Reestablishing a Writing Routine

We go through great changes in our lives. It’s frankly inevitable. In fact, I remember someone telling me once in high school that in a twenty-five year period, it was likely that we would change our city/town, home, job, education status, socioeconomic status, political party, religion, and/or a whole bunch of other stuff. And when that happens, writing routines established over time and perhaps uninterrupted for years, are suddenly thrown out the window. And then where are you?

A couple of months ago, I moved into a new apartment so I could start a new job after a job search that lasted several months. Now, prior to this move, I would’ve said to anyone who asked that I didn’t really have a writing routine, that I just wrote wherever I could. Well, that is kind of true, because I do tend to write whenever I can if it’s convenient for me. But after the move, I did realize I had a routine of sorts established, and that routine no longer existed.

You see, while I was job-hunting, I lived with my dad, and in the evenings, I would settle down on the couch downstairs in the living room and write or edit while I watched whatever show I liked was playing that evening (you can get a lot written during commercial breaks). This routine lasted from late October 2015 to the end of May 2016. And my God, did it work! I edited the same novel twice and wrote more than a few short stories and blog posts that way during the job search, and it kept me sane while I looked for employment.

However, after I got employed and I moved for work, a lot changed for me. Yeah, I had increased independence, a nice location near work with a grocery store, a Target, and a library very close to where I live, and the chance to be as eccentric as I wanted within the confines of my own home without anyone judging me. But I also did not have a cable package, a TV, or a couch (though that’ll change soon with one of those). So suddenly the routine I had, which I’d been using for months and which I’d been comfortable with, was about as useful as an alchemy textbook at football practice.

For a while, I tried just writing or editing as much as I could when I sat down in front of the computer. Sadly, that worked horribly. I was moving at a snail’s pace, getting through only a couple of pages a week. A chapter could take up a whole month! With work getting busier and busier for me, I was starting to worry if I’d ever get back to the level of productivity I enjoyed prior to the move and in college.

But then a friend of mine gave me a recommendation that I found very useful. She had recently joined a group on Facebook where members sign up each month to try and write 250 words a day, and it had helped her get back into a routine of writing fiction after a pretty lengthy hiatus. That got me thinking: I can’t write every day, some days there just isn’t enough time. But what if I just tried to write 250 words every time I sat down in front of the computer? It couldn’t hurt to try.

To my utter delight, it worked like a charm. The first time, I ended up writing a little over the minimum 250. The next time, I ended up writing over 700 words! And the third, I managed to get out over thirteen-hundred words! It was amazing. Somewhere between words 150 and 250, a switch would flip and the story would just start flowing out of me like a river. In this way, I managed to get out the outline for my NaNoWriMo project in about a week or so.

Once that experiment had proven successful, I wondered if I could do the something similar with editing. It would have to be slightly different though, because editing is editing. Sometimes all you have to do work on is changing a word or a punctuation mark, and word count doesn’t change that much, but sometimes you rewrite whole sections and the word count changes dramatically. I ended up going with editing at least three pages per session, and that worked as well. After I rewrote the beginning of a short story I’d been working on and off with for over a year, I managed to finish editing the rest within a week (it helped that on the last night I worked on it, I was doing everything I could to avoid the presidential debates and I only had twelve pages to go!). Clearly this new routine I’d been working with was doing its job.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to adopt this routine if your old routine becomes impossible to do, but I am saying you shouldn’t just throw yourself into work and expect magic to happen. That didn’t work for me, and I’m not so sure it’ll work for you. Instead, take baby steps. Try writing a little a day until you find something that works for you and you’re at a level of productivity that works for you. If you do that, then I think that whatever life throws your way, you’ll be able to get back into the swing of storytelling with little to no trouble.

Have you ever had to change your writing routine? What did you do and how did it work out?

Tips For Surviving NaNoWriMo

As we all know, National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, is just around the corner (though considering it’s done all over the world these days, it might need a name change). If you are not familiar with the tradition, it’s basically that every year authors try to write a novel in the course of a single month, usually one that’s around fifty-thousand words, and always in November. Of the authors that choose to participate each year, some do it independently, while others do it through an international organization that can hook them up with other participating writers in their region and even let them know about local events centered on helping authors during the month.

