A Necessary Evil — Part II

What’s your book about? While that seems like an easy question, many authors have trouble coming up with a quick answer. What too often comes out is something like: “It’s about this guy who finds a magic tuba while digging through his great uncle’s attic. Of course, he doesn’t know it’s magic, so he’s not prepared when he blows on it and a genie comes out. Trouble is, it’s not a very nice genie. It’s been trapped in the tuba for ages, and now it’s out for revenge. Meanwhile, the guy’s mom is trying to get back home after escaping from prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Problem is, everyone thinks she’s a pathological liar, but that’s okay because….”

Is the book about a magic tuba? Or is it about the genie? Or maybe it’s about the poor shlub who finds them. Or his mother. Or maybe it’s about how the evil genie tries to seduce the girl next door. So maybe it’s a coming of age story. For the genie. Or maybe the girl next door. Who the hell knows? As the writer, you should certainly know. Alas, it simply ain’t so for way too many novices.

It used to be that only bad writers with money to burn would self-publish. Back then there was no “traditional” route to publication; there was only “the” route. Anyone wanting to see their stuff in print had to deal with agents or wrangle an appointment to chat with an editor at a writer’s conference or fan convention. Back then–and today for anyone still trying to sell a book to a Big Five subsidiary–the missing link was the “elevator pitch.” This amounted to a 30-second summary of the book packaged in such a way as to grab the attention of an editor or agent when trapped in an elevator at one of the aforementioned gatherings. Millions of such pitches have been cast in hotel bars, too, among other places.

Self-publishing has changed a lot of that, but there’s still a need for a pitch, even if you’re not trying to get a deal with a big publisher. [Don’t look at me like that. Just lemme explain.] Your elevator pitch might just make a dandy back cover blurb, and a well-executed book blurb is essential to a profitable sales campaign. It’s nearly as important as a great front cover.

If writing one seems like a daunting task, try using this formula for starters. You can revise it to suit your needs later, but for now, this should get you going. Just fill in the {blanks} as best you can.

When {identity} {character name} {does something}, {there’s a consequence}. Now, with {time limit/restrictions}, {character} must {do something heroic} to {reach a goal} or {lose something meaningful}.

So, f’rinstance:

When rookie FBI agent Filbert Feeney finds an ancient book of spells, he uses one to catch the top criminals on the agency’s Most Wanted List. But there’s a price to be paid for using the magic, and it will cost him his life–and his soul–unless he finds a way to reverse the spell without letting the criminals get away.

Here’s one based on the Leonardo DiCaprio film, “The Revenant,” released in 2015: When legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass is injured in a brutal bear attack while exploring an uncharted wilderness in 1823, he is left for dead by his best friend. Now, grief-stricken and fueled by vengeance against the confidant who abandoned him, Glass must survive the winter terrain to return home to his family.

Will it work for every story? Probably not. But it will help you shape your thinking about what needs to go in a blurb. More importantly, it might just give customers a solid reason for buying your book.

Your blurb, in various formats, will be needed to flesh out ads and other promotional material. And yes, you might even need to use it in an elevator when you meet some movie mogul on the lookout for a new blockbuster.

A good book blurb is the next essential piece of your book marketing campaign. You won’t go far without it. In fact, if you lack a good blurb, your book and all the hard work you put into it, won’t go anywhere.

We’ll investigate yet another piece of the writer’s marketing puzzle next time around, so stay tuned.

–Josh

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How I Write

[This is the fifth and, for now, final installment of words of wisdom gleaned by writers who have recently entered the wonderful world of publishing. This episode is by Doris Reidy, a dear friend and one helluva good writer. Please, read on. You won’t regret it!]

Or: There Once Was a Girl With a Bucket

Too often my doctors begin sentences by saying, “When we get older…” It’s usually the preface to something I don’t want to hear. But to borrow that phrase: When we get older, we start composing Bucket Lists. There was only one thing on mine, and it was in red caps:                                                    WRITE A BOOK.

I’d read thousands of novels, but somehow giving birth to one of my own seemed impossible. Paralyzed, I sat atop a large pile of “can’ts”: I can’t write fiction, can’t create dialog, can’t develop characters – you name it, I couldn’t do it.

Then along came a writing teacher (hint: initials JL), who said that a plot is simply a person in a place with a problem. Aha! I can do that. I’m surrounded by people in places with problems; after all, I am one. Five books and dozens of short stories later, that mantra still works.

People ask about my writing schedule. I wish I had one — it sounds more professional — but I don’t. I write when the spirit moves me. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t move me at all, and then I follow the two-pages-a-day rule. I sit down and write two pages. Then I go on about my life. The next day, I write two more pages. Eventually, something will catch fire in my brain, and I’ll write twenty pages. The important thing is to keep plugging away. Slow progress beats no progress.

