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Congratulations to our resident blogger Sybil Nelson for winning The Strongest Start Competition at TheNextBigWriter.com with her middle grade entry, Priscilla the Great. She also has a movie deal for it. Now all she needs a publisher to realize the awesomeness of Priscilla The Great.

To get a sense of Priss’s voice, check out her blog Prissy Fit and the way-cool Priscilla The Great website. You can also get Twin Shorts FREE, a short story collection about Priscilla’s devil twin brothers written by Priscilla via the masterful pen of  Sybil The Great Nelson.

~ CV

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Please welcome our guest blogger, K.L. Brady, author of The Bum Magnet. I asked her to share her story, since she has such a cool one.

K. L. Brady is a D.C. native but spent a number of her formative years in the Ohio Valley. She’s an alumnus of the University of the District of Columbia and University of Maryland University College, earning a B.A. in Economics and M.B.A., respectively. She works as an analyst for a major government contracting firm and is an active real estate agent with Exit Realty by day—and writes by night (often into the wee hours of the morning). She lives just outside of D.C. in Cheltenham, Maryland, with her son, William, and two pet Betta fish, Spongebob and Jerry, and lives to eat chocolate, shop, read, and write.

How My Publishing Deal Found Me…

Some say luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I probably wouldn’t consider myself “lucky” any other way.

A few short months ago I was offered a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster on the first novel I ever wrote. Authors go years and years waiting for the fortuitous “break” to happen—sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. So, I’m often asked what was the secret ingredient? Karla, how you did get an editor to notice your novel? The easy answer is, “I dunno!”
The complex answer is I prepared like hell for opportunity, and when it came, I was ready.

For those who may not be aware, I self-published my debut novel, The Bum Magnet officially in October 2009, after fruitlessly trying to find literary representation. By February 2010, an executive editor at a publishing house had expressed interest in my book. A month later, I had an agent, and within another month I had a deal.

So, how did I prepare?

1. I wrote a pretty good book. It’s commercial which, in short, means the editors think it has the potential to sell a lot of copies. In all the letters I received back from editors, rejections or expressing interest, nearly every single one said they are looking for good commercial fiction and asked my agent to send it the moment he got his hands on it.

2. I also workshopped it and had it proofread and edited pretty well. Not perfectly mind you, but pretty well. I quite frankly could not afford to get the line edit from a former editor at a publishing house like I really wanted to do. So, I opted for the cheaper manuscript review in which she read the entire manuscript and gave me tips on plot, structure, pacing, etc. The suggestions she made were VERY minor, she was surprised that it required so little—but this was after it had been workshopped on TheNextBigWriter.com.
3. I designed the book so that it looked professional, that includes ensuring that it had a catchy book cover. Feedback has been about 70-30 in favor of the design. Can’t please everyone…but you can try to please as many as you can.


4. I designed and implemented a comprehensive marketing strategy.
The ebook versions on Kindle and Smashwords were as much a part of my marketing strategy as they were a part of my sales strategy. I sold them for 99 cents and got them into A LOT of hands. My Amazon rankings shot up high and remained there for a long time. My priority was getting my work out there, not profit.

I promoted my book like CRAZY. Every single day, I did at least 3 to 5 marketing activities. Posted it anywhere they would allow you to post a book. Promoted everywhere I could, including on the Amazon Discussion Boards which is where I think I had the most success. I also marketed heavily to book clubs.

5. Got it reviewed. I sent it out to book blogs, book clubs, and review sites and requested reviews. Among the most helpful were the book clubs and the Midwest Book Review, at least I believe that’s where I got some attention.

Along came Luck…

Fast forward to sometime in early February 2010. To this day, I don’t know how she found me, but the editor from Kensington sent me an email and said that she was interested in talking about my book. Needless to say, I was over the moon. We spoke the next day for about 45 minutes or so.

The details are foggy now. I just thought it was surreal to be talking to her. She has a number of African-American NY Times Bestsellers on her list (Carl Weber, Mary B. Morrison, Mary Monroe). I knew exactly who she was and I knew the publisher well. As a matter of fact, I had sent a partial in mid 2009 but never heard from her. (For those of you not aware, you can query Kensington editors directly. You don’t need an agent.)

So, she asked me about how I got into writing, how I went about publishing my book, what kind of marketing plan I’d put together, etc. In one of the funnier moments in the conversation, she asked me if I’d queried any agents or editors. I said, “Well, as a matter of fact I sent my partial to you.”