I’m on the fence on whether or not I’ll be participating this year. I’ve three other books at various stages of editing and I have to decide if one of those books needs to be rewritten (if so, then I’m participating because that’s basically starting from scratch). Even so, I thought I’d serve the writing community and do my civic duty by posting some notes on how to survive and get through NaNoWriMo with all your fingers still attached to you and your sanity somewhat intact.

Because let’s face it, writing fifty-thousand words in thirty days? I don’t know about the rest of you, but normally that many words takes me six to eight months. Cramming all that work into a month, we need all the help and advice we can get.

So first off, don’t get stressed about the word count. To get fifty-thousand words written in thirty days, you’d have to write approximately 1,667 words, or about 6.7 pages per day.* I know for a lot of writers it’s difficult to get that much out in a single day. The thing to remember is not to feel upset if you can’t force yourself to get that many words out per day. Remember, all good stories take time, and there’s no prizes for meeting daily quotas (the NaNoWriMo organization hands out badges, but they’re like the ones from Audible, nice to have when you get them but they don’t make much of a difference after you get them) or getting the full fifty-thousand words written out besides bragging rights. Besides, if you have to force yourself to put out words when your heart is not in them or just to meet a quota, your first draft might not turn out so well.

That’s another thing: remember that this is a first draft. And a rushed one, too. So if you look at what you’ve written and wonder what the heck you were thinking, that’s a normal reaction to a first draft. They’re supposed to be full of errors and passages that make no sense to you upon the second read-through. It’s during that second read-through that you touch it up and get it closer to the gem that you know it’s going to be.

Now that we’ve gotten the tips that’ll keep you in a good frame of mind out of the way, let’s cover how we actually survive NaNoWriMo:

Prior to November, research and prepare. We’ve still got twenty-two days till NaNoWriMo kicks off. During that time, it might help for you to get an idea of what you’re working on, where it might be heading, and maybe learn a bit more about the subject matter you’re writing, especially if it’s a topic you don’t know very well (like a murder mystery in Tang China or a coming-of-age story set in an ROTC unit). Now I know a lot of you might like to write by the seat of your pants, but just doing a little bit of prep can be helpful, especially if it means you don’t have to stop midway through writing because you realized you don’t know a thing about car maintenance and you lose four days because you got a car maintenance manual and needed to cram all that info in.

It also helps to prepare so that you can make plans in case you have to stop writing for any reason. Whether you need to attend a wedding midway through the month or you have to put the metaphorical quill down because you have a Poli Sci exam coming up you need to study for, having a contingency plan in case that happens can work wonders.

Speaking of which, while it is important to get out as much writing as possible, make sure not to neglect your life just to write. Many of us have day jobs, school, families, friends, and a variety of other things that require our attention. While it is important to write and maybe give up a few social obligations or fun outings to work, don’t neglect the real world entirely. I find the real world can not only give me great ideas for stories, but also reenergize me so that when I sit down to write, I’m not restless and looking for a distraction or yearning to go out and see the latest horror movie or something.

And while you’re working so hard, remember to take care of your health. In some ways, NaNoWriMo is like the last three weeks of a college semester: you’ve got a ton of work to do, only so much time to do it, and you’re willing to get maybe four hours a night of sleep and eat ramen noodles three times a day if that’s what it takes to get through it on top. I’m advising against that. There are no consequences to not getting out the full fifty-thousand words, so your health shouldn’t be a consequence of trying to. Get plenty of sleep each night, eat healthy meals, and get some exercise too if you can, even if it’s just going for a walk. You’ll find you’ll have more energy for writing if you do, believe me.

It’s also healthy to take an occasional break. We all need time to recharge and let our brains focus. So if you feel approaching burnout or writer’s block, or if you can’t figure out where your story should go next, or if you’re just so tired of writing about a princess trying to cover up her father’s murder so she doesn’t have to marry against her will, then maybe a trip out to the movies or to the bar with your friends or some fun family time or an all-night Mario Kart tournament with your roommates might be what you need. Studies actually show that ideas come more easily to you if you’re distracted, so there’s even more reason to take a break right there.

And if you need a little motivation to keep you going, reward yourself for certain milestones. For every five-thousand words or so you put out, reward yourself with something fun. This could be a favorite dessert, watching Netflix for a little while, whatever you want. Give yourself something extra special when you reach fifty-thousand words and/or finish the book (I suggest some wine, some celebration music, and later a good movie with a friend). You’ll find it much easier to write if you have something to look forward to after all your hard work.

