The below is from client A. R. Kennedy, whose new series features a traveling sleuth. The first book in the series comes out March 24th.
I’ve been thinking of branding quite a lot recently. It’s something that is important whether you are a writer or editor. Visual branding is how you get across what you do: whether you write cozy mysteries or science fiction thrillers. Or whether you edit genre fiction or academic papers.
Visual branding should be a look that you carry across everything: book covers, websites, logos, business cards, bookmarks, social media banners and images, and advertising. I’m lucky to have a graphic designer friend who I trusted with creating a look for Comma Sense Editing when I first started. She carried that through business cards, advertising, and banners for my social media and newsletter. Still, there were places where I was not carrying through with my brand (Twitter, Instagram), so recently I’ve been trying to be consistent with the look of my posts.
For authors, your visual branding is possibly even more critical, as we all know that covers are one of the most important marketing tools available. I discussed this with two clients who recently rebranded covers as part of their marketing efforts.
Susan Van Kirk had cover designer Karen Phillips redo all the covers to her mysteries after she got the rights back from her publisher, who had gone out of business. “She suggested we make them with a similar look or brand,” Susan says. “She put an object in the lower right corner of each, made the font the same, and added a banner across the middle with ‘An Endurance Mystery.’ Branding serves the purpose of helping readers find your next book in a series. It provides instant recognition. Because of the brand elements, they recognize the new book and remember the enjoyment they had from the previous ones. Over time, they connect those branding elements with your mysteries.”
A. Robert Allen, who writes historical fiction, also recently redid all his covers. “My decision to rebrand my books in a cohesive manner was based on the new opportunities that come about after publishing a number of books. With four books in a series along with two prequels, I now have a body of work that I can market in different combinations as box sets. The lack of a consistent look, however, would hinder these marketing efforts. My books are all standalone novels, but they are parts of a whole, and the rebranding enables me to make that point visually.”
A graphic designer can help you with branding, but you may still be creating posts and ads on your own. Keep in mind that a visual brand should be consistent when it comes to fonts, colors, logos, and images. Also keep in mind what you want your branding to say about you, then go about creating your look!
Client AR Kennedy, the author of a mystery series and the recently released Saving Ferris, discusses how a musical can teach us about "show, not tell."
I’m late to the party but The Greatest Showman has recently become my favorite movie.
I’m a huge Hugh Jackman fan. (I’m such a huge fan I stood in zero degree weather at night in NYC a few years ago to get his autograph after watching him on Broadway’s The River. He was brilliant. And, yes, I want him to play Wyatt Sewell if Saving Ferris ever becomes a movie.)
But I’m not a big fan of musicals so I didn’t see the movie until well after it’s theatrical release.
(If you haven’t seen it, stop here and go watch the movie. Then buy the soundtrack and listen to it. Repeatedly. It may be the best movie soundtrack I’ve ever heard. While out of the country recently, I listened to it multiple times every day. My travel companions were impressed by my ability not to sing along. It was a struggle.)
My favorite song from the soundtrack is “Never Enough,” sung by Loren Allred. It’s a beautiful song but my favorite scene of the film is another one. It’s a class on “Show Don’t Tell.” The only words in the scene are the song. Yet each character (P.T. Barnum played by Hugh Jackman, Charity played by Michelle Williams, Phillip played by Zac Efron, and Anne played by Zendaya) shows us so much without saying a word.
P.T.’s nervousness displayed by his fussing with his tux, looking up to heaven, and taking a deep breath.
The smiles his wife and daughter exchange as they wait excitedly for the concert to begin.
The way Charity fiddles with her hands as Jenny begins signing.
The surprised smile P.T. gives as Jenny Lind gives him a coy look.
The tentativeness with which Phillip and Anne hold hands.
P.T.’s shock realizing how talented Jenny is and looking to the audience to see if they are hearing what he is hearing.
Anne’s disappointment as Phillip pulls his hand away.
Phillip’s sadness at the end of the song.
Charity’s worry as she watches her husband watching his new talent.
Small movements, glances, and breathing patterns told us what each character was feeling without any of them saying a word.
To refresh your memory, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUkRoIMyqFo.
Rewatching the clip makes me want to sing, dye my hair red again, and write a great scene!
