Words for Writers

WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

This is a question that came in from social media, and I’ve been pondering the answer for a few months. I could say something glib like “When I’ve hit my publisher’s word count!” but of course, this question is, I think, more about when you know that you’ve finished telling the story you wanted to tell – beginning to end and with all the adjustments and edits added during the drafts.

I think, if I may projet, what you’re really asking is, when are you satisfied enough with the manuscript to call it “done” (or at least, done enough to start pitching around or to give to your editor/agent.)

And that’s a hard, hard, hard question for any author, but a doubly hard one for me – see I nearly always write the ending first.

When I start a novel, I usually start by writing the scene that is, for me, the most powerful, the most attractive, the most fun and filled with the most flavor of the book.  Usually it’s either the first act, second act, or third act/novel climax, simply because of the way my brain works. By that point I more or less know where in the timeline of these character’s lives the story needs to stop, and where it needs to start. But of course those things can slide depending on edits and the need for background info, epilogues, a better tie-up, etc.

For other writers, they plot the whole book before they sit down, so they know before they start where the ending is. And for others, they just write until it seems done, and solidify that endpoint during the editing phase.

But as for knowing when the story is finished?

Yowza.

That’s a hard question to answer.

Don’t laugh, but for me it’s when the story stops squirming. There’s this feeling I get in my stomach, under my skin, that’s like a wiggly itch – it’s the physical manifestation of knowing that something is off, I just don’t know what yet. When I read the book and there’s no squirm? It’s done.  You could also be really morbid and compare it to a pinned live butterfly as well – flipping and flopping all over the place, shedding wing-dust and scales all over the velvet. I have one pin in it – at the tip of a wing – but I have to get another pin into the other wing, and then another in the bottom wings, and another in the thorax and … yeah, okay, I know I sound like a serial killer.

But the idea is the same. When the story is pinned in place from all corners, and the full picture is spread out, beautiful, and legible, then the story is done.

A good way to check is to write the meaning and beats of each scene down on note cards as you re-read the book over, like this:


The Untold Tale

Chapter One:
Scene 1:

Beats: Forsyth sees Mother Mouth approaching with Pip through study window –  goes down to meet them in the foyer – they check for/neutralize spells on the body Mouth has brought – body is alive, it’s a woman – Forsyth brings her into the house and they set up a room for her – Forsyth stays by her bedside, ostensibly as a host but really to keep an eye on her in case this is a ploy

Needed Because: Sets up Forsyth as caring and overly servile; intros world, Turn Hall, Mother Mouth; sets up Forsyth as spy (readers don’t know yet); introduces Pip’s scars.


When you have all your cards for all your scenes, pin them to the wall and connect them with color-coded string – for example, anything scene/card that builds Forsyth as the Shadow Hand will be connected by, say, Purple, while anything about Pip and her scars is connected in green. You can also do this with color-coded highlighter marks, sticky notes, stickers, etc.

(I do it digitally via Scrivener, which has a pin-board and color coding built in.)

When you’ve done this all, step back and look at it – does every card have a string attached to it, or a color coded dot in the corner? Do all the things you’ve set up pay off? Do you have a scene that is a repeat of another, does it re-establish something that was already established once, or drags, or is superfluous? Did you describe the same place three times or did the character growth arc flipflop?

And if it doesn’t serve the overall story? Cut it. Or fix it. Or rewrite it.

I call those moments “decks” – we build a lot of decks for our characters to hang out on in fiction, but we should really be building staircases. Your staircase can have some landings, some places to rest up and catch your breath, but ultimately they should be going up up up. If your characters / plot / forward momentum is chilling on a deck with a frosty bevvie, then the deck needs to be rebuilt, tilted upward, and forcing your story back into motion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to book has to plow ahead, no-holds-barred. Your story can meander, and linger, and be slow, can treasure quiet moments and have multiple episodes that feed into the main narrative – that’s fine. So long as everything needs to be there. So long as it goes.

But a book should be waterproof and air tight, no matter how many words long it is.  Looking over it shouldn’t give you squirmies. Everything should connect, no scene or moment or even sentence should be meaningless.

