The Business of Writing
I don’t believe in writer’s block, even though I’ve been stalled out on book three in the Niuhi Shark Saga for several months now. It’s not that I can’t write—I’ve continued to write and even publish other works—it’s that I haven’t wanted to work on the series.
It’s not block, it’s apathy.
Part of the apathy comes from the publisher wanting to wrap it up as a trilogy instead of a five book series—oh, but Lehua, we’d like you to keep the third book’s ending open enough that if sales warrant it, there’s the option to write books four and five. In the meantime, we’d like to see something else. I could go on ad nauseam about the challenges of working with an understaffed, underfunded new publishing house, but if you’re a writer, you’ve heard it all before.
So five into three. Really three into one, since the first two are already published. No matter how you do the math, it doesn’t fit.
I thought about simply writing book three the way I originally envisioned it and then self-publishing four and five—heck, I’d give them away to anyone who asked.
But a series with three nice books sitting on a shelf and two only available on the nearest eReader didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what would. Some days I even convinced myself that I didn’t care, the same way people convince themselves that a large Diet Coke cancels out the buttered popcorn and peanut M&Ms they consume at a movie.
For the past year, every time I sit down to write I have to do it around the three-ton shark sitting on my keyboard. Go back to starring in Shark Week shows, I’d think. Aren’t there some white-bellied tourists from Wisconsin you can haunt? Unlike bigger budgeted publishing houses, in my experience, small presses don’t bug you much about deadlines, particularly when they’re busy trying to hook bigger fish.
It was therefore easy, sorta, to ignore Jaws Junior and the tsunami wave of story hovering over my head. Easy, that is, until book two started percolating through the kid-lit jungle net and kids started sending me email.
Aunty Lehua!!!!! I can’t believe you ended it that way!!!!!! What happens next?!!!!!!!
Middle grade readers love exclamation points.
They also send major guilt-trip vibes.
Working as a content editor with other authors made me realize my real problem wasn’t finding a way to tie up all the loose ends. It was reconciling what made sense in a third book based on the first two. In my head I had too much story. But if Zader chooses to do something else…
Suddenly, a completely new and different shape for a third book began to emerge. I bounced ideas off published authors who had read One Boy, No Water and One Shark, No Swim, but had no preconceived ideas of where the story was heading. I then went to my ace in the hole—a few middle grade readers–and asked what they’d like to see in the last book. While radically different from my original ideas, the new book three made sense.
With a clearer vision in mind, I finally feel ready to write the last book of Zader’s Niuhi shark saga. The series will end, questions will be answered, and Zader’s journey will be worth it—both for him and the reader.
Cue the theme from Jaws.
“It’s pronounced L’wah. It’s French,” proclaimed the guy sitting next to my son, Aaron. Aaron gives him side-eye. The guy and his girlfriend are studying the bios of the authors seated on the platform in front of the room. It’s the first day of a writers’ conference and I’m here to talk about how to write children who sound, act, and think like children instead of mini-adults. Seated in the middle of the table, I figure I’m in a power-spot.
“No, says the woman, spotting a dark-haired, olive-skinned author seating herself to my right. “It’s Native American. It’s Leh-huish-hah.”
Aaron tries not to snicker.
“I’m telling you it’s French. L’wah!”
“Welcome everyone. Let’s start by having each of our panelists introduce themselves.”
“Aloha! My name is Lay-who-ah Parker and I write…”
When they hear me say my name, they both shake their heads. “No,” the guy says, “she’s wrong.”
That’s my most pressing problem right now with my right foot in a cast and needing to be propped higher than my heart. The ice bag takes up what little room I have between my gut and knee and reclining half on my back and leaning on an elbow, I’m at a loss at how to balance the computer and type at the same time. Cocooned in a pillow nest, I’m tired of taping out one letter at a time on an iPad. Serious writing needs ten fingers.
It’s my fault for always writing at a desk with a chair and keyboard and two big monitors in a room where I can shut the door. Like a jock with lucky socks, I’ve trained myself to think that it’s all about the quiet room and the ability to use a mouse. Writing on the living room couch is a cramped affair filled with scraps of other people’s conversations and too loud music.
Adapt or die. Right now death is winning.
