5 bite-sized writing insights from Patrick Ness

At a recent Barnes & Noble event for his beautiful and extraordinary new novel RELEASE, Patrick Ness shared some great writing insights:

  1. It’s always interesting hearing writers talk about writing… but ultimately, no two writers write the same way, so find the way and the process that works for you.
  2. Everything in writing is world-building, whether you’re writing sci-fi or contemporary YA. The things you’re writing about don’t have to be true, they just have to be convincing. You just have to create a world in which those things could logically happen.
  3. A book is not a song. A book is a performance of a song. It’s how you sing it that counts.
  4. You can write about anything in YA as long as you earn it. The only time things are harmful is if they’re cheaply handled.
  5. He doesn’t outline, but he usually knows the last line, and some general story beats. Everything else is discovery. (But see tip #1 above — he was very clear, that’s just what works for him! It may not work for you).

There you have it! 5 things to think about when you’re daydreaming or outlining or drafting or editing. Ness also shared on-set Chaos Walking photos of him with Tom Holland and Nick Jonas… by quickly holding up his phone so no one could really see them! Anticipation in the room was high for the movie, it’s fair to say! Ness was also super-focused on the audience — he grabbed a bunch of huge medical textbooks to put on his chair for him to sit on so that the folks at the back could see him. The man is a legend. So, absorb his insights, then make them your own—and kick some serious writing ass!—so that one day your thoughts on writing are the topic of a blog!

Release cover

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Get Writing! Characters…

Luna, Dudley, Fred, George, Cho, James, Lilly, Viktor…

You know them instantly. Even though it wasn’t their name on the cover. And we’re willing to bet you can name at least a dozen more of the characters that shaped Harry’s world. (Go on, do it! At least 12. Go!) Another roll of the dice says you know each of those characters’ histories, their arcs, their quirks, and the roles they each played in Harry’s life.

Luna

A good story has a leading character (or more than one) that you can root for, and supporting characters that you can relate to. But how many books or movies have a whole cast that you feel are part of your family? That you’d really want to be part of your family?

Dobby spark

Moment of silence

Of those few that come to mind, how many are some of your favorite books of all time?

Characters play a pivotal role in every good story. Or, at least, they should. This is why you have to go through your work and make sure that every character is memorable; for those characters who are there just to advance the plot or provide exposition, give them something real to do, something to feel, something that makes us feel, or laugh, or recognize something of ourselves in them.

Weasleys

Once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready. Because our exercise this time is more like an exorcise…

Remove the least significant character in your work.

SPN Adam

Maybe one day Adam will come back to Supernatural.

If they are truly insignificant, removing them will quicken the pace, give another more meaningful character something more to do, and avoid any confusion the reader or viewer may have in keeping your cast straight in their mind.

This should be challenging. If it’s not—and you George RR Martin-ed one of your cast with zero hesitation—then jump right back in there and do it again with the next least significant character.

Be ruthless.

Keep going until all you are left with is your very own Weasley family. (Except Percy)

Percy

Harsh but real. Sorry, Molly.

Get Writing! Warming up…

The winter weather was brutal at times this year. It felt like the clouds would never part, the sun would never shine, the dirty snow piles would never melt… But, finally, the sun started to peak out more and more, and spring finally arrived, bringing with it new buds and greener landscapes.

Spring 2

Spring is the season of birth and revitalization, and that doesn’t just apply to your garden. The air is full of ideas and inspiration, all you need to do is take the time to look for them. But ideas, like your garden, need tending to.

garden

Since writing requires talent, skill, and constant practice, we’ve decided to launch a new series of posts for inspiration and cultivation.

So throw open the windows and let the fresh air and inspiration in, as, first up, we have a warm-up exercise…

Spring 1

Write a conversation between two people, where they each find a way to tell the other one they love them, without actually saying anything that could be found in a Hallmark card.