So what gets me started? A character. When I know what she wears, eats, thinks, loves, hates, what makes her laugh, what she won’t stand for, where she lives, and what her problem is, then it’s just a matter of accompanying her on her adventures.

I wrote my first novel, Five for the Money, in scenes. When a brilliant idea hit me, I’d write that scene. Soon I had a batch of vignettes in no particular order. Oh Lordy, trying to stitch them all together cohesively! I learned to write in chronological order.

Surprisingly, characters and action fade from mind, my mind at least, even while I’m writing. It’s hard to remember on page 127 what I said Uncle Nester’s last name was earlier in the book. Did I introduce him at the barn dance? Or… wait… was it at the end of the zombie apocalypse? It helps to keep a running chapter summary. It’s much easier to track Nester down that way.

For me, the joy of writing is getting diverted by the unexpected. I’m not an outline person, but I sometimes stop around the middle and make a loose plan to get me to the end. My books run about 40-50,000 words. I was afraid they were too short, but people tell me they like shorter books with easily digestible chapters, especially on e-readers.

When the first draft is done, I need feedback. Here’s where I owe a big debt of thanks to my critique group and first readers. They give generously of their time and expertise to make me a better writer. I treasure the brave souls who tell me what I need to hear.

Finally holding in my hands a book I’ve written is sweet, but then the hard part starts. Marketing. (Cue ominous music.) Each year between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published in the United States alone. As many as half are self-published and on average they sell fewer than 250 copies each. Dreams of lucrative royalty checks die a’screaming. We who don’t have the muscle of a large publishing house behind us, struggle for readers.

Which begs the question, why do it? Why sit alone, tapping away on a keyboard while the other kids are out playing kickball in the street? There’s ego involved, if I’m honest, the belief that you’ll be interested in what I have to say. Then there’s the satisfaction of seeing a difficult undertaking through to the end.

But what really motivates me is the chance to make a connection, to forge a bond between writer and reader. I’ll tell you a story. Maybe you’ll like it. That puts a big, red ! on my Bucket List and makes it all worthwhile.

[Copied below are the covers from Doris’s other four books. They’re available in both paperback and ebook formats. You can find them all right HERE. Or, visit her webpage, “Second Acts,” and look for her latest bit of flash fiction. Here’s the link: https://dorisreidy.wordpress.com/ 

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Finding My Voice

Betty Smith has kindly consented to provide the fourth entry in this series about the experiences of newly published authors. A retired college professor, Betty came late to the craft of fiction writing. I’m pleased to say she made up for lost time very quickly. Here’s what she has to say about finding her voice, an important step in the journey toward publication:

I never expected to write a novel when I first stepped into Josh’s class on fiction writing in January, 2015. In fact, I did not believe I had the creativity necessary to write fiction; however, completing the short writing assignments he gave us taught me I could write fiction. Abby’s Choice (2016) was the result, and now I am working on my second novel. It is through this process that I have come to recognize something of my voice.

Voice is a nebulous concept, and even re-reading chapter 14 of Josh’s book, Write Naked, does not allow me to adequately define it – you will just have to ask him to explain it. But I now recognize four elements pertaining to my writing that are part of my voice.

1– My aim in writing, as in everything I do, is to honor God and bring glory to His name. I have come across many books with foul language and explicit sex; mine will have none. Nor will my villains be satanic.

2– It is often said a writer should write what he/she knows. Although this is not necessarily true, I do write what I know – love. I have known nothing but love my entire life. My stories will always have a happy-ever-after quality, even though I know “ever after” does not occur in the real world.

3– With my academic background, I love the research required to imbue my story with verisimilitude (one of the many things I learned from Josh). The factual material I include will always be as accurate as I can make it. This same background ensures I will always strive to be grammatically correct and precise in my wording. For example, you may have noticed I do not like to use contractions (unless called for to distinguish characters by dialect or to make dialogue believable).

4– I am a teacher; therefore, I will use my research to give the reader factual information which he/she may not know, perhaps to stimulate further inquiry into the topic.

I knew from an early age I wanted to be a teacher, and I recognize my ability to adjust my style to match my audience, from elementary grade to senior citizens, to be a gift from God. So, too, is my fiction writing.

Abby’s Choice is available now from Amazon.com. You can get your copy right here!

