3 Types of Nonfiction That Can Improve Your Novel

Bharat Krishnan, Author

We’ve all had to do it at some point in our academic and professional careers: the Dreaded Personal Statement™. Why do you want to join this university? Why do you think this job is right for you? And going beyond personal statements, some of you might have even written an online dating profile. I know I did, and it led me to my wife. Finally, every day we write emails to colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers.

What if I were to tell you that by mastering the art of the personal statement, the art of the online dating profile, and the art of email, you could become a first-rate author? You’ve probably had plenty of practice doing these things anyway, so why not tell yourself that spending time doing this stuff counts towards your daily word goal so that you don’t feel so guilty spending time on Tinder or Gmail?

Here’s how it’s worked for me, and how it could work for you, too.

Personal Statements 

Writing about yourself is hard, and many authors want to compartmentalize their writing as just one aspect of their multi-faceted lives. But the thing about writing is that it begs to burst from your soul. You write (or at least I do) because you just cannot keep the words inside of you for a moment longer or you’ll explode. Writing is intensely personal, then, and there’s no need to be embarrassed about that. The first short story I had published was about my alcoholism. Anybody can sit at a computer and type on a word document, so what makes your writing stand out is that it is YOU writing it. You are telling a story that only YOU can tell, and you owe your readers the answer as to why that is. Why can only YOU share this tale about two brothers searching for revenge in a desert? Why can only YOU pen this tale about a girl who just wants to go home?

The thing about writing is that it begs to burst from your soul. You write because you just cannot keep the words inside of you for a moment longer... Click To Tweet

My first book was essentially a 150-page personal statement. In 2016, I wrote an autobiography based on 10 years of working as a professional political campaign manager; being able to tell my personal story in that medium turned out to be a massive help over the next several years of my life. In 2017, I had to write a personal statement to get into an MBA program and, thanks to months spent refining my “less is more” style of weaving a personal narrative in a few words that still manages to captivate, I got a full scholarship to my top choice. It turns out that when you learn how to write about yourself in an interesting way, writing about other things in ways that captivate the soul becomes much easier.

Online Dating Profiles

Growing up in that awkward period — when the internet wasn’t quite yet a thing in grade school but everyone had an AIM screen name by 6th grade — I became well-acquainted with just about every dating app available by the time I hit my 20s. OkCupid, Tinder, Hinge, and – what finally worked for me – Coffee Meets Bagel. Just as in writing a personal statement, when writing a dating profile you’ve got to explain things succinctly.

Unlike personal statements, though, online dating profiles require HUMOR. Just think about that – why do you swipe right on someone’s profile? How much can you really learn about someone given a few words and a couple of pictures? Enough to make you feel safe and happy enough to want to spend an evening with them? Perhaps our inhibitions drop and we’re convinced of a person’s authenticity when we know they can crack a joke: humor is a cheat code. 

What I mean is that when you can make someone laugh, they start to think less logically and more emotionally. All your favorite stories – from Harry Potter to Star Wars to the Avengers – have inconsistencies in them. Why don’t Deatheaters weaponize polyjuice potion? How can Leia remember her birth mother in Return of the Jedi? Why doesn’t Thanos just double the universe’s resources? We don’t mind these inconsistencies because, by the time they’re introduced, we’re thinking emotionally. And one surefire way to make sure people react emotionally about your writing is to make them laugh.

Perhaps our inhibitions drop and we’re convinced of a person’s authenticity when we know they can crack a joke: humor is a cheat code. Click To Tweet

There’s Always E-mail 

I never knew there was an actual term for what I often do: “ping-ponging.” I frequently will respond to a just-sent email with a few words, and then follow up with a few more words, and then follow up with a few more words. You’ve now received 3 emails from me in the span of five minutes, and it’s all because I couldn’t just chill and read your entire email in one go. 

You’ve now received 3 emails from me in the span of five minutes, and it’s all because I couldn’t just chill and read your entire email in one go. Click To Tweet

When writing anything, you want to gather all your thoughts in one go and then succinctly do the thing. This way, you can make sure your writing is compelling and to the point. You need to write something that fully addresses all the questions your reader might have, but isn’t needlessly long. As authors, we might have less than 500 words to convince a reader to buy our book instead of just reading the free preview on Amazon. 

Improving your email etiquette could make you a better author by ensuring that each word in your novel is justified.

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Bharat Krishnan is currently working on his third book in four years, and during that time he decided he wasn’t quite busy enough so he also got married and graduated with honors from LSU’s Flores MBA program. He lives in Columbus, Ohio as a philanthropic consultant, and loves to cook when he’s not writing or working out.

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Launching The Earl in Black Armor

A launch party on St. Patrick’s Day 2019 was perfect timing to formally release my latest Irish historical novel, The Earl in Black Armor. But just as the earl could not have put on his heavy armor without many helping hands, I could not have published this book so successfully without similar and most generous help.

I could not have published this book so successfully without similar and most generous help. Click To Tweet 

Launching The Earl in Black ArmorWhen I first started writing this book I expected it to be easy and quick, because I’d already studied much about the period and I was only covering a time span of seven years. But it turned out to be the most difficult and complex book I’ve written to date – and also the most rewarding accomplishment.