I hope you’re celebrating National Grammar Day, because if you’re not—well, let’s just say that grammar can get a little moody.
Yes, grammar does have “moods”—it’s the term used to refer to one of five verb categories. They are:
The indicative mood, which expresses a statement of fact:
She is a prize-winning author.
The imperative mood, which is used to issue a command or instruction:
Have a great Grammar Day!
The interrogative mood, which is used to ask questions and is formed by adding an auxiliary verb:
Did you have a good Grammar Day?
The conditional mood, which uses the auxiliary verb would (and should with “I” and “we”):
We would throw a grammar party every day if we had the time.
I should study my grammar book a bit more.
Finally, there’s the subjunctive mood, which expresses wishful or hypothetical thinking. It is also used to indicate that something is being suggested or demanded.
I wish I were a better author.
It was suggested that he study grammar.
The word “if” in the beginning of a sentence is also an indicator to use the subjunctive mood, as it expresses something that is wishful or contrary to fact:
If I were in charge, I would declare every day Grammar Day.
While few people have problems with the first four moods, this last one trips up many. I see this all the time: People incorrectly use “was” instead of “were.”
One way to remember this is to keep in mind a well-known song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man.” Teyve is not a rich man, so the song is all wishful thinking, with lyrics such as: “If I were a rich man, all day long I’d biddy biddy bum. If I were a wealthy man, I wouldn’t have to work hard.”
Now go forth and celebrate on this fourth.
Mark Kelly's novel, Mauna Kea Rising, a science fiction story set on the Hawaiian islands, debuted this month. Here, Mark tells us how it all began, with a short story:
Years ago, I started my writing practice like many other authors by crafting short stories. One of our most prolific short story writers, Anton Chekov, published 568 stories during his brief lifetime. I’ll never reach his level, but I try to write every day, one story at a time. I enjoy the short form because it forces me to ask what is really important to the story. Trying to squeeze setting, characters arcs, and a compelling plot within 3,000 to 5,000 words is an excellent exercise in minimalism. Writing great scenes is a craft that improves with practice, especially with short stories—all scenes need to pull double duty. Every scene in a short story needs to propel the plot forward. Every scene also needs to either reveal character or deepen the conflict.
After writing "The Wayfinders," a short story about a Polynesian navigator sailing across the Pacific in 1054 CE, I came back to it over and over again. It eventually became the prologue of my first draft of Mauna Kea Rising, my debut novel published this month. I had thought it might offer a great context for the science fiction book. One of my favorite authors, Arthur C. Clarke, did this to great success. He took his 1948 short story, The Sentinel, and developed it into the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. He then adapted and expanded the 1968 film into an award-winning novel.
Sometimes novels need a prologue, even at the risk of damaging a little of their subtext. These may be scenes that offer complicated backstories that must be explained upfront in order for readers to understand what’s going on later in the book. They may also add to world-building in science fiction and fantasy novels. In Clarke’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, the prologue takes place thousands of years before the main event. It works because it provides the subtext for the story’s premise: human encounter with alien technology in the 21st century. The introduction also provides an important setup crucial to the main character’s arc.
Yet, "The Wayfinders" didn’t fit well into my novel for many reasons. The 15,000-word prologue was bloated and forced readers to begin the story twice. The prologue started with two characters a millennium before the main plotline for Mauna Kea Rising and had little to do with the novel’s premise, a single mother’s struggle to survive the aftermath of an epic solar storm. It grabbed readers with a “fake” hook, wasting their time with extraneous material instead of allowing them to get into the real story right away. Despite my love for the story, I had to cut it. “Kill your darlings,” right?
Well, not so fast. Although I dropped the prologue, I included a few of its ideas in Mauna Kea Rising as part of a frame-story technique—a story within the story. It became a plot device that prophesied the dangers faced by the main character. I also went back and edited the story, adding more conflict, shortening it to 5,000 words, tightening the character arc, and adding a twist at the end. This month, Torrid Literature Journal accepted "The Wayfinders" for their Spring edition. So, never throw anything away. You just don’t know when your old material might become useful.
Client Jodi Rath is releasing her first mystery, Pineapple Upside Down Murder, later this month. Below she discusses how she has planned out the entire series already!