She got quiet and I heard her fish around her desk. She had my query sitting in an envelope right in her overhead. Ha! How’s that for coincidence? Of course, she was mortified. I told her not to feel bad. I truly believe that things happen for a reason. There was a reason that she didn’t read it back then. So, she suggested she’d be making me an offer. She asked me for a copy of my manuscript and to see my two works in progress. So, I sent them to her.

I was advised to get an agent and sent a note to the editor asking if she minded. She said no. As a matter of fact, she referred an agent to me.
At that point, I knew she was serious.

I queried a few agents, including the one she recommended for me. I went on Publisher’s lunch and found agents who worked with author in similar genres. I wanted someone with experience in selling African American (AA) fiction. Within a few days I had a few that were very interested. I ended up picking the agent who represented two female best-selling AA authors who write in different genres than mine. He had great credentials (a former editor for big houses) and he knew how to sell AA fiction. I couldn’t go wrong.

He asked me to make a few edits to the manuscript. Admittedly, I was reticent only because my book was already out there. But it came down to the fact that, even though I’d sold a couple thousand copies (ebook and paperback), I hadn’t sold enough to the point where changes to the manuscript would impact millions of readers.

So, I got over myself and my few measly sales and I made the changes he suggested. He sent it out wide—meaning submitted to all the major editors at the major publishing houses that he thought would be interested. He submitted it just as he would an unpublished manuscript but in the accompanying letter, we let them know that it had been self published, received great reviews, was building word of mouth, yadda yadda yadda.

So, two weeks go by and the rejections start rolling in. After about 4 or 5 I asked if I should get depressed and he said we had a long way to go. Finally, an editor from S&S said she liked it and was passing it around. The original editor who expressed interest from Kensington was still interested and waiting on her boss to return from vacation. Then another editor from Grand Central (Hachette) expressed interest. After all the offers and counteroffers, we finally accepted the one with Pocket.

That’s pretty much the story.

To answer some of the questions I received, no one ever asked about my sales numbers until after the offers were made. I did not query anyone after I published the book. I queried before I published but not after. So, I can’t really say whether trying to query an agent or publisher after you’ve self-published will work for you. I didn’t have to query.

How do I think she found me? Well, my book had been reviewed on several sites where her authors book were also reviewed. Mine was one of the few self-published books to get a 5-star rating, “favorite,” or “top read” status. My book also stayed in the Top 100 African American fiction list on Amazon. I went through the list at the time, and I was the only book on the list that didn’t have a publisher. I’d also been reaching out to book clubs and stuff like that. So, there are a lot of ways she could’ve found out.

I was also asked why if an author, such as myself, was doing well in distributing my book and getting good reviews, why would I relinquish control and sell my rights to a publisher?

Without a whole lot of work, there is no way I could reach the audience that S&S or another major publisher could reach. It was not about the advance for me. It was about the opportunity this deal offered to build my author brand and I plan to take advantage of every perk the brand and affiliation with a house comes with to market and sell more books. As a new/first-time novelist, I also wanted the chance to work with an editor so that I can improve my craft.

So, the long and short of this story is, I didn’t really find this deal, it found me. Your deal is waiting to find you too, and it all starts with writing a good book. When opportunity knocks, just make sure you’re ready!

Thanks, K.L, for sharing your story and what worked for you. Check out the synopsis and trailer for The Bum Magnet.

SYNOPSIS:

Real estate agent Charisse Tyson seems to have it all-a great job, a dream car, and a McMansion in high-and-mightyville. Everything in her life is just right…except the Mister. While lamenting the break-up with her most recent “the one” during a holiday meltdown, Charisse realizes she has a type when it comes to men—players, players, and more players. A magazine article motivates her to swear off men and examine the complex roots of her romantic fiascos.

Just five simple steps to turn her life to the stuff of legends, right? Life is never that easy…  Charisse commences her do-it-yourself therapy project and barely cracks open her emotional toolbox when she encounters the monkey wrenches: an irresistible new beau, two persistent ex-flames, and an FBI agent with life-altering secrets threatening to turn her world upside-down.  A tug of war ensues and Charisse is dead center, trying her best to distinguish the Don Juans from the Romeos. As her love life is propelled into unpredictable twists not even she could imagine, will a twenty-seven-year-old secret keep Charisse from finding the right “one”?  Laugh loud and often as Charisse discovers whether her choices in men reflect more than a penchant for good looks, great sex, and bad judgment.

