When Are Things ‘Supposed to Happen’?

One of my writing coach clients was working on the first few chapters of her novel and was struggling with knowing when things were supposed to happen?

What should be in the prologue? Should there even be a prologue? When does the action start? Is there a “thing” that’s supposed to happen in the first chapter?

As far as I’m concerned, there really are no rules to fiction writing. I know there are lots of books out there that say otherwise, but for me it’s about just getting the story down — even in a loose, rough form — which is hard enough without worrying about all that other stuff.

A writer-friend of mine keeps changing her manuscript to whatever folks tell her will make it sell. “You can’t just write for yourself,” she told me.

I disagree. I think, in the beginning, you really do need to write for yourself in order to tell the story you want to tell. I’ve shown early manuscripts of Baby Grand to enough editors to know that everyone — even editors who work for the same publisher — have different opinions, and if I changed Baby Grand every time someone had a criticism I wouldn’t be writing the book I wanted to write. That is not to say that I didn’t change the manuscript at all. I did, but only when I felt the criticism was valid regarding the story, not the book’s marketability. I really believe readers are open to more kinds of stories than publishers give them credit for.

It’s true, though, that you should know who your audience is — adult fiction, women’s fiction, romance, YA, children’s books. If you really, really want to write a horror novel, good for you but you shouldn’t expect to be selling it to middle schoolers.

But as far as formatting your book for an audience, or employing literary devices, and all that stuff you’re “supposed to” do? You’ve got plenty of time to worry about that. For now, just write.

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Meet Julia Munroe Martin

Today’s Debut Author Q&A features a very special writer to me and to this blog. Julia Munroe Martin has been a supporter of Baby Grand and Making ‘Baby Grand’ for as long as I can remember. It is a privilege and an honor to have her here today to talk about her debut novel, Desired to Death. Her answers to my questions made me think about my own fiction journey – our paths are very similar, our ideas for our novels formed many years ago. So without further ado, I bring you the world’s newest mystery writer.

043013_Head-WUName: Julia Munroe Martin (writing as J.M. Maison)
Name of book: Desired to Death (Book 1 of The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series)
Book genre: Mystery
Date published: April 29, 2013 (ebook); paperback in about 3 weeks
Where can we find your book: Amazon
What is your day job? This is it! I am a journalist by education, worked as a technical writer for about 10 years, then as a freelance writer. Now I focus almost exclusively on fiction.
What is your book about? This book answers the question: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? After her daughter leaves for college, former-SAHM Maggie True is faced with an empty nest and doesn’t know what to do with herself. Never in her wildest dreams does small-town Maggie imagine the answer will come in the form of a middle-of-the-night call for help from an estranged friend who has just been arrested for murder. But it does, and as Maggie solves the mystery of who killed A.J. Traverso, a sexy kickboxing instructor, she also solves the mystery of what to do for the rest of her life.
Why did you want to write this book? This idea came to me after my son left for college, when I wondered what the future held. It was a very tough transition for me, especially when a few years later my daughter left for college. Going through that transition, from stay home mom AND writer to “just” work at home writer, wasn’t easy. I’ve always been the kind of person who observes and watches everything and, clearly, makes up stories about it all. And my loose ends led me to ask the question “What if?” or maybe even “If only.”

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7 Things I Learned About Shooting a Video on the Cheap

I have been meaning to shoot a few promotional videos for Baby Grand to put up on my YouTube channel, so yesterday I took (dragged) my daughter, husband and youngest son with me to Hofstra University for a video shoot. My daughter is thinking about a career in directing and my oldest son has expressed an interest in video editing, so I figured why not encourage (take advantage) of these aspirations and get some publicity as well. Well, after an hour of frolicking in the sun on campus, I learned seven important lessons:

  1. Make sure you have a charged battery. If my husband hadn’t come along for the ride, it would have been a very (very!) short shoot. The minute my daughter, who served as camera-person, pressed record for the first take of the afternoon, the screen went black. “I had a feeling that would happen,” my husband said, pulling an extra charged battery out of his knapsack. I didn’t know if I wanted to slug him or hug him. :)
  2. Know your lines. I wanted to kick myself for not having memorized my script. There are so many things that are out of your control during a photo shoot, like the weather or the amount of people milling around if you’re in a public place. The last thing you should have had to worry about is knowing your lines. Lesson learned.
  3. Empty your memory card beforehand. Luckily, it was after an hour of shooting that my memory card screamed, “No more, please!” Otherwise, as I said in Tip #1, it would have been a very short shoot.
  4. Vary your shots. As an undergrad at Hofstra, I took a few television classes so I know a thing or two (but that’s it) about video production. So I had my daughter video me saying the same paragraph several times — while sitting on a bench, while walking, etc. This helps to make your video more interesting and dynamic when it’s put together in post-production.
  5. Have cutaways. Basically, a cutaway is a shot of something different from the main action. In my case, for example, we shot the university’s name on a sign for a few seconds and my legs walking. Cutaways are crucial to the editing process, particularly when you have talent who apparently hasn’t memorized her lines. It gives the video editor options and helps piece together different shots that wouldn’t otherwise go together so that they look cohesive.
  6. If you’re not going to pay your tech people, feed them. And if you’ve got anyone 10 years or younger there for the ride, it might behoove you to feed him BEFORE the photo shoot. It keeps the complaining to a minimum (and while you’re at it, bring a jacket for him too).
  7. Have fun. My daughter and I giggled the entire way through. “I feel like I’m in a writer horror movie!” she squealed when I asked her to walk backwards with the camera as I approached. Sure enough, we watched the playback, and it did. Perhaps an idea for my next book…

10 Ways Authors Respond to Bad Reviews (Which One Are You?)

It’s bound to happen — the dreaded bad review. Authors get them all the time. Find your most beloved book on Amazon, and you’re bound to come across someone who has called it “a colossal waste of time.” Hey, it happens. When it happens to me, I try to adopt a “grin and bear it” attitude, although, truth be told, even after twenty years as a freelance writer, rejection — as much as my rational mind knows it’s a part of the business — still stings. Over the years, though, I’ve seen writers respond to bad reviews in all kinds of ways. Here are 10 of the most common:

  1. The Egotist: “Obviously, this person has no concept of good writing or storytelling. I can’t fathom why Amazon even would allow this uninformed and uneducated opinion to be shared.”
  2. The Conspiracy Theorist: “Obviously, this person has not read the book and is totally out to get me. I read The New York Times. I know what’s going on with all those bogus reviews. I have a good mind to flag this review and report this reader to the authorities.”
  3. The Wimp: “Oh my god, it’s true. I have no talent. What was I thinking? I should have never left plumbing school.”
  4. The Teacher: “It is impossible for me to take seriously a review that is so chock-full of grammatical errors and/or illogical conclusions.”
  5. The Overreactor: “I should have had more women under thirty represented in my book? Well, I’ll show you! My next book will feature fifteen women who are under thirty, all with variations of the same name!”
  6. The Overthinker: “What exactly does it mean that my book ‘stretches credibility’? Does it mean that my plot isn’t believable, or that my characters are not? Or is it referring to both? Or does it mean that my plot and characters are totally fine, but the problem is in my interpretation? Or maybe…”
  7. The Explainer: “This reader just did not understand what I was going for, so I am going to plead my case to this reader in a comment under her review, and I will continue to plead, explain and cajole, in as many back-and-forth comments as it takes, until I have gotten her to change her mind!”
  8. The Wise-Ass: “Hmmm… so my characters seem inauthentic? And, like, I’m sure you’re qualified to make that judgment based on what? Your many years of creative writing teaching? As if.”
  9. The Martyr: “I spend YEARS and YEARS of my life trying to capture the human condition, and this is what I get?”
  10. The Ignorer: “Oh, sorry, I never read my reviews.” (Bullshit.)

How do YOU handle a bad review?

Just Do Your Thing

Lately, it seems like everywhere I turn, there’s disturbing news for authors:

It’s all enough to make a struggling author throw in the towel and become a plumber, although I’m sure the plumbing business has its own bad news and unscrupulous practices.

