Monday, July 29, 2013

Dialogue – Do Your Character’s Words Ring True?

I see it time and time again in draft manuscripts, and unfortunately, in self-published books…

Dialogue is used to tell the reader what the author wants them to think, rather than being a direct vehicle for plot and characterization.

Premise of NA romance is ice-queen meets bad-boy. Sparks become ill-fated attraction and all manner of conflict ensues.

The book is great, the characters are compelling and the story rolls along at the perfect pace. But…
Hero has a habit of saying things like “I’m a rebel. I don’t care what other people think.”

Heroine has a habit of thinking things like “My icy exterior is usually all I need to repel bar-flies and arrogant preppies. So why isn’t it working on this bad-boy?”

Two points to consider here:


It still needs to come across as if the character is speaking. Of course, it should be the ultimate open-forum – inside a character’s head. Their words as they speak to themselves in honesty (or denial). But it still needs to sound like dialogue. They need to phrase and think in natural structure and terms.
I’ve meet women I’d define as ice-queens. I’ve never once heard one refer to herself in those terms. Instead, I imagine when she thinks of herself, she thinks more on how her actions affect others, or questions why she can’t open up enough to let others in.

The reader has met ice-queens too. He / she doesn’t need the words to understand what’s going on. The reader just needs the thoughts and actions of a person who fits that mold.


A genuine “bad-boy” doesn’t call himself a bad boy, or a rebel, or a renegade, or any of those other words we use to define a stock-character. What he does do is act like a hard-ass, think in words that are blunt and confrontational. And he regards himself with strength, and probably a certain degree of defensiveness. He is naturally hard. Ergo, when he speaks (or thinks) his phrases and vernacular reflect that.
My suggestion?

 “I’m a rebel. I don’t care what other people think,” becomes, “Who cares? I could give two ****’s about what she thinks.”
 “My icy exterior is usually all I need to repel bar-flies and arrogant preppies. So why isn’t it working on this bad-boy?” becomes, “The blank look I offered always worked on the rabble in places like this. But this guy just grinned and flexed. It was…disturbing.”

Can you see how these kinds of dialogue forward the movement of the plot, and define the characters through their actions and impressions, rather than by letting them define themselves? It’s more effective, more subtle, and more interesting to read.
Now, I’m not suggesting my phrases are perfect writing and structure, I’m just trying to give you the idea of how to solve the problem of letting your dialogue become instruction to the reader, rather than nature person-to-person

Remember: Dialogue is an important key in creating a realistic book. It can move your characters from stock to faceted, can create drama and intrigue where none would otherwise exist, and can compel the reader in a way no other part of the writing structure does. It’s the “fly on the wall” moment of your book.
But it must, it absolutely must, read real.

If you aren’t sure whether your dialogue rings true, try reading it out loud. Are you hearing words you can imagine coming out of the mouths of your family and friends? Or are you trying to create drama through melodramatic words?

Don’t do it. By using dialogue that sounds real to define action and boundaries, you’ll create that same clarity of character, without making the reader raise and eyebrow and think “Um… really?”

Your Turn: What techniques do you use to ensure your dialogue is realistic? Do you consider internal dialogue to be the spoken word?


Friday, July 26, 2013

A Self-Publishing Journey: Are You Covered?

NOTE: I’m offering designers a chance to post their details / websites in the comments here. So if you’re a designer, make sure and post your details. If you’re looking for a designer, take a look in the comments over the next couple days and maybe you’ll find someone who can help!

Once the title of your book is set, the next step is making sure your cover is the best advertisement possible for your book.

Because I have a background in marketing / branding, I’m well aware how important it is that the cover accurately represent not only the tone of the book, but also be attractive to the right audience.

The primary factors to be taken into consideration:


-          Must be eye-catching in the small thumbnail format.

-          Must be eye-catching in both color / black and white.

-          The title, currently set as “Shattered”, lends itself to imagery which should get a nod (though literal interpretation isn’t necessary).


-          Teen / young adult audience (Primarily13-18, secondarily 18-35).

-          Genre is magical realism (a form of fantasy), but the book reads like a contemporary. So the cover should appeal to both audiences.

The real trick in meeting even these guidelines isn’t just in identifying them, but in finding the right person to put them together.

I spoke to several self-published authors – some who wished they’d done things differently in the past, others who’ve experienced great success – and the same things kept coming up.

1.      If at all possible, getting a professional graphic designer to put your cover together is crucial. Not only because they’ll probably have ideas you don’t (two heads are better than one!), but also because they’ll be accustomed to working to guidelines. They’ll format a digital file properly to make digital publishing easier, and they’ll know how to compose the cover in a way that’s dramatic and appropriate for the small image.

         a.       NOTE: If a designer doesn’t read your book before designing for you, you’re going to have to make sure you’re very clear about the themes, important plot / imagery in the prose, and, if applicable, colors, character descriptions, tone, etc. It may sound like an easy thing, but if the designer doesn’t know your story it may be easy for them to take the wrong approach. Try finding covers you like that are out there now and work in a similar vein to what you’d like for yours and send the images / links to the designer to review before they start. 

2.      Simple is often more effective in digital publishing. No matter who designs your cover (but especially if you’re doing it yourself), remember: even some of the most dramatic or detailed covers can be very simple. And when you’re working in the very small format of digital publishing, it’s imperative that readers be able to relate to your cover in the thumbnail size. Contrast and colors are easily as important as the image you use. Take a look at debut books selling well and you’ll see that most of them have covers which are simple and striking.

3.      If you’re forced to design for yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It may be that your ideas are brilliant – but an experienced designer, or even an artist or creative friend, might be able to give tips on colors, fonts, or effects that can smooth out or improve on your ideas. There’s no harm in asking. You’re no worse off if there’s no advice forthcoming, or you don’t want to take it. 

4.      If your book is part of a series, keep future covers in mind in the design process. Books in a series don’t need to look nearly identical (i.e. The Twilight Saga covers), but having some kind of theme to connect them is ideal. Whether it’s colors, format, or imagery, try to keep in mind that whatever you use now will need to be the “launching pad”, so to speak, for future covers.

There’s a lot more to the whole cover equation than what I’ve touched on here, but I wanted to throw my initial impressions and research out there for anyone who might be able to use it.

Just for your information, I had initially decided to give a portion of my (small) budget to hiring a graphic designer. I planned to hire the very talented Claire Batten.



+613 6269 2040

+61438 571 624

As you can see, Claire is based in Australia. But one of the beauties of this global market these days, and the ease of the internet, is that it doesn't really make any difference where a designer is located (and in some cases the currency exchange can work in the favor of Americans).

But...I’m blessed to have a very dear friend who is a top-notch, professional graphic designer. She’s also an amazing artist and I always love her stuff. When I went to her, cap in hand, to broach the idea of helping me with my cover, she jumped on the idea before I even got the words out. I almost cried because, frankly, I feel like I’m in more than capable hands (not to mention, someone with staggeringly good taste). She’s going to read the whole book before she offers me any options. And frankly, she’s just downright good.

Her name is Kelly, but I don't want to "out" her without her permission. When we’re working through the cover options I’m going to post them on the blog to get your feedback. You’ll see then how awesome she is! (And maybe I can convince her to let me put her details out there in case any of you want to use her).


So that's it from me!

Your Turn:

DESIGNERS: Post your name, website, and price-range in the comments here.

WRITERS: Do you have experience with designing covers, or going through the process with a designer? Any advice to add?


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tips for Beating, Meeting, (and Mincemeating) Deadlines

Time and again in my writing career, I'm grateful for my corporate work background. I learned a great many skills in jobs that weren't necessarily "inspiring", but which have helped make me a more efficient and effective writer.

Every writer working towards publication will have deadlines. Whether you're self-publishing and deadlines are self-induced (*cough*), or working with a publisher to their schedule, each of us will have goals and dates we're striving to meet.

I've spoken with several authors on both sides of the publishing coin, and deadlines are always raised with a groan - and usually with a certain amount of shock.

You'd think self-publishing authors wouldn't share this kind of stress, but I've been surprised to discover that successful self-published authors are often working on such short timeframes between book releases (not to mention balancing screeds of administration and promotional responsibilities that might be at least partially covered by a publishing team), that deadlines are meat and potatoes for them.