Being cooped up the past two days has built up a torrent of words and ideas that want to pour like water over a cliff, but they will have to wait until my foot no longer needs elevation and ice or I master some new yoga poses.
It’s going to be a long two months.
‘Twas the Night Before Deadline
(with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)
‘Twas the night before deadline, when all through the den
Not a writer was writing, not even with pen!
The novel was due to reviewers with care
In hopes that sales stimulus soon would be there.
The words were not flowing, no dialogue said,
While visions of better books danced in my head.
And husband asked, “When?” And I said, “Don’t know.
I’ve got pages and chapters still left to go.”
When out in the kitchen there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my laptop to see what’s the matter.
Away to the counter I flew like a flash,
Tore open the wrappers and snarfed all the stash.
The moon on the beast of the new-fallen show
The depths of the bottom we writers will go.
When what to my thundering thighs should appear,
But six empty plates of neighborly cheer.
With a Diet Coke chaser, so icy and quick,
Came the illusion of writing so lively with wit.
More rabid than weasels the words how they came,
And I laughed as I wrote them—to my endless shame.
“Now Gaiman, now Meyers, now King, and Dean Koontz,
Gabaldon, Pattersen, you guys with the loot,
My books are on shelves and great reads to boot!
It’s time to move over, c’mon y’all—scoot!”
Like bad reviews before these wild words fly,
When they meet with reality, sugar crash is nigh.
So back to my laptop my fingers they flew
Enough with this poem—I’ve real writing to do!
As the author of a series, I’m often asked by other writers about character development—specifically, how should characters change from one book to the next. I always say it all depends on whether your series is more like a fast-food burger or a chef’s table dining experience.
You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.
When you walk into a burger joint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Some series, particularly detective fiction like Robert Parker’s Spencer series, are structured like your basic grilled patty in a bun. First book to last, Spencer changes his underwear and not much else. A crime is committed. It gets solved. Some shooting, drinking, and bed-hopping happens in between. The order the books are read in doesn’t matter much more than having a bacon cheeseburger one day and a jalapeño ranch burger the next.
For burger-lovers, this consistency is a good thing. For authors making bank with a series, it’s awesome. With infinite combinations of new toppings and special sauces to season the plot, there’s no reason to mess with the character of the ground chuck. And with no over-arching storyline, the series never ends.
But no matter how juicy, few people crave burgers all day every day. Variety being the spice of life, it should be no surprise that some series are the literary equivalent of a multi-course chef’s table meal. When you sit at the chef’s table in a restaurant, you relinquish control over your dining experience to the chef who determines the pacing, ingredients, and presentation of each course. For readers, it’s about savoring each dish on the way to dessert.
Think of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. In each book the wizardlings had adventures and obstacles, but there was a more important over-arching tale involving Voldermort and Harry that advanced until it was resolved at the end of the last book. Now imagine knowing from the beginning Dumbledor’s end game and Snape’s true character—you’d be eating dessert first and spoiling your appetite for all the delicious tension built in the previous six books.
Just as a chef considers the textures, flavors, and juxtapositions of each dish in his set menu, the author of a cohesive serial story forces characters to change and grow from book to book, ultimately piquing the reader’s hunger for the next course. In a burger book, character development is secondary to the plot. A juicy char-broiled book series is all about enjoying similar experiences with beloved characters over and over again.
Here’s another example.
The Niuhi Shark Saga is a multi-course luau complete with roasted pig, hula dancers, and cake. It’s one loooooong story broken into bite-sized MG/YA books.
Through the series Zader, the protagonist, changes from the odd kid who always has to be rescued to the kid who questions everything to the young man who determines for himself how he will live his life. In each book I have to consider where Zader is in terms of his eventual transformation and where the other characters are in relation to both Zader and their own conflicts and ambitions. It helps that many of my characters are going through adolescence, arguably the biggest transformative time in anyone’s life.
In book one, One Boy, No Water, Zader is hiding in the shadows. There’s a lot of symbolism about young, tender things growing in the protective safety of the reef. He has Uncle Kahana, Jay, and Char Siu to guide and support him, and he’s pretty comfortable being led. At the end, Zader recuses his brother from a paralyzing fear and himself from bullies. This triggers his predator nature, and it’s obvious he’s outgrown the idea of camouflage as safety.
