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My Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read (recognize any?)

Let’s face it, I was a reader (and so were you) before we became writers. In fact, most of us became writers in part BECAUSE we were such devoted readers. At some point in that process, the thought occurred to us, ‘I can do this too, and I have a story I want to tell’. And that’s how we ended up here …

As part of my journey to a writer’s paycheck, I have for years read, analyzed and edited others writers’ work. On one hand, it’s a wonderful way to be reminded of what’s good in the writer’s life (and to read some terrific new work); it’s also enough, on my bad days, to make me want to run screaming from the written word – and part of that, I have to say, is because of the way others choose to write it. (Remember, if something bothers you, it’s never YOU – it’s always THEM.) 🙂

Today I’d like to talk about some of those no-nos on which I turn a firm thumbs down (2 thumbs, if I’m feeling especially ornery).  Here’s my Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read:

10.  The word ‘stated’. This is one of the toughest words to use well, because ‘stated’ implies that whatever you’re ‘stating’ has immense weight. About the only way I think it works is “Here are God’s Ten Commandments,” Moses stated. And even that is dicey. Whatever happened to plain old ‘said’?

9. Over-stating (or melodrama). The more overblown your prose, the more silly your words will sound. And if you then compound that error by writing metaphors and similes as old as the hills (there’s one), you have no one but yourself to blame if your readers put the book down. Do any of us really need to be exposed to stuff like “wrapped in a voluminous shimmer of white tulle, feeling as though the night will never end”? C’mon. There has to be a more original way to say this stuff.

8. Dialogue that goes on forever and says nothing. “What do you want to do?” “Oh, I don’t know. What do you want to do?” “I’m not sure.” “Well, what should we do?” Don’t laugh, but there are writers who have PAGES of this stuff, in which characters discuss their options and never quite make up their minds. This makes for a long, drawn-out and exhausting ride for the reader. I’m a big believer in dialogue, IF IT HAS A POINT AND IS ALSO SHOWING CHARACTER. Make your dialogue work to be included. Give us story information AND show us how the characters feel about it; dialogue should have at least two functions in order to make your final cut. And if you can write wonderful dialogue, feel free to lean on it heavily to tell your story; it’s easier for a reader’s eye to absorb than pages and pages of narrative.

7. Characters we’ve already seen somewhere else. I’m not suggesting here that if you want your romance hero to be, say, a blacksmith, that you have to check every romance novel ever written and give up if someone else has used that profession before. What I am saying is that sometimes characters have EXACTLY the same personal qualities that other characters you’ve written or someone else has written already has. Do we really need more romance heroes with chiseled features, staunch independence, a maverick streak and a tough-but-tender persona? (I know I have NO CHANCE of persuading you of changing this, because that’s what sells – sigh – but it gets SOOOO old after awhile.) For the record, my favorite author actually did this all the time – but he did it cleverly. Dick Francis essentially wrote the same hero over and over again — smart, strong, courageous, someone who took quick action and defended those who were weak. BUT – he mixed up their backgrounds, their professions, their interests, etc. So while the heroes all definitely had qualities in common, they were so well drawn, and seemed like such individuals, that nobody cared.

6.  Cardboard characters. This is usually a result of an author not asking enough questions to draw the character distinctly in his or her mind before writing him. Don’t go with the easy answers on character questions; usually it means you’re copying someone else, even if you can’t recall whom.  You can have two characters who are strong, brave, romantic, etc. – but one can be cardboard and the other can be breathing and real. Judith McNaught did this very well in her historical novels.  Sure, they were mid-list romance novels, but the heroes had had enough worldly experience that they had become cynical through exposure to the wrong people. Their first instinct now is to mistrust any women they meet who seem guileless and innocent, and as the twists and turns of the plot unfold, they genuinely decide at some point that they were right; the girl they love is not who she seemed to be, and they’re right in mistrusting her. (I’ll also admit that Ms. McNaught is guilty of #7 – she writes the same people over and over – but frankly, there’s so much dimension in her stories that I tend to overlook it. Shoot me.)

5. The easy ending. Easy endings aren’t satisfying endings. This one is a mistake usually made by a new writer, who either runs out of invention or decides his characters have suffered enough and throws in something ridiculous and coincidental to make things turn out okay by page 300. The point of any story is to have the hero or heroine face a challenge and have to WORK (and change internally) in order to overcome the challenge and achieve their goal. If you make it easy, you also make it unnecessary for the hero to change – and without that, there is no satisfying story. Put up a high wall, not a low one. Make your hero work.

