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?

Writing Reviews

I enjoy writing reviews on my personal blog. Whether it be for a book, movie, or TV show, writing reviews allows me to give my own opinion on a particular work to a wider audience, as well as helping me to seem more like an authority on the subject when the work in question happens to be in my main genre (namely horror). And there’s an added benefit to writing reviews: by identifying what works or what doesn’t work in a movie/TV show/book, you can learn from these examples and incorporate them into your own fiction to make your stories better.

I’ve been writing reviews on my blog almost as long as I’ve been blogging (for examples, click here), and I think knowing how to do it and doing it as often as possible actually works in your favor as an author. Below I’ve written down some tips to writing reviews, based on my own experience and things I’ve picked up from reading the reviews of others (especially those in Entertainment Weekly):

Review both good and bad works. Sometimes it’s tempting to only review the good stuff. After wasting perhaps several hours on a work that proved to be well below the bar, the last thing you want is to spend any more time on it. However, writing a review on something you disliked not only does a lot of much-needed venting on how you wasted money getting that ticket or buying that paperback, but it may help someone decide whether or not to check out said work, and perhaps avoid several hours of trying to get through a book that fails to please.

Opening, summary, thoughts, final rating, closing. This is the structure I usually use for my reviews. I give a little opening that gives my impressions of the movie, positive or negative. Then I give a short, hopefully spoiler-free summary of what the film is about, followed by a paragraph or two about what worked and what didn’t work. Finally I give a final rating (more on that below), and I write a final piece, usually something relating to any possible sequels or how this book was one of the best I’d read in a long time or some other third thing (you guys get the idea).

Use a rating system. You don’t have to use a rating system, but I find them helpful. Something simple, such as on a scale of 1-10, 1-5, out of 5 stars, a grade between A+ and F (though I wonder, if you’re a schoolteacher during your day job, is using that rating system too much like work?). I prefer using 1-5 with decimals. The last review I gave was a 2.6 out of 5, if I remember correctly. It’s simple and easy to understand, which is what I hope everyone thinks my reviews are.

Make sure to name all relevant people. Include the names of the author, or the name of the writer, director, and actors if this is a TV show or movie. Also, if you feel themake-up artists producers, and composers or anyone else should have their names mentioned, do it. Just make sure you explain why these names are mentioned.

Unless your blog is dedicated to reviews, don’t do them too often. It’s that whole thing about staying true to the theme of your blog and not wanting to deviate too much from that. Sure, a review every now and then is good, but don’t do it too much that you forget why you’re writing your blog in the first place.

If you want to find out more about reviews and writing them, you can check out mine through the link above (though you’ll also find reviews of my own books among them and a few other things, so you might have to wade through all that). You can also check out blogs dedicated to reviewing different movies/books/music/TV shows (too numerous to list here, I’m sure), any pop culture or entertainment magazines (People and Entertainment Weekly) and review aggregator sites (IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, etc.).

And readers, we want to hear from you. Do you write reviews? What do you get out of it? Do you have any tips for the rest of us? Let us know in the comments section, we’d love to hear from you.

And if we get enough tips, I might post an article with your suggestions listed. So don’t hesitate to share your thoughts on reviews and reviewing. You might see them posted for all to see in a future article.

Business Cards and Bookmarks

Not too long after my most recent book Snake came out, I designed and ordered my first set of business cards, which arrived in the mail not too long afterwards. The pictures below show both the front and the back of the business cards. (I’m sorry if the photos are blurry; my camera’s old, so sometimes getting a close-up on something blurs the shot).

business card 1

business card 2

I received 250 cards, which I’ve been giving out to anyone I think might be interested. I like to think that they’ve helped boost sales a tiny bit, because I’ve had a few sales since I got them (though I doubt the download from the UK has much to do with the business cards). I thought that since my business cards were doing so well, I’d write an article about designing and ordering your own cards to promote your writing. I also plan to include bookmarks in this article, as the places that print business cards also usually print bookmarks if you ask them to.

This brings me to my first point:

1. Find out what your local options are. Some of you may have local print shops who can create your cards and bookmarks for you. It’s sometimes easier to do local anyway, because you can go and pick them up yourself and work with the people at the shop. However, if it’s an independent print shop, the prices might be a little more expensive, so make sure to compare prices before choosing a place to print your cards or bookmarks. Staples and Kinko’s also make some very good cards, and their prices are usually a little more competitive. And if there’s nothing in your area, you can always go online. I got my cards off of VistaPrint, and they did a very good job for a good price, if you ask me, and they make a whole bunch of other products besides business cards and bookmarks.

