Category Archives: Tactics That Work

Give Your Readers a Warning


Author Lauren Carr just helped me solve a dilemma. I’ll explain.

In a story I am working on, there are bigoted characters–as there are bigoted people in real life. There are bad guys–as in real life. And a few of the scoundrels look and behave differently than me.

Nevertheless, as a new novelist, I wondered what the reading public would think about my story, especially if their own family heritage were the same as the despicable characters in my book. When I wrote the story, I never gave the cultural or sexual orientation or race issues a thought. I simply told a story.

Once the story was essentially complete, it dawned me that several of my friends were going to find ugly characters in my story that resembled them in some way. Would they feel differently about me because I cast a negative character with their ethnicity or sexual persuasion?

Apparently mystery writer Lauren Carr had similar concerns because she included the following disclaimer in the press release for her new book:

Best-selling mystery author Lauren Carr takes fans of past Mac Faraday and Lovers in Crime mysteries down a different path in her latest whodunit. “Don’t worry,” she says. “We have plenty of dead bodies and lots of mystery-as well as intrigue, suspense, and page turning twists.”

However, Lauren does issue a warning for readers. “The key job of a fiction writer is to look at a situation, make observations about how things are and how they work, and then ask, ‘What if …’  This is what I have done with Three Days to Forever.”
Lauren Carr’s latest mystery plunges Mac Faraday, Archie, David, Gnarly, and the gang head first into a case that brings the war on terror right into Deep Creek Lake. “Current political issues will be raised and discussed by the characters involved,” Lauren says. “It is unrealistic for them to investigate a case involving terrorism without these discussions.”
With this in mind, Lauren reminds her readers that “Three Days to Forever is fiction. It is not the author’s commentary on politics, the media, the military, or Islam. While actual current events have inspired this adventure in mystery and suspense, this fictional work is not meant to point an accusatory finger at anyone in our nation’s government.”
Consequently, I am considering a disclaimer, to make the reader aware that  I acknowledge there may be sensitivity to character portrayals. The disclaimer also reminds the reader that the work is fiction.
Have some thoughts? Please share them. This is a site for learning.
P.S. In the “draft” version of this post, paragraph spacing is correct. In the “published” form, there are spaces missing between paragraphs in the final section. It is a format error on WordPress’ part. I can’t fix it.

Guest Post–The Hook or The Gimmick


Notes from the Margins: The Difference Between A Hook and A Gimmick

Every executive will tell you that in order to grab their attention in a pitch or a script, you need to have a great original hook. Your hook is that special THING that defines what the new, original and commercial angle is on your concept. It’s the element of your story or storytelling that will make your script stand out and make the exec say, “I get it.”

Your hook can come from numerous places. It could be conceptual, it could be plot-based, it could be your location, your type of characters, your backdrop, your time period or setting or world, your theme, the characters’ goal, the consequences or stakes of the action in the story, etc. Truly elevated projects often combine two different hooks to make the story more dynamic or have a hook with an intellectual or emotional depth to it that takes the story to another level.

But these days, writers often get confused between a hook and a gimmick. And the two are not the same thing.

A hook is usually story-based. It is something ingrained and exploited in the plot and/or premise of your script. A gimmick is a cheap trick used as a selling tool to make an audience think there’s something different about the style or experience of the project but usually has very little to do with the substance of the story.

The hook of Twilight is that the teen love story was set against the backdrop of an ancient war between vampires and werewolves. The hook of Non-Stop is that it’s a mystery heist film and a hijacking action film set 35,000 feet up in the air. The hook of the Oscar-Winning Her is that it’s a love story between a man and his operating system set in the near future.

Creating the hook of a story is the screenwriter’s job. Creating or exploiting the story’s gimmick is usually the job of a marketing department. Very often a project’s gimmick may come from its hook but a great gimmick will NEVER mask or excuse a poor story.

The films that do the best these days within the studio system are ones that have a strong story and hook AND a strong connected gimmick that can be used to sell it to its target demographic.

Gravity did well based on the gimmick of how it was shot and how the technical aspects come across in gorgeous 3-D surround sound theaters but also how that gimmick was used to enhance the emotion and hook of the story – one woman, trapped alone in space, fighting to survive.

Pixar’s Wall-E had a wonderful hook of a lowly love struck robot that must save his crush and the world. But the gimmick of Wall-E, and what many were talking about, was how half the film had no dialogue and was also a message movie about consumerism and a cautionary environmental tale.

