workshop wednesday – what do you need?

Since I don’t want to become one of those authors who is all “me, me, me” all the time, I’m giving ya’ll the floor. What do you need help with, right now? No, I’m not coming to dig the gunk out of your garbage disposal and scrape the Playdoh off your dining room wall. But if you need help with something in your writing life (or your personal life for that matter, for you non-writers), then I’m all ears today.

Put your quandary in comments and I’ll try to help.

workshop wednesday – contests

On April 17th, Guide comes out. To celebrate I’m going to run a contest. Before I decide what, though, I’m hoping ya’ll will help me. My last contest was a big success and I wound up with 100+ comments.

Your part is simple. What’s your favorite kind? Book giveaway? Jewelry? Gift certificates? Do you prefer a random drawing, a meme, or to answer questions? Help me out in comments please, so I know what you like best. I’m kind of a noob at this.

workshop wednesday – markets

I’ve heard aspiring writers say they’d rather throw a manuscript away than sell it to an epublisher. That startles me. I just want people reading my stuff, I don’t necessarily care what format it comes in. However, the argument can be made that some epublishers are choosier than others about what they accept, some have bigger promotional budgets and such.

The sales are making the big boys take notice, though. Jane from Dear Author writes about HarperCollins taking the plunge. She notes that she advocated authors building an online following via epubs and then leveraging that into larger sales. Do you guys think that’s a viable plan?

One thing she said I wonder about as well:

Having Harper Collins enter the million dollar ebook publishing industry makes me wonder what will happen to epublishers such as Ellora’s Cave and Samhain. My hope is that it raises the standard of what is going to be published while not diminishing the diversity of offerings.

I hope the giants don’t stomp out the little guys, but I’m pleased to see recognition of a fellow author, though I don’t know Delilah Devlin from Adam. Congrats Ms. Devlin!

This post is more about markets, though. If you were going to sub to an epublisher, which one would you choose and why? Who is your dream publisher in NY? How come?

workshop wednesday – discipline

Sometimes it can be hard getting to the finish line. Without a contract, we don’t have deadlines unless we impose them. We don’t have somebody cracking the whip over us. In effect, writers are their own bosses. Working in your jammies all day is a perk.

This past two weeks I’ve been tested as I never have been. I’m not one for self-discipline. I’m a creature of impulse. I do things for reasons I don’t entirely understand. I write in fits and starts, sometimes with such singleminded passion that I don’t want to eat or sleep or bathe until the muse is finished with me.

Sometimes I’m a slack-ass. I just want to watch a movie, take a nap or play one of my gazillion computer games instead of anything productive. When I get like this, I could go weeks without writing anything. I try not to do that, try to reserve it for the downtimes when I’m cleansing my mental palate after completing a project, but I’m taking a rest before beginning something new. Typically I break for two weeks after wrapping up a book, though I have screwed around for as long as month before getting back to work. Good times.

Now I’m on the cusp of completing a project, 8800 words to go. I’ll write at least 2200 more words today, maybe as much as 3300 if the writing is good. Tomorrow I will wrap things up. More than once, over the last fourteen days, I wanted to say fuck it and screw around instead. Not that I don’t love writing, but this schedule has been grueling. But I stuck to it.

To do that, I dangled little carrots (and yes, I fell for it). Once I met my goal for the day, I could do something fun. Watch a movie, whatever. My incentive for completing the project is a nice dinner out with my husband and new handbag from a store at Mundo E that imports delightfully gaudy purses from India. I’ll post a pic of the one I buy as a reward for finishing.

How do you guys keep yourself focused?

workshop wednesday – faces and names

Meet Dev from TEMPTATION. No, it’s not perfect. I picture him having more golden hair and skin, longer hair. But the face is pretty close.

And here’s Teresa. I picture her hair as being wilder, wavier when it’s down but the overall look is right.

When I’m working on a project, I almost always find an image that represents the main characters. Sometimes I cast the whole book in my head. I find it helps me to describe the characters better if I look at actual faces. I try not to make the comparisons because that’s lazy and it might date the book, but in my head…

So how do you guys bring your characters to life?

workshop wednesday – research

Editors are awesome people.

They have minds that work utterly unlike my own. They notice such pesky details as, “Manhattan doesn’t have a 54th Avenue” and “Whatever happened to the glass of iced tea Ellie was carrying around?”

To which I respond airily, “I write my novels in accordance with the Carrell principle of truthiness, truth unencumbered by the facts.”

Generally, I am then rewarded with a laugh and an instruction to do a little research and make my book agree with consensual reality. Did I mention that I hate research? Yet I never stint on it. I took a trip to NY when I was writing Guide. I made notes, visited all the locations I intended to use in the book. Clearly I didn’t get everything right, though. That’s why editors are so great!

