On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Best Contests for Self-Published Authors by Andy Baldwin

Today's entry is from Andy Baldwin's blog. Andy Baldwin is a publishing expert with more than 20 years in the industry, an undergraduate degree in Journalism, and an MBA in Marketing.  He is President of Bookstand Publishing which offers self-publishing and marketing services so authors can become successfully published.

The original Blog entry is HERE.


Book contests offer extra exposure, recognition, and the chance to claim “award-winning” during your marketing efforts  as well as the chance to win cash and prizes.  Here are the Book Contests I recommend for Self-Published Authors:

Benjamin Franklin Awards

The IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, which includes fifty-five categories recognizing excellence in both editorial and design, is regarded as one of the highest national honors in small and independent publishing.

$190 for first title, which includes one year’s membership in IBPA;

$90 per title, per category for second and subsequent entries.

Indie Book Awards

The largest not-for-profit awards program for independent publishers including self-published authors. The top 60 books will be forwarded to a leading literary agent for review and possible representation.

Fee: $75
Readers Favorite

Readers Favorite is the fastest growing book review and award contest site on the Internet. The annual Reader Views Literary Awards were established to honor writers who self-published or had their books published alternatively by a self-publishing company.  You can win this esteemed literary award as well thousands of dollars in marketing support

Early Bird (January 1) $45

Regular Fee: $65

USA Book News

The  Annual USA Best Book Awards are specifically designed to not only garner MEDIA COVERAGE & BOOK SALES for the winners & finalists but to PROMOTE awarded books to the PUBLISHING & ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRIES!

Open to self-published book in all categories.

Fee:  $69

Writer’s Digest Self –Published Book Awards
(NOTE: listed link didn't work for me; the link is http://www.writersdigest.com/competitions/selfpublished)

This is the only self-published competition exclusively for self-published books sponsored by Writers Digest. They offer over $17,000 in cash and prizes

Early Bird (April 1) Entry fees are $100 for the first entry, and $75 for each additional entry.

Fee $75

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Girl in the Tree

When I was entering college, some student committee asked all prospective freshmen to submit a yearbook photo so they could compile a "New Student" booklet for us newbies to recognize each other. Well, I went to a small high school and sadly did not have a formal photo (I still regret this, Mom), so sent a snapshot of me standing beside a tree.

During our first week, I was surprised that so many people recognized me as I walked down the sidewalk to class or met students in the dorm or did other freshman-type activities.

"You're the girl in the tree!"

"Umm, yes."

Thinking back on this now, I recognize a valuable lesson for writers, book cover designers, and others in the arts. This is the lesson:

Do something different from everyone else.

For example, I'm working with an author now to publish her book. Her genre, YA spec, shows multiple books all with a mysterious or beautiful or otherwise intriguing girl in the forefront, with a mysterious or beautiful or otherwise intriguing setting in the background. What does this tell me?

I DON'T want to have a mysterious or beautiful or otherwise intriguing girl in the forefront.

Going through the book, I'm thinking of putting three characters on the front, and have them in some sort of action pose. I'm playing with how I might include a recurring item in the book as a symbol. The book cover will have the same-ish *feel* as the other YA spec covers, but will be different enough that it will stand out.

Yes, just like the girl in the tree.

I'll let you know when I've got it nailed. But so far, I'm happy reflecting how to do this. I hope you also can work to recognize differences to make your work stand out.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Resources for Finding a Literary Agent

You want to find agents that represent works similar to yours. In other words, don't go to an agent who exclusively takes nonfiction if you are trying to sell a novel. Don't go to an agent who has literary-type authors if you're trying to sell a blockbuster adventure story.

Remember that you want to make a list of at least fifty agents to whom you can submit your manuscript. The only way to find this many is doing lots of (mostly) internet research. Fifty is a big number. You should determine competing similar books to yours, then research these books on google and amazon to find agent and other information such as sales. Research the authors. If you can afford it, go to appropriate writer's conferences or seminars to meet like-minded writers, authors, or business people who might have suggestions. Enter contests, especially judged by professionals. Ask, seek, knock.

Do google searches for "literary agents" or literary agencies" or your genre. Also check out blogs about writing, publishing, or by the individuals whom you may be interested in. The following specific websites may also give you a few leads:

www.publisherslunch.com -- this newsletter is offered in both a free and paid version, and gives lots of information about recent deals and the agents who brokered them.

www.publishersweekly.com -- the website for Publishers Weekly has a "Deals" link that describes recent major deals, and also has a free weekly e-newsletter for which you can sign up.

www.writersmarket.com -- they offer a free newsletter that may contain valuable tidbits.

www.writersdigest.com -- this website has a number of good articles and links, including the 101 best annual websites for writers, and provides a free newsletter for which you can sign up.

www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog -- helpful blog.

www.agentquery.com -- a free searchable database of agent and agency information.

http://michaelhyatt.com/literary-agents-who-represent-christian-authors.html -- Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, has compiled a list of the 40 top literary agents with whom his company works. Since Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher these listed agents work with Christian works either partially or exclusively, but if your work falls within the "Christian" category by all means check it out.


Now for a few quick don't as you submit your material to literary agent:

1. Short is definitely sweet. Unless specifically requested in submission guidelines, just send a one page query, no matter how good you think your stuff is. If the submission guidelines request other things, send only exactly what is required. Don't put in extra pages just because you think the person is going to *love* it. Instead, be respectful and winsomely entice the person to ask for for.

2. Snail mail is probably better than e-mail. Unless the agent definitely wants e-mail for submissions, snail mail seems more formal and to be taken more seriously, at least to me. REMEMBER TO INCLUDE YOUR SELF-ADDRESSED STAMPED ENVELOPE (SASE) and contact information.

