Friday, January 31, 2014

Start with a Bang, End with a Bigger Bang

Sometimes my writing students ask how to end their stories. I give them my best piece of writing advice: start with an explosion and end with a bigger explosion.

I know it sounds a bit facetious, especially because the “explosion” part only works with certain genres (although, in my humble opinion, many romance novels could only be improved by the addition of a fireball or two). Even so, there’s a kernel of truth in the “explosion sandwich” writing model, because it shows that the ending (whether it contains an actual “kablooey” or not) should be connected to the beginning.

The key is to set up some kind of question in the beginning so that you can resolve it at the end. For example: how will we stop the mad bomber? Does anyone know where he’ll strike next? And why is this unmarked package ticking?

If (for some strange reason) you prefer literature with less collateral damage, you could do the same thing without explosions. Will your main character ever learn to love? How much will the mother sacrifice for her family? Where will this average Joe draw the line? Once you have the question, you know the answer is the end, and the end is the answer.

Nobody knows this better than Disney. Watch any of their classic animated movies and within the first five minutes or so you’ll see the princess singing about her heart’s true desire. To find love. To explore an unknown land. To use home-made robots to save the world from an evil scientist’s doomsday machine. Okay, maybe that last one is less Disney and more Mad Science Institute, but the basic pattern is the same, and the audience is always left asking whether— and how— the princess will ever achieve her dream.

If you know how you want your story to end, set it up that way from the beginning. If you know how you want your story to begin, think about what question you’re asking and what difficult decisions it will force your characters to make. The key is not just to ask a question, but to ask a question with no clear answer. That’s a Kobayshi Maru, to you Trekkers. Whatever you call it, your readers will keep turning those pages as long as they can’t see how things can possibly be resolved.

Of course, you shouldn’t give your characters an easy path from the beginning of the story to the end. If it’s the story about falling into a hole, don’t throw a ladder in there with them. Make them claw their way out, inch by inch. Make them fall back in, break an ankle, and end up worse off than when they started. In order to get out, they’re going to have to sacrifice something important to them, or grow in some way, or learn to live in the hole. Their choice shows character, and character is what drives the story.

If it were one of my characters in that hole, they would most likely concoct some kind of improvised explosive and launch themselves, rocket like, into the sky… before landing in an even deeper hole. Hey, look at that—another story that starts and ends with an explosion. Maybe I need a psychiatrist.

Be good, and dream crazy dreams.

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on, Facebook, or Twitter.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Live Long and Prosper

It's how Mr. Spock says goodbye...and how I am saying goodbye, too!

I've had a blast here on the ADR3NALIN3 blog, but all good things must end. Thank you all so much for your warm welcome and your awesomeness. May you all live long and prosper.


P. J. Hoover is the author of the dystopia/mythology YA book, SOLSTICE (Tor Teen, June 2013), the upcoming Egyptian mythology MG book, TUT (Tor Children’s, September 2014), and the middle-grade SFF series, THE FORGOTTEN WORLDS BOOKS (CBAY, 2008-2010). You can read more about her and her books on P. J.’s website or blog.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Subtext of Details

At the edge of the meadow is a fence. It has been standing a long time, so long that every post leans, often at a different angle. Between the posts barbed wire stretches and in a few places sags. When you get close enough, you can see remnants: a strand of hair, frayed string, a small piece of red cloth caught in the barbs. The details of what has passed by or what the wind has blown in held in place for us to examine.

 I have been thinking about the subtext of details. How the small things our characters pay attention to and point out to the reader can say more than the keenest dialogue. They happen below the text.

According to Wikipedia “Subtext is content underneath the spoken dialogue. Under dialogue, there can be conflict, anger, competition, pride, showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe.”

But subtext is also carefully selected details that make the particular universal. They focus as subtext because they are seen through our characters eyes and without the advantage of dialogue let us in on their thoughts.

Ralph Fletcher in What a Writer Needs offers wise advice. “Don’t write about senility or a man losing his ability to take care of himself. Write about lost belt loops.” How we can choose just the right detail to show what our character thinks and believes at that point in time without the character telling us? 

In the wonderful and bleak Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly thinks about the last time she saw her father. “Walnuts were thumping to the ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing that never quite came into view…”  Suppose two co- workers are arguing, a snarky "he said/ she said" kind of fight, and all the while he keeps glancing at the ticket stubs on her desk, the ones she saved from her big weekend date. 

