Monthly Archives: December 2013

Ten Effective Tricks for Marketing Your Book

Publishers spend little or no money marketing new authors these days, which is a great reason to publish your own book. On-demand printing services such as amazon’s createspace.com provide a nearly free way to get into print and sold through amazon.com. Best of all, you’ll make ten times as much on each copy as you would through conventional publishing.

But whether you use traditional publishing or self-publish, you’ll need to market your own book. Here are some of the best ways to attract readers:

1. Write a press release, and send it to your local newspapers 

It’s much easier to get press releases printed in small local papers than it is in major big-city papers. Be sure to include a photograph of yourself and of the cover of the book. You can now submit most of these press releases by email, which makes it a very inexpensive way to get free advertising.

2. Do readings and signings at bookstores 

Even large chains such as Barnes & Noble welcome local authors to come in and read their books or sign copies for readers. Even if that store doesn’t normally distribute your book, they’ll be happy to resell it during your special event.

3. Talk about your book 

Speak at schools, clubs, and libraries. And be prepared to talk about more than your book. Tell the story of how you decided to write the book, incorporating your personal experiences. Explain the process of getting published. Talk about how you enjoy meeting people and sharing your book with them. Engage your listeners. And then, of course, have copies available for sale and offer to personalize them.

Talk radio stations are always looking for ways to fill airtime, and local authors are an interesting topic. You’ll be amazed at how many books you can sell if you do a good job of representing why your work is interesting during a radio interview.

4. Attend conferences and book fairs 

Sometimes authors can get a free table for book signings. If the cost for purchasing an exhibit space is small, it may be worthwhile.

5. Set up a website 

This is essential. It only costs a few dollars a month to have your own website through companies such as GoDaddy.com. Be sure to include links to Amazon so it’s easy to purchase your books. Also participate in Internet reading sites such as Goodreads.com.

Get your books listed, and make sure there are plenty of good reviews.

6. Create a blog 

 You can do this quite easily at Google Blogs. Blogs are a great tool for posting news about your marketing plans and upcoming books.

7. Set up an author’s page on Amazon.com 

Once Amazon.com lists your book for sale, you can create a page on Amazon’s Author Central that incorporates news and promotional material about your books. It can also contain a link to your blog.

8. Donate books to charities, especially at auctions 

You can get a tax write-off, and you’re exposing many potential readers to your book. Provide a supply of bookmarks on the auction table.

9. Enter contests 

Most contests aren’t really an avenue to getting published or to selling books, but there are exceptions. Every year, Amazon.com holds their Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, in which they solicit manuscripts of self-published and unpublished books (see their link at www.amazon.com/abna). Best of all, they have a novel category. Out of 5,000 entries, my daughter’s first novel made it into the top 50, and an agent contacted her! That’s a sign of great visibility.

10. Always carry books with you 

Keep a box of them in the trunk of your car. You never know when the subject of your writing will come up and someone will want to buy a copy. You can’t sell them if you don’t have them with you!

These ten techniques won’t turn every book into a bestseller, but they will put money in your pocket and get people reading your books, and that’s the first step to the best-seller list!

For more tips on writing and getting published, check out my classes at Writingacademy.com

Happy Writing!

 

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How To Write an Autobiography: Three Approaches to Writing Your Life Story

Everyone has a story to tell. What’s yours?

There’s no greater gift to share with your loved ones than the story of your own life. Whether you want to share your special moments with friends, family members, future generations, or the general public, it’s definitely worth the time to record the important events of your life.

They’ll also enjoy reading your recollections about past generations, so you’ll be preserving not only your experiences, but also those who came before you.

Whether your goal is writing an autobiography—the story of your life—or a biography—the story of others—it can seem a daunting task to sit down and write the story of an entire life, which is why I’ve created a class called Write Your Life Story that shows you how to do it.

Write Your Life Story

 The first question you might be asking is “How can I possibly organize my life story?” Here are three techniques that make it easy. And once you’re organized, every task becomes much simpler.

Your autobiography should be organized the same way you think about your life. Three possible choices are:

  • Chronological Organization

  • Thematic Organization

  • Anecdotal Organization

Each of these has advantages, so let’s look at them one by one and see which works best for you.

Chronological Organization

Chronological Organization means arranging events in the order they occurred. For example, your autobiography might begin with your birth, and continue right up to today.

Or you could select only one period of your life, and relate events that happened, in the order they occurred. For example, none of us actually remember being born, so your story might begin with you as a child. Or you could just describe the course of a particularly exciting time in your life: going to college, marrying, a major work project, and so on.

Alternately, you could include even more than your own life, in chronological order. You could start with the arrival of your ancestors in your homeland, and tell about each of them in chronological order, right up until you arrived, and on through to the present day.

Chronological Organization is a very straightforward way to tell your life story. No reader will be confused about the order of events, and it will be easy to understand them in the context of what was happening at the same time, historically.

On the other hand, not every moment of our lives is interesting (nor is every ancestor) so to avoid boring readers, it might be necessary to skip some periods. This can make some life stories seem like they are proceeding in fits and spurts. In that case, there are some alternate approaches that may work better, so let’s look at those, too.

Thematic Organization

Thematic Organization mean grouping life events according to characteristics that make them similar. For example, if you have several children, you could compare and contrast their experiences with, say, first words, first day of school, hobbies, sporting ability, and so on. Or you could describe your own wedding and those of ancestors and other family members, all in a chapter about weddings.

With Thematic Organization, whatever subjects you choose to write about will be grouped together so that readers can fully explore that theme before turning to another.

The advantage of Thematic Organization is that if readers are interested in specific subjects, they can turn directly to the chapter about that subject. The disadvantage is that it may be difficult for them to get a clear picture of the order of events in your life, so if that’s important to you, Chronological Organization may work better.

Now let’s look at a third, completely different way to organize your life story.

Anecdotal Organization

Anecdotal Organization means telling short, usually amusing stories about the events of your life. This is the approach many humorists, such as George Burns and Dave Barry, have taken to writing about their lives.

The advantage of Anecdotal Organization is that it usually results in a very enjoyable read, because everything in your autobiography will be amusing in some way or other. If you have a knack for witty writing, this is an ideal way to entertain others with episodes from your life.

The disadvantage of Anecdotal Organization is that it means leaving out anything that isn’t amusing, so it can result in a rather random look at various moments from your experience, and won’t convey a complete picture of your life to others. On the other hand, that’s exactly what many writers want to accomplish. And the anecdotes can be arranged in chronological order, so there is the possibility of creating some continuity.

Organizing Your Life Story

Whichever of these three organizational techniques you choose, you’ll find they make it far easier to start telling your life story.

Your next step is to learn the story telling techniques that will best bring your words to life, a subject I explore in my class, Write Your Life Story.

And once you know those techniques, I’ll present you with a couple dozen prompts to jog your memory about important and perhaps amusing events you can write about.

By the end of Write Your Life Story, you’ll have more than enough notes to fill you life story, and you’ll be well on the way to sharing your experiences with friends, family, and future generations.

Write Your Life Story

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pyramid

Writing Your Novel: Create a Character Pyramid

Build your characters like a pyramid, viewed from above. Your readers should focus first on your protagonist, who is at the top of the pyramid. Develop a multi-page character sketch for the protagonist before you write anything else. Be sure to include the protagonist’s flaw, because overcoming that flaw to solve a problem is what all stories are about.

Your antagonist is the next layer down. You should know your antagonist almost as well as your protagonist — but not everything you, as the author, know will necessarily end up in the manuscript. You’ll draw upon it as you need it.

The next layer down consists of the helpers of the protagonist and the other members of the opposition. These characters need less detail, but should still have their own goals, flaws and backstories.

Finally, there is the base of the pyramid. In a movie, these would be called “extras.” You don’t need to know very much about these characters, because they have very minor roles, and may not speak at all.

If you focus your efforts on this hierarchy your readers will focus their attention accordingly, which is exactly what you want.

How to Fix Your Novel

For more writing tips, order my book, How to Fix Your Novel, from Amazon.com.

Happy Writing!

Steve Alcorn

 

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Novel Writing Workshop

Tips for Writing a Novel: Know the Difference Between Plot and Story

Have you always wanted to write a novel, but didn’t quite know how to get started? Or perhaps you had an idea-—maybe even a dream—that inspired you. You sat down to write, began typing with passion, but then got stuck. Sound familiar?
If so, it’s not surprising. That’s happened to nearly all authors, especially when they’re first getting started.

It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

Fortunately there’s a great solution! The trick is to figure out the structure of your novel before you even start typing. That makes finishing so much easier.