Many indie writers who are new to the profession get so caught up in writing that first book that it becomes daunting to think about an entire series. I mean, we get to the point where we feel like it will be a miracle to finish the first book. I was that way for the first seven years I attempted to write Book One. Excuse me while I clear my throat . . . Yes, you heard correctly, ONLY seven years. Why seven years? Well, I could go on and on about everyday life, a full-time teaching job, and having no clue what I was doing, but the truth is I had zero direction. Does this mean you have to be a planner to write a book? Heck no, but if you have a destination and don’t know how to get there, you do need a map.
It’s the same with writing a series. I would contend that it is immensely important to go into writing a series with a direction. I feel like I could be scaring some of you at this point. You may be thinking, “Well, I can’t even figure out Book One, so how on earth am I going to plan an entire series?” Excellent question! BTW: I would have hated the person who wrote I needed to plan out an entire series seven years ago when I started, so permission to cyberslap me!
In all seriousness, though, don’t be afraid or discouraged. Can you think back to your high school English class when your teacher taught you about the elements of the story? You remember that triangle? (I was a high school English teacher, so no teacher jokes please.) I taught the triangle as a roller coaster ride, telling my students that when reading or writing a story to start with the foundation at the bottom, where they are boarding the ride and beginning to understand the story, with the exposition of who the characters are, where the story is happening, and what the initial problem is that they find. Once that ride starts rolling, they need to brace themselves, as they slowly chug up and up and up with the rising action, learning more about those characters and their faults, successes, and failures. Also, don’t forget that initial problem. That will help in understanding the plot as the rising action leads to the tippy-top of the ride, where we all find ourselves waiting in anticipation for the big climactic moment—we feel like we are hanging on by a thread and NO we aren’t sure we want to fall over that hill, but too late! We are now over the highest point of the ride and are going forward into the falling action, where we now know our characters and setting better. We are rooting for some and hating others and enjoying the little village they live in, wishing we lived there too, but there is still that dang problem from the beginning back at the exposition, when the ride started. That problem is like a bullet that penetrates the body and expands and explodes, with fragments of that problem flying everywhere, and we need our protagonist to figure this out. We need a satisfying resolution.
See what I mean? A story is a wonderfully exciting ride we choose to go on when we read or when we write. Now, you are probably asking, “What does this have to do with planning out an entire series?” Again, great question! You were obviously a top-notch student in school!
Remember I said seven years ago I started writing one book. Well, today that first book is complete and is called Pineapple Upside Down Murder, which is Book One in The Cast Iron Skillet Mystery Series. There will be fourteen books in the series. I know that because I had a “duh” moment. I spent close to twenty years teaching Freytag’s pyramid of plotting and realized that is my map for each book but also for an entire series. I realized part of what would help me move from writing Book One to Book Two and so on has a direction. Below is a list of the steps I used to develop my cozy mystery series of fourteen books:
From there, that duh—or AHA—moment sunk in with Freytag’s pyramid. Fourteen books, a nice even number, allowed me to start with Book One, in which the village setting and the main characters take the stage. Then Books Two through Six have an overarching theme that has rising action leading to a climactic moment that happens in Book Seven. Can you guess what Books Eight through Thirteen do? That’s it, again—gold star for the best student—falling action, leading to Book Fourteen, in which there is the resolution for the story. Once I had that overarching theme and the titles, I created a document in which I listed out the titles and wrote a quick sketch (two to three paragraphs) about possible plots for each book while building on that overarching theme. Keep in mind I use the word “possible.” I still have to write each book, and there is room for changes as I move from one book to another. At least, at this stage, I have a detailed map that helps to hurl me forward at the end of each book.
That was a general description of how I moved from writing Book One to planning for a fourteen-book series. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have more questions or go to my website at https://www.jodirath.com to sign up for my newsletter and follow me on social media.
When I’m editing, one of the issues that often arises is the size of both a manuscript and of individual chapters.
If you’re writing a novel for the first time, make sure you know the expectations of your genre. Dana Isaacson, an editor and ghostwriter, has some genre word counts here. Writer’s Digest also has the same here. You may have written a brilliant novel, but if the word count is double or triple the size of regular novels, and your name is not Stephen King, chances are you’ll have a difficult to impossible time finding an agent or publisher. Big novels are costly to publish; each page equals a certain amount of money. Yes, Stephen King writes huge doorstoppers, but he’s guaranteed to bring in sales—big sales. The same can’t be said for an unknown author—or even a previously published author whose sales have been decent, but not spectacular.