TRAILER:

Thanks so much, K.L. Very informative post. I especially enjoyed the marketing aspect, which included things I hadn’t thought of.

Swing by K.L. Brady’s blog and website if you’d like to connect or learn more about her upcoming novels.

~ CV

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Sometimes our work is just not cutting it. Everyone knows it, even your mom, even Santa Claus. You need to be honest with yourself in order to bring your work up to snuff. You may have an unsnuffable work that you need to scrap, as I did with my first novel, and that’s okay. Move on. Pick up the pen. Try again.

Really, really, really read books on craft to give yourself good blueprints and so you can write well and recognize quality from trash.

And even if your work IS cutting it, there are some jewels you should always include to make sure it goes from workable to downright awesome.

1. Good flow

Create good flow, pace and rhythm not just in the plot but in your narrative, the way things unfold, the way sentences and paragraphs connect.

This means varying your sentence length, starting with a gerund every now and then, mixing things up, avoiding crutch words or awkward turns of phrase, not having every sentence start with He/She/Sue . You don’t want to have a choppy read nor do you want to one that forces readers to struggle through shattered and plentiful ten-line sentences.

Avoid dumps  of description and backstory. Even if you’re writing omniscience and can do it seamlessly and the point-of-view character is super observant and truly notices everything you point, don’t go overboard. Consider those details to be ribbons, sequins, accessories. They should dress up your work, not make up the bulk of it. If readers are tugged into a quagmire of verbage, no matter how great it sounds to you, you risk losing them somewhere in Ch. 6.

In my novel, Kings & Queens, I made the mistake of including a few paragraphs of backstory  on my character Derek when I opened his POV, but that clashed with my close perspective. I slashed all that and took it down to a line or two, as it applies to his thoughts in the scene.

Sometimes we get caught up in wanting to include everything, and too much info can be overwhelming and annoying. Think of your prose as music. Only important details are needed in that score.

When you think you’re all polished and ready to shop, email yourself the first couple of chapters and random sections. It sounds weird I know, but reading scenes out of your text document will help you notice issues with pace and rhythm especially. I noticed some choppiness and sludgy spots in my chapter 1 this way, which is the first thing agents see. Now I’m good to go.

2. Unforgettable Characters

It sounds obvious. Every wants unforgettable characters, but as a reader, how many times have you read a great book, then a month or too later, can’t recall names?  Then you have to skip over to Amazon to check ’cause the not knowing is bugging the snot out of you.

I have photographic memory, and this happens to me. A lot. Even if I loved a story and the characters in it.

Don’t’ let readers experience amnesia. Let your characters jump off the page and demand to be noticed and not quickly forgotten. Develop your characters so that they’re nearly palpable, then tether aspects of plot to their identity and desires. Give an extraordinary quality or interest that’s rarely seen and this will create the memory stickiness you hope to achieve.

3. Fresh Voice

Your voice is in everything you write from tweets to novels. Be inspired, but don’t emulate the style and voice of others. Let your uniqueness come emerge. Voice is an expression of the weird way your mind works, your personality in written word, your take on things, your way of speaking. Even this post has voice.

It should flow out naturally. Even if you write with different tones or various quirky First Person narrators, a bit of you should still shine through. If you’re feeling unsure or self-conscious, it will be noticeable. The only way you can gain confidence and to findYOUR voice is to practice.

People have called my writing quirky and different. I love giving readers golden nuggets of my weirdness. It puts a stamp of branding on my own works.

4. Balance in The Force

Your work can be packed with darkness, conflict and obstacles aplenty, but it should have some kind of forward momentum. In darker works, add some ribbons of dark or dry humor, irony, hyperbole, romance, tone shifts, brief moments of peace, lightness and success. This will bring more scope and needed contrast into your work.

Also, if your work is lighthearted, you should have present or brewing trouble, a paperboy who wants his two dollars, office cat fights (they happen!), insomnia, a stalker, a death in the family, skeletons in the closet, the annoyance of every Starbucks within twenty miles being out of whipped cream so there’s no way to gloriously top off that Java Chip Frap.

Always think about balance and contrast. My novel, Kings & Queens, deals with violence and psychological terror, but it still has bits of humor and scenes that tug at the heart.

So, I’ve given you some direction towards making your work shine. Go write and make your work AWESOME.

~ CV

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I went back to the doctor today even though I think she’s an idiot.  Why did I do this?  Well, she had what I needed, an antibiotic prescription.   I think she’s an idiot because she’s has misdiagnosed me even after I told her what was wrong.    She calmly dismissed my concerns, sent me home with an allergy pill and told me I’d be fine.

