Sunday, August 29, 2010

Websites, Blogs, and Newsletters with VS Grenier

Marketing and promoting is a subject that confuses many writers. Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, for adult or children readers, are self-published or traditionally published, all writers need to promote themselves. And one of the best ways to do that is through the internet.

I put these three together because in reality everyone has their own idea on how to market themselves on the internet. I personally use all three ways to market my work and myself. I know others who use only one form to promote themselves. Whichever you choose, make sure you keep it updated with the most current information about you.

Another thing to think about is what you are going to post on your websites, blogs, or in your newsletters. Jan Fields, an instructor at the Institute of Children’s Literature, Editor of Children’s Writers enews said in the February 14, 2008 issue, “We live in the information age and little things can become big things really fast. For example, although it is true that editors and agents are not cruising the net looking for your super writing on your website or blog, it's also true that editors and agents spend a lot of time on the Internet. In addition, they have friends who spend a lot of time on the Internet. And they have clients who spend a lot of time on the Internet. So, if I post something on my blog or on a writer's discussion board saying ‘Nathan Bransford rejected me so he's a doodiehead.’ He may never see it - but there's a decent chance an internet search for his name could turn up the unfortunate doodiehead remark. And maybe he'll laugh and shake his head, and maybe he'll think, ‘Why the heck is this woman calling me a doodiehead?’ And maybe he'll even take the extra moment to think, ‘I don't like her - what's her name anyway?’ And maybe some other agent friends of his will take up his offense and well . . . my professional life would be about to take a hit.”

With that said, let us talk about blogs. I have a few different blogs, but I’m not really good about updating them weekly. I applaud those who do. Lucky for me, most of my blogs have RSS feeds and I just feed off one or two to all the others updating bi-monthly. Most of us already know about My Space, Blogger, Facebook, and Squidoo. Whichever blog site you choose, make sure to have a topic for your blog. If it’s about you as a writer, then stick to that theme as much as possible. If you choose to have a blog about your new book or how to write in your genre, great!

Blogs drive lots of traffic, if you are blogging about something people will want to share with others, add to their blog roll, and so on. My blogs are either about writing for children, Stories for Children Magazine, or myself as a writer and my thoughts on writing. I share information on each blog that crosses easily over, but mostly only blog about stuff that relates to those themes. For example, I am not going to post a media release on my The Writing Mama blog about the new staff members at SFC. Nor would I blog about reading tips on one of the blogs I’m doing a guest post on, but I would on my personal writing blog and on my SFC blog because they are both geared towards parents.

Let’s talk Websites for a minute. I know many writers think they have to be computer savvy or know HTML (computer lingo) to build a website. Some think you have to invest lots of money into a website. Well I’m here to tell you those people are wrong. First off, I have three websites. One is my personal website (, the second is Stories for Children Publishing, LLC ( and the third is my Ezine, Stories for Children Magazine ( All of these sites I built myself and I had absolutely no website training or coaching help. I learned as I went. I used many websites that I enjoy visiting as my outline. But first, let’s talk about why it’s important to have a web presence.

As an author, it is important to have a web presence because most of the world is on the internet daily. We all use computers at work, home, and even in schools. With a website your readers, editors, publisher, and anyone else who wants to learn more about you can.

On my personal website, I have a Bio page where I not only tell about me in third person, I also have a first person letter to those who come to visit. I list my hobbies and other websites, too. The next page I have is “What’s New”. Here I list anything going on in my writing career be it an interview or coming soon published title. After this is my “Event Calendar”. Not everyone has this on their site, but I find it nice to have. This let’s my readers know where I’ll be or when I’ll be interviewed next. I even list workshops I’m presenting to school visits or at conferences.

Every website should have a “Media Room”. This page lists your media releases, your bio, awards, publications, appearances, copies or links to interviews, personal essay, available seminar list, your expert list, book reviews or reviews about you as a speaker, a picture of you, covers of your books, and sales sheet. You should have contact information so those who want a full media kit and request one. Note: You will want to make sure people who come to visit can download and print this information as well.

After those key parts of your site, anything goes. On my site, I list my critique services, information about Stories for Children Magazine, my free newsletter for writers (SFC Newsletter for Writers), information for school visits, and I even have resource pages for kids, teachers, and parents.

A few comments about pictures on blogs and websites: when adding pictures to your sites make sure they are professionally done or look like it. Add pictures from workshops, conferences, and other writing activities, too. It’s okay to have a few pictures of your family, pets, and even like me the inspirational view out my front windows, but just remember your fans want to know you’re out there writing, getting published, visiting schools if you’re a children’s writer, and doing workshops.