And let’s not forget to build a support network around yourself. The NaNoWriMo organization attempts to do this by putting you in touch with other participants in your area and with community events, but whether or not you decide to participate in these events, you should still have people around you encouraging and cheering you on. Friends, family, lovers, authors you’re friends with online or offline, they should all be there for you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have people cheering me on and willing to read my work every time I publish during the rest of the year. Imagine how motivating it’ll be when you know there’s a group of people standing behind you when you do the writing equivalent of a 5K.

Finally, take a long break when you’re done. Not just from writing so you can get your creative juices to recharge, but also take a break from whatever novel you were working on once you’re done. I always feel that a month or more between drafts allows for writers to come back to their first drafts with fresh eyes so they can see where they made mistakes in the first draft and correct them. If you start editing immediately after finishing the first draft, you can only see it as the baby you just poured so much time and energy into and miss quite a lot. Better to take a break and let it lie until you’re ready to look again.

I’d like to wrap it up here and wish everyone participating next month good luck. Whatever you do to make the month of November one of the most productive and crazy of the year, I hope you found these tips helpful and that you have fun trying to get a full novel out in thirty days.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year?

What tips do you have for getting through the month and writing as much as you can in so little time?

*That’s if you write like I do, which is Times New Roman, 12 point font, and double spaced on 8.5” x 11” paper. Otherwise it varies.

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

What’s The Most Important Lesson You’ve Learned: Words of Wisdom From Our Readers

About two weeks ago, Ruth and I asked you to send in your best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing fiction. I am very pleased to say that nearly every day since my inbox has had wonderful messages from our many readers who were glad to send along their knowledge. Below you can see their comments, as well as wonderful pictures of them and their books. On behalf of the folks here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, we would like to thank you for your awesome contributions.

Here’s what our readers had to say:

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Write the story you want to write.  Be passionate, follow your heart, and ignore what others are writing.  Just be you.

Debbie Conrad

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Spell check. Spell check, spell check, spell check. After every draft, spell check. After every writing session, spell check. There are going to be things you missed, even if you think you haven’t; it’s just the way the mind works. Have you gone through five drafts with two meticulous editors, four former English teachers, eight hawk-eyed beta readers, and an incredibly observant slow loris? Spell check. You may only find six errors in eighty thousand words, but that’s six errors your readers didn’t find.

Spell check. Then, you won’t have to apologize.

B. Lynch

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Always read the proof! First time I self-published, the book manufacturer sent me a proof copy. I was so excited to see my work in print form, I didn’t take any time to read through it. Consequently, in the first 50 books I ever sold, there were all manners and sorts of typos and small things I hadn’t caught during my initial editing. Sometimes, once the work is in print, you see it with fresher eyes and can spot things missed during the initial editing rounds.

Dana Myles

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The most important lesson I’ve learned from self-publishing is; spellcheck is no substitute for a good editor. And a good editor is one that is first and foremost, a fan of your work.

Gwen Rhea

 

