Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Rules" - Understand Them Before You Break Them - EM Castellan

Hello everyone, and my thanks to Aimee for having me on her blog! Today we’re talking a little bit about the rules for writing, about why they exist and what we, writers, should do with them.

Rule # 1: Don’t start your novel with a prologue

Why the rule exists: Usually, prologues delay the start of the story by giving background information, introducing characters or points of view that will play little part in the novel itself or mentioning facts that could be mentioned later.

When should you ignore it? If you can promise your prologue is not info-dumping, backstory or you showing off your writing skills, you can keep it. If not, go with the rule and delete it. Once you’ve sold as many books as GRR Martin, you will be able to get away with a prologue too.

Rule #2: Never start your story with your character waking up and going about his business as usual.

Why the rule exists: Because it’s boring. You need to hook your reader from the first few pages (actually, from the first page). Delaying the inciting incident by describing mundane acts will put the reader off.

When should you ignore it? If it’s the day everything changes for the character. 'The Hunger Games' begins with Katniss waking up on the day of the Reaping. And we’re hooked from Line 2.

Rule # 3: Never start your novel with a dream sequence, or a fight scene, or a dialogue, or in the middle if the action.

Why the rule exists: The reader needs to care about the characters before seeing them thrown into the action. All of the above won’t allow for that: the reader has no idea what’s going on, therefore he can’t identify with the characters.

When should you ignore it? When the action or the dream gives an insight into the character’s personality. The movie 'Gladiator' is a good example of this: it starts with a battle, but is used to introduce the main character.

Rule #4: Never start your story with a character looking in the mirror.

Why the rule exists: Because it’s lazy. Writers use this as a device to describe their character, when really there’s no need for a full, detailed physical description. You should weave these details into the story, not bang the reader on the head with them.

When should you ignore it? If the character’s appearance has suddenly changed and you need to describe it before carrying on with the story. For example, in 'The Vampire Lestat', the main character looks at himself in a mirror after being turned into a vampire.

Rule #5: Don't Use Adjectives and/or Adverbs

Why the rule exists: Because adverbs and adjectives are signs you are TELLING instead of SHOWING. Don’t tell your reader your character is angry. Show the action that reveals this emotion.

When should you ignore it? When the adjective or adverb is NOT used to tell the reader something.

So now that you know the rules, and why they’re here, you can play with them. Don’t ignore them altogether, but treat them as they are: guidelines for fledgling writers. The more experienced you are, the easier it will be to avoid the aforementioned pitfalls and to find
your voice, and forget about the rules.

Happy writing!
Your Turn: What rules do you loathe? And which do you abide by?
EM Castellan is a writer of YA Fantasy novels. She lives in an English castle, travels extensively, reads voraciously, listens to music bands few people have heard of and watches too many movies to count. In case you are wondering, she also has a full-time job, so she mostly writes at odd hours and drinks a lot of tea. She is a member of the British Fantasy Society as well as SCBWI British Isles. She also writes at There And Draft Again – A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers.

You can find Eve at:,,, or tweet her @EMCastellan

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Do You Effectively Insist You Have Nothing to Learn?

I was doing some reading today purely for personal expansion, and came across some advice which (I'm paraphrasing) boiled down to:

It's foolish to believe no one else could offer something useful to your life, your work, or your personal character. Foolish. All of us have room to grow. And other people often see our flaws more clearly than we can (not to mention, the solutions).

Funny, isn't it, how even if we agree in theory, the natural reaction is to begin to qualify that statement?

"Of course, everyone has something to learn... but not all advice is good advice."


"No one knows what is best for me better than me! Others might be able to give advice, but it's up to me to decide what is worth taking action on."


"I'm not against taking advice... it's just that people so often don't give helpful, thoughtful insight. Instead they just criticize and empower themselves by depowering me..."

While there might be truth to all those statements, have you ever thought about whether or not you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

See, here's the thing: Writers can be a writer's best friend. They can also be a writer's worst enemy.

For whatever reason (and I'm not going to speculate), I've seen writers tear each other down with a swiftness and ruthlessness that left me breathless. (Now, go ahead and critique that sentence). So I understand why some writers are hesitant to put themselves or their work out there.

But those cruel, thoughtless or jealous types are the exceptions. Not the rule. Most writers really want to see each other succeed. Most want to help. Most want to see each and every story developed to its fullest potential.

So... are you letting the exceptions rule your success? Do you agree with the above statement in theory, but in practice, refuse to learn from anyone else?

I am one hundred percent in agreement with the above statement - applied to my person, my work, and most especially my writing.

