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Writer’s Toolbag: Attending Conventions Part 2

In part one I discussed a bit about attending a convention and some of the things to look for when selecting whether to attend or not.  Here in Part 2, I’ll discuss how to go about attending as a panelist.

Getting into a convention as a panelist is quite a bit more difficult than merely attending.  For some conventions (looking at you Dragon Con) they’re very selective and you may never hear back.  For others, as long as you present yourself as a benefit to their convention, they’ll be happy to have you.

The first part of that is to be professional.  For most of these conventions you can browse their websites and find out who will be running the panels or programming for the convention.  That’s the person you want to contact.

When you do email them, write a professional introduction.  Tell them who you are and what you write.  Tell them what you’ve heard about their convention and why you want to participate.  If you bring ideas to the table, that’s generally a good thing, especially if you have an idea for a panel that would be fun and won’t require any additional effort on their parts.

The second part of this is remembering that the people running conventions are volunteers and they volunteer their time and effort because they like conventions and they enjoy getting people together to enjoy their genre of fandom.  If you present them with ways make a convention more enjoyable, then generally the people running the convention will be happy to have you.

The next part of that is how you behave at the convention.  Remember, this is about presenting yourself in a good manner.  If you’re participating in a panel, be sure to give other people time to talk.  If you are moderating, try to keep the panelists roughly on track, try to have some topics of conversation prepared, and most importantly be friendly and personable to everyone you meet.   Having dealt with rude panelists and audience members, it’s the quickest way to alienate a potential reader or connection.

As far as what to say, generally if you’re an author you’re passionate about things in the genre.  Talk about the things you find interesting, but gauge your audience.  If people are yawning, checking their watches or phones, or worst of all filing out of the room… well, that’s a bit of a sign.  Try to be entertaining, intelligent, and charming.  Basically you’re trying to establish yourself as someone who has something interesting to say.  That way they’ll remember you and maybe look at what you have to write.

Lastly, remember that bad impressions are more likely to stay with people.  The unfortunate truth is that most of the people you encounter won’t remember you at a convention, especially not the other professionals.  They meet so many people at so many conventions, that everyone sort of blurs together.  What they will remember, though, is if you’re the jerk who snapped at people or said derogatory things about other authors.  Good behavior may not get you a book deal or gain you lots of readers, but bad behavior will gain you notoriety and not  in a good way.

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Writers Toolbag: What to Write

It’s commonly said: write what you love.  Yet at the same time, there’s still a strong push (not as strong as it once was, but still present), to write what is “marketable”.

That kind of thing presents a bit of a conundrum.  Do you write to what you think the market is or do you write to your personal preferences?  The short answer is: yes.

This is actually a tremendously complicated question and the real answer comes back to what you want out of writing.  You can be successful writing purely for market and you can be successful writing what you love.  Most people don’t get into writing unless they really love it and when you’re gauging your success, it comes back to your feelings about writing.

Writing to market is when an author knows something is selling so they write that.  This happens for new authors and it happens for well established authors.  With new authors, they often see “X” is selling really well, so they set out to write their version of “X” and make lots of money.  Most often what happens for the established authors is that one series sells really well or receives critical acclaim, so they write more of that.  It’s human nature to seek approval for our work, and writing to market is a way to seek “guaranteed” results.   The problem, of course, is that if you don’t enjoy what you’re writing (or worse, if you view it as a chore or even painful exercise), then that emotion carries over into what you write.  At best, you end up with a sort of generic result that is devoid of much of anything, at worst… well, you end up with a disaster.  The key to writing to market is blending in the things you love about writing.  Take that hot-selling genre and put your own spin on it, make it interesting and into something you are passionate about.

Writing to preference is the flip side of the coin.  You may have this really great idea that you can’t wait to get down on the page.  Oftentimes it isn’t even hard to write this stuff… but when you go to sell it things get a bit problematic.  Publishers like stories that can be summed up in a few words.  For self-publishing, if you have to take ten minutes to explain it all, you run the risk of potential readers shutting the door or moving on before they give it a look.  Writing to preference is often innovative and exciting, but it’s a hard slog on gaining readers.  You have to work hard, build up a readership, and it only works if you get people to be as passionate about it as you are.  The problem is that readers as a whole are very conservative.  They like the familiar.  Most readers want to know, going in, the genre, topic, characters, etc of the book.  When you go to write your idea, if it doesn’t fit into one of those easily defined categories (or even if it just isn’t what you normally write), you risk turning away readers before they even open your book.