3. Don't be a pest. Don't call or drop in to visit the agent -- everything should be done through the postal or internet services. Make sure that your manuscript is in its final version, and don't send updates or modifications until you get an interested response -- then, talk about it.

4. Don't be weird or desperate. This means type your stuff on regular typing paper, with a regular font. Don't hide little gifts or money between the pages of your manuscript, or have sparkly things pop out of the envelope when it's opened-- if your work can't stand on its own, then you shouldn't be doing this.

So there you go. Email me if you have any questions.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Marketing with Blog Book Tours

The internet creates startling opportunities to network and disseminate information. One fabulous twist on the old-fashioned book tour is the Blog Tour, something that you're probably familiar with. Basically, a single book is featured within a short period of time, such as a day or week, on multiple blogs. The goal is to increase the book's exposure, since it's been shown that repeated reminders of a product make it more likely for someone to convert (ie buy the durn thing). Furthermore, since the reviewers usually give honest opinions of the bad as well as the good, a potential buyer can get a reasonable assessment of whether he might actually like the book.

These book-review blogs take a little bit of work to find: use google or other search engines to find blogs that review books, and check them out to see which might be appropriate. You can make a list, then comment or write to the person to see if they might be interested in reviewing your book. Coordinating them will be a challenge, but multiple exposures of a book over a few weeks or months won't necessarily be horrible, providing you can keep other marketing techniques going at the same time to maintain a potential *buzz.*

But wait! There's an easier way.

There are organizations that put blog tours together for authors. Some of these operate out of a publisher's advertising/marketing department, and only work for this company. Some operate from self-pubbing organizations, and you can purchase a package that will help you put together a blog tour. Some are freelance marketers that you can hire.

However, if you have a book that is consistent with a Christian world view, I have an even better option for you to consider: First Wild Card Tours.

First Wild Card Tours (the link is HERE) is a *free* service that puts together blog tours. You the author must provide the books and the postage, but while not inconsequential financially, that's it. (Ebooks also are good if you're willing to do the emailing. If you need help with ebook conversions write to me and I'll give you a brief review of how you can do this). The Wild Card Blog Reviews function like this: You find an open date that works for you, and submit the title, a brief description, the first chapter, and an author photo. You also state how many books you can provide; a good number might be 25. The director makes an announcement on the loop, and then interested bloggers contact you directly. A few weeks later, on your date, the blog tour goes up.

Furthermore, these don't have to be new books, so if you have an older release date you're still good to go. First Wild Card will also tour self-published books.

And by the way, if you have a blog, you like free books, and you don't mind writing reviews, you might want to consider joining this group as well. (Another group for free books/blog reviews is netgalley.com). There are no minimum standards for participation, and you get to choose the books you'd like to read. Not bad.

Friday, June 21, 2013

My Hero, the Newbie

One of the best parts of a writing conference is that I get to meet Newbies one-on-one for 15 minutes or so to talk about their writing. I love to hear the writers' life stories, and to encourage them, give them some direction, and help them avoid common pitfalls.

Newbies are brave. Newbies are stubborn (in a good sense), and demonstrate FAITH: trusting that they will finish and publish their book, despite no encouragement, no time, and feeling as if they have no talent. Newbies are unselfish people who work hard taking care of spouses, children and elderly parents, working a job or multiple jobs to financially support their loved ones, spending time cleaning and cooking and running errands and doing yard work and the millions of other things it takes to be a responsible person. Often the Newbie has a physical limitation or emotional loss that can seem unbearable, yet the Newbie works through these things to complete his duties.

And yet, despite all these things, and perhaps without even telling anyone else, the Newbie finds the courage to aspire to one more thing: being a WRITER. Newbies are driven by a dream, the dream to communicate their thoughts to others. They know that no one else sees the world exactly as they do, and that what they know, and do, and are, is valuable and precious. Often the Newbie says that it isn't THEIR dream, but simply a sense that God is leading them to write. This is the epitome of faith: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1, NIV)

Newbies are my heroes.

It's humbling to sit across from these hopeful, quiet people as they hesitantly offer up pages of carefully formatted text that they've labored over.

I ask how I can help, listen to loglines, glance through pages, discuss a question they ask, and pray that I can give them good guidance. Most of what I see is a long way from being publishable. I must be gentle as I point out problems. I usually see the same problems over and over: too long manuscript (which is almost a guarantee of wordiness), lack of tension, or unclear/stereotyped writing when the story is crying for specifics. These are big problems, and they can't be solved in a 15 minute conference. Furthermore, since I'm the e-pubbing person (ebooklistingservices.com), many who talk to me feel they're ready to put the book up for the Kindle.


These manuscripts are babies: dreamed-about, nurtured, cherished, worthy of endless time and attention. I tell the Newbie that it would be so sad for them to push their baby out of the nest before it's ready to fly. The manuscript needs another draft. Then, try for a traditional publisher first: these publishing houses are going to be much better at marketing. Most of the Newbies I meet don't do Facebook, and don't relish the social marketing necessary for selling a self-published book.

Occasionally, if the Newbie is desperate to publish because they need money I recommend they write a few nonfiction e-books of about 50 pages each on some of their favorite topics. They can e-publish THESE on Kindle. Even if each book only makes, say, $20 or $50 or whatever a month, it's something. But don't put their precious book manuscript out there until it's ready.