Couple

No “I love you”s, no generic flattery. So, although, yes, this is probably the greatest love you scene in cinema…

I love you I know

… you have to do it without using those words! Just make sure your characters know by the end of their conversation that they are truly seen and cared for like no one else has cared for them.

Get writing!

Steps to self-publishing, Part 4: Marketing

Still feels good, doesn’t it? Checking Amazon or Barnes & Noble to look at your book listing. Realizing all over again that you wrote a book, damn it! You wrote it, and you did the work necessary to get it out there to the world.

You’re all kinds of awesome, you know that?

dean-awesome

But, and there is a but, what you’re going to find is that listing your book on Amazon isn’t nearly enough. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people have books listed on Amazon. You need to stand out from the crowd. You need to get noticed. You need people to care.

There are many ways to shine a light on your work. One way is a good social media presence. Social media is simultaneously one of the best, and worst ways to try to market your work. It’s very, very bad, for example, to keep tweeting about how awesome your book is and telling people to buy it. People don’t like being sold to, especially in their social media feeds. So tweeting the price of your book over and over is likely to get you unfollowed and consigned to the social media phantom zone.

phantom-zone

Seriously. No one wants that. Also, spoiler for Superman, I guess.

The best way to get people interested in your book, is to pretty much never mention your book. Yeah, it sounds weird. But trust us. Just be you. Be authentic. Offer something, whether it’s funny cat GIFs, cool writing advice, humorous observations, sharing interesting or unusual news stories… Basically, curate a feed that you would want to follow, and make sure it reflects who you are as a writer. Authentic is the key word here. Find the channels that work for you, don’t do a bunch of Snapchat dog or star filters if that’s not you, and fill them with cool stuff. Interact with others genuinely. This isn’t to say you can’t ever mention what you do. It’s fine to drop it in here or there, but don’t make that the point of being on social media. If you put your book on sale, it’s fine to tweet or post about it a couple of times, but keep the other stuff coming too.

Paid social—paying to have your posts appear in the feeds of people who don’t follow you—is challenging to pull off successfully, if you’re too on the nose about it. If the tweet or post is compelling, hilarious, and not exactly about telling people to buy your book, you might get people to respond, but on the whole, you’re better off spending your money on other things.

Paid ads on blogs and Goodreads and the like might work for you. They can be hit or miss, and will be expensive. Think about your behavior on websites… do you ever click on banner ads for books you’ve never heard of? Again, it all comes down to the ad itself. If it’s visually astonishing, genuinely hilarious, or just utterly fascinating, you might get people to click through. But it’s not the most compelling way to increase sales.

However, what can work is a good review from a book blogger. Reach out to your favorite book blogger and offer them a copy of your book in exchange for a review. It is a legit and great way to get word out there about your book. Book bloggers are awesome, and that community is a wonderful place.

Giveaways on Goodreads work well too. They’re really easy to set up, and you just have to follow through when winners are selected, by mailing your book out to them (including a personal note is a nice touch too, as long as it’s simple and polite!)

Another route you can take to get the word out there is to submit to contests. Some examples include the Writers Digest Self-Published Book Award, and the Bath Novel Award. Getting long- or short-listed (or, you know, actually winning!) one of these helps make your novel a little bit noisier out there.

So far, we’ve focused on the online side of things. But, of course, that’s not the only way to get your book the attention it deserves.

yoda-another

There is another…

We’re talking about bookstores. Actual real-life, wonderful bookstores.

We love bookstores. They can be beautiful and transcendent temples to other worlds. Ann Patchett owns one of our faves, Parnassus Books in Nashville; check out her incredible guide for bookstore lovers, and then spend a small fortune in plane tickets to all those cities.

We digress. But just mentioning bookstores got us all dreamy-eyed…

Now, to get your self-published book into a bookstore takes legwork, and, way more importantly, also being a nice human being. Build relationships with your local store, genuinely. Support them by buying books from them. Be nice. Talk about books in general, because it’s always fun to talk about books. And, then, in a reasonable, non-creepy way, ask if they’d consider stocking books from a local author. The local author being you. To be honest, quite a few indie bookstores are set up for that anyway, and are happy to if you just pop in and make the request. Some will ask for you to bring in copies, so it’s good to have a few extra copies on hand. Others prefer to order via their distributor. But you gotta get out there and ask. You have to build your career, one book at a time, one sale at a time. No shortcuts.