If you could imagine the details of your scene caught in those barbs, what would they be? What would the things your character notices be shouting or whispering to the reader?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Inspiring: An Art Form In Itself

Writing is a recent (by recent, I mean no more than two-three years tops..) love of mine, but it is a strong one nonetheless. Before writing, it was photography. It was awful, my photography skills. I tried very hard, and I thought I loved it very much, but I was very bad at it. Though unaware of my lack for a creative eye, I did and still do admire and appreciate the art of photography. History seems to be commonly understood through writing; textbooks, novels, autobiographies.

 Now that I think about it, photos appear to capture not just history, but they evoke ideas and creativity and opinions. Photos inspire people, photos make them remember the exceptional and the tragic. I never thought of writing as an art; when I realized that, I was amazed. Dumbfounded, really. But when I look at certain pictures, the words that come to mind, they way they weave into sentences, that's when I see the real beauty in writing.

This right here if a photo of what many believe to be the Loch Ness monster, taken sometime during the 1930s. Recognize it? Thought so. This photo of a legend has created not only a following of believers, but countless books and films have been created due to the influence of this one photo. One photo, whether it is the truth or a farce, has changed people and those changed people continue to change others. It is all one big cycle that is fueled by fiction books, stuffed Nessie plushes, and novelty shoppes that encompass all of the Loch, so people the world over are aware that there may or may not be a mysterious creature dwelling on the bottom of a lake somewhere in Ireland. Cool, huh?

On a darker side, this is a photo from the dropping of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. The US was the first to use nuclear warfare, and this was the first time in 1945. I am not exactly sure of what scenes resonate in other peoples' minds, but I do certainly have a few in my mind.. The individuals who I have never met, nor am I sure they ever existed, flash through my head. I think of the people it saved, the lives of American soldiers, and possibly the rest of the world if power fell into the wrong hands. Then the people that died due to the explosion begin to flood my thoughts, all the people who had no idea it was coming.. 

Check this one out, it's happy. Yay for happy. People like to recreate this picture with their significant other because it is a classic symbol of love. A navy man kissing his lovely lady, how romantic. Gross, but the majority of the population is very much for public displays of affection. This and photos like it lets one get in touch with their soft side, if they have one. It's just a picture you say? Well, I bet you are just like me with my lack of understanding for the need of human contact, so it is completely fine for you to think so. 

The written word now seemed to be the most influential form of art, in my opinion. But I also believe that photography and paintings-drawing and the like, come in a close second. These pieces of art were not made to merely hang on a wall or sit in a library. They must be taken in completely by those who see the aspects that are below the surface. Those people who think and see and do. And 'those people' create others like them, believers out of the close-minded. Art is not the creations by man, but the feelings and affects of those creations on the world around them.

What inspires you, dear reader? Is it photos of people taking photos?  How about paintings of the sky with intricate colors and swirls? Your family and dear friends? Well, whatever provokes the cogs to turn within your mind, I hope it never ceases to yield beautiful thoughts to tug at your imagination. 

"There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head." --Among Others by Jo Walton

Have a lovely Tuesday. (:

Monday, January 27, 2014

Getting the Word Out: Reviews: PW Select

As part of my ongoing obsession with getting the word out—and following up on last week’s post about Kirkus’s paid review service—this week we’ll take a look at Publishers Weekly’s monthly supplement dedicated solely to the self-pubbing industry, PW Select, that debuted in September, 2010. The supplement promises "interviews with authors, book announcements and listings, news, features, analysis, book reviews, and more." Like Kirkus Indie, PW suggests that:

"PW Select is a great way to help your book stand out in a crowded market. When you sign up to participate in PW Select, you’ll be reaching Publishers Weekly’s readership of book and film agents, booksellers, editors, distributors, librarians, book reviewers, and national and international media--just the kind of people who can take a book and make it a bestseller. We’ve helped launch a few writing careers already. Maybe you’re next."

And maybe you would be. After all, they state that their mission is to find those "undiscovered gems" that every author hopes her work just might be. So, obviously, when the biggest trade mag in the country—about 17,000 subscribers (or roughly three times Kirkus’s reach)—supports reviews of indie-published works, this could be a very big deal, right? 

Well . . . it depends.