Lastly, the key to a website is repeat traffic. Many authors offer free articles about writing; some printable coloring pages. Myself, and others, offer a free newsletter or eBooks. Just make sure that you are able to update this information and change it out often. I typically update my site at least once a month if not more.

Here are few other author websites I think are really good:

Now to answer the question you’ve been thinking, “How can I have a website and not pay a lot of money.” I use for my sites. You can also use who I have used in the past and they are okay. I originally had Stories for Children Magazine’s site hosted with them, but you do have to pay a little every month if you want to keep pop ups off your site. Which I did at $4.95 a month. However, doesn’t have pop ups and you only pay yearly ($14.95) to have a site.

A few others that I don’t know much about but are free:,, and

I’m sure there are more, but my advice is, ask other writers you know who have a website. Ask them who they use and what they like and don’t like about the hosting site.

Again, you don’t need to be a computer nerd to build a site. Most hosting sites offer builders and templates and there are many online places to get free templates, html code, and much more. Just ask your writing friends or if there is a site you like, contact them and ask how they did whatever it is you like. You’d be surprised to find most of the time they got it from some other place on the web, and now you can go and customize it for your site from there, too.

So why is a website or blog important? Because it lets editors and publishers know you have a way to promote and market what you write and it lets readers get to know you. In sales it is said, “People buy people before they buy merchandise.”

I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking for a new book to read, I look at the author’s first than the titles. I usually buy a book from an author I know before I buy one from one I don’t. In addition, if I do buy a book from an author I don’t know . . . I look them up on the internet to find out more about them.

Just recently in one of my writing groups, the moderator, Tilly Rivers, had this to share with us. “A hard-driving author is always at the heart of success. Some authors spend months at a time on the road doing book readings or seminars, others are relentless at marketing themselves as interview candidates for radio stations, print and Internet media, even TV. Successful authors maintain databases and mailing lists of fans, local media, and book editors of national papers, and networking links to announce every new book release or public appearance.

The mistake most authors make is they forget to promote themselves as an author before they can promote their book. Remember that the least book buying habit for a reader is--who the publisher is- they do not care, and for the most part do not know a self-publisher from a trade publisher. The top book buying habit is going into the store, looking for an author. (Author- not title!)”

Now once you build a website and/or blog, make sure to have a link in your signature line when sending an email and also link with others who share the same passion, genre, or cover the same topics. People love to see others like your site as well and it helps move you up in the rankings of search engines the more links you have.

To learn more or if you would like to join Tilly Rivers yahoo group about marketing and promotion go here, trust me it’s well worth it.

Lastly, let’s just quickly talk about newsletters. I know most of you are thinking, “How can I write a newsletter?” Well I personally thought the same thing when I first attended the Muse Online Writer’s Conference three years ago and took Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s workshop “Savvy Marketing”.

In her workshop, I learned some tips I didn’t know about because they were things I didn’t need to do in fashion. Nevertheless, as a writer, they were very valuable tips to get my name out. One was starting a newsletter.

After the conference wrapped up, I thought about what Carolyn said during the week. I read over my notes from her workshop. And believe it or not, I still have them, three years later and still comb through them for new ideas to market myself. If you have never signed up for one of her workshops, I suggest you do it next year if she does one. In addition, I suggest you sign up for her newsletter, which is FREE. To subscribe to Sharing with Writers send an email with "Subscribe" in the subject line to: Trust me you won’t be disappointed.

One of the biggest things Carolyn talked about is to use your mailing list when it comes to marketing. Most of us get that, but what most of us don’t get is how to build a mailing list. Well newsletters are a great way to do it.

In retail, we lure our customers into giving us their personal mailing or email address by setting up a customer profile in our computers to make shopping quicker for our consumers. How many times have you been out shopping in a specialty store or sometimes a department store and they ask you for your phone number to look you up when they have a promotion going on? Or how about this one, “Have you shopped here before? You have. Can I get your last name?” They do this so the company can get your personal information for mailings (i.e. mailing list).

So think of your newsletter the same way. Yes, for a new writer the idea might be scary. Think of a different way to get more names in your contact file. How about running a contest on your blog where everyone has to give up at least their email address. At Stories for Children Magazine, we use a guest book. Another great way to get contacts added to your database.