In book two, One Shark, No Swim, Zader’s grown enough that he no longer accepts what he’s been told as fact. Uncle Kahana is unwilling to deal directly with the changes he sees in Zader, and that causes problems. Char Siu, Zader’s gal-pal, is starting to understand that there’s a big difference between boy-world and girl-world and she’s navigating deep water while the boys are still splashing in the shallows. Jay begins to get caught up in competitive surfing, leaving Zader alone on the sand. These conflicts and others finally drive Zader to listen only to himself and to make a choice no one expects.
In book three, tentatively titled One Fight, No Fist, there are consequences for Zader’s choices. He’s older, more secretive, and both less trusting and more protective of his family and friends. He’s bolder, more aggressive, and is ready to take the fight to his stalker. He’s so far from where he started, he’s almost a different person. Consequently, all of the other characters have to change and adjust to this new person—or better, don’t adjust—and the reader can watch the sparks fly.
The changes the Niuhi Shark Saga characters go through are really the storyline that ties the books together. Without character growth the series would be like The Simpsons tv show—Homer chasing one doughnut after another, hanging out at Moe’s, and never learning or suffering from the consequences of his adventures for more than 30 minutes.
Now there are a lot of doughnut lovers who crave that consistency. Go, Homer, go!
But if you’re in the mood for something different, try a little of my Niuhi Shark Saga lau lau and poi. But be sure to leave room for the killer pineapple-upside down cake. You won’t believe what happens next!
I hate getting my picture taken. The photos never look like me, the image of myself that lives inside my head. Frankly, I probably never looked liked the image in my head. I’m a writer. I have a great imagination.
As a writer, I spend most of my days in yoga pants and tee-shirts in front of my computer. It’s a big day if I have to buy groceries and talk to a cashier. Heaven help me if I actually have to walk into the school to pick up a kid.
But occasionally I do have to comb my hair, put some make-up on, find clothes without pukas or stains, and submit to being photographed. Book 2, One Shark, No Swim is about to be launched, so new photos were in order.
The photographer said, “I want to capture you in your natural environment.”
Looking down at my Will Work for Books sweatshirt, ratty stretch pants, hair stuffed in a messy pony, lying on the couch guzzling Diet Coke, I didn’t think he knew what he was getting into. “You mean you want to shoot at the house?” I asked.
“I want the readers to see the real you!”
Personally, I’ve always been a bigger fan of the fantasy. Reality always includes too many dishes, kids with sticky hands, and things that make you go ewww.
As we headed out the door to take some shots, my daughter the rodeo princess looked up. “Your make-up’s nice, Mom. Not too over-the-top. I mean, it’s not a like a Rodeo Clown or anything. Not-too-Momish either.”
“Great,” I said, “glad to know I hit the sweet-spot between hobo and whore.”
“I was going to say New York chic, but now that I look at you, it’s kinda more New York-Mom chic.
I don’t even know what that means. But the fun didn’t stop there. The whole barnyard had to get into the act.
“Let’s try some shots by the aspens” was an invitation to the free-range chickens and guinea hens to peck at my feet, hopeful some old grapes or stale bread would come their way. “How about we try something with your arm on a fence rail” turned into a group photo. “Come here and we’ll sit and review what we’ve taken” was the cue for one of the cats to jump on the photographer’s lap and check out the photos. No, really. You’d have thought the cat was the producer if you’d seen the way he pushed us aside to see the viewfinder.
At one point I realized I was the center of attention for fifteen chickens, two guinea hens, three horses, two dogs, and two cats–and one poor photographer standing on a wrought iron lawn chair to get the right angle. No wonder all the critters were staring.
And wondering where the food was.
Probably should’ve gone with photos of them instead.
My husband has a saying: where there’s mystery, there’s margin. He’s right. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car or even how to set the timer on the sprinklers. Without him around I’d have to pay someone to do these kinds of things. At the very least, I’d have to bribe my brother with lasagna to teach me how.
Of course, my brother would just roll his eyes at me. “How easy,” he’d say, “I can’t believe you were going to pay someone to do that for you. Pass the lasagna.”
So in the spirit of teaching someone to fish rather than giving her a fish, in a series of blog articles I’m going to de-mystify creating eBooks in .mobi (Kindle) and .epub (iBook and most everyone else) formats from Word files.