If you can say that you have ruthlessly reviewed every plot point, every scene, every sentence – going from macro to micro – and can confidently and honestly say that everything that is there is something that needs to be there for the sake of the story, or the plot, or the character arc, or the world and/or word-crafting… then I think that’s when the book is done.

When all of the story that needs telling to make it a story is told, then then the story is complete.

I know it sounds complicated and rigorous, but with any luck, you’ll have your own intuitive version of the squirmies that will let you know when there’s still one more draft to do.

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here. Or read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

My writing has been featured in the Bedside Press books “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls” and “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Redux

I caught up with publisher Bedside Press to discuss storytelling and the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. You can read the blog post here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – The Value of National Novel Writing Month

WORDS FOR WRITERS – The Value of National Novel Writing Month

 

#NationalAuthorsDay falls on the start of National Novel Writing Month. This is my 16th NaNoWriMo and I want to talk a bit about what this ‘competition’ has meant to me.

I have ‘won’ a total of 12 times – that is, I have hit the 50k word mark 12 of those 16 years.  The years I did not, I failed for a few different reasons. In 2011 I ended up in the hospital just hours after the kickoff party due to Sudden Organ Death (weee). Luckily, I still managed to scrape a short story out of the idea, which was published in an anthology. That story actually helped me win a grant last month to write the full version next year (so I guess I know what I’m doing for my 17th NaNoWriMo already!)

The rest of the failure years, I had signed up and plopped down a few thousand words. But things like a thesis or deadlines for other books due to publishers got in the way (ironically, all of them past NaNo projects themselves). I did sign up with the intention of at least trying to win those years, but I just couldn’t make it happen.

And I’m going to be really honest – how I do NaNo now is not at all how I did it at the start.  In the beginning, I followed “the rules” pretty stridently: new project on November 1st, started nothing before that date, outlined or pantsed (tried both). And that was fine. It worked. I wrote two novellas and the lion’s share of two or three books like that.

But the more I NaNo now, the more I find myself Rebelling. One year I wrote some shorts that I had promised folks and never finished. A few times, I wrote scripts (one now signed with a prodco). One year I wrote pitch documents and starting chapters for a few different projects, as this is what was due. Some years I’ve finished novels I’d already started (pausing when I hit about 20-40k in August/September to finish the last 50k in November). This year I am revising an existing novel, rewriting huge swaths of it, and in some case just out and out deleting and utterly redoing full chapters. This will likely be at least 50k New Words anyway, so I’m comfortable with Rebelling in this way.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s not cheating.

Because while the aim of NaNoWriMo is to write 50k on a brand new novel, the real true value of NaNo is not in walking away with a stack of papers. It is in learning about what you need to write.

 

Committing to 1667 words per day means that you need to carve out time, space, and mental energy to devote to the story you want to tell. Over time you develop habits, and figure out how to correct or accommodate them. You learn what kind of planning you need to do in advance (if any), what sort of environment you need to write (I can’t attend write-ins because I find them too loud and busy), what time of day you write best (I like quiet, at night), what sort of writing you prefer to do (I jump all over the manuscript instead of writing the story completely in order – thank god for Scrivener).

But these things that I know about myself as a writer, these things that I do and I need? I would never have discovered them if I hadn’t done NaNoWriMo. If I hadn’t tried it at least once. In fact, if I hadn’t tried a few times. Practice makes perfect, they say, but practice also reveals process. Like granite revealed as softer soapstone is worn away by the elements, the core things that you need as a writer – writing environment and time, kinds of pressures, outlines or pantsing, types of edits and beta reads – will remain.

NaNoWriMo can also introduce you to other writers, who can mentor you, or become your beta readers, or teach you new methods, or processes, or just plain help you (just as you’d help them in return) along your storytelling journey. Publication may not be your ultimate goal, but having friends who understand and support you as you create is still valuable. Community and support networks are so important as a creator.

