Imagine this: You’re meeting the love of your life for the very first time today, but you don’t yet realize s(he) is the love of your life. At best, you’re hopeful that something good will come of this first date, so you prepare for the best case scenario. You put on your best clothes. You dress yourself in whatever accessories, confections, or other aids will help you make your best first impression. You prepare yourself to the best of your ability. You want this person to like you, so you want to make sure you don’t waste the opportunity to keep her/him coming back for a second round.
The art of the first impression is not just good for dating, but it’s also good for storytelling.
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. This episode will cover Les Edgerton’s educational opus on how to properly open your novel, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go.
This book will talk everything openings, and this video will talk some things Hooked.
There’s an age-old question in the writing community: Are you a plotter or a pantser? When a random stranger approaches you at Walmart, carrying a garden rake and a bag of dog food, and he or she asks you this question, what do you say?
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. This episode will cover Steven James’s excellent guide on how to pants your way to victory, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules.
If you love writing but hate plotting, then check out this book, and check out this video based on this book.
When was the last time you sat down to write a novel and thought, Er, how do I do this again? Or, I guess the better question is, when was the last time you sat down to write a novel? But assuming that answer is something other than “never,” you may have discovered that writing a novel is hard, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. Today’s writing resource book, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, will tell you what you should be doing.
Specifically, it breaks down the structure of story, using the “six core competencies of successful writing.” In other words, it teaches you how to write a cohesive novel that publishers would buy and readers would read, assuming you understand and follow its guidelines.
It also emphasizes the differences between “plotting” and “pantsing.” If you’ve heard these terms and have no idea what they mean, then read the book, and watch the video I recorded about reading the book.
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. Today we will be focusing on Anne Lamont’s ode to the writing life, in her masterpiece Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you have not read this book, be aware that you’re ignoring a classic of the genre. This book is almost as essential to the writer’s bookshelf as last week’s Stephen King’s On Writing, even though you may ask yourself why that’s true after you’ve finished reading it. Look, don’t question the classics! They’re important because important people say they are. I don’t know whom these important people are. They just are, okay? Things were different in the early ‘90s when it was originally released. Don’t second-guess it! Just watch the video here. Then check out your copy below. It’s a classic. You know that, right?
Cynicism toward yesteryear’s classics aside, it actually is a good book that you should read if you want to prepare yourself not only for the writing life but for the structured life.
Years ago when I started this blog and took my YouTube channel more seriously, I dreamed of presenting a limited book review series about the books writers might want to invest in, to further their craft, including, and especially, the books that I’ve read and learned from that still sit on my bookshelf. However, I’ve put this idea off to the side because I wasn’t sure if I should write book reviews for each title or simply create a Goodreads style list for my top favorites. In either case, I couldn’t see much benefit in doing these things for myself, or the budding writer, because if I reviewed every book, then I wouldn’t be spending that precious time writing my own book, and isn’t putting their lessons into practice the point of reading these books? On the other hand, simply populating a list of top recommended books doesn’t do much justice into why I recommend them.
At some point, I’d settled on a median where I could talk about them in an informal style, but instead of writing about them, I could speak into a camera about them. Of course, when I had that idea, I had no way of recording my face, just my voice, because I had no good camera, just an old digital Fuji from 2004 that ran on four AA batteries. If people wanted to hear just my voice, then I’d be better off with a podcast, and that would require having a better microphone. No idea was a good idea.
But, of course, the no good idea became something of a half-hopeful idea.
In 2019, I was forced to replace my old flip phone with an Android, and by doing so, I was now able to get my hands on a digital recording device that I could actually upload to YouTube. It was pretty nice. But there was still a problem present: I still had to hold the camera when I spoke into it. Hardly useful if I want to show viewers my book collection while I talk about it. Closer than I’d been, but still not what I needed to do it well.
