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Anne R. Allen's Blog

...WITH RUTH HARRIS

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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."


Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Top 10 Ways to Write a Self-Rejecting Query to a Blogger, Agent or Publisher



by Anne R. Allen



Bloggers sometimes feel like Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect.

This week, we heard how Amazon is banning 100s of book review bloggers and removing their reviews. Some of the bloggers may be violating "affiliate" rules, but others have no affiliation with Amazon and are having all their reviews removed anyway.

Of course this is devastating to authors as well as book bloggers, and no explanation has been given

Amazon, like much of the rest of the world, doesn't seem to get how important bloggers are to contemporary commerce. These days, a great review on a major book blog can do as much for your sales as an ad in the New York Times.

The banned bloggers are talking about posting their reviews to Kobo, B & N and iTunes, which I think is wise. If they do it in large numbers they can balance out the power Amazon reviews have in the marketplace, and healthy competition is always a good thing. I urge everybody to spread their reviews around.

Amazon may learn that disrespecting bloggers is not a smart thing to do, whether you're an author, publicist or even a giant retailer.

Unfortunately a lot of people who query us don't seem to get that. They don't realize that querying a blogger isn't any different from querying an agent or publisher.

They pop us a DM on Twitter or FB or a leave a comment on a Google Plus post, offering us "free content on the subject of your choice," ask for a review, or otherwise show they've never looked at the blog.

Most of our queries come from authors or publicists who want a blog tour promotion, interview, or a book review (none of which we do.) Some people want us to give free critiques or edit their work (sorry: we don't edit or have time to offer free work beyond all we do for the blog.) And we often hear from people who want us to advertise products, websites and software or display their infographics. (We don't do that either.)

We also get lots of queries from newbie writers who hope to collect some writing credits by guest blogging. That's actually a smart thing to do. But you need to visit the blog first. Most of our queriers make it obvious they haven't read the blog—or they'd know we usually have high-profile guests and only take 12 guest posts a year.
I'll be writing more next month on guest blogging for visibility and building platform.

Writing a good query isn't rocket science. But you do have to learn the rules. Here's the most important thing to remember: publishing is a business and a query is a job interview. Give it 100% or don't do it. Picture the real person behind the company, blog, or agency you're querying, and talk about what you have to offer them.

Whoever is reading the query is looking for a reason to reject you so they can move quickly through the inbox. Don't give them one.

Do a little homework and you can avoid most of these pitfalls. We were all newbies once, and some of these are just typical newbie mistakes. But if you educate yourself and learn to be respectful, you can avoid them.


Top Ten Ways to Write Self-Rejecting Queries



10) Send a query via anything but email (or snail, in some more conservative pockets of the world.)


Do not send a Twitter or Facebook DM or @message pitching your book to agents, editors, bloggers or readers—unless it's in a specific Twitter challenge set up by an agency or blog.

Direct Messages are intimate and come across as disrespectful if you don't have a prior relationship. I talked about that in my post on How NOT to Sell Books.

Book review bloggers are especially annoyed by tweeted queries. Review blogs are hard work, and the reviewers deserve the respect due to any other professional.


9) Skip the Proofreading


The e-query is a great boon to authors. No more double envelopes and return postage and trips to the Post Office with those expensive manuscript boxes.

But the e-age can lull us into a false sense of informality. An e-query is just as formal and official as a paper query and needs to be composed with just as much care.

This is true whether you're querying a top agent or a lowly blogger. If you want to guest post, you're not going to get a spot if you look as if you don't know how to spell, and no reviewer is going to take on your book if you apparently use apostrophes as random word-decorations.
Remember to watch out for your headers, too. I remember working for weeks on a query and then sending it off to my potential dream agent with a whopping typo in the header (misspelling my own title.)

Rejection came within minutes. Yup. I'd self-rejected.

8) Advertise your failures


Agent Alex Glass reminds authors to "Avoid a sentence such as 'This is my third (or fourth, or fifth, or sixth) unpublished novel, so I am clearly very dedicated and hardworking'…"

No: you've clearly failed a lot.

Everybody fails—that's how we learn. But we need to keep the failures quiet in a query.

I feel the same if somebody queries me saying: "Nobody is buying my books so you have to help me by giving me a guest spot."

My first thought is going to be that maybe your books aren't selling because they're as unprofessional as your query. If so, you will lose us subscribers and reduce our stats.

Writers who tell us they are no good at drawing an audience are rejecting themselves.


7) Verbosity


A query should be one page. Preferably less than 200 words. Anything more is just an advertisement of your lack of self-editing skills.

The query is your vehicle. Make sure it's streamlined and modern looking. This means it's short, hooky, and has lots of white space.

Most agents these days want a synopsis that is one page as well. They want it to read like book jacket copy—only with the ending included. Anything else is old fashioned and gets skipped. Don't write a long synopsis unless it's specifically requested. Here's my post on how to write a synopsis. And here's a great one from Jane Friedman.

Yes, I know you've taken all those creative writing classes that tell you it's all about your talent and passion and descriptive writing ability.

But a query uses a different kind of writing skills—skills you're going to need whether you publish traditionally or not. Every author needs to know how to write good blurbs, hooks, and product descriptions these days.

Learn those skills before you query.

And if you want a guest blogspot, show you have the writing chops to carry it off. If you write one big hunk of text in your query, you show you don't get 21st century writing.

Thus auto-rejecting yourself.


6) Forget the hook


It doesn't matter if you're querying a newbie blogger asking for a review or pitching your screenplay to Steven Spielberg, you always need a HOOK. Make what you have on offer enticing.

A simple formula for a novel hook is "When X happens, Y must do Z, otherwise LMNOP happens." It's a one or two sentence overview of the plot that needs to be dynamic and show what's at stake. For a more literary work, you might want to state the theme or setting and whatever makes it unique.

For a blogpost or nonfiction book, the hook only needs to answer the questions: why this book/post? Why now? Why you?

Or make people laugh. Humor is a great hook for selling a blogpost.

Yes, I know it's hard. But we all need to work on our skills as "hookers". Here's a good simple piece on writing a hook from agent Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. And here's my post on Hooks, Loglines and Pitches.

5) Lie


Don't tell me you read my blog regularly and then say you know how much I like to review Bigfoot erotica. All you're telling me is that you're a liar.

Agents feel the same way. Don't say "I met you at the Southeast Montana Paranormal Romance Writers Conference-and-Gun Show" if you weren't there. Maybe the agent was scheduled but cancelled at the last minute. Maybe there were only four people in her workshop.

And if you say "I love your client's work," at least read the "look inside" of a few of the titles. If you say "I see you rep Zorian Q. Weatherbottom, so I know you'll love my work" make sure you know what Zorian Q. Weatherbottom writes.

If it turns out Mr. Weatherbottom writes Christian end-times thrillers, you've just self-rejected your steamy vampire/werewolf M/M romance.

4) Act arrogant


You want to sell your story or blogpost, not convince people you're an asshat.

I don't get very far into a query that starts with "I'm a bigshot. Here are all the fabulous things I've done…" and then goes on for paragraph after paragraph of "I'm so special". I don't care if you're Shonda Rhimes. If you don't tell me why you've contacted me and what you have on offer, I'm going to delete.

