Monday, September 1, 2014

Pacing - When to slow it down and when to pick it up

We always hear editors and agents talking about a fast read. No, they are not necessarily talking about a short book or one with no depth. What they are referring to is the pacing of the book. Talking about a fast read means the pace the author sets for the book keeps it really moving fast, in other words, it is a page turner.

As an author, it is crucial that you know when it is the time to pick up the pace of the book, and when it is time to slow down and linger. This is all done through not just the amount of information you provide to the reader, but also in the structure and length of the sentences, paragraphs and chapters.

I am sure you have all had this happen to you before. Someone starts telling you a story about something that happened to them recently, or maybe it is someone trying to give you instructions for how to do something. In your head you are thinking, "this should be short and sweet!" Get the information and move on. But nooooooo.... There is this point that your brain starts thinking, "Come on get this moving! We could have moved on by this point and we aren't even close to the conclusion!"

That's poor pacing.

Keeping the story moving is often tough at the very beginning of a story. Most of this is due to the fact that the author has so much information flowing through his or her head that they want to get it all down on the piece of paper fast. The problem here is simply a situation of the opening now being an informational dump.

To control this, consider that information like the military. We give out that information on a "need to know basis." Yes, we understand you needed to understand all of the information, but do your characters really need to know all of that information?

Consider the Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit. Tolkien had to create in his head the entire world of Middle Earth. He had to know where the rings came from. He had to know who was living there and their interaction with each other. But for the reader, we simply needed to know what Hobbiton looked like and who the Hobbits were, especially Bilbo and Frodo. They weren't concerned with the whole history of Middle Earth and guess what? The readers don't either. We can get that information later.

We have a foreign exchange students staying with us right now. We have been taking him on all of the local tours and sights since he arrived. But when it comes to knowing about things about the region, or even about our family, that information comes out at the time we are at that location. We told him about the Seattle fire WHEN we were in Pioneer Square and saw the sign for the Underground tour. We told him about the history of the Space Needle WHEN we were waiting in line to go up.

We can also keep the story moving through those tense and emotional scenes. This is really done through the balance between the dialogue and the narration.

If you consider when people are in the middle of an argument or a heated conversation, there really isn't a whole lot of time to think. The words just keep coming. What you will also notice is that sentences tend to be shorter and less complex.

Finally, we want to keep the story moving through longer time sequences. This is the space in your story that happens between those two key scenes you have put your characters into. For example, the characters just had a romantic dinner and now are eager to get home and get to "dessert" (so to speak). We do not need to know anything about leaving the restaurant, walking to the car, the ride home, the traffic, the music on the radio, etc. Have them simply look at each other over the empty plates at the restaurant, throw in a chapter break or a * * * and then launch into the "dessert".

Over the empty plates and half-filled wine glasses, Melvin and Mertes knew that dessert was going to happen as soon as they got home.
* * *
Melvin slammed open the door and pushed Mertes to the wall pressing his hard body against hers.

The same goes for larger blocks of time. Look, if nothing happened for three days around the house party, just start with a time tag at the beginning of the chapter. 

Three days later...

Slowing it down is simply those chances to let the reader into the heads of the characters. This is the place where we get the depth and the introspection. This is where we are truly sucked into the story. Unfortunately, authors really do miss this one. I do think this comes from being told too many times to keep the story going. The end result, however, is the lack of information.

I have talked in the past about the idea of monologues. Shakespeare used this idea so well. He would frequently take time to give the hero or heroine a chance to explore their thoughts and emotions. We were really listening to those thoughts that are normally silent in the characters head.

After those action scenes, or after those intense moments, the reader needs a chance to think about what happened.

It is in these moments you need to expand on your thoughts. These cannot be one liners but full paragraphs of material. It is here when the character can think back to an event that happened in their past and realize that was the reason for their behavior with the character just moments before.

When it comes to those sensual scenes, you can slow it down here to. If you want to create that strong sense of passion, forget the "quickie" and let them enjoy. Please note, however, this is not a time to think and it is certainly not a time of world building or introspection. Focus only on the two characters and what they do.

