Archive for May 2011

The Easy Hard Way   8 comments

When I was studying stage magic there was an observation that most of the best writers on the subject made. Magic tricks are separated into two general categories: Easy hard tricks, and hard easy tricks. What this means in explanation is; there are illusions that appear to the audience to be very hard to pull off, yet are so easy you could teach a chimpanzee to do them in about a half hour. There are also illusions that look easy to the audience which actually take months to master, if not years.

A nice bit of trivia, but what does this have to do with storytelling and writing? Quite a bit. Especially in today’s convoluted landscape of opportunity.

When I first attempted to make a career as a storyteller the opportunities were rather limited. An author attempting to enter the speculative fiction market was pretty much limited to short stories in magazines, or novels. The last assuming that you could land an agent and sell something to a publisher. Considering the immense number of potential authors out there, neither option was an easy break. Just as they are today.

Self-publishing was an option, but for the most part the vanity press, as it was known, was a dead end fraud. The vanity press made good money off of want-to-be authors who had a bit of cash to spend, but the author still remained an unknown. They also found themselves stuck with a few hundred unsalable books.

Then the digital revolution and e-books struck. Today anyone, and I do mean anyone, can publish a story; either electronically, or as a print on demand physical book. The cost, if any, is miniscule at best and well within the reach of nearly any aspiring author. But, just as with the easy hard tricks of the stage magician, it really isn’t as easy as it looks. This is particularly true if you are serious about being a author.

One of the down sides of the e-book revolution is that there is a lot of delusional crap flooding the market. This is brought about by the aspiring author who believes that they can write as well as anyone else, and after a series of failures they turn to e-publishing. Never mind that they rarely check their spelling, or that they never bothered to have anyone beyond their family and good friends read their ‘work’. They are a good wrighter an they knows it. Them other poeples just don’t have no taste. (See what I mean?)

The ‘writing is easy’ crowd aside, at first blush the e-book market does look like an easy alternative to traditional publishing for the aspiring professional. In truth, it is not. In fact it is actually the harder market when you consider what it will take for the serious author to garner a readership.

First, and foremost, you will lack the services of a good editor. Unless you have a few thousand dollars laying about, you are on your own in this particular spectrum of the writing business. Even if you do have the extra cash to spend for one, it’s still no guarantee anyone is going to notice you. The odds are; you just blew a couple of thousand bucks for a return of thirty, or forty bucks and about as many readers. No matter how you tally that, it isn’t a wise investment.

This means you are going to have to find a way to be your own editor. The problem there is you are too damn close to your own story. You are going to miss things like pacing, story flow, plot holes, and clumsy sentences that you thought were aerial lines of prose. Trust me, no matter how good you think you are, they weren’t.

One of the best remedies for this is to garner a few beta readers. Preferably other writers who are working for the same goal you are. Most writers are avid readers, and they will notice the things that you missed. A harder method is to enable yourself to look at your own work as if someone else wrote it. This is near to impossible for most aspiring authors. It requires a discipline that most of us lack. It also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that human beings are notorious for our ability to lie to ourselves.

But, if you are one of the few who is serious about your craft, then I do have good news for you. There is a way to develop those all important beta readers, and critiques. Join a writer’s critique group where you can make friends in the industry. AgentQuery Connect is one, Critters Writers Workshop is another. Although there are hundreds more on the web, these are the two best.

Oh, and before you get the wrong idea, allow me to give you one piece of advice. Neither of the two I have mentioned is a quick fix. Your going to have to put forth some effort. To gain a friend, you have to be a friend. So, don’t just run in and immediately start looking for people to help you out. That approach is both rude, and self-serving. You’ll be spotted in a moment.

Offer to help others out first. Make friends. Be a friend. Be ready to accept criticism, and take advice. Not all of it will fit you, but it’s better than trying to go it alone.

Since most of what I’m musing about here can’t be done in a single blog post, I’ll let things go and continue with the other aspects the ‘easy hard way’ will throw at you in future posts.

Perhaps between all of us we can find a better method for the serious author to get their work noticed. At the least, we can try. 😉



Writing Is…   5 comments

Our lovely and talented Michelle, of AgentQuery Connect, has started a meme on her blog, Greenwoman. The rules of which are; for the blogger, yours truly in this case, to provide a single phrase starting with “Writing is like…” and finishing the phrase, then tag three other bloggers to do the same and post it to their blog. AQC’s equally lovely, talented, (and often snarky), Riley Redgate tagged me through her blog, In The Jungle. (Both of which are listed to your left and well worth checking out.)

