Writing: Learning As You Go

Earlier this year, I paid $25 to enter the Kindle Book Review awards contest for the top, indie books published from May 2012 to May 2014. I was hoping I might make the 20 top semi-finalists, but no such luck. Okay, I was disappointed, but not disheartened. In writing, you win some, you lose some. But I was curious what kinds of books won, because those are books I can learn from.

The whole judging process started with what readers look at when deciding to buy or not buy your book: the cover, the blurb, and the opening, sample pages. If those hooked the first readers, then they passed the book on to people who’d read the entire book. I have no idea how many books made it past the first readings, but I know it’s no easy feat. When I wrote mystery short stories and sent manuscripts into Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines, slush pile readers would scoop up manuscripts by unknown writers to take home and look at. If a writer didn’t hook them in the first paragraph or two, that story got put on the “forget about it” pile. Only a tiny, tiny few stories passed the slush pile to be given to first readers. If the first readers like the stories, they’d pass them on to the editors. Once an editor bought one of your stories, your writing went straight to her desk when you submitted a new one. But you had to earn that right. Writers compete with thousands of other writers. But the truth is, once you make it out of the slush pile, then you’re competing with professional writers. And they know their stuff.

Study your competition when you start writing. And learn by studying the best. I’m glad I entered this contest, because I’m lazy, and I wouldn’t have followed through if I didn’t have something invested in it. When I got the list of the writers who DID make the 20 semi-finalists, I looked them up and did what the judges would have done. I looked at their covers. What made them stand out? I read their book blurbs. What made them better than mine? And I read the free, sample pages.

I write urban fantasy, so my take on what worked and what didn’t might not ring true for literary fiction or mysteries, etc. But every sample I read started with a sense of immediacy, plunging the protagonist in danger from page one. That’s where I made a mistake. I only put two new books online from May 2012 to May 2014, and both were second books in a series. I started the book I chose to submit, Blood Battles, emphasizing Enoch’s relationship with Voronika, because–to me–that’s the theme that would continue throughout the entire series. The antagonist and book’s big problem didn’t come until AFTER I caught the reader up with the fallen angel and his vampire. Maybe not the best strategy. And since I’ve read the beginnings of quite a few of these books (I intend to work my way through all of them), I’ll rethink the opening pages of my novels.

My advice to you? I’m including the link for the writers who’ve won a slot in the top 20 for each genre. I’d go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or smashwords and look the writers up. I’d study the book covers and blurbs for their novels. I’d read their free, sample pages. And I’d ask myself, How do these compare to mine? Learn from what they’ve done right. Grammar and spelling aren’t enough. Know your craft. Still be yourself, but know what’s out there now. And make your decisions based on that.


If you have any views, opinions, or questions on writing, let me know!

Writing: The Great and Wonderful What-Ifs

My grandson came to spend the night on Tuesday, and he asked me if I could help him write a story.  Nate’s 16, and when he’s serious about something, he delves into it.  I have no idea if he’ll follow through or not, but he was in the mood to get answers.  “What do I do first?” he asked.

“What kind of story do you want to write?” I asked.

And he gave me an in depth idea he’d been playing with–a guy who could call back any of his ancestors in time to pick their minds.  Pretty interesting.  He knew the setting.  He knew what each ancestor did in their previous lives, and he wanted lots of atmosphere.  All good, and it would make a great opening hook, but it wasn’t a story.

“Why not?” he asked.  Every detail was vivid in his mind.

“What does the hero want?” I asked.

“To talk to his ancestors.”

“Why?” I persisted.

He didn’t have a clue.

“Every story starts when some event knocks your protagonist off course, changes his life for the worse, and he has to DO something to fix it, to get his life back to normal.  Your protagonist needs a problem, a problem big enough that he can’t ignore it.  That’s called the inciting incident.”

Nate thought about that.  He decided that his hero should like a girl, but she didn’t like him.

“Not good enough,” I said.  “Like isn’t a strong enough passion.  The more the protagonist cares about the problem, the more it affects him, the stronger the emotional impact when he can’t have it and the harder he’ll try to achieve it.  The stakes have to be high, almost impossible.”

“Okay, maybe he loves the girl and something’s keeping them apart if his ancestors can’t give him a way of keeping her.”

“Great,” I said.  “What’s keeping them apart?”

Again, no idea.  So we played the game of “What if?”

Finally Nate said, “What if she catches some disease and one of the ancestors was an alchemist and might know how to cure her?”

Aaah, now that could work.  But there had to be more, or this would be a very short story.  “How could this go wrong?” I asked him.  “You never want to make it easy for the protagonist to achieve his goal.  What if he tried calling the ancestor, but something messed  up?”

“I know!  What if he called the wrong one?  What if one of his ancestors was a bad guy, and when Andre (we were making progress-he had a name for the guy) brings him back, he doesn’t want to return to the grave?”

Now, we were talking.  The protagonist has more problems than he knows what to do with.  Nate had the beginnings for a story.  He had enough ideas percolating for the opening hook, the inciting incident, the internal motivation, and the first story twist.  A good beginning.  Enough to get him through the first fourth of his pages.  Where he goes from that, I don’t know.  We’ll have to play another game of “What ifs.”  But along with that, “What can go wrong?” is another useful tool when you’re stuck for ideas.

I hope your protagonist finds an almost insurmountable problem that drives him all the way to the end of your story or novel.  But if he doesn’t, ask yourself, “What if?” and “What can go wrong?” and have fun.