In this post I’ll explain the single most important step to structuring your story. It’s a basic concept that makes it incredibly easy to create exciting, effective fiction. Best of all, it makes it much easier to finish everything you start.

What is this step? It’s simply understanding the essential difference between plot and story.

Plot vs. Story

We tend to use the words plot and story interchangeably, don’t we? It’s easy to think of them as the same thing. In fact, I bet most writers, editors, and other professionals in the world of fiction don’t clearly understand the distinction. Yet it’s very simple, and grasping it will make everything you write so much easier that you’ll be shocked. Here’s the difference:

•   Plot is your protagonist’s physical journey.

•   Story is your protagonist’s emotional journey.

Your novel (or short story, play, or screenplay) will contain both. The plot will be what happens to your protagonist; the story will be how your protagonist changes inside.

Simple, isn’t it? And yet by keeping these two words separate and carefully using them only when we mean the physical (plot) or the emotional (story), we can bring a whole new level of clarity to everything we write.

Action Vs. Reaction

Another way to think of plot and story is in terms of action and reaction. Some action happens (plot), and your character reacts to it (story). In fact, a novel is nothing more than a repeating series of actions and reactions. Other than a little bit of setting, dialogue, and weather, there’s nothing else to it!

So remember:

•   The plot moves your character from her starting location to her ending location. There may be many struggles along the way, and the physical part of those is the plot.

•   The story moves your character from the person she was at the beginning to the person she ends up being at the end. There may be many struggles along the way, and the emotional part of those is the story.

Now that you understand this, it’s easy to see how you can use plot and story continuously throughout your novel. Plot is action, so if things are dragging, simply add more of it. But if things are moving too fast, add more story to slow them down. They work together to keep your novel on pace.

Some novels might be mostly plot. Think about Clive Cussler adventure stories, for example. Some novels might be mostly story. Think of Jane Austen. But all novels alternate back and forth, regardless of the emphasis. A successful novel needs plenty of both.

If you understand the difference between story and plot, you will have one of the most powerful weapons in your writing arsenal. It is astonishing how many successful authors don’t grasp the difference. Sure, some of them apply them intuitively without knowing they’re doing it, but plenty more don’t, and their work shows it.

Plot and Story in The Wizard of Oz

I’ll use The Wizard of Oz movie as an example, because almost everyone has seen it. It’s easy to name lots of plot elements in The Wizard of Oz: A tornado picks up a house and drops it on a witch, a little girl meets some interesting traveling companions, a wizard sends them on a mission, and they melt a witch with a bucket of water. Emotional content: zero.

It’s harder to find the story elements, but when you do, you realize they’re what makes The Wizard of Oz a timeless, movie classic: Dorothy’s sorrow when Toto is taken from her, the distress she feels when she realizes her house has landed on a witch, her fear of both the witch and the wizard, her sadness at having to leave her new friends, and—most important—the moment when she discovers the story’s theme that she has the power to solve her own problems.

Each of these vital story elements is an emotional reaction to a plot element. The constant resonance between story and plot creates the dramatic tension you’ll need to maintain throughout your story. This is what keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Without an emotional reaction, a plot development will have no effect on your readers. And without plot developments, your characters—and your readers—will have no motivation.

So when you devise your story, think of it first in emotional terms. What are your characters feeling? What are they thinking? What are their inner struggles? Emotional impact, after all, is the only thing that really counts.

But don’t stop there. Story cannot exist without plot to carry it on its way. How will you show what your characters feel? What will express their thoughts? What will reveal their inner struggles?

As you develop the plot, remember to test every moment of physical action for its emotional value. If an event ends up having little or no emotional value, then you should find something better.

For example, suppose one of the farmhands encountered Dorothy as she was running away from home. He could try to stop her, or perhaps he could become a co-conspirator, promising not to tell Auntie Em. Either way, what would this contribute to the emotional story? It doesn’t illuminate Dorothy’s character in any way. And although we might learn something about the farmhand, he doesn’t appear again until the last minute of the film. This plot development contributes nothing emotionally. Let’s cut it.

As you can see, the plot you devise depends upon the story you want to tell, and the story you want to tell determines your plot options. I cannot overemphasize how important this concept is.

•   Plot is Physical.

•   Story is Emotional.

You Can Write Better Than This

It’s astonishing how much mainstream fiction lacks a story. This is particularly true of Hollywood movies, but we can easily find the problem on television and in the bookstore as well.

