Chris Coling: Designing a Quality Book Cover

Host note: In our continuing series of information on the writing process, we offer this thoughtful and informative article on designing a quality book cover.

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Hi, my name is Chris Coling and I’m one of the moderators for the writing group Writers Unite! I would like to promote a discussion about one of the most important parts of presenting your work to the public, namely the cover.

My writing name is Colin Gee, and I publish through Amazon on Kindle, and in paper through Createspace.

My credentials for this discussion are limited to being a relatively successful self-publisher who has been complimented on his covers; nothing more.

Admittedly, I spent quite some time on getting the concept correct [in my mind at least], involving research online and in bookshops, as well as driving my graphics man mad with tinkering.

The cover of your work is the first point of contact with a potential reader, and I believe an author should think long and hard about making sure that the initial contact draws the readers in, rather than pushes them away.

In my opinion, the cover is there to provide a strong visual clue as to the contents. I’ve seen books where the cover is a meaningless something that defies description. To me, no matter how nice it looks, or how much time it took to make, if it doesn’t offer up something about the contents of your work, it’s a waste of time.

I suspect most of us will start with the picture/graphic, against which we intend to set the other information.

This can be a dangerous area, as many images are legal minefields waiting to catch the unwary author.

My experience was helped by the genre in which I write, as there are many public domain photographs that are suitable. I also took my own photos and adapted them for purpose. Clearly, if you do that, then you know you are safe and sound and will not risk some legal interference later on down the line. Whatever you choose as your base graphic, exercise care and caution. That also applies to any other graphics you lay over the top.

Make sure you make the appropriate acknowledgments if you are using a work that is gratis, as some simply require that the owner/author be cited.

Having selected the right graphic, you can tinker with the presentation. Again, some pictures require that you record your alterations to the original.

You may decide to select a portion of a picture, rather than use the whole. It is important to remember that picture quality is very important and I would advise sticking to the original ratios to get the best display. If you cherry-pick a portion of a picture and then enlarge it, unless it is a super-duper HD image, you will lose definition.

In my case, the initial tinkering simply involved adding some colour to a B&W image. This also fitted in with my plan of using B&W images with coloured flags throughout, from different nations, using each cover to indicate which particular nation was the main protagonist within that book or was most central to the current story.

Perversely, that also backfired on me later in the series and my whole plan nearly fell apart. More of that down the page.

Adding extra images as overlays is no problem, provided you do it right. For my second book, my bro and I worked with some tank images, and trying to get the image quality the same as the picture on which they were mounted was a nightmare. I’m actually never really sure if we truly nailed it. If you’re just putting an object on the original, it’s less of a problem, but if you’re trying to incorporate an overlay into the original image, it certainly is. Be careful here.

My titles to date are all chess terms, and I use chess as a back theme on all the covers, by fading a chessboard down from the top. Chess is an important game to the Russians, which also helps create a certain feeling. I also incorporate a red chess piece. Red has a clear and unavoidable association within my chosen genre. More of the piece later.
Clearly, text style is a major decision for you.

My research in bookshops quickly led me down the road of solid gold text. There was simply too much of it on display to ignore. Plus, I actually liked it. At the time you read this, there may be a different style favoured.

I did decide to have more than one text type on the cover, but again, the research showed that was a reasonable decision, so long as everything was legible and there was no confusion between font styles.

The layout suggested itself and followed reasonably conventional lines.

Title in large text at the top, followed by smaller text with the series info and author name, or vice versa for some of the titles. This may not work for your book, and you can see a number of different presentations on Amazon or in bookstores.

With the text, if you elect for a solid gold as I did, it clearly risks obstructing something in the image you may wish to fall under the reader’s eye, so setting out your letters is important. Remember, with publishers like Createspace, there is a gutter zone into which you may not place any cover text. It’s simple enough to launch their cover creator and experiment with that.

The decision to state that each book was part of a series was one I never foresaw as having any issues. It seemed quite reasonable to me. However, some of my feedback on ‘Opening Moves’ suggested that had a reader known it was a series of books, they would not have bought the first one. Weird of course, as it stated clearly in the synopsis and on the cover that they were a series, but interesting from the point of view that some people don’t want to read a series of books. None the less, to my mind, it’s fair to let a potential reader know.

During all of this layout work, I tended to have a mind towards the rest of the series.
To me, certain uniformity draws the series together. I would keep the same/similar font, text positioning, style, and the chess hints throughout, so whatever I decided for the first cover had to be a style that transferred easily to those that followed.