Unlike Kirkus Indie, where a flat fee of $425 guarantees you a review, PW doesn’t make that guarantee at all. Your book might get a review, and while the odds aren't astronomical, your chances are about 20-25%.

So then, what does $149 buy you? (I’m sorry, but you just gotta laugh when you see a price like that, as if PW’s taken a cue from Amazon. Like, wow, what a bargain. While we’re talking about money, though, I should mention that PW offers the same service plus Vook for $199. This is for folks who have a manuscript or print book that's not been published in ebook form; that additional $50 gets you access to Vook—a NY-based publisher of e-books, book apps and interactive e-books—and its e-publishing platform:

"Vook has created a special package for PW Select + customers entitling them to the creation of one e-book (including an ISBN number) using the Vook platform. There are no subsequent fees for publication or ongoing subscriptions. If you decide to distribute your e-book through Vook (which offers one-click publication to iBooks, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble), you will not pay any fee to Vook, and Vook details the revenue splits of each e-book store here. You can also download your completed e-book file and distribute it yourself."

So maybe not such a bad deal if your book's still in manuscript form and this is your first rodeo.

But, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say you’re just going with a vanilla-PW Select. Here’s what you’re guaranteed: your book, whether physical or digital, will be listed in the supplement (which is bound into that month's regular issue) and on PW’s website. That boils down to the barest of nitty-gritty details: title, author, publisher, price, number of pages, ISBNs, and a very brief blurb (which you actually provide them). You will also receive a six-month digital subscription to the full PW website and a complimentary copy of the supplement in which your listing appears. And, of course, you buy yourself a lottery ticket and hope they pick your number for a review. They're happy to take your money regardless, and you can't blame them. It's a tough biz, and it's not as if their circulation numbers are going up (they've actually dropped by several thousand over the last few years). If PW Select gets, say, roughly 200 sub-pubbed books per month? Even after paying for the 25% of books that are reviewed—say, about $25 a pop—that's still about  $30,000 in revenue for them. Not exactly chump change, and if you're the one who's doing all the legwork (the blurb, etc.), then that means more in their pocket, period.

So before we even get around to whether or not a PW review might help you, let's be clear on what you're really buying: an ad. A teeny-tiny ad. A snippet listing that may not even feature the cover you were so nicely invited to attach and which might not be even properly proofed (as happened to this writer). A very small ad in a supplement that’s only seen by folks with a regular print subscription, and only found online if you decide to go looking for it. Now, maybe some people do go looking. As I said, PW’s reach is much greater than Kirkus’s. Publishers read the magazine, and so do agents, and anyone in self-pub wanting to promote their book in PW is aiming for those folks. (I don’t know about librarians so much; my n of two suggests they’ll pay attention to their own trade magazines, Library Journal and School Library Journal, and other librarians before PW.) I know film people at least trawl the website because I’ve been cold-contacted a couple of times from film industry folks after a PW review or interview. 

There’s no question that people pay attention to the magazine and its website. The issue is whether these same people pay attention to a listing—without a review—in PW Select. (This is all independent on whether any of the feature articles are worthwhile or helpful. I'll be honest; I looked at a few. By and large, they were fairly generic and no worse or better than anything you'll find in something like Romance Writers Report, a magazine I happen to like. Some were more worthwhile than others; for example, there was a nice listing of some this year's book fairs and conferences (both in the U.S. and aboard), a few of which are geared toward indie authors. But the majority of these articles were nothing you couldn't find on your own and on any number of blogs, just by executing a few searches.)

Anyway, back to that crap shoot of a review . . . let’s put it this way: if you’re hoping to interest an agent with a listing in PW Select . . . good luck. Agents are busy, busy people who already get a gazillion submissions. Unless you happen to write just an absolutely stunning blurb—and presuming an agent makes it a habit to scan the listings—the chances an agent will get in touch are probably diminishingly small. Ditto a publisher. Film people . . . who knows? I kind of doubt it, and I'll bet librarians don't even bother. (If a librarian out there does, let me know. Seriously. I was very surprised to find an indie-published book in a system library not long ago, but I've no way of knowing just how it found its way into the system to begin with. It's the only book of its kind I've seen, too. So I am curious.)

So, really, the best outcome for anyone who invests a buck shy of $150 is to win that crap shoot and get an actual review.