In the end though, when all’s said and done… the best way to market your book is to write another book. And then another. And another. The more books you have available, the more you’ll sell, and the more the sales of each title will impact all the others.

In other words, just keep writing.

 

 

Steps to self-publishing, Part 2: Platforms

You’ve written your book, and it’s awesome (we just know). You went through whatever process you needed to, in order to arrive at the point where you want to self-publish it.

Firstly, go you! In just about every art form, the creator—that’s you!—is expected to share their work. Bands record songs and albums and put them on Soundcloud. Movie makers film shorts and features and upload them to Vimeo or YouTube. Artists create their works, photographers take their pictures, and they try to find ways to display them online and in galleries, or even at cons. So, you’re just doing what everyone else does! There can be a little bit of a ‘tude in some circles when this is applied to books, but you can ignore that. Art is art, whatever form it takes. Those dudes in the caves way back when didn’t wait for permission or approval to share those extraordinary drawings for generations to come. You don’t need to wait for permission to display your art either. Again, some folks might want to tell you otherwise… but nah. People want to make things, other people want to see and experience those things… The trick is to figure out how to connect the two.

In this case you made a thing—your book—and now you need to get it out there to the world.

So, the question becomes, where ya gonna put it?

There are many platforms and options available. Your first major decision is format. Do you want it to be an ebook, or just a paperback, or both? If you’re thinking ebook-only, you can focus on one or all of services like Amazon (Kindle), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Kobo (Sony and other devices), and Smashwords (which covers everything else, including Apple’s iBooks). In some cases, Apple will let you upload directly to iBooks (more on that here), but if you find it all a bit above your technical knowhow, you can use a service that does it for you. Smashwords is one, but there are others, like Bookbaby, which does print as well as ebooks. Here’s a resource on Apple’s site to help you find one that you like.

Knowing where you want to put it is important for the next phase, which we’ll talk about in the next installment (professional editing, interior formatting, and cover design), as each service can have its own specs for how the text should be formatted, what size the cover image should be, etc. So if you choose ebooks, do your research for each platform to see what exactly they need from you.

The same applies if you want to hold your masterpiece in your hand (not a euphemism). There is something magical about actually picking up the BOOK THAT YOU WROTE and turning the PAGES THAT YOU MADE. It’s kind of amazing, tbh. So, if you dig that idea (and also want your book to have any kind of chance of being stocked in a physical bookstore, which we also recommend, because holding that book is a lot sweeter when you just picked it up off a bookstore shelf where it was sitting next to a Leigh Bardguo novel, for example), then you have to look at the various options for printing your book.

bookshelf

Subtle

There’s CreateSpace, of course. The big kahuna. They print on demand, which is probably the most efficient way to go. Before POD, you would have to essentially choose how many copies of your book you wanted to be printed, have those shipped to you, and then deal with the rest of it yourself. With CreateSpace, they store the digital version and whenever anyone orders it, they print and send it. They also offer “expanded distribution” so that bookstores and libraries can see your title available from their distributors. Lulu is another option that offers a range of services including distribution, and there’s Bookbaby too, who we mentioned earlier; they offer the full spectrum of editing, formatting, printing and distribution services.

You just need to decide which one of these feels right for you, and your project. Each service has its pros and cons, its quirks and restrictions. But they all give you what you need: your book, ready to be read!

Next time: everything you need to know about getting your book ready to upload…

 

Steps to self-publishing, Part 1: Should you self-publish?