One thing that bugged me during my research was the extensive use of flowery fonts by some authors, many of whose books were traditionally published. Yes, some look very nice indeed, but I would suggest that, if a potential reader cannot read the cover without deep study at close quarters, then you will already have lost the cover browser type reader who, put simply, will move on as they are unable to understand the basic words of your title.

Back to the chess piece. It’s a red queen. It’s also damaged. It was a major clue to the overall story, hidden in plain sight. I think that it wasn’t until book six came out that someone asked the question.

I incorporated the chess piece in the text [in the main,] occasionally in some other way. A bit-part character in book one is a Soviet intelligence officer who was wounded in the left foot. She, in the guise of the Red Queen, was sat on the front cover for the entire series. Whilst it was a risk, it certainly built up the ‘you’re a sneaky swine, Gee’ kudos with my fan base. Such things may not be for you, indeed you may not have a story that supports similar efforts, but I enjoyed doing it, and the one I got over on thousands of readers. Perhaps that was nothing more than hubris on my part?

One way I was very fortunate was in having a graphics man in the family, namely my brother, Jason. It might have been easy to just accept something, in order not to annoy someone who had already invested hours in doing something for you free of charge, but I always felt it was worth getting right. The forbearance he showed in doing a whole piece of work again, simply to move something a fraction of a millimetre, was astounding.

I hope you are similarly fortunate, but my point is, do not let the cover go forward until it is, in your opinion, the best it can be. I reiterate, your cover is the first point of contact and therefore your best chance of hooking a potential reader in.
Back to the flags. I used a national flag on each cover, placing them on roads or rivers, each conforming to the lines of the original photo. It worked well and without problems, until I place the US flag on a road, over which US soldiers were running and a US tank was advancing.

Fortunately, I tend to post the covers in advance on my sites. There were rumbles about using the US flag in such a way, and having men trample on it. There had been no contrary views when using the Tricoleur, the German flag and others previously. Suddenly I was faced with a possible destruction of my overall flag plan. Fortunately, the books had just moved to the forming of NATO, so I thought on my feet and used the NATO flag instead, which was considered acceptable. I guess the lesson there is that, despite your best laid plans, there is always something that lies in wait to bite you in the backside. I was very lucky to get away with it. I’ve attached the US version of the cover so you can see what the fuss was about.

The spine is important if your book is to be sold through an outlet, less so if sold through Createspace or similar, and completely unnecessary if sold as an e-book. I simply used different colours and text displays on my Createspace offerings, alternating between a dark and light colour spine, and contrasting text. I wanted the name and author to be clear and easily read.

The rear cover has no worth in an e-book, but is clearly important for Createspace and bookshop sales. Remember to leave space in your design for the barcode, and remember the gutter policy of the company you are using!

I have tended to use the synopsis placed online in Amazon as the text for the back cover. Seems reasonable to me. A word of caution on the picture you choose to go underneath that text. The writing is likely to be smaller so the picture cannot be too busy, or words will risk getting lost. The pictures I have employed have supported the general theme of the book in question, but have never been intended to do anything other than form a relevant backdrop to the text that describes the book’s contents. I have only ever used B&W photos on the rear covers, again to conform to the overall theme, and to make sure the text is clear and readable. I’ve included a single example to show you exactly what I mean.

You will now have a cover that you think is wonderful and extremely fantastic. Congratulations….. but….. Hold your horses, kemo sabay!

Show it to people you don’t know, without them knowing it’s yours. Friends and family can be notoriously unreliable when it comes to honestly and sincerity of feedback. I know from personal experience. Get opinions and listen to the criticisms. If you don’t get any of that, I will be very surprised. Someone may see something very basic that you, in your glee, have missed.

Please don’t let pride get in the way here. If someone else spotted it, take it on the chin and be happy that you have a better cover because of it.

Hopefully, by the end of your journey, you will then have a cover that is everything you hoped for, and that will entrap potential readers with its message.

If I have managed to give you some ideas, then that is great. If I’ve bored you to death, I apologise. This would have been 2077 words towards my latest tome… err 2085
Just remember to make good choices, and the best of luck with your covers.

Do feel free to critique my covers and destroy them openly! I’ll cope.

These are the covers of the books that are presently out. I include an example of a rear cover for your information, and the US flag version of ‘Initiative’ that was never used.