2. Choose a design that fits you. A business card or bookmark should have the same sort of feel as the work you write, rather than just being a plan white piece of paper or having a picture of a bunch of books on a shelf. Think of it as selecting a cover for your book: you want it to reflect the tone, atmosphere, and characters of the story. So let your bookmarks and business cards reflect what you write. If you are a sci-fi writer, maybe you should do something with aliens or machines. If you do romance, maybe something with hearts and different hues of red and pink. Whatever it is, make sure it works.

3. Make sure all relevant information is on your cards. Name, blog address, Facebook page, Twitter handle, YouTube channel, Reddit username. If you got it, make sure it’s on the card somewhere. If you have an email where fans can reach you, or even a phone number if you’re comfortable with it, include that too (if you have or have had or think you might have obsessed fans, I’d avoid the phone number though). And if there’s room, include the names of some or all of your books. If you have too many to fit on a single card, include maybe the most recent ones, or the most popular ones. And that brings me to my next point:

4. Update as soon as there’s something to update. Got a new book out? Or maybe you’ve started a new page on a new social media platform? Time to start a new card. Yes, it’s a little bit of a hassle, but in the end, it’s a little less annoying than having to say “Oh by the way, I also recently started a page on so-and-so website/published a new book called this-and-that.” And having it on the card helps to keep it in mind for the person you give said card to. Updating them regularly also gives you the chance to try different designs and configurations for your cards (when I update them, I want to customize mine to have one of my photos from the Paris Catacombs on them. I think that’ll be very fun to do, as well as give people an idea of what sort of stories I tend to write).

5. Include a quote or something about yourself as well. On my business cards, I have a short, two-sentence paragraph describing the sort of stories I write. Doing quotes on bookmarks are especially effective, especially if the bookmark is being used to promote a new book. However, should you pick a quote, make sure it is a particularly powerful one that will entice the reader to actually check out the rest of the book. Just putting any old quote on that bookmark just doesn’t do the trick like a quote that is full of mystery and only offers a small peek into the whole story.

6. Finally, be frugal and generous with your cards and bookmarks. What this means is that you should try to give them out to as many people as you can, but try to make sure to give them to people you think would really want to read your books. It’s not an easy thing to do at first–you want to let anyone and everyone know about your work, and you never know who might be a reader–but you get good at it after a while. I learned how to do it while trying to get people interested in my meditation group at the Asian Festival last year (though that’s a story for another time).

Do you have business cards for your writing? Have they been effective?

What advice do you have on making and designing business cards?

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.

Doing An Excerpt

Have you ever been excited for a new book and gone on an Internet search when you hear there’s an excerpt of it online? Or have you ever just finished reading a book, really enjoyed it, and found the first chapter of the sequel near the end?

Excerpts are great ways to get people interested in your upcoming work as well as work that’s already out there. For each of my books, I make sure to put up an excerpt on my blog prior to publication so that people can see what they’ll be getting should they decide to buy the book. And depending on what portion of your book you use for your manuscript, you can possibly increase your sales tremendously.

But which portions do you pick for your excerpts? Here’s some tips that might help:

1. Should you use the first chapter? Some writers out there reading this will say “Of course you use the first chapter! What else would you use?” That might not always be the best option, though. Take a Stephen King novel: sometimes it takes several pages (occasionally several hundred pages) before things get interesting. And an excerpt is supposed to be interesting. So if your novel is about a haunted house and your first chapter just involves your main character sipping coffee in an outdoor café in Paris and meting one of his fans, it might not be the best choice for an excerpt. (It would be how King might open a novel of his, knowing him).

But if your first chapter is interesting enough that it will entice the reader into reading the story, go for it and use it for an excerpt. If not, then you’ll have to choose a different section of the novel. Now how do you choose that section?

2. Find a section that’s the right level of interesting. What do I mean by this? If you ever watch a late-night talk show (The Daily Show comes first to my mind) and an actor is one of the guests, they will usually play a clip from their latest film. If it’s an action film, then they’ll play a clip with the actor’s character in a bit of a jam. It won’t be a clip from the climax or something that reveals too much about the plot, but it’ll be enough to make viewers wonder what the heck led to this situation, how the character will get out of it, and what will happen after that. If it’s a romance, then it’ll be right as something juicy is about to happen but the clip will end before that juicy thing can happen. If it’s a horror story, the clip will depict a tense moment right before something happens and will end right before the biggest scare yet occurs.

I guess one could call this method “feeding the fans a little bit and making them want more.” It’s quite effective and marketers use it all the time for movies and TV (you should have seen me when I saw a clip from an upcoming episode of this show I like. I freaked out and couldn’t wait to see it on Sunday). And if you can translate the above concept into literature, you can have a wonderful recipe for choosing excerpts.

Now just two more items to recommend:

3. Brevity is sometimes better. I find the best length is somewhere between two-thousand and five-thousand words. Remember, you want to give the readers just enough to get them very interested and make them want to read even more. The best reaction you can get from a reader is “Wait, that’s the end? I want more!” So having a short excerpt can work very well for getting that sort of reaction, especially if the scene in the excerpt is very well-written and has a good hook to it.