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Although it’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing about writing, publishing or marketing, I think I can safely say, the overarching key to feeling competant in this field is (drumroll please)……. NETWORKING! The more people you meet, the greater your pool of resources, knowledge, and promotion. Make friends. Know everyone in the business you can and genuinely care about them, honestly seek out their knowledge, and give them credit for anything you learn from them. Help promote them and they’ll help promote you. Network. It goes a long, long way in every avenue in writing.
G.M. Barlean
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Before you spend one dime, one minute, one ounce of energy on anything, whether it’s choosing a publisher, releasing your book, publicizing, advertising, marketing, do your research. At your fingertips is a vast information pool of success stories and failures. Tap into that to learn the best ways to publish and promote. Learn from others’ mistakes so you don’t repeat them. This will give you a leg up and pave the way for a better chance at success.
Eva Lesko Natellio
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No matter how tired you are of re-writing the ending or the tweaking the edits your editor gives you—do them with care and thoughtfulness. If you dash through them, or you’re simply freakin’ tired of working on the manuscript it WILL show up in the writing. You cannot fool readers. Put the work aside and do something else until you’re renewed enough to start again. It’s worth the wait.
BK Froman
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I made so many mistakes on my first book. It wasn’t edited well, it had no promotion, I hadn’t research cover design enough, my website wasn’t up. The lack of editing was the worst; I had to put out a 2nd revision of The Distant Trees with corrections. Of course the reviews citing typos remained. I was in too great a hurry with excitement over publishing. With the subsequent books of the Elise t’Hoot series, I have been meticulous about multiple drafts, waiting a month, proofing, waiting, going through it again. I have a knowledgeable beta reader now, too, an English teacher. Then I revise as needed and do one more line edit start to finish. I still cannot afford professional ($1000 – $2000) editing  for each book in the series, but the amateur editing is far better now. Bottom line: Poorly edited books will haunt you.
Mary Ellen Wall
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Lots of people on the Internet offer their unqualified and/or overpriced services to self-publishing authors. Their best trick of all is getting you to pay for their advice on what you should do. Any failure to achieve what you want will be your fault. I haven’t subscribed to any of these services, but I see them everywhere, every day. Sad.
Ron Fritsch
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Before I published my book, I had this rather naïve idea that it would sell itself, that when people realize how good it was, they would buy it.   Once my book entered Amazon’s inventory, however, it became the proverbial needle in a haystack. I looked at and read other self-published books.   A few were not necessarily great stories, but the titles seemed to be everywhere. That’s when I learned that some of the books that rise to the top of popularity were there not necessarily because they were outstanding, but because they were backed by good marketing campaigns.  
Now that I understand that every book needs advertising, I’m budgeting time and money to market my book to improve its visibility.  I have found affordable advertising packages and blog tours, and I’m enjoying the new responsibility of being my book’s PR agent.
Amaia S. Li
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Using CreateSpace, which I adore, I was smart enough NOT to a) let them be the imprint instead of forming my own publishing company for 300 bucks (easy online), and b) not letting them supply ISBN number (which would be in their name), but supplying my own, Doing this retains 100% control and gives me piece of mind.
Rodney Richards
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When attending a local Sci-Fi & Fantasy convention , it’s always tempting to hide out in the video game, movie or board game rooms. (Especially when most of us who write are quiet folk who feel uncomfortable around large groups of people.) But when you do that, you waste a great opputunity to chat with fellow published writers! You never know what friendships you’ll make or pieces of advice you’ll get. I’ve made some lasting relationships from going to conventions and it helped a ton when I launched my first novel Blade Of The Broken… Don’t be afraid to mingle!
Jake Scholl
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The best advice I’ve learned from self-publishing is to just do it.  I took a “write-a-story-in-one-day” challenge, and from that I completed a short story.  With that, I loaded up to Amazon and *poof* I am a published author.  There’s so much talk about building your brand, having a platform, developing and maintaining a website, being active on social media and all that, but if you don’t have a book published, then why all the effort?  If people like you but have nothing to read, that’s a waste of potential.

That and find an editor.

DW Hirsch

Thanks once again to all our contributors for their wonderful advice. I hope we can do this again sometime and that you all find the advice above very helpful in your own writing. Have a lovely day, everyone.

[Editor’s Note: If you contributed have trouble viewing one of your photos or any other concerns, please let me know as soon as possible so I can rectify it. Thank you.]

 

Short Stories That Are Too Short

Last semester I took part in a creative-writing class of about seventeen people, including our instructor. This class taught me many things about writing and gave me several new insights into my craft as well as many new tools to write more compelling and interesting stories. It also gave me a few ideas for articles, such as this one:

My classmates and I each had to turn in three short stories during the semester (two original short stories and one edited story). A few times people turned in stories that were really short and just had the barebones of a story. There were numerous reasons for why one or another student would turn in stories like that, with very little meat to it if any. Usually it was something along the lines of having their deadline sneak up on them and rushing to get something written and printed before class (I remember one girl was actually stapling the typo-plagued copies of her story together in the first few minutes of class before she turned it in. She later said that she’d rushed to get the story done, and had spent the first hour or so just wondering what the first few words should be. We all laughed at that, mostly because we’d all been there at one point or another).

However while other students were pressed for time, one or two said they were afraid that if they wrote anything longer it would be too long! When we heard this, we often told the student that their fear of making the story too long had actually made it far too short.