 

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Chris Coling is a retired firefighter and currently works at the local hospital. A part-time writer, he is presently working on his eighth and last book in an alternate-history series, with other ideas waiting in the wings. He writes for himself in the first instance but also enjoys the fact that his books are now read widely. He resides in England.

Memorable Characters

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The one thing that makes any story for me stand out is a memorable character. They don’t have be heroic, or even that good. But they have to be compelling and as an audience member, you have to want to know what happens to them. So as a writer, how can you make your characters memorable?

First, I think you should be able to say things about them. Like for example, they’re kind, smart, sensitive, or tough, impulsive, and moody. You can identify traits about them right away based on what you’re seeing with them in the story. They make you care about them not because you might like them, but because you want to see how they will handle whatever the story throws at them.

Second, you learn things about them. You learn about their past, their likes and dislikes, their problems, their demons, and how they feel about other characters. Because when you learn things about them you get a picture of who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.

Recently, I started watching the television series ‘Grantchester’, a mystery series set in the 1950’s in a small village in Cambridge, England. The main character is Sidney Chambers, a young handsome vicar who is a bit shy yet sweet. But we learn that he’s haunted by his war-time service, and an unrequited love for a woman. What makes Sidney compelling and memorable is that he’s not perfect. He doesn’t utter empty platitudes but is cautious with his words. He’s also cautious with his feelings, perhaps too much. So we have a character who could be made out to a paragon of virtue and perfect in every way but instead, we have a real character with good and not-so-good qualities who has a lot of potential to grow.

On the other end of this spectrum would be Tony Soprano, from the HBO television series ‘The Sopranos’. Tony is a mobster running a strip club in New Jersey and head of a crime family. So he’s not what you would refer to as a good person. He breaks the law and has people murdered. He lies and cheats and is brutal in how he deals with things. Yet in the first episode we see him having a panic attack and subsequently seeing a therapist. So this shows he’s vulnerable, and able to feel things though not deal with them very well. It’s this dichotomy that makes him memorable and compelling because we know things about him, see how he interacts with the world around him, and see his conflicts.

So to make a memorable character you want to show the good, the bad, and in some cases, the ugly. You want your audience to learn about them and because of that, your audience will want to know what happens to your characters in the story. And that’s what not only makes a character memorable, but what makes a story memorable after it’s over.

Changing POV

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Changing POV is not head-hopping. The term ‘head-hopping’ means that a POV is changed so much in a scene that the reader is being forced to hop around so much they’re dizzy with it. And because of that they’re confused as to who is doing what, which is something you never want to have in your story.

So, how do you avoid that if you want to change POV in a scene?

First, make your character’s voice distinctive enough so that when you change POV it’s a seamless transition. This means that when you’re in a particular character’s POV you’re using a very distinctive voice for them, and I’m not just talking about the way they speak in dialogue. Each character should have a distinctive way of thinking and acting in addition to speaking. And you don’t need to make the differences super-obvious or extremely-different unless your story calls for that.

Two, understand what you want to do in a particular scene in terms of action and what information you want to reveal about the plot and characters. Sometimes it may be best to stay in one character’s POV because if you go into another character’s POV you’ll reveal a plot detail before you need to. I did this in the very first scene of my novel-in-progress because if I had gone into my other character’s POV I would have spoiled the key surprise plot element, so to speak.

Three, think of the development of the scene in a cinematic way. When you watch a movie for example, most of the time there are cuts within a scene to show the reactions of other characters to what’s happening. So if you feel that need to cut to another character in your scene, then you’re looking to change POV.

Now, I know there are what I call POV-purists who believe in one POV per scene and will only change POV with a line or scene break clearly showing that on the page. And that’s perfectly fine as I’ve read plenty of books written like that I enjoyed. But please don’t feel like you have to do that. Maybe the thought of changing POV in a scene is daunting or you’re not sure of how or when to do it. Don’t be afraid to give a try and in the meantime, study other writers and see how they do things.

Most of all, don’t feel like there is a set of rules governing POV that you can’t break unless you want to go to jail. Trust me, you will not be jailed for changing POV in a scene. If you do it and someone says you’re head-hopping, then you’ll need to look at your work more closely to make sure your changes in POV are seamless. But trust me, it can be done if you want to do it.

Writers Unite! on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” Radio Program

Once again, Writers Unite! has appeared on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” radio program, which airs on WNZK, Detroit, Michigan. Host Paul Reeves and I discussed our sister Facebook site, Writers Unite! and the third installment in our series Writing Your First Novel, To Outline or Not to Outline.