So here’s the thing. This is not going to be a damning indictment of traditional publishing, nor will it be an ad for why self-publishing is the only option. Self-publishing is more simple than that: It’s nothing more and nothing less than a means to an end. A tool in your writerly grab-bag. A way to tell your stories in a way that will be heard. The literary equivalent of putting your short movie on Vimeo, or your web series on YouTube, or your album on SoundCloud. As an approach, self-publishing has pros and cons, and we’re going to take a deeper dive into what they are. You might find that you want to try it; you might be like, uh, no.

It’s all good.

But this is the first step — deciding if this is the approach for you.

If you’re writing, or have written your story, you need to know several things. Firstly, what the hell is that thing? Is it a short story, a novella, a long short story, a novel, a mighty word-beast of several hundred thousand words? The reason we’re asking is that if you’re thinking of going the traditional publishing route (you get an agent, the agent gets you a publisher), you need to know exactly what you have, and what part of the bookstore it would be shelved in. You also need to make sure that your work meets the current accepted word length for whatever it is, e.g., YA novels are usually in the ballpark of 70k-80k, literary novels around 80k-90k, and fantasy novels more like 100k-12ok (on account of all that awesome world-building). These are just broad outlines, and they tend to change over time (only a few years ago YA novels used to be closer to 30k than 80k), but literary agents often won’t consider a novel if it’s too far away from the appropriate total. If you want to go the traditional route, your book must fit the traditional categories with all their requirements. Which is cool. You just need to know that as you’re writing and editing. If your book does match up with the traditional requirements, that’s great!

But…

jurassic-park-sam-jackson

That doesn’t mean that you have to go traditional. It’s a necessary requirement if you do, but doesn’t force your hand. Traditional publishing has many advantages—marketing, distribution—but some disadvantages too, e.g. everything happens extremely slowly (it may take upwards of a year to find an agent, the same to get a publishing deal, and your publication date will likely be 18 months to 2 years after that), and, the kicker, it’s pretty challenging to get through the slush pile. Think of it from the agents’ perspective. Every single day opening their inbox to look at queries feels like this:

got-js

How are they supposed to really know which of all those super brief blurbs will turn out to be mighty-mega-bestsellers? It’s hard being an agent. If an agent gets thousands of queries a year (and most of them do), your chances of standing out from two paragraphs in a query letter are very slim. Not impossible, but on average, an agent may take on only a handful of new clients each year. That’s single digits, out of thousands.

But that could be you. And you should damn well believe that it will be you. you’re awesome!

follow-dreams

None of this is to discourage you; it’s just to let you know what you’re up against, and what you’ll need to be ready for. Still up for it? That’s fantastic! Write yourself a knock-out query (there are plenty of reputable sites and services offering query critiques, and Writers Digest has a great series analyzing successful query letters)[link], select your list of literary agents (making sure they handle the type of book you’re submitting), and get at it!

If that’s not for you for whatever reason (your book is unconventional, you don’t want to wait that long, you just HAVE TO GET THIS STORY OUT THERE RIGHT NOW DAMNIT), or you’ve been down that road and have amassed a collection of rejections and want to try something else, then self-publishing might be worth a shot.

Making that decision carefully and thoughtfully is step 1.

We’ll take you through the next steps in part 2!

 

 

 

Editing: Beta Readers

Finally, the words you’ve been waiting for: Your draft is done!

dragon-landing

You finally get to take a break. So power down your computer and relax… while you hand your manuscript over to… someone else.

Okay, so maybe relax is the wrong word. CRINGE might be more accurate. PANIC, definitely. SKIN-CRAWLING FEAR, possibly.

We’ve said before that writing can be an isolating experience. It’s just you, your computer, the wild and crazy thoughts in your head, and that beautiful bowl of peanut M&Ms (replace with the snack of your choice). It’s no wonder that bringing someone else into the mix feels so disconcerting. You might feel that what you wrote was awesome, just the way it is.

bridget-jones-darcy-gif

But once your draft is polished, the next step is sending it out into a little corner of the world for feedback. It’s gotta go.