At the end of the day, you need to identify why you write.  Do you want big sales?  Are you writing for yourself or for others?  Do you have a message or story you want to share?   These things shape whether you should write more creatively or more focused.  In a perfect world you can blend the two and finding a good balance point is always something you should work on.  The worst possible thing, of course, is getting burned out, writing things you don’t want to be writing.

Writing is hard.  Make it easier on yourself and understand your own motivations for writing.  Then you can decide whether you’re really writing that Kaiju Paranormal Romance Noir story because you want to or because you think it will make you money.

 

 

Writer’s Toolbag: Finding Your Voice

Taxes Writer Image 2One of the first bits of professional advice I found confusing was regarding my “voice”.   At the time, I figured I’d just write a story, how I wrote it was my voice… right?

Well, sort of.  You see, a writer has a certain tone that they use when they write.  It’s a mix of word-choice, plot choices, pacing, and characterization that not only singles out who you are as a writer, but it also has effects upon your readers.

Some authors have a frenetic tone that writes a book fast and also makes for a quick read.  Such styles lend themselves well to fast, action-oriented stories.

Other authors are driven by the details.  Sections of dense, complex prose is there to lay out the world in a clear, enriched fashion.

There’s no one “right” way to do this, just what works for you as an author.  I find that I have a different voice when I write military science fiction than from my epic fantasy series.  Some of that is necessary in that you don’t want “modern” terms and comparisons in a fantasy setting (at least, not without good reason).  Some of that is simply that I’m writing with a different goal in mind.

Voice plays into reader expectations as well.  As you develop readers and fans, they come to expect a certain voice.  If you don’t write that way, it can lead to confusion.  They may not be able to pick up on what’s wrong, but they’ll feel it.

So how do you develop your voice?  Well, in a big part, it’s simply how you write.  The words you chose and the way you shape your story.  The central piece of this is understanding your voice.  It comes back to your central ideas and your unique perspective.  The details that you pick out to put into your writing, the way that your characters react to events, even the colors you take the time to mention.

There are dozens of books on finding your voice.  The central part that I’ve found is writing more.  As you become more comfortable with writing, as you relax and enjoy it, you infuse what you write with more and more of yourself.  The things that get you excited, the scenes that you love, that will speak with your voice.

 

Writing Toolbag: Names

NameThere’s a power in names.  It’s oddly one of the hardest and one of the easiest decisions to make.  Oftentimes when I select a name for a character it’s not a simple decision.

How you name your characters and what meaning those names have will set the tone of your story.  It establishes from the very beginning some of your intentions.  While you can write a serious epic fantasy where the main hero’s name is Dave… you probably shouldn’t.  When a reader sees a name for a character, it sets up some expectations.  You can invert those expectations for humor… but not much else.  If you have Draggor the Daggerlord, Warlord of the Seven Steppes, he probably shouldn’t be a friendly, cheerful sort who isn’t into fighting (except for humor, and even then, only if that’s the kind of story you’re writing).

You should have some basic idea of culture and societal make-up when you go to pick a name as well.  Yes, you can have Han Li Qan in a European-style medieval setting, but should you?  If he’s that out of place, it’s going to be jarring to the reader.  When you do something like that, you need to have everyone comment on his outlandish name and demeanor or else you’re setting yourself up for difficulties.

Picking names that fit your setting and society is only the first part.  Readers have developed certain expectations.  Impressive titles generally go to important (or at least arrogant) people.  Similarly, most illiterate peasants get by with a single name.  They generally don’t need more growing up in a community where everyone knows them.

In a similar vein, names with meaning or using words as names (such as Craven, Malice, etc) should be done in a way that isn’t too heavy-handed.  If you have a scum-sucking cowardly backstabber who gets named Craven, well, you might be signalling to your reader a bit too much.  Oddly, it’s even worse if you’ve based the character after a real person (yes, I have known a Craven, why do you ask?)  You can use such names to signal things to a reader, particularly if such names are “nom de guerres” and the character has some other name, just don’t do it too often to the point that it stands out.

