing about the loss of things that we value, such as a gorgeous blue-bird day, a ride in a sunlit car holding a cup of coffee listening to tunes, digging into a divine meal, knowing that there is a staffed hospital across town, or connecting effortlessly with someone around the world, can remind us how much these things enhance our lives. One of my favorite cut scenes from my dystopian novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, was when the characters talked about what they missed most from the world that they had left behind.

5) Plausibility becomes more important than accuracy in apocalyptic fiction.

Because apocalyptic fiction takes place in imagined future worlds, the writer must imagine how things would be—how people would interact, what threats they would face, what the landscape would now look like. In all cases, their imaginings must be plausible, but there is still a freedom to create and invent. In non-post-apocalyptic fiction, as I am discovering, there is a greater requirement on the writer to be accurate. In Confessions, which is set in the modern real world, I am writing about a mine proposal in a watershed. I need to know about current water policy, current mining policy, current local government legislation, and the structure of corporations. This requires a lot of research and I have to shape the story in accordance to what would actually happen in the real world. Apocalyptic fiction does not face quite the same restrictions, which is very freeing for the writer.

6) Apocalyptic stories are often big stories.

Since they are dealing with well…the apocalypse, and the stakes are therefore almost automatically high (see above), most apocalyptic stories are not quiet stories. They are packed full of adventure, risk, heroes, heroines and general mayhem. This is often what makes them fun to read…and fun to write.

So if you are interested, go pick up the Apocalypse Weird novels on sale this week and enjoy a wild apocalyptic ride, and don't forget to sign up for my mailing list if you are interested in giveaways, ARCs and industry insights.


Beginnings and Endings

Just a short post this week, as I am heading off on a little holiday without my computer for the first time in six years (which is a bit scary), but I wanted to update you on a few important announcements and talk a bit about endings, as they have been on my mind.

Tales of Tinfoil, the conspiracy theory anthology to which I contributed a story about Elvis, launches on April 17th. It is a marvelous collection with stories about JFK, Lincoln, Hitler and Area 51 put together by editor extraordinaire, David Gatewood. I recommend checking it out. Has Elvis really left the building, or is he living with JFK and Andy Kaufman somewhere in Bermuda?

The Apocalypse Weird franchise has established an Indigogo campaign to fund its revolution in publishing. You can support the AW franchise for a buck. Even if you aren’t interested in the books (which are super fun reads), the author-centered contract concept alone is an idea worth supporting, especially if this initiative helps it to gain traction in the industry. So check it out and consider throwing in the cost of a coffee. This kind of thing is what is going to revolutionize publishing for all writers.

Thinking about Endings

Photo Credit: Andrew Hurley / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Andrew Hurley / flickr / Creative Commons

As I near the end of Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, I have been thinking about endings. Great beginnings in fiction must provide a hook or question that is of sufficient interest to compel readers to continue reading and prepare them for the type of story that lies ahead. The writer basically has little option on this front, because without a great beginning, few readers will read on, which is no short order.

Endings can be even trickier.

Obviously good endings should resolve the main conflict, have the reader hanging on the edge of their seat until the very end and provide a satisfying conclusion. Good endings should also be inevitable without being predictable.

"The key to all story end­ings is to give the audi­ence what it wants, but not in the way it expects."
William Goldman

Great. No problem.

To make the ending inevitable, the ending has to be set up by earlier events. Clues must be woven throughout the novel that lead to that conclusion so that readers say - of course! But to make the ending unpredictable, there should be some alternate potential endings with similar clues so they don't know which way it is going to go until the very end.

Connecting Endings and Beginnings

If that isn't hard enough, there are some who say that in a well-constructed novel (and short story for that matter), the ending should connect to the beginning of the novel and if the reader were to go back and reread the beginning, they would find that the ending is reflected somehow in the beginning. In some cases, the first paragraph could also function as the last. This connection between the beginning and ending can help make the ending feel inevitable and right.

In A Passion for Narrative, Jack Hodgins observes:

“In the best fiction, there is a sense that the entire story, including its ending, somehow grows out of the first sentence, that everything is organically related to the first cluster of words that the reader encounters.”

Josip Novakovich, observes that in a matching ending,

“the first image, transformed, is also the last. The end answers the concerns of the beginning directly.”

Thus, according to Matthew Lowes, Elizabeth Engstrom recommends that you “find your ending in your beginning”.

In other words, the ending should deal with the same characters and conflicts introduced at the beginning, and the climax and resolution should be the resolution to the opening dilemma. If there is a mismatch, then perhaps the story has gone off in a different direction than was originally intended, and the beginning and/or the ending should be reconsidered.

There are various approaches to developing an ending that reflects the beginning. For example, in some novels, the hero or heroine returns to the everyday world and their everyday life changed by their adventures (circular ending). In others, a character reflects back and ties together all the threads introduced in the story (reflective ending). To intensify the connection between the beginning and the ending, some writers will use the same symbolic object at both the beginning and at the end to help the reader realize that they have taken a journey.

One way of helping to ensure that this connection is established is to write (or rewrite) your beginning last, after you already know the story. As the writers of “On the Premises” newsletter observed:

“you can’t write a good beginning until you understand the whole story, beginning to end, so write the beginning last.”

However as with any literary technique it is important to use care. It is important not to draw the book to an artificial seeming end by trying to too explicitly connect the beginning and ending.

Non-Matching Endings

It is also important to note though that while developing endings that reflect the beginning is considered an effective technique, it is not the only way to end a novel or a short story. There are no hard and fast rules, and you need to use what works for your story. Novakovich notes that it is also possible to use non-matching, and sometimes ironic, endings presented as a contrast to the beginning to heighten the novel’s central themes. But although these endings do not necessarily match or reflect the beginning, by serving as contrasts to the beginning, they are still in some way connected to the beginning.