I've seen the benefit of allowing experienced, thoughtful, nice writers critique my work. And make no mistake, it's hard. But the truth is, I grow stronger, better, more skillful every time I allow it to happen. And the writers I've come across who refuse to let others in.... well, they have a tendency to stagnate.

So, if you want to let people in, but you're nervous, here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Start with a book on craft from an author you trust (or who is recommended by an author you trust). Most successful authors have "go to" craft books and they're often listed on their websites. Find a book that meets you where you're at in your journey and actually study it. Apply it. Work through any exercises involved, or work through a chapter of your manuscript with the advice in the book at the forefront. In short: work at it. And see the results for yourself.

2. Pay for a critique. Now, obviously, not everyone can afford to take this option, and it's probably the one most writers are most acutely aware of, so I won't belabor the point. Just give it some thought (and make sure it's, again, from a source you trust, or recommended by a source you trust).

3. Let other writers critique or beta read for you. Now before you rear back in horror, maybe these little tips will help:

First, make sure that whoever you're offering it to has given useful advice to someone you know, so you can at least be hopeful that they'll have something to offer you.

Second, give guidelines. If the book is in an early draft and you know it's wordy, just front up and say "I know the wordcount's too high." Then outline what you need. Do you want them to ignore the wordiness and just focus on the plot? Then tell them that. Do you want them to cross out words / sentences they think could go? Say so. In short, make your expectations clear.

Third, resolve not to dismiss anything until you've read it twice and thought about it for a week. It's absolutely true that you'll never please everyone. And it's also true that not every piece of advice you receive will be right for your story. But sometimes your gut reaction to advice is negative, not because the advice is wrong, but because it's hard to hear. Give it time. Think about it for a few days, then read it again. chew it over. Talk yourself through what would be involved in making the changes. Think about the end result. Bottom line: Would it improve the story or not?

I have no desire to put anyone on the spot today, or imply that I'm surrounded by fools. Far from it. The writers that surround me are my lifeline for making the best of my stories. The best of myself! All I want to do is encourage everyone to take that plunge and learn from it. Know that you aren't a "bad" writer because you need help. You aren't a "hopeless case" if you've got work to do. And you are far from foolish if you let others tell you how to be better.

Your Turn: How do you feel about letting others read your manuscript(s)? Are there any concerns I didn't address in this post?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Unpublished Writers Should Attend Writer’s Conferences - Liz O'Connor

 St. Patrick’s Day. March 17, 2012. That was the day I finished the first draft of my first novel.


As a new writer who had worked on and off for over two years writing a book on a whim, my knowledge of publishing was a big fat zero. Of course, like most newly-minted writers, I assumed the next step was to send my manuscript to agents. Other than knowing how to spell the words “query”, “synopsis”, and “pitch”, I didn’t have a clue what those words meant within the context of publishing.

My inner voice told me to research first, query second. In retrospect, I’m happy I did. I learned quickly how difficult it would be to find an agent and how it could take years to get traditionally published. During my research, I learned that I would need to put forth my best work, which meant my manuscript needed to be edited.

So, I signed up for a one-on-one tutorial with a fiction editor through New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Education. When I asked her about publication, she recommended the NYC Writer’s Workshop Perfect Pitch Conference. Attendance is limited and you must be accepted. The conference runs twice a year, April and November, in Manhattan.

By July, I was armed and dangerous and sent my application in for the November conference, receiving an acceptance within an hour. The five months that followed were spent working with two professional editors, beta readers, and my critique group to polish my manuscript and to draft a pitch. 

Agents queried thus far: Zero

During the 3-day conference, we honed our pitches with our facilitator, a published author, and then pitched to three publishers. For those of you who may not have pitched before, the closest thing I can compare it to is speed dating. We literally had 90 seconds (approximately 300 words) to pitch our books. In a nutshell, your pitch is the 'synopsis' part of your query letter. If you're interested in the mechanics of constructing a pitch, please visit my website ( for a complete post on pitching. It's currently running in my featured posts section.

I can’t say enough wonderful things about the NYC Writer’s Workshop Conference. Not only did I make connections with other writers that I consider part of my core writing community, but the experience was plain fabulous.

However, the point of this whole story: I received a request from the Executive Editor of a Big Six publisher for my full manuscript.

A few key lessons I learned during the critiquing and construction phase of this process:

• Know the genre of the book, and be able to come up with comparable titles that are were the hottest on the market (i.e., Harry Potter, Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, etc.). This is important because it ties to the potential marketability of your book. No market could equal no interest.

