Scatter Shooting the Muse

Being a writer is its own breed of paranoia. You lock yourself away in some little antisocial corner, hunched over a keyboard and pounding away for hours on end, and hope, in the end, someone will like your work enough to pat you on the back and tell you it’s all been worthwhile. You have a story to tell, an important one you want to share with the world, and the world wants it just as bad as you want them to have it. Rriigghhtt.

It rarely works out like that. You write for rejection, anticipating each one will be a little kinder than the last and you finally get a little bit of hope. Not necessarily acceptance, but hope. After reading your submission or query, if they didn’t tell you to burn your keyboard never ever send anything like that again, you can call that a success. Instead, they tell you taste is subjective and to keep on trying and you call that a victory. It’s like the high school cheerleader or quarterback telling the teenage you they would only date you if you were the last person on earth. Ah, then there’s still a chance, even if it’s a slim one.

You as a writer have to be tough as a three-year-old reaching for the candy dish on the coffee table. No matter how many times their hands get slapped and are told no, they know there is a prize just waiting to be claimed once they wear the hand slapper down. So, they keep reaching.

That’s what a writer has to do, keep reaching. There is no secret shortcut to success, just perseverance – and luck. Talent and luck. Hard work and luck. See the pattern?

Writer’s tears are more than a metaphor, it’s an emotional rollercoaster that you ride throughout your career. It just seems the valleys are a lot longer and deeper than the highs could ever be, but you don’t get off the ride. You persevere, that’s the artistry in your soul. That’s why you have to write. So write

Voice Trumps Plot

IMG_8647.JPGWriting saved my life today. No kidding. It absolutely did.

I had stopped off at Whole Foods after work to write, not because I’m some pretentious writer dude being all like, I only write at Whole Foods, but because I bought a sun hat at REI, which is right next door and it was the last day to get 25% off and don’t tell me sun hats aren’t manly because I plan to do real manly things like mowing the yard and weed whacking and moving dirt. And anyway, it’s not really a ‘sun hat’ – it’s a death ray deflector.

So I’m sitting there, death ray deflector in a bag at my feet, writing and drinking my beer. Or maybe it’s the other way around, drinking my beer and writing. And, just to be clear, it’s not like I’m, you know, drinking lots of beer, it’s honestly just one beer after work while I write. I’m on chapter 24 or something of my elevator novel, all in all making fair progress, but tonight the characters are just being buttholes. Being totally uncooperative. For instance

Lou is all like “Yes I believe that you are correct in your statement.”

And I’m all like “Hell no, she didn’t. She did not just say that.”  

And Henry’s like “Thank you Louise. You are a wonderful human being.” 

And I’m like, GUYS WTF??? Work with me, Lou. That is so not your voice. The reader needs to be able to see who you are in everything you do. They need to see you, Lou, to see your passions, your failures, your anxieties, your beauty, your compassion, your hatred, your vulnerabilities. They need to be able to feel this without thinking. And Lou, it has to be organic – it has to be in the way you fix your hair or open a door. In the way you see people. In the way you react to situations. And not just when the elevator cable finally snaps and you need to save the day, but also when Elliot pukes on you, when Hipster Dad yells at his kids. When Henry slights you.

I tell them this, I tell Lou and Henry this. And you know what they do? They just toss me a little nod and get back to talking. They’re evidently on break. Lou is drinking effervescent water or something and Henry’s vaping. And on the screen I’ve typed

“Wait,” Lou says and her face lights up and her smile, her smile is something like a

Like a what?

What’s the hell’s her smile like?

So I’m like “Lou, what’s your smile like?”

She rolls her eyes and nudges Henry. “Break’s over,” she says. “Writer boy is freaking out. Time to get back to the elevator.”

“Union rules say I still got a minute,” Henry says and takes another hit of his vape.

Lou exhales, folds her arms across her chest and taps her fingernails on her forearms.

Henry exhales a cloud of smoke in her direction and she snatches the vape, drops it in her half full glass of effervescent water and saunters toward the elevator shaft.

I’m excited. They’re off break and ready to rock and roll but it’s too late. My beer’s gone and it’s just about time to get on home to the family. But I think maybe just one more page. I’m feeling the voice, so yeah, one more page, the family won’t miss me except then my phone rings.