Like most things, it’s a garbage in garbage out deal. Setting up your Word file properly is crucial. To make things easy on myself, I use Word’s style functions. The settings for my “Normal” template are:
- Font: 12 pt Times New Roman (Yes, it’s boring. Get over it.)
- Left Justified
- Indentation Left: 0”
- Indentation Right: 0”
- Special: First line by 0.5”
- Spacing Before: 0 pt
- Spacing After: 0 pt
- Line Spacing: Single
The settings for Heading 1 look like this:
- Font: 16 pt Times New Roman
- Center Justified
- Indentation Left: 0”
- Indentation Right: 0”
- Special: None
- Spacing Before: 0 pt
- Spacing After: 0 pt
- Line Spacing: Single
When I write a manuscript, I always use these setting, writing in the Normal style and using Heading 1 for all my chapter titles. Using Heading 1 for chapter titles makes it a snap to generate a table of contents that links to specific chapters in your book. Other crucial things to remember—
- Never use headers or footers or page numbers. You don’t need them in an eBook.
- Never use the tab or insert key to indent a paragraph or text.
- If you need to center something, make sure you delete the automatic 0.5” tab indent that’s added by the Normal template.
- Don’t use full justification. Keep everything left justified unless it’s a chapter heading or an image.
- Insert a hard page break at the end of each chapter.
- Don’t paste images—insert them using insert picture.
- Don’t mess with the font sizes or font types. Just don’t. You’ll hate yourself more than you hate reading everything in 12 pt Times New Roman if you do.
- After using Heading 1 for your chapter title, consider adding an extra line (hit enter again) before starting the first paragraph. It’s not necessary, but I think it looks a little more polished in the eBook.
Obviously, if your manuscript is already written, but not in this format, you’re going to have to make it conform to these standards. Control-A is your friend, as is Search and Replace, especially if you know how to use it to fix formatting errors.
As a last tip, when I write, I have a main file for my manuscript that’s named manuscript_working.docx. If I need to send a copy to a beta reader or my publisher, I’ll modify that version and add page numbers, change the spacing to double, add a header, etc. All edits and additions are done on the manuscript_working.docx. I also have a series of backup files called manuscript_(date)_bk.docx that I create every time I modify the working file.
Next blog I’ll explain creating a linked table of contents, .html files, zipping them with images, and Calibre, your free secret eBook weapon of mass construction.
Got a tip? Be sure to share it in the comments section. Keep writing!
For the price of a comic book, anyone can buy thousands of new fan page likes or followers on social media services like Facebook or Twitter. Most of these likes and followers are not real people; they exist only as ones and zeros in computer code. But to the casual observer, it’s tough to tell the difference.
As an author if you’re happy writing what you’re writing for the audience that finds you, the idea of paying for fake followers doesn’t make sense. Most likely, you find the idea offensive because it smacks of cheating–kinda like jumping to the head of a really long line to win a fabulous prize. You feel your best strategy is to slowly build a following by word of mouth, hoping to catch that lightning in bottle that eludes most authors, but are totally okay if you don’t.
God bless you; you are the Hufflepuffs of the world and we need you.
But while at first blush the idea of authors paying for social media followers seems like nerdy kids bribing the cool kids with cookies, the truth is much more complicated. There are some sound reasons why Slytherin and Ravenclaw authors might consider a more Machiavellian approach.
(Gryffindors, of course, are the outliers, the one in a million social media phenomenons, the exceptions that prove the rule. We all want to believe we’re Gryffindors, but the world’s sorting hat begs to differ.)
In the past I’ve compared social media marketing to a stadium full of people shouting at each other and to popularity contests in high school where the cool kids are identified by the attendant herd of wannabees. Now I’m combining these two analogies to make a different point.
Relax. It’s story time. Cue the typewriter sound effects and bring down the house lights.
Dateline: Smallberg , America. Joe Football is Smallberg High’s biggest star, the brightest since his cousin Bob Football took the team to their only division championship in 1997. Smallberg High’s season record is hot and word is that Big State is sending a recruiter to take a look. We all know how Joe plays in the next game can determine whether he gets a dream scholarship to Big State U or enrolls in Smallberg JC next fall.