But what that corner looks like is totally up to you. Do you have a group of trusted friends that you could ask to give your work a read through? Are you a part of, or could you join, a local writing group? Are you lucky enough to have a mentor?

yoda-2

We all need a Yoda to give our work the Jedi side-eye

It’s important that you can trust whomever you ask to give honest feedback. If your mom is the type to praise your achievement at finally completing something and will focus on the quality of the paper your story is printed on, she’s not the right person to ask. Nor do you want to give your work to a friend who prides themselves on getting through school without ever opening a book.

You need a reader who, you know, reads. And can be critical.

If you don’t have anyone that fits that description, don’t worry, there are loads of professional editors out there that will be willing to go over your manuscript… for a fee. Finding that editor is kind of like online dating. You need to check their profile and their background, make sure they’re legit, see what they’re into, and then ask if they would be interested. Hiring an editor who works mainly on historical YA fiction may not be a good fit for your sci-fi opus. There are a lot of groups online that have several editors “on staff” and once you describe your work, and what kind of feedback you’re looking for, will hook you up better than match.com.

Once your manuscript is in someone else’s hands, do your best to distract yourself. Rewatch of Gilmore Girls anyone? Whenever that annoying box pops up to confirm that you are still watching, take a moment and start to mentally prepare yourself for when your beta reader gets back to you. Because it’s gonna hurt. It doesn’t matter if only one tiny error is found, it’s still going to sting. Spoiler: There’s going to be more than one.

gilmore-girls-lorelei

But remind yourself that the good news is, you can fix it.

You can fix anything.

That’s what the next draft (which might be the 4th, or 9th, or 16th, whatever it takes) is all about; fixing what you couldn’t see because you were too close to it. When the feedback is ready make sure to take notes, ask questions, and before walking away, have a clear understanding of exactly what your beta reader is telling you. Even if you disagree, be clear on what they feel didn’t work. Then take those notes and put them away for a day.

Chances are you’ll be a mixture of desperately wanting to jump right in and fix any blemish, and furious that it was there in the first place. But give yourself time to adjust to the feedback. It’ll feel overwhelming, but once you start to tackle one issue after another you’ll see the full solution. As we mentioned before, sometimes those solutions were already there in the first draft and need to be added back in.

Come up with a game plan before you turn your computer back on. This way you’re not going over and over the same sections. At times it will go smoother than you think, other times it will drag. But you’ll get there. Every problem is solvable and when you’re done, you’ll have a completed manuscript!

Editing: Structure

So you’ve gone through and tightened your plot, strengthened your characters, confirmed that the dialogue is realistic, and shaped your world until it was so tangible you forgot you didn’t live there. Congratulations! You have a solid second draft! Feels good, doesn’t it?

Charlie dancing

Now it’s time… to create the (drum roll) THIRD DRAFT. We know what you’re thinking: wait, shouldn’t I be taking a break? Reconnecting with Netflix and friends? Or just Netflix?

editing-structure-netflix

Sorry, but no. You’re on a roll and you need to keep rolling.

image3

Editing requires discipline and momentum. Whether you’re working on it eight hours a day every day, or during your forty-five minute lunch break Monday through Friday, or grabbing 20 minutes before your commute every day, you’re doing some serious work. Don’t stop now.

Serendipitously, your third draft will be all about momentum. Does your story have it? Is there a pace and/or structure that’s keeping the reader turning the page?

This is where you have to make some hard decisions about the structure of your story. Are you going to follow the classic formats (three act structure, eight point arc, etc.) or follow your own?  Are you going to have a change in narration or setting with each chapter/break? Are you going to have one chapter flow into the next, or end each break on a cliffhanger, so when your reader says they’re just going to read one more chapter before bed, they wind up finishing the book at three in the morning — loving and kind of hating you when their alarm goes off the next morning?

image2

While it’s tempting to fall back on classic structures and forcing your story into a mold, we recommend reading through what you have so far first. Chances are you’ll see some kind of structure already peeking through. It may be close to a classic format or it might be something completely new. Do what feels right for the story. The key is that it’s consistent throughout. Once you decide on your structure, make sure the work follows the shape from beginning to end. You shouldn’t ask your readers to fight to stay in your story — especially at three in the morning.