So, what do we do to keep on top of deadlines in this always-in-a-rush world?

The following are time-management, professionalism, and practical tips I learned in the training I received in the corporate world. I've found myself drawing on them throughout my writing journey:


Repeat after me: "Deadlines beget deadlines".

Whether you're working under contract to deliver a manuscript to an editor, or self-publishing, it isn't enough to say "I have to have this finished by November 21st." (NOTE: that's an arbitrary date by the way, not my intended release date).

Every major deadline will require several (dozens of?) smaller milestone deadlines, and in most cases no-one will set those milestone deadlines but YOU.

The best way to deal with this is to work backwards - and to review your milestones regularly. If your manuscript has to be delivered (or formatted for self-publishing) by September 21st, what steps have to be achieved for that to happen?

For me that process includes drafting, polishing, getting critiques / editing, doing changes, reader reviews, polishing, proofreading, polishing (again!!!), blogger / reviewer copy distribution, and formatting. (Phew! And that's JUST the basics).

So...working backwards:

a. Release date = November 21st.

b. Reviewers need a minimum of 3 weeks, but preferably as many as 6 for review copies, so the finished manuscript deadline becomes October 10th.

c. Before the manuscript can be ready to send out, I need to finish any changes that have arisen from getting my manuscript proof-read, and ensuring the document is "pretty". If I allow 10 days for that process (probably a short timeframe, but I'm a quick typer / worker), that means I need my proofreading notes back by September 26th - which in turn means:

d. I need to get the polished manuscript to my proofreader by September 5th.

e. If I'm going to have three weeks to make changes and polish the finished manuscript, I'll require receiving critique / editing notes back by August 20th.

f. That means my editors / critiquers need the polished draft by July 27th.

g. So I have to have my current draft complete and self-edited by July 26th.

Do you see how this works?

If you don't take the time to break the process down, your risk being taken by surprise or missing a deadline due to underestimating the steps you needed to take to reach it. And when other people are part of your process, don't forget that they're all working to their own deadlines too. And if they're running late, you may find things spiraling out of your own control.... which is why you can't forget the next point:


"Buffers" or "padding" are probably self-explanatory, but the important point I learned in corporate project management was that professional guidelines would suggest padding your dates (and finances!) by at least 20-30% to allow room for unforeseen obstacles, assistance that arrives late (or not at all!), or to cover for user error. (In other words, I may have forgotten a milestone in my initial planning. Or one of the steps may take far longer than I expect it to).

Regardless, if you want to be sure of hitting a deadline, try to give yourself 20-30% more time than you think you need. You'll be surprised how quickly that extra time becomes "the only thing between me and a strait-jacket".


There's two important reasons for reviewing your dates, milestones, and progress on a regular basis:

a. Sometimes the goalposts change. You may find that you've had to change a date further ahead in the process, so all the others need to be adjusted too. Or you may find out someone else needs more time than initially expected. Or perhaps you're running ahead of schedule and you can pull the other dates back, to allow more of a buffer on a milestone you know will be tricky. Whatever the reason, take a look at your dates and goals every week.

b. The other important reason for keeping in touch with your deadlines regularly is to minimize stress. First and foremost, when you're on track, or running ahead of schedule, you'll feel good. Stress will decrease, and you'll settle into your tasks more easily. Sometimes you'll also discover that you've actually completed tasks or requirements during this stage that weren't needed until later. That means when that milestone appears, you're already ahead of the game. And when things aren't going well, you'll know well ahead of time that you're either going to have to change deadlines, or work more industriously to make the date.


This is actually a professionalism point, crucial for writers working under contract. But it also helps you manage the process with those helping or working for you when you're the one with primary responsibility.

This is the biggest mistake made by people who haven't been trained (or aren't naturally gifted) with time-management. The hope is that I'll meet the deadline, so I'm going to just keep going and do my best. Then on the day the deadline is due, I panic and start running around apologizing and asking for extensions (or worse, just let the deadline pass and wait for the questions to start rolling in).