Being that I’ve never been very good a rules, (I was the toddler who refused to keep his clothes on. A sure sign of a rebellious nature.), I’ll take just about any opportunity to bend, or break them. Also, being new to running a blog, I don’t have three other bloggers to pass the buck to. At least none that haven’t already been tagged. 😉

So, while this leaves me with a conundrum, it also provides an opportunity to break the rules, while still partially obeying them. In essence, I get a chance to cheat. It also provides an opportunity to think. A wholly dangerous condition to put me in at any given moment.

Ask a hundred different writers what writing is like and your apt to get a hundred different answers. But, before answering what writing is like, maybe we should look at what writing is first.

Writing is the basis of all media, and knowledge. It is the seed from which springs every other form of media you can think of and the generator of all knowledge. Now that’s a pretty bold statement, but I’d bet you can’t think of one element of either in today’s world that did not start with writing. Without writing the world would grind to a screeching halt. Think not?

The truth is that a writer had to write the textbooks you study from. A writer had to write the concept of your video game. A writer had to write the code that allows it to work. A writer had to write the story, and/or script of the movie you love. Hell, a writer had to write the warning label on the over the counter medicine you bought for your headache. Even the content of the Internet is completely dependent on writers.

True, we could teach and entertain by word of mouth, but that’s about as dependable as a chess champion in a football game. Anyone who has ever played the game ‘Gossip’ can tell you so. Get any group of five, or more, people together, whisper a single sentence into one’s ear and have them whisper it to the next, and so on. When the last person says the sentence out loud, you’ll be surprised just how corrupted it has become. That’s a pretty risky business to be trusting knowledge and entertainment to. I certainly wouldn’t trust it.

Writing has also been responsible for creating whole industries by simply adjusting how someone writes something. Take a look at a legal document sometime. All the heretofore, hereinafter, and other legalese is spelled out for the lawyer to interpret. If it were written in plain language there wouldn’t be a need for the lawyer, anyone could understand it.

Remember the writer’s strike in Hollywood recently? During that time the movie industry turned out more re-makes than television had re-runs before cable. Without writers the movies became pretty boring, and the complaints were too numerous to mention. Although I was not a part of it, I agreed with it. Without good stories there are no movies. We’d be munching our popcorn to blank screens, or worse, the 245th version of On Golden Pond.

So, now that we’ve established what writing really is, I think I can answer Michelle’s meme. Even if I don’t have anyone to pass the responsibility to. Except for you. If you are reading this, have a blog, and haven’t been tagged for it… I’m tagging you now. I don’t know if it will work, but it’s worth a try. 😉

Anyway, here is mine.

“Writing is like planting the seeds of the future.”


Posted May 28, 2011 by Peter Burton in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , , ,

The Magic’s in The Music   17 comments

Being that I’m something of a complete musicphile, (I have, and listen to, everything from Alice Cooper to Vangelis), and that my last post dealt with imagery; it would be remiss of me not to blog about a very powerful aid to storytelling. Music. At least I find it to be the case.

The power of music over human beings is well documented, and pretty much universal. Which is why Hollywood makes such extensive use of it. How much more emotion is put into that love scene with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan when the soft romance tune is playing in the background? How much more frightening is it when the music turns ominous just before Jason leaps out at his next victim? Watch any scene you like without the soundtrack and it’s alright, but doesn’t have nearly the same impact.

That’s all cool for the movies, but with the exception of an enhanced e-book, how do you get the same impact into print. Most books don’t come with a soundtrack. Or, do they?

As with visualization, the author can imprint his, or her emotions onto their work. How that happens is as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone else, but it can, and does happen. Listening to the right music before, or even during the writing of a scene can be an immense help for an aspiring author.

It’s all a part of immersing yourself into the tale you are telling.

Atmosphere is very important for a writer, in my honest opinion. Very little has been able to help me become the story more than having the right atmosphere to write in. Music is perhaps the easiest, and cheapest way to do just that. You can change your mood, mindset, and feel just by changing the music playing in the background as you work, or listening to it before you sit down at the keyboard.

Now, I’m pretty sure that most of us wordsmiths do listen to music while we work. But, if your having a hard time writing that love scene, did it ever occur to you that it might just be the heavy metal flowing from your speakers? Are you trying to write that action sequence while listening to Celine Deon?

It’s not so much a case of listening to what you want to, although you should like the music you use, as it is setting up the wrong atmosphere by what you are listening to. Music goes straight to the subconscious mind, and if that part of your self isn’t agreeing with what your trying to accomplish… your in for a uphill battle of mammoth proportions.

The right kind of music can even break that dreaded scourge of authors everywhere: Writer’s block!

Just by taking the time to relax to the proper mood setting music, and casually thinking about your story can very often set off a dam bursting rush of ideas. Note I said casually there. Don’t force yourself, and fret over what you need, just let the atmosphere created by the music draw you along. Worry will prove to be your worst enemy when trying this.