Even though I’m a former journalist and experienced writer, I knew this book needed many eyes on it to make sure it was right. After revising my manuscript numerous times, I used several beta readers, plus two editors, and two proofreaders who found the errors I could not see, and who pointed out the places where I needed more clarity. 

I was able to test drive parts of our Amelia Indie Authors network. I had help finding exactly the right people to assist me at each stage: they supported and encouraged me when I felt frustrated and celebrated with me when the final product was in hand.

But that is just the beginning. My Amelia Indie Authors co-founder,  author Andrea Patten “had an idea.” (If you get to know her, you’ll get used to hearing those words.)

A capacity for building connections led to a remarkable opportunity for me: to lead a literary tour in Ireland in 2020 Click To Tweet

Andrea’s vision and her natural capacity for building connections led to a remarkable opportunity for me: to lead a literary tour in Ireland in 2020 — exploring the sites traveled in my books and bring those scenes to life in real experiences for readers. What other authors have had such a tour? How about Maeve Binchy, and Frank McCourt? It is a tremendous honor to be able to join such renowned company. 

The Earl in Black Armor is a story of conflicts: loyalty and betrayal, love and hate, courage and fear, honor and disgrace. Click To Tweet

The Earl in Black Armor is a story of conflicts: loyalty and betrayal, love and hate, courage and fear, honor and disgrace. Because of the work I put into it, and the help I have received, I have no conflicts at all about promoting this book with confidence. I know it can compete successfully — not only with other indie books in its genre but also with those traditionally published.

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Two Ways to Avoid Sharing That Most Annoying Quality

I love indie authors and right now I’m annoyed. Aggravated. Disappointed and sad. I’m not sure what is worse — the feeling that I’ve wasted time and money on poor quality books or my current reluctance to pick up another book written by an indie author.Two Ways to Avoid Sharing That Most Annoying Quality

When Nancy, D-M and I decided to start Amelia Indie Authors, we had two goals in mind: to protect indies from over-priced industry predators and to help raise the quality of what indie authors are publishing. The reading I’ve done over the past few weeks was disheartening. And, with any luck, motivating. Hopefully, it will make me even more passionate about the success of other indie authors.

Like many other authors and publishers, we attend book festivals. We often trade titles with others in attendance. We no longer look at the festivals as a place to sell books, but, rather, an opportunity to connect with readers and other authors –and, of course, spend too much money on an armload of intriguing titles.

Hopefully, it will make me even more passionate about the success of other indie authors. Click To Tweet

In the last ten days, I’ve read several of the books from two festivals just past. Two fiction, three non-fiction. Two for the little people in my life and three for the grown-ups. It was a nice cross-section but the quality made me very unhappy. Instead of writer’s block, these five works may have given me reader’s block.

I am not a snob. I make my share of mistakes. Besides, I love indie authors and, quite obviously, am invested in their success. But this is the sort of thing that makes the rest of the indie author community look bad. I could not finish the novel written entirely in the passive voice but got all the way through the two skinny non-fiction efforts that were half story and half filler. The major first-page typo in one of the next selections was almost enough to make me put it down. I’m glad I didn’t: while it’s got some spots that could benefit from an experienced editor, it’s a hella good story. And the last juvenile fiction is of a quality that could compete on any best seller list.Two Ways to Avoid Sharing That Most Annoying Quality

So, then, why so grumpy?

Because they were all good ideas. Some were great ideas. Their authors put in their own measure of blood, sweat, and tears to bring them into being. Unfortunately, some of these titles are likely not going to do anything but sit in a box in the author’s closet — until he or she gets tired of the business and gives them all away.

That doesn’t need to be. But how does a writer get the kind of feedback they need to write in a way that gives excellent voice to their wonderful ideas? And what’s their responsibility to do so? Part of it is to keep the implied promise to readers: that the book they hold in their hands represents the writer’s best work.

Writing a book -- any book -- takes guts. Click To Tweet

Writing a book — any book — takes guts. Authors face rejection each and every time they ask someone to give it a read. Eventually, their names are emblazoned on the front cover and if the release is poor quality, readers may never give them another chance.

  • The first line of defense can be as simple as a grammar program — not just the spell check that comes with most basic writing software by something a bit more sophisticated like Grammarly or ProWritingAid.
  • Second? How about using some beta readers who are not family and friends? People who don’t normally read your genre or are unfamiliar with your topic? They’re going to tell you where they’re lost and confused and these are signs that more work needed. After all, you want anyone who picks up your book to be able to understand it, right?

'you got this' chalked onto roadAn author willing to accept some hard feedback from strangers and take the time to work through multiple drafts can produce something anyone can be proud of — something of such high quality that could compete on a best seller list.

black and white image of neon sign says "do what you love"

How a Tribe Can Make You a Better Writer

 

By Darryl Bollinger

I recently celebrated a birthday and received a wonderful card from dear friends. On the cover, with pictures of Dorothy and her three traveling companions in The Wizard of Oz, was the inscription It’s not WHERE you go . . . It’s WHO you meet along the way. How appropriate. All of us have the innate desire for tribal affiliation. While an anthropologist could do a far better job of explaining that longing, my simple perspective is from a writer’s view.