So think about connections between your beginnings and endings (I am definitely going to start doing so), or if you are a reader, go back and reread some of the beginnings of your favorite novels. What, if any, clues about the ending do you notice in the first paragraph, and how does it make you feel about the ending?

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Female Character Archetypes and Strong Female Characters

I’m about two thirds finished my upcoming novel, Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, to be released in early June, and was thinking about my main character, Alana. She is excessively concerned about the environment, at the cost of her own sanity sometimes (and the sanity of those around her), and yet somehow manages to screw up in many of her well-intentioned environmental endeavors. It is more comedy than my previous works and is intended to exploit those uncomfortable intersections of trying to do the right thing for the planet, but discovering that sometimes it isn’t clear what the right thing is, or that it is just so darned inconvenient.

Photo Credit: Kim Scarborough / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Kim Scarborough / flickr / Creative Commons

One thing I am very aware of is trying to make my characters distinct across novels. Since I often, but not always, have female POV characters, I decided it was time for me to familiarize myself with the female character archetypes to better understand what type of women I am putting on the page. Although good characters should be truly multi-faceted and not simply conform to an archetype, understanding the archetypes that many of us have in the backs of our heads helps to shape characters.

Female Character Archetypes

After some research, I decided that there are basically nine archetypal female characters, with several sub-types or variations (and I am happy to debate some of my groupings of the general types as there is certainly crossover and no hard and fast rules). Each archetype has their rough male equivalent, and for the most part only the “positive” side of each archetype is presented, as I am focusing on my protagonists (and I generally prefer my protagonists to be on the good side). Each of these archetypes could be inverted to be villainous as needed. Be sure to check out my references at the bottom of the post.

The nine main female archetypes, with examples, their male equivalent, and descriptions are:

1) The Amazon/ The Crusader

Examples: Wonder Woman, Buffy, Merida, Xena, Katniss Everdeen

Male Counterparts: The Warrior

Description: Powerful woman who is competitive and still identifies with feminism and nature; Independent, quirky, confident

2) The Father’s Daughter/ The Librarian/ The Spinster

Examples: Hermione Granger, Anabeth Chase from Percy Jackson, Scully from The X-Files

Male Counterparts: The Professor/ The Recluse/The Computer Geek

Description: Studious and intelligent woman who aligns herself with powerful men but may not get along with women; Likes to be in control; Data oriented introvert who doesn’t know how to connect with other people; Used to looking after herself

3) The Nurturer/ The Good Wife/ The Martyr

Examples: Mrs. Frisby from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Molly Weasley

Male Counterparts: The Protector

Description: Tied up in caring for others particularly children; Sacrifices self to help others; Often a supporting character

4) The Boss/ The Matriarch/ The Queen Bee

Examples: Janeway from Star Trek, Murphy Brown, Jean Grey from X-Men

Male Counterparts: The Chief/ The Boss/The Businessman/ The King

Description: Decisive leader, sometimes inflexible; workaholic; Sometimes arrogant; If character is a mother and most of her management revolves around her family, then can be called the matriarch

5) The Spunky Kid/ The Plucky Girl/ The Girl Next Door

Examples: Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, Kaylee from Firefly, Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle

Male Counterparts: “Everyman”/ The Best Friend/ The Sidekick

Description: Has a good attitude and is always ready to roll up her sleeves to help; Team player; Supportive and reliable; Often in best friend role, but also often protagonist

6) The Seductress/ The Femme Fatale

Examples: Samantha on Sex in the City, Daphne on Scooby Doo, Ginger on Gilligan’s Island

Male Counterparts: The Bad Boy/ The Woman’s Man

Description: Sexually driven and attractive to men; Can be manipulative; Not often main character

7) The Mystic/ The Free Spirit/ The Quirky Misfit

Examples: Luna Lovegood, Phoebe from Friends, Ally McBeal, Pippi Longstocking

Male Counterparts: The Fool/ To some extent The Artist

Description: Free spirited, calm and gentle, creative; Can be the crazy and the comic relief; Original and playful

8) The Maiden/ The Troubled Teen/ The Waif/ The Damsel in Distress/ The Princess/ The Victim

Examples: Bella Swan, Snow White, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Jane Eyre

Male Counterparts: None

Description: Childlike woman who lets others handle the details of life; Often in danger and in need of rescue

9) The Survivor

Examples: Scarlett O’Hara

Male Counterparts: The Survivor

Description: Distrustful, and charming; Will do whatever is necessary to come out ahead including run away

References at bottom of post

This definitely helped put to rest my concern that all my characters are the same. I realized that Abbey from my middle grade series is definitely a Librarian, Natalie from In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is a Boss, Sasha from Reversal is a Plucky Girl, Sarah from The River is a Survivor, and Anna from my upcoming story in the Tinfoil Anthology is a Free Spirit. They all tend to straddle archetypes a little though. For example, Natalie is part Boss and part Nurturer. Anna is part Free Spirit and part Plucky Girl.

Evidently I am not yet in to writing Maidens, Warriors or Seductresses, which may be in part because I feel these archetypes are not as well rounded as the others, and in the case of Maidens and Seductresses, not as positive a role model for women.

So what does this mean for Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist? Upon review, I have decided that Alana is a Plucky Girl crossed with a Nurturer. To make her a bit more edgy, I am going to push her a bit more in the direction of being a Crusader.

Strong Female Characters

In doing the research for this post, I also came across a lot of discussions regarding the new trend in “strong female characters” and Sophia McDougall probably says it the best in this New Statesman article. Chuck Wendig of course, as always, has a good take. Instead of the traditional weak females in need of rescue, who have dominated many of our stories historically, writers, particularly screenwriters, are now electing to create female rocket scientists, who look like models, are trained in hand-to-hand combat, can fix cars and fall in love with the plucky, but mediocre, “everyman” in the opposing role. While the writers may have had good intentions in creating these “strong female characters”, they feed male fantasies and create unrealistic images of women. While “strong”, they are not good female characters. Good female characters are nuanced, flawed and real, like good male characters. Good female characters are interesting and have agency i.e. they have motivations, make decisions, take action and affect the story.