4. The straw villain. This is related to #5–having a villain it’s easy to defeat makes life very easy for the hero, and makes the story not worth reading. C’mon, make that hero sweat! (That’s how we know he’s a hero worth rooting for.) Your bad guys – whether it’s a blizzard, a group of drunken Cossacks or the landlord about to evict – have to be formidable. They don’t all have to be wielding swords, but they absolutely have to hold a significant threat for the hero, something he’ll have to work like crazy to overcome.  You build character (in your children and your fictional characters) if you make them face real challenges. Make your bad guy REALLY bad.

3. Horrible (or no) editing. I side firmly with Stephen King here: I think if you’re a writer, part of knowing your craft is knowing how to spell and punctuate, and which usage is correct. When you turn in a draft, it should have been spell-checked and gone over meticulously (and yes, I mean every word). Every good writer I know does it, even if it means going through the same manuscript ten times during the final editing and production. Hire an editor, if you can, before your book goes out to a publisher, and know that a traditional publisher will bring in an editor as well. Be open to what they tell you, including suggestions for word changes because yours are wrong. DON’T take the attitude that you’re a creative person and therefore not bound to silly rules as lesser beings should be. If your book goes out over your name, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE. Do you want people to notice you for being a brilliant storyteller–or put the book down because they can hardly understand what you’re saying, your usage and grammar are so atrocious? If you don’t know this stuff, pick up a style book and learn it. Authors learn what they need to know in order to put out a superior product.

Before my books go to my publisher, I’ve edited and re-edited, spell-checked and sometimes brought in my own editor. Then my publisher brings in an editor. Once I’ve dealt with their notes, the formatting and typesetting begin, and the publishers look to catch more errors. THEN I ask for the book back, to do my own final check–and I inevitably find more errors we all missed. It’s my last chance to go through it again, for which I’m always grateful. Be prepared for this; it’s not fun, but it’s part of the writing life.

2. Sloppy research. I’m treading lightly here, because I have myself made some errors of fact (fortunately just a few and most of them were totally hidden in the story). But I don’t like getting things wrong historically; it’s too easy for someone to step forward and pull the curtain on our ignorance. Unless your story has a reason for mixing up historical facts, and that’s part of the style of the story, don’t do it.  I love reading historical stuff (fiction and non) and look forward to learning when I do. So when an author says Bonnie & Clyde died in 1936 (uh, no – they were killed in 1934) or Henry VIII had 7 wives, I see red. Get your facts right, ok? (That said, Kevin Finn and I have a doozy of an error in our novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT, which we only learned of after the original edition had been published in 2003. But because it’s an error that drives our plot, we dealt with it by keeping it and then writing an Afterword in the new version, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition. ) On the other hand, the original edition had about 6 small errors of fact that we fixed in the new edition. This pleases me; I do NOT like getting caught in an error of fact. Writers should be able to get the research right!

1. TYPOS!!!! Sorry, while I do sympathize with how hard it is to get them all, I think you should make every effort to keep typos to the absolute minimum. It’s sloppy, it’s unprofessional and it brands YOU as not a very serious writer when you let them slip through. Remember always that YOUR name is on the book; is that how you want to present yourself? (Would you go to a job interview without ironing your shirt?) For a lot of readers, the book they’re holding (or reading on an eReader) is their first introduction to you. If you sprinkle enough typos throughout the story, it will be the last time they read your stuff.

Sophisticated readers welcome good new writers and will often read and review them again and again (which is great–a built-in cheering section!) If you put them off with bad grammar and spelling, sloppy usage, awful formatting and a mass of typos, don’t count on their being in your corner again.  You’ll have branded yourself, all right — and it won’t be a brand you’ll enjoy carrying.

What are YOUR Top 10?

Look for a JFK-related post from me on Thursday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination, which I’ll be doing for the next two months.

Now back to the keyboard, and watch those typos …

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LAUNCH!

The lazy days of my summer turned into a frenzy in the last month. Getting two books into production, distribution and then into the marketplace, with all the promotion that’s necessary to support them, is CRAZY. (Note to self: Never do two back to back again!)

I live ten minutes from a beautiful beach, but didn’t hit the sand once this summer. (But true to freakish form, though it was rainy, wet and cool all summer, as soon as school started, it got sunny and hot–so I guess I still have some time!)

This year, though, it wasn’t about enjoying the summer. It was about getting the books done.

STEALING FIRE was finished in late June, went live on Amazon in early July (#2 in its first 12 hours – yeah!!). The paperback was out two or three weeks later, though the official publication date was August 31st (to give reviewers lead time).