Writers Unite! will be a regular monthly guest on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” program. We are looking forward to being on the show each month to discuss the writing process.

(https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/pwr/episodes/2017-06-05T10_40_50-07_00)

“Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” airs live each week on WNZK, 690AM, in the Detroit area from 11:00 a.m. – Noon Eastern Time. The show is also live streamed on Tunein.

http://tunein.com/radio/WNZK-690-s21615/

Writing Your First Novel Part Four: Plotting Your Story Idea

Sing to me, Oh Muse…

  — Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey

The muse. Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of  “inspiration and artistic creation.”

Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.

Your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?

An excellent piece of advice offered to writers is that we keep a notebook with us at all time. I decided to heed that advice, and am glad that I did. I was surprised at the number of times, a new story idea, or an idea for a current work will pop into my head. As non-functioning as my brain can be at times, thoughts don’t disappear if I have written them down.

How you record your inspirations is up to you. Modern technology allows for many options, notes, written or audio, can be made on smartphones, pads, laptops, sticky notes (the paper or electronic kind), or the old fashion way, a notebook. I love the feel of a real notebook in my hand, hardcover, and spiral bound. My current notebook has the inscription “How to Get Away With Anything” on the antique-finished cover, perfect for a mystery writer.

Now that you have your idea, it’s time to flesh out your story plot. As an acknowledge pantser, at this point, I’d be typing “Chapter One” and be off. However, some writers prefer to plan vs. jump in and to be honest, it is wise likely to think before you type. (Don’t tell my muse, she is impatient for me to start writing.)

One thing I find helpful in organizing my story is that instinctively I know how I want the story to begin and end when a story idea sparks in my head. Having those elements of the story determined helps focus on how to get from Point A, the beginning, to Point C, the end. “B” is your plot points in between. It is important to note that some writers start their outline at the end of their story and work their way backward to beginning. There is no correct way to plan your story, do what is comfortable to you.

First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).”  A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.

Stories are about characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.  

As a mystery writer, I respect my readers need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind as you outline. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.

While all three sections of your outline are important, the beginning establishes your story, introduces your characters and reveals conflict that forces your protagonist to take action.

The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle, it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.

In this section, your outline goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story,  leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.

The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.

There are numerous methods to create an outline. You can use the tried and true roman numeral outline learned in school, write a very detailed synopsis, create a three-section outline based on the beginning, middle and ending, follow a chapter outline, or follow the recommendations of numerous authors. One favorite method that has garnered a great deal of attention is the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. This method also involves Snowflake extensive character development and is considered one of the most comprehensive methods for outlining a story.  (Link to the Snowflake Method can be found in Resources at the end of the article.)

Regardless of the method you choose to pattern your outline on, make it your own. There is no correct way to plot a novel. Remember some of us do not plot before beginning to write, others have the story written before they begin chapter one.  Use the suggestions as guidelines and happy writing!

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Resources:

https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/nine-muses-in-greek-mythology/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plot

 

What The Bandit can Teach Us About Writing

by Kenneth Lawson
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This last Sunday I went with my son back in time.

40 Years ago, this week.

May 27, 1977.

I was still in high school. The movie was “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Jerry Reed, and Jackie Gleason as Buford T Justice.

The epic car chase across three states that ended in a big beer party. But that’s not the real story.

The real story is the fact that I saw this movie when it first came out in 1977 while I was in High School. Since then, I have seen it probably more times than I can count. My son has grown up watching this film we have seen it numerous times together over the years. It’s the first time we’ve seen it the way it was originally presented on the big screen.

The movie is just as silly and in some ways as stupid as it was 40 years ago. The now “Classic” scene where Burt Reynolds and Sally Field jumped the bridge that was out is just as good as ever, even better on the big screen.

But why does anyone care about a chase movie made 40 years ago?

Characters.

Afterward, in the car, my son and I discussed the film for about 10 minutes. We picked a picked apart the plot or the “sort of plot” and the silliness of the whole thing. The likelihood Sally Field’s character did not recognize Jackie Gleason’s character on the CB radio it’s pretty slim if she knew the family well enough to almost married the stupid son. Then she would have recognized his voice over the CB; having probably heard it there many times before. All that aside, the movie still works pretty good.