This advice should be kept in mind in relation to the archetypes as well. While they can serve as a useful guide in shaping female characters, real women are often a combination of archetypal characteristics or are different archetypes in different settings. A woman could be The Boss at work, The Nurturer at home, the Crusader when it comes to issues of importance to her.

So go write good female characters, and badass female characters and young and old female characters, with cats, and babies, and bad habits, and passions, and hang ups and attitude, and whatever it takes to make them real, make them talk to each other about something other than men (the Bechdel test) and for God's sake, give them something to do.

If you like my posts, don't forget to sign up for my mailing list and get more, and freebies, and cats (okay no cats, but lots of cat references).

Archetype references

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MasterCharacterHeroines

http://www.likesbooks.com/78.html

http://www.scriptmag.com/features/taming-shrew-writing-female-characters-archetypes

http://www.soulcraft.co/essays/the_12_common_archetypes.html

http://writerswrite.co.za/archetypes-for-heroes-and-heroines

 

Seven Things I do while Writing

I wanted to update you on some of the promos and other events coming up in the short term before it is too late. New real blog post to follow early next week!

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation on sale

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, my dystopian adult fiction, is on sale this weekend for 0.99 in the US and UK. The countdown promo ends on the 31st, so now is a great time to pick it up if you want it! It is dystopian and apocalyptic, but set in the real world a few years after the collapse. There is romance. There is action. There are raiders and viruses.

Middle-Grade Promo coming up

I am also participating in a joint middle-grade promo for A Pair of Docks on April 6th so A Pair of Docks will be 0.99 on April 6th and I will also be sending out a list of other great middle-grade novels you can pick up that day for a reduced price. Don't forget to check it out!

Tales of Tinfoil ARCs

As you may know, I am participating in the Tales of Tinfoil conspiracy theory anthology edited by the amazing David Gatewood. The author line up is unbelievable and includes Lucas Bale, Michael Bunker, Edward W. Robertson, Nick Cole and Chris Pourteau to name a few. The stories are bold, moving, and wild and include tales regarding Lincoln, Kennedy and Hitler. Fox Mulder would be proud.

I wrote about none other than Elvis Presley and have now managed to convince myself that maybe Elvis is alive. The anthology will be coming out April 17th, but I will have 5 ARCs to give away starting April 3rd for those of you who want them and are committed to leaving an honest review on Amazon on launch day. Don't miss out on this opportunity. If you are interested in receiving an ARC and have left a review for me on one of my previous books, send me an email at jlelliswriting@gmail.com. I will pick the ARC recipients from the first five qualified emailers. Don't panic if you don't hear back from me right away. It is the final freeski competition of the year here in BC so I will be on skis all day.

Seven Things I do while Writing

For those of you not on my Facebook feed, you might have missed my post on seven things I do while writing each day.

As a "prologue" to my writing, I do many of the things that most writers do. I get coffee, answer emails, check FB, check stats, check reviews, check Twitter, check everything, like a bunch of FB posts, and try very hard not to fall into any Internet rat holes.

Once I have opened my WIP and my "writing" has officially started I:

1) Go a page or half a page back into the previous day's work to orient myself as to where I was and what I was trying to accomplish in a scene. Think a little bit about what the "turn" in the scene was or will be and if it is the right turn to move the plot forward.

2) Write in silence trying to get as many good words out as possible (trying not to repeat the "prologue" above too many times as it is an especially bad habit when stuck).

3) Research and fact check as necessary as I go and try not to fall into too many research rat holes. Sometimes this will involve looking at photos of locations or items I am including. Sometimes it will involve reading research papers.

4) Work always to keep the prose fresh. Try to make each character unique with a distinct voice and their behaviour reasonably rational and "in character" (unless they are mad of course - then they can build mechanical dolphins and spend their afternoons hunting for Elvis and Princess Diana). Consistently check for overuse of hads and repeats of words. Consistently check for a balance of exposition and dialogue. Consistently check for appropriate use of dialogue tags and action tags and that I am effectively using physical reactions to convey emotion. Consistently check that place has been effectively acknowledged and incorporated into every scene in a manner that plays on as many senses as possible. Try to axe all purple prose.

5) Try to keep my eye on the plot and whether I am laying down the scenes necessary to execute the grand vision, or whether I am digging myself deep into a methane venting crater (filled with carnivorous mechanical dolphins). This often involves thinking a lot about the motivations of all the characters - who wants what, who is capable of what, and who is where when - and how does that all come together to create the story. It is a bit like chess - you always have to know where all the pieces are. It also involves thinking about the fundamental themes of the book and how I am (or am not) effectively pulling them out through the plot.

6) Hope for those moments of sublime inspiration or supreme luck when my metaphors somehow reflect my theme, or everything comes together, or something you have written or led my characters to matches something neat or exciting in the real world. Decide this is a reflection of the collective unconscious and a message from the universe that clearly I was born to write.

7) Decide everything I have written so far that day is blasphemous, moronic tripe. Guzzle coffee or go for run to talk myself off the edge of the cliff. Repeat #1-6.

I am sure there is more, but the ski comp is about to start and I'm expected on the slopes!

The Pros and Cons of Head Hopping

Apologies for the long boring blog gap, I have been working like a lunatic since January first on the wrap up for a one and a half year research project for work that has taken me away from my writing life more than I would like. Now that I am done, I will get back to the regular schedule of blogging and publishing. After all the Apocalypse Weird hoopla, I wanted to get back to some craft blog posts, although I should mention, the seventh AW novel, Hoodoopocalypse, by Kim Wells is launching today! It is amazing!! So don’t miss out!! I also just launched my time travel short story (well it is more of a novella really), The River, from the Synchronic anthology, as a single.