MEANWHILE… virtually as soon as I finished work on STEALING FIRE, we went to work on CAMELOT (official publication date is October 31st). What I thought would be a quick edit turned into a full-fledged revision, but I hope readers will love the result. We were able to correct a couple of minor historical errors no one else was likely to notice (but they’ve bugged me for ten years; I’m happy to have them changed!) In the process, though, we really came down hard on the extra fat in the book, cutting everything we felt could go. The result is 100 pages SHORTER than the original–yes–a full 25,000 words less. And you know what? I love the new version even better than the old one.

There’s a famous story that when George Kaufman, the playwright, died, the eulogy over him was said by his partner, Moss Hart. (Their most famous play together was THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.) According to the story, when Hart got up to speak the eulogy for Kaufman, he pulled out a set of notes, and the first thing he said when he faced the audience was, “I can just hear George saying, ‘It needs cutting’.”

Well, that’s me. Kevin Finn (my writing partner) swears I say everything twice. I hate to admit it, but when I saw his take on the novel, I understood what he meant. It’s a great object lesson. And while I didn’t love cutting some of what we finally threw away, the truth is, we only lost one full scene from the original manuscript–and the novel has much better pacing because of it.

But bleeding as we slashed words and sentences (and, sob, paragraphs) STILL wasn’t the end. Clicking the ‘Send’ button to return the corrected galley to our publisher wasn’t the end. Approving the cover art (which we wrangled about all summer) wasn’t the end. Even writing the blurb for the back cover wasn’t the end.

It’s not enough to write the first draft, send it out for comments, address those comments in an edit, check for historical accuracy, polish it, get it accepted for publication, get it through production and then get it into the marketplace. Sigh.

Oh, no. THEN… you have to sell it.

So literally without pausing for celebration (or sleep) after turning in all the final work on CAMELOT, I went back to the material I needed to prepare for my upcoming book tour(s). There are two for STEALING FIRE–the first starting with a Super Book Blast this Friday–and continuing through the end of October. There are two for CAMELOT–starting at the beginning of November and continuing through January.

That’s a lot of material to prepare.

I finished the last of it (I think) for the first STEALING FIRE tour (through September) on Monday night. At 11 pm.

But don’t get excited–because I have yet to revamp my website, write a press release for CAMELOT and turn in the material necessary just to START the process on the CAMELOT tours.

This is the writer’s life. And I’ve been truly experiencing it–really experiencing it–for the very first time.

I’ve had books published before, but the amount of work required from me has never been as all-encompassing on any of them as now. And while I really believe in a pro-active approach where the writer is involved in all phases of publishing, it does have its moments where you feel like you’re drowning.

And then, if you’re like me, you get nasty and defensive. Charles Dickens never had to tweet; why do I? Did anyone ever ask Shakespeare for his website address? And who refused to buy John Steinbeck’s books because he didn’t have a blog? Yeah. Take THAT, Jane Austen.

As someone pointed out to me this morning, living a dream also means living the part that isn’t so exciting. And for me, knowing that’s part of it makes living the dream, somehow, a lot more real. I like that. I think I’d be suspicious, even optimist that I am, if every moment of my working day was unmitigated sunshine.

A writer’s life, above all, has to be real. Sometimes that’s the only way you know you’re living the dream.

STEALING FIRE on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Stealing-Fire-Susan-Sloate/dp/1935970127/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378319298&sr=8-1&keywords=stealing+fire+susan+sloate

FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Forward-Camelot-Anniversary-Edition-ebook/dp/B00EVWYDG0/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1378319346&sr=1-1&keywords=forward+to+camelot

And if you’re willing to read and review CAMELOT on Amazon, B&N.com, Goodreads and wherever else you’d like to post about it, email me for the URL and coupon code for a free copy from Smashwords (expires September 30th): susan@susansloate.com.

Enjoy the writing life!

On Visualizing Success–My 2013 Breakthrough

This spring has been a huge breakthrough for me, career-wise. For the first time in my life, there are no boundaries, no red lights, no barriers. Every question I ask is being answered, “Yes!” Opportunities are turning up out of thin air – and leading to even more opportunities.

After thinking I had no choice but to self-publish for the rest of my life, in the last month, I’ve signed to publish two books with Drake Valley Press, a medium-sized publishing house in North Carolina. DVP chooses their authors carefully and sparingly, produces their books with meticulous attention to detail, and supports them with a barrage of marketing and promotion strategies that are low-cost but highly effective. I’m consulted on every decision from punctuation to cover art to scheduling, and the mantra constantly repeated to me is, “Your name is on this book. You make the final call.” I LOVE it!

It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced such a sense of team play in publishing a book. DVP loves my work, and the feeling that other people care about my books—and will invest their own hard work and energy toward my success–is overwhelming.

STEALING FIRE, a love story, will be published on August 31st. FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION, the reprint of the alternate-history novel about the JFK assassination that I wrote with Kevin Finn in 2003, will be published on October 31st. DVP will be focusing on promoting both books heavily for at least the first nine months and then steadily after that.

How did it happen? And why now, after I’ve been a professional writer for 25 years? I think because after all these years, I made a key decision, arising out of a fundamental change in the way I’ve chosen to live my life—and that has changed EVERYTHING. Literally. The universe is aligning itself to support my choices. Suddenly, nothing is hard.

The gurus tell you to visualize. SEE what you want in your future, imagine it, feel it happening to you. Theoretically, this brings you closer to that future. Well, either I’m too auditory for it to work (I hear sounds, music and words in my head all the time, but am much weaker at ‘seeing’ anything – blame all those years when my actual uncorrected vision was 20/400.)

What was that fundamental change?

Here it is. Drum roll, please: the fundamental change I made was deciding to LIVE MY FUTURE – RIGHT NOW.

I was one of those people who never lived in the now. I kept thinking that some time in the distant future (which I never quite defined), life would fall into place (didn’t know how) and I would make my living writing my own stuff, and everything would be wonderful. But years went by, I kept taking writer-for-hire assignments and never quite believed that writing my own original stuff would support me – and every time someone said something even slightly negative to me, I buried my original creative self in the sand and hoped no one knew where to find me.

Everything I did was ‘temporary, just until something better comes along’. But somehow, last year, the universe decided that wasn’t the way to go anymore. The writer-for-hire assignments dried up. I was no longer motivated to hustle for those jobs (and almost convinced myself I was no longer interested in writing, period), and my New York agent informed me a year ago that she no longer saw any point in representing me.

When your agent fires you, you know you’re on the wrong path. But how to get on the right one?

After thinking it over, I knew I had nothing to lose by LIVING THE FUTURE I thought I wanted, right now. Nothing else was working. The only jobs I could get paid $8.50 an hour and used none of my skills (and I had to take them; I desperately needed the income). It was profoundly depressing.

Early this year, I decided that visualizing my future wasn’t cutting it. No matter what rosy future I saw in my mind’s eye, it seemed completely disconnected to my present – and how to get from here to there was a problem too big for me to solve.

So I decided to go about it differently, using a two-pronged approach:

1) No more writer for hire. What I write from now on is MY OWN WORK. I stand or fall on it. I never felt like a real writer (whatever that is) fleshing out someone else’s ideas. I want to write my own. That’s why I became a writer to begin with (duh). Writing the books I have inside me is what keep me going – and I’ve previously delegated that task to some time in an undefinable future because I just could not imagine it on a day to day basis. But however well or badly I create a story, characters and world, that’s what I do, and what I intend to do for the rest of my life. While writing for hire is a GREAT way to get your name out there, to learn how to deal with assignments, editors, deadlines and the business of writing, it is not a substitute for letting your own voice be heard.

NO ONE BECOMES A WRITER TO WRITE SOMEONE ELSE’S STORIES.

2) I decided to stop even trying to visualize my future. Forget meditating with my eyes closed. Strategic planning (the business school version of visualization) never was my strong suit. I have trouble coming up with five-year plans; heck, I have trouble coming up with five-month plans. I can handle a week at a glance, but a life? Nope.

So the second decision was – STOP VISUALIZING AND START, INSTEAD, DOING EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO FILL MY PLACE AS A WRITER RIGHT NOW. EVERY DAY.

What did that mean? For me, it meant no longer visualizing a project. It meant writing it NOW, with whatever creative tools I have TODAY. Get the idea, jot down some notes, write a first draft, make more notes, rewrite, polish, submit. Repeat. It meant no longer dreaming of being respected as a writer and earning the big house, the big car, the big whatever; it meant doing my very best as a writer TODAY, so even if no one else ever respects me, I can at least respect myself and be happy with some, hopefully most, of my own effort.

It also meant accepting the knife-edge of recognition. It’s lovely when someone writes to say they like your work. It’s not so much fun when someone posts a rotten review of your book on Amazon, where the whole world will see it. Accepting that I’ll never get 100% of the audience is one of those things that to me means I’m thinking like a professional writer who knows that as much fun as it is to create your own world, there’ll always be someone who doesn’t like it. I’ve decided to accept that (like I can do anything else!) and move on. Brooding about one rotten review when a dozen people like my work is stupid and unproductive. And, by the way, unprofessional.