• Okay, bear with me here, but make sure your novel is complete before you pitch it. Pitch sessions are not a place to come to bounce ideas off of agents / publishers. If they are interested, they will want to see your partial or full manuscripts pronto.

• Short formula for the pitch: Main character, Conflict, Resolution. In that order.

In mid-March, I attended a one-day writer’s conference, Create Something Magical, with the opportunity to pitch to agents and publishers. I volunteered to work the agent / publisher room as a timekeeper using my iPhone. Each appointment was ten minutes in length. What fun! Watching as others pitched made the process so much less nerve-wracking, as well as gave me a feel for the agents and publishers as they interacted with authors. As a late addition to the conference, I could only secure two appointments, but both resulted in a request for a synopsis and the first three chapters of my book. But my time as a timekeeper gave me a glimpse into who I might want to query in the future.

Finally, I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference East the first weekend in April, which included an agent Pitch Slam. The conference had some excellent panels with both agents and publishers answering questions about the state of industry and practical advice for writers pursuing either traditional or self-publishing options.

The most important things I learned after attending these conferences?

Agents and editors want to hear what you have to say. They participate in pitch sessions to find potential clients, and there's no reason it can't be you if your work is good and fits their list.

Most importantly, materials submitted as a result of conferences will get you higher in their pile with faster responses and more attention that just arriving as part of a slush pile. You also have the opportunity to get some feedback directly on your pitch and your book if time permits.

Agent queried as of today: 1

Scorecard after three Conferences:

• Publishers pitched: 4 - Requests: 1 full MS, 1 partial MS, 1 referral

• Agents pitched: 8 - Requests: 5 partial MS, 1 referral (to the 1 agent I queried)

So, if at all possible, I highly recommend attending a conference or two to fast-track your journey to publication.

Your Turn: Have you attended any conferences lately that you would recommend? What has been your experience?  

LG O’Connor is an adult urban fantasy and paranormal romance writer living in the New York City area with her husband and two Whippet children, Chloe and Nevada. She is the author of the series, The Angelorum Twelve Chronicles. The first book TRINITY STONES is currently on submission. In the meantime, the second book, The WANDERER'S CHILDREN will be completed this summer. She is also working on a New Adult novella which will serve as a prequel to the series and be published as an eBook.
You can find Liz at:  or on Twitter as @lgoconnor1 


Thursday, April 18, 2013

FIRST PRIORITY: Make the Reader Care

I read an interesting article from a successful writer who is also a slush-pile reader. The details were interesting (and very in-depth), but there were two high points for me that underlined things I'd heard from my agent, and from friends who are interns for agents:

1. Slush-pile readers want to like your story. In fact, as they open up that first page, they're hopeful they're about to read something amazing. Unfortunately, in most cases, that hope drops (slowly, or quickly, depending on the manuscript) as the read doesn't fulfill expectations.

Moral of the story: Slush-pile readers are your best chance for finding an advocate, if your story is up to par.

2. The most common reason for a slush-pile reader not enjoying a story was simple: They didn't care. Either the writing wasn't skillful enough to place them firmly in the skin of the protagonist, so they never felt grounded in the story; or, as the pages flipped, they kept getting distracted from the story by the growing realization didn't matter to them.

Moral of the story: The very first priority for your opening pages is to answer these questions: Who is the character, what is he / she doing that's important, and why should the reader care about it?

You can study the craft, expand your vocabulary, and eradicate adverbs until your fingers bleed, but if the reader doesn't care about your protagonist and doesn't care about your story, you aren't getting anywhere.

So, how do you make the reader care?

Give them a person they can relate to and a threat to life, love, or eternal happiness. That's it.

That's building block numero uno.

Simple, right?

*Maniacal laughter ensues*

Your Turn: What makes you care about a character or story right from the start?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Super-Agent Chip MacGregor on the Nitty-Gritty of "Voice"

You may or may not be familiar with Chip MacGregor, but he's been in the business a long time. He's worked as an author, an editor, and an agent. He was named Publisher's Marketplace Deal-Maker of the year in 2009. He's the owner and magic behind MacGregor Literary, and he looks awesome in a kilt (or, so I've been told).

Chip blogged before it was cool for agents to blog and his website has a wealth of information for new and novice writers. But the moments I love best are when Chip answers questions about writing itself. He's got such a broad understanding and experience of writing - from both the creative and business perspectives - that you know he "gets it".