And here's a secret: people who really are bigshots don't have to tell people who they are. When Anne Rice contacted me to talk about cyberbullying, her name in the address was more than enough to make me ignore everything else in the inbox and jump to open it.

And even if you're not that famous, just one or two major achievements are much more impressive than three pages listing every prize you've won since you got the trophy for good penmanship in third grade.

Here's how agent Shira Hoffman put it:

"I dislike it when a query letter focuses too much on the author’s bio and doesn’t tell me what the book is about. Make sure you include essential story details."


3) Don't bother to do your research


  • Agents say the number one reason for rejections is that most writers query them with books in genres they do not represent.
  • Reviewers say the number one reason for rejections is that most authors query them with books in genres they don't review.
  • Our number one reason for rejections is that most writers query us with posts on non-writing-related subjects.


See a pattern here?

I realize everybody starts as a beginner. I don't mean to make fun of novices.

But anybody can visit a website or blog. And read it. It's not hard. It just means taking the time to be respectful.

And not look like a doofus.

You need to learn about the industry you want to join. The best way to get general info about publishing is is read a few current books on the industry, like, ahem, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE.

If you want an agent, then read agent blogs, especially in your genre. The #AskAgent hashtag on Twitter is also a great resource for up-to-date agent info.

There are some fantastic websites for agent-seekers that are must-reads: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents, AgentQuery.com, QueryTracker.net, and QueryShark. If you write YA, check Literary Rambles, too.

AgentQuery has a searchable database. You can go there and put in the genre you write and choose the agents who are open to queries.

But don't stop there. Visit the agent's website. If the agent says, "I don't rep paranormal romance or Young Adult," believe her. Even though she may have sold the genre three years ago and several of her clients write in that genre, it's counterproductive to send her your teen vampire romance now. She is not going to be so blown away by your brilliance that she's going to "make an exception."

If she says she doesn't rep that genre, she means she doesn't know any editors who are buying that genre right now. She probably can't even sell the books of her existing clients who write in that genre. Genres have fashions, and what's hot one month can be untouchable the next. Even if you have the storytelling skills of J.K. Rowling, that agent will not be able to sell your book..

People who query asking me to review a book—no matter the genre—are just wasting their time and mine. This is not a book review blog. It's not what we do. A quick glance around tells you that and it's clearly stated on our CONTACT US page.

These things happen because the queryiers think their time is more valuable than the time of the people they are querying, so they don't bother to research. Not a good way to start a business relationship.

2) Ignore guidelines


NEVER query an agent or publisher or blogger without reading the guidelines—the ones on their actual current website, not in a library copy of some book on agents from 10 years ago.

Oh yeah, and then you have to FOLLOW the guidelines. I don't know how many times I have heard authors say "this agent says she wants a one-page synopsis, double spaced, but I have a book (published in 1987) that says a synopsis should be at least 7 pages, so that's what I sent."

You just self-rejected.

I don't care if the agent says she wants the synopsis written in Sanskrit. Just go to Google Translate and do it.

If you don't like her guidelines, don't query her. But otherwise, you're only wasting electrons.


1) Amateurish antics


If you query in the voice of your character, write a synopsis from the point of view of her cat, or write your query in glitter on a pair of hot pink panties, you will get noticed, but not in a good way.

Even if your antics are wildly clever, this is like wearing an evening gown to a job interview. You are advertising yourself as an amateur who doesn't know how things are done in the business.

Listen to the agents:

"Queries are business letters. Agenting is business. Publishing is business. I try to be nice and friendly and funny and all, but the bottom line is that I expect those with whom I work to be professional and take what they’re doing seriously.

—Linda Epstein (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)"

"Treat [a] query as a job interview. Be professional. Be concise."

—Nicole Resciniti (The Seymour Agency)

A lot of people overestimate the value of raw "talent". If you're a clueless amateur, an egotist, or a pain in the patoot, nobody will want to work with you even if you have the talent of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Jane Austen all rolled into one.

So don't reject yourself before you even hit "send." Learn to write a professional query, whether it's to an agent, an editor, or blogger. Show respect. It opens an amazing number of doors.

For more great quotes from agents about queries, check out Chuck Sambuchino's blogpost Literary Agents Sound Off.

And for a comprehensive survey of what agents don't want to see in queries, read J.M. Tohline's 2010 blogpost The Biggest Mistakes Authors Make in Querying Agents.

For more on queries, here's Nathan Bransford's classic post on how to write a query.

by Anne R. Allen @annerallen April 10, 2016


BOOK OF THE WEEK

Free on all the Amazons from April 8-April 12th
"Anne R. Allen's book of short stories explores womanhood in all seasons. I've read this book twice and get something new to appreciate each time. It is the kind of book one returns to periodically, just to revisit characters and stories like old friends that help clarify ages and stages of life and the changing world. Her poems are timely, tying stories together with theme, grace, and humor."
...Mary J. Caffrey
a short book of short stories
FREE!
Humorous portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty, Valley-Girl version of Madame Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back. Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car…

Great for your driving commute!
Narrated by C.S. Perryess and Claire Vogel

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS



Literary Death Match 250 word Bookmark Contest. Judged by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Must be under 250 words. $1000 first prize.  All finalists will be invited to read at LDM events near where they live. $15 for one entry $20 for two. Enter via submittableDeadline May 16th, 2016
Writer's Digest Annual Writing Contest. First prize: $5000. Entry fee $15 poetry $25 prose (Early bird prices) Enter your poem, story, essay, magazine article, play, TV or film script. Lots of prizes. Early Bird Deadline May 6, 2016
Strangelet is a paying journal of speculative fiction that is looking for flash fiction, short stories and comics for their September issue, edited by Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing. They pay .01c a word, with a minimum of $5. Deadline for the September issue is April 30th
Sequestrum Reprint Awards. Finally a contest that actually wants previously published short stories and creative nonfiction! Entry fee $15. Prize is $200 and publication in the Fall-Winter issue of Sequestrum. The runner-up will receive $25 and publication. Finalists listed on the site. Deadline April 30th, 2016.
Platypus Press. A new UK small press is looking for literary novels and poetry collections. No agent required. Though your manuscript must be complete, the first three chapters of a novel will suffice when submitting. It must be previously unpublished, but work posted on a blog or personal website is acceptable. Accepts simultaneous submissions.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

We Are All Prisoners of Our Unexamined Beliefs: Is a False Belief Holding Back Your Writing Career?


by Anne R. Allen


"Think outside the box" has become a mindless cliché these days. So many people repeat it that the meaning has mostly been lost. In fact, most people are unaware of their boxes, so they have no particular desire to think outside of it.

But most of us are trapped by beliefs that have been programed into our brains by our culture, families, politics, and that guy at the library check-out desk when you were ten who told you those Nancy Drew books were "trash" and you'd never amount to anything if you didn't read the classics.


Shaming Creates Beliefs we Fail to Examine


I think shamers like the anti-Nancy Drew guy are some of the most insidious bullies out there. That's because you usually don't even remember them. You have no memory of that day at the library. All you know is you feel guilty when you read books you enjoy—plus you have a secret, persistent fear that you're never going to amount to anything.