All of us have the innate desire for tribal affiliation. While an anthropologist could do a far better job of explaining that longing, my simple perspective is from a writer’s view. Click To Tweet

It is also a subject foremost in my mind these days, having relocated from Florida to North Carolina in the past year.

black and white image of neon sign says "do what you love"What a joy to spend a week surrounded by my writing tribe in beautiful Fernandina Beach, Florida for the Amelia Island Book Festival, a “family” reunion. We stayed with close friends who live there, one of whom is writer Dr. J Author. We reunited with long-time “relatives” including Andrea Patten, Nancy Blanton, Samuel Staley, my editor, Heather Whitaker, and discovered new ones, such as Amelia Indie Authors. The subject of a writing family led to this post. How does a writing tribe make one a better writer?

It is both comforting and selfish. It is relaxing to be in the company of people who love and accept you without reservation. A place where you can be yourself and lower the guardrails. Where it is okay to make a mistake, where you don’t have to constantly be on guard parsing your responses and comments. While writing may be the one common link, I am amazed at the diversity within the circle. There may be other common elements we sometimes share, but there are also areas within which we can respectfully disagree.

It is both comforting and selfish. It is relaxing to be in the company of people who love and accept you without reservation. A place where you can be yourself and lower the guardrails Click To Tweet

Selfishly, it is an opportunity to gather something of great value. I always leave feeling that I am leaving with more than I came with. My mind is racing to the point of insomnia, flooding my brain with thoughts and ideas triggered by lively conversation, helpful suggestions, and insightful commentary.

It is an opportunity to share and to give back to my tribal community. To help others benefit from my mistakes. A testing ground and sounding board for thoughts and dreams. To laugh together and share unique life experiences and the benefit of acquired knowledge and wisdom. Prompts, motivation, and challenges abound.

It is an opportunity to learn. The stimulation and mind-expanding are tangible. The writers in the family bring their significant others into the tent, with even more experiences to add to the stew. I never cease to walk away from these gatherings invigorated and challenged beyond my wildest expectations.

What do you look for? In the words of my motorcycle riding friends, If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand. As I search for my tribe in my new residence, I am asked, “What are you looking for?” and I don’t know how to answer. It’s like asking what you look for in a friend. Certainly, fundamental traits such as honesty and loyalty are important, but it goes far beyond that. I think of close friends, several of whom were there and how on our initial meeting, we instantly bonded. Why? I can’t explain. If I could, I’d write a book on that subject and probably be set for life. All I can offer is to try on different groups and you’ll know when you find it.

I hear people say that writing is a solitary endeavor. While it may be true that the actual task of sitting down at a keyboard and putting words on paper is solitary, writing is very much a collaborative effort. Family is important. Find your tribe. It is a gratifying experience for the soul. 

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Find Darryl on his website, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Goodreads!

It’s Pretty Much Always Love – interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon

This month the Amelia Island Book Festival welcomes Diana Gabaldon as one of the headlining, bestselling authors. She is already well known to many in our community. But for the rest of you, she’s the Arizona-based author of the Outlander Series—compelling historical fiction set initially in Scotland, featuring mystery, adventure, love and war, and even time travel between the 18th and 20th centuries.

More than 20 million copies of her books have sold worldwide, and the books—eight, so far—also have been adapted to an addicting television series on Starz. But that’s not all.

Dr. Gabaldon (pronounced GAA-bull-dohn—to rhyme with stone) holds three degrees in science: zoology, marine biology, and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology. She also has an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters. She worked as a university professor before turning to fiction writing. She and her husband have three adult children: two daughters and a son.

Now working on the ninth novel in the Outlander series, “Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone,” Diana graciously agreed to an email interview prior to her arrival in Nassau County. After the hundreds of interviews she’s done in the past year or so, many of which can easily be accessed online, I offered questions I thought would be of particular interest locally. 

NB: Amelia Indie Authors is thrilled to welcome you for the annual Amelia Island Book Festival. It is a wonderful event surpassed, just only slightly, by our Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. I’m sure readers are dying to know: how do you like your shrimp?

DG: Tempura fried. Or cocktail style, with horseradish-laced cocktail sauce.

NB: I noticed in your “Want to watch me write?” post on your website, you are accompanied by what appears to be a stalwart black dog. And there are two canines in your Thanksgiving 2017 photo. We are mostly dog lovers here. What is your daily writing routine, and what role do your dogs play in it?

DG: Unfortunately, one of my dogs died on New Year’s Day (complications resulting from a freak accident), so I have one standard dachshund right now, named Homer. The dog(s) mostly just sleep at my feet while I work (I work mostly in the middle of the night). 

NB: Can you describe your writing routine for us?

DG: Well, it depends a bit on where I am in the book (it normally takes me two to three years to write one of the enormous historical novels). In the beginning, I don’t know much about the story, nor the specific background, so am doing a lot of research and thinking, writing relatively little—but writing every day; if you stop, the inertia builds up and it’s hard to get going again.

As I move further into the story and begin to know more, I write more. “Walking pace” through the main part of a novel is roughly two single-spaced pages (about a thousand words) a day; some days I make more, but if I get that much, I’m satisfied.