Fast-forward to the present work-at-home world we live in, and I’ve been forced to buy a webcam and a nice backdrop, too. And a better microphone. With those things in place, I can now stand far enough from an anchored camera to speak and display books while I talk, which means I’ve run out of excuses for delaying this series, which, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve dreamed about doing for years.
The Writer’s Bookshelf: Recommended References and Writing Resources.
This series will contain 16 episodes a season, with each season focusing on a particular theme, and season one focusing on the writing life and story structure. The plan is to debut a new title every Friday at 10am EST on my YouTube channel until the end of the year, and then start up a new season sometime in the spring.
The way it’ll work is that I’ll tell viewers about “this week’s book,” why they should want it, and what to expect from it, or how it can help them if they read it. I’ll do so through loose, one-sided conversations with them. What I won’t do is talk about every detail or get into every point the book makes. The emphasis is that the book is one you should read if you care about improving your writing career, but if you want to get the most out of it, you’ll have to actually read it. I’ll also encourage viewers to post links to their blogs or Wattpad profiles if they want to share something they’ve written based on something they’ve learned. I’ll also post new articles simultaneously on this blog to announce which book we’ll be covering that day and embed a link to the video so anyone can check it out.
You can watch the seven-minute introduction to the series here.
And when you’re done with that, you can check out our first book of the series:
Yep, did you really think we’d start with anything else? Watch the video here.
Oh, and if you care about high quality videos, then you’ll have to wait until I can afford a better camera and a better studio setup for that. One way you can help expedite that process is to encourage at least 10,000 of your friends to buy copies of my e-books (the ones that actually cost something), which you can check out via the side panel. You do have 10,000 friends, right?
Writing a novel is no straightforward process, in spite of what the “experts” may say.
Okay, the experts, whoever they are, make no actual claim that writing a novel is straightforward, though the pantsers (like me) will argue that it comes pretty close, given that we start at the beginning and drive toward the ending, discovering as much as we can along the way (hardly straightforward, even though the momentum is almost always forward). In reality, of course, writing a novel takes planning, dedication, and follow-through, with a heavy dose of insanity—I mean organization—and reaching its proper ending will require seeing it at both the big picture level and the micro-scenic level. In short, writing a novel means you gotta have some foresight. There’s no way around that.
But I didn’t always have a problem with that.
For years, I would just open a document in Microsoft Word, crank out a chapter in a day or two (or sometimes a week if I let it get too large), and move on to the next one, making sure to save it in a folder dedicated to the novel. Once I’d finish the last chapter (usually six weeks to a year later, depending on the novel), I’d read what I have, take notes on what I like and what I don’t, and then move on to the next revision. Then somewhere along the line I’d decide that something doesn’t work, at which point I’d start adding, moving, or removing scenes, relabeling my documents to something better reflective of its current state, and make such an atrocious mess of my work that nothing would make sense anymore, yet I’d somehow bring it back together, and then I’d shelve it for a few years until somebody would ask me if I’ve written anything lately, to which I’d say no, then go back and see if I actually like that old novel that I blew up in the rewrites now, because, hey, somebody reminded me that I should really finish what I started because, hey, I’m not exactly starting on anything new. At that point, I’d take note of the scenes I like, try to rethink the ones I don’t, and then shelve the thing yet again for another few years because now I have no idea where to begin fixing it.
(Okay, I’m referring specifically to my first thriller, Panhandler Underground, which I wrote in 2005 but put on the shelf until a time I could make sense of the main character’s profession. Fortunately, I’ve ordered my copy of the Occupation Thesaurus, out now, and should receive it in the mail soon, so maybe I can finally sort this dude out and get his story back on its proper track.)
Nowadays, I find that organizing a novel is as difficult as writing it, especially when I go back and try to repair the damage I’ve already done to an existing novel, so coming up with a plan to make sense of it all is necessary. But merely going back through all of my Microsoft Word documents and trying to remember where everything is supposed to go is madness when my memory is so bad that I often read a story I like, check the author to see if he’s got anything else I might enjoy, and discover my own name on the front cover. (Okay, this doesn’t happen with my published titles, but it definitely happens with old stories I find in my documents folder. The fact that my name is on it is the only proof I have that I wrote it because I don’t remember a thing about it.) Because this is no way to work, I’ve decided it’s time to implement a new system for organization.