Use of names from mythology or with religious connotations can similarly be a bit heavy handed.  If a reader sees Thor, Zeus, or Moses, they’re probably going to roll their eyes a bit if they’re not reading book whose basis is those legends or religions.  A show like Supernatural or book series like Dresden Files can get away with some level of this because it draws so heavily from mythology.  Doing so in a fantasy setting not related to Earth can be problematic… especially if you don’t have a culture equivalent to the myths you are pulling from.  You can use names from mythology, but I’d recommend sticking to more obscure figures rather than central ones.

There’s a variety of useful ways to find appropriate names.  One of the most popular is also fairly simple.  Draw from baby books.  It works well enough for real parents, so it should work for your imaginary babies, too.   Most baby books (or websites such as Behind the Name) provide not just hundreds of names, but also origins of names and their meaning.  This is an invaluable resource, particularly if you want to set up an underlying theme.

Another resource is random name generators, but this can be extremely problematic.  You’re going to get a lot of really odd names, often having no central features that tie together to your background.  Pulling from name generators that use a list of existing names would be a better bet.  You can find a variety of those just by searching.

Lastly, a name can be used as a point of contention for your characters.  If someone has been saddled with a name that practically demands they go forth and do battle, you can set up underlying resentment and angst over this.  You can add to this with titles like “The Chosen One” or “The Boy Who Lived.”  These are things that demand a greater destiny… and here’s where inverting expectations can work in your favor.  Maybe that character is a Chosen One… but so are fifty others and they all have to fight it out cage-match style to determine the final Chosen One.  Maybe that prophesy about “Dave” doesn’t mean what the characters think it means.

Using names to set expectations, to build reader immersion is a good thing.  Just as you write, be certain you are using those names to good effect.  Don’t agonize for an hour over the name of the bartender, unless that bartender is going to have a bigger role.  You can just call him the bartender and move on.

On the flip side, if you want to plant red herrings, that’s a good way to go.  Having Dave the Chosen One and Hero meet Dave the Bartender, knowing about the Prophesy of Dave can be a great way to counteract the reader’s automatic assumption that Dave the Hero is going to win out.  It’s also a good way to show that the world is much bigger than the characters you’re writing, that other important things are happening beyond the cast the reader gets to follow.

Lastly, don’t ever let finding the “right” name sidetrack your writing.  You can always use a placeholder (Dave32) that you can come back later and replace.  The most important thing is to finish, then you can come back and fix things.

Writing Toolbag: Expectation Management

Sometimes your expectations can lead you astray...
Sometimes your expectations can lead you astray…

We’ve all been there, you’ve got all these grand ideas and images, you’re certain you have the best story, best thing ever.  You’re going to write it and awards, accolades and money are going to shower down from the heavens…

And then as you sit there in front of the computer, you feel that your writing is crap, that no one wants to read this drivel.  You try to write, but you’re too busy, you fall behind on your writing goals,

This is sort of how your loved ones feel when you're cranky about your writing.
This is sort of how your loved ones feel when you’re cranky about your writing.

you come to hate writing, even come to hate the people who said you should write.  Then the next thing you know you’re hacking a door down with a fire ax.

Okay, that last part might be a bit of an exaggeration.

The point is, you need to have some realistic expectations about your writing, your sales, and things in general.  Don’t expect things to be like the movies.  You aren’t going to write the perfect manuscript on the first try, send it off to a publisher (or self publish), and then be overwhelmed with money, awards, and film options.

Writing is hard.  This is something that all writers realize.   Most of us hit points in writing each book where we severely question what we’re doing.  The “Dreaded Middle”, writing humps, writer’s block… everyone runs into parts where they sit down in front of their work and feel like they can’t go on, that what they’re producing is terrible.

What happens with me is that I’ll want to do something else.  Anything else.  My wife realizes I’m hating what I’m writing when I’m asking for the third time if the trash needs to go out or sorting my socks.  Sometimes this leads to me writing on other projects or

The key thing here is that words on the page are what will get you through.  It doesn’t matter at the time if everything you write feels like crap.  That’s what editing is for.  And trust me, some of the “worst” scenes I’ve written when I come back and look at them with fresh eyes have been much better than I thought.

