Sunday, August 30, 2009

Marketing yourself and your work-blogs

In the movie Julie and Julia, Julie has a friend who sold her blog to HBO as a series. Julie then creates her own blog The Julie/Julia Project as a way of showcasing her writing talents and as we all know, that became a book and now a movie. I understand that Diablo Cody-who wrote the movie Juno-was discovered when writing her stripper blog. It would seem that blogging is the way to fame and fortune... or is it?
There are millions of blogs out there now. The chances of being "discovered" blogging are the same as an actress being discovered working in a mall in middle America. So, why blog?
Blogging is a good way to meet readers, other writers, to create buzz, to showcase your work, and to build a community.
But all I want to do is write books, you say. Do I have to blog? Answer in a nutshell-blogging is smart marketing for you and your books, but only if it's done well. If you can't devote time and thought to your blog...updating it at least once a week. Don't blog. You're wasting your time and readers will lose interest.
If you want to blog, here are a few tips for good blogging:
1) Post at least once a week on the same day. Example: I update this blog every Sunday. Be consistent. Some people blog on M,W,F. Others blog T,Th. Set a schedule and keep it. This way you will become a part of your readers routine.
2) Create a theme for your blog and reflect it in your blog title. Example: In Julie and Julia she titled her blog- The Julie/Julia Project and created a blog with an over all goal in mind- cooking her way through Julia Child's cook book in one year. If you are a regular reader of this blog, hopefully you've noticed my theme is writing-craft, marketing, and reviews that I try to center around writing and story telling.
3)Think of your blog as a newsletter/magazine. Create a calendar, a schedule, have a plan for what you want to say up to a year in advance. That way you're never caught wondering what to talk about when your day comes around.
4)Most importantly-ensure that what you say has what marketers call "value added" content. It offers your readers something they can use. For Julie it was hints, tips and the ugly truth of a "servant-less housewife" attempting to prepare French cuisine.
Lastly, 5) Get involved in the blogging community. Take the time to visit other blogs and leave comments. A blog by itself- no matter how good- will be lost in the Internet unless you let people know its there. Here's how you do that: link your blog to other blogs, create a blog roll, follow other blogs. Leave comments with a link to your blog or website under your name. Create links inside your blog.

For example: this last week, the wonderful and talented Jane Kennedy Sutton of Jane's Ride blog awarded this blog a Superior Scribbler Award. Blog awards are a great way to link to other bloggers and bring in new readers. By giving me this award, Jane brought a number of new readers to my blog. (I have Google Analytics attached to this blog and check my reports once a week to see which of my blogs created the most interest for my readers and what sites send readers my way.)
It sounds like a lot of work. It is. A good blog offers no promise of a television, book or movie deals. But a good blog can offer in reward- new readers, interesting and fresh craft and market information and above all good friends.
Below are just a few of the great blogs I follow check them out for examples of what a blog does:

Spunk on a Stick's Tips
Jessica Nelson's Booking It
Ann Victor author
Marilyn Brant's Brant Flakes
Boxing the Octopus
Linda Kage Blog Page
Sia Mckye's Thoughts Over Coffee
Cindy Proctor-King's Muse Interrupted
Morgan Mandel's Double M

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Writing Dialog

One of the biggest complaints I've heard from new writers over the years is that writing dialog is difficult. Some people have a natural "ear" for it. They are the kids who when playing make believe would tell you what to say..."Now you say, no, don't go!" And I'll say..."I have to go to save the farm." Then Suzy says, "We'll all go together." You remember those kids--perhaps you are one. If so, this blog is not for you.
If, on the other hand, you are a writer who grits their teeth every time you must write dialog, here are a few tips to train you writer's "ear."
1) Sit in a public place with pen and paper or notebook computer in hand and eavesdrop. Write down what people say. Pay attention to how they say it. Notice the difference between two guys speaking, a guy and a girl speaking, and two girls. People use different words, tones and styles of speech depending on sex and age of their partner in the conversation.
2) Pull your favorite fiction novel off the shelf and flip to the scene that really worked for you. Write down only the dialog--no tags. Now read it. Can you tell if it is a male or female speaking? Compare ficiton dialog to the notes you took of real dialog. Yes, there is a difference. Fiction dialog must have meaning in each word. In your book, you don't waste time with hellos, goodbyes, small talk. You must zero in on the meat of the discussion--the reason to talk at all and ensure you get that in the dialog. Pay attention to how this author did it. Take the time to flip through a second or third book--copy a snippet of dialog. Compare. Some of the best textbook examples of writing are found on your favorite books shelf.
3) Write your scene. Then highlight the dialog of the characters with a different color for each. Read only the dialog aloud. Can you tell which character is speaking? Can you distinguish their sex and age? If yes, congratulations you are successful. If not, go back and try again.
Writing dialog takes practice, patience and a trained ear. Think of a successful singer, they have trained their ear for proper pitch and expression through years of practice. While you may not have a coach with you, you will find yourself in public places. Take a moment to pay attention to the dialog around you. After a while it will become second nature and your characters will speak to you. Good luck and happy writing!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Writing Tension and Conflict