My face and jaw have now swollen up to the size of a summer melon and my eyelid is dripping contagious discharge.   So I went back, she charged me for another visit and finally gave me the antibiotic I requested for the severe sinus infection and conjunctivitis .   I knew I was getting a sinus infection and I told her but she dismissed me.

Why am I telling you this super icky story about my health?  Because editors, workshop members, family, friends and agents will try to tell you what is right or wrong with your story.  In some cases, they may be right but, in the end, you know the story better than anyone else.

As a writer, you should have a feeling when something isn’t quite right with your work.  Some say believe in your work and stand by it, no matter what. I say faith in what you’re doing is fine but no matter how much belief you have, it won’t inflate a flat character or fix a monster plot hole.

But you should have faith when you know you’ve polished your work to be the best it can be. Some changes are a matter of taste, not necessity.  Only make changes you can live with.

If something feels truly wrong, then don’t do it.    For example, if your agent says your male cop needs to be a four foot tall female contortionist with a penchant for body piercing, say no if it doesn’t fit your story.

You can say no.  Some writers forget that magic word.

But also remember you need the antibiotic too (book contract).  Is what they’re asking for more than  you’re willing to give?  If they want your male copy to be forty instead of twenty-five, will that ruin the story for you? If not, it may be worth the concession.

But how about if they ask you to amputate?  No way, right?   But what if your manuscript has a malignant plot hole, would you be willing to amputate a sub-plot, a character or your ending to cure it?   Sometimes your manuscript will need a drastic cut to save it.

How do you know when to cut and when to leave it?

There is no hard and fast answer.   I wish I could lie and say there was.   First, ask yourself if a large amount of your target audience agree with the consensus?  You may have to get readers from your demographic to read and give you anonymous feedback.  Sort of like a focus group.  If 90% agree it doesn’t work, you may have to rework it.

If your gut screams no, then write a second version of it with the drastic change for one chapter.  Set both the old and the new versions aside for a month. Then reread it.  Does the change make it a better book? If so, go with the new version.

Lastly, the proof is in the pudding.   If you can’t sell the book to a mainstream publisher without the changes, would you be okay with not publishing or self-publishing?  Is being a commercial success important to you?  How much?

You’re going to meet a lot of book doctors out there on your trip to being published.  Some will lay their hands on you and make you feel all tingly inside but don’t actually cure anything.  Others will be too quick with the knife and cut your work to the bone.  Some just take the money and let you fall on your ass.

But occasionally you meet a doctor who can see the problem and help walk you though the solution.   Those are the book doctors that every writer dreams of.

The one that knows how to make your book the best it can be.

No manuscript starts out perfect.  Its figuring out how to make it happen that makes you a great writer or merely a good one.

Good luck and good writing.

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BE Verbs Be Gone


When I’m penning a first draft, I often don’t care about verbs. Since I just wanna get my ideas down, BE verbs tend to fall into the mix. But for me, they stand as mere placeholders.

BE verbs certainly seem innocent enough. Am, is, are, was, were, been, being and be are efficient, unobtrusive, neat and tiny. They don’t create snags. No one has to look them up in a dictionary. They are standards in the English language, but those little buggers possess dangerous power.

They proclaim laziness, an abundance of passive sentences, and the worst, an amateur status, especially is/was and are/were. They lack sparkle and smother your narrative voice. I know many published writers use BE verbs, and often, but if they’d stretch a little, narration, exposition and First Person drones with lackluster personalities would come alive in new and unexpected ways. Because I am so conscious of them, I find them very distracting in published novels, especially was and were, especially when used 90% of the time. You shouldn’t cave to that bad habit just because others get away with it.  Choose to take pride in your craft and make your sentences shine.

It’s amazing what a bit of tweaking can do for your voice. You want your work to possess freshness and zing, not banality. So when you’re at the editing stage, work on nixing as many BE verbs as you can. I don’t trim them all out. I usually let about 20% remain, where they work/flow/fit well. Works without any can feel too heavy and clunky, but  go for the much prettier cousins when you can. Use BE verbs where it would cause a trip-up if you didn’t, kind of like when you twist your sentences all around to avoid ending with a preposition and end up transporting your readers back to the 1800′s with your very perfect grammar. If it sounds more natural and easier to read with a BE verb—or a sentence-ending preposition—then choose readability over greatness. You want your story to be told in the clearest, best possible way.