But that’s the reason the movie works is not the story; the story sucks. What works is the characters. The characters are memorable. Burt Reynolds character the Bandit is likable he’s Every Man’s anti-hero he just doing the best he can and along the way he manages to do things that other people have not been able to do and mostly have fun doing it.
Jerry Reed is also excellent as the Snowman. Snowman is dragged into this crazy bet, he asked Bandit why we want to this silly thing; Bandit explains;

“‘For the good old American life: For the money, for the glory, and for the fun… mostly for the money. ”  — Burt Reynolds as Bandit in Smokey & the Bandit, 1977

You may wonder what this has to do with writing?

Theses characters resonate they speak to us, we can relate to them. They’re doing something that we would like to do. Granted, the story needs work, but that’s okay. In this case, it’s not so much about the story.

Face it, the actual story of “Smokey and The Bandit” is pretty thin. There are holes in the plot we could drive both Bandit’s Trans Am and Snowman’s tractor through. But that’s OK.

This story is “character” driven. We like Bandit, and “Frog” and Snowman, in spite of ourselves we like Sheriff Buford T. Justice. That’s why it works. It’s not so much the grand adventure, or the danger. It’s watching them do stupid stuff and getting away with it. As a teenager, in 1977, I probably wanted to be Bandit so bad I couldn’t stand it. To drive a Bad-Ass car, get the girl, and generally, do whatever the hell I wanted. That’s what these characters embody.

So must you write clones of Bandit, and Snowman, and Justice?

No. But your characters should be something either your readers can relate to directly, or in the case of Bandit, someone they can wish they were.

Bigger than real life. Characters that take over the story. They should ideally be relatable on some level, either age, sex, or occupation, or situation.

But above all, they must be memorable. Granted the movie has the added advantage of “Star Power” The actors bringing the characters to life. While we can’t have a young Burt Reynolds playing our hero, or probably not even the old Burt Reynolds, we must build our characters in ways that make them memorable, and for our readers to care what happens to them.

If we build good enough characters, then the audience will go along for the ride, silly as it may be.

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Kenneth Lawson was born in 1961 in Western NY.  He was born with a heart disease, called Transition of the Arteries, and is believed to be the first in the US to survive the procedure called the Mustard procedure.

He started writing as a teenager. Today he lives in Central Virginia with his wife of 30 years and the youngest of their four children.

Kenneth enjoys classic movies and television, and a variety of music. When not enjoying movies, he can be found writing his eclectic mix of science fiction, mystery, and time travel.

Find Kenneth at his blog


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Write Your First Novel Part Three Plotter vs Pantser: To Outline or Not to Outline…

“Nora Roberts says she never knows where her story is going, that she sits down at the computer to find out.”

Writers, when they aren’t writing, love to talk about writing. It is, after all, our passion. A favorite topic of these discussions, and one that garners a lot of questions is “plotter vs.  pantser.” Do you outline your story before you begin to write or do you run with the idea that pops into your head without a care?

The discussion on how to construct a novel, outline or write without a plan, is one that elicits many opinions. There is no right or wrong way, the method used to write a novel is subjective and personal.

I admit to being a pantser, a writer without a plan. An idea will come to me, and I feel compelled to begin writing immediately. I formulate the beginning and end of the story in my head and work out how to get from Point A to Point B as I go along. Main characters come with the idea, and secondary characters materialize out of thin air as needed.

“Romance author Jane Graves, who identifies herself as ‘a big time pantser’ says ‘I’m cursed with not being able to see the good twists and turns of character and plot until I’m in the middle of writing the book. I can have a sense where it’s going, but absolutely nothing comes alive until the words start going down on the page. That’s when I start having revelations and seeing things I never saw at the synopsis level. For me, it’s kind of like remembering the words to an old song. If you ask me the words, I can’t tell you. But if the song comes on the radio and I’m in the middle of listening to it, I can tell you what comes next.’”

Pantsers usually cite one main reason why they prefer not to outline. They thrive on the unrestricted flow of creativity, which not having a plan gives them. Personally, I enjoy experiencing the story as it unfolds naturally. I don’t want to know what my character’s favorite food is or exactly where a murder is going to take place until the scene evolves. I prefer the characters surprise me.

Another reason is the tedious process of plotting out the story before writing. Many pantsers, this one included, feel very confined by a detailed plan. Outlining is akin to writing the story prior to writing the story.