Point of View

If any of you have been following my blog posts for a few years, you will know that I take point of view (POV) seriously. In order to talk about head hopping, we need to talk more generally about point of view. What is point of view and why does it matter in writing? Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. Generally this perspective is provided by one or more characters, or a narrator, who serve as the eyes, ears, and voice of the story. Hence we talk about point of view characters.

I tend to write from the third person limited POV. Sometimes I will have two to five POV characters in a novel, and sometimes I will have only one POV character. Third person limited POV means that you refer to your POV character as she or he (or by their name) and when you are in that POV you can see, hear, and know only the things that your POV character sees, hears or knows. This is distinguished from first person limited where you refer to your POV character as “I” and place the reader right inside the head of the character.

When you are writing from multiple POVs, there are no rules for shifting from one POV character to the other, but there are conventions. The three most common, and in my opinion appropriate, conventions are:

  • shifting POVs between distinct chapters,
  • shifting POVs between distinct scenes demarcated by a glyph or a line break, and
  • shifting POVs within a scene using a camera panning out/sliding method whereby you start in one character’s head, pan your camera (or words) out to be in almost a more omniscient POV, and then slide into the other character’s POV.

Everyone has different opinions with regard to the best approach. I prefer the first two, but third one, when done properly, is okay too (although I think it borders on head hopping, which I will discuss below). The important thing, from my perspective, and from the perspective of many writers, is that the writer signals to the reader somehow that they are shifting POVs and remains consistent with the conventions they set out at the start of the novel.

The Rise of Head Hopping

Increasingly though, I am seeing many novels that shift third person limited POVs via head hopping. Head hopping is when the writer simply jumps from one character’s head to another character’s head within a scene and does not employ the camera panning out/sliding method described above.

Note head hopping is not the same as the omniscient POV where there is a distinct narrator who has some sort of access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters—in true omniscient POV, you are supposed to be in the narrator’s head, and while you know some of the thoughts of all of the characters, you are not supposed to be right in their heads. In omniscient POV the story is told from a wider, more god-like lens and voice, NOT the voices of the characters. In practice, to the reader, unless the narrator has a distinct personality and the reader really knows what they are looking for, the omniscient POV may seem like head hopping. Moreover, I have seen many writers and readers confuse third person limited multiple (which is, as stated above, when the writer writes from multiple third person POVs but shifts POVs from chapter to chapter or by scene to scene) with head hopping. It is not, but this does show the level of confusion that can be out there regarding POVs.

There are techniques for head hopping that signal the POV shift subtly, such as shifting POV from paragraph to paragraph, or starting the sentence with the name of the character whose POV the writer is now writing from, or moving the first POV character out of the room (and in effect out of the scene for a few minutes). For these to work, they must be applied with absolute consistency, and even if it is done perfectly, it can, in my opinion, still make for a murky reading experience.

As you can probably tell, I have not historically been a big fan of head hopping. I was taught never never to head hop. We have a distinct style of literature in Canada and head hopping is generally not okay. But whenever the topic of head hopping comes up, defenders generally point out writers who apparently do it well, such as Nora Roberts and Stephen King. Moreover, although most writers will notice when another writer is head hopping right away, many readers do not even appear to be aware of it, or care.

Because head hopping is increasingly being utilized, and I am increasingly writing for a more global audience, I decided I needed to reassess the pros and cons of it. Remember head hopping is not the same as the omniscient POV, and it is not the omniscient POV that is under examination here.

Pros of Head Hopping

  1. By moving from one character’s head to another, you can reveal anything you need to (character’s motivations, knowledge and experiences) at any point and you don’t need any contrivances to get your POV character into the right place to learn necessary information. Thus, it can allow for the provision of information in a more natural way. For readers who want to know everything that is going on at all times (which some do), the head hopping technique may be preferred. If you are not head hopping, you have to be inventive. Nathan Bransford points out that in Harry Potter (which is written for the most part in third person limited—although some argue it is omniscient), the invisibility cloak and pensieve were creative ways to allow Harry to know things that he otherwise would not be able to.
  2. Done well, you can let the distinct personality of all the characters shine by sharing their internal dialogue. Readers can develop a relationship with multiple characters and care about their feelings and perspectives. Villains may seem less villainous if their thoughts and intentions are known. Sidekicks can become more entertaining.
  3. Sometimes, when a reader does not identify with or like a certain POV character, or just wants a break from them, head hopping allows them to be in another character’s head for a while (This can be just as effectively accomplished through a straight third person limited with multiple POVs that are switched between chapters or scenes instead of within a scene). If you are writing a series, head hopping can allow you to try out multiple POV characters to see which one readers identify with more (and then you can focus more on these favored characters in future books in the series), without the same commitment to those characters you would have if you went with a more conventional third person limited.
  4. When you don’t head hop and you have multiple POVs, you must choose the POV from which you are going to show a scene or a chapter. Sometimes this is a difficult choice because the details and information you can convey from the selected POV character are different. I have had to rewrite several chapters or scenes in some of my novels when I did not feel that the POV character I originally selected to show the scene was the best choice. Head hopping can get around the difficulty of this choice and the challenges of making the wrong choice.