However, I find my SFC Newsletter for Writers (which is free and you can find more about it at is the best way to add contacts to my mailing list. I use this list to not only send out my newsletter, but to let my fans know about upcoming events I’m doing, new works being published, and anything I feel is important to those in writing. Now with that said, I don’t just go around spamming people either. I make sure I send things when it is important and I do it as a media release or professional letter. Be savvy and professional about how you share your news with those on your mailing list. You don’t want to lose them. These readers are your fans. Treat them with respect and professionalism. In addition, you never know . . . they may just nominate you for the 101 Best Newsletters from Writer’s Digest as my subscribers did in 2009. It was such an honor to be listed with all the others last year.

So how do you get started writing a newsletter? My newsletter is for children’s writers mostly, but all those who love writing can gain insight from my newsletter. I was new to writing when I started it and I wrote most of the articles for the first few months. How I started my fan base was by contacting those I already knew to see if anyone was interested in receiving SFC Newsletter for Writers. I posted to my writing groups and blogs with how to subscribe and in the first month, I had 50 subscribers. Not a lot, but a good start. Slowly, others contacted me about subscribing and submitting. Now I only write one column each month and have five other writers who write for the newsletter as well. I now have a decent fan base of over 800. It has become a great way for me to build peer support, fans, and find talented authors or illustrators to submit to Stores for Children Magazine as well.

My name as an editor has spread because of my newsletter and magazine. People in the industry know me from either SFC Newsletter for Writers or Stories for Children Magazine, I have found when I do submit as a freelance children’s writer . . . I tend to make contact with the editors instead of the slush pile. I may not sell everything I submit, but I do sell and I make valuable contacts at publishing houses.

So think about starting a newsletter. Mine is monthly, you can do yours weekly, bi-monthly, or quarterly. Your newsletter can be about writing, reading tips for kids, how to better your relationships with your partner (if you’re a romance writer), etc. Whatever genre you are writing in, make sure your newsletter fits with it or can somehow be tied to it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reading about Writers: "Looking Back"

Last month, I started reading everything written by Lois Lowry and easily came to the conclusion that I want to be just like her when I grow up! Her work is amazing and always has a powerful moral woven in.

When I discovered she had written an autobiography, I immediately placed a hold on it through my library's amazing website. Her book "Looking Back" is not a traditional autobiography. It feels more like sitting beside her on a comfy couch and watching as she flips through her family scrapbooks, carefully (and delightfully) describing memories from her life.

I *loved* it! It was such a change from traditional autobiography and was a powerful glimpse into the life of this amazing writer. It was a quick and enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it to you.

From School Library Journal--

Imagine sitting on a sofa with a friend and listening with fascination while she tells you about the pictures in her photo album. That is the feeling one has when browsing through this book of Lowry's family snapshots and reading her lively commentary on them. Readers will chuckle as they hear the tale of the frozen rat she attempted to revive by heating it in the oven and will smile knowingly at the unhappy look on her face when she was forced to wear lederhosen her mother brought home from Europe. The author's voice comes through strongly as she shares both her happiest and saddest times. Though the organization is somewhat chronological, many photos are loosely grouped by topic-"War," "Adolescence," "Opening a Trunk" and so forth-which allows her to make connections between people and events. She introduces each photo, or group, with a quotation from one of her books, making a connection between an event in her life and its fictional counterpart. In The Giver (Houghton, 1993), Lowry writes about the importance of memory, and here, she shows her readers the important role it plays in her own life-how she has used her memories in her work, how they have helped her get through difficult times, and how they enrich and connect us. Much more intimate and personal than many traditional memoirs, this work makes readers feel that Lowry is an old friend.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Keep editors reading--they stop sooner than you think" by T. Lynn Adams

Over the years, I have had the privilege of working as a writer in a variety of publishing endeavors, including book publishing. Whenever possible, I ask those editors what is the most important thing they look for in a book submission. Across the board, they have told me the storyline is preeminent. Regardless of the genre or writing quality, editors most want to feel and live the story. It has to capture their attention.

So I always ask next, how soon do you want the story to capture your attention?

One editor friend responded, “In the first paragraph.”

Though we laughed together, her next comment stunned me. She said she absolutely expected to feel that hook being set by the end of the first page. She was too busy and had too many manuscripts on her desk to waste time with slow starts. And, if she had not been captured by the end of the first chapter, she usually rejected the manuscript. “Usually,” she emphasized, “not always.”

One editor I know at least tries to read the first 25 pages looking for an intriguing storyline, “although sometimes that can be a very long 25 pages.”