Here are some examples of sentences from which I extracted wases:

He was curious to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks.

He smoldered with curiosity to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks. (“smoldered with curiosity” reflects the POV character’s darker state of mind. “was” dies on the page)

* * *

Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory was a definite managerial perk.

Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory thrilled as a definite managerial perk. (“thrilled” brings in some emotion and characterization)

* * *

Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, were on utility poles.

Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, still garnished utility poles. (“still garnished” sets up my next sentence which explains how long those embellishments stay up.)

* * *

Not all words were clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine.

Not all words came out clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine. (not too much different, but “came out” reflects reception and stimulus now.)

* * *

Do you see how using stronger, punchier verbs, infuses the prose with some pizzazz and life? The content is the same, but they sound better, read better and make the sentences overall more interesting.

Sometimes Be verbs ARE the perfect verbs for a sentence. Weigh each one you come across. If stretching gives you nothing better, let it stand. I kept this was because I felt it held strength:

It was the touching, her slender hand slipping willingly into his large mitt, caressing it with waving fingers, that caught Crystal’s eye and triggered an eruption of sneezes.

* * *

In the same vein, 90% of the time, the combos of There was/were, That was/were are unneeded. Just write in what’s there. (There was a biting chill in the air that I could feel in my bones. v. The biting chill in the air slithered into my bones. Go for straightforward, active sentences, which are always more engaging.) You can use such a combo for effect on occasion, if you want to create a sense of eeriness for instance, but keeping a sentence passive when it could be active is just poor writing.)

Regarding BE verbs, with a little mental acrobatics, you can often come up with a much stronger way to say the same thing. Stretch yourself. Making the extra effort will enhance your prose enormously. Go ahead and use BE verbs as placeholders, but consider many of them to BE on the chopping block, and when the time comes, hack them off without mercy.

~ CV

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163169174_35eb6662d9_mOne of the best ways to engage your readers is to make your POV characters identifiable and intriguing. And you do that by making motivations and desires clear, including various types of sensory impressions and giving your characters multiple facets like quirky interests or occupations, different proclivities or issues that can affect how he or she reacts like phobias, skeletons in the closet, job tension or fatigue from insomnia. Okay. Check. You’ve done that. Good. After all this great character building, does your work contain some unwanted distance? Are critters saying your work is pretty good but not engaging? Does your prose feel a bit clumsy? Filtering may be the cause.

Filtering is good for coffee, pools and cigarettes, but not novels. Yet it’s something writers do too frequently because they don’t know they shouldn’t.  But it’s something you should watch for and avoid in your work.

When you use combos like she saw, she felt, she heard etc., instead of just naming the stimulus, it zaps a reader’s connection with the scene character. Saying what’s observed or detected with a filter creates distance and makes readers feel like they’ve been ushered outside the POV just a little bit instead of right there with it. Plus, it mucks up work with superfluous words.

Whether you’re using First, Subjective Third or Omniscience, filtering should be kept at a minimum. Here are some examples that show the difference:

She smelled burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s, which incited hunger pangs. (filtered)
The aroma of burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s incited hunger pangs. (direct)

She noticed the dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sail off and flutter to the pavement. (filtered)
Dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sailed off and fluttered to the pavement.
(direct)

When she heard a window pane shatter and clink on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered to hide. (filtered)
When a window pane shattered and clinked on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered to hide. (direct)

To find the filtering in your work, look for noun-verb combinations like: she felt, she knew, she saw, she smelled, she heard, she tasted, etc. and could-forms like: she could feel, she could sense, etc. and rewrite them so they’re non-filtered.

In some instances, it’s effective to use a filter like this:

By the time she caught wind of his black cherry-leather cologne, her neck was in the stranglehold of a muscular arm.

She heard somewhere that filters can kill an otherwise good novel.

You can also use a filter to help set up POV.  In Omniscience, filters tend to be used more often, but once POV is established, they can be omitted. If your chosen narrator remains at a distance from all POV characters, not quite as far-removed as Objective/Dramatic nor as close as Subjective, then filtering can be used to maintain this distance throughout.

Filtering is a beginner’s mistake so it comes off as amateurish and that’s not the kind of impression you want to make. Rock on. Write on. Be direct.

~CV

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Please welcome back guest blogger, Chris Delyani, author of The Love Thing.

* * *

A couple of months ago I was chatting online, talking books on Goodreads with a few other readers, when someone mentioned how much she loved hyphens. Hyphens were her favorite punctuation mark, she said, because they were the “sexiest.”