I’ve done the wackiest things in the name of research. There was the great diet experiment and sperm taste-off of ’06, for instance. Just recently, I read a study that listed lavender and pumpkin pie as having the greatest effect on penile blood flow in men (40% increase!). So I did what any sane author would do. I went to Sensia and ordered a bottle of each from Demeter. Last night I put on both scents in place of my usual CK Escape. It’s a bit strong, so if you repeat my research, use it sparingly. I’m going to log how it affects my man and if it affects random passersby for that matter (although judging 40% penile increase by crotch-staring may earn me a weird reputation). Still I think it’s worthwhile. Anything for science.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done in the name of research? This question isn’t just for writers. Think back to your college days.

Workshop Wednesday – query formula

My queries rock. I am the Queen of Queries. Between the great agent search ’06 and its cousin in ’07, I’ve worked out a formula that I guarantee will receive a request for pages if the actual writing is good. I can’t cure bad writing (not that my smart, wonderful readers suffer from it) but there are those folks that my query formula simply cannot assist. Here’s the letter I used recently:

Dear Ms. (Name),

I’m looking for a new agent, and I know your agency is highly effective, so I’m offering you a look at my hot new science-fiction romance, FALLING. I haven’t queried it widely yet, as the thirty day notice with my former agent completed not too long ago, but two agents are looking at the full at this time. They requested it just a few hours after reading the query and first chapter, available here. This manuscript is complete at 86K words.

RITA-winning author Linnea Sinclair stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to finish this book and said: “FALLING is a top notch SF/SFR winner that Anne Groell of Bantam would love.” Linnea also offered to blurb me when it sells and ask Mary Jo Putney, Susan Grant, and Robin Owens whether they have time to read and blurb as well.

Currently I live in Mexico City with my husband and two children. I hold a degree in English Literature with a minor in Humanities. I’ve been writing for years, and my writing was nominated in 2002 for the RT Best Small Press Romance Award. I have a novel coming out with Loose Id in May and a proposal for a paranormal series under consideration at Juno Books. Now let me tempt you with a little information about this project.

Sirantha Jax is a spoiled nav star, a J-gene carrier. She can hear the beacons calling, and they let her navigate in grim space. As a result, she can have anything she wants from the Corp, and she usually receives it. With the man she loves at her side, her life is golden. Until the disaster on the Sargasso. She’s the sole survivor, and she can’t give her bosses the answers they need (or want?) regarding what went wrong. Maybe she’s paranoid, but when they start whispering she should confess, she takes the first ride off station, though it means giving up the only life she’s ever known. Rescue comes in an unlikely form, a brusque, hard-faced man named March with secrets of his own. She doesn’t want a pilot bond with him, but amid laser fire and pursuing Gray squads, she has little choice. So they jump for Lachion, a waystation along the Star Road, where she finds out what these unlikely allies want with her. Maybe she was better off in her cell…

The truly unique thing about the manuscript is the juxtaposed roles and an anti-heroine who still manages to be endearing. I hope you’re interested in reading more. Thanks for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

Ann Aguirre

Now that you can see what I did, I’ll break it down for you. First paragraph should include genre, word count, and hook. (That’s the essence of your book, boiled down to 200 characters or less). Another workshop covered being able to pare your hook down like that. Alternatively, if you have some demand for your work establish it, as I did in place of the hook. This makes the agent sit up and say, “Someone else is reading this. It might be better than average” and it pushes your query a little further along the queue. If you have the first chapter on your site, that’s also good. An agent is likely to follow a link. Maybe they’ll even rummage around your site if they’re bored or on hold, so make sure it looks good. If they like what they see, they may skip asking for a partial and request the full manuscript. (And that’s how I do it.) I know some authors caution against putting a link in a query, but I don’t see there’s a downside, provided your website is ready to be viewed professionally. Taken realistically, if they aren’t interested enough in your material to click a link, how likely are they to ask for pages? Just ensure the excerpt on site is error free and polished to a high sheen. (Sidenote — the agent who asked for a full this week also wrote, “And may I say, that you have just about the coolest website I have ever seen. I totally love the look of it.” So big props to Deena for making me look good.) Doing this, you can often cut through the partial requests and head straight for fulls, and I’m all for efficiency.

Next, the second paragraph should tell what’s special about your novel, any prizes or awards it’s won or author endorsements you have. If none, then move straight into your biographical info. It should be short and sweet, related to writing credentials. No padding. If you don’t have a lot on your writing resume, do not pad it by talking about your kids and your collection of stuffed armadillos (unless you’ve written a book about collecting same).

The next paragraph should be the “back cover copy” of the novel. For each book I query, I write a blurb, 250 words or less. This is quite different from a complete synopsis, and this is where most authors go wrong. The agent doesn’t need to know the whole story in the query letter. The trick is making her want to read on.