Why bother at all if you’re just Rebel Writing every November, you may ask? Well, part of it is just straight up nostalgia, I’ll admit that. But part of it is that I do actually like the deadline. I say it every year: 50k words does not a novel make. But it’s a lot more words on the page than 0 words. There’s value to at least having that much, even if it isn’t a full complete novel. (Novellas, on the other hand, are 50k so that might be a complete story when you’re done it!) In that same vein, you can’t edit what doesn’t exist, so it forces you to at least get the darn thing on the page even if it sucks. That’s what editing is for.

Deadlines do genuinely help me as a writer. They give me motivation and a target to aim for. And who doesn’t like putting a gold star sticker on a chart, or a checkmark in a ticky box? There’s a sense of accomplishment that I treasure in watching the stats bar go up. That works for me.

But deadlines like this are horrifying for other writers, and I accept that.

The big truth about NaNoWriMo is that it’s not for everyone; but trying and failing at NaNo and learning that this form of writing is not for you is just as valuable as succeeding at NaNo. The stress, the deadlines, the community, the way it’s all set up – it doesn’t work for everyone and that’s okay. Now you know that about yourself, and you didn’t know that before. So in a way, you still won.

While getting those words on the page it important, the real thing you win at the end of National Novel Writing Month is not a novel, but a better understanding of yourself as a storyteller.

 

For more discussion on the value of NaNo, visit Chuck Wendig’s twitter threadAnd come be my buddy on NaNoWriMo’s website.

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here, including past posts about NaNoWriMo.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get My Book Onto A Screen?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get My Book Onto A Screen?

This is a question I see a lot from new writers – “Yeah, sure, I want to write a book, but everyone knows that the real money is in screen adaptations. How do I get that?”

The answer (take it from someone who has had a few close calls) is “not easily.” It can happen, but it is a very long process, with a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and nothing that you can control until you are already a multi-billionaire who can afford to pay other people to adapt your work as a vanity project. (And even then, you still have to convince a team that your property is going to make them money for them to make it and distribute it.)

So, first things first –if you’re writing a book solely on the hope that someone will turn it into a movie/TV show, I would encourage you to consider that maybe you should be expending your energy on screenwriting instead of novel writing. If that’s where your heart lies, then follow that!

If your heart is still set on the idea of writing a novel, then I’m happy to outline the steps that a book takes from page to screen.