And finally…

4. Wait for the final draft to give out an excerpt. The final draft is the stage of the novel when you’ve done all the edits you can and can’t do any more. What you have is the final product and changing anything might be doing the work a disservice. It’s the perfect draft to draw an excerpt from as well. And it’s better than doing an excerpt from a draft with plenty of grammatical or spelling errors or something. Am I right?

Do you have any tips for creating an excerpt? What are they?

Stuck For An Idea?

We’ve all been there at some point or another. We want to write, but nothing comes to us. Everything that does come to mind seems trite, boring, maybe even repetitive or used up. At times we stare at the blank page for hours on end, willing an idea for a story or a poem or an article to come to us. When nothing comes, we doubt ourselves as writers and we wonder if maybe we’ll never have a good idea again.

The good news is, there are ways to get the creative juices flowing again. And none of them involve sitting in front of a computer or notebook for hours hoping an idea will just pop up. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Instead of worrying about the problems you are dealing with, psychologists recommend finding something else to focus on. It’s not entirely clear why, but when the mind is unfettered and is free to roam or hone in on something other than a problem you’re dealing with, a solution often presents itself to you just when you least expect it.

When I’m stuck for an idea or experiencing writer’s block, I do anything but focus on the problem at hand for hours at a time. I’ll work on a blog post or another story. I’ll watch TV or read a good book. And if ideas don’t come after all that, I often find just going about my daily life is an inspiration. Some of my best ideas for stories occur during the semester. While at work or in my classes, a random thought, sometimes related to my coursework or the project I’m doing and sometimes not, will pop into my head and grab my attention. From that thought I can develop an idea, which turns into a story or article of some sort.

A great example of this happened in class a couple of weeks ago. During a discussion, one of my classmates made a comment about the Soviet Union in World War II and about D-Day. What he said so captivated me that it ended up being the foundation for a series of novels taking place in a dystopian communist nation (no idea when I’ll write them, but the fact is, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with them if I hadn’t been in that class on that day having that discussion and hadn’t seized on the thought when I least expected an idea to come to me).

Plenty of other authors are able to come up with ideas the same way, whether by taking classes, working, volunteering in the community, or finding some other hobbies or interests that occupy their time and allow the creative processes in their brains to do what they do naturally rather than being forced to produce something. It’s amazing what you can come up with when you try finding story ideas this way.

And if you do have an idea while pursuing this method, I highly recommend writing it down immediately. I write down all my ideas so that I don’t forget them, which Im prone to do. I even bought a little notebook the other day so I can write down ideas as they come to me and then put them down on a list on my flash drive when I’m at a computer so that I’ll remember them when I want to write them. (I used to just write on the back of my hand, but I’m kind of tired of seeing a bunch of ink scribbles covering my left hand.)

So Many Excuses…

It took me over two months to write my newest manuscript (it’s now waiting to be edited.) But, truthfully, it didn’t take that long to write. It took that long to get written. Why? Because I had a lot of excuses. I had book covers to do. I had family crisis to deal with. I had a house to clean. I had dishes to do. I had a dog that had to go out constantly. I had a thousand million things to do for other people… and of course all of that was more important.

But here is an interesting thought. Let’s say that instead of being an independent writer, I worked at a job outside the home. Unless I took days off, that family crisis and those book covers and all the rest of it would have had to wait until I got home. All the dishes, all the laundry, all the phone calls, all the fetching and taking care of and all of the emergency emails I got from people would have had to just sit. But, because I’m home all day that makes my writing a hobby, not work.

Ha!

Says who? Writing is work. Just because we don’t punch a time card or drive to another building doesn’t make it any less. We know this, so why do we let other people or other things distract us from it? If we want our writing to be treated like it’s a job, then we have to  act that way, too. That may mean that someone has to wait for us to do something. That might mean that someone has to cook their own dinner, or do their own laundry. It could even mean that older children or spouses have to help around the house, or even babysit the younger children for a couple of hours a day.  After all, if you were working outside the home those things would have to happen, so why shouldn’t they happen now? I’m not talking about real emergencies, or disasters, like hospitalizations, but the day to day things that we “have to do” because “no one else can”. Truthfully, is it really going to hurt Johnny Jr. to give up an hour of his TV or video game time and do some of the dishes? Or for our spouse to have to make dinner sometimes?

No. It isn’t.

If we want other people to take our writing as a serious job and not just a hobby, we have to take – and treat –  it serious. It isn’t necessarily life that needs to change, but perhaps how we react to it and how we order our priorities. In the end, we get what we put in. If all we ever make are excuses, then excuses are all we’re going to have, and those don’t sell very well.

What keeps you from writing? Are they really things that you have to deal with, or are they just excuses?