Very often a belief you're sure "everybody knows" has come from a random shamer who once made you feel bad because of your lack of knowledge of a particular subject. It may very well be that the shamer was even more ignorant than you, or just plain wrong, but a condescending or bullying tone made you accept his statement as fact. (Remember that the most ignorant people are usually the most confident.)

You've never questioned this "information" because you don't remember the particular incident that planted that belief in your head.

It's just there. And you think "everybody knows" it's true.

I once worked in a bookstore where the owner asked me to put a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry in the Romance section.

When I started to protest, she stopped me and said, "I know everybody thinks Emily Dickinson is trashy, but I love her."

I said I loved her too and I thought the book belonged in Poetry or Literature, not Romance.

She laughed and said, "you're worse than me!"

The discussion was over, and she made me put one of the world's greatest poets in the section with the Harlequins and the bodice-rippers.

"First Information"about a Subject Becomes Part of the "Self".


The only explanation I could think of for my boss's behavior was that when she was quite young, some uneducated sexist moron had shamed her for loving poetry by Emily Dickinson, so the "fact" Dickinson was trashy had become hardwired to her brain. No amount of reasoning could dislodge it. She couldn't even hear what I said on the subject.

I say she was probably young when she heard this misinformation, because these unexamined beliefs are imprinted on our brains the first time we hear about a subject.

If the first time you hear about Emily Dickinson, you're told she's a major American poet, that's what you will believe unless something powerful happens to dislodge that belief. But if the first time you hear about her, you're told by an authoritative person (especially in a snarky or nasty tone) that Dickinson is "trash" you'll believe that.

This belief becomes hardwired to your brain and a part of "who you are." This means you'll defend this belief as if you're defending yourself or your family.

You don't have to be a child when you first hear about something, but whatever you hear first about a subject—no matter what your age—will get filed in your brain as unquestionable fact if you don't examine it or judge the source.

For instance, if the first thing you hear about a politician is that he's a successful businessman, no amount of proof that he's a bankrupt failure will change your mind. In fact, every new piece of evidence will make you defend him more.

Researchers have discovered that when confronted with facts that negate their unexamined beliefs, most people will double down on those beliefs, rather than consider changing their minds

So the schoolmarmish know-it-all in your first writing class who told you in a nasty tone of voice that only terrible writers use the word "was" may have trapped you forever in the mindset that "was" is a taboo word. You believe that "everybody knows" that using the word "was" is the mark of a bad writer.

And until you finally ask yourself why you believe this odd pseudo-fact, your writing can't escape that "box" you're trapped in. (For more on the "was" police see my post "Should You Eliminate Was from Your Writing.")


People-Pleasers are Easily Trapped by Shaming Statements


People who want to be thought of as "nice" and strive to please all of the people all of the time can be especially susceptible to this kind of shaming.

If you have "people-pleasing" issues, when somebody makes a disparaging remark, the thing that has been disparaged may become taboo for you, even long after the unpleased person left the picture. In your mind you still need to please that person by sharing his dislikes.

I had a friend like this who inherited her parents' house and immediately paid a lot of money to have the drought-tolerant junipers-and-rocks landscaping torn out. But she didn't have the money to replace it. The house sat unlandscaped for years, turning into a slummy-looking mudhole. When she tried to refinance the mortgage, she couldn't, because tearing out the landscaping had reduced the value.

I asked her why she had been so eager to pull out the perfectly fine landscaping her father had put in. She said "everybody knows tam junipers-and-rocks are awful."
I pointed out my mom's pricey Southern California house had the same kind of landscaping.

She thought about it a while and said she once dated a landscaper who spent the whole evening complaining about people who still had junipers in their yards.

"They're so 1970s," she said.

Hmm. One date with a guy who had a financial interest in shaming people who didn't keep up with landscaping trends...and this woman had to turn her own house into a slum.

That's because she was a prisoner of her unexamined belief that Mr. Bad Date's opinions had value and that pleasing him was important. She had probably never heard of tam junipers until he delivered his tirade against them, so the only "fact" she had about them was they were "awful."

Writers fall into this trap all the time. Because your 9th grade English teacher had an attack of the vapors any time somebody ended a sentence with a preposition, you feel compelled to twist your sentences into verbal pretzels to avoid displeasing that teacher, even though she has probably been dead for twenty-five years.

Perfectionism is the Bully that Keeps you Locked in that Box


People who are prone to perfectionism are especially likely to be trapped by this kind of shaming.

I once had a roommate who was the worst housekeeper ever. In fact, he got evicted from every place he ever lived because of the squalor. When I moved in with him, I thought the mess was temporary (we were both actors in the middle of Hell Week before the opening of a big musical.)

But I was handy with a vacuum cleaner and a mop, so as soon as I moved in, I tackled the worst of the mess. I knew I couldn't get it spotless all at once, but I could tidy things up and clean the high traffic areas.

I thought he'd be pleased, but when he came home, all he said was "you didn't move the couch! I can tell you just vacuumed under it without moving it. And the drapes are still filthy."

I later found out his mother was a meticulous housekeeper. Because he couldn't clean the house to his mother's standards, he simply couldn't clean it at all. The only thing he could do was criticize people who did. He was paralyzed by the belief that everybody had to clean exactly the way his stay-at-home mom did.

I had another guy drop me as a friend when I wrote a story loosely based on an anecdote he liked to tell about his family. I asked a mutual friend why. I thought the guy would be pleased that I'd paid attention to his story. He wasn't, the mutual friend said, because he wanted to write it himself.

I protested that:

1) My story changed all the characters to women, so it was very different from the one he might tell.

2) The man had never penned so much as a line of creative writing in his life, so the thought he might want to write fiction had never crossed my mind.

"But he's always wanted to be a writer!" the mutual friend said.

The man died recently without ever having written a word. If he did indeed want to be a writer, he took that longing to the grave—along with his perfectionism.

This guy was a textbook perfectionist. Every article of clothing he wore was perfectly pressed (including his boxers.) He loved the theater, but he'd notice every dropped line and prop that was out of place. He could find fault with the most beautifully designed costume, and you did not want to go to dinner with him afterward, because he'd always send something back to the kitchen.

I suspect he feared his writing wouldn't be "perfect" and that kept him from writing at all.

The man probably had more unexamined beliefs than most people, but we all have them. I know I have many. But I used to have more. (Therapy helps.)

The first step to freeing yourself from them is acknowledging they exist.

The next step is allowing yourself to play and have some fun. Put yourself back in the child-like state of mind you had before you were fed all those limiting beliefs.

I was able to change my misconceptions about genre by having some fun. Because my parents were both literature professors, I had an unexamined belief that literary fiction was superior to genre fiction. This kept me writing and rewriting the same unpublishable literary novel for years. When I finally let myself write a funny mystery, my writing flowed easily. I loved to read mysteries. Why not write them?

Some writers get stuck in the wrong genre for years because of an unexamined belief in its superiority or their own lack of range.
Others might not actually want to write at all. Maybe their creativity would be better served in another medium entirely. I was in a critique group with a man who struggled with every word, and went into despair when he got less than glowing responses to his long, conflict-free pages of description. Finally he dropped out of the group. A couple of years later I ran into him at an art opening—his. He had become an accomplished painter.