So, how can we tell what the proper music is? That’s easy. How does it make you feel?

If your doing a romance scene, and the music you like for that sort of thing makes you feel like you did the first time you fell. That’s it! If your doing an action scene and the music you like makes you feel like you could whip King Kong, Godzilla, and half the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan on your lonesome. That’s it!

I’m kind of grateful that my range of musical taste is wide enough to make the Great Wall of China look like a picket fence. I rarely lack for ‘mood music’ to accomplish my goals. But, even if your own musical tastes are not quite as extensive, I’m sure you have something that will fit the mood you want. Why not put it to use for you?


Envisioning A Story   14 comments

Technical aspects of being a storyteller aside, one of the greatest talents a writer can develop is their ability to visualize a story. Now I’m not talking about spending hours with your legs crossed, visualizing a publishing contract, or best seller, landing in your mailbox while chanting, “O Mani Padme Hum”, here. Although if it does work out that way for you, let me know. I’ll be more than happy to risk major leg cramps to achieve the same effect.

No, what I mean about visualizing the story is bringing the tale to life in your own head. Why? Because that ability can, and often will transfer to your readers. And it’s not only aspiring authors who use it to achieve their goals.

How many times have we heard a great actor talk about living the part, or listened to a singer totally enthrall the audience with the emotional power they are putting into a song? It’s pretty much the same thing with telling a story. The more ‘alive’ you can make the tale, the more ‘alive’ it becomes to the reader.

Stage magicians, although they will be the first to pooh-pooh the idea of visualization, do the same thing. The good ones make themselves believe that they are really pulling coins out of thin air, or making doves suddenly appear under their handkerchiefs. And the more they believe it themselves, the more the audience believes it with them.

Think not?

Richard Osterlind, in his seminal book ‘Making Magic Real’ gives this bit of advice to the novice conjurer:

“If you can truly believe what you are pretending to do is really happening, then your audience will believe it, too.”

The same holds true for good story telling. It doesn’t matter if you are writing Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Romance. It doesn’t matter how implausible your circumstances are, as long as you can make it real for yourself first. That’s where visualization comes in.

When you can see, hear, smell, and feel the story in your own mind, you can write with an added measure of conviction. This allows you to develop an empathy with your readers, because you ‘lived’ the story as you developed it. Consequently, the reader will live the story as they read it.

Your story begins with you, and it will only be able to carry the life that you breathe into it.

I know there are a few who will say, “But, I can’t visualize.” The truth is, you are lying to yourself. Anyone can, and does, daydream. A daydream is simply an uncontrolled visualization. The trick is to take control and direct the daydream, and the New Age shelves are filled with books that teach just that.

I’m not saying you have to believe the metaphysical side of these books, but the techniques and exercises that develop your ability to visualize what you want to are invaluable. Barring that, Tony Robbins makes heavy use of visualization techniques in his self-help books and gives many exercises that do the same thing. So, if you are uncomfortable with New Age, at least you have an alternative.

No mater way you choose, developing your ability to visualize your story will make you a much better writer. Your tale will have life in it and be far more to your reader than just words on a page with a few sneaky plot twists.

You will still need all the technical aspects of writing such as grammar, spelling, style, etc. But, at the least your story will have more heart and that is probably the most important part of being a good storyteller.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go sit cross-legged on the floor and start chanting, “O Mani Padme Hum”, now. (Gee, I hope this works!)


Taming the Wild Cliché   3 comments

There is probably no greater temptation for the aspiring author than that of the wild cliché. That is with the exception of selling your soul to the Devil for a best seller, of course. The plain fact is, clichés are just too easy to use. You know that nearly everyone, and their uncle, reading the darn thing is going to get the point. And let’s face it, our lives are simply riddled with clichés. We can’t seem to live without them.

Clichés also seem to breed like cockroaches under a damp sink. Every time you turn around there’s another one taking its first steps into the collective consciousness. On the internet they are called memes, in business they are called catch phrases, in linguistics they are known as slang. But, make no mistake, all of them will grow up to become full fledged clichés sooner, or later. Words and phrases that were at one time popular are now looked at like something the cat dragged in.

Even presidents have used clichés. My fellow Americans can remember more politicians than you can shake a stick at asking, “Where’s the beef?”. Not to mention, the examples of presidential speech writers using clichés would fill several blogs. But, let an aspiring author use just one in a query letter, or a manuscript, an it’s Katy bar the door. Agents, and editors will drop you like a hot potato. They despise clichés with a passion.

I don’t care how many clichés you find in a published author’s novel, do it while your trying to get your foot in the door, and your ass is grass. