A to Z 2014

I've had a few requests for all my A to Z posts to be listed in one place. I suppose here is as good a place as any, right? I'm adding the text here, but if you like being entertained by other people's comments, I suggest you click on the post title to go to its original page. Some of the comments I've received have been insightful and informative, and others have just been fun (especially for my "X" post). Enjoy!

A = Adverbs Are Not Necessarily Necessary

He crept softly down the hall. 

The cymbal crashed loudly. 

She kissed him passionately. 

The baby cried noisily.

Let it not be said that I don’t appreciate a well-placed adverb. Seriously. But there are far more instances when a manuscript can benefit from the removal of adverbs, rather than the addition of them. In three of the four examples above, the adverb is redundant. Creeping is soft, by its very nature. Cymbals are loud, and crashes are loud. Babies rarely cry with noise levels considerate of their surroundings. The kiss? If it’s passionate, show it. One person’s “passionately” is another person’s “abusively,” “lovingly,” “abruptly” or even “roughly.”

Make your adverbs count. Use them sparingly (there’s one!) so you don’t start to rely on them to carry your narrative. If you’re busy telling the reader how something happened, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to see it for themselves.

* * * * *

B = Beta Readers Are Your Friends

Think of beta readers as your pre-reviewers. Would you rather have a reader tell you—in a scathing review on Amazon for all the world to see—that your book has plot holes, typos, and awkward phrases? Or would you rather have a beta reader tell you—in a much gentler, more constructive fashion—prior to publishing?

Beta readers can be literal friends: people you know well, who are willing to take a look at your book and tell you what they think of it. Beta readers can also be strangers: perhaps fans of your previous work, if you’ve already published. They might simply be fans of the genre in which you’re writing, and love to see books before anyone else does. Either way, they’re your golden opportunity for honest feedback in order to iron out any problems prior to showing your work to the world.

Whether you use a paid beta or a freebie, keep in mind that the closer someone is to you emotionally, the harder it will be for them to tell you if there are flaws in your manuscript. Family and close friends are wonderful cheerleaders, but an uninvolved party will probably yield better results for the work itself.

* * * * *

C =Clichés Need to Go

Avoid them like the plague. Considering that I was able to find, in about three seconds, a multitude of Google results for “clichés in writing,” it’s amazing to me that writers continue to use and abuse them (there’s a cliché or two for you in this paragraph alone).

There are those who go for the obvious phrases, like “stick out like a sore thumb,” “like a kid in a candy store,” or “breath of fresh air.” Others are more subtle than that. 

http://authonomy.com/writing-tips/publishers-list-of-phrases-for-writers-to-avoid/ mentions the newer trend of “stock modifiers”—words that are commonly paired together that have become clichés of their own. Someone isn’t moved; he’s visibly moved. Another is woefully unprepared. Yet another is unfailingly polite.

Clichés don’t always have to be set phrases; they can also be storytelling clichés, as discussed on http://litreactor.com/columns/top-10-storytelling-cliches-that-need-to-disappear-forever. There’s an easy way to proceed, which usually turns into a cop-out. Describing your character’s looks by having her look in a mirror? Don't fall into that trap; be unique and don't follow the crowd. Is your character a bad guy? Blame bad parenting or past abuse. I’ll tell you a secret: the scariest bad guys are the ones who have no horrendous incident to blame. They’re just psycho and that’s that.

* * * * *

D = "Dialogue tags aren't always needed," she cried.

Have you ever read something like this?

“Where are you going?” he queried.

“I’m headed to the store,” she whispered.

“Really?” he gasped.

“That’s right,” she breathed.

When I’m reading, the overuse of dialogue tags in a book catches my eye as if it’s in bold print. Odd or uncommon tags are even worse. Sometimes “said” is good enough.

In my house, we talk to each other. I would suspect most households are the same. My husband has never growled, or even grunted, “Pass the coffee, Dollface,” and to the best of my recollection, I’ve never wailed, “We’re out of shampoo!” He doesn’t roar or bellow when he’s angry—and frankly, I think that would scare the crap out of me if he did, since he has a deep voice. I might exclaim here or there, or shout to someone up the stairs, but I don’t gasp when the mailman drives up, even when the package says “Amazon” on it.

http://litreactor.com/columns/on-dialogue-tags-why-anything-besides-said-and-asked-is-lazy-writing has a great article on dialogue tags, and my favorite part of it is the very beginning:

Chortled is a verb. The definition is: To laugh in a breathy, gleeful way; chuckle. And it is a horrible, terrible, stupid word. For me it conjures the image of an obese woman laughing through a mouthful of spray cheese. I don’t know where it came from, but I do know we should send it back and light it on fire.

What a vivid mental image. The columnist, Rob Hart, describes expressive dialogue tags as “the laugh track of the literary world.” They tell, rather than show, what’s happening, and every writer in every part of the world who’s ever written a single word has heard the “show, don’t tell” speech. Ultimately it shows lazy or immature writing.

If you read the authors everyone recognizes as skilled, you’ll notice simple dialogue tags or none, in most cases. I’ll bet Stephen King doesn’t chortle. He probably laughs, just like the rest of us.

* * * * *

E = Editing Comes in Many Forms

Someone who's “looking for an editor” is most likely referring to the need for a copy editor. There are, however, a few types of editors to choose from, and it’s best to know what you’re looking for if you want to get your publishing budget set up accurately.

Developmental editors work with you from the very beginning. If you have a concept or a great story idea but aren’t sure how to execute it, a developmental editor can help you organize your thoughts, give suggestions to aid your research, and help you get a handle on the big picture.

Substantive editors enter the picture when you have a full text. Some beta readers are skilled enough that their summary resembles the evaluation of a substantive/content editor. They’ll spot when your writing isn’t clear, your characters are weak, when your plot has holes, and when timelines don’t add up properly.

Copy editors come into play when the text is nearly final—or as final as an author can get it on his own. This type carefully reads each sentence, correcting typos, spelling, punctuation, word usage, and grammar. They’ll alert you to stilted dialogue and inconsistent character details.

Proofreaders take the final look at your project. They ensure all the copy editor’s changes were implemented, and fix any typos that may have been missed during the initial copy edit.

Each type of editing comes with its own price structure, so it’s best to know what you need before rushing right out there. Many authors think they only need a proofreader, but actually need a substantive editor for a manuscript that’s not yet ready for even the copy editor. Know your strengths, but also recognize your weaknesses and set your budget accordingly.

* * * * *

F = Friends Are Not Always the Best Critics

Friends—if you wish to keep them as friends—are best left in the “cheerleader” category when you’re writing. When a writer finishes a book, she will often ask friends and family to “read my book!” Seriously, folks, this could lead to the breakup of longtime friendships, estrangement from family members, and the end of the world as we know it. 

When you ask a friend to read your book (after publishing) and tell you what he thinks of it, you’re putting him in a precarious place. In the best-case scenario, your book is good, he likes it, and he offers to post a review of it online. Worst-case scenario? There are two of them. Both can result in awkwardness and discomfort, premature wrinkling, and gastrointestinal distress. 

On one hand, the friend reads your book and doesn’t like it but is afraid to tell you because he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. He lies, says your book is great, but feels uncomfortable whenever you call upon him in conversation to promote it to others, review it, or speak about it at all. 

On the other hand, if he reads it and is honest with you about not liking it—due to plot, creativity, punctuation errors, lack of editing, or cover design—you may become defensive and angry, vowing to never ask that no-good former friend for anything, ever again. Even if you smile your way through it, you will never look at that person the same way.

Friends don’t ask friends for book reviews.

* * * * *

G = Get Free Evals from Editors You're Considering

People talk about not knowing how to find a good editor, but when pressed for more detail, they usually don’t have any facts to back up this claim. Mostly, I hear, “they’re so expensive!” without the writer having obtained any quotes, or “I don’t know if they’re good or not” without having looked at any of the editor’s work.

One of the best ways to determine if an editor is qualified is to ask for an evaluation of a small portion of your work. I have yet to talk to an editor who won’t do a free sample edit on 2000-3000 words of your manuscript. Not only does this help the writer to decide whether a particular editor knows his stuff, but it also enables the editor to provide a price quote, based on the level of edits needed.

I always recommend getting sample edits from at least three to five editors. Ask others who they’ve used and how satisfied they were with the level of service provided, narrow it down to five people, and ask. Each one should do roughly the same job, depending on what you’re looking for. If you only want a proofreader, one editor can do that, but another may make additional suggestions as to sentence structure if your manuscript needs help. Prices vary, but a variety of evals will help you determine what fits best in your budget and revision needs.

* * * * *

H = Helping Others Won't Hurt Your Own Sales

Some of my favorite people online are the ones who don’t shout about how great they are; they shout about how great others are. They use their own blogs to promote friends who have published books. They have others guest host on their blogs without being afraid of losing their followers to the guest host. They understand how it works.

People are more receptive to those who aren’t always tooting their own horn. Nothing makes others turn the other way faster than a person who never makes an appearance except when he’s selling something . . . even if that “something” happens to be himself. No interaction, no give-and-take conversation, just, “Buy this/I did this/look at this,” and then whoosh! He’s gone.

There are millions upon millions of readers in this world. Their tastes vary. Just because I’ve read Robert Heinlein doesn’t mean there’s no room on my shelf for Isaac Asimov. I like Dickens, but that doesn’t mean Stephen King is losing my business. Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors, but that doesn’t mean I’ve sworn off all others until death do us part. Well . . . maybe that’s pushing it. She’s a tough one to top.

Bottom line: there are enough buyers for everyone. If you don’t help others, there’s no guarantee of extra sales in it for you. If you do help others, then at the very least you’ll have a pretty good feeling of satisfaction that will last far beyond the next book sale.

* * * * *

I = Ignorance Is NOT Bliss

“I’m better off not knowing.” 

This may actually apply in some circumstances; e.g., if there’s a meteor hurtling toward your town, and you’re in your basement, folding laundry. Why experience those final moments of terror? Ignorance is preferred in this case, because suddenly experiencing death by meteorite is probably better than knowing it’s coming and waiting for it with a large towel over your head.

That’s probably the only time I can think of that it would be better not to have all the available information. Certainly, when writing a book, ignorance can result in the exact opposite of bliss. If you don’t know your craft, you need to learn it before deciding to write the Great American Novel. If you don’t know enough to capitalize the word “I” or proper names, if you can’t tell a noun from a verb, if you don’t know that each speaker change gets a new paragraph, if you . . . *shudder* . . . don’t know “to” from “too,” then no. Ignorance is the worst kind of hell, for your readers if no one else.

And if someone who does know offers to enlighten you? Take it. Become a sponge and absorb all the helpful information you can. Don’t presume to tell the helpful person you’d rather do it your way, when it’s obvious your way is wrong. It’s hard enough for someone to offer advice when they know feelings may be hurt; accept it for the loving gesture it is.

* * * * *

J = "Just Get it Out There and Fix it Later" is Bad Advice

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I know it still needs work, but I’ve gone over it again and again, and I just can’t wait any longer. I can hire an editor to go over it after I have some profits from sales.”

Not only is that foolish, but it’s just bad business. You only get one chance to make a first impression. In regular life, you might meet someone who makes a bad first impression on you, but who gradually rises to a better status in your eyes as you get to know her better. Perhaps she was having a bad day when you first saw her, and wasn’t acting in her typical cheery fashion.

In the book world, you’re not likely to have someone give you a second chance if the first impression isn’t a favorable one. The reader gave you a chance already and didn’t care for what she read. She may have paid good money to not care for what she read. She’s not going to give you another dime if she can help it, because she does not know you personally, does not have to interact with you on a daily basis, and owes you nothing. She may even insist YOU owe HER something: a refund for a not-edited, poorly written book.

If you’re waiting for profits to pay for post-publishing edits, you’re doing it all backward.

* * * * * 

K = Know the Rules in Order to Break Them for Effect

Knowing the rules doesn’t mean they have to be followed stringently. Most dialogue doesn’t follow Ze Proper English, and shouldn’t have to, unless you’re writing a book called How to Speak Uncomfortably to Others. Come to think of it, I’ve read books that should have carried that title.

You can use slang if you want to get jiggy. (And okay, now I’m laughing pretty hard, because that is SO not what I would say and I suddenly feel 100 years old while typing it.) Prepositions are sometimes all right to end sentences with. And you can begin a sentence with a conjunction. You can apply the oft-misused Random Capitalization. If you wish, use clichés until the cows come home. Even . . . yep, incomplete sentences. You can do all these things, as long as you are using them for a particular reason, and you are aware that you’re breaking rules.

It’s the unsuspecting people who need to be careful. The phrase, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” attributed to George Santayana (and repeated in various forms by Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, and others), can be changed to the literary version: “Those who do not know the rules are bound to break them.”  