Cons of Head Hopping

  1. Part of the reading experience is the close bond that readers can develop with the characters, and in particular the POV characters. Being in a character’s head helps readers to empathize with those characters and take the journey with that character. But you can only really experience a close bond with a few characters, and too much head hopping breaks this bond because there are too many characters competing for the reader’s attention and empathy. It can sometimes be unclear in head hopping books just who the main character is.
  2. Allowing the reader to only see the unfolding of events through the eyes of a single character at a time allows for more mystery and surprise. Although some readers want to know everything at all times, there are advantages to letting the reader learn things and be surprised right along with the POV character.
  3. Because the transitions from one POV to another are subtle (or not apparent at all), readers sometimes miss the switch and become confused whose POV they are in. I have had to reread passages several times in head hopping books to figure out whose eyes I am seeing the scene through. This jumps me out of the "narrative dream" and makes me focus on the mechanics of the passage, rather than the story.
  4. One of the challenges of writing from a single POV and NOT head hopping is showing the emotions and thoughts of non-POV characters. Writers must do this through their body language, actions, and statements—they must show the reader. Doing this in an effective way is truly part of the art of writing. When you can head hop, there is greater temptation to simply state what the other characters are thinking and feeling because you can simply jump into their minds. This can make the overall piece more telly than showy. While I am not an extremist on the telling versus showing front, and believe that there are many instances where telling is preferred, I still believe that overall, the writer should lean towards showing, and head hopping might just make it a little too easy to favor telling.
  5. Generally, the POV character for the scene determines the nature of the scene. Everyone sees events from their own perspective. They will observe even the same item or situation differently and pick up different details. A glorious bluebird day could be gloomy from the point of view of someone who is depressed or has just experienced something horrific. A character with OCD will be more focused on the potential fingerprints on a doorknob of the front door than the trim color or size of the house. The overall flavor of the scene should reflect the particular characteristics and outlook of the POV character. When you are head hopping, you do not have precisely the same opportunity to paint the scene.

This has been a useful exercise for me and I now have a greater appreciation for head hopping. Nevertheless, reviewing the pros and cons in more detail has made me more comfortable with my preferred styles: third person limited with multiple POVs switched between chapters or scenes, and third person limited with a single POV. This is just a personal choice, and from what I have read today, for the most part, readers don't know or care whether you head hop or not, as long as you do it well and make them care about the story.

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A Revolution in Publishing

Just a little bit more about Apocalypse Weird this week and then we will return to regular blog post programming about writing craft and book marketing next week. I wanted to let you know about some of the amazing prizes that will be offered at the Apocalypse Weird Facebook Launch Party on February 23rd and talk a little bit about why Apocalypse Weird is a revolution in publishing.

Five new Apocalypse Weird novels will be launched on February 23, 2015. They include: Texocalypse Now by Michael Bunker and Nick Cole, The Dark Knight by Nick Cole, Reversal by Jennifer Ellis, The Serenity Strain by Chris Pourteau and Immunity by E.E. Giorgi. Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of all five novels will be coming available leading up to the launch. ARC readers and reviewers will be eligible for some great prizes before and at the Facebook Launch Party on February 23 from 2:00 to 8:00 Pacific Time. Don't forget to pick up a copy of The Red King, the first of the Apocalypse Weird books. It is already available and it is still free!

Launch Party Prizes

Prizes for ARC readers and reviewers will include:

  • Five signed paperback copies of Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier for the review voted most helpful on Amazon by midnight on February 23. There will be one prize per launch book.
  • Three paperback copies of Texocalypse Now signed by Nick Cole and Michael Bunker. To be eligible, ARC readers must post their favorite excerpt from one of the launch novels on Facebook and tag the author in the week leading up to the Launch Party.
  • A signed copy of pirated print copy of Osage Two Diamonds, by Michael Bunker, which officially does not exist in print. This prize will go to the best review of one of the launch novels on Amazon as voted by the launch authors by 6:00 PT the day of the launch.

The grand prize is a tier two contract for the Apocalypse Weird world of novels. This prize will go to the best pitch as chosen by five launch authors at 4:00 PT on February 23. The winner will have to have purchased, read, and shared on social media at least one and preferably all launch books.

Readers will be notified of ARC availability via the Apocalypse Weird mailing list, and the mailing lists of the individual launch authors. Texocalypse Now ARCs have already been distributed and Reversal ARCs are almost all gone. Make sure you are signed up at Apocalypse Weird and don’t miss a single ARC.

A Revolution in Publishing

So why is Apocalypse Weird a revolution in publishing? Wonderment Media, Inc., the publisher of the Apocalypse Weird novels is attempting to create a world that crosses Marvel Comics with Lost. The initial launch books will be followed by the release of a new book every two weeks for the next several months. In Apocalypse Weird, writers and fans come together to share a world of cross-cutting story lines, triumphant heroes, and non-stop adventure. There will be secret Easter Eggs that interconnect the books and allow readers to delve deeper into the world. Readers will be able to influence which heroes go to the end game and eventually writers will be able to share ideas and characters.

More importantly though for the writers, Apocalypse Weird is the first-of-its-kind publishing initiative designed by best-selling indie authors for indie authors. Wonderment Media, Inc. has developed author-friendly contracts that not only provide authors with more control than they would have in a traditional publishing contract, but also pay authors a much higher royalty rate than writers often receive in traditional contracts. At the same time, Wonderment is still covering the production costs associated with the novels. The goal is to make writing and publishing more a more profitable and collaborative endeavor for authors, while still allowing the authors the opportunity to market their work as part of brand, enjoy the supports of a publishing house, and work with other authors to build their readership.

New writers will be added to the Apocalypse Weird brand as it develops, writing in the worlds created by the tier one writers. The Facebook Launch Party will feature a pitch contest for prospective Apocalypse Weird writers, and other pitch opportunities will be announced over the next few months. With writers from many different countries, including Canada, Apocalypse Weird reflects an international collaboration, and a potential revolution in publishing for the benefit of authors.

Don’t forget to join the Facebook Launch Party hosted by the launch authors and many of the other Apocalypse Weird authors. There will be some great giveaways and lots of apocalyptic fun to be had.

Reversal ARCs Now Available

As most of you who follow my blog know, I have been involved in this cool new thing called Apocalypse Weird for the last six months, and I am lucky enough to be one of the launch authors. The five launch novels will be released on February 23, 2015. The first launch novel Texocalypse Now by Michael Bunker and Nick Cole is already available for pre-order.