My sister once told me it takes about 10,000 hours of practice before someone becomes good at something. Newbies are blind in a way: they haven't put in even close to 10,000, and don't see how far they're going to have to go before they can move to the next stage of having shapely prose. They are under the illusion that what they write is already shapely, because the story in their head is so vibrant. Despite the absent or even negative feedback they still keep working, they still stay up an extra hour when they're dog-tired, or stay inside even though it's a beautiful day, so they can nurture their dream. This is courage.

Yes, Newbies are my heroes.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Future Me

What would it be like to talk to your future self? This could be the seed for a great story, but it also happens to be possible.

The site, futureme.org, makes this even easier. You can write an email to yourself, and the site will send it to you on the date you decide.

The possibilities are interesting... I keep an idea file, and this website immediately went into it for *future* reference.

What will you say to yourself?

And this isn't possible, but wouldn't it be cool if your future self could talk to you now?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Great Market for Self-Published Books

An important and often overlooked market for self-published books is public libraries, and you need to prepare for this market before publication.

This market requires a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN). An LCCN is a unique identification number for your book in the Library of Congress’ catalog record. Since you’ll be applying before publication you need to get a Preassigned Control Number (PCN) (http://pcn.loc.gov/). The PCN requires cataloging in publication (CIP) data, so you will also need to get your book data, called publisher-generated CIP data. The librarian I chose gave me a good price and fast turnaround of a few days at http://www.cipblock.com. There are other people who do this also; you can compare prices etc. with a google search. The CIP data allows individual libraries to categorize your book for their own shelves.

If you obtain a PCN, you will need to send a copy of your final book to the Library of Congress once it’s published.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Opening Your Story With a Bang

Some writers espouse opening a story that sets the reader or viewer immediately into the middle of a horrific disaster or other spectacular event. While this can work well, especially for films, this is a challenging technique to pull off especially for new writers.

Before the reader can be drawn into the disaster, he needs to understand what is going on (clearly presented descriptions and detail) and to care about the characters. A horrific unfolding disaster may even prevent the reader’s emotional engagement into your story because it’s so painful that he won’t want to become involved.

I would like to suggest, instead of a devastating situation, that you form a relationship between your reader and point of view character. If you must have the exciting fire or other big event, build into it and allow the time for your reader and character to first become acquainted.

Building reader interest in your protagonist can be done in several ways:

1. Create Sympathy. If your protagonist suffers from something, whether an injustice, a physical defect, or a terrible loss of some sort, this will go a long way to create reader identification because the reader will feel sorry for him and therefore, of course, want him to win.

2. Put Your Protagonist in Jeopardy. Any time a character is in real danger, whether by physical or emotional threat, the audience is riveted. Start with a jeopardy small enough so the reader doesn’t automatically disengage from a painful situation, and build up from there.

3. Make Your Protagonist Likeable. We all want to be around pleasant rather than unpleasant people, and this is no different in stories. The person may behave well, or be funny, or be good at his job, or whatever—he has likeable traits that the viewer can appreciate.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dale Carnegie's Inspiration

~ ~

Dale Carnegie was a believer in not putting limits on what you might be able to achieve. An intro paragraph from Wikipedia describes him thus:

Dale Breckenridge Carnegie (originally Carnagey until 1922 and possibly somewhat later) (November 24, 1888 – November 1, 1955) was an American writer and lecturer and the developer of famous courses in self-improvement, salesmanship, corporate training, public speaking and interpersonal skills. Born in poverty on a farm in Missouri, he was the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1936, a massive bestseller that remains popular today. He also wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln, titled Lincoln the Unknown, as well as several other books.

Carnegie was an early proponent of what is now called responsibility assumption, although this only appears minutely in his written work. One of the core ideas in his books is that it is possible to change other people's behavior by changing one's reaction to them.

Below is a clip of some of Carnegie's thoughts:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


George Herman Ruth Jr., or *Babe* Ruth (1895-1948), is arguably the greatest baseball player of all times. He was the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season (1927), and this record stood for 34 years until it was broken by Roger Maris in 1961. Ruth's lifetime total of 714 home runs at his retirement in 1935 was a record for 39 years, until broken by Hank Aaron in 1974. His lifetime batting average was 0.342, and he made 2873 hits, and 714 home runs.

I find this quote inspiring:

Don't let the fear of striking out hold you back. -- Babe Ruth

The Babe only connected with a little more than 3 out of 10 pitches, and yet this is the 10th highest average in baseball history.

You do not need to do the job perfectly. Just keep persevering, without even looking at what is accumulating, and you may be surprised.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fun with Language

This poem made me smile.

Asylum for the Verbally Insane

Author unknown

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,

But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,

Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,

Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Study with the Story Template Part Two

The "hidden need" of the protagonist is an emotional lack that he solves during the course of the story. I first heard this term from Angela Hunt and Nancy Rue at a writing conference where I attended their first "NANGIE" instructional class in 2005.

The hidden need not only hurts the protagonist, but most ideally it also hurts those around him or her. Some examples of this hidden need might be someone who is afraid to confront others, or who loves money more than family, or who is unconsciously arrogant.

The hidden need triplet describes 3 specific stages in which this flaw is actually solved in your protagonist:

1. Demonstrating the hidden need

2. Solving the hidden need

3. Demonstrating that the hidden need is solved

These stages normally occur in the second half of act two, right after the midpoint, and often form a "mini-story" to give a break from the excitement and story ramifications of the midpoint.

Let me use the movie U571 to demonstrate. It's a movie made in 2000 about a submarine crew in WW2 that wants to capture a Nazi Enigma machine (story goal). If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it! It's very exciting and beautifully done.