Two weeks ago I talked about plot being two dogs and one bone. What that means is plot is essentially conflict and conflict causes tension. It keeps the reader turning pages because they want to know what happens next. Afterall we all slow down at the scene of an accident because we want to know what happened or if we can help. Whether you are a plotter/outliner or a pantser (free style writer), you need to keep an eye toward tension and conflict in each scene.
There are many different kinds of conflict and tension. First there is the story conflict--you have this in every book of every genre. You have no story without an over arching conflict whether that is looking for a happy-ever-after, solving a murder, surviving a bad guy, winning an epic space battle, or making it out of the 5th grade. Each work of fiction begins with an over all story conflict. Make sure you have one. It's not enough to simply have a cool setting or funny characters. The reader wants to know what happens and why they care.
Next there is relationship conflict/tension. I'm not talking about only romance. Relationship tension works in all genres. Think Harry Potter and Professor Snape, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. A story really hums when you set up opposites, and pit them against each other, give them the same goal. If you find that you have a sagging or dull middle to your book, look at your character relationships and make things worse, ie. the bad guy is winning, your character just crossed a personal line they thought they'd never cross, someone they love gets hit by a bus, or thrown in jail and the character can't fully participate in helping. Tie them up in emotional knots or real knots and make them watch while others hurt/fall/struggle.
No where are we watching characters in day to day activities...getting dressed, making dinner, paying bills... unless it adds to emotional or physical conflict and tension. They have nothing appropriate to wear, their boss is coming to dinner and it burns or there is not enough money for all of the bills.
I recently read Jeffery Deaver's Roadside Crosses. Here are some examples of tension in this book: 1) overall story- someone is hurting people escalating to killing people and leaving a roadside cross announcing they are about to do so. (The roadside cross in advance of the crime gives the feeling of a ticking clock which hurries the plot along. The escalation of violence from kidnapping to torture to murder also speeds the plot-things are getting worse.) 2)conflict between heroine and her part time partner is two fold- they work well together, like and respect each other, there is sexual tension...and yet he is married. Plus he has his own cases to work. 3) heroine's mother is arrested for murder unrelated to the case and heroine can't devote all her time to helping her mother because more people are getting killed creating guilt and another strained relationship. 4) heroine's boss comes down on her for political heat he is getting on the case. 5) Another man enters the picture who helps with the case and shows romantic interest-but will her children approve? Is she willing to let go of her feelings for the married guy? 6) There are protesters-zealots ready to picket and mob anyone that opposes their views.
These are great examples of story question/conflicts/tensions large and small that create pacing, and keeps the reader turning the pages. These characters are feeling conflict at every turn. They are having a string of bad days...bad days that eventually work themselves out.
So, if you're stuck with a sagging middle or you don't know what happens next, think conflict, tension and problems great and small. Let the bad guy win. Let a deadline lapse. Let them fall for the wrong person. Let conflict carry you through.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Julie and Julia a movie review

I was going to write about craft and tension today but then I went to see the movie Julie and Julia yesterday. And I thought it was time for a good review.

Meryl Streep is a fabulous (but we knew that) as Julia Child. Stanley Tucci is wonderful as her husband. Amy Adams plays an ordinary woman turning 30 wondering why her life isn't what she dreamed...The film is warm and funny. The theater was filled with laughter and at the end- applause. You don't get a lot of that these days in movie theaters.