The last paragraph states what’s unique about your book, expresses hope for future contact, thanks the agent for his / her time and closes. That’s it.

Using this formula, I guarantee you will get some requests for pages. My average is 50%. Final thought, keep the letter lean. 500-600 words is ample. Agents want to know you can self-edit; it gives them hope that your novel will be tight as well. I always e-query, so I go by words. 600 is max. Just checked that query — it will fit on one page and it’s 439 words.

And there you have it. Plug your specifics into this letter and it will work for you. If it doesn’t, I’ll take a look at your version and fix it. That’s a promise.

Workshop Wednesday – cover art II

SPOTLIGHT ON ANNE CAIN

Here’s the follow up to the cover art discussion from last week: When good art goes bad and how to stop it.

Anne Cain was kind enough to give me some time (thank you, Anne!) and as part of her interview with me, she offered some really interesting thoughts on design elements. It’s a micro-workshop on knowing what looks good, so without further ado:

I think some concepts might not translate very well. Certain things just look…bad. Not to sound negative, but that’s a fact no one can deny. Like colors — there are some colors that just look awful no matter how good the artist’s intentions are. Just off the top of my head, one color combo I don’t like is egg plant purple and fire-engine red. That’s bad, and any artist worth his or her color wheel should know that.

Sometimes a cover can have a great idea behind it, but the overall design doesn’t really work. There are basic design principles graphic artists pick up on the job or at school, and those are really helpful tools when it comes to creating good ‘flow’ and a strong layout. I remember giving one of my profs a ‘huh?’ look when we spent a class just playing around with simple geometric shapes in Illustrator and arranging them in different compositions to see what works best. But it ended being a good learning experience, and I’m applying the same technical approach now. And art is a field where you’re constantly learning and evolving — getting stuck in one mindset really hinders the creative process so artists can’t be afraid to try something different.

Ebook covers are just as versatile as those on print books — what looks good on a bookshelf will usually look good in e-form. Authors do need to keep in mind that since the art is going to be shrunken down to thumbnail size (about 100px wide) on websites and blogs, a really detailed cover might end up looking too busy. So don’t ask for too many elements in the cover art, or at least keep in mind your artist will most probably eliminate a couple of things to keep the art from looking too hectic.

That’s helpful, I think. Extrapolating, the most important thing for an author to remember is not to ask for too many elements in the design or the cover will look busy. The sexiest covers I’ve seen tend to be very simple.

For instance, Bam declared this a hot cover of the week, sometime before the holidays and I completely agree. It’s gorgeous.

As a final thought, I’m going to revisit April because she sent me some more interesting and important information after I ran the article last week. We were still talking about bad covers, and she had this to say:

Well … part of it is what you mentioned before — the skill of the artist (as well as the willingness of the publisher to pay for such). Anne and I both draw by hand when we’re not doing covers. So do Christine Griffin, P.L. Nunn, L.W. Perkins, Will Kramer, and the like. The ability to draw by hand really does add a lot to the arsenal of skills, even if you work only with photographs or even sometimes with Poser. And the astute publisher will usually pay for that.

Unfortunately, most Poser artists get into using Poser to begin with because they’re unable to draw and would like to be able to create art, especially that which features people. People are hard to render realistically, even if you CAN draw/paint by hand. There is not only the anatomy to consider but the ephemeral luminescence in the skin tones, the subtle facial expressions, etc. It’s one of those things Irene Gallo, art director at Tor, really looks for in an artist. Anyone who can paint people realistically can pretty much do anything.

Now consider the hobby artist who wants to create realistic people art but who hasn’t even attempted doing the same by hand … or who HAS attempted it but doesn’t do well at it and therefore doesn’t bother any more. Poser becomes not only a shortcut to them; it becomes a replacement. In other words, they focus their time and their skills on that tool only. If they want to improve, they buy more textures, more props, more characters, or more clothes, or they upgrade their software, and then they pose their figures or organize their Poser libraries. That amounts to a lot of time, effort, and money on their part — probably just as much time, effort, and money that I spend sketching, painting, shooting, or buying good stock photos and fonts. The point is, it becomes their entire arsenal of skills.

Why would they bother venturing away from Poser, then? As much work as it might take them, it still creates art so much more easily and realistically than if they did it by hand. So why bother practising other skills?

Then, of course, there’s the pay. [Some e-pubs] pay as little as $25 per cover, which to an artist who might spend two or three hours on a cover (or a lot more) is really not much. The DAZ Victoria model, which is used a lot in Poser, costs more than that, and she doesn’t even come with clothes or many hair props. I can’t imagine what the average Poser artist pays for clothes props. Me, I don’t even bother — I usually paint the clothes by hand if I ever use Poser.