Another editor I worked with told me she understands how much work goes into writing a manuscript so she reads further than most. She commits to reading the first 50 pages of the submission. Then she does something unique. She jumps to the back of the manuscript and reads the last 50 pages.

“If you don’t have a strong start and a strong ending, it doesn’t matter what is in the middle,” she explained. Only then will she decide if she wants to read the rest.

Her reasoning made sense. A writer who is strong on both ends of the manuscript usually won’t let things fall apart in the middle. Furthermore, once that book is on the shelf a strong start will keep a reader reading. A strong finish will leave the reader satisfied and more likely to read work from that author again.

So, there you have it. Start fast, end strong, and keep the bridge strong in the middle.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Arc of Character Reactions

Writing Wednesday

According to conventional psychology, the process of grieving involves five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Looking at that list recently, I was struck by the thought that those stages represent the arc of character reactions. That is, that the stages represent a hierarchy of reaction strategies.

Consider a primitive encounter in which a stranger approaches.

Denial: the simplest reaction strategy is to ignore the newcomer. If they lose interest and leave, you've dealt with them at no cost to yourself.

Anger: if the stranger won't go away, a brief show of aggression might drive them off. If they run away, you've dealt with them at only a small cost.

Bargaining: if the stranger isn't spooked, you might try bribing them to leave. This is more costly, but it still resolves the situation quickly. (Are you starting to see the pattern?)

Depression: the stranger still won't go away and now you despair of finding a solution.

Acceptance: you finally find a solution.

Loss and its attendant grief takes a character through all five stages because there is no solution that will restore the lost object. But other kinds of interactions can end at an earlier stage.

For example, take the stereotypical presentation of a bad report card:
Child: Here, you have to sign this.

Parent: What is this?

Child: My report card?

Parent: There must be some mistake. [Denial]

Child: No, it's mine.

Parent: You knucklehead! How could ... [Anger]
If, at that point, the child mumbled about doing better, that would be the end. (Of course, the reality most of us experiences as both the parent and child almost certainly involved bargaining and probably a fair amount of depression.)

The key observation is that most character reactions follow this arc or sequence of responses, in this order, even if the encounter doesn't go through all five stages.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Book Academy

So, I owe a huge apology to the followers and writers of this blog. I've been slacking on my posts lately. Ok, actually, I've been so extremely busy that I've barely had time to tie my shoes. I'm not kidding.

And sadly, none of my busy-ness (did you ever think that business is just busy-ness misspelled?) is related to writing. Le sigh. Ok, that was really lame.

But you know what's not lame? The Book Academy. Let me run-down what it's like: Awesome! Does that help? No?

Well, I went last year to its inaugural session. The keynote speaker was Brandon Sanderson. I got to meet Jeff Savage and, my writing hero, James Dashner. It was the first writing conference I'd ever attended. But honestly, it was friggin' awesome! (Can I say friggin'? Well, I did.)

What was really nice is I got to meet a lot of people. Other than previously published authors, I only remember one person's name. But it was still cool.

I know that they're trying to expand, but obviously names wasn't one of the expansions as the keynote is another famous Utah Brandon: Fablehaven author Brandon Mull is going to be the keynote. I have heard rumor that Robison Wells, Marion Jensen, and Sarah Eden will also be speaking. And I am guessing there is more awesomeness to take in. Just an FYI, I named three of the most humorous authors I know. But there will be plenty of authors to learn from.

So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and register for it! Oh, you want a link? Here ya go: The Book Academy

Alien abductions are involuntary, but probings are scheduled.

Talented Writers...Myth or Fairy Tale?

Yes, I meant what I said in my title.

Unlike basketball, painting or public speaking, I believe writing is a skill (as opposed to a talent) that rarely or never just appears in a person. When we look at great writers like Shakespeare, Emerson, Dickens (either one)--their writing is an amagalmation of their life experiences, as opposed to a natural born talent (though, of course, they have been gifted in the way they express it). We see very few teenage authors--most of us take several decades to reach the point where we've gained perspective, rich life experience, and the tenacity to pursue such a difficult craft.

There are very few things in the logical world that haven't come easily to me (scrapbooking, painting or singing--very different story). So, when I sat down to draft a book 2 1/2 years ago, I thought I could fast-track the process and get published far before the average writer. I was one to two years ahead of every subject in school and the youngest person to be employed to almost every job and I've had. But, writing was a skill I hadn't practiced, learned or studied (Honors English 200 was as far as I'd gotten). Now, as I sit down to tear apart the first draft of my second novel (the first will never get published), I am humbled and wonder if I will ever have what it takes. This is the first career (I've had several) that I refuse to give up on. Wise or not, writing is in my blood.