It’s my wife.

I love hearing from her. She’s awesome. But I have one more page to write. And besides, she never calls me at this time of day. So I’m picturing an emergency - broken pipes or swarms of flying fire ants or maybe lava spewing out of fissures in the back yard.

On the fifth ring I answer.

And she’s like

Did you buy pork chops?

Time stands still and I shut my eyes. My insides clench.

She’s referring the trip to the supermarket last Sunday, when I said, “Can you go get the milk and I’ll get the meat?” Because it’s so much more efficient that way. I’m a super fast grocery store shopping guy. My motto is “Just get what you need and get out ©.” So I sent her on her way while I got the meat. Because, like I said, it’s so much faster that way.

I’m about to lie to her, to say “Would I forget to buy pork chops? Of course I bought them. If they’re not in the fridge then I guess our twelve year old son ate them.”

But I look around and see that I’m in a GROCERY STORE. And so I’m saved. I can buy pork shops in the same place I’m writing. Problem solved.

And that, my friends, is how writing saved my life. Well, maybe it didn’t necessarily “save my life”. It’s not like Dot would have been waiting for me with a rolling pin in hand, ready to teach me a lesson about forgetting to buy pork shops. She’d probably just have been like okay let’s just have leftovers.

Maybe it’s that writing just allowed our family to adhere to our rigid dinner schedule that we establish every Sunday.  Or maybe, at the very least, it saved me from an unnecessary trip to the grocery store.

And that’s something.

So thank you writing. Thank you so much.

Voice is about allowing your characters to ooze off the page. For every action, every sentence, every movement, every failure, every success, for everything they feel, to be a description of who they are. Because, and I hate to break it to you, nobody cares if you forgot to pick up pork chops at the grocery store on Sunday. That’s boring. But throw some voice in with it and it becomes something more than a shopping mishap. It becomes personal.

What readers want is to get to know your characters. To identify with them. To love them. To hate them. To empathize with them. To discover what their insecurities are. What their passions are. What is meaningful to them and what is not. How that plays out in their actions and in their thoughts. And the last thing they want is you, the author, to tell them these things point blank. They want it to be how it is in real life, when they meet people and have to figure things out on their own. Because that’s interesting. It’s intriguing. It’s fun.

So yeah, go ahead, tell some lame story about forgetting to buy pork chops. Just add some voice. Make your characters come alive. Do that and the world will beat a path to your door.  

Russell C. Connor and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Book Signing

Russ_Headshot.jpgBook signings have a romantic appeal for authors. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to a packed arena chanting our names. You breeze into the venue, get ushered to a table where a stack of your books waits, and scribble your name away for your adoring fans.

Yeah, I’ve never had one of those.

I’m a self-published writer, so I usually have what I call “the working man’s book signing.” That’s where you truck in a box of your own books, get shoved into a corner somewhere, and desperately spend the next three hours trying to make eye contact with your fellow human beings. If you’re lucky, you get to handle the sales yourself. If not, you have to settle up with the house at the end of the event, which is a whole level of awkwardness unto itself.

Oh well. It’s a living, right?

Except, no, it’s really not. You’re usually lucky to make enough to pay for your gas getting there. But as an unknown author, it’s a necessary evil, one of the few ways to get out in front of readers and sell some books.

In the past decade, I’ve had a ton of signings. I’ve had the “cattle-call,” where you’re in a room with far more authors than readers. I’ve had the “out-of-place,” where you’re set up in a store that doesn’t even sell books, so the customers don’t read and they’re all very annoyed by your pitch. But luckily, since I started winning some awards over the last few years, I’ve had far more good signings than bad, where people actually come to check out the books and are quick to buy.

Then, I found out the true definition of a bad signing.

A few months ago, one of my contacts came to me with an opportunity. I could have a solo reading/signing at a couple of locations in a not-to-be-named chain of discount book stores. Of course, I jumped at the chance. Readings are absolutely the best; I know if I can actually expose a potential reader to my work, they’ll buy. The only thing that made me hesitate is that the stores wanted a 40% cut of all sales.