It all goes in order: learn them well, then break them sparingly. You don’t want to be breaking so many rules that your readers begin to wonder if you ever learned any to begin with. 

* * * * *

L = Leave Other People's Ideas in Other People's Books

If you like a book, don’t copy it. 

Ever since Twilight was published, the majority of YA romance books contain a clearing. Always a clearing. 

Need conflict? Have the MC orphaned and living with a cruel uncle and aunt, a la Harry Potter. 

The hero doesn’t have to have perfect abs, perfect grades, popularity, a nice car and skills in every sport. The heroine doesn’t need to be pretty but clumsy. Or pretty but doesn’t realize it. Every vampire doesn’t have to become suddenly beautiful. Every forbidden love story doesn’t have to involve a werewolf and vampire couple. I feel bad for my Native American friends, because people expect them to be wiser than the average person. What pressure. If you thought a plot twist was spectacular, don’t steal it and change the names to put it in your book as your own work.

Just as there are only twelve musical notes which can be made into an infinite combination of beautiful or horrendous sounds, there are an infinite number of plots that can spring from a basic formula of HERE WE ARE + SOMETHING HAPPENS + THINGS ARE TENSE = THINGS RESOLVE. They don’t all have to involve superpowers, too-perfect characters, love triangles, or—*shudder*—a clearing.

* * * * * 

M = Make the Most of Free Advice on Writers' Forums

If you ask for advice, and someone offers it to you, take it. Take it, write it down, and follow it, especially if more than one person is giving you the same advice. 

Don’t ask for advice and then ignore it. 

Don’t ask for advice and then give a list of reasons why you can’t/won’t/don’t need to follow it. 

Don’t ask for advice and tell the more experienced person he’s wrong.

I feel like Forrest Gump now, because that’s all I have to say about that.

* * * * *

N = Never Argue with a Reviewer

I should really clarify this to say, “Never engage a reviewer.” Or perhaps, “Never tell a reviewer how to review.” Or how about, “Never threaten a reviewer”?

An author can do herself everlasting damage when she reads a review and decides to tell the reviewer he’s wrong. Or a troll. Or a bully. Or an idiot. Or not qualified to review because he didn’t finish the book.

There are two reasons a person will review a book: first, to talk about why he liked it, what he liked about it, and why others might like it; or second, to tell why he did not like it, what was wrong with it, and why others should avoid it.

Neither of these two reasons benefits the reviewer in any way. He doesn’t get his money back if he doesn’t like the book or if it’s poorly written, and he doesn’t get a bonus free book if he likes the book and recommends it to others. In fact, the reviewer has PAID for the privilege of reading the book, so he has the right to say whatever he darn well pleases about the book, good or bad. He has spent hours of his life reading the book and has earned the right to review it in any way he chooses, whether it be a lengthy discussion on plot and technicalities, or a pictogram made up entirely of smiley faces.

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O = Obstinacy Never Sold Any Books

This sort of goes with yesterday’s post, although this one refers more to the pre-publication stage. The most polished and successful authors have a host of people who read their work prior to publication, whether for content and plot, or for typos, punctuation and grammar issues. These authors have learned to deal with others who sometimes ruthlessly say, “This has to be cut,” or “This makes no sense,” or even “Kill off this character; she’s doing your book no favors.”

Self-publishers, in many cases, have never had to deal with that type of criticism, no matter how constructively it’s phrased. When they show their work to someone (anyone), the typical result is praise, simply for having written a book. This is not to be confused with an informed opinion. (See letter “F” post about friends being cheerleaders only.)

A critique partner, beta reader, or editor has nothing to gain by telling the truth about bad writing, other than a clean conscience. Nobody seeks to hurt anyone’s feelings. Feelings, in fact, have nothing to do with the rules of writing. Those who cling too tightly to what they’ve written and refuse to fix errors will either sell no books (after someone reads their poorly written sample), or will sell only one book per person, with no repeat customers (after someone, having skipped the sample, reads their poorly written book).

Be open to criticism, especially if many people mention the same things in their criticism. They just might have something you can use.

* * * * *

P = Precision

I have trouble with this. I blame my mother’s Italian heritage. We take ten words to explain something others could have done with three. We give the backstory for every answer, regardless of what the actual question involved. Faster than a speeding bullet, our hands fly through the air as we describe yet another event with a combination of story and mime. Tangents are our specialty, you might say.