There are two important reasons you want to anticipate delays or problems for others:

a. FOR WRITERS UNDER CONTRACT: Professionals will find you easy to work with, they'll have confidence in your judgment, and they'll feel less like you're unreliable or difficult. Seriously, folks. If you're working with professionals, I promise you, you won't be the first person who struggled to meet a deadline. But if you let your agent / editor know three weeks (or even one week) ahead that you're not sure you're going to make it, and ask for extensions, or how they'd like you to handle it, they'll perceive your work ethic and judgment with a much more positive sense, than if you throw the deadline out the window at the last minute and just apologize. People want warning for problems.

(My only temper to this point would be, don't go looking for trouble. If you're looking at a deadline and it feels really tight, but doable, keep going. Maybe have a chat with your agent just as a heads-up, but don't start making everyone nervous for no reason - not to mention, losing the time it takes to manage that process when you could be working to meet the deadline).

b. FOR SELF-PUBLISHERS: Anticipating delays or problems for those working with you will allow them to be part of your problem solving process, AND give you a heads-up if you need to change something in your upcoming milestones. It may be that when you let your editor know you can't deliver the manuscript for review until 10 days later than you thought, they are able to move their workload around so that they can take up your work the day it arrives. Or it might be that you find out they won't be able to work with you on that schedule. Either way, you now have more time to find a solution (or another editor). Or perhaps your notes come back from the editor / critiquers and they're going to take longer than you thought to implement. You can get in touch with reviewers and let them know the now later date they'll be receiving the book. It may be that they can read another book earlier and still have time to review yours before the release date. Or it may be that you need to decide to delay your release to give them more time. Either way, you've got time to change your promotional material and notify the interested parties ahead of time  so expectations are managed and met.

Which leads me to the final, and perhaps most important tip:


Sometimes the deadline was set arbitrarily in the beginning and it's no problem to change it. Or maybe the deadline is crucial to your contract payments so you need to look at other areas of your life that can be delayed or let go in order to meet it.

Regardless of the approach you're taking, working with deadlines is the time to put everything on the table. You may have noticed my blog has been a lot less regular this year than in years past. This is because so many other writing and life issues have simply had to be prioritized over my blog. I don't like doing that, particularly when there's a book coming out later this year, but when I put all of my responsibilities on the table and didn't allow myself to say "I can't change that", the blog was the obvious answer. I've also spent a lot less time reading, playing games, and generally relaxing.

If it interests you, deadlines are an issue heavy on my mind because I met a BIG one yesterday: I got my revised draft finished at 2:53pm on the day I'd set as my deadline goal. That was a relief, let me tell you! (And a very close-run thing).

So, with limbs saggy from the release of tension, that's it from me. A long post, I know, but hopefully it's helpful.

Your Turn: Any questions? Do you have any tips or tricks for meeting / managing deadlines?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Are Your Characters Responsive?

I had a rather unhappy reading experience the other day. And it taught me a great lesson in writing:

The reader uses secondary character responses to gauge their understanding of the story. And more, to help them feel what the characters are feeling (which is the gold we all want to plumb when reading).

You see, I read a book in which the writer had excellent talent for plotting, writing tight, and creating interesting characters. In fact, in all aspects except one, the writing was admirable.

Unfortunately, the writer forgot one simple step in each scene which killed the book for me: none of the characters were shown to "react" to what was happening, unless they were the narrator and the response was given in internal dialogue.

That as the somewhat complex plot unfolded and the daring romance was ignited, I kept getting lost.

When the hero and heroine enjoyed their first kiss, it was a thing of passion and excitement. Unfortunately, since the heroine was narrating, I only got to see how she responded to it. As soon as their lips parted, the hero was seen to step back into dialogue as if nothing had happened.

And I do mean that. It wasn't that he was shown to be trying to cover his response with normal behavior. it literally read as if he hadn't reacted at all. The heroine told me he was flustered and surprised, just like her. But there wasn't a skerrit of evidence to back up her claim because the author forgot to SHOW his reaction.

I would have forgiven one or two slip ups, but as the book progressed I found myself more and more confused. It kept feeling to me as if conversations switched topics without one of the party's resolution. Or something dramatic would happen, and I wouldn't realize right away that it was dramatic, because in my minds eyes, all the secondary characters were still sitting on their laurels, non-responsive.