The 1985 cult classic Clue had a great story gimmick in that its whole third act is 3 different alternate endings with different possible killers confessing until the truth is revealed. Tonally, it worked great with the rest of the story and added more twists and turns to the climax of the film.

But when the story is poor, gimmicks usually don’t work and often backfire.

Perhaps the best example of this is Movie 43, one of the worst abortions to ever happen on screen which currently sits at 4% on rotten tomatoes and won big at this year’s Razzies. It was a series of disturbing short films directed by big names and starring even bigger names that were connected by an insanely flimsy set up. The gimmick was basically – look at all these huge name stars we got together, it MUST be good, right? But alas, it was not.

From Justin to Kelly (I’m sorry Kelly, I still love you) was a project born out of gimmick rather than story. The studio wanted to capitalize on the popularity and possible real-life romantic relationship between its two biggest reality stars at the time and Kelly’s growing musical following. I’m guessing the writers spent exactly 4 days on the script.

Battlefield Earth had a not-so-secret gimmick in that it was obviously connected to Scientology and it put this gimmick above story. And any time you put gimmick above story in the concept and development stage, your movie is doomed.

Bad Grandpa used the proven gimmick of the Jackass-style gags and physical pranks to lure people to the theater thinking that’s all it was, but it was actually an attempt at a narrative feature that just happened to have a half dozen of those hilarious pranks in it. But the gimmick was stronger than the story and was the only thing promoted in the trailers. Did it do really well at the box office? Yes, it did. I’m not saying a gimmick CAN’T work – only that it usually doesn’t if the story isn’t equally strong if not stronger.

I recently had a client whose story was a pretty straightforward spy/comedy with some decent story twists but then the third act was basically a Choose Your Own Adventure gimmick where he thought audiences would be able (collectively) to choose which version of the ending they wanted to see. Obviously this gimmick wouldn’t work in theaters for 1000 logistic and financial reasons. But it didn’t work on the page either because it made the writer’s vision for the story unclear and unresolved. It made the whole resolution of the story confusing and unsatisfying.

I had another client who wrote the same script twice – once as a comedy, once as a drama – and thought that studios would make both versions for both audiences. The only major difference was that the comedy had about 10 more decently funny lines in it. There are concepts that could potentially work in two different genres, but you need to know which is stronger and which you feel more comfortable writing. The gimmick of having written two versions of the same plot was what he thought would entice agents instead of the story itself, which was incorrect.

A handful of years ago, I had a pitch session at a conference where the writer donned a large rubber butt as a hat and pitched the sales gimmick of his concept instead of the story. Even if the story and pitch were brilliant it wouldn’t have mattered cause all I was staring at was a large rubber anus like it was a third eye. I can guarantee that pitch would have gone better without the gimmick. In fact a general rule I always give new writers pitching is leave the gimmicks at home – they never help and usually make you look all the more amateurish. And I feel the same about writers who employ gimmicks on the page instead of really crafting a compelling story.

There is a difference between a marketing or production gimmick and a writing gimmick. The former is something the writer has very little say about. Studios will very often turn an otherwise perfectly fine 2-D film into a 3-D extravaganza because the ticket prices are higher and they think the 3-D gimmick brings people to the theaters. Dolby Digital 3-D Surround Sound, Smell-O-Vision, 4-D, not to mention Marvel and Disney’s gimmick of incorporating many of  their Avengers characters into all their different films so that audiences think they need to see ALL of them in order to follow the stories. These would be more production and marketing gimmicks.

Brilliant marketing gimmicks included those created for Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which used the angle that they may or may not be true stories and it used its gimmick of casting utter unknowns to play into that.  Paranormal’s marketing campaign also included the creepy, grainy “night-goggle” footage of people reacting and screaming in fear while watching the film. Very effective. They took what was different about the hook and story and translated that into a masterful marketing gimmick. But the gimmick did not damage or derail the story.

Sometimes the gimmick of a project is in its casting and that’s also something the writer usually has no control over. The Expendables, Escape Plan, Righteous Kill, Grudge Match, Scream, and romantic comedies that reteam beloved duos like the upcoming Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore film Blended are all films whose gimmick was the casting and not the story. In some of these cases, the story or action was strong enough to compliment the gimmick. In others, not so much.

But this is why it’s so important for writers to create a hook and story that can overcome bad casting or bad production or marketing gimmicks and sell on its own merit. You need to know what is special and sellable about your concept and hook, and the answer to that needs to lie organically within the pages of your story. If it doesn’t, then you’re not writing smart enough and you’re relying on others to figure out what is great about your script.

The Value of a Support Group? Priceless!


