It’s almost here…

The final book of the Horizon Alpha trilogy releases this fall. Just a bit more polish, and we’ll return to Tau Ceti e one last time.

The stakes are higher.

The ‘saurs are hungrier.

And if we can’t get a shuttle back to the mother ship, everyone’s going to die.

Homecoming Release promo (1)

 

Advertisements

Why Writers Suck at Writing Their Own Jacket Copy

Writing the actual book is the fun part. It all goes downhill from there.

I’m often reminded of this when I peruse the feeds of all the online writing groups I belong to. Writer after writer posts their query letter or back jacket copy for critique, and it becomes obvious that for some reason the person who cobbled together eighty thousand words of a novel is exactly the wrong person to write the teaser paragraphs that are intended to hook an agent or publisher, or a reader in a bookstore.

We’re just terrible at it. I include myself in this without embarrassment.

I saw an example of it this week. A writer in an online group posted his potential jacket copy for the group’s help. It was a great character study that told us a lot about the main character, but basically nothing about the plot of the book. We had no idea what struggles she might be facing or what stakes would befall her if she failed in whatever she was trying to accomplish. In short, we got a great look at what makes the character special, but no clue at all what makes the STORY special.

So that’s what pretty much everybody told him. And he took it to heart.

Today he posted another version.  This one is an exhaustive look at the plot, event by event. I’m sure some of those events are super-interesting, but now it’s way too much. It’s just a plot synopsis, and if you are a writer, you’ll know that “synopsis” is the single most horrible word in the English language.

This got me thinking about why we’re all so bad at writing jacket copy for our own books, and often so good at writing it for someone else’s. I think it’s because we’re way too close to our stories.

If you ask a writer what’s great about their book, they’ll likely tell you, “Everything.”  We think every word, every plot point, every character and motivation are absolutely perfect. Otherwise we’d never let it get published.  But this is a huge problem when you’re trying to distill your book into two or three paragraphs for a query letter or ad copy.

If I ask you why your child is great, chances are you could give me an hour-long laundry list of all the things you love about your kid.  But what if I ask you what your kid does better than almost any other kid? You’ll think for a moment and come up with something like, “She’s on an all-star soccer team, and last week she gave half her lunch to a kid in her class that forgot his lunch money.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Instead of “All-around greatest kid ever,” we have, “athletic and compassionate.”  We’re drilling down to the “specialness” of this kid.

This is what we have to do with our books.

Jacket copy should be a burlesque show, not a hardcore XXX money-shot-to-the-face adult film. It needs to show us just enough to make us scream for more, but not so much that we already know the whole plot. We should be left wondering, “What’s under that feather?” and not, “How’s she going to get that stain out?”

I’m convinced that most of the time, someone else is better at finding those feather-covered bits than the author of the book in question. We either want to give you the hardcore-everything-right-now version, or we leave things so vague that you aren’t sure if you’re going to see a burlesque show or an actual Canadian Goose.

I always have someone else help me with jacket copy, and I  enjoy helping other writers work on their own. Finding the balance of “just enough feathers” is a tricky walk, but the end result should be an audience that can’t wait to hit “Buy Now” and see what all that shimmy is about.

It’s All In Your Head

I love the Olympics.

For two years at a time, I could not care less about sports. I don’t watch sports on TV, I don’t go to sporting events, and when I’m running, I’m always listening to an audiobook, so it doesn’t count as exercise so much as story time.  But that all changes when I hear that Olympic anthem.

I’ll watch anything. Doesn’t matter what sport it is. Summer or Winter Games, whether the USA is in medal contention or not…if it’s on TV, I’ll watch it.  And I can’t help but notice how little the difference is between taking home a medal and going home empty-handed.

The athletes at the Games are all at the top of their performance.  All the skaters can do a triple axel, and all the bobsledders can hop in and steer.  The skeleton sliders all know how to sign their wills before they jump on that ridiculous sled going headfirst at 80 miles an hour down a sheet of solid ice.

In bobsled this year, the difference between the gold medal finish and the guy in 20th place was 2.5 seconds.  In skeleton, it was less than a second.  Between the gold and silver medal women’s figure skaters was 1.31 point, out of over 200 points scored.