“You’d think that I totally have a thing for commas,” she posted, “but no, for me it’s all about the hyphens. Ooooh-la la.”

Another reader spoke of her love for dashes, describing them as “strong, powerful, and able to connect disparate ideas or clarify existing ones.”

The hyphen-lover later chimed in: “Just the word … dash. Dash! DASH! It’s exciting, right? DASH!”

As a writer I’ve always been nuts about punctuation, but until then, I never thought of hyphens or dashes, or any other punctuation mark, as “sexy.” Which led me to ask myself, Carrie Bradshaw-style: Which punctuation mark is the sexiest?

I immediately threw out that question on a new thread, and was gratified to discover that for a lot of people, passion for punctuation runs high.

The reader with the thing for hyphens was the first to respond.

A hyphen, she wrote, “makes two things completely ordinary, and makes it sound kinda humorous … And what’s sexier than a sense of humor?” Her comment made me reach for Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, where I had little trouble finding evidence of what she meant.

“Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch,” Prince Hal lovingly hurls at Falstaff, and Falstaff, not to be outdone, retorts: “You starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish.” Thanks to those hyphens, it’s male bonding at its funniest.

Another reader put in a word for the comma. “There’s something about the beauty of the comma,” she wrote. “It sits slightly under the word and the things it can do for the flow of a sentence and the words and the cadence just make it even better.”

Another reader, backing her up, provided a photograph of a T-shirt entitled “Comma Sutra,” featuring pairs of commas nuzzling up to each other in a variety of eye-popping positions. I’m afraid I can’t do justice to commas here—they do too much—but at any rate, now that I’ve seen that T-shirt, I’m not sure if I can look at commas the same way again.

“I just love them,” remarked a reader on one of my favorite punctuation marks, the semicolon, and I couldn’t agree more. How can anyone resist them? Semicolons are tough. Semicolons have a physique. A semicolon makes me think of the awkward cute guy standing at the edge of the dance floor, waiting to be asked to dance but never getting asked because everyone is too afraid to approach them. I turn again to Shakespeare, whose Julius Caesar uses one of these musclemen to block his “valiant” self from the “cowards” in the opposing clause: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” If a comma sits under the word, the semicolon lifts it up—they’ve got the brawn to handle big clauses such as Caesar’s.

But semicolons are pipsqueaks next to the dominatrix of punctuation, the colon—a little formal, maybe, but a mark I always approach with awe. I love sentences in which the writer opens the sentence with a proposition, promises a payoff with a colon, and then delivers handsomely on the promise. What better way to illustrate this than with a quote from one of the toughest women in recorded history? “Though God hath raised me high,” said Queen Elizabeth I in her famous Golden Speech of 1601, “yet this I count the glory of my crown: that I have reigned with your loves.” Oh, the glory, the glory.

I was sorry not to hear more from the reader who loved the dashes. In some ways I find dashes tougher to use than colons, since they usually express a wide range of emotions, but when they’re used well, they’re unforgettable.

There’s the last line of dialogue from “The Tell-Tale Heart”: “I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Or The Great Gatsby, in which Daisy Buchanan uses a dash to speak a poignant truth about herself: “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!”

But neither Poe nor Fitzgerald can touch Emily Dickinson, a poet who, for all her reclusiveness, seems to dash all over the place: “Until We met the Solid Town—/No One He seemed to know—/And bowing—with a Mighty look—/At me—The Sea withdrew—” Better than any other writer, I think, Dickinson harnessed the power, the mystery of the dash. And in my book, mysteriousness is always sexy.

But it’s one thing to call a punctuation mark sexy. Can any one of them be called the sexiest?

For you, maybe the sexiest punctuation mark isn’t even one of the punctuation marks I talked about. Maybe you’ve got the hots for the period, the question mark, the quotation mark, the apostrophe; or maybe you’ve got a crush on the parenthesis, which often provides a tryst from the slog of some interminable sentence. Or maybe, even, it’s the exclamation point! So many punctuation marks, so many choices to tap into the life-beat of prose. How to choose the sexiest, then?

Me, I’ve stopped trying. When it comes to punctuation, I always play the field.

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There are going to be days when you’re tired, you’re uninspired, where you plain just don’t want to write. There will also be days when you would love to write your thoughts down but the phone won’t quit ringing, the toilet is leaking. These are the days when your life will just be too complicated to get any writing done.

I find that’s when my brain kicks into high gear, when I don’t have any time to indulge myself. When I have all the time in the world, I can’t write three coherent sentences. How do you work around your writing muse?