So the goal for any Poser artist who can’t paint on clothes or a background is volume — i.e., quantity not quality. To be able to pay for all the Poser stuff that they’ve bought, they must do as many covers as they can, and I think [some epubs] go for that because they need as many covers as they can get for as little money as they can get away with.

This is not necessarily a bad decision for a small publisher — perhaps they want to focus their efforts and budget on the editing of the books. So for them, perhaps the Poser artists fit their bill perfectly. Quick, cheap, and doable. Never mind that people don’t like their covers; their goal is to put out as many books as they can each week, and to do that, they have to hire artists that are fast and cheap.

Which reminds me, there’s a saying about business that one of my bosses once told me. You have the following: Fast, Inexpensive, and Good Quality. But in any one product or service you can have only any two out of the three; you can’t have them all.

And there you have it. Yes, the companies churning out such dreadful covers probably know they suck, but you get what you pay for. Let’s hope the money’s going into the books.

See you next week!

Workshop Wednesday – the process

Right now, I’m trying something different. I saw on Ellora’s Cave Call for Submissions update for December, they’re looking for “Naughty Nuptials” Quickies, due by Feb 1, coming out in June (June weddings, I get it). That’s a complete story, 10-15K, with lots of sex, written to spec and centered around a wedding in some fashion. I’ve never done that — taken someone else’s criteria and tried to write a story to fit it. I have no guarantee they’ll buy it, of course, but I was curious:

How malleable is my muse? Will she work on spec?

Lemme tell you about my process, so far. I had parameters, and I started thinking, okay, what would be a good wedding story? Quickly, it came to me; I wanted to do a “My Best Friend’s Wedding” type thing, only I hated that ending. I figured, here’s my chance to fix it!

After I had a general idea, I needed characters, so I started here. (Li’l plug for the Seventh Sanctum name generators. If you have a story idea, but you’re a sucky namer or in a hurry, you’ll find lots of help here. You can find a generator to suit just about any genre or purpose.) I played with that until I had six names that I liked and then I thought, okay, what about a FRIENDS type setup, adding to the BF Wedding idea? If they’re very close, more like a family, then when two of them are getting married (and another suffers from unrequited love), that would be a huge honking deal. (Yay, conflict!)

So I went forth and started writing. It was a little weird at first because it was…an artificial idea? These weren’t people already living in my head, begging me to write about them. They were people I planned into being, which if you’re an organic writer, you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s just different. But as I get to know them, I’m enjoying this. It’s actually clipping along fairly well; I’ve finished over 5K in two days. I’m not sure how good the end result will be, because I never write short fiction. I don’t know if I can succeed at this, but it’s a valuable exercise, I think.

So how are your ideas born?

By overhearing a snatch of conversation? A dream? A piece of music? Do they have to come spontaneously or can you write on commission?

I challenge all of you to test your creative process and report back. Will your muse work on spec?

Workshop Wednesday – the Hook

I’m baaaaaaaaaaaack. Miss me?

First, I hope you all enjoyed the holidays, however and whatever you celebrate, and now I trust you’re all ready to embrace the new year with all its challenges. You are? Fabulous!

Onward to the day’s topic then. (No, I’m not going to re-tell the story about the escaped criminally insane guy who terrorizes young lovers making out on a lonely country road.)As I was skimming through blogs to see what I’ve missed over the past three weeks, I came across this post by Agent Kristin on Romancing the Blog. What she says about the importance of a good hook is certainly worth reading, but sometimes writers mix up hooks with simple plot devices. Miss Snark has been helping with the development of hooks for the crapometer as well, but she’s asking for a hook in under 250 words.

Here, I’m going to do it a little bit differently. I sold Guide recently (more news on that in a subsequent post), so I’ve been working on book blurbs for it, which includes a hook (occasionally called a tagline). One of these needs to be fewer than two hundred characters (that’s including letters and spaces!) At the most basic level, the hook is exactly what it sounds like: a twist that draws your reader into your story from the jump and makes him / her want to read on. You should be able to put your finger on what that would be, and if you can’t, then maybe you’ve written a story that (eek!) doesn’t have one (or needs a stronger one, something that pops). So for the purposes of this Workshop Wednesday, think about the book you just finished and then try to come up with a one-line hook that will make me drool.

Here’s what I came up with for Guide:

Good girl gone bad — anything goes in the name of research.

Is that the best I can do? You tell me. Does it make you want to read more? I’m still pondering since it can be hard to boil the premise of your book down to one killer sentence. Now you try! We’ll talk about them in comments, and maybe we can help each other out.

Tomorrow, I’m reviewing Twice Upon a Road Trip by Shannon Stacey for Ebook Thursday. Stay tuned.