It's obviously in yours too, if you're reading this post. You have something to share. Don't let the perception of a lack of talent prevent you from doing so.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Symbolism in Literature: 3

This is my final segment on symbolism, at least for now. I just want to touch on a last idea to consider as we craft our stories.

I’m quoting Thomas C. Foster, who postulates, “There’s no such thing as a wholly original work of literature.” Everything is a rearranging of old ideas into something new and exciting. With that in mind, we can use these old ideas to heighten our reader’s imaginations by drawing from works of the past.

Take John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. To be east of Eden is to be outside of Eden, in a fallen and imperfect world. As children’s writers we should recognize that every story about the loss of innocence is a reenactment (on a personal level) of the fall from grace.

According to Geneses, after the fall “cherubim and a flaming sword” were placed to insure there could be no return. And that’s the poignant part of all loss of innocence stories—it’s permanent, there’s no going back. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Whether a religious person or not, most readers are familiar with biblical symbolism. It’s a type of myth. There is a wealth of symbolism in Greek and Roman mythology, as well as legends of native cultures—such as the Celtic legend of the Fisher King or the Native American legend of the White Buffalo Woman, and other types of fairy-tales. (It didn’t take me long into Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood to recognize another Beauty and the Beast. Did that lessen my enjoyment of the book? Not at all. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her marriage of the famous fairy tale with ancient Celtic myth.)

And let’s not forget Shakespeare. I recently read an article where a guy set out to list all the book titles pilfered from Shakespeare. He gave up after five hundred! Including Aldous Huxley, Charles Dickens, and John Steinbeck.

These are all wells of symbolism we can draw from. Mr. Thomas states, when we use this type of symbolism, the story resonates with the richness of distant antecedents, with the power of accumulated myth. The story ceases to be locked in the middle of the twentieth century and becomes timeless.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Now Is The Time To Submit To Magazines

by Scott Rhoades

When it comes to submitting to magazines, I'm not an expert. However, I've done it once, and my article was accepted. I'm talking about print magazines, not the online kind, which is a completely different world.

I learned a couple things from my experience that I thought would be good to share, and now is the best time to do it. Number one lesson: if you have a proposal for a magazine article, send it in within the next couple weeks.

I'm sure all magazines have different procedures, so my experience with The Writer won't apply to all of the others, but I'm willing to bet that many monthlies plan in similar ways and at similar times.

Magazines that don't rely on current events for their content plan their issues well in advance. Around September or October, they plan the following year's issues. That means that August is a great time to submit your proposals.

I'm not saying you shouldn't send them the rest of the year. The best time is probably when you first come up with the article idea and it's hot in your mind and you're excited about it. What I'm suggesting is that, if you've been a kicking an idea around in your head, now is the best time to send it in.

Confession: I'd probably say the same thing in June or May or March or whenever. But there are practical reasons to do it now, when the editors at some publications are starting to think about the next year, and are planning their themes for each issue.

What makes a good proposal? Anything with an important anniversary. Lists, like "7 reasons why you should..." or "8 great..." or anything along those lines. Look at any magazine cover. Magazines love that stuff. My article in the May 2009 issue of The Writer was "Great Software That Won't Cost You A Dime" but I pitched it as "7 Free Software Programs for Writers."

If you've never pitched to a magazine before, start with one of your favorites. You know the content and the editorial style, and it's a favorite magazine because you're interested in the articles they print, issue after issue. It's hard to beat the thrill of seeing your article in a favorite publication. So start there.

And do it now.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Go Ahead, Talk To The Quarterback!

If I asked you what the #1 hurdle to cross in writing is, what would you say?

Most writers say FEAR (I’m raising my hand).

Most fear comes from situations that haven’t happened or won’t ever happen. Other fears come from mediocrity, deep-seated beliefs or not being potty-trained correctly (you never know).

But fear can be awesomely good!

If you are fearful of talking to an agent or editor or having your work critiqued-you have found your own personal diamond mine. This is the place to dig out your freedom from fear.

As I’ve gotten older more mature, I’ve found any fear I had was unfounded. How many of you wish you would have asked the one hot girl out or talked to the cute quarterback? Looking back you wondered what made you fearful. Was it the unknown? What other people thought of you? Your choice of hair style?

Pretend you’re a successful writer looking back at yourself now and wondering why you let fear hold you back from writing/querying/publishing.