There are problems with writing without a plan. You can write yourself into a corner, discover you have a major plot hole or realize the beginning of your story may be the middle and you have to develop further back into the story instead of going forward. A major criticism of this writing process is that without planning it often requires considerable rewrite to attain plot cohesion.

I suspect pantsters will admit they do some planning. Complex plots and numerous characters can be confusing. Some writers will sketch out chapters or write down key plot points as they develop them to keep track. I admit to doing both, I am notoriously horrible at remembering character names, so I keep a character list. I have also discovered that creating a chapter list, noting the significant plot events of the book helps keep me focused. My chapter notes are fluid, changing as the story unfolds, and my brief notes perhaps only a cryptic “ body discovered” but does help with keeping an even pace throughout the story.

Plotters, or outliners, on the other hand, thrive on detail. They wouldn’t dream of writing, some quite meticulously, without planning the entire story. Spreadsheets, index cards, journals, loose paper, word docs, all serve as platforms for the all-important outline. During the years JK Rowling was publishing the Harry Potter series, she gave a television interview where she discussed the large spreadsheet she created to plot out and track events in her epic novels. The enormous undertaking required to produce a series like Harry Potter underscores the plotters’ belief in planning. Multiple characters, plotlines, and volumes require attention to detail and even as a pantser by nature, I can see the value of plotting.

One of the serious issues that plague many writers is their inability to finish a project, short story or novel because they lose track during the middle. While a beginning and an ending are often known, how to navigate through the story to reach a conclusion often eludes them. Planning each scene, or chapter can help with this issue by providing the impetus to construct a solid middle.

There is a downside to plotting. I had a conversation with a writing coach, who loved the index card process and told me that I must write my story on the cards and then write my first draft. I didn’t. Writing a detailed outline, including every scene, every nuance to me defeats the point. When the last index card includes the words, ‘the end,’ I’ve already written the book. I don’t choose to write it again.

Also, plotting to such detail boxes one into a corner. If you have an epiphany in the middle of writing based on a detailed outline, you have two choices. Chuck the outline or rewrite it. Rewriting is tedious and time-consuming and unnecessary.

I suspect most of us are a combination of a plotter and a pantser. How much of each of these processes we embrace depends on our need for direction. The one thing I have noticed is our predilection to choose one of these styles seems to follow how we go about our daily tasks. Some calendar everything, make copious lists, some (like me)  ask, “Was that today?” What is important is choosing the writing process that offers us the most productivity and the most joy.

 

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Quote Resources:

http://www.autocrit.com/editing/library/plotter-or-pantser-the-best-of-both-worlds/

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Write Your First Book  Part Four: Plotting will be posted soon.

WHY WORD COUNT DOESN’T MAKE A STORY

As a new writer, the first mistake most of us compulsively—and even subconsciously—make, is manipulate our sentences to increase word count. We go out of our way to phrase things in complex ways to fill the pages and meet that imaginary minimum word count requirement—the one we only discovered by Googling the phrase “how long should a novel be?” So we throw in a few prepositions, explain every single task our character completes, and describe every minor scene down to the last button on the grey, tufted, linen couch.

Sure, this little trick worked wonders back in the day when we pulled all-nighters to finish those seven-page essays or research papers due the next morning, but only when the assignment was an immediate “F” if the word requirement was not met. Otherwise, your teacher or professor might have noted that your paper was wordy or superfluous—a comment I received during a critique of my first edition of The Vanquished.

This eye-opening critique pushed me to recognize my mistakes and release a polished version that lacked distracting, scene-pausing descriptions, interactions or inner thoughts with the main character that hardly amounted to anything, and sentences that read a little clunky (binge-watching the entire series of Downton Abbey while writing the rough draft isn’t such a great idea when your inner voice isn’t yet developed). Since then, however, I’ve noticed many authors repeating the same mistakes as they try to get their novel as thick as possible.

As you’re writing your story—be it a short story or full-length novel—ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Fluff—Is what I’m writing important to the development, or does it exist simply to fluff up my story and make it appear longer and more complex? Does this scene propel the story forward, or does it slow the pace, distract from the plot, and leave the reader confused in the end?

For example: If you have repeated, similar scenes of meaningless, every day conversation between two characters and the scenes start and end with nothing else happening, it’s probably fluff. Try removing it and see if you miss it.