He told me he'd always thought he "ought" to write and that painting was "just playing," but the writing had become so painful, he'd decided he might as well play. That led to him becoming a painter who made a lot more money than most writers do.

Like me, he had decided to take the easy route and "have fun." And it turned out the easy path was also the way out of the box that trapped him.

Having fun and letting yourself play can be the key to unlocking that box and freeing your creativity from the beliefs you don't even realize are keeping you trapped inside.

by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) April 3, 2016

***

What about you, scriveners? Have you ever had the kind of breakthrough that painter had? Have you ever realized you were trapped by some bogus assumption or wrong-headed idea someone planted in your subconscious? What triggered the breakthrough? Did you do something fun?

Remember you can always find Ruth at Ruth Harris's Blog and I post on Fridays at Anne R. Allen's Books, where this week I'm talking to the amazing 70-year-old filmmaker who won the L.A. Critic's Award last year for his very first film.

***

BOOK OF THE WEEK


The Gatsby Game, my fictionalized version of a notorious Hollywood mysteryand the death of a man I knew in real lifeis only 99c in ebook from April 1-10! 

You can find the ebook on 99c sale at all the Amazons

David Whiting was a prisoner of so many odd beliefs it was hard to tell who he really was inside that cage he'd constructed for himself. In my novel, I give him a terrible mother whose life as a servant to the ultra rich made her turn her son into a phony version of the one-percenters she served. 

A paper version is available for $10.99 at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The ebook is also available for $2.99 at Barnes and Noble for NOOKInktera and Kobo. It's also available at Scribd.





When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star's motel room—igniting a worldwide scandal—the small-town police can't decide if it's an accident, suicide, or foul play. As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect. She's the only one who knows what happened. But she also knows nobody will ever believe her.

The story is based on the real mystery surrounding the death of David Whiting, actress Sarah Miles' business manager, during the filming of the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Literary Death Match 250 word Bookmark Contest. Judged by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Must be under 250 words. $1000 first prize. All finalists will be invited to read at LDM events near where they live. $15 for one entry $20 for two. Enter via submittableDeadline May 16th, 2016

Writer's Digest Annual Writing Contest. First prize: $5000. Entry fee $15 poetry $25 prose (Early bird prices) Enter your poem, story, essay, magazine article, play, TV or film script. Lots of prizes. Early Bird Deadline May 6, 2016

Strangelet is a paying journal of speculative fiction that is looking for flash fiction, short stories and comics for their September issue, edited by Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing. They pay .01c a word, with a minimum of $5. Deadline for the September issue is April 30th

Sequestrum Reprint Awards. Finally a contest that actually wants previously published short stories and creative nonfiction! Entry fee $15. Prize is $200 and publication in the Fall-Winter issue of Sequestrum. The runner-up will receive $25 and publication. Finalists listed on the site. Deadline April 30th, 2016.

Platypus Press. A new UK small press is looking for literary novels and poetry collections. No agent required. Though your manuscript must be complete, the first three chapters of a novel will suffice when submitting. It must be previously unpublished, but work posted on a blog or personal website is acceptable. Accepts simultaneous submissions.

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Take Your Book From Meh to Marvelous: Why Every Writer Needs a "VIP"


by Ruth Harris


Male or female, good guys or bad girls, famous or infamous, VIPs are the Very Important Persons who go their own way, do their own thing, make their own rules and don’t give a damn about your plans, your ideas, or your outline.

You create them but they have a life of their own. They bust in and take over and they give your story sizzle and zip and make it pulse and throb with energy and reader appeal.

They can be realistic or fantastical, aspirational or ordinary, nuts or normal. The VIP can be the protagonist or antagonist, a sidekick or bff, or the bit player who’s a scene stealer. The VIP can be a toy, an alien or an animal, a vampire, a wizard, a zombie.

They live in a penthouse or the hood (or even be homeless). They hang out on the “right” side of town or the wrong side of the tracks. They have too much/not enough sex with Ms. or Mr. Right (or Wrong). They can be adulterous or monogamous, gay or straight, drunk or drugged, billionaires or unemployed, on the make or on the lam. We’re talking the housewife-spy, the accountant-assassin, the foul-mouthed teddy bear, the superhero in tights.

VIPs never do the expected or the conventional. They can be the foundation of a long-running series or a larger-than-life character in a standalone. They can be aspirational, admirable, too-good-to-be true, psychopathic, repellent, murderous but they can—and will—rescue you from the plot blahs and bail you out of blocks, glitches and dead ends.

You know who I mean but, to name names:

  • · Mrs. Danvers, the spooky housekeeper with no first name in Rebecca, is devoted to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is steely, intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide.
  • · Bond. James Bond is the suave, sexy, sophisticated, super-spy who always gets the girl while he is busy saving the world from yet another megalomanic villain.
  • · George Smiley, is the spy as a mild-mannered civil servant with an unfaithful wife and a prodigious memory who works in the grey areas of British intelligence and compels his Russian nemesis, Karla, to defect.
  • · Jane Tennison, the DI in Prime Suspect, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her wrinkles are in plain view, her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much and it shows. The men she works with give her a hard time and she returns the favor while she solves a crime.
  • · Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), the murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction, lives alone, has no family that we know of, is predatory and psychopathically determined to get what she wants—another woman’s husband.
  • · Hannibal Lecter, the creepy psychiatrist has only a few scenes in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs. This oddly sexy cannibal is an example of the scene-stealing bit player who becomes the nemesis around which the entire story revolves.
  • · Jack Reacher, the protagonist of Lee Child’s best selling series, is a West Point grad, an ex-military cop, a loner, a drifter, a hitchhiker, a caffeine addict. He has no steady job, is mathematically inclined, a superb shot and fights not to win but to "piss on the other guy’s grave."
  • · Tony Soprano murders, steals, cheats as he heads up his fractious and untrustworthy crew. He is violent, sociopathic, brutal, an unfaithful husband, a good family man and father who suffers panic attacks and depression. The women in his life include a psychiatrist, a vicious mother, a greedy, murderous, sister and a complacent wife who sees-no-evil.
  • · Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest employs humiliation and unpleasant medical treatments to control her patients.
  • · Annie Wilkes, the nurse in Stephen King's Misery, cuts off her favorite writer's foot with an axe and cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch.
  • · Frank Underwood, the sleaze-ball politician in House Of Cards, and his flinty, ambitious wife are Washington VIPs who lie, kill, cheat and connive to get what they want: power and the presidency.

Realistic? Uh-uh. Unforgettable? Absolutely. Likeable? Sometimes but not always. Relatable? Mostly not. Admirable? Only now and then. But are we interested in them? Do we want to know what they're going to do next? Of course we do.

Memorable, vividly drawn characters like these are the VIPs who create the forward motion that makes a book a page turner. They are the writer's best friend and there are, obviously, no hard rules about how to create them. How can there be when they are distinctive and original and, sometimes, even the opposite of each other?

There are, however, guidelines that will help you get started to create characters readers can't get enough of.

