November 30, 2008

The Importance of Setting in Your Novel

If you're finished with Thanksgiving leftovers and ready to get back to some serious writing tips, here's my offering.

When I was teaching for Writers Digest School many of my students were good at dialogue but
often forgot to let the reader know and “see” where the conversations and action were taking place. Setting consists of the time, place and mood of a story and can help shape your story idea.

You always need to know where your story is taking place. Is it going to be in a real place? If so, it is important that you know everything about that place so a reader won’t be thrown out of the story by something being wrong. Believe me, a reader will let you know if your hero or heroine is driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

If the setting is fictional, will it be more vivid than an actual place? My Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series is set in a place much like where I live. However, I changed the name and moved the town of Bear Creek about 1000 feet higher in the mountains because I wanted better trees. At least that’s what I always say, but what I really wanted was to be able to move the geography around a bit and change some of the places that my characters frequent. (And, unfortunately, with the exception of a few, businesses and restaurants don't seem to last long where I live--the ones I've made up do.)

When making up a place, you definitely need enough details to be convincing. This is particularly true for science fiction and fantasy. The Harry Potter books are probably the best example of unique made-up places that seem real for Harry. I've always thought the setting in those stories reminded me of England during WWII without the war.

Romances often are set in exotic or faraway places, large cities with mansions and expensive restaurants, in unusual and interesting businesses. Settings are extremely important to the plots.

Any historical novel or story should contain lots of period detail, what the houses and furniture are like, the food that’s eaten along with other details of daily living. What happens must be accurate for the time period.

When writing suspense or mysteries, the physical setting should somehow contribute to the suspense. It can darken the mood through the descriptions of the locations and the weather.

Science fiction might be a future far advanced from the present, but it must be believable. Often in science fiction the plot will develop from the setting.

Be careful not to put too much description of the setting in. You want just enough to convey the essence of the place. Years ago I edited a wonderfully written novel about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam during the war. The author wrote pages and pages of description of the jungle, leaf by leaf. It was wonderfully written, but there was just too much. The reader would have been able to “see” the scene with about 1/4 of what was written. Unfortunately, the author was too much in love with his words to get rid of any of them and a wonderful story never found a publisher.

Don’t forget to add weather, smells, and how things feel. Put color into your descriptions.

A writer who does an exceptional job describing Louisiana and other locations, using all the senses to do it, is James Lee Burke. Though his mysteries are dark and often brutal, the descriptions of the places are poetic and lyrical in flavor. William Kent Krueger is another one who describes the setting so well, you feel like you can see it.

The setting should be the back-bone of your story. It can move a plot forward, create atmosphere or tension, and it also can create change in your character. If you think of your novel or story as a movie in your head, viewing the setting of each scene as your character acts and reacts, seeing and experiencing everything through your character’s eyes, that’s what you want to get down on paper in such a convincing manner that the reader will see the same movie.

–Marilyn Meredith

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November 23, 2008

Motivation VS Procrastination

This month I have been on a crash course in both these topics.
I signed up for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) intent on reaching the 50,000 word goal by November 30th. For the first week of November my mojo was in overdrive. I would slip in to my writing corner as soon as I could after work without totally ignoring the rest of my family. Dinners were quick fixes cheered on by my youngest son. What ever free time I could find I used to rack up word counts. I learned a lot those first days. What I did not have was a plan. I was not prepared for the stalls in plot or the point of view confusion that would rear its ugly head. I found myself slowing to a crawl. As the second week began I fell farther behind and still wondered which way to go. I found my motherly duties calling and soon moved from one task to another, leaving unwritten pages glowing in the dark. At the halfway point I knew I was toast. But I wasn’t completely burnt. I still have time to write as far as I can go. Maybe not 50,000 or 40,000 or even 30,000 but I could hit 20,000.

So now I have new goals to work on.
You can try one of these too.
1) Write a book in a month. (I’ll try again next year)
2) BIAW – Book in a week. (Were talking novella)
3) 100 words in 100 days. (Sounds easy)
4) Set a timer and write for 15 minutes. (Or what ever time you want)
5) Have a writing duel with a (writer) friend. (Make it interesting/make a wager) (I’m thinking chocolate)
6) Break whatever goal you have into smaller pieces for writing or personal goals.

I succeeded in my original goal. I signed up and participated and learned. That put me further ahead then not even trying.

Do you have any tips or hints for setting and completing goals.

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November 16, 2008


by Sunny

I gave two speeches this week on alternative publishing. The first was with Marilyn Meredith in Temecula, the second at Willow Bridge Books in Oakhurst.

It's hard to look at the excited and expectant faces of aspiring authors and have to lay the facts on them.

The facts, the stats of the publishing industry are not pretty. Add in the economic crisis the country is facing and the outlook is downright dismal. You can't eat books, your car cannot run on words, and I suppose we could all start burning our libraries to heat our homes, but I hope it doesn't come to that.