In the words of author Shelton Keys Dunning, “Writing is a solitary action.” Thus, the only advice I get is me talking to myself. Not good. That is one of the reasons I started this blog–to reach out to other authors and share feedback.

I got feedback in spades to my previous post “Fear of Finishing.” The advice is good for every writer facing self-doubt. So, at the risk of pink cheeks on my part, I share the tips and counsel that seasoned author and editor Shelton Keys Dunning gave me.

Before you read Shelton’s words, know this. Writers are like actors–we die without an audience. Writers are also human. We wither without someone to stroke us and fertilize our creative machine once in a while. Hence, the necessity of a support group.

The support group can exist through friends cultivated on-line or in person through a face-to-face writers group or in fellow students in a classroom setting. However or wherever, a support group of fellow penmen is invaluable to an author in turmoil.

Now to the feedback:

Fear is as normal as it is debilitating. I’m concerned that my edit contributed to your self-doubt. Honestly though, I will champion your talent through to the hellfires and back again. This next step is critical yes, heart-wrenching and laced with every type of harbinger of doom possible. It’s how you channel that fear that will make you or break you. I want you to read the following and take it to heart.

1. You have the talent. You have more than most. I would not lie to you about this.
2. Dead with Envy is a story only you can tell. And it is a story worthy of bookshelves. Again, I’m not lying.
3. Editing is the most difficult thing to do as a writer. You get through this, you can do anything. Period.
4. Writing is a very solitary action, it isn’t always clear that you have a support group. But you do have one. And I am your biggest fan. You can lean on me.
5. My mother wants to buy your book. I’m not lying. So you have already touched readers and you’re not even finished yet.
6. Set-backs aren’t permanent. Neither are road blocks. What can be permanent, though, is the wall you build around your heart to shield you from the unknown. Surround yourself instead with supportive voices. AND
BELIEVE THEM WHEN THEY SAY THAT YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL AND TALENTED.
7. Once your story is published, do not worry about your audience. The phrase: You build it, they will come, applies here. It worked for baseball. It can work for you. Will there be people that don’t like it?
Sure. Just like not everyone likes fried pickles. That’s okay. There will be others who will LOVE it.
8. Fear of the unknown is normal. I’ve been there. I am there. You are not alone.
9. My book: The Trouble with Henry? That took me two years to publish it. Two years passed since writing “Finis” before I felt ready to hit the publish button. I’m still finding flaws, but I am my own worst critic. Just like you are your own worst critic. You don’t have to take two years for Dead With Envy, but you can if you want to. You are in control.
10. Have I told you not to worry yet, that you are talented and beautiful? Have I said that Dead with Envy deserves to be on bookshelves? Just checking.

It’s hard to find your heart when you are mired in self-doubt. Every writer faces this. Every one. Even Stephen King. And if he claims he doesn’t, he’s lying. Think back to the first time you had to send an email to someone, anyone. I don’t know about you, but the first email I
ever sent terrified me witless. What if I did it wrong? What if I didn’t make any sense? What if I got lost in the world like snail mail through the post office and if the email did arrive, it arrived broken and torn and unreadable? There are still days when I face job hunts that I stare at the emails and wonder if I’ve forgotten the entire English language. Or what about blog posts? The first blog post you ever did, how did you feel then? How do you feel now? I promise publishing a book might feel bigger than a blog post, but it’s only ’cause it took more hours to do.

It might help to write all your questions down on paper, and answer them, on paper. If you ask yourself a question and you don’t know the answer, write “I need to research this” for the answer. That way, you’ve  acknowledged that you don’t know, but you can find the answer. Breaking all your fears down into little pieces and tackling one at a time, helps.

And now that I’ve taken up your blog, I will leave you with this: I am here. I’m not going anywhere, heaven forbid, and you couldn’t be safer than among your peers. I promise this too shall pass.

Breaking It Into Manageable Steps


My daughter is a sweetheart. She sent me a very helpful article from www.daringtodeliverfully.com. I am feeling overwhelmed and uncertain as I am finalizing the book for publication and starting the marketing process.

The article, called “What a Masked Vigilante Can Teach You about Goal Achievement–The Zorro Circle,”  by Marelisa offers concrete steps to take in the midst of mental chaos to restore order and purposeful action.

The basic idea of “The Zorro Circle” is to set a large goal and then select a small area of that goal to conquer. Once you’ve conquered that small area, you expand the circle. As you conquer each successive “Zorro Circle”, you get closer and closer to achieving your goal. Here are the five basic ideas behind “The Zorro Circle”:

  • Research shows that when we feel that we’re in control of a situation, we’re happier and able to perform at a higher level.