Once your story has a firm shape, like everything in life, it’s all about the details. You’ll need to go into every arc, scene, act and/or chapter and make sure they each achieve something that furthers the plot — whether it establishes an aspect of the setting, a facet of your character(s) or moves the action forward. Break down your story into smaller stories and make sure that they are essential.

image1

If they aren’t essential, you have to either give them more depth, or cut them loose.

edit-structure-rose

Just remember, if you really love a scene and desperately want to keep it, chances are it’s trying to say something but isn’t quiet there yet. Work on it, find its meaning and let it shine through.

Your number one task is to be brutally honest with yourself, though; if you can’t make it work, no matter how much you love it and how good it is on its own, it will only hurt the whole piece. Chocolate is amazing, but not on a steak. So if a scene doesn’t fit, even if the writing is impeccable, cut it. But paste it to a new document.

Who knows, it could be the pivotal ingredient to the second course/sequel!*

 

*Finish what you’re working on now first though!

 

 

 

 

Editing:World-building

We’re all familiar with world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. The religions, politics, powers, and ancient mythology (and, yes, even the trade laws) that exist in Star Wars, Star Trek, the MCU, and the Potter-verse. But world-building isn’t just for magical characters wielding all-powerful technology.

Loki

Magical character? Check. Wielding all-powerful technology? Check. 

No matter the genre, the world in which your story takes place is more than just a backdrop to invoke a location (like a white sheet behind a stage to show an empty sky). Your setting is literally and figuratively your characters’ world. It has/will shape them, and possibly crush or inspire them.

The first step to building your world (and ensuring it’s presented in just the right way when you’re editing) is to decide how much influence you want the setting to have. Will it enrich each scene in subtle, nuanced ways (like the music subculture in Begin Again), or will your world be so vivid that it’s almost a character unto itself (like The Matrix)? Either way, just like your characters, you need to know the ins and outs of where your story unfolds. What’s its history? Its defining features? How does the air smell (if it even has air)? How does the water taste (if there’s even any water)? What does it sound like at night? Is it any different at dawn from how it is at dusk?

This also extends to culture and society: you need to know the mechanics of how your invented society functions, and how your characters work those mechanics. Mad Max: Fury Road has a fully complete society and eco-system: it’s grounded in details. Utterly insane details, to  be sure, but it’s 100% consistent and feels real.

Doof Warrior

World-building, son. This photo never gets old. Ever. 

If you’re so inclined, draw your world, as much as you can. If not, look for pictures, photos, paintings, etc. that both look like your world, and conjure the feelings you want your world to provoke in your characters, and in your readers. Having a visual reference can be a huge help in creating your atmosphere. If there’s a part of the world that has similar geography, go visit it and soak it in. Basically, do what you need to in order to live there in your head. Then attack your draft and make sure that feeling you have when you’re living in your world is conveyed between the action and dialogue lines, and in and between each line of your prose. Make sure every action follows the law of your world: readers and viewers have an unerring instinct for inconsistency, even if it’s felt more than thought, it will turn them away from your work. For example: if there is no air, there is no rust.

Grab your nearest copy of Harry Potter (everyone has a set of Harry Potter books in each room, right? That just us?), open it up, and see how long it takes you to figure out where Harry, Hermione and Ron are. We’re betting that in a few lines you can tell what room in Hogwarts they’re in, or which shop in Diagon Alley. (Just for the record, J.K. Rowling is a master world-builder, on every possible level — if you want to see how it’s done, read the Harry Potter books, and for a more gritty, contemporary kind of world, her Cormoran Strike crime novels, written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith).

HP books

Can never have too many of these, Harry

It’s all in the details, the feelings that bring you… well… home.

When you’re editing your story, be it script or prose, it’s important to shape your world to feel like a home. It’s your home as the creator, your characters’ home because they exist in it, and your readers’ as they escape to it.