What we don’t know is that Big State’s recruiter isn’t just watching the field, he’s watching the fans. Are the bleachers full? Are people excited when Joe makes a big play? How many are wearing his number, rocking it with the cheerleaders, and waving Smallberg High banners? How many fans are going to follow Joe’s career to college and how many season ticket holders is he likely to inspire to pony up for next year’s roster?
As much as Joe Football thinks it’s all about his rapid-fire passes and nimble footwork, the Big State recruiter’s looking at a much bigger picture.
Game day, the weather’s glorious, but the stands are unusually empty because most of the townsfolk are at the Kiwanis Club, crossing their fingers, rubbing their lucky charms, and hoping they hold the golden ticket for the shiny new car about to be raffled in the club’s annual fundraiser. When the Big State recruiter enters the stands, finding a seat isn’t a problem.
The coaches sigh. They know that the bar for Joe’s scholarship just got set higher, as in every-play-has-to-make-a-highlight-reel higher. After all, Joe can’t be all that if no one’s watching.
Let’s take a step back. What if Joe Football’s father asked the Kiwanis Club president to announce the winning ticket at half-time? Now when the recruiter arrives not only is most of the town at the stadium, people are spilling out into the parking lot. It’s standing room only.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
But like a late night tv ad for Ginsu knives, wait! There’s more.
What if Bigger State keeps tabs on who Big State recruiters watch?
What if most Bigger State players go pro?
How silly does Joe’s father look now?
In our analytic-metric-statistic-loving-bean-counting world, this is the conventional wisdom and logic that drives a lot of really amazing writers to buy likes and followers. Their work is good, but at a certain professional point all the writing’s good. Smallberg authors think Big State agents and publishers want to sign the popular player whose number of fan page likes and followers are trending up. Way up. We believe it because publishers and agents tell us so.
Publishers want authors to engage people through social media because they believe it boosts visibility in the marketplace which leads to book sales. It’s the holy grail of free advertising. Everyone can point to a Gryffindor for whom this worked fantastically. After all, someone always wins the lotto, right?
In the world of social media and viral marketing, if everybody’s liking chocolate peanut butter ice cream this week, it’s easier for other people to like it, too. Pretty soon other bits of computer code recognize a trend and start helpfully telling real people how wonderful chocolate peanut butter ice cream is. Before you know it, you’re standing in front of the 7-11 cooler in your fuzzy pink house slippers and sweatpants unable to find a pint when you really need one at midnight.
It’s a problem ice cream makers dream about and most authors chase.
Here’s what I think, unvarnished and liable to annoy some people I probably shouldn’t.
As an author, you need to have a social media platform that’s a vehicle for true fans to connect with and explore. Make it real, make it entertaining, make it engaging—in marketing speak, add value.
Contrary to what we want to believe, likes and followers do not sell books. No matter how often you say it, it doesn’t make it true. Belief made Tinkerbell fly; it still doesn’t make this true.
However, book sales do drive social media followers. More social media followers attract bigger publishers and agents. Bigger publishers spend more marketing dollars and have more clout with distribution channels, which improves the odds of a buyer opening his wallet, which pushes books sales, which increases social media followers…
Now if Ravenclaws or Sytherins are publishing in Smallberg, it’s not a giant leap of genius for them to realize they can gain an edge by simply buying likes and followers. It’s bait to attract Big State and beyond. They’re going to fill the stadium with all the hot dog giveaways and Mr. Roboto followers they can. It won’t sell their current work, but it can make a larger publisher or higher profile agent sit up and notice.
But realize dangling bait is one thing, getting the fish to bite and reeling him in is a completely different skill set. It’s imperative that when your numbers hook the attention of a bigger fish, you’re ready to win because if you can’t score a touchdown when it counts, it doesn’t matter how many people are watching. People will eat your free hot dogs and go home to American Idol reruns. Fans for hire are fickle that way.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m probably a Hufflepuff. Maybe Sytherin or Ravenclaw-lite. Right now, I’m comfortable where I am. But I absolutely get why some authors play the numbers game. Could be Machiavelli was right. And someday for the price of a burger and fries I may want to find out.