I’ve always defined a short story as between a thousand and ten-thousand words. This leaves a lot of room to work with, even for authors such as myself who are better suited to more expansive works like novels. Yet a lot of authors fear that getting close to twenty-five hundred words is going too far, getting too long, crossing into a territory reserved only for longer projects. Why?

I think it might have something to do with magazines and getting published in them. Many magazines, especially ones that pay, have a maximum word-limit, usually around five-thousand words or so. This creates pressure on the author who wants to be published. They want a wonderful and engaging story but at the same time they’re hampered by the feeling that they can’t go over a certain word limit or they won’t get published in this or that magazine. Even self-published authors aren’t immune to this: many indie authors write stories and send them out to magazines, often to get people to read their work, along with maybe a desire for income and maybe a small wish to show the critics of self-publishing that we can get published in the same magazines as traditional published authors and still have quality work.

The thing is, a story is going to be the length it needs to be. You can’t help it. Twice I’ve thought up and even written short stories that turned out that they needed to novels. And even when a short story manages to stay a short story, I find that a story that needs to expand to four or five thousand words or more is going to expand that length. As much as you try, you won’t get it down to twenty-five hundred without sacrificing quality. At least, not very easily.

I usually end up writing short stories between four and five thousand words. In fact, I try to make sure they stay that length. I’ve tried for shorter but that usually doesn’t happen, and longer stories do sometimes happen, though they often get shorter when I start to edit. The thing is, these stories are going to be as long as they need to be and sometimes you have to accept that. If you want to write a story that’s shorter than what you usually write, do it more as an exercise, as a way to get better at saying something in less words than normal. Don’t feel like you have to make a story shorter, but just try and see if you can. And if you can’t, don’t feel disappointed about it. Just meant that story wasn’t meant to be that short.

And if you’re worried about getting published, there are plenty of magazines, anthologies, contests, and podcasts that accept longer short stories and even short novelettes. Just do your research, you’ll find them. Or don’t go looking for them at all, but try and put together a collection of short stories. You have full creative control then and can make your stories whatever length you desire.

Or perhaps short stories aren’t your thing. They’re certainly not my area of expertise, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Either way, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of authors don’t do short stories and they’re excellent. Just stick to your area of strength and see what amazing stuff you can do there.

But if you do endeavor to create amazing short stories, just remember not to let the length of your story become an inhibition and a drag rather than a tool for successful writing. As I and my classmates have learned, length is important, but it’s by far not the most important thing to keep in mind. That would be the story itself.

 

On an unrelated note, thanks to Ruth Ann Nordin for the new background on this site. I was kind of attached to the old one, but I like what’s here now. It’s warm and welcoming, if you ask me.

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

Submitting Short Stories to Magazines

Have you ever written a short story and tried to get it published in a magazine? Chances are you have. Many authors, both traditional and indie, write short stories and try to get them published in print magazines, on e-mags, or in anthologies. I’ve been published in a couple of magazines and I’m hoping for more in the future (though with my writing schedule these days, it’s hard to make time for short stories). And there are benefits to doing so, including:

  • Short stories are a whole different beast to tame than novels, so writing and sending out short stories lets you know what works and what people look for in a good short story. Sometimes magazines will even give you feedback if they decide to reject your story, so you get an idea on how to improve it.
  • At the very least, you’ll get some exposure from having your work published in a magazine. At the very most, they’ll pay you some money for a nice dinner out.
  • For those critics who accuse indie authors of trying to skirt around hard work and just put any old book out, this is a way of saying “Hey, we can do it your way too.”

If you haven’t ever sent a short story out to magazine, this might give you some help in going about it. If you’ve already done it before, then maybe this’ll be a useful reminder. And like I said, you should try it. You never know what’ll happen if you do.

1. Find a publication. Once you’ve written a short story and edited it to the utmost perfection, it’s time to find a magazine. Publications like Writer’s Digest’s Short Story & Novel Writer’s Market contain may useful listing of magazines in all genres, as well as contests and agencies and conferences. You can also get info from friends or family members who write. Another blogger told me about a magazine she published a short story in, and I think that I might have a short story I could submit to them, I just have to make sure it’s ready before I send it out.

