Monthly Archives: April 2012
Whether you’re hooked on Mad Men or The Walking Dead, or Downton Abbey is more your speed, Americans are having a love affair with cable TV series. The audience for these three shows, and dozens of others, is vastly different, but they all have one thing in common which keeps viewers tuning in, saving them on DVR, and pre-ordering the DVD sets: the writing.
Granted, script writing is different from writing novels and novellas, and scripts for television series are different from movie screenplays. But no matter what your medium, writers share a few responsibilities to deliver to their target audience: tell a great story peopled with larger than life characters, and leave your audience clamoring for more.
Beginning fiction writers often make a common mistake – writing about everyday people with uninteresting lives. Page after page of following your character through his daily routine isn’t character development, it’s boring. Readers don’t turn to stories, no matter what the medium, to see themselves. It’s fine to create an Everyman and show him going about his day to day activities before setting up the story catalyst… but you’d better get through it quick and make something happen to lift him out of the mundane.
Take a look at Walter White in Breaking Bad. This guy is as ordinary as they come. He’s a middle class white guy with a family and a house in the suburbs with a two car garage. He has a lame job as a high school chemistry teacher. Ho hum. He discovers he has lung cancer. Boo hoo. We’re all dying of one thing or another. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you know what becomes of Walter White.
But imagine if the first episode began like this: Walter goes to school. Walter teaches class. Kids are bored. He picks up his son after school. He goes to the doctor and gets the bad news. How fast would we switch the channel? What did the writers do with the first episode? They started it at a critical point later in the episode’s story line (and continued this technique through later episodes)… they showed us a man running through the New Mexico desert without pants. Within a matter of minutes, we as an audience know there is something completely out of the ordinary about this guy, and we are hooked.
As a writer, your responsibility is to hook your reader from page one. We live in an instant gratification society. You may write the loveliest prose in the world, but if someone starts your book and isn’t snagged, they’re going to turn on the TV, get on Facebook, text, or worse, start reading someone else’s book.
Give your readers a reason to read your book. Immediately.
OK, so you’ve got a great character. He’s mean as a polecat, but incredibly good-looking, like Thomas the Footman on Downton Abbey, or he’s an uber-stud like Don Draper on Mad Men who smokes and drinks his way through season one while juggling two affairs and sex with his Barbie doll wife. Dude, come up for air! Where would Mad Men have gone if Don Draper lived the good life and was faithful to Betty? Nowhere.
Let’s take a look at one of my favorite TV characters, Deb Morgan from Dexter. Viewers tune in every week not just too find out how Dexter will manage to pull through another episode without his secret being revealed, but also to hear what atrociously obscene things come out of his sister’s mouth. Yes, Deb is a dedicated and talented cop who shares her brother’s grief for their father’s untimely deat. But aside from her colorful mouth, do you know what really makes Deb Morgan pop as a character? Her failed relationships. Season after season she is thrust into new relationships and blows it every time. Because Dexter is a series and not a finite piece of fiction, this will happen over and over until the show comes to its conclusion.
The writing of Deb Morgan’s character and her story arcs is a prime example of the old adage, put your character in a tree and throw rocks at him. Another great example is Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad. Look at his predicaments in the season two episode, “Down”. Jesse has been living in his late aunt’s house, believing it to be his. His parents take ownership and kick him out. Jesse turns to Paul, a buddy from high school who agrees to let Jesse crash at his place. But Paul has cleaned up his own act. He has a house in the suburbs, a child, and a wife who immediately puts the kibosh on Jesse’s plans. Jesse parks his motorcycle outside a mini-mart where he calls his buddy, Badger, who also denies him a place to stay. Coming out of the mini-mart, Jesse’s motorcycle has been stolen! What could possibly go wrong next? With nowhere else to go, Jesse scales the fence into the lot where the repaired RV awaits Jesse’s payment. He lands precariously on top of a porta-potty and the next thing you know, he is covered in feces and blue chemicals. This is, of course, an extreme example of how to beat up a character, but if it were written in a book, your readers would not be able to turn the pages fast enough.