Now you don't need to do this. If you want to tone down the sensuality of the story, just send them behind closed doors and then wake them up the next morning with a smile on their face.

There really isn't a right or wrong approach to controlling pacing. Just be aware of what you are including. Be aware of the sentence structure. Be aware of the information dump. And most importantly, think like a reader. Are you going to start thinking, "Oh my gosh, just get on with it?"

Friday, August 29, 2014

Books Are Not Dead

At least once a month, Facebook suddenly has a post that goes viral about some famous actor who mysteriously dies in some freak accident. Of course, after everyone and their brother SHARES the link with their friends with lines such as "RIP..." or "Wow, I am totally bummed..." we then get a post that says it was some dork out there making up the story. All I can say is "Ha, ha, ha, that is soooo, funny" (did you sense the sarcasm there).

In publishing, we are seeing the same thing. We are all seeing posts proclaiming "the death of the publishing industry." The death is a result of:

  • self-publishing taking over
  • Amazon taking over the world with their drones
  • traditional publishing not willing to change
  • the CIA with the help of aliens at Area 51 are taking over
Sure enough, with each of these articles, the authors are showing clear evidence with numbers and data to show why we are reaching the publishing apocalypse. Of course when I see these articles, I am often reminded of those people we see on the street telling us the end is near.

But we know that often know that these rumors are often exaggerated and unfounded.

The truth is that this business right now is in a state of change. We're not talking about death, but simply a metamorphosis into a different version of what we have seen so far. Who knows what that change will be, but it is going to be around in the future.

People do like to read, but since the economic crunch, people had to make a decision as to whether they would buy milk or buy a book. People have become fixated on all of this great technology of tablets and the ability to connect with each other in social media. Yes, they can read on these devices, but the immediate fascination is on the flash of the other media. In many ways, think of Christmas day and opening packages. We are drawn to the flash and not necessarily the books.

We have to be cautious of responding irrationally to all of these publishing death rumors. Sure, sales might not be strong right now but that doesn't mean things won't pick up. In fact, I have seen sales numbers slowly moving in a positive direction. It might not be at the rate we all want, but things are improving. Like everything else in this business, things take time to change. Don't expect to see a change this week or even next week. It may take months to get us back to full steam again.

I am confident, however, the end is not near at all! Besides, if it was the end, why on earth would I still be asking for submissions?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Willingness To Try New Things - Change Is Good!

I had to share this. I received an email from one of my amazing authors.

Just an FYI to let you know I’ve finally gone “to the other side”. 

Here’s why: 
The story crapped out at about 15,000 words, and I’ve been freaked I couldn’t write any more or get it back on track, that maybe it was too complicated - too politically hot - too … After a trip to the library and a video on the border patrol - yep one exists, video that is,  and no I haven’t watched it - I finally realized I was over thinking the whole thing. 

Problem - No direction because I was writing from the blurb only, reverting back to my old ways.   I’m writing a synopsis now, and I can feel it coming together. I never thought I'd say this but I'm seriously considering an outline.

This is why I love the Greyhaus authors. When each of them hits a roadblock with their writing, they problem-solve their way out of it and, often it requires making a change to what they have gotten
used to in the past.

I think that too often, human beings get into a rut. We live our lives with blinders on and cannot see anything beyond the path we have always traveled. Of course, when we do this, we often find ourselves running into brick walls and crashing. Sometimes this collision causes us to completely quit what we were doing.

I have seen a lot of writers come and go since I opened up the agency in 2003. Many of these writers disappeared because they ran into that brick wall and chose not to make a change to what they were doing. They found themselves staring at a blank computer screen for hours and not getting anything done. They found themselves going to writing conferences such at the Romance Writers of America national conference and leaving saying "What's the point."

The point is they don't have to quit like this. To find a solution to our problem, we have to think outside of the box. We have to think about changing what we are doing.