So what did this underline for me? That it isn't only crucial for the narrator of a scene to offer their internal responses to whatever is happening. But it is also IMPERATIVE that any other characters present react too - even if their reaction is to cover the fact that they're reacting.

When the hero and heroine kiss, and the much more experienced hero is taken aback by the power in the lip-lock, he should be seen by the reader to be breathing more quickly than normal, or to be holding himself tensely. Or, perhaps, his eyes say it all - through the observation of the heroine that his pupils have almost overtaken his irises. I don't care how it's done, only that, as a reader, I am given something by which to gauge his reaction when I'm not in his head.

Without these indicators, the reader can't be sure they've accurately understood what has occurred. And in the worst cases (like mine) the book becomes too difficult to follow because the story appears to jump around without anyone ever actually reacting to anything that's happening.

So here's my advice: When your write a scene, check your internal dialogue. Are the narrator's impressions being backed up by the shown body-language (or actions) of the other characters? Even if that body language or reaction is ambiguous, it still needs to be present. After all, it could be that the narrator has the WRONG impression of another character's response. But the only way the reader can have a chance of knowing that, is if the author shows them reasons to second guess.

Yes, these might be very subtle impressions we're talking about, but if you want to let your readers fall into the story rather than spending their time trying to figure out if they've understood what's happening, then make sure you're giving them something to gauge the progress by.

SHOW them what your characters think and feel.

Your Turn: Any questions? What do you think is the greatest challenge about writing character reactions?

Friday, July 12, 2013

How Far Have You Come? How Far Do You Have to Go?

Working on a very in-depth revision of my book has reminded me of some of the difficulties of writing.

But it's also showing me how far I've come.

The following is an archived post, but it's one I've needed to refer back to recently - and one that challenges me to keep going. I hope it does the same for you...

I haven't always been a writer. My CV reads like a patchwork quilt of careers.  (I'm told this is common in creative, right-brained types).  But buried among a list that includes Recruitment Consultant, Project Manager, Marketing and Government Assistant, is one job I ended up doing twice:  Trainer.

Turns out I'm good at teaching people how to do their jobs.

I tell you that, only because it's the context in which I learned the following learning scale - and it's something you probably need to know.

It looks like this...

...and it's going to tell you how far you'll get as a writer:

UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE:  You Don't Know What You Don't Know

(Or, "As far as I know, I know everything!")

This is where every writer starts.  Whether or not you're naturally gifted, the first time you embark on telling a story in words, you're incompetent.  Accept it.

Roadblock Attitude: "I know enough to do what I want to do... why should I put the effort into learning the craft?"

The entire point of "Unconscious Incompetence" is that you don't know what you don't know.  And if you aren't willing to learn, you'll never know it. 

I'm beginning to see many writers never move beyond this point.  Unwilling to learn, they don't recognize they're just plain incompetent.  They never achieve, and never understand why.

CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE: You Know You Don't Know Enough

(Or "This is Harder Than I Thought!")

Conscious Incompetence is just that: the learner has learned enough to realize they're incompetent.

Roadblock Attitude: "Just because it's always been done that way, doesn't mean that's the way I should do it." 

1.  As a writer, you aren't only competing with yourself for success.  There are people out there who do this professionally already.  They've already been through the learning curve.  Their stuff is already 'great'.  When your talented-but-unrefined work goes up against theirs it always loses.  Learn the rules first, then you'll know how to break them.

2.  There's no doubt some people can learn 'on the job', but in the overall picture of your career it will take longer to succeed.  Consider the time used up front as your investment in your own future!

CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE:  You Know What to Do... But It's Work.

(Or "Why Is This Still Hard?")

My former agent once said writers who were just getting a grasp on the craft reminded her of one of those American Idol contestants.  You know the ones: They listen to the judges, take the advice - and work so hard to get it right that everything comes out robotic.

Roadblock Attitude: I'll never be good at this.

Never fear, eventually what's in the head sifts down into the soul.  That's when American Idol contestants sing like canaries and writers paint pictures with words that leave people gasping.  It's because they've reached...

UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE:  Oh, That's Right - This Used to be Work.