And then, as I get near the end, and know almost everything, I’m not having to do much research, but am writing madly; the story develops “critical mass,” sucks me in, (and people are calling up from New York, yelling about where is this story), and we enter what I call Final Frenzy. In this stage, I’m writing for as long as I can sit at the computer, maybe twelve to fifteen hours a day, and barely eating or sleeping.  Luckily, this stage never lasts more than two or three months, or I’d die.

During the long middle portion of a book, though, my daily routine is more or less this:

Get up around 9 AM, exercise, take the dog for a walk, then go upstairs, answer email and do my daily list, to get a foothold on the day. Lunch with my husband, then an hour or so of actual work after lunch, followed by whatever business or errands need to be done, then gardening, dinner-shopping, dinner-making, dinner-eating…then a spell of family time; watching Perry Mason reruns, reading while husband watches football, whatever. My husband likes to go to bed early, so I tuck him in around 9 or 10 PM and go lie down on the couch with a book and the dog. If no one needs me (and now that the kids are all adults, the chances that someone will are substantially decreased, but it still happens now and then), I’ll fall asleep after a bit, and nap until about midnight.  Then I wake up, stagger back upstairs with a Diet Coke and work until around 4:30 AM—that’s my prime writing time.

That said, I don’t think there is such a thing as a normal day in this profession.  Every day the email brings me astonishing things—this morning I was invited to come to Ottawa in November and give a speech at the Canadian War Museum, to be a featured guest on a cruise, and to appear at three different conventions. This is in addition to all the email about books, contracts, and Extremely Odd business suggestions (like a line of scarves adorned with quotes from my books, to be made in India).

NB: From studying pinyon jays to writing comic books, and then to marine biology and scientific computation, you made the leap to your true calling. Do these past work experiences inform your writing, or do you ever find modern-day technical information invading your prose?

DG: Well….no. Why would it? So far as I know, everybody has an assortment of language styles that they use for different things; if your mother calls you on the phone, do you talk to her as though you were one of your ancient Irish characters? <grin>

As to experience—everything a writer sees, hears, thinks, does, is, and has been, informs your writing to some degree, but it’s seldom directly autobiographical.

NB: It takes a lot of courage to write and publish fiction—not to mention the amount of work—because the writing is much more personal. From the start of your fiction-writing career, what has required the greatest amount of courage? How about in your life?

DG: Just starting. Anything. Once you start, the most difficult thing is not giving up. But that’s basically how you do anything: start, and don’t stop.

NB: In a recent interview, you said some scene writing could be “like chiseling rocks out of a hill and then pushing them uphill with your nose.” I love this and have experienced the pain. What would you say is at the heart of this struggle? And, are there any remedies that help you through it?

DG: It’s just hard work. Parts of everything you do are hard. You just do it anyway. What does help is the knowledge that you’ve done this before. Hard as it may be now, you can probably do it again.

NB: The central characters of Outlander (Claire Beauchamp, an English WWII nurse, and James Frazer, a Scottish laird) and the conflicts around them are so intriguing they have hooked millions of readers. In a recent podcast, you were asked whether you’d been surprised by a character or had said ‘no’ to a character. With other authors in mind, would you talk a little about how such surprises can enrich a story? And perhaps about the role your surprise character Mr. Willoughby played to enrich Voyager?

DG: I have no idea which characters might have been surprises to any other authors, so can’t really answer that one. Don’t know why a character that was a surprise to the author should do anything different to a story than one who wasn’t, though.<grin> 

As for Mr. Willoughby…he’s an outsider (a real outsider) in the culture he accidentally found himself in. The parallels to Claire, an outsider by token of her time-traveling, are pretty obvious, though, in this instance, she chose to come to a strange place. An outsider, though, always provides one or two specific things: an empathetic connection with the reader (who is also an outsider to the story), and thus a way of providing information about the strange circumstances in which they find themselves, and/or commentary on social situations/conditions (often it can be subtle (or not-so-subtle) commentary on contemporary conditions, as well as on the historical/fantastic conditions of the story).

NB: Your pirate villain Stephen Bonnet in Drums of Autumn rings some bells on Amelia Island, where local lore claims, “the island was so full of pirates that at one point, most of the 300 or so vessels anchored in the harbor were pirate galleons.” What might you suggest to an aspiring author who wants to weave one or two of these plunderers into a novel? After the initial trip to the library or local museum for general pirate information, how would you proceed?

DG: Well, look. There really isn’t a formula for doing this. You’d just let the information you’ve picked up inform what you write (i.e., you’d know what his ship might look like, how he (or she) might dress, how pirates of your specific time period conducted their affairs, etc.), choose a name for your pirate and turn him loose (unless you’re the sort of writer who plans things out ahead of time—perfectly OK, mind you; it’s just not how I work).

NB: Writers naturally improve and change over time and with each project. Since your first book in the Outlander Series, how has your writing evolved, and what has affected you most? Has constructive editing been important? Or has your growth as a writer been mostly internal? 