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What I Learned Writing “Taming August”

The third entry in this series about the experiences of newly published authors is from Pam Olinto, whose amazing history has given her a host of life experiences — good and not so good. She has chosen to use what she’s learned in a series of books for our youngest generation. While her protagonist is a most contemporary youngster, her attitude and adventures recall a time when our lives and those of our children weren’t driven by cell phones and gadgetry. It’s refreshing to know kids can still be kids. Here’s what Pam has to say about her journey into the land of writing and publishing:

Taming August, the first in three books about the Girl Power Detectives, is a chapter book for middle school students. It began as an experiment to see if I could follow the whole writing process from the beginning to fruition–a novel to hold in my hand.

Non-fiction writers often ask how a fiction writer finds material. As with any work, an author draws on incidents from his or her own past. I wove my story around my experiences with teaching mildly delayed children, my knowledge about frequent moves and how they affect a family, and the redeeming quality of friendships at any age. Most importantly, I needed the story to be told with a sense of humor, usually in the form of three-year-old Auggie’s antics. And, of course, I had to include animals, which are my passion and the source of many laughs in my household.

As much as my descriptions of the settings, the talent shows, and the mystery are fiction, I soon realized I had based twelve-year-old Maddy’s reactions on both my knowledge of middle school students and on me as a young person. Growing up in the Army and moving so often I learned early on not to get too close to friends because we would soon part. And many of three-year-old Auggie’s capers I owe to my four-years-younger brother who survived his childhood to retire as a full colonel in the Air Force.

Solving the mystery of a stolen necklace and describing the characters who lend their help allowed me to stretch my creativity. But again, I recognized my own personality creeping into the story when Maddy’s determination to find the answers overrides her parents’ rules and her own sense of caution. At some point, Maddy, Auggie, and the other characters took over and told their own stories. All I had to do was be present to take notes. The same applies to my pending second book where my years spent in Sweden learning about its culture give Maddy a new friend from another country whose overpowering personality leads her into more adventures.

Taming August is available now from Amazon.com. You can get your copy right here!

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What I Learned Writing “The Music of Her Life”

This is the second post in a series about the writing experience — first-hand accounts of the hardships and joys of the creative process. Judy McManus, a gifted writer, client, and former student penned an outstanding first work, and she’s already working on another. Here’s what she has to say about the experience:

The Music of Her Life is my debut novel. This story is one I’ve kept inside for years and is very close to my heart. It is a story about my family and is loosely based on my mother’s life. It was an emotionally difficult book to write.

Writing about ones so close to me and knowing the hardships of their generation helped me understand the struggles they endured. My book was written for The Greatest Generation. Their lives, their music, and their sacrifices shall never be forgotten.

Writing about the tremendous loss and scrutiny my mother went through during WWII, the late 1940s, and early 1950s, caused me to second guess myself and wonder if anybody cared about her struggle. On the other hand, writing this helped me realize how cruel society was to women during that time. My single mother put up with sexual harassment in the workplace, and she was called awful names because she was divorced. That scrutiny filtered down to her children. No one cared about her feelings or circumstances.

Was it hard to write such a personal story? Yes, it was. Did I want to give up? Yes, a few times. I struggled with the entire writing process. I suffered writer’s block at times. Not about the subject matter but how to deliver it in a professional way while throwing a little humor into such serious subjects. As my mother did in the book, I turned on the songs of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and got a fresh perspective. I was determined to press on and finish the story that has been the ongoing subject of conversation between my sister and myself for years. We were the ones who were scrutinized along with our mother, and bringing that into the open was difficult.

It was almost sad when I submitted my “final” (really?) manuscript to be formatted and proofed. I was finished, or so I thought. When I received my proof copy of the book, I didn’t cry. All I could do was look at that 460-page tome full of MY words, created from MY brain, and smile. After saying, “I can’t believe it,” no less than 100 times, the tears began to fall.

Then came the hard part. Being a perfectionist, a disease not to be wished on anyone, I thought my book should look a certain way, be formatted a certain way, and last but not least, not have one typo. Finally, after hearing from excellent readers, I realized even major authors backed by big-time publishers usually have typos and a few mistakes. After driving everyone involved crazy, I was told in a most tactful way, “Stick a fork in it. It’s done.” I did, and to me, my book is something to be proud of.

With that said, I feel I succeeded in delivering the story, my way. I wanted the narrator to sound as if I was telling the story to a friend, and it moved them to tears. I was told once, while writing the book, “If it makes you cry, it will make your reader cry.” Since the book was published, my readers have told me how it touched them greatly and brought them to tears. Mission accomplished.

My new book is in the works and after learning so much while writing the first one, the writing experience is much more gratifying, and the words seem to flow in a new way. The pace, the points of view, and the format seem so much easier. I have one person to thank for that and it is my editor who taught this newbie the way to make my story flow and make sense.  So many individuals helped me through the extended duration of a dream accomplished. I’m excited about my new novel and look forward to the idea of writing as I go. I know it will flow smoothly since I wrote the hardest one first.