  1. Over Prepping—Are the sentences too wordy? Over prepping is when you use an unnecessary amount of transition words in your narrative—like of, that, after, on, to—leaving your sentences complex and the story slow moving. Prepositions are a necessary part of the story. Too few prepositions can be just as bad and look as amateurish as too many. So do not use the find and replace feature in word to remove more despised ones like of or that—any seasoned reader will know exactly what you did and probably roll their eyes. However, be modest when using them. Reread the sentences while removing one preposition at a time and see if it reads smoother. If so, you can probably go without it.
  2. Over Specifying—Another mistake we make as new writers is try and cover all our bases to keep the reader from being confused during the story. We worry that we aren’t being clear enough, and in turn we specify that the character opened the door of the house, then walked through the door, then closed the door of the house. See how specific that is? There is no way the reader won’t know to imagine the character doing everything that was just stated. But is it necessary? This is where we learn to do something new: trust our readers. We all have varying degrees of imagination, and we all know what it looks like to enter a house. You could easily state that he/she opened the door and went inside, and the reader would never claim you left a hole or that they didn’t know whether the door was open or closed. If it wouldn’t confuse you, it probably won’t confuse ninety-percent of your readers.
  3. Overt Descriptions—How many times have you skimmed over paragraphs of description just to get to the action? I know I have countless times. When I decided I wanted to start writing full time, I actually spent a few years just reading novels word for word, forcing myself to read through the boring parts that I had never taken the time for when I was younger. I was ecstatic when I finally connected with other writers and learned I wasn’t the only one to dislike scene-pausing descriptions. Chunks of description slow down the pace and distract from the immediate action or conversation taking place. Be careful where and how you use it to keep your readers engaged in your story. If whatever you’re describing doesn’t really contribute, you can probably get away with only a sentence or two. If it’s a main character or special object, take enough time explaining it so your reader knows it’s important, but don’t forget to keep it interesting. You want your reader invested in your story, not muddling through it just to get to the end.

To put it simply: word count does not make a story—and that’s great news for us. Once we stop trying to come up with ways to increase our word count—planning sentences out in our heads that sound more intelligent complicated than how we would normally speak, adding scenes that contribute nothing to the story in way of character or plot development, and looking up pictures and technical names of grey, tufted, linen couches that only exist for the character to shove a zombie into, we get the ultimate freedom of focusing on the best part—the story. And if you’re having fun writing it, I can guarantee your reader will have fun reading it.

Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.

Writing Your First Novel Part Two: The Question of Genre

Writing Your First Novel

Part Two

The Question of Genre

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“Readers will stay with an author, no matter what the variations in style and genre, as long as they get that sense of story, of character, of empathetic involvement.”  — Dean Koontz

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From the first children’s book, comic book, or novel that we choose, we begin to develop our sense of what type of story we are drawn to read. For me, I was intrigued by mystery and science fiction at a very early age. In my teenage years, romance entered the mix, and I soon found that my favorite stories to read were combinations of these separate genres.

In Part One of the Writing Your First Novel, we discussed the importance of reading and how it impacts your writing skills. One of the strongest influences of reading is an enhancement of vocabulary. Many of us tend to use the same words in our everyday speech. Reading will expand your selection of words and enrich your writing. Reading also provides an awareness of sentence and story structure and correct grammar. Reading current work allows you to discover the latest trends in the genre can assist in helping you decide the focus of your novel.  Choosing popular works within a specific genre allows you to explore the latest trends and can help you decide the focus of your novel.

Merriam-Webster defines genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” Fictional genre is further categorized into specific topics such as romance, mystery, science fiction, historical, contemporary or young adult among others.

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“I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts.” — Jonathan Lethem

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The traditional brick and mortar publishing houses have long categorized novels into specific genre descriptions. Even though there are numerous sub-genres under those headings, a cozy mystery or detective novel will still be displayed under the ‘Mystery’ banner in a bookstore or library. Based on statistics and marketing plans, it proved easier to control the advertising dollar and consumer focus if novels fit a certain niche. Shelving of books in a retail store is coveted and easier to acquire shelf space for a book in the single mystery genre rather than one in the mystery/science fiction/romance genre. What area of the store do you place a book of mixed genre? It’s a publisher’s marketing nightmare.

That issue has changed considerably with the advent of on-line publishing and search hashtags which have allowed authors to market their works in multiple genres. When genre lines are blurred, the only limitation a writer has is their imagination. Shelf space is no longer a consideration when as Lethem says, “boundaries are confused.”

