You have two or more characters in a scene talking about something. Maybe it’s the plot. Maybe it’s character development. Maybe it’s just a scene conveying their growing friendship or burgeoning antagonism. Whatever the purpose, you end up with what amounts to pages of dialogue without much else. The dialogue might be great and the scene might get everything you want done. But it’s still a bunch of talking heads in a nondescript, uninteresting setting.
One of my biggest influences as a writer is the comic book medium. Before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I read comic books. Specifically, superhero comics, though I occasionally dove into Transformers or humor titles like “Groo the Wanderer.” While comic books and novels are different media, there is certainly a crossover in the danger of talking heads. While you can sometimes get away with it in the novel, comic books that are only drawings of faces and dialogue bubbles aren’t generally well-received. There are exceptions to the rule, but even in the world of comic book superheroes, you can’t have every discussion take place during a fight with a supervillain or a natural disaster.
The answer is baseball.
The X-Men love baseball. Or basketball. Really, any sport where characters are moving around, get to show off their powers, and discuss their relationships works. This is why the infamous Danger Room was invented. It’s not because it makes sense for the X-Men to train in a room that simulates peril. It’s because it’s a great place for characters to do super things while hashing out their problems.
We could watch the X-Men sitting around talking about their struggles, or we could see the X-Men talk about their struggles while punching robots. Or talking trash while rounding the bases. Or even merely lounging around the pool with some good old-fashioned horseplay.
Basically, doing ANYTHING is better than doing NOTHING, and the goal of that anything isn’t to distract but enhance. If that anything manages to shine some extra light on the characters in some way while we’re at it, so much the better.
Iron Man talks while building a thing. Captain America talks while doing gymnastics. Storm is gardening and makes it rain. Wolverine sits at a bar, drinking and smoking and being rough. In almost any scene, you can have it take place someplace more interesting, giving your characters more to do than just talk at one another.
Granted, you may not have a Danger Room with crushing walls in your story, but there’s almost always some way to play ball, so to speak. Even if that is, well, just playing ball.
We have a new project, an event for a day.
To celebrate Valentine's, a game we will play.
Learn a new genre, expanding our range.
Write a new romance, although it feels strange.
I'm new to the group and need to impress.
I'll write something clever, with art and finesse.
Valentine’s is hard, writing romance I'm just not that keen.
The event was announced as "just like Halloween."
I'll write of two specters whose love they must sneak
Or maybe a baddy, whose name, we can't speak.
Something so special, something unique.
I might maybe twist it to be tongue and cheek.
Alex has vampires snogging with ghosts.
Another has houses with creepy ass hosts.
Rosemary has demons all going to prom.
King has survivors after the bomb.
Steph has teen throbs, all horny and drunk.
Helen has cufflinks stashed inside of a trunk.
Colin's got coppers all speaking noir.
Enmon's got agents camped out in their cars.
So I thought that a thriller, might be just as great.
Maybe two killers out on a blind date.
But to write a good thriller, I need plot points and beats.
It's all too complex to write but ten sheets.
The bullet I bite, a story is written.
My treasure complete, as a writer I'm smitten.
I read it out loud and it’s not so --fool--proof.
Not certain what happened, the prose just went poof.
After critique, shocked silly and numb.
In the fetal position, sucking my thumb.
My text --a true masterpiece.
Reduced to mere ashes, my lines they did fleece.
They are, ever so silent, when says Johnny Bartell
It's an interesting premise, but "Show us don't tell!"
Next comes from Stacey, I listen with dread.
"I like what you've written, but what's in their head?"
My killers are meeting in a nice restaurant.
But Brook needs to know, what each character wants!
Leslie looks worried, brow furrowed in thought.
"Your characters good, but you’re missing a plot."
I wipe my wet cheeks and start to revise.
I know in my heart, these fuckers are wise.
I kill off my darlings, and rewrite my lines.
Out of ten pages. I keep one in nine.
Don’t make it too hard, ease up on the fight.