Fear can make you stronger, especially as you try to conquer it.

Here are a few ideas to help take on and defeat writing fears:

Be flexible to change.

Find mentors (we have an amazing community here!).

Write your own creed.

Dream big.

Keep writing.

What do you fear most in writing? Have you been able to overcome it?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Clever Characters

Writing Wednesday

In Orson Scott Card's book Characters and Viewpoint, he says the following about clever characters:

"Notice that I don't use the word intelligence. That's because in our society with its egalitarian ideals, any obvious display of intelligence or erudition suggests elitism, snobbery, arrogance."
"Yet we love a character who is clever enough to think of solutions to knotty problems. Does this seem contradictory? It is contradictory."
This is something that hits close to home for me. It took me a while to learn that my attempts to be precise and thorough were often off-putting in exactly the way Card describes.

I prefer stories about smart people tested to their limits much more than stories about not-so-smart people whose problems are largely self-generated and could be avoided with a bit of sense.

For example, Jurassic Park would have been a far better cautionary tale without the sabotage subplot. But instead of showing that life can't be controlled by even the best and brightest among us, it implies that reconstituting dinosaurs could have worked if people hadn't been greedy.

So what can you do if you want characters that are both bright and likable?

Card's solution is:
"You have to walk a fine line, making [your character] very clever without ever letting [them] be clever enough to notice how clever [they] are."
What do you think?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Reading about Writers: "Down a Sunny Dirt Road"

By chance, I came across the autobiography of Stan and Jan Berenstein, arguably two of the greatest children's writers in America. Not only does their book share their live's experiences in becoming children's authors and illustrators, but it is peppered with many of their own drawings from their lives and from their books.

"Down a Sunny Dirt Road" chronicles their intensive training by none other than Dr. Seuss himself as they learn what it takes to write beginning books for children. I felt myself being tutored by the delightful, demanding, charming, and difficult Ted Geisel. I loved watching (and reading) the Berensteins develop into the authors we know them as now. Not only do I have a greater appreciation of them, I feel like I've been tutored by them.

So check out "Down a Sunny Dirt Road" and see what the Berensteins and their bears have to teach you about writing for children.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Dime Store Sentences: Was" by T. Lynn Adams

Many years ago, a friend commented that he attended a writing seminar where professionals drilled into him the importance of getting rid of the word ‘was’ in your writing.

So--he did what every dedicated writer does. He went home, called up his completed 110,000 word manuscript, typed ‘was’ into a search box and, somehow, managed to delete every single one. Laughing, he related his exhausting effort to find and refill all those tiny holes. “I never knew I used ‘was’ so often!”

He also discovered you actually need the word in some places, especially in dialogue. It’s how we speak. So search and destroy was not the right way to attack the problem.

Another friend heard his plight and nodded with understanding and conviction. She had four novels published and told him her editor specifically asked her to go through her manuscripts, a sentence at a time, and get rid of that nasty little word as often as possible.

Though they laughed together, their comments stunned and perplexed me. It was the first time I had heard such strong bias against a written word…and only a three-letter word at that. Editors hated the word ‘was’? Geesh, I never knew editors could be so prejudiced!

So I started studying why ‘was’ was a naughty word.

Since then I have classified ‘was’ as a Dime Store sentence. It doesn’t take much to use it.

Sure, I could tell you that ‘was’ is the past-tense of the verb ‘to be,’ and you don’t want to use it because you want your actions and emotions to be current, not past-tense. ‘Was’ is passive, not active. For some, that explanation works.

For others, like me, visual examples are better.

He was tired.

Boring. First graders write these types of sentences. (I know--I have a first-grader.)

A fast fix is to replace ‘was’ with the word ‘felt.’

He felt tired.

Still, though, that’s not much better. My third-grader is learning to write like this. Both are basic, Dime Store sentences.

So, what do you do?

Simple. Flip your sentence over (move your ending to the front), pick a new descriptor, get rid of ‘was’ and ‘felt’ and produce something new.

Fatigue drained his body.

Are you starting to feel the difference?

Wanna get literary? It’s still easy--just add a simile.

Fatigue drained his body, seeping out of him like water dripping from a cloth.

­Or make it more even striking by adding a metaphor.

Fatigue drained his body and he sagged--a wet cloth wrung of its strength, the last bits of his energy dripping to the ground.

Which sentences make you--the reader--feel the most tired?

Remember, you want the reader to feel the events in your story, not just read about them. So go ahead and search out the word ‘was’ in your manuscripts and go to work.