Also, it’s helpful sometimes to read the short stories they publish. This generally gives you some idea of what they tend to publish, so you’ll have a better idea of what might be accepted.

2. Read over the rules. Every magazine has its own set of rules about submitting to them and the terms you’ll get should you be accepted. They may want the short story sent in a particular attachment, or they may prefer the story in the body of the message. There may be restrictions on length, subject matter, or a hundred other things. And being published by them might mean signing over all rights to the story to the magazine, or only first North American publishing rights. So know what you’re getting into when you decide, “I’ll send it to this publication.”

3. Write that query letter. A query letter is a letter stating who you are, what you’re sending, and why you’re sending it. Once you’ve done your research, write up a query letter and send it along to the magazine with your short story. Here’s an example of me sending a query letter to a fictional magazine:

Dear Darkness Abounds magazine,

I am submitting my manuscript “Hands” (5,732 words) to your publication for your consideration. I decided to submit to your magazine because your website said you were into “dark, creepy fiction with an interesting twist on old stories” and I thought my short story matched your description.

I am a self-published novelist with two novels and a collection of short stories published, as well as short stories published in Mobius Magazine, The Writing Disorder, and the Winter 2011 issue of TEA, A Magazine (now The Daily Tea). I also write for two blogs, Rami Ungar the Writer and Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. I am also a senior at The Ohio State University double majoring in English and History and expected to graduate in May 2015.

I look forward to hearing from you and would like to thank you for your time and consideration.

Hoping you are well,

Rami Ungar
[contact information, including address, phone number, and e-mail address]

Make sure to include the word count of your story (that’s an important factor in many publications), why you’re selecting the magazine, and any relevant publications. Also, don’t make your biography too long. Just keep the relevant stuff and don’t give them your life story. You can save that for your memoirs.

4. Wait. Every magazine has its own quoted turn-around time, so you might as well be patient. However, it’s not uncommon for a magazine to let work pile up and miss your short story entirely, so if you find two or three weeks have gone by and you haven’t heard anything, it might be helpful to send an email asking politely if you are still being considered for publication (I’ll write a post about that another time).

5. How to handle the reply. Assuming the magazine didn’t lose your work in the pile of submissions they get and you get a reply, the important thing is to be grateful one way or another for their reply. If you’re accepted, that’s wonderful. Talk terms with them and then decide if you want them to publish you. If you get rejected, possibly look at getting published somewhere else, and take into account any feedback you might receive on your short story as a possible way to improve the story.

What tips do you have for submitting to magazines your short stories?

How To Write An Epilogue

In my last post, I wrote about writing prologues. I thought I’d follow that up by writing about epilogues. I would like to begin this article by stating that prologues and epilogues, while at opposite ends of the book, each require different needs to be fulfilled in order to be written effectively. Let’s explore that, shall we?

First, what purpose does the epilogue serve? In a way, it serves as an enhanced last chapter. If the prologue serves to set the tone of the story and usher in whatever journey that the main character or characters are about to go on, then the epilogue serves to let the reader know, usually on a very happy note, that all is well and that the characters have moved on from the journey. This is why JK Rowling only used an epilogue in the final book of Harry Potter: during the previous six books, Harry was still very much in conflict with Voldemort, even if he wasn’t always aware of it. The epilogue in Book 7, when the next generation is sent off to Hogwarts in a more peaceful era, lets us know that the conflict between Harry and Voldemort is over, and that “all is well”.

Does an epilogue have to be one chapter? Depends on the writer. Some writers prefer to have only a chapter-long epilogue, while others have written epilogues that have taken up to two to four chapters. Snake, if I remember correctly, has around five chapters in its epilogue. Like I said, depends on the writer and what they want to do with their story.

How much wrapping up do you do in an epilogue? Preferably you want to wrap up all your loose ends at the end of the book, and especially if you’re doing an epilogue. Most authors, unless they’re writing a series, will try to get rid of loose ends as they can before they get to the final chapter, so that they’ll be able to wrap things up in a neat little bow at the end. Figuring out how much wrapping up needs to be done should usually be done in the plotting stages of writing your novel, though. This helps reduce stress and any unexpected problems or questions from cropping up at the end of the book.