Fact: 132 million manuscripts are submitted yearly. 1% will be published.
Fact: 3,000 manuscripts are published daily
Of those published, only 2 % sold more than 5,000 copies.
16% sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
82% sold less than 100 copies.

IF a manuscript manages to get through the slush pile, 90% will be rejected after the first page is read.
98% will be rejected after the first chapter is read.
30-50 will get through to serious consideration.
In a good year, a publisher can put out 10 books. In a bad year, maybe 5.

New York used to be the center for publishing. Now the publishing industry is governed by 6 conglomerates, most based in Europe. Publishers know that 70% of the books they publish will never earn back their advances. The system is as archaic as the Guttenburg printing press.

There are diehard authors out there who want to believe they are the exception to the norm. They know the formula: Query letter, synopsis, the dreaded outline, the first three chapters. There is a reason this is called “submission.” The author goes through all the steps, kowtowing to the powers that be, which may be a 22-year-old with a red pen who just got out of college.

I'm a glass-half-full type of person. I don't get discouraged by any of this claptrap. If life hands me lemons, I'm making a meringue pie.

Small publishing outfits have filled the void. Computer technology means there doesn't have to be huge print runs. With Kindle on the scene, a writer can be author, publisher, editor, promoter and banker. We can finally sell our imagination without selling our souls.

It's good to have hopes and dreams and to set goals. I just hate to see writers remain unrealistic and inflexible. Stories are lost because the writer can't take another rejection. Is it really the world that rejects our efforts or are we rejecting opportunities within our reach?

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November 15, 2008

More on Promotion

Today I'm headed to Russo's Books on Ming in Bakersfield for a book signing from 12 to 2. As I've stated before, bookstores are my least favorite places for promotion. However, I love Russo's and lovely independent store. I try to do at least one signing there a year.

Next weekend I'll be with several other authors at the Chowchilla Library for a book festival from 10:30 to 2:30.

We have no bookstores in either Springville where I live or Porterville which is the nearest big city. I have to find other places to have signings. The weekend of December 6th I'll be in the Jenuine Junque (a unique second-hand store) from 10 a.m. to 5. Advertised as a time to come talk to me about my latest book, Kindred Spirits, buy a book for a Christmas present, and talk about writing or just visiting. I'll be bringing cookies. (In case you're near Springville and want to come, the store is on Highway 190 next to the parking lot of Sequoia Dawn.)

The following weekend, December 12 and 13, from 10 to 5 both days, I'll be in Porterville at the Art Association's Gallery. While the artists are selling their wares, I'll have a table with my books available. I'm taking cookies there too. (This one is located on Main St. in Porterville. There is parking behind the Subway store, the Art Gallery, is across the street, but on the same side as the Subway.)

For both events I should have some publicity in the local newspapers. I've given books and information about both my book and what I'll be doing to the editor of one and the events editor of another.

For me, these events are far better than getting my books in bookstores. I recently received a royalty check from one of my publishers for the sale of two older books both in the $13 range that sold through regular bookstores. The check was for $1.26.

That's when reality sets in. Even if my books were selling big in regular bookstores, by the time the bookstore gets its cut, then Ingram, then the publisher, there's not much left for me.


November 11, 2008

Team Sunny and Marilyn and Erle Stanley Gardner

Last Saturday, Sunny Frazier and I gave two presentations at the Erle Stanley Gardner Mystery Weekend, writers conference.

We were scheduled to give separate workshops, but decided it would be more fun to do them together. In the morning we talked about promotion and the fact that all publishers expect you to have a marketing plan, many wanting it submitted right along with your query.

In the afternoon we talked about alternate means of publication--covering submitting to agents and New York publishers, small press, electronic publishers--and Sunny gave a great talk about publishing on Kindle (Amazon's hand-held reader.)

I've been giving presentations for the Erle Stanley Gardner Mystery Weekend since it began. I love going to Temecula because I have two married grandchildren with families who live in the area. We spend one night with one and the second with the other.

I've been a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner for years beginning with reading Perry Mason when we lived in Oxnard (where many of those mysteries occur) and of course, watching the TV show. When I found the ESG Mystery weekend on the Internet, I knew I had to be a part of it.

I've also been a friend of Sunny's for a long while and we've given other joint or back-to-back presentations and I think we compliment one another. In any case, I think we both had fun and our audiences learned something.


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November 8, 2008

There's More to Writing than Writing

There's More to Writing than Writing
By Dorinda Ohnstad

When I started out writing my novel, I didn’t give any thought to what it took to be a published novelist beyond a good plot, strong characters and realistic dialogue. The rest was supposed to fall into place once I got the damn thing done. But as I have drawn closer to finishing my first novel, I’ve become all too aware of what it takes to get published. Not a pretty picture. There’s the query letter, which made my stomach queasy, but I lived through it; chapter-by-chapter outlines, pure drudgery; the pitch, still yet to be conquered but doable; but then, there is the dreaded synopsis that potentially stands in the way of your masterpiece seeing the light of day.

