Tag Archives: writing

Publishing Principles: Cornerstones of your Writing Career

Most writers I know carry notebooks and take notes all the time. I buy books with heavy weight paper, preferably lined, and interesting covers that hold up to Flair pens and hard knocks, usually from riding in my purse. You might say I accessorize with notebooks, and notebooks are my method of marking time. For instance, it was two notebooks ago that I went to Stanford for a class on getting published, led by David Henry Sterry and partner Arielle Eckstut, and  took my notes in a book titled Lecture Notes with old fashioned iron keys dangling on the front and this quote:

That’s the way it is

with dreams. They scratch at

your door. You see them through

the peep hole. A stray dream looking

for a home. You think it might go away

if you ignore it. Wrong. It’s still

there when you open the door,

smiling. Wagging its tail.

My unpublished novel is baying on the porch. I’m opening the door…and I intend to succeed.

If you don’t know who Sperry and Eckstut are, you should. They wrote The Essential Guide to Getting your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It…Successfully! and their workshop at Stanford discussed and built upon the book.

Here’s a little foundation:

There are three ways to publish—traditionally, independently (through small presses) , and self-publishing ebooks and POD (print on demand) .

Today publishers aren’t going to market or promote your book (unless you’re already famous) so you need to be the “engine that drives the book.”

Authors who are entrepreneurs succeed by following four principles.

  1. Research—find out what books exist that are like yours and get an idea who might  publish and sell it. Who will read your book and how will you get it to them? Go to bookstores and libraries and look through the section where yours would be shelved. Read as many  books in your genre as you can. Talk with the booksellers and librarians. What is selling? Who is reading it? If your book deals with a topic of information, become an expert on that topic. Find the blogs and where your topic is showing up in the media. Follow Publishers Lunch http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/ for a daily digest of publishing news. Find out what all the deals are.
  2. Network—”Finding the right  agent and publisher, creating buzz, reaching your readers and selling books are all, in very large part, dependent upon people skills.” (Eckstut, Sperry) You can start now by joining writer’s groups, even your critique group. Talk about your book…ALL THE TIME. Sperry says don’t worry about anyone stealing your ideas. I say, so what? No one can write YOUR book!
  3. Write—I know, this sounds like a no-brainer, but my mind is boggled by the number of folk who talk to me about classes, and even editing, who are shocked to find out they will need to write or revise. If you want a long and productive writing career, you need to write. Every day would be ideal, but write what you can as often as you can. I have a friend who is suffering from cancer and chemo. She promised herself that she would write for 5 minutes every day no matter how awful she felt. She’s almost finished the rough draft of a new novel and has published several short stories. Were I to follow her writing lead, I’d have finish my Narco-trilogy some time ago.
  4. Perseverance—”…most successful authors have all had to persevere against oftentimes staggering evidence that they were complete losers who were bound to fail.” (Sperry, Eckstut) You have to send your work out. And you have to expect and deal with rejection. If you keep getting form letter rejections maybe your query letter isn’t working. (Note: did you open your query with that amazing  jacket blurb you got from that  famous author you met networking at a conference?) Research query letters and see what letters sold what books on agent sites. Keep evolving your material.


Assignment: Start your query letter NOW! And let in that dream…


Filed under Publishing

Mixed Emotions

Besides having conflicting desires, well-crafted characters have conflicting emotions and emotional responses toward each other. These emotions are not driven so much by the character’s values as by 1) cultural preferences, 2) previous experience, and 3) primitive drives, according to Nancy Cress. Examples she gives are 1) you secretly enjoy your boorish brother’s crude jokes, but you’re repelled by them too, 2) you like your boss but don’t trust her because of her reputation for firing people easily—and you want to keep your job, 3) you’ve become homeless and are starving, but you know stealing is wrong, yet you must eat.

How can you portray mixed emotions in fiction? By showing the differing emotions in separate scenes, show conflicting emotions in the same scene, and by using character thought and narration to explain the contradiction.

Here are a couple of possible scenarios:

-Alternating scenes of “I love you” with scenes of “I hate you.” (Read the Nanny Diaries)

-In one scene, I love you right now alternates with I hate you in the next minute. Do this with caution, as the characters need to be consistent to be believable. Don’t allow a character to act in a sloppy or confusing manner. Do this by showing each emotion separately in earlier scenes before combining contradictory feelings. Be sure that the motivations and forces creating the emotions are clear.

Depict emotion through  heated dialog, bodily responses, emotional actions  like a slap across the face, tears, a middle finger, or through character thoughts. These are all great for subtext. Read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to see much of this in action.

You will not depict emotion through telling narration, although you can narrate why a character feels as she does. Be careful with this because it can be detached and slow the pace  of your scene, although here the omniscient voice can work if the scene has been set-up and offers a fresh perspective. Be sure that you fully understand the contradictions in the minds of your characters and, without overwriting, make it more complex and dramatic. Metaphors are helpful with this.


  • Identify what emotions your characters are feeling.
  • Have you prepared the groundwork for these mixed feelings by dramatizing the causes of the emotions?
  • Decide how best to portray the conflicting emotions—in separate scenes, in the same scene, through narration, or in a combination of these.
  • Have you included enough emotional indicators for the reader to share each  emotion the character feels?

Prompt:  Write a scene about a person whose reputation rests on the appearance of an inanimate object. (Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream


Filed under Creating Compelling Characters

Character Desire

What do you want from life?  ~The Tubes

 Characters want things. They need things. Some are the mundane: food, shelter.

Other things are less essential: friends, stuff. The key to a good, well-rounded and complex character is in her wants and needs. The foundation for all characterization is the character’s desire.  It gives him the strength to keep on keeping on against the odds. It drives her actions so that she can realize her desire.

In the story, “Friendly Skies” by TC Boyle, the character only wants one thing: to land back on solid ground. Her need for safety puts the entire story into motion and we, the reader, can’t imagine things working out any differently than they do.

Think about Kafka’s “The Metamorphasis” where the main character had transformed into a cockroach over night. More than anything else, he doesn’t want to burden his family.

Look at your work. Can you write one sentence that conveys the deep desire of your character? Do it now.

The above description is a bit simplistic. A complex character will have more than one desire. She’ll have many, and here’s where it gets interesting. Some desires may fly in the face of the character’s or society’s values, creating conflict, or the character may hold two equally, but conflicting desires. This is what life is about. If we want our characters to appear real to our readers, they must be complex and conflicted. Little Miss Sunshine only holds an audience for a very short time!

How do we learn about these desires? Through the character’s choices, what he has to say to other characters, what he withholds from other characters, how he behaves, and through his thoughts and narration.

Remember that desire is packed with emotion. Desire is emotion, and human emotions are not neat. They are conflicting and mutable. Be cautions of making your character’s emotion too messy or you’ll end up with an unbelievable character. We want to be surprised but trust the character at the same time.

There are many ways to portray  your character’s desire. One excellent solution is to show how characters feel, think and behave in relationship with other characters. People think and act differently, depending who they are around and so with characters. Through different interactions, the reader can learn the facets of your characters’ person.

Compelling characters:

Hold two or more conflicting values/desires

Personalities are depicted by which value or desire the character chooses.

The character’s attitude about his choices builds characterization.

Small choices should be consistent with larger desires and can act as foreshadowing of the larger choices to come.


Write a back story for your protagonist as a short story or flash fiction. What has shaped her/him? How is her/his current desires driven by their past? Now do the same for your antagonist, if possible. Memoir writers, you can do this too. How has your past informed your present in relation to the story you are writing?

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Filed under Creating Compelling Characters