Of course, some authors will have an epilogue that will have a happy little scene, and then tie up their loose ends or open questions in supplemental materials after the last book, but the authors who do that usually are big-name authors with traditional publishing houses like Charlaine Harris or JK Rowling. If you would like to do the same thing though, ask yourself one question: do you have a big enough fanbase that would be interested in a lot of supplemental material released after your book? It’s an important question to answer before you start writing.

What should the tone of the epilogue be? Most epilogues I’ve read tend to end on a happy or hopeful note. “We’ve gone to hell and back, but we survived, we conquered, and we’re stronger. Things may not always be great, but they’re not always terrible either.” Of course, there are probably epilogues that let the reader know that things aren’t as nice as they could be. I sort of wrote the ending to Snake to be that way. Once again, it depends on the writer, what sort of story you are writing, and how you want to go about writing it.

What’s the best way to write an epilogue? No two writers are alike (thank God for that), so it depends greatly on the writer. The best way to write an epilogue is to practice it each time you include one in a novel, and also see what works and doesn’t work for you when you read an epilogue in someone else’s book. This will allow you to figure out how best you can write an epilogue and include them in as many novels as you desire.

Now, not every novel has to have an epilogue, just like not every novel has to have a prologue. But if you decide to put an epilogue in your novel, I hope you’ll find this article and the advice it gives rather helpful. And please let us know in the comments section if you have any more advice on creating epilogues that resonate with audiences. We would love to hear from you.

How To Write A Prologue

Not too long ago, someone commented here asking for an article on writing prologues. I was saddened to reply that we did not have any articles on the subject (I checked), but I promised we’d have one soon. I’m making good on that promise now.

Many authors start their novels with prologues, which they use to set up the story of the novel. The fact that they set up the novel though helps to make prologues very different from other chapters of the novel. So here is some advice that will (hopefully) make writing a prologue easier:

What makes a prologue different from Chapter One? Good question. Sometimes there’s not much difference, but most often there’s plenty of difference. Usually though a prologue is a special scene at the beginning of a story that is set aside from the main body of the story. The events that occur in it often contain a catalyst that propels the events of the novel along. In the book Eragon, for example, Arya is attacked by agents of the Emperor and has to jettison Saphira’s egg with magic to a safe location. This allows Eragon to come across the egg in Chapter One, which begins his journey to become a Dragon Rider.

Does the prologue need to feature the protagonist or other major characters in the story? Not necessarily. Depending on how the author chooses to plot the story, the prologue may or may not feature any major characters. The example I used above only featured Arya and Durza the Shade, a supporting character and the antagonist. Eragon and Saphira don’t show up till later in the novel.

Of course, there are prologues that feature main characters. In my recently-published novel Snake, my protagonist shows up in the prologue, helping to give the story the mood and cementing the Snake as not the kind of guy to be trifled with. Like I said, it depends on who’s writing the story and how they want to write and plot it.

Can a prologue be more than a single chapter? Most prologues tend to be a single chapter. However, I’ve read several books where the prologue is divided into a couple chapters. This usually occurs in books where a single story is divided into certain parts, each part detailing a different section of the story. I actually wrote Snake that way, with the prologue covering the first four chapters before moving into Part One.

Like other aspects of writing a prologue though, it’s all dependent on what the author decides to do in writing his/her story.

How should a prologue set the mood of the story? Let me use a bit of an unconventional example: when Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral concert work The Rite of Spring was first performed, it began with a low bassoon, followed by several other woodwind instruments. For a ballet/orchestral concert at that time, it was a very unusual introduction, but it fit in considering that for its time, The Rite of Spring was a very unusual production (so unusual in fact, that a riot nearly broke out in the audience when it first premiered at a Parisian theater in 1913).

Similarly, the prologue of your novel should set the tone of the story. If you’re writing a horror story, the prologue should let people know that something awful is going to happen soon and it’s going to be quite terrifying. If you’re writing a fantasy story, the prologue should either give some history on the world the characters inhabit (al a the opening of the Lord of the Rings films) or explain straight away that this is a fantasy realm and that someone’s going to be going on a journey soon. In short, make sure the prologue is what you use to say, “This is the kind of novel I’m writing. It has such-and-such an atmosphere, such-and-such characters, and you can expect more of this throughout the story”.