  • When a task is very large, we lose the feeling of control and influence, we feel overwhelmed, our brains are hijacked by fear and stress, and our abilities plummet.

  • You take control of the situation by starting with small, manageable steps.

  • Once you’ve mastered one small area, you expand that mastery outward.

  • Keep expanding outward until you’ve achieved your goal.

This morning I applied the principles of “The Zorro Circle” to work on a marketing blurb for the book to be used at the Creatures, Crime & Creativity Conference this weekend. I am a panelist at the conference, and will be introducing my book.

All of this is new to me, and the novelty (combined with my own inexperience) paralyzed my thought processes. My daughter came to my rescue.

Consequently, I focused on writing the blurb that will go on the promo materials I am handing out at the conference and nothing else. I finished two versions and sent them out to my beta readers for feedback.

Later this morning, I will create and print the advertising pieces. It’s nice to be back on track.

Autobiography: How To Do It


When my daughter was in school, she was friends with a very creative circle of kids. I adopted her friends as my extra children. To this day, I get called “Mom” by some, and it warms my heart.

Today those kids are grown.

One of them sent me an article that offers some excellent writing advice. The author of the article, Bushra Rehman, is on the staff of Poets & Writers and recently published her first novel. I have pulled selected tidbits from her article to teach us more about the craft of autobiographical writing.

For example, when writing autobiographical pieces, Rehman  says:

One of the drawbacks . . .  is that the people in your head are not imaginary. They’re real. They’re the people you love the most and are most afraid of losing.

The consequence of telling someone’s story is something to consider when writing about real people. Don’t let it prevent you from telling your story, but consider what options may be available to protect the privacy and dignity of humans you know.

One way around the obstacle is to fictionalize your story. Change names, locations and the facts enough to allow the source of your inspiration to remain anonymous. Doing so not only protects the person from exposure, it also protects you from legal liability for disclosing that which may be deemed private or libelous by a court of law.

Rehman also talks about the therapeutic benefits of writing autobiographical material:

The truth is you don’t know the shape your work will take until it is written. Yes, you may feel a burning anger in the beginning, but when you write the story, you might be surprised by the gentle and compassionate portrayals you create. The very writing of the narrative will transform you and your memories.

Finally, being closely tied to the people behind your characters may color your portrayals of  the dark elements of a story. Rehman has developed a technique to help her in that circumstance:

You never even have to publish. I trick myself every time by saying I won’t. It’s one way I’ve learned to be honest in my writing–by lying to myself.

I giggled as I read the article my daughter’s friend shared with me. She knows I am writing novels. Do you think she worries about appearing in a book as one of my characters? I will promise her here and now, she won’t. At least not in any form that even she would recognize.

Fair enough?

 

Guest Post from Bob O’Connor


Better late than never.

Bob O’Connor gave me a guest post months ago, before my shoulder surgery.  I was a bit self-absorbed with shoulder surgery, getting a divorce, and a few other things that made me a little less than sane–like finishing the novel.

Poor Bob. He didn’t know all that stuff. He just knew his blog post didn’t appear. At last, here it is! And isn’t it funny how timely the message is!

The From Writer to Published Author Conference is coming up. My book is to be released in several weeks. Maybe fate had a hand in the scheduling.

I can say this–good things come to those that wait. Thanks, Bob, for providing one of the good things!

Bob Oconnorauthorphoto

http://www.boboconnorbooks.com/

Being Your Own Publicist

By Bob O’Connor

You are a published author. Congratulations.  Now you can sit back and bank your royalty checks.  WRONG!

Now it is time to shift gears and start promoting you and your book. Here’s what you need to do. It’s a three-step process.  It’s relatively easy, but it takes WORK.

  1. Print some business cards with the cover of your book on it. Think about all those people you talk to who are not ready to buy your book at that instance.  How do they find you when they are ready to make the purchase?  If nothing else, you need a business card.
  2. Set up a website.  The business card should send them to a website where they can purchase your book.  Look at mine at www.boboconnorbooks.com for suggestions.
  3. Do at least one thing every single day to promote your book.

That’s all you need for success. Any questions?

OK, perhaps I should elaborate.  I published my first book in late January 2006.  It is called “The Perfect Steel Trap Harpers Ferry 1859” and is a historical novel about the John Brown raid.  Using steps one, two and three above, and lots of old fashioned WORK, I sold have sold over 3,000 of those books since 2006.

As of February 2012, I have written 7 books and sold over 7,000. Most I sold myself. The sales did not come from Amazon or any other place.