For me, it made me laugh-in a good way- at the dream of being published and how the journey unfolds. It made me cry, at the part where Julia's cook book is ultimately rejected. She tells her husband..."eight years of my life and they hate it...eight years...(I know this feeling) Oh well, poor me. It started off as something to do... I guess that's all it was."
I feel this way every darn time I get a rejection letter...sadness...why? Because of the scene before that...the scene where after 8 years of work she is boxing up the revised book to send to the publisher...and says "this is the best time. The time when all things are possible...when you can imagine that they will love it and the book will sell millions of copies..."
The work, the blood, the sweat the tears...the time away from family...the hope when they want to read a partial... the dream when you send in the full... the incredible waste when they reject the book...(for her and lately for me "rejected for economic reasons.") The pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try a new publisher... another revision... a new story type, and of course she was ultimately published. This is what it's like to be a writer.
Oh- then...the food in the movie! :) It made me realize that no one eats like that anymore. We're preprocessed, low cholesterol, low fat, lucky if we get a flavorless grilled chicken breast with our nasty over steamed frozen convenience veggies. Why? So we can live longer? Julia was in her 90's when she died. Be skinnier? People are more obese today than ever with our fake sugar, fake eggs, fake butters... (But then again who can afford to be a lobster killer or eat fresh duck? I know my kids grew up on "American Boiled Dinner" - hot dogs, frozen veggies and buttered egg noodles. It's what we could afford.) Still would it be so bad to eat one good, fresh home cooked meal a month?
To me, this movie showed two things:
1) The writer's journey-and no most don't have the story book Hollywood ending of bestseller and movie rights...sigh.
2)We've forgotten how to live...cook fresh real food, dress up in real fibers, set a table with napkins, table cloth and china, enjoy dinner with family and friends.
So, see the movie if you can, it's big fun. But more importantly-create a life with passion and romance, "a big mess on the floor..." and "never apologize... after all who's to know if you mess it up."


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Revising/Editing 301, going beyond grammar

Over the passed fifteen years, I have read many lovely, lyrical, funny, pages for critique that I have had to ultimately ask the writer..."As lovely as this is--how does it advance the plot?" The answer is, it does not and all those pages must be cut. Pages like this are found not only in the beginning of the book but sometimes in chapter 10, or chapter 5 or chapter 15.

Revising and polishing is more than spell check and grammar check. It is more than taking out repetitive words and passive verbs. These are the easy things-the things 90 percent of critique groups find. In other words, revising/editing 101.

Revising/editing 201 is when you ask questions like--in Los Angeles is it called Forensics Services or Crime Scene Investigation; and questions like--is that physically possible to do that? You look at each scene for point of view and adding textual details like smell, touch, sound and taste.

The harder stuff--revising/editing 301--comes from experience- lots of experience and a basic understanding of plot and tension. When editing 301 you have to be willing to be ruthless with your baby. To look at your work with a critical eye and to cut, cut, cut- rewrite and rearrange. (Hint: I put the cuts in a separate file. It helps the sting to know that all those wonderful words- all that hard work is not "lost forever." But the truth is I rarely, rarely ever use what I cut...which means I did my job when I edited my work.)

Lets start:

1) Each chapter must open with a hook. Each chapter should end with a hook. Hint: start in the middle of something. End in the middle of something. Beware of putting in action for action's sake. Make each action count. (Think about television shows...have you noticed how often characters dialog while walking? It's a visual cheat that creates the feeling of action and tension while imparting important information.)
2)Look carefully at each scene- is your character getting dressed? cut. Showering? cut. Making dinner? cut. Driving a car from here to there? cut. What?! Why?? You ask? Because the key to good pacing and page turning drama is asking yourself..."does this advance the plot?" Does this help the reader fall asleep or keep the reader up all night? (Again-pay attention to your favorite authors or TV shows or movies...if they are in the car-is there a chase scene? Does it have purpose? A shower scene... does it have purpose? Immediate action? Sex?)
3) Think tension in each scene. There are many different kinds of tension- sexual, internal, external...all create conflict. Conflict keeps the reader turning pages...makes them burn dinner...stay up all night...think about the characters for days afterwards. And best of all-makes the reader say-"When is your next book coming out?"

But--you say, what about my word count? Surprisingly, I have found that once the dead wood is cut it is easy to see missing bits in the scene or chapter and words flow. I usually end up with more not less when I do deep edits.
What about downtime? Transition? Yes, it's true that you need dips in tension and action to give the reader time to breathe to have the moment of relaxation before the next scare-think horror movie...the relaxing scene in the boat at the end...right before a hand reaches out and grabs the heroine. Keep these scenes short- give them purpose-if the protagonist is sleeping, show that they sleep with their windows closed and a gun on the nightstand. If they are driving, have them see something, or discover something that advances the plot.

Editing 301- deep editing/revising is important. It can take your work from sparkle to diamond shine. In my opinion it is the most important kind of editing. Copy editors will catch grammar and factual details, but only you can advance the plot. Good luck!