What makes a good prologue? Now that’s not an easy thing to pin down, and depending who you ask, you’re going to get different answers. The best advice on that I can give you is that in order to write a prologue, read plenty of novels with prologues. See what works and what doesn’t work for you. And then write your own prologues, seeing what works for you and what doesn’t work for you.

If that reader who asked the original question on prologues is reading this post, then I hope that you found this article helpful. Prologues can be very important for your story, because they set up the rest of the novel. I hope that after reading this article, you and anyone else reading this article, can write excellent prologues for your stories.

Showing vs. Telling

*Warning: The following essay contains spoilers from a recently released motion picture. If you are planning on seeing said movie and don’t want it ruined, please refrain from reading this post. If you’ve seen this movie or don’t care either way, then go on. I only spoil the first ten minutes or so anyway, so if you’re not too fussy, it probably won’t ruin too much of the movie anyway.

Not too long after I got back from my study abroad trip to Europe, my roommate and I went to go see Maleficent, which had just been released at that point. Early on in the movie though, there were a couple of things that my roommate and I had trouble with. Particularly the use of narration to tell the audience of Maleficent’s relationship to Stefan rather than actually showing how it developed. It actually made it really hard to get to know the characters and in the end, and the movie was less enjoyable than it could’ve been (though the CGI was rather amazing).

The example above is an example of showing vs. telling, which in my experience is one of the harder aspects of writing to master and one of the most difficult to teach. Yet it is vital for writers to learn to differentiate between the two and find the right balance of both showing and telling, because without being able to find some sort of balance, it makes for less entertaining stories.

Here’s an example of too much telling: Bob walked into an old house. There he encountered a beautiful woman who was really a witch. She stole his youth and he became an old man and died while she became beautiful and younger.

Now besides being dull, what can be said about this story? Very little, really. Your mind may have created an old house, a beautiful woman casting spells, Bob turning into an old man, but what else did it do? Nothing. You don’t get any detail about how we know the house is old, or how we know the beautiful woman was beautiful or a witch. We’re not shown how she steals Bob’s youth, or if he has any youth to give! He could really be middle-aged, for all we know. And why did he go into the house in the first place? Did he know about the witch?

Some writers call this the camera test. If you can’t build a picture in your mind with the information given to you in the text, then there’s too much telling and there needs to be more showing.

So what is showing? Basically it’s the meat of your story. Think of the telling as the barebones of your story, or what you would use in a summary of your novel. The showing is the dialogue, the details that paint the picture, the emotions and the exchanges, the tension and the moments of insight where you really get a sense of who the characters are and what happens to them in the course of the story.

In the example I used above, showing would involve us learning about why Bob went into the house in the first place. We would know what made the house old, as well as what the atmosphere around the house is like. Maybe there’s an oppressive air about the place, like a funeral that never seems to end. Perhaps there are dead trees and faded grass and it’s late in the evening, giving it a further creepy feel.

Once inside the house, we would find out what Bob experiences while in the house up until he meets the witch. We’d know what he’d think of the witch, if they exchanged any dialogue, and if he had any warning bells telling him to flee. Finally we’d see how the witch would take Bob’s youth, what it was like for him to lose his youth, and how the witch uses the stolen youth. If the author told the story right, we’d be able to picture all this with great clarity, and the story would have the required amount of showing and telling.

I know I just gave this example with a lot of telling and exposition, but you get the idea.

So along with the camera test, what are some other ways to gain a better understanding of showing vs. telling? Luckily as authors, we can go right to our favorite books to gain an understanding. Look at books you’ve enjoyed as well as books you hate. See how the author handled showing the story vs. telling the story, or how they didn’t handle it. You can also look for some articles on showing vs. telling, of which there are probably many besides this one (there’s a great one from Writer’s Digest that I found). And when you’ve done enough reading, try practicing telling and showing. Show it to someone if you feel comfortable and get their feedback. With practice, you can get very good at finding the balance of showing vs. telling.

Now using some exposition is necessary at times in stories while at other times there are passages where there is just too much information in the passage and a quick summary would be better. But one has to figure out where these passages belong themselves. And once you do, (pardon the pun) it will definitely show in your work.

Not to mention, we’ll actually come away with a better understanding of that maxim that writers, editors, and agents love to throw at their pupils: show, don’t tell. I’ve had one or two lessons with teachers where I wished they’d show me what they meant and not just tell it to me!