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).
Thought Catalog photo
What makes for a good professional editor? Granted, this is subjective, but here are a few thoughts:
As an author, you are always juggling. Not only are you writing the next book, but you are promoting your latest book, writing a monthly newsletter, keeping up with your blog (or other blogs), and updating your website. And that’s just for starters.
This is where a virtual assistant (sometimes called an author assistant) comes in handy. They can help you gain some breathing space and may even boost sales with their knowledge of promotions. These assistants—who don’t have to be in the same office, or even same city, as you—handle a multitude of tasks, including:
How to work with a VA
Most virtual assistants charge $25 to $50 an hour for their services. You don’t need to hire them full-time, although you can. You may need them just for a few hours a month, or to work on a specific project.
“Each virtual assistant will have a different skill set,” said Jenel Looney, who works full-time for three authors. “If you want someone to create marketing graphics for you, make sure that she knows how, and that you like her style. If you want someone to help you brainstorm contests that will get readers excited about your books, make sure you hire a VA that has creative ideas that are in line with your readers’ tastes. If you want someone to handle a large mailing for you (like the 30,000 bookmarks I recently mailed to Susan Mallery’s readers), make sure you hire a VA who has mad organizational skills.”
If you know that you will have to promote your book (because your traditional publisher only does so much, or you are self-publishing), then your VA can help you come up with creative promotions. For example, Looney, who works with mystery author Kate Carlisle, designed a custom deck of cards for one of Carlisle’s books. Each face card held a different murder weapon. It was used for a giveaway for members of Carlisle’s mailing list. In addition, Looney created a video revealing each day’s random winner. It was so popular that “she had a lot of readers asking if they could buy the cards,” Looney said.
“I offer a wide variety of services that come down to this: helping authors get more organized and feel less stressed,” said Mel Jolly, who has assisted multiple New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. “The clients who utilize my services best keep me in the loop for everything involving their business. When it comes to things that need to get done (website updates, blog interviews, social media posts, newsletters, launch plans, ad booking, etc.), I either do the thing or I make sure the thing gets done.”
Another assistant, Amanda West Kassis, who also works as an editor, focuses on publishing weekly newsletters and growing subscribers. “I am in the publishing industry, which gives me unique skills and knowledge,” she said. She will help an author post on social media, write newsletters, and do other marketing.
Is it worth hiring a VA?
You may have written a wonderful book, but it won’t go anywhere without marketing. And marketing may take away time spent writing the next book, which is crucial in a series.
Most virtual assistants said this is the beauty of having help—the author can concentrate on the writing.
Having a virtual assistant, said Looney, “isn’t going to magically make you a bestseller. In my opinion, authors should not hire a VA until they’ve reached a stage in their career when it makes financial sense, and that’s a decision each author must make for herself. When you’ve reached the level of success that leaves you too busy to have a life, consider hiring a VA.”
Sarah Merchant, who specializes in social media and website/blog management, said that what may take someone else hours to do might take her minutes. “Is it worth it to you to struggle through those hours simply because you think it will save you money? Isn’t your time worth more than that?” she said. “I have a lot of respect for authors, and love putting my skills to work for them, so they can concentrate on their writing.”
She can’t say how much her work has helped with sales, but pointed to a recent Facebook promotion she did for an author. Her work resulted in an immediate increase in clicks.
Looney also said it’s hard to pinpoint whether her work has boosted book sales. “The frustrating thing about marketing is that you will rarely be able to draw a straight line from a specific promotion to specific sales,” she said. “I will say that I don’t take any credit for my clients’ success. That always, always, always comes back to the book. They write books that readers love. My work is not responsible for their success; rather, I help them manage that success.”
An author first needs to consider the budget and her priorities, said Jolly. Most of her authors only need her for five or so hours per month.
“We all wish we could outsource SO MANY THINGS, but the reality is that we have to start small and outsource just one or two things at first,” Jolly said. “That’s best for a small budget and for building trust.
“Quickly, let’s talk quickly about math. Let’s say an author can afford to hire an assistant for 10 hours/month. That’s 120 hours per year. How many more words can that author produce with an additional 120 hours per year? Let’s estimate low and say that’s one additional novella per year.
“If the author is paying the assistant a rate of $40/hour, that’s $4,800 for the year. How much can the author make by self-publishing that novella? Or selling it traditionally? At this point, there are too many variables for me to continue with the math, but do you see where I’m going with this?”
One author, Susan Mallery, has worked with Looney for nine years and considers her indispensable. As an example, she mentions her latest book, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters. Looney created the content for TulipSisters.com, sent 200 copies of the book to a “Review Crew,” created a sign-up form for mailing list members to receive bookmarks, then sent out the bookmarks to 30,000 fans (Looney also designed the bookmarks). In addition, she created quote-of-the-day shareables with quotes from the book, created videos and graphics to use in Facebook ads, and executed the Facebook campaigns. During all this, she coordinated with Harlequin’s PR and digital marketing departments on the book promotion.
“Because of my virtual assistant, I can write one extra book per year,” Mallery said. “I write four or five new books every year. I couldn’t keep up that pace without help.”
All of the virtual assistants agreed that you should have a conversation with potential hires about what you need, as VAs have different specialties.
“If you don't get a love match the first time around, don’t give up,” said Looney. “You might have to kiss a few frogs.”
Special thanks to the following virtual assistants for their help: Naomi Cowan Eaton (email@example.com); Mel Jolly (www.authorrx.com); Sarah Merchant (www.workadayservices.com); Jenel Looney (www.jenellooney.com); and Amanda West Kassis (www.awestediting.com).
If you’re writing as a career, then Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, is a must-read. In 33 essays and interviews by Martin, writers talk about the subject that is often not discussed in polite society: money.
There’s a trend going around on Facebook where everyone lists 10 concerts they’ve attended (or nine concerts and one lie). I won’t jump on that bandwagon; instead, I decided to list 10 books—and I have read all—that I recommend for fiction writers.
1. On Writing by Stephen King. Part memoir and part writing lessons, this is a must-read for any writer.
2. How Fiction Works by James Wood. This is a little more high-brow than King. In just the first few pages, Wood references Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Henry James. Very good lessons regarding characterization and narration.
3. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. While read mostly by genre authors, this book has solid lessons for everyone wanting to take their novel to the next level.
4. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is not editing as in checking your grammar and spelling, but editing that helps you fix dialogue and narrative distance, with writing exercises at the end of each chapter. It’s an invaluable book.
5. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. This has important lessons on doing self-edits at the macro and micro level, but also is a favorite of mine for its long section showing how F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, edited Fitzgerald’s works.
6. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham. Books often stall when they have scenes that don’t move the story forward. Bickham breaks down scenes, what needs to go into each one, what sort of variations are possible, and how to effectively connect one scene with another.
7. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Written by a literary agent, this book shows you why you must grab an agent by the first five pages—and what the most common mistakes are in manuscripts. If you hope to publish traditionally, read this book!
8. The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande. Writers are often confused about grammar points, especially when it comes to punctuation. Part of the problem may be that style guides and even dictionaries provide conflicting information. Casagrande breaks it down for us, with a Punctuation Panel that gives advice when there’s no definitive answer.
9. The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. What’s that? You still want to geek out even more on grammar? This is the book for you, then, with clear explanations and definitive rulings.
10. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin. Everyone knows that writers don’t get into the business to make money. Here, through essays and interviews, well-known writers talk about their journey, some even discussing the financial side in detail. It was eye-opening.
I’m always looking for new books on the craft of writing and editing. What are yours?
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.