How does an old guy (I’m 66) who still works for a living (don’t quit your day job) and writes in the evenings and on weekends, sell so many books?  The secret, now that I have a business card (for each book) and a website, is item #3.

Would you like some examples?  Wherever I am traveling to on any particular day for a book signing, I check on the internet and find every library, historical society and book store en route, going one way and coming back another way.  And I stop at every single one. 

I had a meeting in Washington, DC on a recent Thursday night.  On the way I stopped at book stores in Sterling, VA, Fairfax, VA, Woodbridge, VA, several in DC, and ones in Gaithersburg, MD and Kensington, MD.  At the book stores I introduce myself, check to see if they have my books, signed copies if they are already in stock, convince them they need to stock all my books if they don’t have them already and offer to do a book signing for them. 

That particular day, several stores ordered my book on-line while I was standing there.  One asked me for dates I had available and booked a signing right then.

Another day I was attending a book signing in Gettysburg at 5:00 pm.  I left the house at 8:00 am, stopped at book stores in Hagerstown, MD, a public library in Chambersburg, PA, Mont Alto campus of Penn State University, another public library, and Gettysburg College.  At the schools and public libraries I was offering to give presentations, which I do for free, because they allow me to sell books.

On another night I had a ten minute interview on a local access cable TV channel.  On the way I stopped at two book stores and two public libraries.

On other days I search the internet for Civil War Round Tables, book festivals, radio stations who specialize in interviewing authors, and any other opportunity to sell books.  I check for Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions clubs, and other opportunities to speak to seniors and retired military groups.  Many small towns have book clubs that are open to local authors.  Use your imagination.  E-mail them and offer to do a program.  Keep the offers flowing on a regular basis. 

I also look for non-traditional places to sell books.  One of my most successful endeavors has been to hook up with Weis Markets, a grocery store chain.  I do book signings in their regional stores on Friday nights with great success.  They print fliers and put up posters in the stores.  They surround me with samples of food from their party trays.  Shoppers who are grabbing the free food get to hear me talk about my books.  In one store, I sold 34 books in three hours. Grocery stores often sell books, but have a much smaller inventory than your major book stores.  And the grocery stores also get good community reaction because they are supporting local authors.

In book stores, I use a pop-up display with my picture, the covers of both books, a sentence about each book, and in large letters –“Book Signing Today.”  Many times in book stores, people have no idea I am an author or why I am sitting there. The pop-up sign has increased my exposure dramatically. 

It is pitiful the signage that authors have even at major book festivals I attend.  You would be surprised how professional a small sign from Staples print center looks and how inexpensive it can cost.

One author at the Philadelphia Book Festival was wearing a sandwich board to call attention to his new book.  Be creative – he certainly was.

I ALWAYS send a press release to the local newspaper before any appearance. I send a listing to their calendar of events too.  And it is not a generic press release.  I tell the newspaper readers how their readership is tied into the story of the book.  It helps that my story is historical fiction and includes only characters that are real and were really part of the actual event.  And that my appearances for my first book were only in the area within about 100 miles each direction of Harpers Ferry.

And ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS have books with you at all times. One day in the summer several years ago I stopped in Hagerstown, MD at the visitors center to see if they had books I hadn’t signed.  The lady behind the desk was in a panic.  She said two busloads of people were out in the parking lot waiting for a mechanic to fix one of their two buses.  She asked me to entertain them. 

I stood on the curb and talked to 90 people who were on a Robert E. Lee tour of the area.  What a coincidence — Robert E. Lee happens to be the man in charge of the capture of John Brown, the main character in my one book!  I held up my book and talked for about ten minutes, and then sent them into the visitors center to purchase the book. The lady there sold out of her 15 copies in minutes. But others wanted to purchase the book and have it signed too.  Not to worry.  I ran to my car, drove to where they were already waiting in line, parked and opened my trunk.  I sat on the rear bumper, signing books.  I sold another 21 books, throwing the money in the trunk because they were coming at me so fast.  It helped that I am a former Boy Scout who believes in the motto “Be Prepared”.

I have met authors who sell a couple of books each year.  When I ask them what they are doing to promote their book, they kind of hang their head and admit they haven’t been “real busy” lately.  As you can see, I have been “real busy”!  I am startled to find out that many authors I meet don’t even have a simple business card that you can print with any computer in ten minutes with a box of business card paper from your local business supply store.

I admit, I did 108 appearances in 2011 (check my website for suggestions, there’s a calendar of my appearances from 2006-2011 on my book signing page).  The average number of appearances I would say other authors I have met this past year have made to promote their book is about five a year (and there are certainly some exceptions).