Stage One: Demonstrating the Hidden Need

Tyler is the second in command who likes to be a "big brother" figure to those under him, but is afraid to lead. Right after the midpoint disaster in which the captain is killed, he finds himself in command of a crippled ship. The men are worried. Tyler admits to them that he doesn't know what they're going to do. This scene starts at 55.1% of the whole.

Stage Two: Solving the Hidden Need

The chief petty officer takes Tyler aside and privately tells him to never, ever say to the crew again that he doesn't know what to do. The captain, the chief petty officer says, is an awesome figure, and must always present a strong presence in order to give courage and inspire loyalty and confidence in his men. Tyler listens carefully. This scene starts at 58.9% of the whole.

Stage Three: Hidden Need is Demonstrated to be Solved

The Americans surface and see a small Nazi plane flying overhead. Since they're on a German Uboat, Tyler tells his sailors to wave as if they are also Germans. One of Tyler's sailors orders the one manning the guns to strafe the Nazi plane, but Tyler orders him not to. There is hesitation but the gunner holds his fire, the sailors wave, and the Nazi plane seems to be fooled as he flies past. Then Tyler turns and punches out the sailor. "This isn't a democracy!" he growls. This scene starts at 60.5% of the whole.

Near the Darkest Moment when the Hidden Need is again Demonstrated

Close to the darkest moment, Tyler needs a functional torpedo tube, but it's underwater and for anyone to fix it will be dangerous and likely fatal. Tyler orders one of his crew to go in there and FIX it, darn it, and do it now! This scene starts at 93.2% of the whole.


I could show you this same pattern in story after story after story. I included the percentages not to be rigid and say your hidden need triplet MUST occur here, but instead to give you an idea of the natural reliability of its placement. My student Emily was amazed to verify how closely different points of a story (not just hidden need triplet) tended to fall. This is another subject, however.

The hidden need triplet is a specific sequence of actions that solves the hidden need. Just having a protagonist with a hidden need suddenly acting better at the darkest moment is not the same, and will not have the same resonant effects.

When designing or editing your story, make sure that your protagonist has some sort of flaw that needs to be healed. Then, demonstrate clearly exactly how it is healed. By doing this your story will carry a strong emotional punch.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Study with the Story Template Part One

One of my high-school students, Emily, did a school project using my story template algorithm. Her goal was to examine classic and non-classic stories to find any differences in the story structure. She decided to use just movies since the analysis is quicker, although still not trivial: for each story she broke it into a list of scenes, timed each scene, then calculated percentages of whole for duration and placement. Her definition of a classic was a film that had been adapted from a novel, had one or more sequels, and/or was recognized as the epitome of its genre. Furthermore, the original novel or film must have been made at least 25 years ago (1985 or earlier), since it takes at least about a generation to be recognized as a classic. Non-classics were films in that same time period that did not fit the "classic" criteria. She tried to choose films from a variety of genres.

She chose well-known movies:


Charlotte's Web

Prince Caspian

Tuck Everlasting

High Noon

Raiders of the Lost Ark




Heaven Can Wait

War Games


To analyze these movies, Emily studied the story template and then broke it down into 16 specific testable points. After doing her research, and contrary to all of my expectations, she found a real difference in structure between the classics and non-classics.

15 of the 16 points were present in all the stories. However, 1 of the points was present in 6 out of 7 classics, but in none of the non-classics. This blew me away. When she did a Fisher's exact t-test for binary data on the presence or absence of this one variable in identifying a classic, in a two-tailed test (which is harder to reach significance), she had a p value of 0.03, considered significant. (The p value means that if you did this test 100 times, in 3 out of 100 trials you would expect to obtain these results by chance. Scientific standards typically accept a p < 0.05 to be considered significant, meaning that the scientist is probably measuring a real phenomenon). This result indicates the presence of this one story point is highly correlated to having a "classic" whereas its absence means it is linked to being a non-classic.

These aren't clean statistics since the original project design looked for 16 variables. The likelihood with this many variables is that one might reach a level of significance with one of the variables just by chance. However, 1) none of the other points changed -- they were all present in both classics and non-classics; and 2) this point makes a lot of sense to me that it might distinguish the lasting stories from the throwaways. At the minimum, it seems to be important to remember to include this point. It sure can't hurt.

I'm sure you're wondering what this variable is? Well, this blog entry is already long, so I'm going to save that till Friday. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think it might be. Happy writing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

You Become Who You Wish to Be

I’m dating myself here. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was delighted to find after school a television channel that showed reruns of the original Star Trek series with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Yeah, they were cheesy, but to a young girl they were “fascinating.” Along with books and Star Wars, these were my first initiation into ideas of bending reality and alternate worlds. A few years later I was excited to watch Star Trek: Next Generation. This was objectively a better series, with more complex characters and occasionally a truly mind-twisting premise. The cardboard walls and Christmas tree lights were gone. Yes, maybe the Next Generation episodes were sometimes silly, but as in the first series, full of optimism and derring do.

I love to contrast the characters of Spock and Data from the two series. Spock is a Vulcan – a humanoid who prizes logic and rationality more than anything. Spock never showed emotion, at least until the actor complained and the writers built in a half-human side and a few episodes in which he could deliver a larger emotional range.

Data, on the other hand, is the quintessential Pinocchio: an android built by Dr. Noonian Soong who is incapable of experiencing emotion, although he desperately pursues this aim. Among other things Data learns painting, plays poker, and adopts a cat (Spot), but never quite gets it.

Interestingly, I think of Spock as less human-like than Data. Spock, who is human but wishes to be unemotional, is perceived as unemotional. Data, who is without emotions but “desires” to become human, is perceived as human -- although the crew never forget that he is an android, they always interact with him in a human-like way.