DG: Nothing affects writing as much as the act of doing it, believe me. <grin> I’ve never had an editor tell me anything about the actual writing; such revisions as we do are almost entirely to do with the structure of the story (e.g., an editor feeling that someone’s motives weren’t entirely clear, or that such-and-such a situation might be misinterpreted by the less sophisticated sort of reader <cough>, or pointing out places (there are always a couple of them, owing to my individual way of fitting pieces together) where I’ve repeated a scene in two different locations, and asking where I actually want it—that sort of thing).

If you keep on writing, you grow older and you have more life experiences, and your critical mass of information increases and your perceptions deepen. Your writing will naturally reflect your personal growth, in terms of what you see and what’s important in your work.

NB: You were beloved and famous as an author long before the Starz Outlander Series. How has the increased hype over the past few years affected you? 

DG: Well, now it takes me four years to write a book…

There’s just more of it—more fan involvement, more PR, more travel, more social media.  I do have a physical involvement with the show itself, though (as opposed to hype): I’m a consultant to the show, which means, essentially, that they show me everything they do—script outlines, scripts, revisions, daily “roughs” while filming, and the edited episodes as they come together. I comment on whatever I usefully can, and while they don’t invariably do what I suggest <grin>, they generally do at least listen to me.

During the nine months (or so) while the show is filming, that means the show is getting one to two hours of my time, four or five days a week.  And this is not counting the increased fan attention with concomitant growth on social media (but see below) or the absolute deluge of invitations (even turning them down politely takes work), or the intrusion of constant travel arrangements.

Anyway…social media. Social media kind of grew up around me; I stumbled into the Compuserve Literary Forum (and the wonderful world of “online”) back in 1985. As other innovations—like AOL <grin>—came along, I’d try them out, but I didn’t keep connections with anything that wasn’t immediately useful. Twitter and Facebook are useful, so I keep those accounts primed. I don’t do Instagram—there’s no real benefit to me in putting up photos (I do that on FB and Twitter when I have something worthwhile) and the need to do it every day would just be a burden. Instagram comments tend to be worthless, in terms of interest to other users, and lend themselves to stupidity and trolls, so why bother?

When the news of Sam Heughan’s casting as Jamie Fraser came out, all the Outlander-focused social media naturally exploded. In the midst of this, he emailed me and said, “Your fans are crazy. How do you deal with this?” So I told him—

Take ten minutes, once or twice a day, no more. During that time, read your Twitter-feed, as many messages as you can manage in that time. If someone says it’s their birthday, stop and tell them happy birthday; if someone says their dog died, stop and say you’re sorry. If someone says something witty to you AND you can instantly think of something witty in reply, say it. If someone says something negative to you, don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Social media is a Good Thing/Tool for a writer, but it’s a bad master. You keep it under strict control, or it’ll eat you alive.

NB: Do you have a mission, a core driver that transcends all the work that you do—often described as ‘the one thing’ that gets you out of bed every morning? What is it and how does it sustain you?

DG: Nothing gets me out of bed in the morning (it’s NOT my time) except a vague sense that if I do go on sleeping, I’ll later regret it because there won’t be enough time to do what-all I want to.

I generally take the dog(s) out, and blearily scan Twitter while waiting for them, then come in, turn on the TV (news, if there’s anything other than The Tedious Usual happening, Outlander re-runs if not) and do my exercise (if I’ve got up early enough to have time for it before the first Thing of the day happens). That’s a mix of yoga, pilates and light weights, routines done according to whim, need and time available.

With luck, I’m actually conscious by the time I finish this and get dressed, and the momentum will usually get me through ‘til lunch (dog-walking, appointments, email, whatever…).

But overall, barring things like having to take children to school or the house being on fire, it’s pretty much always love.

Research, Intrigue and the Internet

I write spy thrillers. I invent devious characters and spin tales about terrible events and I have free reign because my books are, after all, fiction. But I also inject real places and actual events into the body of the story to add a sense of realism. And because readers expect accuracy with regard to anything that is real-life, I do my best to meet their expectations. I have traveled extensively and have visited most of the locations that I use in my novels, but those trips don’t always coincide exactly with the time frame of the story. The challenge, then, is to fill in the gaps between what was and what is. Research becomes the order of the day.

LM Reynolds writes spy thrillers, inventing devious characters and spinning tales about terrible events. Click To Tweet

My latest novel has a backstory that takes place in the early to mid-nineties—in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990. A total of six (or seven, depending on who is counting) other countries surfaced out of the chaos, along ethnic and religious lines that exposed long-simmering hostilities.

I visited Sarajevo when the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984—when it was still in Yugoslavia. Shortly thereafter, I coached a few dozen young Yugoslav men and women who had been hired by Pan Am. Eight short years later, the entire region was at war and Sarajevo had become the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The city was also subjected to the longest siege in modern history, from 1992 to 1996. No food, no water, no medicine, no electricity, no fuel, no escape. Nearly 14,000 of its residents perished—over one-third of whom were civilians.

When I was in Sarajevo, it was a lovely and welcoming place; I enjoyed it immensely. I liked the people, especially—warm and embracing and kind. A decade later, nearly every building bore evidence of the mortars and rockets and sniper fire that had rained down on the city for four years. The scarring of the inhabitants, both physical and psychological, was even more disturbing. Families were decimated and men, women, and children maimed. They lived with terror for years and many still have a well-founded fear of open spaces. I was, and am still, saddened and horrified by the events that took place there. I think I knew, even back then, that I would write about it someday.