If you are a newer author, experts say a safe bet is in the 90,000-word range. Literary agent Paula Munier has a good post about that, including how many words should be written per act.
If you are self-publishing, you can bend these rules. Of course, publishing a print book that is 500 pages will be much costlier than publishing a 300-page book. To make money on a lengthy print book, you’ll have to raise the price. Ask yourself some hard questions: Will readers buy a print book that costs this much from an author they have never read? Will you be doing book signings and other events with print books (which necessitates you first paying for these books)? Or will you be mostly promoting the ebook, which is not affected by length?
Another place where size comes into play is chapters. I’m often asked about chapter lengths. If you are writing a thriller, or any other fast-paced story, you might want to keep your chapters very short—what editor Shawn Coyne calls “potato-chip scenes.” Most of us can’t eat just a couple of potato chips. You start and, before you know it, the whole bag is gone.
Coyne, the author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, says: “Two-thousand-word scenes/chapters are potato-chip length. That is, if you are about to go to bed and you’re reading a terrific novel and the scenes/chapters come in around two-thousand-word bites, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter. But if the narrative is really moving after you finish one of these bites, you won’t be able to help yourself reading another. If the story is extremely well told, you’ll just keep eating the potato-chip scenes all through the night.”
Don’t worry too much about these lengths during the writing process. But, once you are revising, go back and reconsider long scenes and chapters, as well as the overall length of the manuscript, especially if it is too short or too long. Make sure you have the appropriate number of words in each act. Keeping to the right lengths often fixes issues of pacing and will keep readers hooked.
Do you create a character bible or character style sheet when writing your story? As an editor, I find these invaluable and create one myself if I don’t get it from the client. More than a few times, creating one has shown me duplicated names or inconsistencies in the story. You may want to create one as a writing tool, especially if you are writing a series.
Here’s a few things you can include on a character style sheet:
Names, obviously. Sometimes, authors use the same name for two characters without realizing it (maybe one is a minor character, who only appears once or twice). Similar-sounding names also can be tricky. I’ve found reviewers who have chastised writers for using sound-alikes: Bibi, Bobby, Bonnie, and Beca in one book, and Braddock, Brewer, Breyer, and Butler in another book. For the reader, who has to memorize all these new names as they enter your fictional world, this can be confusing.
Their bio. Here, you may want to note the characters’ backgrounds and ages. Maybe the description doesn’t even get into the finished manuscript, but it will inform how you portray this character. Include where they were born, siblings, pets, jobs, and how they are related to the other characters.
Physical characteristics. You don’t want a character who has blue eyes on page 3 to suddenly have brown eyes on page 123. Noting the physical description helps. Some of my clients have added photos of actors to illustrate what their character looks like—almost like you would do if pitching a film.
What they wear. The sketch included here is from books by client Jillian Wiseman-Bald, who has written a wonderful historical fiction trilogy. She had an artist, Jeff Meyer, complete the sketches and she uses them in a character list included in the books. The character list she provided was incredibly helpful when it came to this series, but I also loved looking at the sketches, which depict how the different classes dressed. A piece of clothing can also be an important thread throughout a series—Sue Grafton’s protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, is not one to dress up and owns only one all-purpose, wrinkle-proof black dress, which was used to great effect throughout the series.
One of my copyediting students noticed that in a published book a character was suddenly wearing different clothes in the same scene, without any mention of a clothing change. So you may want to make note of this as well.
What they eat. Is your character a gourmet home cook, like Robert Parker’s Spenser? Or do they only have time to drive through the fast-food lane? Do your characters often meet over chicken fried steak at a neighborhood restaurant?
Character goals, wants, and fears. This is important for the main characters, as their narrative arc usually drives most stories.
This may seem like a lot of work, but you’ll be happy you did this, especially if you’re writing a series. You don’t want to mess up and say your protagonist has a dog named Fido when she really has a cat named Fluffy.
And, if you’re writing a longer book, these can be condensed into character lists for your readers. They’ll thank you, too!
Should you or shouldn’t you have a prologue? This is a question I’m asked often.