To be fair, 40% is a pretty standard retail discount in the publishing world. Most retail outlets insist on it before they’ll even consider carrying your book. But, since retail outlets never carry my books anyway, I opt for a much lower cover price to entice more buyers. At a 60% cut, technically, I’m losing money on every sale.

But I figured, what the hell. Maybe I can do a markup for the event and just see how it goes. So I set up two events on back-to-back Saturdays at two different locations, and contacted the only manager whose name I was given. She gave me more details, including paperwork they needed filled out.

Oy vey, the paperwork this place required! Again, in ten years of doing this, I’ve never seen anything like it. My tax return was shorter than what they needed, which included an entire sheet filled out—by hand—for every title, and for each event.  I was bringing seven titles. Not only that, but I noticed they also retained the option to pay the writer by check 6-8 weeks after the event. This was another first for me.

But, after being treated for carpal tunnel, I went to the first signing.

It went pretty well, mostly thanks to a couple of my good friends from the DFW Writers’ Workshop. There was no reading offered, but the store didn’t really have the traffic for that anyway. I did sell out of one title almost before I could get set up, and a few more sales trickled in after that sage poet Del Cain went around the store and talked me up to people. At the end of the day, the store totaled up my cut, which matched exactly what I had figured, and even paid me right out of the register.

Before I left, I got a contact name at the store I was supposed to be at the following week, and emailed when I got home to check up on the event.

They had no idea I was coming. Which meant no promotion of any sort had been done. Maybe that should have been a red flag, but I shrugged it off.

I was still flying high the following week, when I set out for the second signing. It was a much longer drive and it was also raining, which is never fun when you’re trying to transport a cardboard box full of books from a block away. But I got inside, introduced myself, and got set up.

A few minutes later, the manager came over with my tome of paperwork to tell me that I had filled it out wrong. The store was supposed to get 60% of sales, the author 40%.

I stared at him, flabbergasted. I told him that last week, the other store in their chain had given me 60%. He said that wasn’t right. I told him that 40% was pretty standard for the store, especially for an author who was actually bringing in the product and assuming all the risk. He insisted it had always been 60% for the store. I pulled up the email on my phone and showed him that. He said he would ‘honor the original arrangement,’ but would call to find out for sure. I told him if need be, I could just pack up and go.

He called his corporate office. I heard him go in the back and talk, then, after they assumingly let him know that I was right, he came out and told me stiffly that everything was good.

The victory was hollow. I didn’t want to sit here for the next three hours in awkward silence with this man.

As luck would have it, his shift was over, and he left me in the care of a much nicer employee. But we still sat in awkward silence, because the store was located in an outdoor shopping mall, and nobody goes to an outdoor shopping mall in the rain. That day, I just got one sale, and that was only because the employee talked me up to one of the few customers that came in.

Afterward, I went up to thank him. It’s nice when a store tells customers you’re there, and it always results in more sales. He said no problem, that they had another author in the previous week that didn’t sell anything, and he felt sorry for her sitting there all alone. I started to laugh, to tell him I knew what he meant, but a stray thought stopped me.

Wait, did…did he feel sorry for me? Was that a pity sale? No, that couldn’t be right, I wasn’t someone to be pitied, I was following my dreams, I was the up-and-coming underdog, I—

I looked around the empty store, and was struck by one of those moments. The ones where you wonder what you’ve done with your life. Let’s face it, I’m no Stephen King. No adoring fans will ever scream my name as I walk into a book store. I’m a writer who’s been rejected by enough agents and publishers to fill an arena, a self-published author who’s been pounding the pavement for ten years to sell just a few more books. I made my peace with those things a long time ago, but that day, they came crashing back.

Because that’s what a bad book signing can do to you, if you let it. Make you feel unappreciated. Make you feel like the years you spent writing that book were a waste.

I slunk back to my table and waited out the rest of the signing.

At the end of the day, the employee tallied up my percentage, which he figured at $1.64. On a $15 sale, that’s not 60%, that’s not even 40%, but I was too tired to argue. I waited for him to reach into the register and pay me my pittance, but he just smiled and told me good day.

Which is when I realized that this store was going to make me wait 6-8 weeks for a $1.64 check.