Just don’t hit delete.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Same Kind of Different as Me"

Just finished reading this book this morning. I loved it! There are two main authors who each write in a very distinctive style-- one an educated, society man and the other a poor, uneducated homeless man. I love how the chapters transition back and forth between the two perspectives as we get an idea of what is happening in their lives. It is a great non-fiction book and, though it's not a children's book, it is a great example of writing from multiple perspectives.

Here's a review from Amazon:

A dangerous, homeless drifter who grew up picking cotton in virtual slavery.

An upscale art dealer accustomed to the world of Armani and Chanel.

A gutsy woman with a stubborn dream.

A story so incredible no novelist would dare dream it.

It begins outside a burning plantation hut in Louisiana . . . and an East Texas honky-tonk . . . and, without a doubt, in the heart of God. It unfolds in a Hollywood hacienda . . . an upscale New York gallery . . . a downtown dumpster . . . a Texas ranch.

Gritty with pain and betrayal and brutality, this true story also shines with an unexpected, life-changing love.

The Responsible Writer

Writing Wednesday

I've heard some people describe writing in terms of a dream-like state and argue that it's a purely artistic, right-brain endeavor. I find writing requires both brains: while I'm envisioning a scene with my right brain, I'm searching for the right words with my left.

Worrying about which side of the brain may seem like a quibble, but it matters because writing is a conscious act. And that means it is something for which you as the author are responsible.

You're responsible for your words

You've got no excuse for lazy, imprecise writing. In conversation you can say, "It's like, you know ..." and if your listeners nod, they probably do know what you mean. But you have no such luxury with the written word.

The responsible writer has no place for cliches, excess adverbs, or thoughtless constructions (see "Barely Flooded").

You are responsible for your characters

The people you chose to write about should feel like people, not stereotypes or cardboard cut-outs.

You are responsible for your plot

Please don't try to pass off tired, retreaded stories. Step up to the challenge of finding something to add to the conversation.

"Is that the best you can do?"

That's the question the responsible writer constantly asks of him or herself.

What else do you think a responsible writer should do?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Writing a Synopsis with VS Grenier

First, we must understand what a synopsis is. According to the dictionary, a synopsis is a brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject. In other words, as writers it means a brief summary of the plot for a novel, motion picture, play, etc. Your book’s synopsis is the second most important part of your sales sheet (i.e. cover letter); which we already covered a few weeks back. Editors will skim over your cover letter to get a feel for you as the author, but it is the accompanying synopsis that really sales your book.

Most writers hate writing a synopsis and I have to tell you they are not easy to do. You don’t want to give too much of the plot away and yet you want to capture the editor’s eye. So how do you do this in just a couple of pages? Well, I will be honest, I am still learning this craft myself, but here is what one expert I know had to say about it:

In an article by Marg Gilks, How to Write a Synopsis, she said, “The synopsis is your sales pitch. Think of it as the jacket blurb for your novel (the synopsis is often used in writing this, and by the publisher's art and advertising departments, if the novel is purchased), and write it as though you're trying to entice a casual bookstore browser to buy the novel and read it. Which isn't too far from actuality.” To read the whole article visit

Marg is right in what she says about the synopsis being used for the book jacket. Many blurbs you find on the inside book jacket or on the backside of a novel is from the author’s synopsis.

I look at writing my own book’s synopsis in the same way I use to look at selling a product to a customer or a concept design to my Marketing Manager when I was buyer. How I did this was by, showing why this is a good product (benefits), overcoming obstacles, stating why this benefits the customer, and closed the sale.

These basic selling steps work on pretty much everything. So let’s talk about the first step.

Why is this a good product? On the other hand, in our case, a good book the editor, publisher, or even reader should consider buying.

In retail selling, as a sales clerk, you would talk about the product’s selling points. For example, if I were selling hand cream, I would want to show the customer how my hand cream absorbs into the skin quickly and does not leave a greasy film on the skin versus other hand creams on the market. By telling the customer this, it will, hopefully, let them allow me to apply some hand cream to their hands to show them what I am saying is indeed true. Another tactic would be to offer a hand massage and use that opportunity to explain the benefits of the product. So how does this work with a book synopsis?

Well, first off, you are going to want to hook the reader, editor, or publisher. For me, I usually start brainstorming all the reasons why this book inspired me to write it. By listing and working those exciting inspirational reasons into the beginning of your synopsis, you will create the energy needed to overcome the obstacles on why the editor, publisher, or reader should buy your book over someone else’s. You want them to want to add it to their already very large list of publications in that genre, or for the reader, another book on their bookshelf at home.