I am pleased to announce that Advance Reader Copies (ARC) of my novel Reversal, which explores the polar version of the apocalypse, are now available. Read the blurb for Reversal below. Simply sign up for my mailing list at the link on my home page and indicate you want a Reversal ARC. Existing subscribers can just email me at jlelliswriting@gmail.com and I will send you the links right away. I will also be emailing subscribers the links very shortly.

Note that this is a time-limited offer. Only a certain number of ARCs will be given away, so don't wait. If you download an ARC, we hope that you will leave a review before or on launch day. There will be some amazing potential prizes for readers and reviewers given away at the Facebook Launch Party on February 23rd, including a pitch contest to become a Tier Two author for Apocalypse Weird.

Reversal

Snow, Volcanoes, and the End of the World

Contrary to Sasha Wood’s expectations, the isolated International Polar Research Station on Ellesmere Island turns out to be an incredibly dangerous assignment. After researchers and sled dogs go missing in a freak storm, distress calls go mysteriously unanswered from the outside world. Cut off and stalked by strange killer polar bears, Sasha and station caretaker, Soren Anderson, must search for their missing colleagues in the frozen tundra as their instruments begin to reveal an incredible truth: The feared magnetic pole reversal has occurred and the north has become the south. Psychotic scientists and giant methane-venting craters are just the beginning of a terrible and weird new reality as the leader of a polar research station down in Antarctica walks out of an otherworldly mist from the other side of the earth. Everything is being turned upside down, literally and figuratively. The Thing meets The Core on the plains of Ellesmere Island somewhere lost inside the Apocalypse Weird.

More Coming Soon

I will be doing a post tomorrow about the great prizes you can win at the Facebook Launch Party, the opportunities to be an Apocalypse Weird Tier Two author, and why Apocalypse Weird is a revolution in publishing! But for now, don't wait. Go get your ARC and start reading!!

The Mind of a Writer

A few announcements... Things are heating up on the Apocalypse Weird front. We are now less than thirty days from the big February 23rd launch of the first five books, which will include my novel Reversal. I will be revealing my cover (designed by the super talented Michael Corley) very soon. If you sign up on the Apocalypse Weird site, you will be entitled to receive ARCs of all five launch novels. There will be some great prizes for reviewing the ARCs, including a pitch session to be a tier two Apocalypse Weird writer, so sign up.

I have also been asked to contribute to a conspiracy theory anthology, entitled Tales of Tinfoil, edited by the amazing David Gatewood. I am writing a story about Elvis … and after many days of research I am actually beginning to believe he might be alive. Tales of Tinfoil is coming in April.

The Mind of a Writer ... according to Robert de Niro?

A few days ago, in response to a Facebook post in which I made some comments regarding the realities of being a writer, a friend posted the following photo on my timeline.

At first I thought it was a bit funny and cute (and of course I “liked” it), but then I thought a little bit more seriously about what it was saying, and I found myself mystified. Does Robert de Niro really think he knows the realities of being a writer? How would he like it if I posted the realities of being an actor? If one were to take his statement as truth, writers, it would seem, are unstable, coffee-drinkers with self-esteem issues who do not really churn out a lot of work.

Much of his statement seems to apply to a writing industry long gone by. Writers twenty or even thirty years ago may have had some of these characteristics, but I do not think that most of his labels apply in the slightest today. Crippled by procrastination? What serious writer can afford to procrastinate these days? caffeine-addled? I know a lot of writers who drink coffee, but most of us have the wherewithal not to drink so much as to become “addled”. Writing in an addled state is generally not productive or advisable. Neurotic, yes maybe. But one of the main reason writers are neurotic is because people like Robert de Niro (sorry Robert, I really do love your acting and I think you might have been just delivering your lines to be funny) think that they truly understand writers and the writing profession. And they don’t. But their observations, if not corrected, or worse, if accepted by writers, become part of our lexicon on who and what writers are.

And yet, a quick scroll through the links that come up when one Googles his comment is that many people, including writers, think he was dead on!

The one thing I do agree with him on is that the mind of a writer can be a terrifying thing. (Of course as a writer, I think the minds of most people can be a terrifying thing, but I digress …).

So in the spirit of good fun, I decided to rewrite the comment. I might have gotten a little carried away (which is also perhaps a reflection of the mind of a writer).

The Mind of a Writer ... For Real

The mind of a writer can be a terrifying thing.

Because they must work in one of the most competitive industries in the world where the barriers to entry are low, and the failure rate astronomical, they must be smart, creative, crafty, and strategic. (The logical extension of this is that to be successful, they must work harder than many other people, and they must never procrastinate).

Because more than 95% of writers must work two jobs (their day job and their writing job), they are highly organized, disciplined, sleep-deprived, and a bit psychotic.

Because they are fully aware of their passion (writing), and that the financial odds are that they cannot fully live their passion, they are occasionally whiny, morose and prone to drinking.

Because they can be pilloried for a missing comma, not being aware that rifles take cartridges not bullets, and failing to create characters that every single reader on earth likes and finds realistic, they are methodical, hyper-attentive to detail, and excruciatingly aware of human motivations.

Because they must be attuned to the human condition, they are often sensitive, but because even great writers get some completely scathing reviews for their work, they learn to develop a thick skin.

Because they have a thick skin and are not ever allowed to respond to their critics, they often feel misunderstood, and the reality is, they probably are.

Because they know that most people have no idea what they do and think they are crazy, a bit narcissistic, and sit around in their underwear making shit up and getting paid millions, they are neurotic.

Because they must consistently put on a public face to promote and market their books, when in actuality many of them are serious introverts, they can be, upon some occasions, tortured and mildly hysterical.

Because they have vivid imaginations they often work in possibilities, not probabilities, and can play out all the possibilities of any scenario, they are often fearful and worry lots (like about their kids hucking off cliffs in a freeski competition, say).

Because they work in words, and must, on a daily basis, organize those words into a logical narrative, they are often skilled at argument and negotiation (but because they are introverts, sometimes these arguments and negotiations only take place in their heads).