  • Here is a long list of hero types from aliens to angels, masterminds to mentors, wanderers to zombies that might give you a starting point.
  • Author and film producer Rebecca Tinkle, lists six hero-types. These positive role models include the teacher, the warrior and the leader along with their super power and super flaw.
  • Not sure exactly what your VIP should be like? Writing a letter to him or her will help sharpen your focus. Here are examples of real-life letters to give you some ideas.
  • Writing a superhero? Whether you’re writing a novel, a comic or a graphic novel, here's advice about how to name a superhero, how to write a good sidekick, day jobs for superheroes, and superhero flaws, fights and gadgets.
  • The script lab suggests 10 rules with expanded explanations about creating your VIP, his or her dreams and goals, the differences between sympathy and empathy, and growth vs change.
  • Since every good guy/girl needs a bad guy/ girl, writing the villain is as challenging as writing the protagonist. Here are 9 examples of the villain archetype that includes an interesting discussion of the internal and external villain.
  • Brian A. Klems at Writer's Digest does another take on archetypes, male and female, heroes and villains from the messiah to the matriarch to the mystic and beyond.
  • When it comes to villains, just being crazy isn't enough. From Gordon Gekko to Darth Vader, their backstories, motivations and psychological profiles are what make them believable—and memorable.
  • Here's some wisdom from sci-fi author and editor of Fiction Factor, Lee Masterson, about how to create villains people love to hate.
  • When evil has a friendly face: NYT bestselling suspense novelist, Lisa Gardner, tells how to develop the diabolical villain.
  • Novelist, screenwriter and game designer Chuck Wendig pulls no punches in his list of 25 things (including a voice, a look, and secrets) that a great character needs.
  • David Corbett's advice on the how-to of creating a compelling character includes an excellent list of suggestion about where and how to begin.
  • They can be friends, family, coworkers, roommates or classmates, but the well-written sidekick can move the story along, give the reader deeper insight into the protagonist and/or add intriguing sexual tension.

VIPs can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give you—and your story—an immediate jolt of energy.

You bring them to life, you fret about them, you get them into—and out of—trouble, you bail them out when necessary and save them from their own stupid mistakes but there is one thing above all you must remember about VIPs: they will never, ever, not once, say thanks. ;-)

by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) March 27, 2016.


What about you, Scriveners? Do you have a VIP in your WIP? Have you ever had a character march into your story and take over? 


BOOK OF THE WEEK


FREE in KU

Love And Money, sweeping in scope yet intimate in detail, is a story of family, secrets, murder, envy, and healing--originally published in hardcover by Random House.




"A SPECTACULAR, RICHLY PLOTTED NOVEL. Racing to a shocking climax, this glittering novel is first-class entertainment, a story of love and money, and how both are made, lost, and found again." --New York Times


OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Literary Death Match 250 word Bookmark Contest. Judged by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Must be under 250 words. $1000 first prize. All finalists will be invited to read at LDM events near where they live. $15 for one entry $20 for two. Enter via submittable. Deadline May 16th, 2016

Writer's Digest Annual Writing Contest. First prize: $5000. Entry fee $15 poetry $25 prose (Early bird prices) Enter your poem, story, essay, magazine article, play, TV or film script. Lots of prizes. Early Bird Deadline May 6, 2016

Strangelet is a paying journal of speculative fiction that is looking for flash fiction, short stories and comics for their September issue, edited by Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing. They pay .01c a word, with a minimum of $5. Deadline for the September issue is April 30th

Sequestrum Reprint Awards. Finally a contest that actually wants previously published short stories and creative nonfiction! Entry fee $15. Prize is $200 and publication in the Fall-Winter issue of Sequestrum. The runner-up will receive $25 and publication. Finalists listed on the site. Deadline April 30th, 2016.

WERGLE FLOMP HUMOR POETRY CONTEST NO ENTRY FEE. Limit one poem with a maximum of 250 lines. First Prize: $1,000. Second Prize: $250. Honorable Mentions: 10 awards of $100 each. Top 12 entries published online. Deadline April 1, 2016.

Win a Chance to Write where Hemingway Wrote! Enter the Florida Keys Flash Fiction Contest to win a three-week Key West residency at the renowned Studios of Key West between July 5 and July 31, 2016.Inspire your creativity by spending up to 10 days writing in Ernest Hemingway’s private study at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum — and experience Hemingway Days 2016, celebrating the iconic author who called Key West home in the 1930s. Submit your finest flash fiction story, 500 words or less, between now and March 31, 2016.

Platypus Press. A new UK small press is looking for literary novels and poetry collections. No agent required. Though your manuscript must be complete, the first three chapters of a novel will suffice when submitting. It must be previously unpublished, but work posted on a blog or personal website is acceptable. Accepts simultaneous submissions.

"Operation: Thriller” Writing Competition: NO ENTRY FEE. Open to all UK and US authors of thrillers – previously published novels are accepted if you are the owner of the rights. Submissions will be evaluated by a panel of judges (agents and editors). Up to $1,300 in total cash prizes for the 3 winners, on top of free editorial assessments and developmental edits by Reedsy editors. Deadline March 31, 2016.

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When You Step in Dogma, Scrape it off your Shoe: Writers, Ignore Dogmatic Marketing Advice


by Anne R. Allen



The most dangerous concept in the universe is probably, "there is only one right way." People who insist there is only one right way to live, think, behave, or believe are responsible for most of the world's conflict and suffering.

Merriam-Webster defines dogma as "a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted." It stifles innovation and creative thought.

As Steve Jobs said, "your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking."

Dogmatic thinking is a symptom of narcissism. A narcissist can only perceive reality through his own narrow experience. Rather than learn about other people's experiences, he will bully others into diminishing or denying their own perceptions and insights. Because narcissists are unable to imagine themselves in other people's shoes, they can't understand that everybody has their own way of perceiving—and any or all of those ways can be "right" for them.

I've heard this view of reality compared to a giant wooden fence, where each of us can only see through a tiny knothole. The narcissist thinks his personal knothole-view is the only "real" one, and he believes everybody else should be forced to give up their knotholes and take his word for what is on the other side of the fence.

Last month I warned about the dogmatic enforcers of what Kris Rusch calls "weird writing rules." But the purveyors of "must-do book marketing rules" are just as dangerous. In fact, they can do more damage to your career.

Writers these days are buried under piles of insane to-do lists handed to us in workshops, forums, webinars and blogposts as if they had been carved on tablets by the Almighty and carried by Moses from the mountaintop. (Or at least from Mountain View.)

Nobody questions this stuff. Nobody asks, "Who says?" or "Where's the proof these things will work for me?" Most authors blindly accept whatever dogma is making its way around the bookosphere this week.

We constantly hear that "everybody knows" that if our books aren't making millions, either they're bad books or we're not trying hard enough.

This creates a sense of frantic urgency and what social media guru Chris Syme calls "The FOMA (Fear of Missing Out) Mindset.