Think of an audience, who gets how I write.
I've Narrowed my readers, and weathered the storm.
I pen my first line. --Dear penthouse forum
I have never published a novel, and that makes me an expert. You might wonder why you should read a blog by an unpublished author who isn’t qualified to write a sentence on writing? Because I’m going to tell you exactly how not to do it.
You remember that episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza realizes he’s a complete failure and that every decision he has ever made in his life is wrong. And then Jerry says, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” (If you have not seen this, then click here before proceeding.) This is the religious principle upon which this blog is based, and it can guide you to the promised land.
Think about The Old Testament. It doesn’t tell you what to do to get to paradise. It tells you what not to do. Don’t eat forbidden fruit. Don’t try to build a tower to heaven. Don’t make love to porcupines or other critters. I’m about to tell you what not to do so that kind of makes this a writer’s Bible.
Together you, the aspiring author, and I, the unpublished novelist, will journey to the land of the do’s and don’ts, and if you do the opposite, you’ll be attending your first book signing in no time.
1 – Write your story about the first idea that comes into your head.
A published author once told me he generates fourteen new story ideas a week. Two a day, I thought. I did the math. After six months, he’d have produced more than three hundred story ideas. He claimed most of them weren’t very good, but there were a few decent kernels in the chaff. What a waste of time. If he’d just written about the first idea that popped into his head, he’d be six months closer to an unsalvageable first draft.
2 – Research is for smart asses.
Fiction is about “making it up.” I find research limits my ability to “create.” I just wing it. My mind is unfettered and my word counts are much higher when I don’t have to look things up.
3 – Join a writer’s group but don’t take notes.
When you attend your writer’s group, don’t bring a pen and notebook, just smile and nod as the feedback from your writing peers goes in one ear and exits through your left nostril. You and I know that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and we’re going to do it our way anyway.
4 – Don’t attend a writer’s conference.
Writers’ conferences are expensive. They’ll set you back a couple hundred bucks. Save your money and buy a book on “How to Write” instead.
5 – Stalk agents – Part 1
If you do buy a pass to a writers’ conference, there will be literary agents in attendance. It’s easy to spot them because they are the folks being swarmed and slashed with business cards by people toting free tote bags. Make sure you bring your business cards so you can participate in the bloodshed. (Tote bags will be provided.)
6 – Stalk agents – Part 2
Once you have an agent cornered and pinned against the bar, make sure you tell her or him how much you liked the vacation photos they recently posted on Facebook. Then compliment them on their attire. Now they’re ready to run.
7 – Send in your unfinished manuscript.
I always submit my first drafts to agents to see if I’m on the right track.
8 – Don’t pay for editing.
Use spellcheck. Or is it spell check? I forget. But it costs nothing.
9 – Beta readers are not your friends.
I’ve found that beta readers only want to point out your mistakes—typos, plot holes, weak character motivation, etc. Why associate with people who are so negative? Surround yourself with positive people. Let your dog read it. Technically not a person, but a mammal, and that’s good enough for me.
10 – “Rewriting is not writing, it’s tedium.”
This should be the motivational poster for every unpublished author. I picture the quote in a bold, sans serif font over a kitten hanging from a tree limb as a murder of crows pluck its fur. (That’s the best metaphor I could come up with in thirty seconds.)
11 – You are no J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or George R.R. Martin, so don’t read them.
Writers should not read. They should write.
12 – All the good stuff has been written.
You have nothing new to say. And if you did, somebody else will have already said it better, so put down your pen and watch Netflix. Here are some of my favorite shows: Detectorists, Patriot, Broadchurch (the British version), Happy Valley, and The Expanse.
In conclusion, don’t do as I do, and you’ll be well on your way to a book deal.Read more
I’ve been on the DFW Writers’ Workshop board for a while. In fact, when I first started, I had an AOL account (which is embarrassing because it was already 2011). But anyway, my point is that it’s been a while, and during that time I’ve gotten a new computer, a new email address, and a new hairdo.