There is an interesting phenomenon that’s all too common these days: an independently published book has dozens of four and five star reviews. We read a few pages of the sample and it’s a riot of bad grammar, typos and punctuation errors. But people are not only buying it, they are giving it great reviews. What’s the secret? It’s certainly not the prose, but I guarantee it has two things going for it, and those two things make all the difference in the world: great characters and a great plot.
So what are you going to do? Continue writing mundane stories about uninteresting people and run the risk of readers moving on to the next shiny object? Or are you going to take a cue from the TV shows we’ve all become addicted to and create memorable characters and page-turning plots? If you want the sales and the buzz, the choice is yours.
Find psychological gothic/horror author Barrymore Tebbs online: http://barrymoretebbs.blogspot.com
Or Facebook: BarrymoreTebbs
I’m pleased to have fellow romance author Lizzie T. Leaf on the blog today. She has several romance novels out and several more re-releases and new releases on the way. Take it away, Lizzie!
One of the things I most admire is authors who are prolific. Those who seem to have a book release every few weeks, or at least several books a year. There once was a time I fell into the several books a year category, but not recently.
I hit a slump with writing in December. Not a “gee, I have no idea on what to write” slump, or the “story just isn’t coming to me” period. Nope, I had (have) all the ideas and stories screaming for attention in my head, but I chose to ignore them. Sort of like when the kids are fighting again and you’ve heard it so often its background noise…that kind of ignore.
Not being productive in an area I normally love to escape into isn’t my proudest moment, but when life comes at you from all fronts and wears you down something has to give. In my case it became the writing. Even the love notes from my editor on the new book didn’t spur me into a burning desire to respond. It reached the point she suggested I take a break from edits and writing. Taking her advice, I did…to the point I can’t stay on break any longer.
The need to create came screaming back, the voices in my head louder in their need for attention and my fingers are itching for words to flow again.
So maybe some of us need a break. When we hit those periods where life makes production difficult instead of beating up on ourselves, what if we take a deep breath and go with the flow. Allow the time to be kind to us without guilt. Because if we don’t our muse gets really bitchy and uncooperative.
To all of you who never experience situations of this sort, I admire you and confess to being a little green with envy. For those who like me hit the wall occasionally, remember take the break you need. Letting you love you will get you back on track a lot faster…at least that’s the way it works in my world.
Have you ever met someone who has a dream of something he or she would like to get paid to do–some art or hobby? I’ve met a ton of folks like that, and think there’s one essential question to ask yourself if you’re starting out as a writer or faltering as one (or maybe as any type of artist):
Is this a hobby or a job/career path to me?
The answer to that question will determine your future. No, I mean it as dramatic as it sounds. I didn’t think much about the different paths of writers and artists at first when I began writing in August of 2010, but once that first novel was accepted, I began to think of my writing as another of my jobs. I already have a couple of those. But writing was even better because it was a dream job, and it still is. That doesn’t mean that it will ever be full time in my case, but it will bring in money and look like a job.
So, how do you know if your writing is a job or that you’re on a career path with it? I think these are a few indicators of the career path writer:
1. You write every day or darn close to it. Yeah, I know. Life happens. It happens to me, too, but I have a set block of time for writing that I strive to reach each day. For me, that’s three hours. I don’t worry about word counts since I write fast anyhow. And I do hit that goal most days. This consistency has resulted in my having over 25 works out in various manifestations with more on the way this year. That’s since March of 2011 when my first novel, Magnolian, was published. To me, this daily habit is the most important part of writing as a career or job path.
2. You invest in your writing. Investment means you learn your craft by reading about writing, talking with others writers and most importantly… writing. It also means you hire editors, cover artists, formatters, and more when you need them, or you swap out skills with other writers and artists. Please understand one thing. I’m not advocating that you spend yourself into the poor house to do these things. There’s no need to. I say that as a writer who made a decent profit (after expenses) my first year of writing. I kept costs low, and part of this was done while having an unemployed husband for half of 2011. So yeah. It can be done. You just might have to give up some other stuff you spend money on. That’s life. You can’t have it all, even though many people will try to tell you you can.