Whether you're going the traditional route or self-publishing, you're constantly lectured by publicity experts, marketers, social media gurus and know-it-all authors who tell us: "If you're serious about your career you must…"
  • Be on Instagram
  • & Medium
  • & Pinterest
  • & Snapchat
  • & Peach
  • & Tumblr
  • & The List App
  • & SlideShare
  • & 100s of phone apps you've never heard of

Plus of course you are already active at…
  • Twitter
  • Facebook (both personal and business pages)
  • LinkedIn
  • Google Plus
  • Goodreads
  • And you blog superb content at least 5 times a week.

And you know you should be…
  • Speaking at local bookstores
  • Visiting book groups
  • Teaching on panels at writers conferences
  • Placing stories and articles in print magazines
  • Jetting all over the planet to lots of expensive book fairs
  • Skyping with your fans everywhere
  • Doing blog tours
  • Guest blogging
  • Participating in blog hops

And where are your…
  • Podcasts?
  • Videos?
  • Book trailers?

And if you're indie, you do have some of your books serialized for free on Wattpad, don't you?

Plus of course, you must run sales and advertise on Bookbub and all those other pricey newsletters. And if they won't take your books, start writing in a genre that Bookbub likes better. Who cares what you or your existing readers want or what you're good at?

And make sure you put in a lot of time harassing reviewers. Because they'll be sure to write great reviews for books in genres they don't like if you just send them enough emails. (For advice on how not to piss off a reviewer, check out Julie Valerie's post at Cinthia Ritchie's blog.)

And maybe buy a bunch of reviews from those paid review sites. Because lots of phony rave reviews always sell books. And Amazon has so much fun suing the phony reviewers. You don't want to deprive them of that, do you?

And you are designing and posting paid ads on Facebook, aren't you? What? Are you paying any attention at all?

And why aren't you on Audible making audiobooks of all your titles? And on Babelcube getting your books translated into dozens of foreign languages? You don't really care about your career, do you?

In addition, you MUST send weekly newsletters to everybody who has ever commented on your blog, followed you in social media, or stood behind you in line at Starbucks.

You should send those emails even if you have nothing to say but "I'm totally full of myself." Because annoying people is a great way to get them to give you money. (Hey, it works for political candidates.)

And this is the supreme commandment of book marketing dogma: THOU SHALT SACRIFICE ANYTHING TO BUILD THY EMAIL LIST. You're nobody if you don't have a million subscribers. So lure them by bribing them with everything you've ever written for free. Or better yet, give them gift cards so they can buy other people's books.

Because the primary aim of writers is not to write books and sell them, but to spam every inbox on the planet. Who cares that everybody deletes your newsletters? And nobody ever bought a book because of spam? And that what you're doing is probably illegal and a violation of the CAN-SPAM Act? At least you're following book marketing dogma, and that's all that really matters!

And, oh yeah, in your spare time, you should be turning out twelve-to-fifteen books a year.
  • Serialized novellas!
  • Paranormal romances in a series!!
  • Epic tomes. Big books sell better!!!

I Tweeted a post last month on how to build your mailing list and one of my Tweeps tweeted back, "so much to do, so much to do!"

I felt her pain. I realized it's my pain too. Even as a Tweeted that post, I felt my stomach clench. There's too *&%! much to do. And I'm sick of it. Literally. I've had some kind of flu-y chest congestion for two months.

But every day I see new blogposts and articles and workshops, all telling us we're not working hard enough and if you're not selling, it's ALL YOUR FAULT.

And you know what?

It's a pile of poop.

Most of the people who are telling you this stuff do not write fiction. Their pronouncements are often based on a marketing book or a blog written by some guy who claims to have made a million dollars five years ago following this formula or that. And what they don't tell you is that guy's sales fell off a cliff two years ago and now he's desperately trying to stay afloat by selling this book full of out-of-date "rules".

Remember that marketing dogma is what tells charities and politicians to phone strangers at 6 PM every Friday evening when they're frantically trying to get dinner on the table after an exhausting work week. Telephone solicitors are told this is the best time to get people to donate money. (Apparently their bosses have confused colorful four-letter words with currency.)

Marketing dogma also teaches that the only demographic that matters is males between the ages of 18-35. This is a concept that dates from the 1950s when manufacturers—especially the automobile industry—were trying to build "brand loyalty" in the young. They thought that if they could get a teenager to brush his teeth with Ipana toothpaste, he'd be a fan of Bucky Beaver for life (sorry, you have to be very old to get that reference. :-) )

Most businesspeople know that "brand loyalty" no longer exists—if it ever did—but who cares? Most marketers still prefer to spend advertising dollars to reach underemployed 20-somethings trapped in perpetual student loan debt than older people with time and money to spend.

Marketing dogma teaches that marketing to people over 50 is worthless because they're all going to croak any minute. It treats all seniors as identical, whether they're 50 or 100 (The day I turned 55 my phone started ringing hourly from telemarketers trying to sell me wheelchairs, walk-in bathtubs, and burial plots. Happy Birthday you decrepit old geezer!)

It's amazing how many people prefer to follow dogma that's half a century out of date instead of trusting their own perceptions.

So I say enough with the bullbleep! The truth is there can be no dogma when it comes to marketing—especially online book marketing. These people are trying to codify something that is moving too fast to be pinned down.

You know why most books aren't selling as well as they did three or four years ago?

Because we're putting out over a million books a year. A million MORE books each year, because every book has an infinite shelf life. But the number of readers stays the same.

The way for an author to stand out in that vast mass of electrons is NOT by spending 12 hours a day on marketing and another 12 hours writing novels and priding ourselves on the fact we haven't had a wink of sleep since October of 2011.

Exhaustion does not generate great art. In spite of what Edna St. Vincent Millay said about that two-ended candle of hers. Ms. Millay did not have to deal with 24/7 media, Internet trolls, addictive cat videos, or blog pirates.

My advice to you is the same as the advice my doctor gave me last week. Take a rest. Listen to what Ruth Harris said in February. Take some time to goof off.

Blogger Jami Gold recently wrote a great post on author self-care and another on how we cannot do it all They are both must-reads.

Because here's the thing: nobody knows what sells books. What worked last month probably won't work now.

And the one thing we know won't work is…writing badly.

Why did J.K. Rowling become the most popular children's author in the world? It wasn't by giving away books to strangers so she could get their email addresses to spam them. It wasn't by learning Mandarin and chatting up Chinese kids on messaging apps. It wasn't by posting daily videos of her cat on YouTube.

It was by writing something unique that spoke to millions. By listening to her inner voice and not the trend predictors (and not cleaning her house for four years.)

Most importantly she was in exactly the right place at the right time with something nobody knew they wanted, but they were starving for.

I'm not saying that all marketers are full of it or that you shouldn't listen to them. A number of very sane book marketers give excellent advice. Frances Caballo, author of Avoid Social Media Time Suck said right on this blog "I don’t think it makes sense for authors to be everywhere…Otherwise, they are wasting their time and resources." Marketing expert Penny Sansevieri warns of "Content Fatigue." And book marketer Chris Syme says, "Many marketers are doing authors a disservice. Much of the social media marketing advice I see aimed at authors is…borderline unethical."

(And anybody who tells you that the way to market books is to reply to Tweets by other authors with a "buy my book" Tweet is setting you up for the Social Media Hall of Shame. When I Tweeted the countdown sale on HOW TO BE A WRITER yesterday, Catherine and I got one of those.)