Of course, this perception on my part, as the audience, might be due to skillful acting and writing that imbues a limited character with greater depth. But assuming that this is a true observation, I’ve often pondered why this might be. I think it comes down to this: the characters are perceived, not as who they are or even who they see themselves as, but who they desire to be.

This is a powerful thought.

Who are you aiming to be? What do you wish to accomplish? More than many other factors, these goals will define who you are.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Length Matters

Many middle writers figure that their writing is so good it doesn't matter if their ms is a little long. "Those are just guidelines,” the writer thinks. “Everyone will love it. Anyway, look at Stephen King with those monster books he puts out all the time.”
Well, yes, Stephen King does get away with long stories. Stephen King is also a proven author who could sell his grocery list if he wanted some quick cash. As a never-published author, you, dear writer, are not Stephen King. You need to follow the rules.
Rule-of-thumb length estimates are as follows:
20-40K for a novella.
50-80K for some genres, especially romance.
70-100K for most novels. 100K is pushing it.
Unless you are going to a house that says it’s OK, DO NOT try to sell them a ms over 100K. They will laugh at you.
Before you submit to a house, look up their length guidelines so you have specific information, and then stick to these like glue. (And remember in your ms to avoid clichĂ©s like the plague :-)  ).
There are two good reasons that manuscript length is a hard and fast rule. The first reason is that an overlong manuscript is typical of poor writing: passive voice, descriptive rather than active prose, too many adjectives and adverbs, imprecise story execution, and so forth. This is not to say that your manuscript DOES have these problems, just that a long manuscript will cause the editor to suspect your technique likely needs improvement. You’ll be starting out a reading with a strike against you.
The second reason is that long books are expensive to print. Although publishers bring provocative written works with valuable messages to an audience, ultimately for them a book is a product. Their ultimate goal is to make money. They are inundated each year with hundreds or thousands of unpublished manuscripts. 
Imagine that you are an editor and have two manuscripts before you. They are both written by newbies with comparable platforms, qualifications, and skill. The messages of both are strong. One is 80K, and the other is 110K. You figure with the longer one you will have to charge more money per book and/or accept a smaller profit margin. Your profit margin on any book is already small. Which one will you take?
As ebooks continue to take a larger market share, and print books become less popular, it’s true that cost for publishing a long book may become less important. Even so, readers tend to gravitate towards shorter rather than longer works. And don’t forget that poor writing tends to lengthen prose.
Drill this in: LENGTH MATTERS. An editor is not going to make an exception for you because of an amazing story.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Trick is in the Selling

Since I teach at conferences and other places, I run into many writers who want to be published. Their writing quality ranges from perfection to scribbles, but most fall into what I call the "middle writer" level -- good writers who are nevertheless missing techniques that will push their writing to a truly professional level.

These middle writers are, naturally, eager to be published, and frankly think they're ready to be published. In my opinion, they're not quite there. Rather, they're passing through a stage that all writers go through. This stage is fraught with danger with the easy availability now of publishing oneself.

I feel like a broken record with publishing advice, but can't stand to see good people taken advantage of. So here goes, one more time.

First, let me tell you my story and why I think I can give advice. A few years ago I was at the middle writer stage when I signed with my dream agent. Sadly he turned out to be a nightmare: he told me he'd showed my ms to a number of publishers, did not give me a list, then abruptly broke all contact with me. (I know he actually did show the ms since I had a telephone call from an editor asking questions). If you know anything about the biz, you'll realize I was screwed with finding another agent since I didn't know who'd seen the ms. Shortly after that I experienced a health crisis so was not able to write for a long time due to depression.

My options were to change the title and hunt for another agent, write another book with which to piggyback my ms, or self-publish. I put on my publisher's hat and looked at my ms with fresh eyes. Not only was it way too long and therefore too costly to publish with a reasonable book price, but it had many *middle writer* errors that needed to be cleared up. My friend Jane edited the durn thing and taught me through her critiques how this is done. Once she'd finished I took the next year  compulsively editing. I cut the ms from 117K to 89K, changed passive voice, got rid of adverbs, rabbit trails, and so forth. It took me five or six passes before I was  happy.

I hired a book packager (Archer Ellison, a fantastic company that I recommend without reservation) to design a cover, and hired my friend Chris to copyedit and typeset. Both companies did an outstanding job. Then I formed an LLC and put up Lever for sale in 2009. I've worked with a friend/consultant with my company but mostly do this myself. A year or two later, when ebooks started becoming big, I searched for someone to format my book but only found usurious places, so I figured out how to do this myself. I've since opened an epublishing branch of my company so that others can epublish their books without being ripped off.

By 2009 I was able to write again. My next book wasn't working out though so I took a detour to study story structure. After puzzling out story structure, then coaching would-be novelists in a class at the local high school and clients from the library, I was ready to write Template. I did this in three months (since I'd worked with this stuff for so long) and put Template up in 2011.

I have been amazingly blessed and gratified to hear from so many people who have found Template helpful. This has been so exciting for me. As a side benefit, Lever has also sold a few copies. I am happy to announce that I will be publishing another person within the year, and hope to soon develop Taegais into a full-blown professional publishing company. While I'm not yet officially looking for submissions, I always keep my eyes open for something *excellent.*

OK, so back to the middle writer syndrome. As I mentioned before, I believe 100% of people who continue to write go through this stage, and it is a noble place to be. The middle writer is a skillful writer who works hard and is beginning to see people (mostly critique partners) actually like their work. The downside is that it is tempting for the middle write to think he's better than he is. The middle writer typically sends queries and mss to agents, but has had disappointing results -- maybe a request for something, but it usually ends up in a dead end.