The Workshop has changed since then too. It got a new website, new bylaws, a new building. We celebrated our fortieth anniversary, put on a record-breaking DFW Con, and just last week reached our highest member count ever.
But on the other hand, the Workshop has stayed the same in the most important ways: it’s still about people and writing.
Now that’s it’s time for me to pass the mantle to the next president, I’m feeling a little sentimental. Nostalgic too, even though I’m only moving from one side of the table to the other. Finding your writing tribe is one of the best things that can happen to any author, and this particular tribe takes you places that you absolutely can’t go alone.
Case study 1: When I first started on the board, I cut my teeth writing blogs for the organization. I’d never done it before; I didn’t get paid. But those blogs led to a few freelance jobs, which led to a few more, and wouldn’t you know it, last week I was onsite at a video shoot auditing a script I’d penned for a client. Super cool, right? Somebody pinch me, and don’t ever let me forget where it all started.
Case study 2: Back to my first year as a board member. I was workshopping my drawer novel. Everyone was so nice. A. Lee Martinez and Sally Hamilton invited me to their wedding even though they hardly knew me. Rosemary Clement read pages when they weren’t worthy of her time. Fellow members told me how bad my book sucked, but it was clearly coming from a place of love, so I had the wherewithal to thank them before disappearing into my cave to cry. Fast-forward eight years later, and now I’ve got a book coming out in 2020 (Penguin/Berkley). It’s hard to believe. Somebody needs to punch me in the face and yell, “Workshop rules.” Because it does.
Case study 3: Last night, we were talking over our weekly after-hours pancakes about the success our members have seen recently, and it’s pretty astounding. Workshop members are outliers. They beat the dismal odds. On the current board alone, out of eight people, we have five agented authors. Of the three un-agented authors, two of them already have traditionally published books to their name. And here’s the rub: none of them—not one—came to Workshop as a pre-packaged success story. We’ve all shown up, manuscripts in hand, hoping to join the party. And DFW Writers’ Workshop throws a hell of a good one.
So what? I guess this is a note to everyone on my way out of the officer’s quarters to say thank you. Being a member and serving this organization has been one of the biggest blessings in my life. This is a crazy profession, and you’ve got to be a little crazy to do it, but there’s this sweet spot on the people/writing Venn diagram where the world feels sane, and that’s where the Workshop lives. So thanks for being my tribe, y’all, because what a tribe it is.
I grew up in the country and spent a lot of time hunting. Hunting for food is akin to hunting for fans to like and buy your book. The difference, of course, is that you aren’t going to cook and eat your fans. Or you shouldn’t anyway.
Authors may write books to see that smile on their readers’ faces, but at the end of the day, writing is a business. You have to sell your books, if for nothing else than to justify the time you spent arguing with your editor over that stupid comma. And no matter how popular you are, you still have to meet your existing fans as well as find those new ones. This means you have to talk to people, face to face. One of the best ways to do that is at a Book Signing.
I’ve done a handful or so book signings, and each one is just as exciting as the first, and as I learn what works and what doesn’t, each one has been more successful than the previous one.
Stalking Your Prey or Venue
Just like looking for that big buck or that warren of rabbits, you’ve got to stalk the right places. Everyone thinks that bookstores are the best venue. That is not necessarily so. Unless you have advertised relentlessly, do not expect many walk-up sales. If there are twenty people in that bookstore, be truthful and ask yourself how many of them are actually in your target audience. There are way more genres represented in a bookstore than there are on your signing table.
Instead, think of holding a signing where your genre is represented exclusively. If you are selling a commercial fiction romance, you probably won’t sell many at a paranormal convention. Consider a swanky restaurant instead. If anything says romance, it’s a candlelit dinner. Be sure you get permission from the manager before you set up a table. I held a book release signing at a restaurant and did better than I expected.