This is where I’ve decided to integrate multiple resources into my writing workflow, each one dedicated to a particular function within the writing process, and each one designed to keep me on track.
For the record, I just put together a video about this, which you can watch for more information, but the short version is this:
If I’m writing a novel from scratch or nuking a story that no longer works in favor of starting over, then I’ll want to begin conceptualizing with the Snowflake Method and using the software dedicated to the Snowflake Method, Snowflake Pro, to accomplish this goal. This will allow me to develop the idea and move it through all ten steps toward a fully-fledged outline.
Next, I’ll want to develop the flowchart and additional character and/or scene details (like setting or items) that Snowflake Pro doesn’t visualize for an alternative way to see the story from a bird’s eye view. I can use Plottr or Campfire Pro (or Plot Factory or some other story planning software) to create the visual map, as well as fill in the additional details that Snowflake Pro doesn’t cover. If I use actual maps (created with Campaign Cartographer 3+, for example), then I’ll want to use a program like Campfire Pro to tie my maps to their descriptions. Using these programs, I can create the world and backstory I need to understand my characters and their motivations better, as well as to keep track of the nitpicky items in their lives that I’ll want to remember and quickly access at some point.
Once I have a clue what the story is about, then I can start writing my scenes in Microsoft Word. Or, if I’m revising an existing story, I can write whichever scenes are still missing.
Note: If I’m revising a novel, which is my case for The Computer Nerd, I probably won’t use the first two development steps unless I need to go for a complete rewrite, which is currently my case for The Fallen Footwear. The exception would be if I wanted to create an outline or summary or synopsis of an existing novel for verification of its integrity or for various marketing purposes. I would also map an existing novel if I know I’m going to write a sequel, as having a snapshot of the previous story would be immensely helpful in developing a new chapter for its characters, because, you know, my memory sucks.
Once I’ve written my scenes, I can move them into Scrivener, where I can then write notecard summaries and provide status labels to help me determine whether the scene is in its proper location and achieving its proper goal. From the notecard view, I can make a more informed judgment about whether the existing work is, in fact, working.
So, that’s the current workflow I’m using to either write or revise my novels. Are you a writer? What’s your workflow? Let me know in the comments below.
Nearly any activity that contains the word “free” as a prefix will likely function in this same way. It’s a method that leads primarily to the clarity of ideas.
Quick question: When was the last time you got in your car and drove around town without a goal? How much gas did you spend on completing the circuit? What about time? Did you stop anywhere for a sandwich? Did you meet anyone interesting along the way? Would the drive have been any better or worse if you had a destination in mind?
If you’ve ever gotten in your car and drove without a destination, why?
Take a second to think about that.
Now, I know that driving without a destination has a similar emotional purpose as going for a walk or painting a picture or doing anything that allows you to clear your head. It’s therapeutic. But where did you go? Anywhere? What does your painting look like? Any progress to show for it?
Even though walking has its primary goal rooted in exercise and painting has the purpose of creating art, these activities also have the secondary purpose of offering you clarity of a situation, especially when freethinking during the core activity leads to new ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a bonus side effect to the therapeutic goal you’re trying to achieve, which is to make yourself or your art look better. Now you can also think better.
If you’ve done any amount of relaxing activity, you know this is true.
So with that said, here’s a free idea to think about:
Nearly any activity that contains the word “free” as a prefix will likely function in this same way. It’s a method that leads primarily to the clarity of ideas.
Freewriting is one such activity that carries this exact purpose. Makes the practice attractive to most writers.
The problem, however, is that most writing instructors teach freewriting as an exercise for oiling the writing engine, as a means to get into the mood before getting into the project or as a means for figuring out what you want to write about, and not so much about what makes freewriting useful. It sounds noble on the surface. But it can also sound like a waste of time if you misuse it.