The middle writer then hears enticing stories about writers like John Locke and Amanda Hocking, self-publishers who have sold (literally) a million books. Come-hither advertisements for subsidy publishers in writing magazines tell this writer how he can take control to publish his book instead of waiting for the glacial pace of traditional publishers.

My advice: I am aware of only one subsidy company, my friend Chris' company Yav Publications, that will not rip you off. I've also heard good things about amazon's DIY company Create Space. You can read about what to look for in subsidy publishers in Mark Levine's book The Fine Print of Self Publishing. But if you MUST self-publish then consider forming a company to do it yourself. If you need help in getting started, please write to me and I'll set you on the right direction. It's not nearly as difficult or as complicated as you may think.

But here's some more advice: remember that it is relatively easy to package an attractive book. The hard part is selling it. If your writing is only at the middle level, your book will not give the reader as exciting an experience as he craves, and he will be less likely to recommend you to his friends. It is REALLY HARD to sell books. For middle writers I always recommend ignoring the outlier stories and keep working to make your writing fabulous. Don't prematurely publish your work, because you will damage both it and your writing reputation. Keep working till you jump to the next level. Then when it's time to publish, you'll be ready.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Your Story Engine

Writers can be meticulous planners, SOTPers/pantsters (seat of the pants writers), or somewhere in between. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, articulating your story engine before going ahead will clarify whether you even have a story, and if so, how you might go about writing it.

The story engine is comprised of three components:



The Story Goal is the task that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This task needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is successful, or not, by the end of the story.

Make sure that your story goal is something noble: for example, a protagonist who wants to achieve a powerful position so that he can impose his strange philosophy on many people will not be a sympathetic character, and his goal will not be something your reader will root for. On the other hand, if your protagonist is trying to, say, obtain money to help a little girl with cancer, your audience will be sympathetic. It is the protagonist's motive in his story goal that matters.

Your story goal should be able to be broken down into smaller goals. For example, if your character's story goal is to win a big singing contest, she'll need to be struggling in obscurity before learning of the contest, struggle for the entrance money, have classroom run-ins with nasy competitors who may ruin her reputation or costume, convince an important ally to work with her, and so forth before the big night and the climax of the competition. These smaller goals push your story forward since achieving each small goal brings you one step closer to the big goal.


The stakes determine why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he won’t be motivated to achieve it. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved? For example, in our singer's example from the previous paragraph, if the girl doesn't win she won't qualify for the college scholarship that will let her be the first one in her family to go to university... and she thus won't be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor and helping the people in her poor neighborhood. Make your stakes important enough, and noble enough, that they are worth great protagonist efforts in your story.


If your protagonist can simply achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, holding the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to never make it easy on your hero. Internal obstacles are within the protagonist; things like the protagonist dealing with fear, lack of knowledge, or hiding a deadly secret. External obstacles are more visible; things like the protagonist outsmarting an enemy, crossing difficult terrain, or needing to find an object. Before you start writing each chapter, list a few internal and external obstacles that your POV character will have to deal with. These obstacles will prevent writer's block as you go through the scene.


Take a few minutes now to work on your goal, stakes, and obstacles. Any events in your story should relate to your story engine to make sure the narrative pushes forward. Determine several different levels of stakes so that the story goal becomes increasingly important. Come up with imaginative and multiple obstacles so that the story goal becomes increasingly in doubt. This planning at the beginning will pay off dividends soon.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Most Important Error

I've been judging a bunch of entries for a writing contest. On Saturday someone asked me what was the top error I was finding. Even though I'm not finding *errors* per se, only better and worse ways to phrase something, I found this question easy. One hundred percent of the entries I've graded so far do this.

The Question: What do many novel writers do that weakens their writing?
The Answer: Use Objective Point of View (POV).

Let me say first of all that objective POV isn't *wrong,* but with it you lose the strongest aspect of novel writing: enabling the reader to actually become (in their thoughts) one or more of your story characters. I always encourage you to develop deep POV in your story.

How does POV work?

When telling a story you can use several perspectives:

First person: I did this, I saw that.

Third person: Jake did this, Nancy saw that.

With first person, since you're writing from the character's perspective you will hopefully give the reader access to his thoughts and feelings in addition to the plot.

Third person can be further subdivided into:

Objective: what a camera sees. This also, by necessity, is the POV that screenwriters must use.

Omniscient: the author tells the reader things that no one character in the story knows.

Deep or Penetrating POV: gives the reader access to one (and only one) character's thoughts and feelings in addition to the plot. The POV character may change with a scene change.


OBJECTIVE POV would sound something like this:

Marissa looked at the pool. The water rippled invitingly, and she turned her head to see an empty chair nearby. She put her orange-and-pink striped towel on the seat, and then carefully unstrapped her sandals and placed them on top of the towel.

Before she'd left for the pool she had told her neighbor that her husband Ron was on a business trip to Phoenix, so she knew the neighbor would keep an eye out for her to return. She had decided to take her son swimming since Ron wasn't home.

"Mom! Come on in!"

Marissa gasped as she saw her six-year-old son Timmy on the high diving board. She held her breath as he jumped off.

NOTES: this is not completely objective, but is typical for many manuscripts. A few words like "invitingly," "carefully," "wondered," and so forth imply thoughts, but these are descriptive and removed; not the genuine words that someone would say to themselves. Note also the addition of irrelevant detail: orange-and-pink towel, sandals on the chair, and the neighbor keeping an eye on them. This telling usually uses the passive voice: lots of "to be" verbs (was, were, had and so on) and other verbs that are pedestrian (looked, turned, put and so forth). It also has cliches (keep an eye out).