What's even more important is what Author Earnings Data Guy said at Digital Book World in February: "As industry insiders, all of us—publishers, agents, retailers, pundits and analysts, and even authors—we tend to overestimate our own importance and our influence on the ways things are going to shape up. In the end, it’s about readers and what they want."

In other words, we don't have as much control over this stuff as we think. The only thing we really have control over is our books.

We know we need to do the basics: whether you're querying or self-publishing, every writer needs to be Googleable. Plus you need a website or a well-maintained blog (sorry, those six blogs you started and immediately lost track of don't count.) And you want to be on a few social media platforms. Which ones? It's going to depend on your genre, readership, personality and that elusive magical power of timing.

That's because there is no "one right way" to sell a book. Each book has to make its way to readers on its own path.

To quote Steve Jobs again: "Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice."

And I think the most important advice we need to hear is: "log off the Internet and go write."

Now I'll go follow it myownself. The one thing I know for sure is that I can't sell books if I'm dead.

I'm hoping to move this blog back to Blogger. Yes, it's clunky and the security isn't as good. Plus marketing dogma says "Blogger bad; self-hosted Wordpress blog good." But it's a lot less of a hassle for someone like me who would rather spend my time writing fiction than endlessly dealing with tech.

This has been a fascinating experiment, and I've learned a lot. I'm very grateful to Johnny Base for all he has done for us.

But Blogger is like a comfy old shoe. I'm not sure when or if the move will happen, but expect some changes in the next couple of weeks.

By Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) March 20, 2016


Anne also blogs at Anne R. Allen's Books. This week she's talking with Catherine Ryan Hyde about cyberbullies and review trolls.

What about you, Scriveners? Are you finding yourself buried under to-do lists and piles of dogma? How do you deal with the overload of marketing information? How do you find balance between social media obligations and actually writing?


BOOK OF THE WEEK

99c Countdown!

HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE 

by NYT mega-seller Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne R. Allen

e-age1


From March 19-March 27 it will be only 99c or the equivalent at all the Amazon stores around the world  It's also available in paper for $12.99  

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Literary Death Match 250 word Bookmark Contest. Judged by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Must be under 250 words. $1000 first prize. All finalists will be invited to read at LDM events near where they live. $15 for one entry $20 for two. Enter via submittable. Deadline May 16th, 2016

Writer's Digest Annual Writing Contest. First prize: $5000. Entry fee $15 poetry $25 prose (Early bird prices) Enter your poem, story, essay, magazine article, play, TV or film script. Lots of prizes. Early Bird Deadline May 6, 2016

Strangelet is a paying journal of speculative fiction that is looking for flash fiction, short stories and comics for their September issue, edited by Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing. They pay .01c a word, with a minimum of $5. Deadline for the September issue is April 30th

Sequestrum Reprint Awards. Finally a contest that actually wants previously published short stories and creative nonfiction! Entry fee $15. Prize is $200 and publication in the Fall-Winter issue of Sequestrum. The runner-up will receive $25 and publication. Finalists listed on the site. Deadline April 30th, 2016.

WERGLE FLOMP HUMOR POETRY CONTEST NO ENTRY FEE. Limit one poem with a maximum of 250 lines. First Prize: $1,000. Second Prize: $250. Honorable Mentions: 10 awards of $100 each. Top 12 entries published online. Deadline April 1, 2016.

Win a Chance to Write where Hemingway Wrote! Enter the Florida Keys Flash Fiction Contest to win a three-week Key West residency at the renowned Studios of Key West between July 5 and July 31, 2016.Inspire your creativity by spending up to 10 days writing in Ernest Hemingway’s private study at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum — and experience Hemingway Days 2016, celebrating the iconic author who called Key West home in the 1930s. Submit your finest flash fiction story, 500 words or less, between now and March 31, 2016.

Platypus Press. A new UK small press is looking for literary novels and poetry collections. No agent required. Though your manuscript must be complete, the first three chapters of a novel will suffice when submitting. It must be previously unpublished, but work posted on a blog or personal website is acceptable. Accepts simultaneous submissions.

"Operation: Thriller” Writing Competition: NO ENTRY FEE. Open to all UK and US authors of thrillers – previously published novels are accepted if you are the owner of the rights. Submissions will be evaluated by a panel of judges (agents and editors). Up to $1,300 in total cash prizes for the 3 winners, on top of free editorial assessments and developmental edits by Reedsy editors. Deadline March 31, 2016.

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The Five 'Insider' Secrets Of Top Fiction Writers


by Dr. John Yeoman


How do you write a 'killer' novel or story that brings you a contract with an agent or publisher? Or that leaps over the short-list to gain a top prize in a contest? There's a secret to it. But more than 90% of fiction writers have never discovered it, no matter how experienced they are.

How do I know? And what's the secret?

I'll tell you... in a moment. But first, let me lay in some background.

Since 2009, I've judged more than 6000 short stories in the Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award. That's at least 16 million words. (Think of Pride & Prejudice 135 times over.) I've read every word and carefully assessed each story. And graded it across seven criteria, using a points system to separate the stars from the also-rans.

They're the ones that score 44 or more out of a notional 50, the grade for a 'perfect' story.

What am I left with? A big problem.

Or rather, around 20 problems. That's how many stories I'll have in my short-list. Each is excellent. Which will win my top $1600 (£1000) prize? Which do I place second or third? No points system can help me there. In the last hour, it comes down to just one thing...

Which story has emotionally engaged me the most?

If your story doesn't emotionally engage the reader, you might have a PhD in creative writing (as I do) but your tale will languish. If it does, you don't need any basic training in the craft of fiction. You're a natural. (That said, you'll never stop learning new tricks...)
What's emotional engagement?

Your tale profoundly moves the reader. Grief, horror, compassion, joy... it's your call. If only for a few moments, that experience has changed the reader's life.

In every contest round, I meet at least one story that makes me gasp, shudder, laugh outrageously or wipe away a tear. Does that entry win? Not necessarily. It takes more than a single great scene to make a story work.

But if a writer sustains – and skilfully balances – an emotional affect throughout the tale, it will march towards a top prize.
How do you engage the reader emotionally?

In a short story of up to, say, 5000 words you start in paragraph one; in a novel, in the first scene. From that point on, you never lose your grip on the reader's feelings.

Here are five ways to do it:

1) Provoke an emotional response in your first lines.


Quickly introduce a conflict that the reader can relate to with sympathy or understanding. It need not bear directly on the plot but it must contain some element of question, problem or uncertainty. Otherwise, why should the reader read on?

For example, I began my historical novel Dream Of Darkness with a question:

‘You cannot have a murder without a body, can you? No. Or so I had always thought, being a coroner. But what do coroners know about the many ways of dying? They know only of bodies. Dying is a separate art.’

That passage presents the essence of the plot. It leaves the reader wondering (I hope): how can a murder occur without a body?

Did you notice something else about the passage?

A murder has taken place. Until the killer is captured, the entire community is under threat. That unresolved question invokes one of the five primal imperatives. What are they?

Survival of oneself. Of one's Significant Other. Of the family. Of the tribe/nation/nurturing environment. Of one's soul.