Camouflage or Dress for the Job You Want
Your signing table or booth is your hunting blind. This is where you sit back and wait for your fans to wander by. I can’t say this enough: it should be appropriate for the venue. Don’t hang shrunken heads in that swanky restaurant, and don’t wear a suit and tie to an outdoors paranormal convention. Dress up that booth, and yourself, with implements of the genre you write about. Table cloths, stands to hold your books upright, and a professionally-made roll-up banner are worth the investment.
Ammunition or Book Supply
You should never go hunting without an ample supply of ammunition. We all know what ammunition means in the normal sense, but what is an author’s ammunition? Why, words, of course. And those words are in your book. You should always have a supply of books on your table. Even if you are in a bookstore that sells your books, keep some there with you. Asking that new fan to find your book on the bookshelf so you can sign it is poor form.
Game Bag or The Cash Box
Hunters have something in which to tote home their kills. Fisherman have a stringer or an ice box. Writers have a cash bag and a banking account. You should always have twenty dollars in ones and fives. But remember: not all customers carry cash. Get yourself a PayPal account and a Square Reader to accept electronic payments.
Bait or Freebies
Hunters sometimes bait their area in hope of luring their prey. You should do the same thing. Sweets like peppermint and chocolate, free pens with your name and website on them, and bookmarks are things you can give fans as well as people who don’t buy anything right then. People like free stuff, and free stuff that keeps you on their mind means a potential sale.
You can get 2,000 two-sided bookmarks for $75, delivered, online. That’s less than four cents apiece. I put a slimmed down version of my book cover on one side, and my business card on the other.
Snacks or Well, Snacks
If you have to man your booth for more than a couple of hours, you’ll want some kind of protein to keep you active. Don’t forget water, either.
Driving the Game or Have You Talked to My Writer Friend?
Some of my favorite hunting was when there were a few of us. One or two would rattle the bushes and drive the game towards the rest of the group. The same holds true during book signings. If you have a writer friend who’s in the same genre, attending conventions together and working the same booth, or working booths next to each other, is a good way to drive business back and forth. When someone is finished at my booth, whether they bought a book or not, I always introduce them to my writer friend. A personal introduction is a great way to build rapport between you, your writer friend, and the fans.
Keep a checklist handy of everything you want to take with you to your signings. The night before, make sure you have all of these in a couple of clear plastic totes. I can be ready for a book signing within two hours if I follow my list.
Speaking of my list, here it is. Some things make sense. Some things were learned about the hard way.
- Books to sell
- Pens to autograph books sold
- Square Reader for taking credit card purchases
- Cell Phone or Tablet for use with Square Reader
- Wolf Ring to camouflage as a werewolf author
- Wolf Necklace to camouflage as a werewolf author
- Werewolf Teeth for use with fans who want pictures with me. Yes, fans like pictures with the author of the book they just bought. Don’t be too shy about asking them if they want a picture.
- Roll-Up Banner. You can get small, table-top versions for $100 or large, floor mounted ones for twice that. If you’ve got a good cover, put it on the banner. I’ve attracted more readers with my banner than not.
- Cash Bag with Cash
- Book Stands
- Spare batteries for any battery-powered devices you have (like your cell phone)
- Two Chairs
- Two tables (one large, one small)
- Table Decorations
- Bluetooth speaker for mood music
- Tie wraps
- Trash bag for trash
Outside signings need a few other things.
- Easy-Up. You can get a 10’x10’ sun shade at Wal-Mart for $40.
- Sand Bag/Weights to hold the Easy-Up to the ground if you’re not on grass or dirt
- Coat or light jacket
- Light plastic sheet to cover your booth when it rains
- Easy up hooks to hang things on
- Bungy cords
- Aspirin (or equivalent). There’s nothing worse than trying to be nice while your head is pounding.
- Spill-proof coffee mug. Yes. I spilled coffee on six books. That was an expensive mistake.
Sure, book signings take time away from writing, but if you don’t want to meet your fans or sell your work, you may be in the wrong business. I love to meet people and find book signings are great way to do that.
Good Luck and Happy Hunting!