On the drive home, I thought—not for the first time—that maybe I needed to find something else to do with my free time.

I won’t, of course.  I’ve been writing long before that experience, and I’ll be writing long after. Because writing isn’t about the money, and it’s certainly not about the book signings. Stephen King said that you should never write a word for anyone but yourself. I believe that. I write the kind of stories that I want to read, create characters that I identify with. Most of you probably do, too.

After all, if you’re only trying to entertain yourself, then you already have all the adoring fans you could ever want.

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How to Write a Picture Book (From Someone Who Doesn't Know Much)

David_Close_Compressed.jpgI'm pretty sure every person who has ever seen more than one children's picture book has thought, “I could write something better than this garbage,” because a lot of picture books are awful.

And it might be true. But it's probably not as easy as you think.

Since I've sold some picture books, lots of people think I'm an expert. I'm really not, but I know a little bit. And today, I'll share almost all of it with you.

First, picture books are fairly easy to write. My first sold manuscript was less than 400 words. The next one was about 600. None of the agents or editors I've ever spoken to wanted anything over 1,000 words.

In terms of raw word count, this blog is going to take more effort than most picture books.

The plotting is really simple. You only have a few hundred words. There's not much to keep track of. There aren't many characters to flesh out. There aren't many plot threads to track.

The writing is also really simple. You're literally writing for people who read on a first-grade level. If you can handle that, you can probably write a picture book as bad as all the garbage that inspired you to write.

Second, picture books are kind of hard. All the stuff I just told you constrains your writing. You can't just throw more words at a story problem.

If you want to write a good picture book, every sentence has to earn its keep. Every paragraph has to do multiple jobs. You need to flesh out several characters enough to make them compelling. You need a plot deep enough to be interesting — more than just a string of funny scenes.

You need to make it accessible to a child. You'll get bonus points if you also make it interesting to adults.

Third (and this is something I'm still working on), you're not alone. You have an illustrator. Unless you're one of those disgustingly talented people who writes AND illustrates really well. But even you over-gifted people need to pay attention.

A lot of those picture books you thought were lame had the same problem — the illustrations just illustrated what the narration described. They were boring.

A good picture book has layers. The writing tells part of the story, and the pictures tell part. In the best books, they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

On the writer's side of the equation, that means learning what you need to say to move the story forward and what can leave to the illustrator. It's not just scene descriptions. A good illustrator will flesh out your story and paint in the fine details of character and plot that you don’t have time for in your paltry 1000 words.

But you have to make your writing evoke the rest of the story in the illustrator's mind.

I liken it a little bit to poetry, where the language also conjures up images and associations without explicitly naming them.

Fourth, I only barely understood any of this when I started, but I'd had the fortune of taking a class on Children's Literature since it filled an empty slot in my college schedule. My professor taught me the basics of what will appeal to kids. If you've got this down, you have a head start on everybody else.

  • Children like to read about characters their own age or a little older.
  • Young children like repetition because it gives them a sense of security and control. That's why if you have kids, they want to hear the same story over and over again.
  • The best writers don't talk down to kids or avoid difficult topics. They do the extra work to figure out how to talk about sad or scary stuff compassionately and accessibly.
  • Children (being normal humans) don't like it when you preach to them. Really good children's writing can carry moral lessons, but it isn't didactic.

So there you have it. Of course, there's still a lot more to learn, but that's about what I knew when I got started. The main thing is to love what you're doing. Write picture books because you want to tell stories to children.

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Reviewing Books

Tom_Bont_-_Author_Photo_300_dpi.pngWe authors are some of the most arrogant people in the world. We tell you what we’re thinking without being asked by scrawling our thoughts onto paper and publishing them. Then we sit back and wait on your approval. And if that approval doesn’t shine like the Egyptian Sun God’s golden disk during a summer solstice, we hide in a closet all weekend drawing pictures on the walls with our box of broken crayons

Then we do it all again.

Approvals of our work usually manifest as Book Reviews. Authors not only covet Book Reviews, we live for them. We all want Five-Star reviews but will grudgingly settle for Three-Stars. Anything lower than that, see my comment on crayons, above. Bad Reviews are important, too, though, just as long as they contain useful information. Simply writing, “My dog won’t even pee on this book,” is not helpful. You need to explain why your dog won’t pee on it, thankyouverymuch.