Now for a confession. As a writer, I must say that I hate freewriting. I often find that there’s not much point to it. If I want to write, I go right for the story, just as I would go right for my destination when getting into the car and turning on the engine.
But as a writer, I also find that some efforts to write compelling prose goes wasted because I haven’t developed the proper skill that would allow me to keep the prose effective. This is where freewriting might serve a useful purpose.
Case in point: To this day, I still have trouble showing character emotions through any action not involving the eyes or the mouth. In the heat of developing a scene, I want to capture the thrill of the moment without obsessing over the character’s reactionary expressions, and the eyes and the mouth are the cheapest sources to exploit. Once the scene is finished and I have time to review each character’s actions and reactions, I realize that I have nothing new to add. It’s not because I don’t need to make changes—I always need to change something—but it’s because I haven’t developed the skill to make that specific improvement.
For example, according to The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, a reaction to fright (under the definition for “fear”), which I might show through “widening eyes” or an “agape mouth,” can also be shown through clammy hands or a move toward escape (and whatever props are necessary to convey this), or any number of additional actions or reactions that are specific to that character.
Of course, in the heat of writing, I might not initially think of this, nor would I likely crack open The Emotion Thesaurus to find the proper expression to add authenticity to the first draft of the scene. But at some point I need to go back and add in the detail that best shows what the character is feeling rather than simply telling the reader what he or she is feeling.
While it’s certainly valid to practice this skill on my actual novel, just as it’s valid to practice my driving skills while trying to get to a particular destination, there’s something to be said about using freewriting as the canvas for developing this skill, since freewriting has no other purpose but to generate thoughts and ideas prior to committing to the project.
For example, if I want to get better at creating character expressions, I can start by writing a disembodied scene that features a character I know nothing about who emotes really, really well, and learn from the experience. I can even use The Emotion Thesaurus to help me craft the scene:
Bob drove his fingernail under the edge of the envelope and cracked it open. Ignoring his impulse to rip the whole thing apart, he merely peeked into the gap and caught a glimpse of something pink. He flipped the envelope over. It was his name on the front. But he didn’t recognize the return address.
The envelope leapt out of his hand and landed on the desk. Or maybe he tossed it. But whatever happened, Bob pushed himself away from the desk and considered leaving the room.
The problem was that today was his birthday, but he didn’t know the person who was sending him the birthday card, nor did he know why they were sending it to him. The fact that it was his birthday wasn’t good enough for him to trust the source. Was he being watched somehow?
Hopefully the emotion is clear: I’m indicating Bob’s suspicion of the sender (and the card).
My impulse is to give him “narrowing eyes” when he stares at the card. I’ve got plenty of examples where a character has this exact reaction to something equally suspicious. In fairness, The Emotion Thesaurus lists this “narrowing eyes” expression at the top of its action list for “suspicion,” maybe because it’s the most obvious character response. But it also lists “retreating or keeping at a safe distance” as a possible reaction. For some characters, this might be a ridiculous reaction. For Bob, it’s a perfectly suitable one. And that’s the point, and that’s why I use it instead of “Bob narrowed his eyes at the envelope.” This reaction is not only used less often than “narrowing eyes,” but it says something about Bob’s response to items he doesn’t understand. I could use this example as a baseline for additional reactions to other items or situations throughout the story that Bob may interact with. In short, Bob is jumpy, and now I know that. If I saved this scene for the heat of the moment, I might’ve missed that idea and found myself writing an inconsistent character when, in the next scene, he sees a suspicious object and runs toward it.
Freewriting a standalone scene that has no stake in my story won’t move my story forward, but it can at least help me understand my character better.
So, my message today is simply this: If you lack a particular writing skill, use freewriting to fine-tune it. It’ll make implementation into your important projects much easier and you less prone to stalled writing as you try to think of the perfect way to communicate an idea. Because, let’s face it, sometimes we can’t recapture the heat of the moment in the rewrite, no matter how good we are at faking it.