Don’t view writing as a complete process.  Never assume that what you write is final (not until you publish it).  There’s always editing, tweaking, and perfecting.  The goal of writing a novel, novella, or short story is to  get it done.   Once you’ve written the whole thing, you can worry about rewrites.

Also, don’t think that your first novel is going to be the best.  Writing is a continuous effort towards improvement.  You always have room to improve, to challenge yourself.  I’m not talking about gimmicks like writing a certain number of words a day, I’m talking about improving your craft.  Writing better characters, crafting a better story, a tighter plot.  Acknowledge that what you’ve written has room for improvement and move on.

I’ll take a moment to mention sales.  Sales (and reviews) will always be frustrating.  When you sell a huge number of books for no apparent reason one day only to have zero sales (or one, which can be more frustrating) the next.  Sometimes you’ll have a dozen reviews for your book pop up over a week… other times you’ll fight to get even one review for a book which has sold a thousand copies.

You have to just accept your sales for what they are.  Promotion, self promotion, advertising, these are all tools, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to individual reader preference.  People being people, they’ll buy your book if they want… or not.  Don’t get wrapped around sales, especially if they’re not where you want them to be.  Religiously hitting the update button on KDP or your publishing platform of choice to see if you’ve sold a book is not only OCD, but it uses up time you should be using for writing your next story.

The key part to all of this is to set realistic goals.  Don’t tell yourself you’ve got to write the entire novel in a week if you’ve only managed a few pages over the past month.  Don’t get too wrapped up in the quality of your writing, especially not for your first (or second or third) novel, especially not on the first draft.  Cut yourself a little slack.  Writing is hard.

In the end, writing is emotionally taxing.  If you can manage your expectations, if you can set realistic goals, you can manage the emotional and mental cost of writing.  You can be more productive (and happier with yourself) if you go into it with a clear understanding of what you expect to get out of it.  At the end of the day, that’s what you want, right, to be happy?

the-shining-1
Writers just want to be happy people…

Writer’s Toolbag: Opportunity Cost

75468d8a02375f27e89c5bf824422f4eToday I’m writing about the most difficult decision you’ll ever make as a writer.  No.  Not that decision, the other one.  No, the other one.

Okay, really, I’m writing about the tough decisions and how to make those.  These decisions are out there constantly for us as authors, but I’m talking about the big ones when it comes to writing your book.  When you have this great idea that you really love… but you realize it might not work.  Or when you’re halfway through writing a scene for a character and you realize that maybe it will work better if they don’t survive.

Recently for me, writing in my Renegades series, I ran into a tough call as far as the plot and story.  On the one hand, I wanted to set up a situation where a main character ended up in a dangerous situation.  I wanted to increase tension… and I wanted the reader to feel uncertainty about what would happen.

On the other hand, I worried that writing the scene the way that I had would confuse the reader.  It became a decision of what worked better for the story between tension and readability.  I chose to go with the more interesting route and we’ll see how that plays out (squints at the Amazon webpage… still no reviews posted).

So how do you make those decisions?  You weigh the pros and the cons… and then you make the decision and move on.  In economics it is called the opportunity cost.  Whichever way you chose, you give up following the other route.  As writers, we have a bit of flexibility intrinsic to the craft.  We can rewrite, edit, and tweak things.  In the end, though, once you hit publish, the decision has been made and there’s no going back.

To me, making these kinds of decisions (and recognizing when one has come up) is something that grows easier as I write more.  Deciding whether to kill a beloved (or hated) character is, well, not taken lightly, but it becomes a simpler decision to make.  Often times this can be something as simple as which perspective to use when you write a scene or just when to cut that scene.  It might be that you have a line that you love… but it just doesn’t fit the flow of your story.

At its most basic level, the question you should ask yourself is: will this make the story better?  If the answer is yes, then you know what you have to do.  Sometimes it means you can give a character a happy ending.  Sometimes it means you have a character who ends up dying alone.  All of it, all that weight is on your shoulders as a writer.

Books don’t get director’s editions with deleted scenes and outtakes.  No one will ever see that bit that you cut and few people will understand the hours that you spend thinking about it.  Then again, that’s where the skill in writing comes from, knowing how to craft your story better and making those hard decisions.  If writing were easy, everyone would do it, right?