(Or "What do you mean, that's amazing?")

The whole point of learning the craft, listening to those more experienced, and emulating those who've been successful, is that one day it just happens... Without even thinking about it, you sit down to write a first draft and it comes out great.  (Or at least, a version of 'good' that is much, much closer to 'great' than most can achieve). 

There are no roadblocks, except those you raise for yourself, because you're there.  You're good.  And you don't even have to think about it.

That's why Stephen King can put out a book a year.  That's why Diana Gabaldon can cross-genres.   That's why I want to be like them:  Because I know if I'm patient and hard working... one day it won't be work anymore.


This:  Most aspiring authors are in the first two groups.  It's unavoidable.  I suspect there are certain things we can't learn until we're working with an editor or have finished several books.  But if you imagine each of those boxes in a graded scale... well, you can also imagine where most of the 'aspiring' are sitting when they turn into 'author'. 

Just some food for thought.

Your Turn: Where do you think you sit on the scale?  Are you doing anything to move further along?


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Self-Publishing Journey: Get Titled

One of the first conversations I had with an experienced self-publisher was the importance of reviewing my title.

My book has been titled LISTEN TO ME for two and a half years. The name has a double-meaning, given the book's subject. And on top of that, it echoes with the pain of a girl who feels like no one really cares. For all these reasons, I was pretty attached to it.

That is, until I scanned covers and titles of current top sellers and new releases in my category on Amazon. I was disappointed to discover several titles which were very close (I.e. "LIE TO ME"). Also, when I let myself scan the books like a reader I found myself drawn more to those single-word titles and the tone they implied.

I was left with the distinct impression that I'd been given good advice: I needed to change my title.

Where did that leave me? Well, there were a lot of creative aspects to consider at that point. I won't get specific because every book is different. But suffice to say, I looked at the themes, imagery (both literal and lyrically) and at the kinds of words that reflected the tone of the story.

In the end, LISTEN TO ME became SHATTERED. I was a little hesitant to commit at first, but then I was lucky enough to have a very successful self-publisher who had read my manuscript offer exactly the same word up as her suggested title.

This process took about 4-5 days all up.

Convoluted? Yes. But consider this: the very first impressions of your story come from the title. The most important and effective form of marketing is word of mouth. And what's the fist thing one reader says to another?

In my case, hopefully it's "Have you read SHATTERED?"

Your Turn: How would you feel about changing your title? What impressions do you get from the title SHATTERED?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

An Announcement and a Resource For You

If you've been following me for a long time, you'll know that for the early years I was a fierce proponent of sticking out the journey to traditional publication. For a while I was even convinced that the self publishing model didn't work. *blushes*
I back-pedaled on that stance quite some time ago. But still never felt sure enough of myself or my resources to pursue self-publishing. Now...? Now I suddenly find myself in a position of turning to face my greatest fear:
I'm going to self-publish.
Yes, you read that right. Yes, you've also read articles on here in the past suggesting that's not the wisest course. And no, I haven't suddenly become a sufferagette for independent publishing. But I have decided that my time has come. And that I can't ignore some of the awesome opportunities I'm being presented.
I take this step with the professional support of several people who are incredibly talented. Most of them have offered their services because they are amazing and they love me (or my book!).
So while I may not believe this is necessarily the best course for every writer, I am obviously going to be taking a lot of my former research, and a great deal of NEW research and putting it into practice in the coming weeks.
By November this year, I will have a book on many of the most popular digital shelves. (Whether it's also available in print or not, I have yet to decide). But a lot is going to happen between now and then. And it seems to me that you've been with me from the beginning, so you should get to share in that learning curve.
So, dear reader, as I walk (sprint, hobble, tremble) my way down this road, what would be of most value to you?
- Notes on the critique / editing process?
- Observations on the digital formatting options?
- How to get / buy / choose a cover?
- Something else?
- All of the above?
My experience, success, or otherwise is an open book. (No pun intended). Let me know which parts you'd like to read.
And pray (if you do that kind of thing), or wish me luck (if you don't). This is going to be quite the ride!
Your Turn: Which parts of the self publishing process are of most interest to you? What kinds of posts would you like to read in the coming weeks / months?