To keep me from going to the dark side, you can like my Facebook author page or follow me on Twitter. Just so you’ll know what you’re getting into, I think re-posting inspiring quotes with photos of cats is not adding value unless you are Hallmark or marketing to a target audience who loves greeting cards, affirmations, and cats. I find too many authors think they are writing for this audience, but that’s another blog post.
I’m a book and movie junkie. I gobble them up like potato chips. Triple movie marathons on a Friday night? Check. Stay up all night reading a book? Double-check.
And that’s just in the last week.
People who love stories often debate which medium told a particular story best—the film or the book. Most of the time if a story starts out as a book and transitions into a movie, the book’s better. However, I can think of a few movies, Forrest Gump, Gone with the Wind, The Silence of the Lambs, and Jaws, where I thought the film was better than the book, the exceptions, perhaps, that prove the rule.
You can’t really talk about books that started out as movies, then came out as books. They are a travesty of nature. Name one that worked better than the movie.
Whenever I go to a film based on a book I’ve loved, there’s always that moment of dread, the same moment that occurs when I’m about to meet an old friend I haven’t seen for years. How much have they changed? How much have I changed? Will we still connect?
It’s the kind of tension that you can cut with a butter knife—easiest to do when you have it in your hand ready to carve out a chunk of butter in preparation of sticking it in a cup and nuking it so you can pour the melted goodness over your freshly popped bowl of corn.
Yeah, even when we’re talking about stories, it’s still about the food.
Some of this year’s film offerings are based on well-known novels: Ender’s Game, The Great Gatsby, The Wizard of Oz, The Host, Catching Fire, and The Hobbit to name a few. Which are you looking forward to? Any you dread seeing on the silver screen?
Once you’ve gotten a query letter past an editor or two and a manuscript to publication, other writers want to know the secret to your success. I was recently asked to give advice to people working on query letters. Based on the query letters we workshopped, it seems that unpublished writers often confuse a query letter with a book synopsis or resume. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on query letters, here are a few things I try to keep in mind.
1) When seeking representation or publishing the first series of gatekeepers you need to get through are not the target audience for your book. You have to speak their language, which can be quite different from the language, style, and tone you use with your potential reader. I think of it as red vs. white flags. The more white flags you can wave in their faces, the higher your chances of going on. Save the complex critical analysis of your literary themes for author interviews and conference talks. For a query, think of your manuscript in terms of a 30 second movie ad on TV rather than a three minute theatrical trailer.
2) While editors wax poetic about the craft of writing, the art of storytelling, and the next great American novel, in a query letter they aren’t looking for the next Pulitzer Prize, but a reason to look at the manuscript. Their goal is to sell books at a profit. Speak to the banker, not the muse or awards committee.
3) Writers generally think the purpose of a query letter is to sell a manuscript; it’s really much more. It’s selling you as an author. It takes at least one and sometimes two or more years from acquisition to print. Publishers want to know if they can work with you through the process. The theory here is that a good editor can always fix a book, but no one can fix a difficult author.
Some points along this vein:
- Can you follow directions, i.e. give them what they asked for in three paragraphs: hook, micro-synopsis, writer’s bio?
- Do you know your audience? The idea is that good authors can identify their target audience readily—as well as have the ability to explain why their book will appeal to this reader and not that reader wandering over there in the cookbook section.
- Is it clear to the editor how your book is similar to and different from other successful titles in your genre? Also, does the editor believe you know this information?
- How familiar are you with your market? Do you seem to have a grasp of what’s considered publishable in terms of length, style, theme, and hook?
- Are you marketable? Your query letter gives potential editors a lot of clues about whether you can speak intelligently about writing and books and can build an audience. If an editor is interested, he/she will check out your Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts to get a better feel for you as an author long before they read word one of the manuscript.
Final tip: as an author have some public social media in place before sending out query letters. Your friends-only Facebook account showcasing your debauched college days or public Pinterest boards of kittens and cupcake recipes don’t count. At the very least, start a public fan page on Facebook and create a blog using a free service like WordPress and post a couple of things for editors to find if they look. The time to build a social network platform begins the moment you think, “Hmmm. This is pretty good. Wonder if anyone else would be interested in it?”
I admit, that’s a lot to cover in a one page letter. These are my opinions; what are some of yours? What do you think successful query letters have in common?