Writers need to be precise whenever possible. If you can say it in three words, use three words. If you can simplify, do it. No one wants to read the thesaurus written in novel form. Your prose can be descriptive without being purple. I remember reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles years ago (one of the saddest, most depressing books I’ve ever read, by the way), and realizing, after a particularly verbose passage, that Tess had been raped. The prose was so ambiguous and wordy that I almost didn’t grasp the seriousness of the most important turning point in her life.

If your readers have to reread passages to figure out what you’ve just said, then maybe it’s time to say it in simpler fashion.

* * * * *

Q = Quit Making Excuses

If you want to write, write. 

We make time for the things we think are important. If you’re not making time for it, then it’s not important enough to make its way to the top of the list.

Think about it: when someone dies, people drop what they’re doing for the funeral. Nobody waits to die until it’s convenient, or good traveling weather for family. And yet, people manage to make it to funerals more often than not. This is because that event is of the utmost importance.

If you really want—need—to write, then make the time. Five minutes a day, if that’s all you have. Jot ideas down in a little notebook. Take your laptop to the bathroom. Call your home phone while you’re walking and leave yourself a message with a story idea. One of the authors I work with, Stephen Fender, travels 2.5 hours to work. Each way. He drives, rides a ferry, and then drives some more. While he’s on the ferry, he writes. Chaos is undoubtedly going on all around him, but he writes, because it’s a good chunk of time he can use. If five hours of each of your weekdays was spent commuting, you’d make the most of your hands-free time, too.

One author on Goodreads said he’d typed most of a manuscript on his iPhone while riding the city bus each day to and from work. Many moms—like my Coffee Chat buddy, S.K. Anthony—write in the wee hours of the night after children are asleep. Thirty minutes for lunch? Write for fifteen and eat for fifteen. It can work if you want it to work!

* * * * *

R = Revise, Revise, Revise

Consider everything you write as a first draft. Write with the intention of changing things later, for cohesiveness, details, consistency, and sensory input. Can you see it? Can you smell it? Can you hear it? Who’s talking? Can you tell by the dialogue? Is your dialogue appropriate to the time period or geological region?

Does your plot make sense? Does your first page capture the reader’s interest? Is your word count too big? Too small? Do you have clichés? Are you telling, or are you showing? Does everyone fit well into the big picture? Are there too many unnecessary characters?

Once that first draft is written, that’s when the real work gets underway. To take a good idea and turn it into a great manuscript is more than just a one-shot deal. The best of writers go over their work numerous times, and it shows. Their work may sound like it just flowed out of them, ready to go, but you can rest assured they worked hard to get it that way, and it wasn’t by typing “The End” and closing the file.

In the construction business, they say, “Measure once, cut twice.” I think in the publishing business, they should say, “Write once, sell once,” because if your first draft is what goes to print, you won’t have any repeat customers. You might fool them once, but . . . well, you know the rest.

* * * * *

S = Save Up Your Money and Don't Skip the Final Edits

If you’ve invested in a copy editor, great! Your manuscript will benefit. If your copy editor does (as I do) copy edits and final proof, don’t skip that final step. It’s worth the small amount of money for the peace of mind it will bring.

The temptation might gnaw at you to skip the final proof. After all, it might save you those extra dollars, and it’s probably not needed, right? Well . . . it might and it might not.

The final proof ensures that, as far as is humanly possible, nothing was missed that should have been corrected. Whether it’s as insignificant as an extra space between words or as important as a character’s name change, a misspelling of a word, or a missing apostrophe, that final run-through is essential. The manuscript should be in good shape, unless something completely catastrophic happened. I don't know what goes on once the first round of edits leaves my hands: maybe the author didn't know how to approve the changes, maybe he only looked at the big red marks and not the small ones, or maybe she forgot to save the file, and none of the changes were actually made. This takes care of the "did I turn off the oven before leaving the house?" moment in the publishing world.

I believe I have a good eye for detail, but I’m often surprised at the number of “how did I miss that?” moments I have during the final proof of a book. There aren’t a huge lot of them, but even one or two per chapter makes me glad for one last opportunity to get it right.

* * * * * 

T = Take a Step Back

Once you’ve written your first draft, get away from it for a short bit. Some say a week; some say a month or two. I don’t know that the length of time matters as much as the distance itself.