The difference between winning and losing is all mental at that level.  Every athlete is capable of performing to within a tiny fraction of the expertise of their competitors.   What makes a winner is their ability to control their minds.

You can see it in the warmups. They’re nervous, excited, trying to focus on what they have to do to get that medal.  Some of the skiers and snowboarders who’ve been to the Games multiple times are able to relax and concentrate, while others who are newer get completely psyched out.  They make mistakes they would never make at home where the only danger is… the potential for broken bones, paralysis, brain damage, and death.  But not medals. When that gold is on the line, it eats at their minds, and you can see it in their faces before their runs.

Of course I’m going to relate this to writing, because when you’re a writer, everything relates to writing.

Once a writer reaches a certain level of skill (which we call “Craft”, and it’s thing like grammar and punctuation, but also sentence structure, plot development, character arcs and all the things you shouldn’t notice when you read a good book because they feel so natural), we’re all on a fairly level playing field. There are standouts, as in every career, but the vast majority of us are at a similar plane of competence.  We can all write a good story.

That’s where the mental part comes in.  I’ve seen it so many times.  The really talented writers who can’t get out of their own way enough to actually finish a novel.  The ones who finish, but get mired in the process of finding an agent or publisher and never follow through.  Some of those will give up and self-publish something that isn’t ready, and the poor reviews or lack of sales will destroy them.  Others will just give up and quit writing.

It becomes a mental game, and there’s no gold medal at the end. Finishing the race of completing a novel leads to the new race of editing and revision. Finishing that race leads to the soul-crushing exercise of trying to get an agent to represent you.  Finishing that process leads to more revisions and edits, and on to the soul-crushing exercise of submitting the manuscript to publishers.  And if you’re lucky enough to cross that particular finish line, now you get to begin the lifelong process of promoting your book so it doesn’t languish at the bottom of the sales charts where no one will ever read it.

I know writers who are turning out stuff that’s better than most of what’s published by the Big 5.  You’ll never read their work, though, because they get stuck on one of those early races and can’t get past it.  I know of plenty who aren’t so skilled at the craft, but excel at the mental game, and are out there making a living by never giving up.

As in bobsledding, alpine skiing, or figure skating, the difference between the winners and the also-rans of writing is often measured in tiny percentiles.  When I watch the Olympic athletes compete, I’m only seeing the finished product…their published novel of work.  I’m not seeing the years of sacrifice it took them to get to the starting line.  I only see what they can do today, when the pressure is on.  When you read a novel, you’re only seeing the gold medal race, and not the years of work and practice it took to produce it.

The Games are coming to a close now, and I won’t likely watch a lot of sports again until the next time a torch is lit. But I’m working on my own mental game, practicing my literary triple axel and my headfirst slide down the ice track.  When you read a novel with my name on it, I hope you can hear my anthem playing, and see that gold medal hung around my neck.  And now it’s back to the practice rink to get ready for the next Olympics.

 

Indiana Writing Workshop Wrapup

Continuing education is part of most professions, and writing is no different. I love attending conferences for both of my jobs, and both for the same reason: leapfrogging.

Ordinary learning is step by step. You have an issue, so you try to find an answer.  You look things up, or consult a resource.  You try something and it works or it doesn’t. One way or another, you learn a new fact and apply it to the problem.  It’s a tedious process, and you only learn the answer to the specific issue you were trying to solve.

Leapfrogging jumps straight over those steps. You aren’t looking for one single answer. You’re attending an educational event where answers are shared freely, to questions you have and to questions you didn’t even know to ask. Industry leaders just tell you things…secrets and tricks that make whatever you do better, easier, more current, and more relevant. At the end of the day you go home with a notebook full of knowledge, having leapfrogged in your study of whatever the lecture was about.

Today’s Indiana Writing Workshop was a serious leapfrog.  Writing conferences generally feature two draws: speakers and pitch opportunities.  There are actual agents there that you can schedule a ten-minute window to pitch your book. It’s how I originally connected with my amazing agent Alice Speilburg, and it’s a great opportunity for anyone who’s trying to get a manuscript represented.