A great example is Michael Crichton. No one can dispute that this best-selling author can spin an exciting yarn. But there is almost no character development in any of his books. I recently listened to The Lost World as an audiobook on my commute to work. I was appalled by the two-dimensionality of all the characters. They marched like puppets through the dinosaur-populated jungle. How could any reader possibly relate to these cardboard cutouts? Why should I care if they were eaten? They were little more than names to me.

Every James Bond movie begins with some spectacular stunt. In one, Bond and Jaws plunge from an airplane with only one parachute between them. After a dramatic midair struggle, Bond ends up with the parachute, and Jaws ends up as tomato soup.

It’s an exciting way to start a movie. The problem is, it’s completely uninteresting from an emotional standpoint. We haven’t even met Bond’s character yet in the movie. And if we had, we’d find him shallow (unlike the books, where he is more fully developed). Unless we have good memories, we may not even recall who Jaws is from the previous movie.

The problem is that the scene is all plot, no story.

If it were a novel, perhaps we could get inside Bond’s head. We could hear him thinking, “If I die I won’t be able to save the damsel in distress, won’t be able to taunt Miss Moneypenny, won’t ever finish what I’ve started.” Those regrets are the story, but they’re missing in the movie.
Admittedly, the problem is more severe in movies because there is no interior dialogue—we can’t hear the character’s thoughts. But it also exists in books, because we can’t spend all our time in the character’s head. And we can’t just tell our readers that our character is sad. Instead, we must show the story to our readers through the character’s actions.

When tears stream down the character’s face, we are revealing story (emotion) through plot (action). Readers will be moved by the story, not the plot. And they will remember the experience and want to repeat it.

On the other hand, a plot device—no matter how spectacular—is only spectacular the first time we encounter it. That’s why each Bond flick needs to start with a stunt more spectacular than the last.

Of course, in a novel we could make the opposite mistake, spending all our time in the character’s head, with nothing exciting happening in the physical world. A lot of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books suffer from this problem.

It may surprise you to discover that plot comes second. What I mean is that it’s much easier to construct a solid story and then add plot details that make sense than it is to construct a series of events and then try to find rational reasons why people would behave that way. After all, some action we could dream up might have no logical explanation at all, and then we’d be stuck! In Novel Writing Workshop I show you how to first construct a terrific story, and then add the plot. When you’re done you’ll have a perfect balance between plot and story.

Using Plot and Story in Your Own Novel

Now That You Know the Secret, What’s the Next Step?

The difference between plot and story is essential knowledge for successful writing. Once you understand that, then it’s time to create your main character and send him or her on both a physical and an emotional journey.

Perhaps you’ve heard of three act structure? It was devised thousands of years ago, for Greek drama, and it’s used in almost every successful novel and movie, right up until today.

But there’s an even easier way to break your story into bite-size manageable pieces. I call it my “checkpoints of story structure.” Using these, it’s easy to stay on track, and balance your protagonist’s physical and emotional journey by alternating between plot and story.

In my Novel Writing Workshop I’ll show you these techniques and many more. And we’ll return often to the concept that plot is physical, story is emotional. It’s the most essential thing you need to know about writing fiction.

If you’ve already started you novel, Novel Writing Workshop will show you techniques you can apply to your existing material that will, frankly, amaze you. For example, I’ll show you how to divide up your novel into 200 or so short pairs of action and reaction called “scene and sequel” that make it easy to balance plot and story. You can even use “scene and sequel” to control the pacing of your novel. And with such a simple plan laid out before you, your success is almost guaranteed.

And if you haven’t yet started a novel, congratulations! You’re in the ideal position, because you can start with a clean slate and put together a perfect plan. That will save you an incredible amount of time—and several major revisions.

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See You in Class!

Steve Alcorn

 

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Ten Simple Tricks to Perk Up Your Writing

The ultimate measure of you as an author is the competence with which you write. There are a few simple things you can do to perk up your writing. If you get into the habit of following these techniques, you’ll be amazed at the difference they make. Best of all, most of them are specific enough that you can even use your word processor’s search command to find problems in your finished work and fix them.
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1. Be Active, Not Passive

Avoid the passive verb combinations that start with wasis,are, and were, as well as passive tenses that use the wordhad. They make your writing boring.

Here’s a very passive sentence from Everlost by Neil Shusterman:

There was a point of light at the end of the tunnel, getting larger and brighter as she got closer, and there came a feeling in her heart of calm amazement she could not describe.