Marketable manuscript or not, it doesn’t matter if you can’t get an agent or publisher to want to read it. So like it or not I had to suck it up and learn how to write a strong synopsis. I just finished spending the last two weeks in an online WriterU master class on synopsis writing taught by Laurie Schnebly Campbell. (As an aside, I highly recommend the class.) Together with ten other writers I struggled to break down my novel into four double-spaced pages.

Easy you say? I thought so before I tried my hand at crafting an effective synopsis. (After all it’s not difficult to write a bad synopsis; I should know I’ve written quite a few in my efforts to master the art of writing one well.) I’ve practiced law for years; that’s easy compared to this task. They were the most difficult four pages I’ve ever attempted to write. (Yes attempt, as I still haven’t honed it into a synopsis that I would actually send to an agent or publisher.) Writing never felt like such hard work before. Don’t get me wrong; writing a novel is no easy task. That’s why years after I started my book, it’s still a work in progress. But this was different.

One benefit of the course was learning that I’m not alone in finding writing a synopsis torturous. None of my fellow workshop participants found working on their synopsis a walk in the park. We all struggled to boil down our story to its basic elements, while at the same time attempting to make it sound like a story an agent or publisher would want to read. And did I mention that you have to do that in four pages—or less? I think that is what made it so challenging for all of us. A good book has a complicated plot and subplots, complex characters with internal and external conflict, and a distinct author voice. So how do you take what makes a book good and strip it down to its bare bones and still have something that sounds like a story readers would want to read? I think you get the picture. It's damn hard.

As my workshop came to an end this weekend, it finally struck me that ultimately it really is my manuscript that will determine whether I get published or not. My synopsis isn’t synonymous with the story I want readers to read. It is merely a tool of the publishing trade that’s needed to save agents and publishers time. I can’t blame them for not wanting to read entire manuscripts to determine whether there’s a story they are interested in. Who has that kind of time? Not me, and certainly not an agent or publisher. A synopsis helps them to narrow the field to only those stories that they truly are interested in. That means that when my synopsis triggers an agent or publisher to request my manuscript I know that not only will they read it, but that they want to read it.

So now, instead of seeing my synopsis as an evil, I have come to realize that ultimately it is my best friend. If my synopsis is good enough (that’s right it doesn’t have to be the best synopsis in the history of publishing) to get my manuscript in the door, it means that the agent or publisher who is reading my manuscript likes my plot and has an interest in the book itself. My writing will speak for itself, but it will now be read with a different motivation than it would if it was simply picked up out of the slush pile and read cold.

So while writing your synopsis may not be a pleasurable experience for you as well, take heart in that it is your ticket into the publishing world and worth the effort to do it well. And if, like me, you need some extra help, or motivation, there is help out there whether it’s WriterU ( or elsewhere. Just take the plunge; I guarantee you won't drown even if it may feel like you might.

Care to share your synopsis tips or just share your pain? I always like to know I'm not alone.

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November 2, 2008

At the Top of the Hill, Looking Way, Way, Down.

Beautiful image, right? This is the north side of the Grand Canyon. I loved standing on the mountain rocks. I made my husband, Rick, a tad nervous though, because I am not in possession of a world class equilibrium. But I loved it. "Look Ma, I'm at the top of the world!" It gave me a wonderful sense of freedom. Looking across the vastness of mountain and sky, anything seemed possible.

Right now, I am on top of another canyon. It is vast and full of possibility. It is a literary formation still evolving; but it has grown into significance. Now I stand overlooking the geography of a story of my own creation. What a wonderful sight. "Look Ma, I'm at the top of my story!" Mommmyyyyy! help, its too high, I'm going to fall! Wail, wa wa..!
This is how it feels to take oneself way too seriously. I am up here feeling like "shit, what do I do now. This is so important. From here on out, my story is playing itself out to a conclusion. This is real man. It counts. I have a terrible responsibility to my characters, to my plot, to my readers" (wait, what readers?)
Well, this is the cool part. KC Writers reads my stuff and in return they give invaluable advice. One extremely important piece of advice came to me from Sunny Frazier. It was not directed to me but I caught the breeze from it wisdom. Basically, it was this. Just write the damn thing. The worry about it being perfect will paralyze you, and destroy all possibility of success. And she is right. Writing poorly is the least of my worries. If I write poorly, I can cure it. It's called a rewrite. Duh, not hard.
I have been staring over the abyss of my story canyon, instead of looking across at the enfolding of something marvelous. "Look Ma, I can fly!"