Obviously I wasn’t pitching today, but one of my writing buddies did, and she got a request from one of her dream agents.

I went for the speakers, one of whom was…my amazing agent Alice Speilburg.  She talked about the agenting process, what agents do and what they’re looking for, and her afternoon lecture was a leapfrog event on rewriting a manuscript based on reader feedback. She gave us revision tips equivalent to years of struggling alone, trying to figure out how to make sense of the comments our beloved beta readers give.

Marissa Corvisiero talked about publishing options, and about building an author platform with things like…blog posts.  So…hi, everybody. Here’s a blog post.

Thanks to the workshop coordinators, attending agents, and a big hello to all my new writer friends out there.

Keep leapfrogging. The next jump could land you somewhere wonderful.

Doors Close, Windows Open

You work and practice, honing your craft. You write THE novel. You know the one. That special novel where everything you’ve learned comes together into one solid piece of work.  There may have been many before it, but this one’s ready.

You research all the literary agents that represent novels like yours. You query. They request. You wait and hope.

And finally that glorious day comes when you get The Call.

An agent wants to represent your work.  An actual literary agent believes strongly enough in your mystery novel that she wants to send it out to editors with her name backing you up.

You’ve finally made it.  The door creaks open.

But the mystery doesn’t sell.  That’s pretty common, though nobody likes to talk about it. So you write another one, and your agent helps you craft it into something even more special than the first one. This is THE novel. This is the one.

And it doesn’t sell, either.

Something isn’t working and you both know it, so two years after The Call, you  and your agent sadly agree to part ways.

Devastating. You thought you had it made, and now you’re on your own again. The door slams shut.

But way back when you got that first Call, you had a phone conversation with another agent.  She didn’t offer to represent you then, because she didn’t think that first mystery would sell. The market was wrong.

She was right.

So you reconnect with her.  You send her your newest work.

And this one is special.

She agrees.  You spend an hour on the phone discussing how you’re going to make it better, shinier, more perfect.  And in the end, this agent who proved she understood the market way back when that first manuscript was on the table offers to represent you.  A window opens and a cool breeze blows in.

This time everything is right.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m now represented by Alice Speilburg of the Alice Speilburg Literary Agency.

The window is open.  Watch what comes through.  beach window

Building Your House: A Plotter’s Story

People love to ask authors how they write their stories.  Most of us fall into one of two loose categories we call “Pantser” and “Plotter.”

The Pantser writes by the seat of their pants. They start with an idea, a scene, a character and see where it goes.  It’s a very open, free way to write, and can result in some very creative surprises as a story evolves. I’ve Pantsed before with good results.

Plotters structure out all the main points of their story before they write a single word of it.  A Pantser scoffs at this, believing it will crush their creative imagination as they write.  My first Plotter book was a mystery, and I’ve been a Plotter ever since.

Here’s why.

Writing a novel is like building a house.

For a Plotter, here’s how that works.  You start with a foundation and a strong steel frame.  That’s the outline.  You continue by putting in walls and floors, doorways and staircases.  That’s actually writing the first draft.  Now it’s time to pretty it up with edits like paint, carpet, furniture, pictures on the walls, and landscaping.

When a Pantser starts building their house, they begin with a can of green paint, eighty feet of copper wire, two big stacks of drywall, a pile of ceramic tile, a rosebush in a pot, and three doorknobs.  They know that all those bits go somewhere in the house, but they’re not sure where.  They start building the house around these elements, propping them up with lumber as they go along.

This can make for a lot of rewrites.  You might get the kitchen all finished off, and realize you just put cabinets in front of the only door to the bathroom. Now you have to go back and pull down the cabinets and rip out the drywall, and completely reorganize where you’re going to put the casserole dishes.  In the course of figuring it out, you’ll have stairs that go nowhere and either have to be removed, or need rooms built around them.  The end result might be a wild, crazy masterpiece of architecture, but it will take a lot of extra work remodeling things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect maybe that clawfoot tub really shouldn’t be in the middle of the library.