One of my characters is a Bosnian man who, after a particularly tragic experience, decides to flee Sarajevo and make his way to his family’s home in a town about fifty miles away. But how did people escape from the surrounded city? Not easily. The city lies in a slender river valley that runs generally east-west and is hemmed in by sharply steep hills to the north and south. Hostile Serbian forces occupied nearly all of the territory around Sarajevo, save for a narrow corridor at the southwest—just beyond the airport—which led to land occupied by Bosnian forces. To escape, one had to cross not only the runway but also the open grounds around the airport—at night, through an area laced with coils of barbed wire—and risk being caught in a sniper’s scope.

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. Click To Tweet

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. I considered having him wait it out until a peace agreement was reached. My storyline, however, demanded that he leave the city in 1993, and the Dayton Accords were not signed until late 1995. Time for Plan B. I had a vague recollection of hearing about a tunnel, so I dug in (pun fully intended) to learn more about it. In early 1993, the Bosnians had dug—by hand—a half-mile tunnel to bring supplies into the city. The northern entrance was in the garage of an apartment building, in a neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. From there, the tunnel ran generally south, dropping beneath the runway, and extending to the cellar of a private home to the south of the airport, with Bosnian-held land just beyond. It was a remarkable feat, a perfect display of human resilience and ingenuity.

The owner of the house has since restored part of the original tunnel and today the family runs their own private museum. It has become one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. I needed to learn everything that I could, so, in addition to all of the technical research, I visited travel blogs and other travel-oriented sites and looked at hundreds of photos. As I explored, however, I kept running across references to the private dwelling that hid the north end of the tunnel. I was thoroughly confused. I checked and double-checked. All of the published maps clearly showed the names of the neighborhoods where the entrances were located (Dobrinja to the north, Butmir to the south), that the airport was to the southwest of the city, and that the house and its museum were south of the airport—not north. What on earth was going on? How could so many people have misstated the location? Was I just going crazy?

And then, light bulb! The museum’s collection of artifacts includes a map, designed to provide a visual explanation of how the city was surrounded, and to show the entry points and route of the tunnel. It is a pretty map, a photogenic map—a map that thousands of people have captured on their smartphones and posted and shared on the web. It is also a map with which the artist took a small liberty—by inverting it. The museum map shows the mountains and the Bosnian-held territory to the northeast, along with the airport. With the mountains at the top and the valley at the bottom, it is probably a more aesthetically pleasing composition. Or perhaps the artist was just gazing out at the snow-covered peaks while creating the picture. Regardless, thousands of people automatically associated the map’s top with North and its bottom with South. Thus, if you were using it as a real map, it would only work well if you looked at it while standing on your head.

Whew! I was relieved to know that I had not yet lost all of my marbles. Instead, I had encountered a classic example of how misinformation spreads on the web. It was not malevolent, nor intentional, but it certainly had legs! As a longtime consumer of web content, I have learned which sites to generally (note the disclaimer) trust when I am seeking factual information. But even if one employs the journalist’s technique of verification from multiple sources, one can still be led astray or led to question established fact. While the internet is a glorious place to find information, at your fingertips, in an instant, it can also be a perilous place to wade, with sharks of every description homing in as you splash in the surf.

Make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction! Click To Tweet

The moral of the story is that, if you are conducting research on the internet, be careful about accepting statements at face value. Check your facts, explore multiple reputable sources, use your common sense, and throw in a healthy dose of skepticism. And for all of you digital-map explorers out there, beware! Before setting off on a journey to an unfamiliar place, providing directions to lost travelers, or planning a military invasion, make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction!

~~ LM Reynolds

 

Voice Affects Content; Content Isn’t Voice

Sometimes well-loved sections must be cut from your manuscript because they do not serve the story. Many of us have heard that we must “kill your darlings” to improve, advice that has been attributed to Faulkner, but apparently goes back even further than that.

You may have written a wonderful bit of prose that captures a feeling or belief that is close to your heart and soul. You may have a deep feeling about an aspect of lifestyle, let’s use running as an example. You’re a runner, so you make one of your characters a runner. And, you write an entire section about your philosophy for running. This is content. Because running is important to you, you feel it is part of your voice. But in storytelling, that is not necessarily so.

Go from Point A to Point B

Pulitzer Prize Winner David Mamet, in his master class for writers, says your job as a storyteller is to get Jack or Jill, your protagonist, from Point A in your story, to Point B, the transformation of the character at the end of the book. The story is paramount, and every aspect of your telling must have to do with that direct trajectory the protagonist must travel. If there are brief side trips from that trajectory, they must have a specific and meaningful purpose.

The classic 1976 movie Marathon Man is a great example in which running, a seemingly insignificant aspect of a character, later becomes integral to the story.

So, if Jack or Jill’s philosophy about running does not have a direct impact on the story, does not inform that trajectory in an important way, it must go. Write it for your own satisfaction, but be prepared to cut it from the story. Doing so tightens the story; it does NOT change your voice.