I intend to have at least one novel, possibly two, published EVERY SINGLE YEAR from now on. That means sitting down and banging away at that keyboard NOW. Making short-term career plans NOW (I can do short-term). Having pages completed THIS WEEK, not next century. The more I found myself making ‘writerly’ decisions – whether on creative content or promotional ideas – the more I found the universe was treating me like a – gulp – respected writer.

What a surprise. (Second ‘duh’ here.)

I got invitations to speak at conferences I’ve never heard of, and for some reason, the conference organizers were THRILLED when I said I’d turn up. They offered me great speaking slots and – hello! – will pay me just to show up, apart from any book sales I made. The way the world is seeing me as a writer seems to be a reflection of the fact that I’ve decided to see myself as a writer – you know, the kind who writes from original ideas and presents something to the world that comes entirely from me.

It feels good. The hell with visualization – being highly auditory anyway (I hear songs in my head all the time), visuals just aren’t my thing. But being a professional writer is. TODAY.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let The Word Go Forth — starting right now!

“Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike,” President Kennedy said (pretty famously) in his 1961 inaugural address.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to capture the essence of President Kennedy and some other pretty famous people we associate with him, in my novel FORWARD TO CAMELOT (co-authored with Kevin Finn). So I thought that calling my blog ‘Let The Word Go Forth’ and devoting it to ruminations on the writer’s life would be the right way for me to venture into the blogosphere.

I’m kicking off this blog, then, with those immortal words, in hopes that they might lead to some immortal words of my own—whether in my blog or (fingers crossed) in my books or in other writing that I do. But I also hope that reading this blog regularly will help you, my fellow writer, to greater success in your own writing endeavors. I don’t pretend to know everything—or in some cases ANYTHING—about the million-and-one things we writers are supposed to know about living the writer’s life. What I do know is that it seems vastly more complicated than it used to be.

It used to be that writers only had to know their craft inside and out, and cultivate an individual voice, and adhere to deadlines that insure their projects are finished, and edit their work to fit the guidelines of correct spelling/grammar/usage, story consistency and character voice. And after we’d done all that, we also got to check our finished, typeset work — every single word — again for final errors and supervise the creation of the cover and write the cover copy, dedication, acknowledgements, and in the case of non-fiction writers, the bibliography and footnotes (whew!). We usually also had to produce media kits, with at the very least, a brilliant-sounding bio (some of my very best fiction is in my bio). Then we could (hah!) relax.

Now, though, it seems we are also expected to be at least conversant with promoting books via social media—Facebook and Twitter are the barest minimum—along with such staples as Amazon site promotion and a presence on sites like Goodreads and Pinterest, if you want to really show off. This does not even include the hours needed to drum up interest on virtual or local book tours (I prefer the virtual kind), local or national radio and TV shows and book reviews from ‘established’ reviewers.

I wasn’t thinking about all this stuff when I decided to be a writer. Well, in all fairness, most of it didn’t actually exist when I decided to be a writer. (I am now admitting in print for the very first time that I went off to college in the ’70’s with an Olympia manual typewriter — and felt good about it.)

But all these new outlets exist now, and not using them means possibly imperiling your career and your readership.

What’s a mother to do?

Grin, bear it and work your butt off, I think. And how to do all these things swiftly and painlessly and still have a life and write your next opus will be the subject of upcoming blogs as together we survey the writer’s life and decide how best to navigate those often-muddy waters. We’ll talk about the writer’s craft, the writing business, realistic vs. unrealistic expectations, and the spiritual side of a writing career, because all good writing–and living–has that element as well.

2013 will be, I hope, a monumental year for me, with the publication of three books: REALIZING YOU (with Ronald Doades), in the summer of 2013, STEALING FIRE (from my new publisher, Drake Valley Press) in September, and the 50th Anniversary Edition of FORWARD TO CAMELOT (also from Drake Valley Press) in November. Part of my blog will be an ongoing account of what I’m doing and how well it works out. I’ll be embarking on my first virtual book tour (looking forward to it!) and my first virtual review tour. Will certainly keep you posted!

Join me for tips, quips and maybe even a few tears as we work toward household-nameship together. (Didn’t think I could invent a word in the middle of my first blog, didja?)

Thanks for being on the journey with me – it’s so much more fun when you’re not alone.

LET THE WORD GO FORTH …