I don’t tell you that to brag or to try to be better than you.  I tell you that because if I can do that, you can do that. You can do that if, by chance, you want to sell books!

In June every year, I go to Illinois to attend Heritage Days in Danville, IL where the character of my second book lived.  I drive and have appearances and book signings going and coming home.

Last year I was scheduled for book signings in public libraries, book stores, and even a senior citizens facility. I was gone 12 days to Danville, and did 11 appearances.  I checked with clubs and organization in the cities I would be in to find out which ones have meetings on the day I would be there.  I called book stores and Chamber of Commerce and libraries.  Most were thrilled that they are getting a free program.  Several paid my overnight accommodations in their city.

I look for magazines and newspapers and write articles that their particular readership might like that relate to the subjects of my books.  A recent article in Battlefield Journal (a publication for Civil War enthusiasts) was about the main character in “The Virginian Who Might Have Saved Lincoln.” An article I wrote about the seven men who escaped the John Brown raid appeared in the Appalachian Trail Magazine, because their escape route followed what today is the Appalachian Trail. I look for publications that would be interested in my particular books.  Obviously publications like Field and Stream and Science Digest are not within my target market, so I will not be contacting them.  But those publications certainly might be within the target readership of your books.

I also use Google search with key words such as “John Brown” to find out when events are taking place I can connect to. A recent play called “Robert E. Lee and John Brown” was playing at the Wayside Theater in Virginia. I contacted them and got four book signings and an opportunity to go on stage after each presentation to talk about John Brown with their “John Brown” actor.

An author friend wondered out loud the other day what her publicist had done for her lately.  One thing he had done was to get her an interview on a radio station in the Midwest.  I asked her the call letters of the radio station where she was going to be interviewed, and contacted the radio station myself.  (A simple “google” function on the internet gave me the station contact information.) I now have an interview scheduled with the same radio station I set up myself. 

I don’t have to ask, because I know what MY publicist did for me today!  That’s because I am my publicist.

Even writing this article, I am promoting my books to persons who might not otherwise know about them and sending those authors to my website for more information.

Am I getting paid to write this?  No.  I don’t usually get paid for my articles.  But they let people know about my books and the articles all list my website where there is information on how to purchase my books.

Where I live people are amazed that I get so much publicity. I teach a Publishing Class at the local Adult Ed Program. I sent the newspaper a press release that I was teaching the class. When the article appeared, other instructors wondered why the Adult Ed people only promoted my class. They didn’t promote my class. I did.

I get publicity because I work at it. You can do it too, but it takes effort. You have to decide if you are “real busy” doing other things or “real busy” seriously promoting your book.

So I have to ask you — when are you going to start seriously selling your book?  Do you have a business card?  A website? Look at mine at http://www.boboconnorbooks.com. What did you do TODAY to promote your book?  Got questions? E-mail me at author@boboconnorbooks.com .

Happy book selling.

Guest Post from Author Jim Denney


It is always a pleasure when an experienced author shares thoughts here to help the rest of us. Today author Jim Denney guides us over the bumpy path called a writing career. This is Part One of two.

JimDenney-2013-small-72dpi

Conquering the 8 Great Fears of the Writer’s Life: Part I

Jim Denney

You know about the literary achievements of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights), and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). These three sisters produced many enduring classics of literature.

But there was another Brontë whose name you’ve probably never heard: Branwell Brontë, the brother of the three Brontë sisters. The four Brontë siblings were close in their early years. As children, they engaged in fantasy role-playing games and collaborated on complex stories about an imaginary realm called Angria.

As an adult, Branwell often talked about the grand novel he intended to write, based on the world of Angria that he and his sisters had created. But while his sisters produced their masterpieces, Branwell only dabbled at writing. When his sisters urged him to show fragments of his novel to a publisher, he refused, saying he couldn’t bear having an editor toss his writings into the fireplace.

In the fall of 1848, Branwell Brontë fell gravely ill with tuberculosis, aggravated by delirium tremens from alcoholism. He died on September 24 at age thirty-one. After Branwell’s funeral, Charlotte Brontë wrote of her brother, “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement … but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and shining light.”

Branwell Brontë died knowing he had wasted his life and his talent. He never wrote his grand novel. Why? Because he was afraid of rejection, afraid of failure, afraid of committing his literary vision to paper and submitting it to a publisher. His fears were the same fears most writers face to this day.