OMNISCIENT POV would sound something like this:

Marissa looked at the pool. The lifeguard on the high chair noticed her dark hair and turquoise bathing suit, and wondered if she was married. Marissa saw him glance at her then shook her head. He was handsome and reminded her of her college boyfriend, but she wasn't attracted. She put her orange-and-pink striped towel on the empty chair next to her.

Six year old Timmy scanned the crowd, and after a moment he saw his mother. He was excited to be going on the high diving board for the first time. "Mom! Come on in!" he called.

Marissa gasped as she saw Timmy on the high diving board. She held her breath as he jumped off.

They didn't know that a stranger was watching them from the other side of the pool.

NOTES: this section gives the thoughts of the lifeguard, Marissa, and Timmy. This is known as head hopping. The section also gives information that neither the lifeguard, Marissa, or Timmy know: a stranger is watching them from the other side of the pool. While omniscient writing was popular in the nineteenth century, it is currently a no-no in the writing world.


DEEP/PENETRATING POV would sound something like this:

The pool looked inviting.

Marissa felt as if she was about to drop from the heat. It wasn't as hot as Phoenix, where Ron was attending his meeting, but on the other hand he was in an air-conditioned hotel.

She dropped her towel on the chair. Where was Timmy? She'd been hoping to go swimming with him.

"Mom!" she heard. Oh my, there he was, on the high diving board. Was he really going to jump?

NOTES: you'll notice that there are fewer outward details, and Marissa's direct thoughts and reactions rather than the author telling what is happening.


I have never found deep POV difficult, but I think many writers do as indicated by how often I run across it. As I mentioned, 100% of my current group of contest manuscripts are written in objective with an occasional head hop. This one technique more than any other, I believe, will elevate your writing to the next level.

Two good books to help with POV are Jill Nelson's Rivet Your Reader with Deep Point of View, and Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint. I hope this is helpful for you.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Designing Your Story's Plot

The plot describes the outward shape of your story. This is what people usually think of for a “story,” and what they will describe to you when you ask what a book or film is about. Unlike nonfiction in which you clearly present the material without leaving hanging questions, in fiction you should always have at least one, preferably many, intriguing bits and uncertainties throughout. The reader or viewer will eagerly continue to discover the answers to these points.

There are three large components of the plot that move it forward:

1. Story Goal and Story Question

Before you start writing, you need to know your STORY GOAL, which is the thing that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This goal needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is attained, or not, by the end of the story. Whether this goal is attained or not becomes the STORY QUESTION.

For example, in Lion King, Simba is the young (lion) heir to the throne when Scar engineers Simba’s father’s death to seize control. The story goal is for Simba to regain ownership of the kingdom. Failure occurs if Scar remains in control. The story question is: will Simba become king?

In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond is falsely imprisoned, then escapes and gains an enormous fortune. The story goal is that he wishes to take revenge on those who stole his youth, his career, and his fiancé. Failure occurs if the wrong doers get away with a great evil. The story question is: Will Edmond be able to suitably punish the guilty (without losing his integrity)?

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is a hobbit who comes into possession of the One Ring, which is the focus for evil power and greatly desired by many. The story goal is that Frodo must destroy this ring. Failure occurs if the ring is not destroyed. The story question is: Will Frodo be able to destroy the One Ring?

2. Stakes

You also need to decide why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he could just go home and eat dinner instead of knock his socks off to achieve. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved?

For example, in The Lion King if Simba does not become king, Scar will govern as a tyrant, and irrevocably ruin the Pridelands and let the hyenas take control.

In The Count of Monte Cristo if Edmond cannot wreak an appropriate revenge, great evil will go unpunished.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, if Frodo fails to destroy the One Ring, Middle Earth will fall into chaos and horror under Sauron’s dominion.

3. Obstacles

If your protagonist can simply go and achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, that hold the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to NEVER MAKE IT EASY ON YOUR HERO.

For example, in Lion King Simba is a little cub who runs away when his father is killed. He must grow up, learn that he needs to fight for his kingdom, then battle hyenas and ultimately Scar. Internally he must overcome feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

In The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond must learn to live alone in prison, then to escape, then to find the men responsible to wreak his revenge. His revenges are elaborate and full of twists. Internally Edmond copes with rage, power, and losing and gaining love. He also grapples with the role of mercy mixed with justice.

In The Fellowship of the Rings Frodo must make his way past the Nasgul and fights Orcs, rough terrain, Gollum, and other varied creatures and problems. Internally he finds carrying the Ring of Power an almost unbearable burden.


There is obviously much more to a plot than just these three plot components. However, if you don’t get these right, you won’t HAVE a story!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Step by Step Writing

"I had the most exciting day yesterday. Steven proposed!"

"Ooh," Maggie squealed. "Tell me all about it."

Cathy stuck out her hand, showing Maggie a flashing ring. "Well, I woke up when my alarm went off at 6:30, like it always does," she said. "I pushed back my favorite green fluffy quilt from childhood that my Aunt Mary repaired and surprised me with last summer. The quilt always makes me smile because it reminds me of our family's Christmas celebrations at my childhood home in Minnesota." Cathy's brown eyes went dreamy for a moment. Then she continued.

"I got up and looked out the window to see a blue Ford drive past the red brick apartment building across the street where my best friend Judith lives. The car honked as it went by. The sun was in my eyes so I reached over to pull the shades closed, and then I put on my fluffy orange slippers and walked into the bathroom. The pink tile looked a little grey, and I wondered if I made the right choice with this color when I retiled the bathroom two months ago."