Your voice as a writer comes from the way you tell a story. In your choice of words, in your phrasing, in the “tint” that you bring to your language. It is unique and natural to you. It is in your character development, your description, and your dialog. It seeps into your prose through the life experiences that have molded you, and the emotions you feel while writing a story. 

Just as how the same piece of music sounds quite different if played on a violin versus a flute (or sung by a choir or a rapper), a story that involves that same plot, characters, world, etc., can still change a lot depending on the voice used to tell it.~ Kat Zhang

Where is my Voice?

What, then, is the best way to develop your own unique writing voice? The truth is, it won’t come overnight. You can study other authors you like and practice using some of their techniques. You may hear the voices of friends or co-workers and incorporate them somehow, or let them inform your characters. Your mind is already at work, filing these details away until you’re ready to use them.

Stories come from the subconscious. What drives you to write, to some extent, are your own unresolved inner conflicts. Have you noticed your favorite authors have character types that recur? Plot turns that feel familiar? Descriptive details that you would swear you have read before (a yellow bowl, a slant of light, an inch of cigarette ash)? That is the subconscious at work.~ Cris Freese

Your writer’s voice is truly an inside job. You already have it, you just have to reveal it. All of those experiences go into the melting pot of your psyche. The more you write, the more you relax into the process of it. When you relax, clear away the clutter of daily life, and open your mind to your own creativity, your unique voice will find its way from your mind and your heart through your fingers, onto the keyboard — and into your content! 

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Patience, Tender Writer

As a journalism student in college, I learned several lessons about patience, deadlines, and editors. First of all, editors have no patience with late or sloppy writers. And deadlines are everything.

Often within the span of hours, a newspaper reporter has to come up with a story idea, pitch it to the news desk, research it, conduct interviews, write and deliver a compelling story, allowing enough time for the editor to do his/her thing. In this case, there is no time at all for them to mollycoddle. They might read the first sentence and toss it back at you. “This sucks. Rewrite it.”

Or, things like “It’s wordy.” “You buried the lead.” “Move paragraph three to the top and start over.” Or just, “Nope.” And don’t even think about a clever ending, because it very likely will get cut to make space for a last-minute ad placement.

Growing a Thicker Skin

Such treatment definitely helps tender writers grow thicker skins. But for those whose path to writing has bypassed this rewarding experience, the first time their precious work is edited can be a painful experience. And here’s where patience comes in.

If the editor returns your work quickly, you can suffer the quick rip of the bandage and get back to work much more easily than if they sit on it for weeks and months. Take their suggestions seriously. We all need an objective viewpoint, and what we think does not always come across clearly in what we write. One day you will love your editor.

We all need an objective viewpoint. Click To Tweet

If they take a few weeks or longer to return your work, you can feel stuck in the mud, no place to turn. You’ll manufacture scenarios. They must hate it. They can’t bear to read it. They never made it past the first page and threw it down. Why else would it take so long? Or, maybe they love it, they can’t think of anything constructive to say? What if it’s so good, they are already showing it to an agent, or a movie producer? What if someone gets hold of it and is sending you a contract right now?

Oh, the creative mind does wander. Click To Tweet

Oh, the creative mind does wander.

An editor may do all sorts of things, like add your work to the bottom an already impossible pile. Read it in small bits between trips to the grocery store and childcare. Read it once, set it aside for a week or so, and then read it again to see if their impressions have changed. Fill in the blank with any number of scenarios. Editors are humans after all and have their own priorities.

Feedback is necessary. Suffering is optional. Click To Tweet

But whether well-seasoned or new, a writer is not required to suffer.

Some tips to help the impatient

Patience, for me, is almost an offensive swear word, but I know it’s my challenge to conquer. Here’s what has worked for me so far.

Expect the best, but prepare for the worst

If you’re new to writing and haven’t been edited before, your best course of action is the same as preparing for a hurricane. You’ve done your best; now let it go. Feedback will come quickly or slowly according to wind speed, but come it will. When it does, stand up and take it. Repair after.

Distract yourself

I always have several other projects that need my attention. Right now there are eleven items on my desk, not including this post and the stacks of family photos I’m supposed to scan. Immersion in any one of them will take my mind off the waiting, and hopefully reduce the number of projects staring back at me. I get frustrated and sometimes overwhelmed, but I am never bored.

Get physical

My absolute favorite is to go outside and weed the flowerbeds. I mean weed them, rip those suckers out with brute force. It’s a form of editing and can be immensely satisfying. Plus, you can see your accomplishment before you; what you managed to uncover is more beautiful than when you started. Immediate gratification. Um, you could also just go for a swim.

Pleasure and relaxation

My go-to for this is chocolate and a walk on the beach, maybe some shopping, and if I am really brain-frazzled, just an old movie and a blanket. I don’t recommend alcohol; it’s depressing and highly detrimental to brain cells, especially the creative ones. Ice cream or a magnificent espresso concoction will do the trick much better. As will a massage.

When the feedback arrives — whether you like it or not — put on your big kid pants and deal. Be grateful someone took the time to read your work and pay careful attention to it. You worked very hard on it. You want it to shine. Editors do too.