The only thing worse than bad reviews, though, is not getting reviews at all. It took me years to figure out why family members and friends wouldn’t review my books. “Tom, your book was awesome!” they’d say over dinner. “When’s the next one coming out?”

“Well,” I’d drawl, “as soon as you review the last one.”


For months.

Why? There are two main reasons people don’t write reviews:

  1. Readers are shy. The vast majority of people in the world keep their opinions to themselves. Remember, we’re the arrogant ones.
  2. Readers don’t know how to write reviews. Remember, we’re the writers.

It is my firm belief that if we can resolve Item 2, Item 1 will take of itself. In fact, I am going to fill your toolbox with a reviewing tool that is so simple, you are going to want to review everything you read from now on.

To start with, immediately jot down your ideas after reading a book. Strong emotions always accompany that last page and range anywhere from “Thank God this is over” to “My firstborn shall henceforth be known throughout the four lands as Tom Bont!” But a review should contain more than how you feel about it; it should also contain a logical description of your thoughts.

Once my opinions have percolated for a day or two, I use my jotted-down notes to compose the review. If there was a particular item I liked or disliked, I’ll talk about it. I might even include a short plot summary. Some authors don’t mind plot summaries. Some hate them. However, beggars can’t be choosers. If I do include a plot summary, I’m kind; I put Spoiler Warning at the top.

Next, I summarize the entire book into three categories:

  1. Writing: Spelling, ease of reading, plot creation; did you get lost when you read the book, and if so, how many times? Did the author take the time to hold your hand and lead you along your journey? Did the language make you wish that you talked that way or did it remind you of a bully from high school? Is the writing style formal, informal, or conversational?
  2. Background Information: This is more objective than subjective. Does the setting seem real? Do the secondary and tertiary characters react in a realistic manner. Is California still located on the left coast? The world must make sense! An example for me is a Peter F. Hamilton book. I tend to look up after an hour or so of reading and wonder where I am. I get lost in his world building.
  3. Character Development: Are the main characters real to you? Did you fall in love with one? Hate another? Note that some characters you are meant to hate.

I give each of these categories a Poor, Average, or Good rating. You may choose something more cinematic such as Sucky, Adequate, and Bloody Awesome if you wish.

Most authors would be tickled to get a review that covered these areas. If you want to put more into it, visit the following website:

Here’s an example of an Amazon Review I did.

“Age of Heroes” by James Lovegrove

I’m not even sure where to begin with describing this book. The Greek demigods are alive and well and running around Earth? And now someone is killing them off? Hell, that’s a 5-star rating just on the idea.

And the book itself lived up to the hype.

Read this book.

Ratings: (poor, average, or good):

Writing was good.

Background information was good.

Character Development was good.

Five out of five stars.

Note the last sentence. Yes, you have to come up with a star rating.

At this point, the review is complete. But if you’re an over-achiever, you might write:

Craftsmanship was good. The book was of standard design, 6”x9”. I carried it around Scotland while on vacation, and I subjected it to rough carry-on bag usage. It held up great.

Eye Candy was good: The cover was exiting—a Greek god fighting a man with two machine guns. That’s what drew me to the book to start with.

Organization was average: There weren’t any indexes or dictionaries in the book. It would have been nice to have a listing of the pantheon of the gods in question.

Genre matching was average: I’m not sure what genre this book truly fits in. It spans from fantasy, to mystery, to science fiction. I would put this under Science-Fantasy. Amazon lists it as Military/Science Fiction.

Point of View was good: The points of view shifted from character to character, but the main protagonist, Theseus, is the main point of view. It was easy to follow what was happening.

Writing Style was good: The author’s writing style shifted from stilted conversation to informal description. In spite of that, I was able to follow along without any problems.

Wrap Up was good: This author closed all the threads. The book does beg for a sequel.

Thanks for reading this! I hope this article gives you the incentive to write those reviews. And remember, there is no perfect way to write a review. Use all of my suggestions, or just keep some of them. Either way, Write On!

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