The rock on Cathy's finger caught the sun and glistened. "I turned on the shower and listened to the water run as I brushed my teeth. I studied my face in the mirror. My brown eyes seemed sad. When the water was warm I got into the shower and turned around in the water to get my long brown hair wet. The water felt like warm spikes on my skin. Then I noticed on the shower shelf that there was a new bottle of shampoo on the shelf. 'Oh yes,' I thought, 'I remember changing that yesterday.' It was a new brand and I wanted to try it..."


This conversation seems silly, doesn't it? Maggie doesn't want to hear this irrelevant chitter; she wants to get to the meat of Steven's proposal.

Although it's hard to imagine a conversation like this happening in real life, unfortunately many writers litter their chapters with this type of inconsequential detail that pumps word count but doesn't go anywhere. While this vignette DOES give us a feel for Cathy's life -- she's living in a city environment, far from home, and she has either time, money or both to retile the bathroom -- we're left wondering: Do we care?

Step-by-step writing (SBS), in which the writer describes every step, no matter how trivial, on the way to complete an action, or every detail on the way to describe the setting, is an easy trap for you to fall into. You are imagining the scene vividly in your head, and simply writing what you see. The problem with this type of writing, if not edited and boiled down, is that it's, frankly, boring.

In fiction, unlike in life, the words must always push ahead without dead space. You, the writer, must incorporate many pieces of information -- story, character flaws, descriptions, and even morals from which the reader can learn a lesson -- in a way that is compelling and doesn't feel forced.

 In the example above, the first three sentences establish the promise of an interesting story, and Maggie is poised to learn more until Cathy goes into SBS mode. Cathy would have done better by cutting to the chase. Any more of this and your reader will close your book faster than you can say "page 2."

You avoid SBS by incorporating a forward direction at all times to your story action. Don't include extraneous details; only put in what is necessary to understand the story. For example, no one cares that a character is opening a bottle of water. However, if your character has only a few seconds to sneak a sip and calm her cough before giving a speech, the question of whether she can get that bottle open in time becomes pressing.


There are at least four good techniques to create tension and thereby avoid SBS:

Technique #1: Intrigue

New unexpected plot twists or provocative information add valuable sweet spots throughout your text. These prick the reader's curiosity and cause her to want to know more.

Intrigue is also a fabulous technique with which to start your story. Since your reader is not yet bonded to any of your characters or events (unless this is a continuation of a series), intrigue will draw in the reader at the start without her needing to understand your story's background.

Here are some examples of possible opening lines:

He hadn't thought dying would be like this.

Sadie didn't know it at the time, but Brandon's entering through the side window, rather than the door, would change her life.

The pin cushion was from the nineteenth century, delicate brocade caught up in a flirty twist at the top.

These lines all have in common the attribute of raising questions or curiosity in the reader.

Depending on how strong is your hook, after the opening line you may even be able to switch topic for several paragraphs before returning to the opening issue. The reader remains riveted through the routine because the opening line has made her curious about the situation or what will happen.

Technique #2: Write in Deep POV

Point of View (POV) is a challenging topic that takes more time than I can cover in this short article. Suffice it to say that many writers write in objective POV without realizing it.

Two examples:

(Objective): Jenny and Paul sat across from each other at the table in the corner of the ice cream parlor. She was nervous because Paul was so charming, and she didn't want to say anything wrong. Jenny twirled the long silver spoon in her hand. After a moment she noticed her chocolate ice cream was melting, so she neatly took a large bite of the icy treat. It suddenly triggered a transient trigeminal spasm, and she grimaced.

(Deep): At the corner table of the Double Dip Jenny caught Paul's wink, and she felt those familiar butterflies. Darn it, why did she keep falling apart like this? She dug her spoon into her ice cream so Paul wouldn't see that he unnerved her -- and shuddered a moment after the ice cream went down. She waited for the headache to pass, trying not to notice that Paul was staring at her.

The objective POV example describes what a camera would describe, and uses words at a distance from the characters. We are told Jenny is nervous instead of being shown actions that would allow us to conclude this. This passage uses objective words that Jenny would never say herself while living this scene: "took a large bite." and "icy treat."

The deep POV example focuses on Jenny's reaction to Paul, rather than the mechanics of eating ice cream. The passage uses Jenny's direct thoughts: "familiar butterflies" and "Darn it." The rest of the description notices what Jenny is noticing. For example, unless she's a medical student she would never think, "Gee, that ice cream just triggered a trigeminal spasm, so I'm grimacing."

Two excellent instructional books for POV are: Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Nelson.

Technique #3: Ticking Clock

A ticking clock is a great way to increase tension. Your character must do something, or avoid something, before a fast-approaching deadline arrives.

Technique #4: Set a Story Goal

This is a basic trick for creating story conflict. In order to be engaged, your reader needs to know for what she will be watching, and this is best done by stating a clear story goal before the scene unfolds.

The goal statement must be a clear sentence that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Here are some examples of a story goal that can be the first line of your new chapter:

Susan had five minutes to find the necklace before Richard returned to the room.

Timmy didn't know if he'd be able to convince his mom that he'd just seen his dad's ghost -- but he'd have to try.

Claire gasped as she saw William was no longer in the car. He must have run away. She had to find him before his medicine ran out.

Follow your goal statement by going into the conflict phase of the scene, where your viewpoint character deals with a series of internal and external obstacles.

Finish with an effective ending: either a YES BUT or a NO AND FURTHERMORE. You can read more about designing a scene in Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure and my own book, Amy Deardon's The Story Template.


SBS writing is a helpful stage for the writer, because it teaches you to notice detail rather than skipping through a scene too quickly. However, adding the forward arrow helps your writing become compelling and fascinating. Try it.