Although some in the industry advise writers to avoid prologues, I like them—when they are done right. A prologue should be intriguing, something to hook the reader. It should not be written only because the first chapter is dull. Oftentimes, I hear authors say they want a prologue in order to start the story with something exciting, and I think that’s the wrong approach. The first chapter should grab readers as much as any prologue would.
The right approach is to use the prologue as something that is essential to the story, or something that will become important later on.
My favorite prologue is from The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It starts off:
The small boys came early to the hanging.
It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.
As the first line indicates, this prologue is about the hanging of a man in a public square. The sense of dread increases in the second paragraph through Follett’s word choices—the darkness, the blemish on the snow, the silent marketplace, and the waiting gallows.
There’s a small mystery later—why did a foreigner steal a chalice that he would not be able to sell? The prologue ends with a young woman cursing the three men responsible for the man’s death—a knight, a monk, and a priest Follett also brings it back to the small boys:
The people shrank from her in fear: everyone knew that the curses of those who had suffered injustice were particularly effective, and they had all suspected that something was not quite right about this hanging. The small boys were terrified.
Not only does the prologue open with great narrative tension, but the reader immediately knows the curse will be important to the story. In fact, this opening is crucial to Follett’s epic historical novel. And the prologue is only two pages long. Another tip for prologues: keep them short!
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina
At some point in our lives, we all face rejection—whether in love, a job we really wanted but didn’t get, or that time we ran for student government president and lost. We tend to pull back for a while and lick our wounds.
But for writers, rejection may be constant, especially if they are sending out query letters. The odds are against you from the beginning—some agents only take on two to five new clients a year, yet receive tens of thousands of queries a year.
No one is immune from this. There are many stories of well-known authors querying hundreds of agents and publishers. Sara Gruen, author of the best-selling Water for Elephants, sent out 129 query letters for an earlier novel, Riding Lessons. This novel was no slouch either—it went on to sell several hundred thousand copies. Kathryn Stockett received 60 rejections for The Help, which went on to become a best seller and a movie. Mary Higgins Clarks, a bestselling author of more than 50 novels, was rejected 40 times, with one publisher saying, “Your story is light, slight, and trite.”
Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times (I bet those agents and publishers are kicking themselves now). Even J.K. Rowling has famously published rejection letters she got as Robert Galbraith, her alter ego. One of the letters even recommended she take writing classes! I could go on and on; there are dozens of other examples.
If you are going through the querying process, don’t feel alone. Here are five pieces of advice for those battling rejection after rejection:
1. Don’t give up too soon. Nora Roberts, who has now published more than 130 novels, submitted manuscripts for over a year. New York Times bestselling author James Lee Burke, who has 37 books published, was rejected 111 times over nine years when he queried with The Lost Get-Back Boogie. When it was finally published by Louisiana State University Press in 1986, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
2. Follow the rules. If the word count for your genre is from 60,000 to 80,000, don’t send in a 180,000-word manuscript. Agents will automatically assume you can’t write tight or don’t want to cut your darlings. And a debut novelist is not likely to have such a behemoth of a novel published. It’s costly for publishers to put out big books—they don’t have an unlimited budget, so the big bucks are going to the Stephen Kings of the world (and even King advises to cut your darlings).
3. Carefully craft your query. There are plenty of examples of good queries out there (Writer’s Digest has many of them). Study them carefully. There’s a formula for queries for good reason—because agents want to know certain things. They want to know the genre, the word count, what the book is about (briefly), and who you are. They also want to hear your “voice.”
4. Learn from the rejections. If you aren’t getting requests for partial or full manuscripts, ask yourself some hard questions—or have beta readers or an editor look at your manuscript, if you haven’t already. If there’s a theme running throughout those rejection letters, then it’s time to revise the manuscript.
5. Finally, move on to the next agent. Mary Feliz, author of the Maggie McDonald Mysteries, said it best: “It’s important to celebrate every request you get for additional chapters or a full manuscript. Those are great accomplishments. But it’s a mistake to invest too much time, emotion, or angst in each one. Celebrate, follow up, move on. It’s like dating. It’s okay for you to contact them to follow up [if you get a request for more chapters and haven’t heard back after a few weeks], but if they don’t respond, they’re just not that into you.”
For more on queries, see my book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know (free if you sign up for my newsletter).
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.