Chip was gracious enough to allow me to reblog some of his recent notes on "voice". Since I figured most of you probably haven't run across it before, here we go:

Q. What is “voice” in writing?
A. Voice is the personality of the author, expressed through words on the page. When you write, your word choices, your phrasing and structure, your thinking and themes — they all help establish your personality as a writer. So the way I write is different from the way someone else writes — my personality comes through, and shows how I’m different and unique as a writer. (An example: Stephen King and William Faulkner both like long sentences, psychological implications, semicolons, and the use of the word “and” in their works… but nobody ever picked up a Stephen King novel and mistook it for a William Faulkner novel. Though they share some characteristics, each writer has his own personality, and that comes through on the page.) Of course, not every writing voice is good — just as not every singing voice is good. A great writer has a voice that is appealing and interesting.

Q. How does a writer know when he has established a strong voice in his work?

A. It takes time and effort. I’ve always thought a writer recognizes his or her own voice over time, so the more you write, the better you hear yourself in your words. My experience is that, as I write more and more, my personality becomes clear on the page. When we talk, your words don’t sound like mine. Your stories don’t sound like mine. Your personality is unique, and getting that to be clearly expressed on the page will help you define your voice. (So, for example, when I tell my story of being in the air on Sept 11, the way I tell the story of that day will be different from the way YOU might tell it.) The writers we love best express themselves through their own voices, and we love hearing those voices because they are individual, and, in the words of Carolyn Sloan, “they teach us to be ourselves by supplying us with an example of genuine emotion…” Great voice in writing is a unique and courageous act. And I don’t think it can be created — I believe it rises up from the soul of the writer.

If you want more from Chip, check out his blog at His agency caters mainly to inspirational writers, but Chip has worked for, and continues to sell to the Big Six and other mainstream publishers. If you want to know more about the man himself, check out his bio here:

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Are Certain Genres Dead or Dying?

I've been thinking a lot lately about my next project. I keep jumping around from one idea to the next, finding it difficult to settle to any story long enough to finish a draft.

Part of my conundrum is in looking for genres that would logically follow my current project (in the event that it gets picked up by an editor), but also ideas that make me passionate.

As I chew this over, I'm wondering what other writers - and most especially READERS - think. Because the simple truth is, I have a great deal more caution about genres as a writer than I do as a reader.

So, here are my current thoughts. Let me know yours:

1. As a YA reader, I'm getting a little sick of "The every-girl finds out she has super powers / links to a paranormal group, then sets out to save the world". Urban fantasy is officially tired, for me as a reader.

2. Dystopian blurbs are all beginning to sound the same to me, which means (I think) that the market is glutted, so traditional publishing is probably beginning to move in a new direction.

3. I'm in LOVE with contemporary right now. YA, NA, Adult, I don't care. If it's raw and real, I want to devour it.

4. Just to throw all the rest out the window, if I read a blurb that really grabs me, or get a great recommendation from a friend I trust, I'll read ANY genre - and love it if the writing's good and the opening is hooky. So... everything has a shot?

Your Turn: As a READER, what genres are exciting for you right now? Which ones make you roll your eyes and move on?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Multiple POV's: Choosing the Right Point of View

(NB: This article originally appeared in July 2011 when I was writing urban fantasy).
Are you struggling with a book which could work, but just isn't?  Are the characters layered, yet somehow that depth isn't making it onto the page?

Me too.  Or at least, I was.  Until the last few days when a big, ol' epiphany smacked me between the eyes and smiled a toothy grin.

I've been struggling through revisions on the opening chapters of Book II in my little trilogy for some time.  The book is in first (read: crappy) draft form - completed in NaNoWriMo last year.  The plot is in place, but reading through the material I've got, it was clear the character development and story arc weren't receiving justice.

I wrote scenes.  Rewrote scenes.  Tried a different inciting incident.  Went back to the original... on and on and on.

In frustration earlier this week, I put the book aside and started writing the opening to Book III (the final, since this is a trilogy).  Maybe I needed to figure out something crucial there that would open my eyes on book II?

Meanwhile, I was reading Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver, and really enjoying it.  I stayed up late one night and read a scene that really engaged all my senses.  I woke up still thinking about it. 

What had she done there? Why in a scene that, from a plotting point of view, is pretty much 'stock' in YA, did she get my heart racing and my emotions engaged?

Then I realized: She'd written a fairly standard scene from the point of view of the male character.  And in doing so, she'd revealed a level of tension and emotion that wouldn't have been evident from the heroine's point of view.

It got me thinking...

I write my books in multiple POV's. In my current series, scenes written from the POV of the female protagonist are in first person, scenes written from anyone else are in third.