These imperatives are timeless. They're engrained in our DNA. If your tale is well written – whatever its genre – and it centres on one or more of those imperatives the reader has no choice but to be emotionally engaged.

2) Let the reader bond easily with your main character.


Which character is your 'I/eye' in the narrative? Can the reader slip easily into their shoes? And walk in those shoes for a long while?

A successful short story will usually have no more than one 'point of view' (pov) character, two at most. In a longer work, you might get away with multiple povs where the viewpoint switches between several players, but it's a hard trick to pull off. In short fiction, it's almost impossible.

Stay safe. Limit the pov to one person or entity. Or you'll confuse the reader. And make it effortless for the reader to empathize with that person.

One ploy that's so easy it seems like cheating is to make your pov character very similar to your target reader. Who can doubt that Agatha Christie created her demure sleuth Miss Marple to appeal to ladies of a certain age? Or that she crafted the precious Hercule Poirot with a different readership in mind?

Tom Clancy's novels were clearly written for young men, with a few wives and ninja girls dropped in to appease his female fans.

To be sure, these novels continue to attract readers of every background, age and gender but the authors knew their target markets.

So how do you create an engaging pov character (or narrator) if you're not sure of your target market? Picture your most probable reader. Male? Female? Young? Old? College educated? Not college educated? And so on.

If in doubt, look in your mirror. There's nobody you understand better than yourself. So, unless you relish the challenge of crafting an alien mind, write for yourself.


3) Play on your reader's senses.


Our emotions are usually triggered by a physical stimulus, whether or not that stimulus is a memory or current event. Stirring music (auditory), a fine painting (visual), a delicious meal (gustatory), a pungent perfume (olfactory), the fur of a kitten (tactile)... all might induce an emotion, pleasing or not.

So it is with fiction.

Infuse your story with appeals to several of the physical senses and you're half way to inveigling your reader.

For example, this opening passage from Kathy Reichs's novel Mortal Remains invokes three of the physical senses (olfactory, visual, auditory) and also hints at tactility (the 'newly turned soil'):

'The air smelled of sun-warmed bark and apple buds raring to blossom and get on with life. Overhead, a million baby leaves danced in the breeze. Fields spread outward from the orchard in which I stood, their newly turned soil rich and black.

A day made of diamonds.

A relentless buzzing dragged my gaze back to the corpse at my feet.'

The scene is three-dimensional. We are in it. Our emotions have been primed for engagement.

But be careful: the more sensory perceptions you weave in, the slower the pace. That's why Reichs quickly added the phrase 'the corpse at my feet' to jerk the reader awake and start the plot.


4) Build in a firm structure


A compelling story has a comforting form. The reader likes to feel that, no matter how quirky its twists, the tale has a clear meaning or structure – at least, in retrospect.

Meaning and structure are often synonymous.

To perceive 'structure' in anything is, arguably, to create a sense of meaning. Without structure, there's no meaning. How often do we look at an abstract painting, those unstructured swirls of shapes and colours, and naively ask 'What does it mean?' The painter might reply 'A piece of art is not intended to mean but be.'

That doesn't work with commercial fiction.

Unless you're writing experimental stories, which few will read or buy, give your story an emphatic shape.

Its plot might weave about at times, all the better to intrigue us, but – upon a second reading – it's a unity. The reader must feel that nothing could have been cut or added.

Why does a strong structure help to engage the reader emotionally?

The perception of a pattern behind the story's apparent chaos gives us confidence to proceed. We can relax. It's safe to let the author play with our emotions. Clearly, s/he knows what they're doing.

That's why a pungent 'slice of life' tale which goes nowhere will rarely impress a publisher or contest judge, no matter how brilliantly it's written. It has no shape. 'What was all that about?' they'll ask, tossing the story on the floor.

Here's a tip: Format your final draft in a very small type, eg. 8 point, and justify both the left and right margins. Print it out. Now it will resemble the format of a paperback book. At once, you'll spot big grey slabs – paragraphs that go on too long. Break them up!

Balancing your paragraphs and sentences, by giving them different lengths, adds a reassuring visual pattern.

Then, using a red pen, strike through every paragraph that's digressive, gratuitously poetical or adds little to the story. Cut or edit those paragraphs. Is a passage tautly written and indispensable to the plot? Tick it with a green pen.

I call this the Rose Bush technique.

Eventually, everything should be green. What's more, you'll now be able to see your story as a visual entity. Is its shape coherent? Do the scenes proceed logically, despite their beguiling twists? If so, that tale – if competently written – will leap into a contest short-list.


5) Close the story decisively.


The last scene of a powerful story should leave the reader emotionally stimulated, perhaps for a considerable time.

Relief, grief, hilarity, unease... again, the choice is yours. But unless you're writing for Mills & Boon, the end should not be (entirely) foreseeable.

True, a classic detective tale might close predictably with all culprits unmasked, innocents exonerated and loose ends tied up by the clever sleuth. The structure of any genre story is typically as formulaic as a pancake recipe. Even so, for the story to work on our emotions, its closure should hit us from left field.

Wham!

Michael Cordy typically ends his novels on a faux-upbeat note. All villains have been trounced, the hero and heroine announce their wedding, and the world is saved! Except that, the last line reveals... the world has not been saved.

Wham!

A deliberate ambiguity or 'double take' can sometimes achieve the same effect. Mark Allerton won a top prize in the 2012 round of the Winter's Village contest with World's Turned Upside Down, a tale of racial bigotry in the deep south.

A woman gloats over the way she has tormented a black child. Her last thought is 'The nightmares that little girl woulda had!' It seems like a malicious snigger until we sense a 'double take'. Has the bigot finally developed a conscience? Are those nightmares now tormenting her?

Wham!

It's a 'twist close'. Of course, a twist in the last scene is such a long-whiskered tactic – especially in crime suspense - that its very predictability can threaten its impact. But the perfect twist is the one that challenges us, at the last moment, to re-evaluate every aspect of the preceding story.

Anthony Horowitz does this brilliantly in his novel Moriarty.

Two detectives in 1890s London are hunting the master criminal Moriarty, a man so clever that not even Sherlock Holmes could bring him to justice. In the last chapter, Moriarty is discovered. Predictable? No. With a sense of disbelief, we realise that everything we've read in the story so far has been a lie.

The narrator has played a joke on us.

Wham!

Do we want to throttle Horowitz or award him the Booker Prize? Both.

That's what I call emotional engagement.

What have I missed out from the rules above? Everything. Characterisation, plotting strategies, elements of style, the rules of presentation...

Let me tell you a secret. You can break almost any "Rule of Good Writing" – provided your story works. But to win a publishing contract or major award, you must follow one rule above all:

Engage your reader emotionally.Dr. John Yeoman

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist. He judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers' Village:

http://www.writers-village.org/story-success

by Dr. John Yeoman (@Yeomanis) March 13, 2016






What about you, Scriveners? Have you read stories that you know are "Well-written" but somehow don't float your boat? Do think this was because you weren't emotionally engaged? What works for you in getting an emotional response from your readers?

This week Anne is over at her book blog talking about witnessing verbal abuse in a critique group or workshop.

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