And most importantly

Because their job requires them to put significant research into how to commit the perfect murder, traffic drugs, and invade entire planets, they know stuff (like how to commit the perfect murder).*

Because they have to write about real people, they are watching you.

Because they are people, they make mistakes, and try to be lovable, and are as highly variable as people in any profession, so generalizing about a writer's mind is risky.

*But because they are writers, they probably won’t do any of these things.

Self-loathing, panic-stricken and isolated? These may be true for some writers, sometimes, on bad days (not good days, thank you very much Robert). But aren’t they true for everyone on bad days?

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What do you think? Do you agree with Robert de Niro?

Cliffhangers - A Good Idea or Not?

I have recently received some feedback from a few readers that they can’t wait for the third book in my Derivatives of Displacement series--which is great. But part of the reason they can’t wait is that I left some things dangling at the end of book two. And a few of my readers were a little frustrated. This made me start thinking a bit more about cliffhangers--are they a good idea, or not?

We all know those books, movies, and TV show seasons that end with a cliffhanger that enrage some fans. Do a search on cliffhangers that people hate and you will come up with a wide range of “cliffhangers” that caused a furor, such as: The Lord of the Rings, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Tower by Stephen King (and a lot of other books by Stephen King), Dallas (the Who shot JR? episode), several of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, Gone with the Wind, Gone Girl, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inception, The Hunger Games, and Catching Fire.

“Cliffhanger” endings can cause varying degrees of rage among fans depending on how the person felt the writer handled them.

I call them “cliffhangers” in quotation marks because they are not all strictly cliffhangers and there are variations in the definition of cliffhanger. In reality, there are various types of endings to books, shows and movies, that are on a continuum from an “every single thing is completely resolved ending” to a true cliffhanger. There are no commonly accepted names for the types of endings that occupy the middle of the continuum, and there is a lot of confusion with regard to which is which, with some people calling anything in which everything is not totally resolved a cliffhanger.

Four Types of Unresolved Endings

For the sake of clarity, I have come up with the following four types of unresolved endings:

1) A True Cliffhanger Ending

The protagonist, or group of protagonists, or key characters are in immediate peril (someone has just been shot but you do not know who, they are teetering on the edge of a cliff), and the book, show, movie just ends. There is a sequel or next season coming. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a perfect example of this.

2) An Ambiguous or Open Ending

The book, show, movie leaves the final outcome a bit unclear and allows the reader or viewer to decide what happened. No follow-up or sequel is planned. This is done for artistic purposes, where the writer has generally decided that the most satisfying ending is one that leaves some questions unanswered or that the reader/viewer knows that the adventure continues. Gone Girl and Gone with the Wind are examples of this type of ending. Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, notes that her ending was deliberate and that there really was no other option for her ending:

“First of all, I didn’t write it as an open ending to set up a sequel at all. It was the only thing that made sense to me, that made sense to what was true to the book and true to the characters. Amy’s not going to end up in jail. She’s Amazing Amy! You’re never going to find the aha! clue because she thinks she’s already thought of everything and that’s who she is. People think they would find that satisfying, if she were caught and punished. You know, when I’m at a reading or something, people will come up to me and are very honest about saying, “I hated the ending!” I always say, “Well, what did you want to have happen?” And it’s like, “I wanted justice!” I promise you, I just don’t think you’d find it satisfying for Amy to end up in a prison cell just sitting in a little box.”

3) A Dangling Plot Lines Ending

A dangling plot lines ending is one that ties up the majority of the story or the main conflict of the book or movie, but there are some (or many) things left unresolved, or there is some sort of tease as to what is to come, and the reader/viewer knows that the story will be continued. The protagonist (or protagonists) is not in immediate peril though—generally the protagonist has reached some generally “safe” location and is taking a breather. It is the writer’s intent to produce a sequel or new season. The Hunger Games has been described as this sort of ending. As one reader noted, this type of ending:

“[only ties] up some bits, but left me wondering what’s going to happen to so-and-so and what’s-his-name, how things will play out for the hero and heroine and why that-guy did what he did.” ~ Gina Bernal

Another reader observed,

“I don’t mind if they still have to finish the quest, save the world, get home or otherwise tidy up a few loose ends.” ~ Mara Ismine

4) A Closed Continuing Story Ending

This is basically a story in which the main story is ended and wrapped up, there are few dangling plot threads, but the reader/viewer knows that “the adventure continues”. So Indiana Jones movies or Law and Order episodes might qualify as this type of ending. There may, or may not, be a sequel coming, and it is not necessary to read or watch it to feel that a complete story was told. This is more like the ending where story is completely wrapped up, and then the phone rings and someone wants the main character to fly to Timbuktu immediately to start the next adventure.

Issues with Unresolved Endings

Even though I think it's pretty clear, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a cliffhanger. For example, some people describe the endings of The Hunger Games and Gone Girl as cliffhangers. In addition, there are some books, shows, and movies that straddle more than one category. The Empire Strikes Back is an example of an ending that could be considered a cross between a cliffhanger and a dangling plot line ending.

Many viewers and readers hate cliffhangers because they have built up their anticipation throughout the story that all will be explained and made clear, and then when they do not get their emotional hit and resolution at the end, they feel ripped off. Many readers also feel any sort of cliffhanger ending is deliberately manipulative and a cop out—that the writer just did not know how to end the book/show/movie, or that they were making sure the reader or viewer has to purchase or watch the next episode.

I do not think many writers are trying to be manipulative (really readers, we love you). Most writers want to give their fans what they want, and there are artistic and legitimate reasons for endings that do not resolve everything. Moreover, as a writer, especially one who is producing a series, in which really there has to be some dangling plot lines from one book to another in order to develop an overall three to five book arc, there is a really difficult line to walk in order to conclude every single book appropriately, build the overall arc, and prevent readers from getting impatient and feeling manipulated. Readers also get angry with stand-alone books because they want more.