I did this intentionally to draw the reader one step closer to the protagonist than the other characters.  But here's the thing: At the beginning of book II, the protagonist is under a lot of stress, but otherwise doing pretty good. It's her boyfriend who's embroiled in heightened emotions and whose immediate stakes are higher.

When I wrote the opening from the heroine's POV, the boyfriend looks like a jerk (because he's acting like one).  But when I took certain scenes from his POV, suddenly it opens up to the reader the battle he's waging.

His petulant actions no longer appear juvenile, instead they're more sympathetic. Sure, he's acting like a jerk, but look at what he's dealing with!

I literally took a scene I'd already written from the heroine's POV and rewrote it without plotting change through his eyes. 

One word:  YOWZA.

So here's my new rule (which only applies to books in which you write from more than one POV):

Whatever is happening, wherever you are in the story, write from the POV of the character who's experiencing the greatest emotional turmoil.  Let the reader walk in the shoes of the person with the most to lose at that point - even if their overall stakes aren't as high as the hero / heroine's.

The reader experience is all about emotion, so follow the feelings.  Your readers will love you for it.

That is all.

Your Turn:  What do you do when you know your scene isn't working?  Do you have any tips on how to better engage the reader ?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Personal Blog and Twitter Stats & Some Observations

I get a lot of questions about my blog and Twitter following. I know when I first started blogging I wished I understood what was considered to be "good" traffic, and what wasn't.

For the record, my following / hits are only modest in the grand scheme of the internet superhighway. I've got a stronger following that many unpublished authors, but in terms of a professional asset, my current platform is merely considered a "good start".

With that in mind, I thought I'd give you a few stats about my blog and my Twitter following. I'd love to hear from you guys about yours, and how we compare, and any ideas for growing blog followers in particular. My blog stats keep improving, but my followers have been stagnating for months.

Keep in mind I started blogging and tweeting in August / September 2010. So stats for 2010 are scewed since there's only 4 months worth of work there. we go:

2010 (Aug-Dec)

Best month on the blog: 2,841 hits (average 95 hits per day)
Blog followers at year end: 81
Twitter followers at year end: 900ish.

2011 (full calendar year)

Best month on the blog: 3, 951 hits (average 127 hits per day)
Blog followers at year end: 486
Twitter followers at year end: 1200ish

2012 (full calendar year)

Best month on the blog: 6,430 hits (average 214 hits per day)
Blog followers at year end: 596
Twitter followers at year end: 3,300ish

2013 So Far...

Currently trending up.

In February I had 5,886 hits (average of 210 hits per day). In March I hit 6,153. At this point I'm sitting just under 3,500 Twitter followers. However, I've gained less than a handful of new blog followers this year.

Some Observations:

I definitely have a stronger, more consistent following on Twitter than I do on the blog. I believe this is because of the combination of the ease of Twitter following (it's just what you do on there), and also because I get a lot of RT's from published / well known writerly types. I have a "reputation" for lack of a better word. I get more direct contact (emails, DM's, etc) from Twitter followers than from blog followers. And my Twitter following continues to grow consistently, while the blog following growth has slowed (yet blog hits keep rising - from Twitter traffic, I'm sure).

Since I link my blog posts off Twitter (and most of my traffic comes from those links / RT's), I think many writers choose to only follow me on Twitter, rather than adding me to their blog feed. Why? Not sure... I know personally, adding a blog to my feed feels like a great commitment. I'm getting pickier and pickier about who and what I will follow. So maybe that's true for everyone?

But I'm also a lot better about keeping in touch with others on Twitter than I am about reading and commenting on blogs. So that probably contributes too.

I want to be clear that I'm not putting these out there to impress anyone. I'm very aware of the modesty of my following. But I know when I was just starting out, I wished authors would be more open with this kind of information, so I had a gauge on how I was doing in developing my own platform. So hopefully this is helpful (or interesting) to those of you in that position.

Your Turn: Thoughts? Questions? 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mundane: The Cure for Melodrama

Melodrama -noun : A dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.

Time for a dose of reality:  It's easy to write melodrama. 

No matter what genre you're writing (with the possible exception of those books my grandmother used to devour), melodrama is a curse.  It's the mark of an amateur. 

The good news is, there are some very straightforward antidotes to melodrama.  A couple years ago, when I'd just finished my first draft of my first book and submitted it my writers group, a generous published author offered to read for me.  I told her I knew my prologue was melodramatic, but wasn't sure how to fix it. 

Read the rest at YAtopia.