What makes it passive? “There was,” “getting larger,” “got closer,” “there came,” and “could not” are all lifeless ways to describe the action. How could we reword this to be more active and interesting? How about this:

A point of light at the end of the tunnel swelled, growing larger and brighter as she drew close. A feeling of calm amazement engulfed her.

Notice that I also deleted some excess baggage. Feelings are always attributed to the heart, and “calm amazement” seems to pretty accurately describe it, so why say she couldn’t describe it?

Converting passive verbs to active ones is probably the single best way to perk up your novel.

2. Adjectives are Tools, Not Decorations

Adjective are words that modify nouns. They add color (sometimes literally!) to your writing, but it’s easy to overdo them.

Jack picked up the brown bat from the walnut Formica table that sat in the dusty dugout and climbed the rickety stairs to the sun-drenched playing field.

That’s a few too many modifiers!

The best way to use adjectives is to apply them to things that you want your readers to picture a certain way. Otherwise, just let your readers use their imaginations.

A particularly good way to use adjectives is to stick with one metaphor. Here’s an example from Uglies:

The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.

Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold.

Here, all of the adjectives relate to the ocean: salmon, fishy, rippled, scales, blue, bottomless, cold.

Be sure to include all of the senses in your adjective choices.

Remember, adjectives are tools. Their purpose is to convey a specific message to your reader. They’re not decorations to be hung on every object in your novel. Use them with care.

3. First, Kill All the Adverbs

As useful as adjectives are, adverbs are useless. Adverbs are words that modify verbs. The problem is that there’s almost always a better verb that would eliminate the need for the adverb. Why write that someone walked leisurely when you could say they strolled? It’s just excess baggage. Most authors work diligently (er, I mean they toil) to make sure there are few, if any, adverbs in their finished novels.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to get published if you’re a chronic adverb abuser. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, is one of the biggest selling young adult books of all time, and it’s overflowing with them. Chapter 13 alone contains 97 adverbs!

When you find yourself tacking an adverb onto your verb, there is almost always a better verb you could use instead.

4. Tell Us What, Not How

When you’re in a character’s viewpoint, the words see andhear are mostly dead weight. Just show us what the character experiences. For example, don’t say:

She could hear the babble of the river and see it sparkling.

You can just say:

The river babbled and sparkled.

This same approach can often eliminate words like look, listen, feel, and so on.

5. You Don’t Need the Word ‘that’

At least not very much. How many that’s in this sentence are doing anything:

I know that you think that I did something that you wanted.

The answer is none.

I know you think I did something you wanted.

Search for the word that throughout your novel and see what happens if you delete it. Most of the time you’ll find (that) it wasn’t doing anything.

6. Strip the Decor

You don’t need excess verbiage. Back when people got paid by the word, it was common to write something like this:

The inexorable advance of the earthly sphere brought with it another glorious resurrection of the warming and nourishing heavenly beacon.

It was dawn, dude. Get over it.

7. Watch those clichés

They’re as common as dirt, but you should avoid them like the plague. They’re insidious, aren’t they? So I always do a final scan for any that have slipped in.

8. There’s No Such Thing As Coincidence

Sure, they happen in real life. But readers expect fiction to be more logical than real life. If something happens, make sure you’ve laid the foundation.

9. Don’t Dangle

It’s tempting to try to mix things up, dangling participial phrases everywhere, but it will just get you into trouble. Participles imply simultaneity:

Fetching the kettle, Amanda made tea.

Amanda must be a very talented girl, because she can make tea while she’s reaching for a kettle! This is what I really meant:

Amanda fetched the kettle and made tea.

I’ve picked a simple example, but I’ve seen this type of sentence go on for an entire paragraph. Break it up. Keep it simple. One thought per sentence. Your readers will thank you!

10. Use a Checklist

Whenever you finish a manuscript, go through this checklist and apply each “trick,” one at a time. They’re simple! And many are probably things you already subconsciously knew. But now that you have a list, you can be conscientious about applying them. Follow these simple tricks in every manuscript, and you’re on your way to perkier writing!

How to Fix Your Novel

For more writing tips, order my book, How to Fix Your Novel, from Amazon.com.

And for one-on-one help with your novel, enroll in my Advanced Fiction Writing class through your local school.

Happy Writing!

Steve Alcorn

 

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