When you’ve invested the time and effort into writing a story that your own mind created, it’s hardly surprising that you’re not objective about it. The story is great! The characters are great! Your working title is . . . yep, great! Everything is shooting out rainbows, unicorns are prancing across the page, and you can hear Morgan Freeman reading for your audiobook.

If you give it a little rest, though, you’ll find it’s easier to spot the things that need work. Something that sounds great at three a.m. often looks a bit less special by the light of day. Your manuscript is no different.

In the same way, if you’re struggling to make things “fit” in your story, walk away and focus on something else. If you have another story idea with characters in your head, saying, “Write me next,” then write up an outline and some basic points you want to cover. It might be exactly what you need to get the creativity on track once again. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all. You’ll go back to the main project ready to go with a fresh attitude.

* * * * *

U = Understand Your Craft

If you don’t read, you’ll never write as well as you could. I could make the blanket statement that, “If you don’t read, you can’t know how to write,” and probably be accurate for about 98% of the writers out there.

Most writers have a love of reading. Reading is what inspired them to write, in most cases, stirring their imaginations and transporting them into worlds previously unexplored. Reading is a comfort. The characters are friends; the places are as familiar as home.

I understand there are authors who have precious little pleasure-reading time, but these are not the writers I’m talking about. The ones I’m talking about use the same tired plot devices and phrases because they don’t read enough to know how tired and overused those things are.

Creative storytelling is a gift—a talent that some people have in abundance and some people have in small portions. It can’t be learned in the same way other skills can be taught and learned. But the basics of writing really don’t change from one generation to the next. Not in a “macro” way, anyway. There are nuances of style that might sway with the trends, but the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation and structure can and should be learned.

My posts for this month have been all about understanding the writing process in one way or another, whether from the pre-publishing or post-production end of things. I firmly believe that a writer can not write effectively unless he understands his craft. If you don’t know the foundations of how to write, you need to learn them, and that’s that.

But only if you want to excel.

* * * * *

V = Visit Other People's Blogs Regularly

This is something I find beneficial on both sides. I get to read some great posts from a variety of people on a variety of subjects, and I learn things from them. I comment on those blogs and end up with others visiting my blog to see what I’m all about. This is a great tool for authors and is a lot more fun than self-promotional marketing, but there are so many more benefits that extend beyond the selling of books.

There are people all over the world who have the same interests as I do. There are even more people who are vastly different in their lifestyles, interests, and beliefs. I enjoy learning about all of them, to one degree or another.

One blogger makes me laugh. One helps me in my quest to grow my own food more efficiently. One makes me wistful for when my children were younger. Another calls me to a deeper commitment to my faith. Yet another helps me to think more logically. One simply produces wonderful art I wish I had the talent to create.

You never know what’s out there until you start looking. The A to Z challenge has been a wonderful vehicle for this, and I’m already looking forward to next year.

* * * * *

W = Writing as a Career Is a Commitment

Writing can be a therapeutic outlet. A person can pour his emotions into a journal and come away from the writing as refreshed as someone who’s soaked his troubles away in a hot tub. An angry letter can vent off the strongest feelings of rage, allowing the writer to spout off before ripping it to pieces and writing a calmer, more rational complaint. Penning a letter to a friend, a “thinking of you” note, or a “congratulations!” card helps to keep people connected. Writing a blog allows thoughts to be shared and an opinion to be voiced in a larger forum.

Writing as a hobby is much different than writing as a career. Hobby writing can be sporadic, disjointed, informal. It is done for the writer’s own pleasure or for the pleasure of family and close friends. My dad used to write poems, but he never wanted to make a career out of it. Meaning no disrespect, I can honestly say he would not have been able to. But he enjoyed it and it was a great stress relief for him when he had a lot on his mind.

Writing with the goal of being a published author carries a different weight. There is a responsibility toward a certain standard of quality, and when that standard isn’t met, readers become resentful at having spent their money on a bad product. Writing may be beneficial to you emotionally, but if you want to benefit financially, effort must be made to put out the best book you can. Time must be invested for writing and rewriting. Money must be spent for edits and cover art. Effort must be spent in marketing and promotion.

Commit to excellence and the effort it takes, or enjoy the writing for its own sake and don’t try to make money from it. You can’t do both.