The question you should ask yourself is what genre do you feel comfortable writing. I have seen numerous writing ‘experts’ say you should write what you know. The problem for me is that I love science fiction and murder mysteries. But, I have never been in space, and I haven’t committed murder, so I don’t have those experiences to draw from when writing. Author John Grisham is a lawyer and his stories center on his experiences practicing law. Not all of us are afforded the luxury of writing with such skill sets. What do we do?

We read, read, and read more novels in the genres of our choice and we do the necessary research to provide plausible details to your writing.  There are certain patterns and expectations that exist within genres, and your reader will feel cheated if those characteristics of the genre are not present. A noir murder mystery novel needs to have a dark, sparse, gritty quality that you will not find in a cozy murder mystery.

The key, I believe, in successfully writing a multi-genre novel is balance. One of the genres chosen must be the primary focus of the story, while the other one, two, or more genres should support. For instance, I wrote a science-fiction/murder mystery/romance novel where the overall science fiction theme is the focus, the murder mystery is the vessel to deliver the story, and the romance builds tension as the two main protagonists, who are emotionally connected, face danger. Throughout the novel, any of these components may take the lead in scenes, but the story balance remains the same.

I do hold to the theory that any genre can mesh with any other, and the combinations may open new vistas for your readers. The fact is these genres are a measure of what can and des occur in our lives. While there may not be dragons in our real world, we have fears that manifest themselves as such and can be symbols within a story.

One thing to remember, throughout this process of learning to write you should also be writing. Details can be added or corrected in the editing process. The important task is to write and to write until the story is complete.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part Three:  To Outline or Not to Outline…. (Pants or No Pants)

Coming soon…

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Resources:

https:qute//www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/genre.html

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genre

 

Writing Your First Novel

One of the common questions asked by novice writers on our sister Facebook site Writers Unite! is “How do I start?” To help new writers with the daunting but fun task of writing, I have begun a series of articles on how to prepare writing your first novel.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part One

Read

 “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
― Neil GaimanThe Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

All those words Gaiman speaks of rattle around inside of us. Eventually, the urge to allow them to escape becomes overwhelming. Time to write a story.

Fledgling writers come from all walks of life with a wide-ranging knowledge of the writing process. I remember my own experience when I decided to begin writing. Writing was not new to me, throughout my career I had written research papers, manuals, newsletters, speeches, and advertising copy.  However, crafting a fiction story was something I had not done since college. I recognized there was a lot to learn.

The question is where to start?  We can jump right in and begin to put words to paper or screen but are we providing ourselves and our future readers with the best effort we can make? Before we write, let’s explore the steps we should do to prepare ourselves to be good writers. Let’s begin with reading.

Read

What better than a book to fuel the imagination. One of my favorite quotes is from George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Reading the works of others is fundamental to the writing process. Any genre and any author (even a not so skilled author) can provide you with useful information. I do recommend selecting best-selling books in the genre/genres that you wish to write in, as well. Successful works related to the story you want to write can provide you with trends and what the readers of the genre prefer.

What you do you as a new author gain by reading? There are several reasons:

Vocabulary:

Reading increases vocabulary by presenting words we may not hear or see on a normal day. A diverse vocabulary is a great asset for any writer by providing an enhanced collection of words that convey the meanings and emotions of your story. A large vocabulary also provides alternate word choices which improve your writing style.

Grammar:

Grammar rules are analogous to rules of the road. Authorities expect us to obey the speed limit, stop at red lights, and follow the other traffic laws. Otherwise, chaos ensues on the roads. The same is true for writing. Grammar rules provide a framework for writing a clear and concise story that a reader expects. When reading, pay attention to sentence structure, verb choice and agreement, how complex or simple the sentence are. You will begin to acquire a feel for the author’s style which can help you find your own.

Plot Structure:

Read to understand how the author constructed their story. How do they open their novel, what hook did they use to draw you into the story? Notice the author introduces their main and secondary characters, build tension toward the climax, or employ foreshadowing, plot twists? Learn what techniques work to provide the reader with an exciting and emotional experience.

Trends:

While you should read all genres for a better overview of style, you should also select numerous books within the genre that you wish to write in. Trends are not only for clothing, but genres are also subject to the latest fad or the focus of a best-selling author. Knowing what your potential reader might prefer when choosing a new novel. A word of caution, trends fade, and by the time your novel is ready for publication, some other trend may have taken your place. Write your story the way you want.

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In subsequent articles, we will look at these topics in more depth as well as other tools for the novice writer.

(Quotes: https://www.brainyquote.com/)