Writers who conquer their fears go on to enjoy successful careers. Writers who fail to master their fears are doomed to end their lives in Branwellesque obscurity. Don’t waste your life and your talent. Don’t be paralyzed by fear. Instead, learn about the eight most common fears writers face—and how to overcome them:

Fear No. 1. “I’m afraid I have no talent.”

Many writers fear making a terrifying discovery: “I don’t have what it takes to be a published author.” Another name for this all-too-common fear is self-doubt.

Self-doubt afflicts writers on an epidemic scale. It causes more suffering among writers than writer’s block, eyestrain, and carpal tunnel syndrome combined. Self-doubt is the fear that we might not be as talented and creative as we thought. It’s the nagging voice in your head that says, “Why do you waste so many hours alone at this keyboard? You can’t do this. No one will ever read what you write.”

I know you’ve heard those voices because every writer has heard those voices—even your literary heroes and role models.

Anne Sexton won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her deeply personal poems about relationships and depression. Yet her fears nearly kept her from becoming a poet. She had an opportunity to attend a poetry workshop conducted by the renowned John Holmes—but the thought of exposing her poems to criticism terrified her. Afraid to register for the workshop, she asked a friend to register for her and to go with her to the first session. Within a dozen years of attending that workshop, Sexton was one of the most acclaimed poets in the world. But before she could earn these honors, she had to conquer her fear and self-doubt.

By avoiding the risk of writing and being judged, you actually risk everything. As Erica Jong put it in How to Save Your Own Life, “The risk is your life. Wasting it, I mean. It’s a pretty big risk. . . . And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more. Life doesn’t leave that many choices. It’s really very harsh.”

How do you conquer the fear that you’re not good enough, the fear of being judged? You simply do the work. You write. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, even if you are fearful, even if you think your writing is so wretched that even your own mother would trash it, write.

Novelist Ayn Rand urged writers to adopt the mindset of relentless professionalism, regardless of self-doubts. She said, “You can be professional before you publish anything—if you approach writing as a job and apply to writing the same standards and methods that people regularly apply to other professions.” She dealt with her own self-doubt by pretending she worked for Hank Rearden—the ruthless industrialist in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Rearden, she said, “would not tolerate it if I told him, ‘I can’t work today because I have self-doubt’ or ‘I have a self-esteem crisis.’ Yet that is what most people do, in effect, when it comes to writing.”

Another accomplished writer who has suffered from self-doubt is Stephen King. In On Writing, he observes, “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job. It’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There is plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.”

His solution: Write quickly. King explains, “With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. . . . If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind . . . I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”

To slay self-doubt, write fast enough to stay ahead of your doubts.

Fear No. 2. “The blank page scares me—I’m afraid to begin.”

We all have authors we idolize. Because they write so brilliantly, we assume they are confident, even fearless. But our literary role models struggle with the very same fears we do, including the fear of the blank page. John Steinbeck wrote in his journal, “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line.”

Before Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez could sell 30 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude and win the Nobel Prize for literature, he had to work up the courage to write the first line. “All my life,” he said, “I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”

Margaret Atwood, the celebrated author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has won many literary awards, including the prestigious Booker Prize. Her greatest fear as an author: “Blank pages inspire me with terror.”

A few years ago, I taught a writer’s workshop. After one session, a young woman came to me and said, “I can’t get started. I know what I want to write about, and I know my characters—it all seems so perfect in my head. But when I try to write the perfect opening line, nothing comes to me—nothing that feels good enough. Without a brilliant first sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story.” What’s the solution to blank-page-ophobia?

First, understand that this fear comes from an inordinate and unhealthy perfectionism. You’re listening to your inner critic. Perhaps you’re even listening to the voice of some writing teacher in your past, someone who told you it’s absolutely crucial that you rivet your reader’s attention with a knockout first sentence.

Well, yes, your first sentence is important—but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write. Why not save your first sentence for last? Write your entire first draft before you even think about what your first sentence ought to be. Once the novel is written, a brilliant first sentence may just come to you.

Second, get the words and story down any way you can. Bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” And Dorothea Brande advised in her classic book Becoming a Writer, “Simply start working. If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.”

Third, in first draft, give yourself permission to write badly. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t expect first-draft perfection. Have fun, play, and finger-paint with words. It may be messy, but so what? You’ll clean everything up later in rewrite. I’m sure you’ll even come up with an inspired, riveting opening line.

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Fear No. 3. “I’m afraid I can’t complete my novel.”