~ Judy McManus

The Music of Her Life is available from Amazon. You can find it by clicking HERE. And you can catch up with Judy at her blog: https://judithmmcmanus.org/

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What I learned writing “The Queen of Everything”

I’ve asked several of my writer friends to share some of the issues they faced and overcame in the process of writing their books. Sonya Braverman dared to go first. Her story is not only compelling and well-told, it’s true. Click HERE to visit Sonya’s webpage. Her book is available on Amazon right HERE.

The Days of My Life Did Not Fall Gently

Josh Langston recently asked me to write a guest blog about the issues I faced–and mastered–in the process of writing The Queen of Everything:  A Memoir. It didn’t take long for me to admit that the single most troubling subject for me was telling the truth. Yep. Honesty. But I don’t mean telling the truth vs. lying. Rather, sharing the hideous secrets of my backstory in all their unvarnished glory with, well, everyone.

Telling the truth, the whole truth and nothin’ but the truth, rested heavily on my shoulders for the majority of time I spent writing this book. Could I be truthful about my experiences with my readers? But a more difficult question was:  could I be honest with myself? That was a hard one. After all, it was I who created the life I lived; it wasn’t forced on me from outside influences.

And that question led me to yet another problem:  Fear.  If I told the truth, did I fear what other people would think of me, or what I myself would think of me once I saw my words on paper?

Many conversations about the truth with well-meaning friends and colleagues often included the same questions:

“You’re a good writer with some provocative experiences. But why in the devil would you want people to know about them?”

“And your children and grandchildren, what will they think when they read those ugly secrets about you?”

“What purpose could be served by airing your dirty laundry in public?”

“Why would you want to write such unflattering things about yourself and share them with the world?”

Was I doing it for attention? Notoriety? To explain and defend my behavior during the worst of my days? Or because I thought my experiences were unique?

“It’s your story and it should stay locked inside of you,” a member of my writing group commanded, “so it doesn’t upset or embarrass anyone you know.”

The comments of another group member went something like this:  “Why should she care about hanging out her dirty laundry? Especially if it’s a good story. Books about perfect people don’t sell. And they’re boring. There may be some people in her life who would disappear or change their opinion about her. But, after all, it’s who she is today that truly matters, isn’t it?”

“The true test of family and friendship will be in whether the people who read her memoir can accept the person who’s emerged from her past experiences.”

“Sonya has a compelling story, with a timely and gripping subject. If she’s decided to write a memoir about that part of her life, then she has to be true to herself and honest with her readers. If people decide they no longer want her around after they know the truth, perhaps they weren’t worth having in the first place.”

Another group member spoke up then. “With all due respect to those members who believe that she shouldn’t tell the whole truth:  if the people closest to her don’t know her story by now, then perhaps they should. They’re all well into adulthood, including her children. Maybe it’s time for them to take the blinders off. And, if they don’t want to take the blinders off, then this book isn’t going to change anything, is it?”

In the early days of my writing, I shrouded my experiences in flamboyant words and elegant turns of phrases. I wanted to distance myself from the reality and pain of my experiences as if they belonged to someone else. Her. Over there. And make her experiences more palatable than they actually were. But more palatable for whom?

I found that it wasn’t my audience who demanded my life experiences be cloaked in a tidy package with sparkly paper and a lovely bow. It was I who wanted my writing to be easy to digest. For me. Coming face to face with all that, oh, suffering, was just too hard.

I realized that what I feared most about telling the truth was not what other people thought of me or my experiences, but what they thought of me now. And what I thought of me. After all that fetid water has passed under the bridge. Who I am, not who I was.

I was determined to stop dancing pretty circles around the dark days of my life and own who I was and how I’d lived. As much as I wanted to pretend that the days of my life fell gently, they didn’t. They landed with an atomic explosion. I didn’t want to see those words in print. But in order to write an authentic memoir, I had to stop obsessing over what other people might think about the woman who was a drunk, a piss-poor parent, and a jailbird.

And what I’ve discovered is that coming face-to-face with yourself is actually much less exhausting than running away. Rather than tying me up in knots, writing has enabled me to unravel the mysteries of my life and understand the turmoil. But, most of all, writing has helped me heal.

 In fact, the act of placing honest words on paper has been more liberating than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. Happy or not, pleasant and unpleasant, my experiences and memories are part of who I am.

Telling the truth about myself for the world to read has set me free. I no longer have to pretend that I had a different life. It’s my life and my story and I’m okay with the way it’s unfolded. 

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