  • Write a novel.
    1. No, seriously.
    2. Write it. Finish it. Edit it. Polish it.
    3. People don’t license adaptation rights for unfinished works/ideas unless you are very, very famous and a proven cash cow. You wanna sell a thing? It generally has to be a FINISHED thing.
  • From the minute you write that novel, you own the copyright on the Intellectual Property (IP) of the world, characters, individual and particular details of the novel. In Canada, you don’t need to register it, but I believe you may in the USA.
  • Publish the book.
    1. You can self-publish it, or go the traditional route.
    2. The book has to be published, or filmmakers will never know it exists. Again, you need to prove that you can finish a thing, and they need the whole story to know what they’re agreeing to. Usually the whole SERIES, if there’s more than one.
  • When you publish a book with a publisher, they will not be buying your book, but paying you in royalties (and maybe advanced royalties if you’re lucky) for the right to license your IP and create a product called “a book” out of it.
    1. There will be subclauses for “a print book” and “an ebook”.
    2. There may also be subclauses for an “audiobook” if the publisher has an attached audio production house and/or is willing to shell out to get it made.
    3. Most indie publishers do not have the money to make an audiobook, and won’t take the rights for that.
      1. In this case you can either pitch it to a house or produce or pay to/make it yourself.
  • HOWEVER, publishers are not production studios and 99.99% of the time will NOT ask for further rights.
    1. Though they may include a clause saying they get to participate in negotiations for those dramatic adaptation rights for your IP.
    2. If they do ask for more rights, consult your i) agent, ii) lawyer, or iii) a friend in the biz to make sure it’s all on the up-and-up.
    3. Again, most indie/small press publishers won’t even bother including a clause regarding dramatic adaptation because they have no connections and no intention to pitch it around for you.
  • Once the book is out in the world either:
    1. An interested party will contact you/your agent (acquisitions folks read review mags and sites all the time), or
    2. The Entertainment Lawyer/Agent at your literary agency will pitch the IP to production houses, or
    3. You the author will start pitching it to production houses/creators, or
    4. You the author will decide to write the screenplay and produce the whole production out of pocket. (In which case, skip down to the celebration part of the list).
  • If A, B, or C: in the event that you get a bite, the interested party (it could be an agent, an actor, a director, a producer, a screenwriter, etc.) will enter into negotiations with you/your agent for the rights to license your IP for a screen adaptation.
  • Like the publisher, the company/individual petitioning for the right to adapt your IP for the screen will arrange to pay you for the right to do so. Generally this comes in three segments – an Option, a Greenlighting Fee, and a Back End Deal.
    1. An Option is a set amount of money that the interested party agrees to pay you annually for exclusive access to your IP and your promise that you won’t sell it out from under them while they work to amass funding/interest/cast and crew to create the adaptation. Basically, they’re paying you to have exclusive right to use your IP, when they get around to it
      1. An option is not a guarantee that the production will be made – people lose interest, funding falls through, studios change hands, screenwriters quit, etc.
      2. But it’s a way for interested parties to ensure that you don’t go wandering away with the IP while they work to contract a screenwriter, audition actors, ask for funding money, and build sets/costumes, and basically revv up to make the thing.
      3. Not every creator gets an Optioning Fee, and sometimes there’s a statute of limitations – i.e. after 10 years, if it still isn’t made and you’ve collected 10 option fees, then you get to take your toys and go elsewhere with them. This is actually good for you, because it makes the interested parties be serious and not just buy your IP to sit on it.
    2. A Greenlighting Fee is a percentage of the budget as it stands when the production is ‘greenlit’ that is gifted to you as a thank you when the production begins.
      1. Not every creator gets a Greenlighting fee, and the percentage changes.
    3. A Backend Deal is a percentage of the box office/merch profits you receive as a royalty after the production has been paid off, and the cast/crew paid out.
      1. Not every creator gets a Backend Deal, and the percentage changes.
  • Once that contract is negotiated between you and the interested party, you can make additions like asking to be the screenwriter (can be a good thing, can be a not good thing), asking to be on set, asking to be in the writing room for a series, asking for input on casting, or to be the story consultant.
    1. Be aware that the interested party can say no. If you don’t like that, then you have to decide if you want to license it to them anyway and remain hands-off, or if you’d like to cancel the deal.
    2. They may ask you to compromise – if you have no prior experience in screenwriting, which is a very different beast, they may pair you with a pro. Or if you don’t know how productions are made, what an on-set script supervisor is or a writing room is, etc. then they may pair you with a teacher-buddy. It’s not an insult. It’s just to make sure you have a support system when new stuff gets tossed at you.
    3. They may say yes. Make sure you really, really, really know what you’re agreeing to.
  • Assuming everything goes well, and you/your agent ink a deal you’re happy with, then an announcement will be made that the screen adaptation is in the works!
    1. Yay!
    2. Productions falter or get trapped in pre-production hell. This is STILL not a guarantee that it will actually happen.
    3. But you have a greater chance now!
  • The production company/ interested party will then get onto the business of sourcing funding, hiring actors, hiring a screenwritier, etc.
    1. You may or may not be consulted in this.
      1. They may really want you there, and really want your involvement.
      2. They may really have a vision of their own and don’t want your input. You need to be ready to just take your money and butt out, if it comes to that.
  • In the meantime? Write something else.
    1. Seriously.
    2. Distract yourself. Making films/TV shows takes YEARS.
    3. Other people might reach out to you interested in what else you may have to license when your first deal is announced. Make sure you have something when opportunity comes to knock!
  • Okay – so, contract signed, production in full swing, adaptation gets made! Yay! Celebration time! Enjoy the premiere!
    1. Oh god, wear comfortable heels. Red carpets are long, and you tip all over the place in stilettos cause the carpets can be squashy.
    2. There’s a photo of me falling on my face. It exists and I cannot make it unexist.
  • You still own the IP.
    1. Unless you signed it away.
    2. Read everything you sign very thoroughly.
  • Start over!