First of all, you have to train your muse like a pitbull puppy. Although they can make fine pets, you can never forget it’s a pitbull. The same goes for your muse. If you let it run wild, you’ll never get anything done.

First, you need to potty-training your muse. Don’t laugh. Do you want your muse making messes on the new carpeting? No. You must be firm but not mean. Set up a schedule to write. If possible, write every day. Pick a time when you won’t be interrupted and sit down and put words on the page. Perhaps write during your lunch break or get up forty minutes earlier to write before work. They don’t have to be great words, just words.

After awhile, your brain gets use to kicking in at a certain time of day and after several months, you can actually feeling the writing juices start to flow during your ‘writing time’. It’s just like puppy training, there will be accidents, there will be successes but the key is to be consistent.

Can’t write every day? Then set up one day a week to devote to writing, perhaps Sunday morning. The key is to be keep your schedule. It’s not going to work immediately. I’m just letting you know that. You have to work at it. There are no perfect puppies.

Leash training your muse is the next step. Be prepared. Can you walk a dog without a leash, collar, and some pre-training? No. The same goes for your muse. Keep a pen and paper in your car or your purse (or your man bag). If you have some cash, buy a little recorder. When driving or when you’re working on that leaking toilet, you can dictate your plot ideas or your cool lines of dialogue.

Don’t let your muse boss you around on the walk. You’re in charge.

The next step is obedience class. Obedience class is about socializing, networking, and improving your relationship with your muse and other writers.

Why? Isn’t writing a job of aloneness? It doesn’t have to be. Workshops and classes give you a chance to learn how to take criticism and to improve. Sometimes the lady with the poodle will constantly bait your dog. You have to learn how to deal with these kinds of people.

Maybe you can’t stand to be growled at. Get over it. You have to learn to be the best writer you can be, to see your flaws and your high points. Your muse has to learn to let yappy poodles go on their merry way. You won’t change the poodle.

In workshops and classes, you’ll also network. You’ll meet future agents, editors, blog writers and fellow novelists. You’ll learn from them ideas on how to do viral marketing, self-editing and self-promotion.

You’ll also learn how to tell someone to ‘Bite your Ass’.

And if you’ve ever tried to publish a book, you’ll know that these are skills you need.

The last thing you should know about training your muse is that you should have fun with it. You should play with it, build a relationship. Control your muse except when it’s time to let it run wild.

And if you’re good to your muse, train it well, it’ll be a loyal companion for the rest of your life. You let it be the boss and it’ll eat your sofa.

Muse Training 101.

Tirz

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Turning Tricks

16592171_6475953d81_m Every novelist wants to knock out a great book, one that engages readers and gets them to care about the final outcome and read beyond the first chapter. To be an exceptional storyteller, the vital thing you must master is the art of hooking. And you do that by using plenty of page-turning tricks and lures.

One of the best ways you can create a hooky work that’s so very hard to put down is to end every chapter in some dynamic fashion…even better if it’s every scene. You never want to be predictable, to always use the same kind of endings, with a banal note of foreshadowing if in First, with a dum-dum-dum moment if in Third. The same kind of downturn used consistently time after time becomes stale, moldy and barbless, even exasperating for readers. Aim to surprise, stimulate and catch readers off guard.

I was reviewing one novel on TheNextBigWriter where every chapter ended with some kind of cliffhanger, but then when the new chapter began, the perceived threat was nothing. Perception by the character, or more likely a case of cheap teasing by the author, was way overblown.

If you dish this kind of thing every chapter and we’re four chapters in, guess what, you’ve inadvertently shifted your readers to a place where they no longer believe you, and you may never gain your credibility back. Even the most unsavvy minds are no longer fooled, more over hooked or affected, by your “trick”. DO NOT fall into this rat trap. Ever. You can play the misunderstanding card a couple times, but really, overall, mix things up.

Even if you write literary fiction or a more character-driven work, you can strengthen your plot and make your book irresistible. Here are some cool tricks and angles you can infuse in endings in order to pull readers onward in the journey you’ve mapped out for them:

§ Failure in reaching a goal. Characters generally want or need something. Your job as a writer is to pull that object of desire further away from their outstretched hands. End the scene/chapter after a failed attempt.

§ A setback or deterrent. You can land your characters in a spot that’s far worse than they were at the onset of their quest.