If we think about the struggles the publishing industry is feeling right now, we can see that, unless the industry as a whole considers change, the problems are not going to go away. Apparently getting readers to the books in the way we used to do isn't working right now. Maybe the models we used did work once but, for some reason, the models aren't working now. Should we continue to keep ramming our heads into the walls and make excuses? I would personally say we need to do what my authors do. Consider changing a course of action.

So the question for all of you this Thursday is pretty simple. Are you willing to make a change?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How To Be A Successful Writer

We see articles every day on the things you can do to be successful in the business of publishing. Some articles rave about the uses of social media. Others go on and on about marketing strategies and book placement. Then there are those that take the approach of using specific writing tools and structures. Let's face it, there seems to be an expert at writing around every corner. What I find is interesting is that most of these articles seem to think that if you use "their approach" you will suddenly find yourself making a living at writing.

I am sorry to say this, but the odds are it isn't going to happen that way.

I started thinking about the authors out there that seem to be doing really well as writers. There are many out there that seem to ignore all of those strategies we hear people proclaiming as being the only way you can make it in this business. For these people, they are often successful because of their attitude about this business. They are doing what all writers should be doing - they place the "skill of writing" and their craft ahead of "the business of writing."

Even in workshops and at conferences, there seems to be this implied message that "If you do X you will find yourself being a published author." What all of these things seem to miss is that success is not just selling one book, it is the ability to keep doing what you are doing. We all know there are a ton of "one hit wonders" out there. It happens in everything around us. Hey, VH-1 runs shows pretty frequently about the one-hit-wonders in music (Remember Dexys Midnight Runners and Come on Eileen?). We see them in sports. These are the people that everyone turns their attention to because of one hot season, and then they disappear. What happened?

For many, it wasn't the talent. It came down to those other skills that we don't talk about. It was attitude. These aren't necessarily skills that can be taught, but individuals do have the ability to make these changes on a personal level to be successful. As I made this list this morning, it really narrowed down to 5 traits. What you will find is that all of these traits look at the individual. They aren't looking at how they stack up against other writers. It is all about the self.

1. A Constant Commitment To Learning
Success comes with an ability to always want to learn to get better. Successful writers are not going to be happy with finding that one niche and then simply saying they have it. They know there can be ways to improve and figure out stronger tools to make their writing better. These writers are dedicated enough to want to read up on what other people are doing. They continue to take classes and explore new techniques with their writing.

I think it is easy for writers to say they are all about wanting to learn, but the learning seems to be more about those skills to sell the book, and not so much about the skills to be a better writer. Socrates once described learning this way. If you draw a circle, everything inside of the circle is what you know. Everything touching the edge of the circle are the things you know of but don't understand. Everything on the outside of the circle are things that you don't even know yet. Now when you learn those things touching the outside of the circle, what happens to the circle? It gets bigger and the surface area on the outside of the circle increases. In other words, the more we learn, the more we find that we have to now learn. Successful writers don't just limit themselves to the information inside that circle. They focus always on the outside of that circle.

2. A Willingness To Change And Grow
This is a big one for editors and agents when we sign on new authors. We are not looking for just someone who can write well, but someone who understands the need to change and grow. Successful writers find ways to constantly evolve over time. They can change when the climate and readers change. They can change when they find themselves with new publishers, agencies and editors.

Success is again, not a matter of saying you are good at something, but being able to say, I can and will change if something is not working right.

At the recent Grand Prix Swim Meet in Irvine, we saw a great example of this. I am a big fan of the swimmers here and I certainly don't this to come across as a slam, but a learning moment. Michael Phelps had an OK meet, but it certainly wasn't his best. In fact, one of the first events he was in, he ended up taking 7th and getting his clocks cleaned. It seemed his turns weren't what they were supposed to be. Apparently, the coaches were saying that due to the conditions of the water, it was important to get out there and practice the turns to make sure they got them right. He decided to work on something else.