This doesn’t mean Plotters don’t have to do rewrites.  But if they’ve plotted well, those rewrites will be more along the lines of, “This picture doesn’t work in the dining room.  I think I’ll move it into the office,” and less like, “Why the hell is there a sump pump in my linen closet?”  There might need to be some columns added to support a surprise load-bearing wall, but the rewrites should mostly not require a sledgehammer because you had a strong structure before you started slapping on additions.

I spend months planning a book in my head before I write my outline.  That’s the Pantser part.  Before I ever write a word, I consider every detail of my story that I can come up with.  I can move things around in my head, play up some scenes and gloss over others.  My characters have a chance to come to life in my mind before I spend a hundred pages writing a sassy barmaid only to realize later that she actually needs to be a grumpy old cowboy for the rest of the story to work.  The free, creative spirit that Pantsers value happens before I plot, and this allows me to avoid the dreaded blinking cursor of death when I sit down to actually write my story.

I already know where it’s going.

I can look at the steel framework and know exactly where the kitchen is supposed to be.  Sometimes I end up with an extra roll of vinyl or not enough crown molding, but those are easy fixes.

As I write this, I’m Pantsing a new novel in my head.  My actual writing time is spent on a different novel, but the next one is creeping around in my brain, whispering about double-hung windows and one of those cool kitchen faucets that turn on when you touch them.

But it’s not time for that yet.

First I need the foundation and the frame.

***

Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?  Do you build your house from the frame up or start with a neat garden sculpture and a double oven?

Read more writing advice like this in my new release,  Five Minutes to Success: Master the Craft of Writing

Dayton Science Fair Wrap-up

This weekend was the Dayton Regional Science Festival: Super Science Saturday at the Boonshoft Museum.  I was lucky enough to be an invited guest representing the role of science fiction in stimulating young minds to get excited about science.

Science_On_a_Sphere_(2)_-_Copy

I’ve done a lot of events.  Big book events.  Comic Cons. Each one has something that makes it special, but hands down, the Boonshoft event just shot to the top of my Awesome List.

If you’ve never been to the museum, you’re missing out.  Located in Dayton, Ohio, it’s been there for decades, growing, sprawling, changing with the progression of new science discovery.  There’s so much for kids to do, but it’s also got plenty of sophisticated exhibits to keep adults happy.

science fest pix

I gave a new presentation called, “The Science of Horizon Alpha: Dinosaurs on Different Worlds.  It’s a look at the science part of sci-fi, and we talked about why I don’t have a lightsaber, why I’m not likely to get a cloned dinosaur for a pet, and about all the real-life animal adaptations I stole for the fictional dinosaurs of Tau Ceti e.

Speaking of Tau Ceti, the Boonshoft has a planetarium.  You’ve probably been to planetarium shows before…pre-rendered movies projected on a dome.  They’re cool.  This planetarium is so far beyond cool, there’s not even a word for it.  It’s totally programmable.  The night sky shows they do there are being programmed in real time as the astronomy educator shows you exactly what he wants you to see. He has access to every known star in the galaxy.  So when Joe the astronomer heard I had set my book on Tau Ceti, he asked if I’d like to see it.

Well, yeah.  I’d kind of like that.

He was able to program the planetarium to not just show me where Tau Ceti is (in the middle of the constellation Cetus in the southern sky), but to fly us there, turn around, and LOOK AT OUR OWN SUN AS IT WOULD APPEAR FROM TAU CETI!  We watched the constellations bend as we flew past the other stars…some look pretty much the same, and others are totally distorted from that vantage point.  How many other space travel sci-fi authors can say they’ve seen the stars from their book’s homeworld?  I was so excited I forgot to take any pictures, and that’s saying something.

Oh, and I also got to watch an actual paleontologist removing an actual excavated dinosaur bone from its protective jacket.  He was scraping away rock matrix to expose fossilized bone that hasn’t seen daylight in over 60 million years.  I got to touch actual dinosaur bone.

 

dino bone

Comic Cons are cool, but there aren’t any real dinosaur bones there.

I met a ton of kids who are super-enthusiastic about everything science, and met some truly amazing museum staff who were so excited to show off their amazing collections.

Now all I can do is sit and wait, and hope they’ll invite me back next year.