§ Increased jeopardy. Is the antagonist one step closer to his or her prey, someone readers care about? Nothing gets readers turning pages faster than tension or a threat to the MC or another likable character.

§ A twist. You can lead readers to believe one thing and then make a shift in the story that gets them hungry to learn more about the jarring shocker you just revealed.

§ A new direction or lead for the protagonist/antagonist to pursue. Readers are information junkies and care about the story question you presented at the beginning, so get them excited or biting nails over the new possibilities in the arc.

§ A new question. You can hint at something that will be fleshed out later. Adding another mystery into your mix of goodies will give readers more to be concerned with.

§ Something totally unusual or unexpected. Oddities are generally great hooks.

§ A cliffhanger, imagined or real. If you leave a character in a state of peril, readers will race through subsequent scenes to get back and learn the outcome.

§ A chord of doom. If characters are about to follow a dangerous path in the story or are dealing with the weight of some kind of trauma or terrorizing realization, readers will be concerned with how a character deals. If you can end with sour, dire or terrifying chord, that’s best.

§ A departure from a heated moment. If you yank readers out of a heated argument or a passionate frenzy, they’ll be dying to return and see how things get resolved. BUT if the build up and full display are equally as important as the resolution, then do NOT shut readers out by giving a mere summary in the resurface, pick up where you left off. Write the scene and end with one character dissatisfied or regretful or spurred into another course of action. You can have a goal being met yet the outcome being not what the character anticipated.

§ Big trouble: a character dying, moving into a trap, blacking out because of a car accident, fall or whatever or caught in a chase; the emergence of a new threat; someone has died or has been found dead.

§ A new obstacle to overcome.

§ An apparent use of concealment. You may want to keep something hidden and depart from a point of tension that leaves readers guessing and wondering about what happened so you can reveal those details later on in the story.

There are many ways to hook readers. The key to good execution is to give doses of forward motion with plenty of unexpected and stunning scene-ending disasters along the way to the big answer. Write on. Hook ‘em and reel ‘em in, my fellow plumers.

~ CV

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For an aspiring writer, there’s nothing more inspirational than finding a community of writers who want to grow with you. It’s also an experience that can send you cowering under your blanket or hurling your laptop across the room. However, if you use discretion and common sense, a writer’s forum can help you polish your manuscript and take it up another notch on your way to publication. I wish I had known what I know today, but perhaps the following pointers can help you avoid some pitfalls and help you benefit from your site.

When you join a forum, like the one I joined, thenextbigwriter, don’t be intimidated by so-called established writers, those who have been there forever and feel a certain sense of ownership. Just because they have been on the site for three or four years doesn’t mean they’re great writers. Of course, the publishing world is cruel and some of the established writers are diamonds who have simply not been discovered, but be that as it may, you have as much right to belong as anyone, especially if you’ve paid your dues. Feel free to  read their works and offer suggestions.

Seek out works you admire, especially those in the genre you’re writing. Read those authors and cultivate reciprocal relationships with them. This means you have to put in a good faith effort when you critique works. It’s most insulting and annoying for someone to write a drive-by review and expect something worthy in return.

Be humble.  As I’ve said before, the publishing world is a cruel one, so when your fellow writers give you painful feedback, cry a little. Put off responding right away until you’ve had a chance to be objective. Your writing friends are only trying to help you be the best that you can be, and though reading is subjective, that’s the way it works in publishing.  Don’t accept criticism from only those who adore your work. Chances are they may be afraid to be truthful, especially if you develop a reputation for throwing a fit each time someone doesn’t fall in love with what you write.

Stay away from personal issues. Writers are naturally expressive and put everything out there. However, it can be annoying if you post every other day to complain about your miserable life. Pretty soon, it gets old and people don’t want to know. If you form friendships and those friends want to know, by all means share with them, but avoid making a general nuisance of yourself. The exception is when you post updates about your interaction with publishing professionals.  Even then, careful not to abuse the system by posting about every twinge of discouragement you feel. It gets old and discourages others.

If you can, avoid forum threads that quickly become full-blown fights. For one thing, you’ll be emotionally disturbed, waste time and be unable to write for a few days. Just focus on the goal at hand: to develop your craft.

Try to be kind to everyone, even the ones nobody likes. We’re all in this together. Besides, one day, they might buy your book or write books you’ll love.

There are more useful tips, but the above are a start in the right direction. Remember that no writers’ site is going to be good enough. When you’ve got the best out of yours, seek editorial help from a reputable editor.

Most of all, enjoy yourself; you’ll probably make lifelong friends!

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