With this in mind, let’s talk about overcoming obstacles. Let us go back to the hand cream for a minute. When I worked for L’Occitane, we did sell a wonderful hand cream at $21 per tube. To many people this was a lot of money for hand cream. Therefore, for us, we had to overcome price points besides why this hand cream instead of one from Bath and Body or from Wal-Mart.

I learned quickly that going back to the benefits of the product to overcome obstacles is the best tool for any sales clerk. When someone made a comment on the price for a 16oz tube of hand cream, I would state our hand cream was the only one with 20% shea butter. Where all the others didn’t have shea butter or had less than 10%. I also knew the product well enough to know who else used it. In France, the hand cream was used in burn hospitals because of the healing properties shea butter has. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. All these facts also overcame the question, “Why is this hand cream so much better than the one I’m using now?”

So back to writing a book synopsis, what obstacles might you encounter when submitting to a publisher or editor? Well, maybe your book is too much like Harry Potter. For example: the Charlie Bone series, which is very much like the Harry Potter series in regards to the stories MC. The boy, Charlie Bone, is in a boarding school with magical powers just like Harry Potter who goes to Hogwarts. Now granted the author, Jenny Nimmo, of the Charlie Bone series had other books published before writing this series and I’m sure she had the idea before the Harry Potter series ever came out. However, Jenny was pitching a similar book and still had to overcome obstacles. So how would she overcome the editor looking at her book and thinking, “Nope, seen this idea already. Pass.”

Well Jenny Nimmo, I am sure, pointed out that Charlie Bone was not an orphan like Harry Potter and that he lived with his mother, two grandmothers, and his hermit uncle. Jenny Nimmo may have mentioned Charlie’s magical ability had nothing to do with waving a wand and casting spells, but instead, when he looked at a photograph Charlie could hear the people talking at the time the picture was taken. Then later find he was able to enter the photographs and talk with the people inside about other things in regards to their lives. Now that’s interesting and very different from Harry Potter!

This means, when you write your synopsis make sure you know what other books are out there like yours. You want to be able to list what makes yours different and stand out from the rest. It’s very important not only to capture the editor’s eye, but also in helping to sell your book to the reader.

Now that you have shown the customer why this is a good product and have overcome the obstacles, you now need to show how this benefits the customer when they already have a product just like it at home. I do have to be honest . . . this is a lot harder to do depending on the product you are trying to sell. In the case of the hand cream, by having the customers try it and to see for themselves it left no greasy film, I pretty much had it sold. However, some would still hesitate to buy it. In person, you ca n at least ask questions to find out what may be holding up the sale. With a synopsis, you do not have that option. So what do you do?

You will need to put on your editors hat and think of reasons why an editor, publisher, or reader wouldn’t want to buy your book. If you find this hard to do, ask a writing friend to help or family member. Have them give you some reasons why an editor, publisher, or reader might want to pass and then address these in your synopsis. The goal is to do this in a way to get them wanting to buy your book instead of buying someone else’s.

Believe it or not, we are rounding the finish line of writing a synopsis. It is now time to close the sale. The best way to close any sale is to wrap the ending back to the beginning. Sound familiar? It should since we hear it all the time from editors, agents, critique buddies. Knowing how to wrap things up is very important in all things. In every good story and article written, the reader always sees how the beginning, middle, and end come full circle. In a story, it is how the MC grew and in an article, it is tying up all the loose ends, and usually repeating the first sentence in a new way. This is exactly what you will want to do with your synopsis. Make sure to wrap it all up and get the customer wanting to read the whole book.

I would love to tell you that 99% of the time . . . I closed the sale after successfully tackling every obstacle and showing every benefit the customer would gain by buying my product. However, I cannot lie to you. In truth, I properly successfully closed about 78% of the time, but at least I did my best and learned something new each time.

Lastly, back to the article I referenced earlier, How to Write a Synopsis. Marg brings up some key things to think about when writing a synopsis. One is length. I suggest a couple of pages. Some writers have a different opinion. Marg’s best advice from her article, “Edit, edit, edit, if you have to! Always keeping in mind that the synopsis must remain interesting and supply the necessary information. Yes, this is the hardest part. Don't know what to cut? Lose the adjectives and adverbs; keep the motivation and "flavor" of the story.”

Now go write a brief synopsis of your book, post it here if you would like. I will be checking back to make comments through the week on those who do.


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