And for one more note of clarity: You don’t really need to use freewriting for any other purpose. If you can’t warm your engines on your actual novel, then maybe your novel isn’t ready to be written.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to check out Angela Ackerman and Bella Puglisi’s thesaurus series to improve your knowledge base. They’ve got a new one about occupations coming out in two weeks, and like their other thesauri, it looks promising. I highly recommend their books.
I also highly recommend that you subscribe to this blog because you learn things here. Usually. Sometimes.
This week, I’ve uploaded a five-part series about getting your e-book onto Google Play Books. I’ve used my e-book Shell Out as an example. I cover how to prepare an EPUB, a basic but pleasant PDF, and a fancy PDF that makes eyes happy, as well as cover how to get the book onto Google and what the results will look like once it’s online.
Here is the series and episode summary, along with resource links and action checklists. Enjoy.
Now that Google Play Books has reopened its service to all independent publishers, it’s a good idea to publish your books there and expand your audience reach. But how do you do that? This five-part series will walk you through the basic steps to get up and running.
Google Play Books requires at least one of two formats to get your e-book online and available for consumption: EPUB and PDF. It recommends you upload both. Part 1 of the “Publishing with Google Play Books Series” covers the basics for getting an EPUB ready for the service, using a free EPUB creation tool, Calibre.
Note: This episode covers the simplest method for getting an EPUB built on Calibre and ready for Google Play Books. You’ll need to learn CSS and HTML to develop a more specialized or attractive EPUB file, which this video will not cover. I’ve listed two great resources below to help you take these basics to the professional-level.
Google Play Books requires at least one of two formats to get your e-book online and available for consumption: EPUB and PDF. It recommends you upload both. Part 2 of the “Publishing with Google Play Books Series” covers the basics of formatting a PDF for the service, using Microsoft Word.
Note: This episode covers the simplest effective method for getting a stylish PDF ready for Google Play Books. For a more complex but ultimately more rewarding result, come back for Part 4 when I talk about a program designed for better formatting.
Register a partner account with Google Play Books (consult the Reedsy Blog article in the resources section on how to do this).
Go to Book Catalog section to add a new book or access a book you want to edit.
Once inside the book editing page, fill in the fields on all four tabs of the Book Info section.
Use the same description as you have on the other publication sites to maintain consistency. Use bold text and italics to enhance its presentation. Use paragraph breaks to indicate new paragraphs.
Remember to set the release dates: publication is for today; on sale is whenever buyers have access (good for preorders). Set the on sale date far enough in the future to give ARC readers time to read.
Consult PDF version for accurate page count, or divide word count by 250 and round to nearest whole number if you’re not sure.
Use as many genres as the book may occupy, especially since Google doesn’t allow for manual keywords.
List all essential contributors. The author is the main contributor. Coauthors and illustrators are also essential. Editors are essential for curated materials.
Fill in sample size and publisher information, if applicable.
Go to Content section.
Upload EPUB, PDF, and JPEG files.
Go to PRICING section.
Set desired price point. Set worldwide options.
Return to Content section. Check conversion status. Fix errors if any appear.
Provide ARC and beta reader Google emails in the content reviewer section, if any.
Verify all results in the Summary section.
Part 4: Using Affinity Publisher to Create a Stunning PDF for Google Play Books
Creating a simple PDF for Google Play Books is fine. But wouldn’t you rather give your readers something that actually looks nice? In this video, we use Affinity Publisher to create a more sophisticated PDF than the one we made in Part 2.
Note 1: Affinity products are cheaper, non-subscription based alternatives to Adobe products. Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher are equivalent to Adobe PhotoShop, Illustrator, and InDesign respectively.
Note 2: All Affinity products are on sale for 50% off until June 20, 2020. Get all three (Photo, Designer, and Publisher) if you want to maximize your development. There is also a 90-day trial period in place until June 20 if you aren’t sure you want to just plop the money down straightaway.