Listen, bad news happens. People will tell you the only way to get anywhere as a writer is to know someone, lie, cheat, steal, or write torrid sex scenes. They’ll tell you that you’re nuts, crazy, stupid, unrealistic to pursue writing or want to publish a book. They’ll tell you lots of things, things that are being said in every industry, from entertainment to business to politics.

Don’t let it deter you. Believe in yourself, in your book, and make it happen.

Plus, practically every negative and deflating story out there can be countered with a little positive energy, like Penny C. Sansevieri’s Self-Publishing Stigma: Because Revolutions Take Time or just about any post in Nathan Bransford’s blog, which often is a fountain of “you can do it.” There are plenty of bright spots and inspiring people in publishing today. Plenty.

So while getting to your goal may be a difficult road, paved with liars and cheaters and meanies who don’t hold doors open for little old ladies, don’t fret. Just do your thing, and it should be all right.

Writing Tip #107

Feeling ‘trapped’ when penning a sequel. A fellow writer, Betsy Arnold, sparked a very interesting discussion on my FB page today. She said — with regard to penning a “companion book” to a novel:

“I keep having to go back and check the facts from my first book which were throwaways at the time. Now they are parameters with which I’m stuck. Is that true for you?…I keep having to consult my maps and timelines. Ugh. I want to change a few things in the first book, but can’t. It’s a strange feeling.”

Indeed, it is. And she is totally right. In a sequel, or companion book, you are confined by the “throwaways” (good word!) that you created in the first book — your character was born here, in a place and time that you provided for him, whether purposefully or arbitrarily (it makes you realize how very important every decision you make in your novel is!). As I told Betsy, you can always have a character dye his hair or decide he doesn’t like mashed potatoes anymore. But it’s true that that character has to be born where you decided he was born in the first book — unless, of course, the entire first book was a hallucination or dream (Bobby Ewing, anyone?). Although the novel I’m working on now, In the Red, is a stand-alone, my next book will be a sequel to my first novel, Baby Grand. I’ve started working on it a bit, and already I’m experiencing the things Betsy mentions: Having to check back to the first book to make sure I’m being consistent so that fans of the first book won’t be standing outside my house with pitchforks demanding a public apology or a new edition.

Yes, it can feel confining, but remember that only those starting points have to remain the same (character names, descriptions, etc.). Characters can move, change their minds, denounce their families, find a time machine and do just about anything they want to do. Although some things may be etched in stone, the rest is a wonderfully blank canvas.

Meet AG Fredericks

As I write this, my kids are mourning the end of summer and preparing for their first day of school tomorrow. So before I head off to wipe a few tears and pack a few lunches, here is this week’s featured author in my Debut Author Q&A series: AG Fredericks.

Name: AG Fredericks

Name of book: The Troy Standard

Book genre: Literary fiction

Date published: May 5, 2012

Publisher: CreateSpace

What is your book about? This is always the most difficult question for me, because the book touches on so many themes and topics, and I just want to get into all of them. The proverbial “nutshell” is never adequate enough for an author, and it’s always tempting to give away too much. But I’ll give it a stab.

The book follows the life of Troy Mulligan as he works hard at achieving a perfectly honest and noble life after an awakening of sorts. In his search for fulfillment, he slowly realizes that he has been at the mercy of the world around him, and he desperately wants to be in control of his own life. As part of this search, he donates his time and money toward charitable projects. Over time, he develops a belief that the base form of finance, the U.S. dollar itself, is unstable and could potentially lead to dangerous circumstances that people just haven’t realized because their heads are just too far in the sand.

A billionaire philanthropist/rogue investor approaches Troy with a plan – to establish a new global currency using a solid base of precious metals. Troy is intrigued and feels that this project may very well be his calling in life. But there are a lot of powerful and ruthless people standing in their way who do not want to relinquish their control over the status quo. Hilarity ensues. (Not really, I just love saying that.)

Why did you want to write this book? I am deeply disturbed when I look at our country’s political and economic situation and the way we arrived at where we are – from both sides, left and right. In particular, I am fascinated about the history of money and its current state in world affairs. The “history of money” seems like it would be a very important topic for everyone to understand. Yet not many people do.

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