* * * * *

X = X-rated Scenes Are Not Necessary

Really. Really really. Unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past 40 years, you’ve heard the phrase, “Sex sells.” That may be true, but many writers take it one step further and add the converse: “Lack of sex doesn’t sell.” This is simply not true.

No one would argue that Dr. Seuss books should have had explicit scenes to be a commercial success, because they’re kids’ books. However, just because a book’s target audience includes adults doesn’t mean it has to include what is politely called “adult content.” There are a great number of books out there with zero sex, and they sell just fine and are enjoyed by many.

The New Adult classification is suffering from the “sex sells” philosophy. According to the official word on the street (or the Internet), New Adult fiction is defined by having protagonists in the 18-25 age range. Nothing is added to this definition that requires sexual situations, and yet those who write NA fiction are becoming frustrated by the assumption that these books should always include sex, or a certain amount of foul language. Writers who don’t include sex in their NA books complain that all New Adult books are automatically categorized as a sub-genre of Romance, whether the books have romance or not. 

And let’s face it. For every twenty authors who write sex scenes into their books, only one of them might—might—write something that doesn’t sound stupid, awkward, unattainable, or just plain uncomfortable. Between the stilted dialogue and odd descriptions of body parts, there’s nothing that’s un-sexier.

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Y = Years of Writing Don't Mean Your Book is Done

I’ve heard premature publishers, when confronted with criticism of their books, say, “But I’ve been writing this book for years! I just couldn’t wait another minute to publish!”

Some people write fast; others write more slowly. Some writers get it right during the second draft; others go through their work piece by piece, dozens of times. Everyone goes at his own pace. If your book isn’t ready, it’s not ready. Period. And if someone tells you it shouldn’t have been published yet, then no excuses on your part will give them back the hours they spent reading it. 

Take your time to get it right, but if you’ve been working for years on the same thing and it’s still not fit for public viewing, then take a step back and evaluate why. Are you burnt out on the book? Do you want to move on to something else but don’t want to trash the sheer volume of hours you’ve put into this book? Set it aside for a little while and write something for fun. Heck, write another book that flows easier. Maybe you’ll come back to your original project refreshed, and maybe it will sit in the drawer for years before you want to revisit it. Maybe absence will help it to rearrange itself in your mind so your path is clearer when you go back to it.

When it’s done, it’s done. And if it’s not, don’t publish yet. 

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Z = Zebra Print Makes for a Bad Book Cover

There are some things I just can’t get past when looking for a new book. A bad cover is one of them. Go to lousybookcovers.com if you don't think they're out there. 

An author's book remains unsold, month after month, and the author assumes the market is just “tough” or that she hasn’t had enough of the proper marketing.

Nope. It’s not the marketing strategy, and it’s not the market itself. It’s your cover.
  • It’s hard to read any font, no matter how large, if your cover image is so busy that the font is just one more set of squiggly things.
  • Your three year old’s crayon drawing is for the fridge, not your cover.
  • Five different fonts is too many. And don’t match them exactly to your cover image, especially if it’s bright yellow flowers.
  • Lots of words on the cover make it worse, not better. Save some words for inside the book, eh?
  • Don’t use the words “A Novel” unless there is genuinely a reason someone might think your book is something other than a novel.
  • If your book’s title is Bearing Love’s Burden, don’t have a cover with a romantically entwined couple, a shadowy figure in the background who is literally carrying a burden, and a full moon with a bear’s head in it, looking down at them.
  • Cowboys don’t wear tank tops or walk around with their shirts unbuttoned. None of the outdoorsy types I know want to get any more itchy dirt and crap on them than they have to, and would never think to unbutton their shirts while out in the field.
  • Eyes that look down from the sky on a couple on a ranch/boat/picnic are just creepy. I don’t know where that trend started, but I wish it would stop. It’s freaking me out.

And zebra print? Just . . . no.


  1. Oh my gosh...I SO wish I had found this over a year ago before I published my first book! It's still great advice, it's just that now I find myself nodding and going "yup", "yup" and "done that". Good advice that anyone wanting to write a book should take!

    Oh...and I finally got professional covers designed. :)

    1. Tara, at least you can feel good about saying "yep, did that" instead of "oh, no!"

      Congratulations on the covers, too! They make a HUGE difference on whether someone will even give a book a second glance or not.


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