Now, go do a web search on this, and predictably, writers’ experiences with the program haven’t been that great. Most are simply listed, and that’s it. As for the reviews, these seem to be a mixed bag. Many point up the scathing nature of the reviews, as this author does, but I found at least one guy who got a very nice review and planned to use that for queries. (I want to echo that this is a very sound strategy. Let's put it this way: a favorable PW review can't hurt, and I'm still convinced that a very nice PW review of the book that became Draw the Dark, which made it to the semifinals of the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, made editors sit up and take the book I happened to marketing at the time—The Sin-Eater's Confession—much more seriously. Not only had my book made it down to the final 100, it had also gotten that great review.) 

  Nevertheless, the majority of Select reviews are negative, although if you’ve written a children’s or YA book, you stand a better chance at a positive review. (One writer did a nice breakdown you can read here of the January 2, 2012 supplement. I do completely disagree, however, about his assessment that the majority of regular PW reviews are positive and generally negative only if you’re an established author who’s somehow disappointed with your latest outing. My personal experience says otherwise.)

Nowhere did I find a single person who had anything to say about the supplement's other articles and offerings--which I think means that folks are largely indifferent to the rest of the supplement's content. They aren't forking over money for a pricey six-month digital subscription or nifty how-to articles. What they want is a shot at that review.

I also wasn’t able to find much about authors’ experiences with Vook through PW Select one way or the other—anyone out there ever done that?—although I did find one blogger who hired them to convert a compilation of her blogs and seemed to be a pretty satisfied customer. Note, too, that she paid substantially more ($550), but she had nothing bad to say about them, and this might be a matter of getting what you pay for.

The skinny? As with Kirkus Indie, I can’t tell you if it’s worth $150 for a one-in-five shot at a PW review. Unlike Kirkie Indie, if PW Select does skewer your book, you don't have the option of killing the review. On the other hand . . . welcome to the real world. 

Is PW more influential than Kirkus? Well . . . its circulation numbers would certainly suggest so. While a simple listing is likely to get you nowhere, a review just might, especially if you can find a favorable pull quote or two to throw into that query letter you’d like to shoot to an editor or agent. Even better, if the review is favorable, there’s a chance (slim) that the review might make it into PW directly.

So . . . if we were talking about me? I admit: I’d roll the dice and go for it, simply because I doubt that most people who really count are reading the supplement to begin with. So the chances of anyone running across a terrible review are small. But if you get a nice one, grab that pull quote and run with it. Worth a shot.

Next week, more on paid review services.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

Jordan Dane



He's flummoxed because these aren't his hands.