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

 

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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Think Up New Ways To Promote Books?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Think Up New Ways To Promote Books?

A fellow author James Bow asks: Where do you get your ideas for promoting your work?

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One of the mantras of marketing your novels, especially in genre work, is Know Your Audience.

That is, to know who they are. Know their demographics. Know their age. Know their gender, sexuality, average spend on books, and what they like to read in terms of comparable titles and preferred tropes.

But I would argue that it’s not enough to simply know the audience – you need to know where they live, too.

Now, I don’t mean in a stalkery sense. Don’t, you know, go to their houses and stare in their bathroom windows as they try to read in the tub.

I mean – know where they live on the internet.

Build a profile of your “Everyfolk” by looking at a slice of your reviewership. Where do they post reviews of your work? What do they like best about it? What other interests can you glean from their profiles? Do they have social media accounts? What do they talk about most on those accounts? And most importantly… where do other people like them learn about new books and fandoms to buy and read and love?

As an example…

If I were a writer of cottage-cozy mysteries, I might look at the lives of ten of my reviewers (making sure, of course, not to pick my own family or friends). In looking at those reviewers let’s pretend I build an Everyfolk profile that says on average my reviewers, and thus my readership, learns about my novels from my personal newsletter and a still-active Yahoo-Group about mysteries with protagonists like mine, spends a lot of time on Facebook primarily, and has side interests in baking strange pinterest recipes.

Maybe I write modern contemporary queer YA romance, and my Everyfolk spends a lot of time on Wattpad and Tapas, loves funny memes on Tumblr, and really only uses Twitter to yell at Trump and the NRA.

Maybe I write superhero novels, and my Everyfolk knows the MCU backwards and forwards, posts long blistering meta critiques of Netflix shows on their instagram accounts, and worships a handful of freelance illustrators who have a side hustle doing commissions work at comic conventions, or illustrating scenes from their fave fics as gifts.

And if you can’t find this information from your online research, then you know, you can just ask them.

Once you have your profile, then you can figure out how to reach these different Everyfolk where they live. And once you know that, you can think of all the ways to catch their attention.

The Everyfolk Cozy Mystery readers will be attracted to ads on Facebook, or promo codes and sales through your newsletter, or offered to their Yahoo Group. But you know what might actually really catch their attention – some kind of baking thing that ties in with your books. If they love baking, then engage them on that level. Make a series of videos where you speed-bake through one recipe per novel in the series (and hey, give the cake a neat twist, like making a lava cake where the chocolate inside is the color of blood).

For the Contemporary Queer YA Everyfolk, make ads on Twitter. Post part or all of the novel on Wattpad or Tapas (especially if it’s the first of a series.) but these are folks who like free, so do giveaways and contests for ARCs, too. And also make some fun internet quizzes, or meme-machines, or hop on the most recent meme-wagon and do some stuff adjacent to your book. (@DrunkAusten is a great account to follow for examples of these sorts of memes).

For the Superhero Novel Everyfolk, advertise your books on Instagram, and learn how to use some of the many fun plug-ins to animate your book. Study the #Bookstagramer and #Shelfie images and recreate them with your own novels. But also consider commissioning some of your own art from those fantastic artists to get your characters in front of the reader’s eyes – even better, combine it with some sort of promocode or giveaway.

The point is this – engage your readership in ways that they like to engage with one another.  And do it genuinely, too. Become a part of the community before you start to market yourself.

And don’t just ask them to create – don’t hold a fanfic, or cosplay, or art competition where they do all the work and you get all the free marketing as a result. That’s exploitation and frankly insulting. Throw your passions down in with theirs, show willing, and have fun. Offer something, instead of asking for something.

The goal here is create something that on the surface is nifty, fun, and has viral potential. But the secondary purpose, i.e. the B Plot, is actually marketing your books. (And before you release the thing, make sure your website is fully updated, because people will start Googling you if it’s successful. You don’t want to get caught with your pants down).

And if it doesn’t go viral and bring a lot of attention to your books, well then at least it was fun to do with a great new community of awesome folks, right?

Right!

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Think Up New Ways To Promote Books?
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