Writers often build up a mental image of the novel they want to write—an image that is so grand and brilliant and complex that it becomes intimidating and self-defeating. We say to ourselves, “The novel I picture in my mind is so rich in theme, so vast in scope, that I don’t feel capable of writing it. I’d better wait until I acquire the skills to do it justice.”

The writer who has never written a novel before may lack the confidence that he or she can go the distance: “I don’t know how to begin. I’m not sure I can sustain the middle. I doubt I can write a worthy ending. I’m defeated before I begin.”

These are the same fears Ray Bradbury faced in January 1953 when he signed a contract to expand his novella “The Fireman” to novel length, 50,000 words. A short story writer, Bradbury had never written a novel before. The deadline was two months away, in mid-March. Bradbury was so intimidated by the scope of the project that when the deadline passed, he hadn’t written a single word. The publisher extended the deadline to April 15—and Bradbury missed that deadline as well.

The publisher gave Bradbury an extension to June 15—the author’s last chance. Paralyzed by fear all through May, a desperate Ray Bradbury finally went down into the basement of the UCLA library in early June. There, the university kept rows of coin-operated typewriters. Every half-hour, Bradbury fed a dime into the typewriter’s meter. Over a nine-day period, Bradbury wrote 25,000 words which he added to the 25,000 words of the original novella. Bradbury’s first novel, Fahrenheit 451, was born—and he met his third and final deadline. But first he had to overcome the fear that he wouldn’t be able to finish his book.

When the inner critic say, “You can’t do this,” tell your inner critic, “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t, but if this novel defeats me, it won’t be because I didn’t try. Now shut up. I’m working.”

When a project intimidates you because of its size and complexity, break it down into bite-size pieces. Divide it into scenes or chapters or daily word-count goals. Focus on today’s tasks today, then maintain that same focus day after day, and you’ll ultimately get your novel written.

I recommend two excellent tools for breaking down big long-term projects into a series of short-term objectives: (1) James Scott Bell’s excellent book Plot & Structure and (2) Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake” method at AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer, “Once you are into the novel it is cowardly to worry about whether you can go on the next day. . . . You have to go on. So there is no sense to worry. You have to learn that to write a novel.”

Fear No. 4. “I’m afraid of the risks of the writer’s life.”

Writing is an inherently risky proposition. When you write, you take personal risks, artistic risks, and commercial risks. It’s almost impossible to achieve distinction as an author if you are risk-averse. As Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer.”

Playwright and novelist A. R. Gurney (The Cocktail Hour and Sweet Sue) recalls the time when he taught literature at MIT and wrote plays on the side. A novelist friend told him, “You gotta start calling yourself a writer, you gotta start thinking of yourself as a writer. You’re never gonna get anywhere if you don’t take yourself seriously.”

Gurney reflects, “I found it very hard . . . to call myself a writer. I called myself a teacher. . . . It was very hard for me to accept the public mantle of being a playwright.” Once Gurney was able to confidently call himself a writer and embrace the risky life of a writer, his self-image was transformed—and his writing career shifted into high gear.

In a 2010 article in The Los Angeles Times, novelist Dani Shapiro described the three most frightening risks she faced in her twenty years of writing: “The writer’s apprenticeship—or perhaps, the writer’s lot—is this miserable trifecta: uncertainty, rejection, disappointment. . . . Every single piece of writing I have ever completed—whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story, or review—has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else. . . . Call it stubbornness, stamina, a take-no-prisoners determination, but a writer at work reminds me of nothing so much as a terrier with a bone.”

You have to be that terrier. You have to chomp down on that bone and refuse to let go. To be a writer is to battle fear and doubt, and to risk uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.

If you would achieve your dreams, you must risk, you must endure, and you must never give up. Dare to believe that your purpose in life is to write—then dare to write that first sentence. Persevere, keep faith with your dreams, and dare to complete what you started. Stop endlessly revising your manuscript—declare it finished and share it with your critique group. Then fearlessly subject your work to the brutal analysis of agents and editors—and the reading public.

Above all, dare to say to yourself and others, “I am a writer.”

In Part II, we’ll look at the four most surprising and paradoxical fears of the writer’s life.

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Jim Denney is the author of Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. He has written more than 100 books, including the Timebenders science fantasy adventure series for young readers—Battle Before Time, Doorway to Doom, Invasion of the Time Troopers, and Lost in Cydonia. He is also the co-writer with Pat Williams (co-founder of the Orlando Magic) of Leadership Excellence and The Difference You Make. A veteran of both traditional and indie publishing, Jim is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow Jim on Twitter at @WriterJimDenney, and follow his blog at http://unearthlyfiction.wordpress.com/.

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