I don’t know of any author who hasn’t been flummoxed by the task of writing a first synopsis. Do they get any easier to write? Not for me. Each story idea presents a unique essence that must be distilled into a short brief. Some authors sell books on proposal (with or without a writing sample), or they use the synopsis to be an initial outline of the story idea (a guide post), or an effective synopsis brief can be a part of a solid query letter or made into a quick pitch to an editor or agent. However you use a synopsis, I thought I’d share what has worked for me.
Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis
1.) The Basics - Generally a synopsis is 5-7 pages long, double spaced with one-inch margins. Be sure to include your contact information on the first page and I would recommend adding a header on every page (in case an editor or agent drops your proposal and the pages get out of order). My headers have my name, title of the book, genre, word count, and page number (on far right). I often have a tag line that I list at the top, before the synopsis brief. If you are represented by an agent, I would list that near your contact information. A professional presentation will make you stand out in a slush pile.
2.) Writing a synopsis shouldn’t be about defining the rules of the game. It should be about why you’d want to PLAY it. Give the editor or agent or reader a sense of your voice and the color of the world you will build. Think of a synopsis as a lure, an enticement for them to want more. Rules are boring. Tell me why the game will be really good, or fun or scary.
3.) Whether there is quirky humor or a dark suspenseful undertone to your book, the synopsis should reflect these elements and not merely be a detailed “who does what where.” If your synopsis is boring, chances are any editor or agent will think your book will be lackluster, too. Give them something shiny to grab at.
4.) Pitch your book with a high-level synopsis brief at the top of your proposal. This pitch should read like a TV log line – a condensed 1-3 sentences about the main elements of your story – character highpoints, conflict, emotion, what’s at stake. No need for specific character names that will only be a distraction to what your book is about. If you get this short pitch right (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”), you can embed it into a query letter or use it on your website for a short teaser. An editor can use this short descriptive pitch of your book to her house and the committee that decides which book to buy.
[Part of this pitch is omitted for confidentiality. I REALLY wish I could share it, but I can’t.]
A depressed and aging widow gets a second wind when she pays a young handyman for services rendered on her unusual Bucket List, in an uncommon “coming of age” story.
5.) After the synopsis brief or the pitch, it’s time to introduce your characters. The first time a new name appears in your synopsis, capitalize their full name to highlight who the players will be. A writing sample will introduce your character to the editor or agent in a different way, but I recommend a brief summary of why  each of your main characters have earned their right to be a star in your story. Highlight who they are, what they want, and why they can’t have it. What will their struggle be? What’s at stake for them?
LILLIAN OVERSTREET has flipped the channel on her rerun life and given up. She’s convinced nothing exciting will ever happen to her. Her husband’s dead, her only daughter treats her like a doormat, and old age is creeping up on her like bad granny panties and has made her invisible. Her only reason to leave the house is her bowling team of widows – The Ball Busters. She’s mired in a chronic case of depression that has seeped into every aspect of her existence, until her daughter GRACE OVERSTREET-THORNDYKE hires “eye candy” to do the renovation of the family home. [This is only the basic set up and does not include the conflict, black moment, and ending highlights.]
6.) Not every aspect of your plot needs to be spelled out, ad nauseam. If there are five main suspects or key secondary characters, give the highlights of who they are and why they earned the right to be in your book and why they could be a game changer. This works for other genres, not just crime fiction. If there are characters who stand in the way of your hero/heroine, showcase who they are and why they are an obstacle.
EXAMPLES (Secondary Characters with sense of color/humor):
VINNIE DELVECCHIO is the only widower on the Ball Busters team. In the small town of Why, Texas, he runs a Deli where Lillian gets her meat. He’s opinionated and brash with a foul mouth. He teases the ladies at the bowling alley by saying, “If you gals ever need someone to slip you the sausage, you come to DelVecchio for quality meat.” Even though his mind is constantly in the gutter, Vinnie knows how to roll a strike, has his own bowling shoes and a hefty pair of designer balls, but he’s only on a “team of broads” for the view.
CANDACE and VICTORIA WINDGATE are twin sisters Lillian has known since high school. The sisters kept their maiden name after both their husbands died in the same mysterious boating accident. No one in town knows how the Windgate twins earned their financial independence or how much money they have, but rumors never run out of steam in Why, Texas. Neither of the sisters can bowl worth a damn. They only come to ‘Why Bowl – Family Center & Tanning Spa’ for the cheese fries and beer.
7.) The major plot movements should be highlighted so an editor or agent will know your story has meat to the bone. I like to use a 3-Act screenplay method and have posted about it on another blog - The Kill Zone - at this LINK - I use a big “W” to remind me of the turning points to include in my synopsis. (Michael Hauge’s “Writing Screenplays That Sell” was the reference book that sparked my interest in structure and it has helped me draft my proposals.) The highpoints should show the stakes ramping up and the key turning points in the plot as well as the black moment when all seems lost. If there are twists in the plot (especially surprises), showcase those too.
Key Questions for a 3-Act '”W” structure:
Act 1 - How does your book start?
Act 1 - What is the point of no return for your character(s)?
Act 1 - What key plot twist will propel your story into the escalation mode of Act 2?
Act 2 - How will you up the stakes?
Act 2 - What is the black moment when all seems lost for your character(s) and how will your character(s) turn it around?
Act 3 - Do I have a plot twist for my readers?
Act 3 - How will your story end and how will you tie up the pieces?
8.) The ending should be spelled out. Editors and agents don’t like surprises and want to know how you intend to tie things up. If you are writing a romance, the ending is very important so the editor or agent gets a feel for your take on a romantic full circle. I’ve sold books without full disclosure of who the bad guy is, but generally you should “tell all.”
Even if you are an indie author and may never have written a synopsis or included one in a proposal to an editor or agent, it can be a good exercise to understand the essence of your book. A good synopsis will get you thinking about how to create an effective jacket cover description to entice the reader. Writing a synopsis is always a challenge, even if you are good at it, because it boils down your book into a teaser that you hope will lure a reader to buy your book.
For the purpose of discussion, tell us what works for you in writing a synopsis. (If you have any tips to add, please share them.) Or share what challenges you’ve had. Let’s talk, people.