3. You try different things in publishing. This is where I’ll veer off from some indies and small press folks in my opinions. I like doing both types of publishing and having many options open to me. And if a traditional deal ever came my way, I might try that, too. Who knows? This goes back to Dean Wesley Smith’s discussion of slices of pie in your magic bakery of writing. Check his blog out and diversify. It’s well worth your time to scan through the past posts from someone who’s done what you’re trying to do–writing as a career (or as a big part of your income in my case). www.deanwesleysmith.com
4. You have a plan for the future. At any given moment, if someone asked you, you could tell them what’s coming out this year and what’s in the pipeline. You have a long range plan of sorts, too. I’ve recently started using a calendar to schedule my works far into the future. For me, it’s great. I also have a file of writing ideas to last me for a while. There’s always something to work toward. This year, one of my big writing career goals is getting some of my works into print via self publishing. In terms of bettering my craft, I’m going to be working with a new editor, and I’m excited about that. It’s worth the investment since I plan to be writing for a long time.
5. You’re not afraid to practice your art the way you want to in spite of black and white thinkers and haters. You’ll take steps to do so and to do it happily. Your art will look different than mine. You need a pen name? Do it. Want to try horror, but you’re a romance writer? Go for it. Fail big if you must, but you likely won’t if you’ve thought it out.
6. You have a website and are building a social network. As with any job, you are meeting people who are interested in what you do.
7. You don’t just dream and wring your hands. You make real progress. At the end of a month or a year, you should be able to point to what you got done to further your career in writing or art. If you can’t, you’re spinning your wheels, and something needs to change.
8. You sacrifice other things for writing. Want to do something fun but you have a deadline? Butt in chair to reach that deadline. Distracted by a shiny bauble or happy fun time? Oh, it’s sparkly, isn’t it? Butt in chair. Get the writing done first and let the rest follow. I’m lucky here, and I’ll admit it. I tend to be a creature of habit. I love it. And I’m married to a guy who supports my writing and does a lot around the house and with our daughter. He’s a great guy like that.
9. You listen to those who have done, not those who are still stuck. I want to focus this point especially for the indie/small press writers who might read this. Want to put out books, build a readership, and make money from your writing career? Then follow those who have done so. You know the ones I mean–those folks who have tons of short stories, novellas, and novels out there for purchase (like more than their one great novel they won’t shut up about). In other words, their virtual shelves are phat, and they aren’t waiting for magic from the sky (sometimes known as a big six publishing contract. I know. That was direct, but I mean it) to fall down like manna. I know a lot of people in the writing world who talk–a lot. They might have even written books that are languishing somewhere, but they have yet to treat writing as a true business. If someone is talking but he or she doesn’t have anything to back it up–as in real books that are making money now and not ten years from now–why listen? The big six contract is all well and good, but nothing stops an author from building a career way before that happens, and if it never does, that’s fine, too, because the books are already out there–at least most of them– in indie or small press form. Those indie and small press writers who’ve made it in terms of making a decent amount of money from their writing? They have way more than one book out and have done a lot more than talk about writing.
Find other writers or artists who are doing what you want to do, and read what they have to say. Soak it in, and take what works for you and leave the rest. Folks who tend to talk and not do really stick in my craw. I put my ear plugs in, roll my eyes, and move on. For more on this, you might look into these writers and their fabulous blogs: Lindsay Buroker, J.A. Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. There are many others, but these guys are the ones I read the most these days.
I’m sure I’ll think of more to add later, but I’ll leave you with the original question: is writing a career/job or a hobby to you? It’s really up to you. If it’s just a hobby, great. Expect to have fun and to find it relaxing. Is it a career/job? Then it’s another thing altogether–way bigger than just fun. How you answer this question will make all the difference in what happens next.