Readers often want complex plots and books in a series, and depending on the overall length and complexity of the arc that the writer is trying to deliver, it is necessary to find appropriate break points between books and leave some things unanswered. However even if the reader intellectually understands this, emotionally they sometimes feel that the break point was chosen just to hook them into the next book, just like Scheherazade did in One Thousand and One Nights.

There are no easy answers. The bottom line is that readers want a satisfying ending. But what is satisfying and seems right to one reader may not be right to another. While many readers hate true cliffhangers, some people actually hate ambiguous or open endings more than cliffhangers because with cliffhangers they at least know a resolution is coming in the form of a sequel.

And yet in some ways an open ending (at least to some extent) is life. Unless all the characters die, life goes on and new and different things will happen to them. Sometimes a happy ever after ending is equally disingenuous. Nobody lives happily ever after no matter what the writer says. That happy couple will argue over diapers, who cleans the toilets, and where the new sofa should go.

So there is a balance between providing enough closure and leaving some things hanging in both stand alone books and books in a series. In a series, more things can be dangling, and in a stand alone book, fewer things should be dangling. However some readers will likely be upset no matter what the writer does.

Some people claim J.K. Rowling got it right. She left Voldemort alive, but tied up the immediate threat in each book. But don’t forget she had many plot lines and many questions that spanned the entire series.

Some readers say dangling plot lines or cliffhangers are okay as long as the next book is available immediately, or within three months. Other readers say dangling plot lines or cliffhangers are okay, but they are too impatient to wait, so will only start the series once all of the books are available. Yet others hate cliffhangers and dangling plot lines so much that they simply will not read books in a series. Other readers say that cliffhangers are sometimes okay if they trust the writer.

 How to Handle an Unresolved Ending Well

The degree of success of a “less than completely resolved” ending also depends on how the writer handles it. Some key approaches to handling it well include:

1) Avoid true cliffhangers if you can

Most readers agree that they prefer a story in which the main conflict is resolved, with some dangling plot lines over true cliffhangers. Readers will be far more patient with dangling plot lines as long as you complete the main emotional arc or a major subplot of the story or episode. As one reader observed:

“I want some resolution. I want a warm fuzzy moment. I want to know that the main characters are alive and as safe as they can be. I don’t want something really bad happening to one of the main characters on the last page.” ~ Mara Ismine

2) Consider your genre before you write a dangling plot lines or cliffhanger ending

Cliffhangers are more acceptable in fantasy and science fiction novels, but not in romances or mysteries where readers expect more resolution. Not revealing who the murderer is would be a poor choice in a murder mystery novel.

3) Make sure you have a plan for the larger plot arc and you know how the cliffhanger or dangling plot line is going to be resolved

Readers want to make sure that the writer knows what they are doing and have an actual plan with regard to the larger story arc. They point to movies such as The Amazing Spider Man in which the bit about Peter’s parents was a “placeholder” for the writers to figure things out later. As much as I loved shows like Lost, Fringe and The X Files, I sometimes felt like the writers were making it up as they went along and had no real plan. If you are going to introduce a bunch of questions and plot threads, you do have to resolve all or most of them by the end of the series.

4) If you are going to write cliffhangers or leave dangling plot lines, you had better produce your books quickly… or quicker than George R.R. Martin

Readers talk a lot of about the need for instant gratification and being impatient and that waiting a year for a next installment is too long. So producing the books quickly, or releasing them all at once may be desirable. This does make life difficult for writers as depending on how complex their book is (and for most of us, how much other non-writing work we have to do on the side). There is a time/quality inflection point, and rushing to get a sequel out to satisfy readers can in fact do the opposite if it is not of sufficient quality, so there is an important balance point here too.

5) If you are going to write a true cliffhanger, you had better ensure the sequel delivers

Cop outs such as killing only minor characters, as the writers did after the wedding cliffhanger in Dynasty, or never explaining what happened, irritate readers. If you are going to leave them hanging, it is your job to reward readers for their patience and do an amazing job with the next installment.

6) Ensure that the cliffhangers and dangling plot lines are not gratuitous

The series should end when the overall series plot arc comes to a logical end, and that ending should be satisfying. Tacking extra sequels on just to continue the party does not seem to appeal to readers.

7) It’s also important to ensure that you don’t end things too neatly if there are intended sequels

Diana Gabaldon did this in later Outlander books, making people think that the series was over when in fact it was not, and some people like me, stopped reading. Ahhh... can the writer ever win :-).

Other things that may help to deliver that emotional punch and leave readers satisfied if you plan to leave some things unresolved include: drawing attention to the bits that have been resolved, showing that your hero has a plan, and providing the first chapter of the next book as a teaser after the ending.

But there is no satisfying everyone. Some readers don’t even like cliffhangers within the book from chapter to chapter that keep them reading all night… And I thought writing a page turner was supposed to be every writer’s goal :-).

And cliffhangers or other unresolved endings can work. George R. R. Martin is the king of cliffhangers, and although readers often express frustration with him, he has no shortage of fans. Lost also did not lack for viewers, and Gone Girl does not seem to be suffering for sales.

None of my books have a true cliffhanger ending, and my readers seem keen for the sequels and excited about the unanswered questions, which is great. However at times I have also noted a tone of impatience or frustration in their comments, which was part of the impetus for this post. People often ask me when the next book is coming. I wanted to check in and see what the general sentiments were around unresolved endings and how long people are willing to wait for sequels. I learned a lot from researching this post. I am not sure if I can produce Book three any faster (it is coming in the fall of 2015) due to my other writing commitments and the fact that I want to make sure it is great. Moreover, I do have a plan for the overall arc of the Derivatives of Displacement series. However this post was food for thought in terms of trying to provide that truly satisfying ending while still leaving those dangling threads that pull your readers to the next book.

How do you feel about cliffhangers? Do you write them yourself?

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