Now I don't know the reason for this, but he knows, as well as the rest of the world, that his turns are pretty dang amazing. But sometimes, what you are doing is not always going to work and you have to change and grow. In fact, that is part of the reason we saw a rise in the quality of swims by Ryan Lochte. He saw what he was doing and was willing to change his approach to swimming and grow in a new way.

3. A Sense Of Humility
I looked this definition up today because I think it said a lot more than I could say. According to one of those great online dictionaries, humility is "the quality or condition of being humble; opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc."

I do think there are far too many authors who, after making that first sale, suddenly struggle with finding a hat that will fit their head. They have reached a status that, "only those as talented as they are could ever hope to achieve." Do you get a sense that I really don't like their attitude here? They take the word DIVA to an all new level. You know who these people are. They are at every writer's conference and walk around with their own entourage that seems to wait on them hand and foot.

I know most national writing groups out there have a designated group like this. In the Romance Writers of America, we have PAN or the Published Author's Network. Now don't get me wrong here. We do need groups of people that are at the same common level in terms of their progress. However, when the individuals within one of those similar groups starts to think they are somehow more special than everyone
else, they have missed the point. Let me give you another example of this one and I think you will understand the point. Can you say Sneeches?

But start to think of those writers (or any of those other people successful in other sports and activities). It isn't just about the money, it is about knowing who they are and being comfortable with their own success. In romance, I like to always toss out a couple of names that I believe truly exemplify this - Brenda Novak, Cherry Adair, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nicola Cornick, Cathy Clamp, just to name a few.

4. Being A Listener
This one goes back to that learning aspect of things. These people are willing to listen to other people. They listen to their editors, they listen to their agents, they listen to their readers. You never see these people wandering around telling you what they think. Sure, if you ask, they will tell you, but it is always in the context of following it up with, "but what are your thoughts?"

Being a listener means you are someone thinking outside and not inside. We learn through listening. We grow from hearing other's perspectives and opinions. We can see new ways of doing things.

Isn't it interesting when we see individuals leaving one group to form a new group? Often times, it is not a pretty break up and more often than not, the reason is always "the previous group didn't do what we wanted them to do for me." Do you hear how self focused this is.

5. An Ability To Look At Your Writing Objectively
This is probably one of the toughest things to do. You will also notice that this is really one of the only areas I speak of in these traits that looks at the actual skill of writing. We have to be able to look at our own writing from an objective and unbiased view. We cannot look at it as our pride and joy. We have to look at what we do with a clear perspective.

What makes this skill so difficult is to be able to say that there is truly something wrong with our writing and then to objectively think about ways to make the improvements. We cannot make excuses because it is "our writing". No one else put those words on the page.

If the writing is not strong then we have to accept it and then move on. Now I do know there are some people out there that I believe feed on telling the world how bad their writing is (or whatever they are doing) in the hopes of getting someone to say it is really not that bad. I don't think they do this intentionally, but it has become something they have to do. My daughter rides with a young lady who is always doing this. Don't get me wrong, she's a great person, but hearing constantly how she struggled on that last ride, or how she almost fell off gets tiring after a while. But she does it and sure enough, people around her will always follow up with "Oh, you are really a good rider, there was just (insert an excuse) that caused the problem."

But this is not just a matter of saying your writing is good. We can also look at our writing objectively and say this is the best damn thing we have ever written. If it is objective and true, then say it.

There is an implied message here that we need to understand and it relates to a line from Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare: "Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And other's have greatness thrust upon them." Being successful is really something that the first two clauses in Malvolio's comment connect with directly. Some people are naturally born with the right attitude and brain for being successful. The skills of writing are just a way to express that success. As far as the second element, some achieve that success through leaning more about who they are as a person. They learn to be successful and the writing skills just follow.  The last clause, really describes, unfortunately, so many out there who find immediate "success" but never go on to be successful.

This is all a matter of looking at yourself. We cannot blame Amazon for our sales. We cannot blame the publishers for not putting the right cover on our book, or marketing our books the right way. We cannot blame our families for getting in the way of our writing. We can only look at what we do. We have the control over our success.