5 Ways to Love Your Editor

When members of writers’ groups become friends, a wide variety of unintended consequences can arise. Catching-up on life can overtake story reading and feedback can become diluted. The line between encouragement and useful feedback can disappear. It’s easy to sit around and laugh and say “kill your darlings….” easy, that is, until the executioner editor comes along and kills them for you.

If you’ve never experienced a good, hard edit it can be a jolt.  It can leave even the most competent of writers with a lump in the throat and feeling a tad sick to the stomach. This is true, too, if the most recent feedback you’ve received is on stuff you published 108 years ago.

There's a gulf between what the writer writes and what gets read. A good, hard edit can be a real jolt. Click To Tweet

Well-meaning family members can also contribute to your big letdown. They tend to offer the sought-after but completely useless phrases “I like it” or “It’s good.”

What the Writer Writes vs. What Gets Read

There’s a gulf between what the writer writes and what gets read. The developmental editor is tasked, in part, with bridging that gap. Not only is she your first line of defense against total embarrassment, but she is also tasked with reading your submission in multiple ways. First and foremost, she will read it as a prospective reader. Are there things that stayed in the writer’s head? That never made it to the page? The brain’s tendency to self-correct won’t allow you to see those for yourself.

Well-meaning family members can contribute to a big letdown about your #WIP They offer the sought-after but completely useless phrases *I like it* or *It’s good.* Click To Tweet

She will make a pass-through for redundancy and obvious factual errors. She will determine whether or not the order is correct. And she will likely save you from embarrassing beginner mistakes such as a “forward,” prologue and epilogues. Just start — or end — the damned story already. And, once upon a time “foreword” was the most frequently misspelled words in finished volumes. (It’s not ‘forward’ as in ‘forward movement’ but ‘foreword’ as in ‘the word that comes before.’)

A Different Set of Questions

Some editors also employ proof-reading software and beta-readers at this stage. These are not tools to be used in place of his judgment, but simply to offer some back-up and raise a different set of questions.

Different editors work in different ways. Some will redline the heck out of something you think is perfect and bounce it back to you. However, if you’re working on a tight deadline or there are many authors involved, the editor may take on a role resembling that of a ghostwriter. In this capacity, she will try to capture your voice and intent… to make sure the page reflects what you meant to say.

Having worked both ways, I can assure you that neither one feels good — and, when I’m open to the process — both teach me a lot about becoming a better writer.

Some Do’s and Don’ts

Here are some things to keep in mind when working with an editor at this stage:

  1. DO check your ego at the door. The reason any of us has any sort of editor is that we cannot view our work objectively. This is not a criticism — it’s just how the human brain actually works. The writer sees what he or she meant to put on the page — editors see what actually made it.
  2. DO keep your eyes on the prize. The editor’s goal is the same as yours: to create the highest quality, most reader-friendly document possible. Nobody is criticizing you or trying to hurt your feelings.
  3. DO remember what your spouse may have said: sometimes your jokes just aren’t funny.
  4. DO take a step back. It’s easy to do contradict your own style, to split an infinite, to misplace a modifier, to miss a cut and paste error, to trust spellcheck when you shouldn’t, to inadvertently change voices or points of view….
  5. DON’T argue. Editing is just as hard as writing. Editors don’t need to get beat up by your intention or inspiration. They’re not unfriendly, they just don’t care — it’s not their job to care about those things. If they added or deleted something to your piece, it’s simply because it wasn’t working the other way.

Remember, nobody wants to hurt your feelings — and somebody needs to kill your darlings. If you don’t, your editor will. Print lasts a long time.

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Got some praise for an editor? Please share it in the comments. We’d love to read all about it!

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You’re the Voice

You know the feeling. You’re reading back through the start of a new project, admiring the first 10 pages of what might be your next novel. Yet, you recognize that something isn’t quite right. You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s there – daunting and taunting you. So, you read through your words again, determined to find the culprit. Often, the obvious is overlooked. The problem plaguing you could be this: you’ve written your story in the wrong narrative. Instead of telling your tale in first person, you’ve opted for third person, or vice versa. The struggle is real, as they say.

While there’s no golden rule that a specific genre should be written in a specific narrative, this choice is often determined by novels that have come before yours. Take a peek at the first paragraph of the top-selling novels in your genre. What narrative are they being told in? The same as yours? Maybe you’ve decided to break the rules and change things up by heading down a third person path when first person is the genre go-to. This is a risk worth taking, but only if its true to your story.

The question of which narrative to use can be answered by determining the most important elements in your work:

  • Whose story is this?
  • Who is your narrator?
  • Whose perspective does this story need to be told from?

This choice is ultimately yours, my fellow writer. Yet, it can be one of the most difficult to make. I recently suffered from this very issue while working on a new short story of mine. I was three paragraphs away from finishing the first draft when I came to terms with the fact that the manuscript was fighting back. It took a few read-throughs over a few days to identify the problem: this was not a story that needed to be told in first person —  it needed to be told in third. So, I rewrote the story with a third person narrator, and it worked.

I encourage you to to do the same, especially if the story and the voice aren’t working. Make the change. See what happens. You’re the voice.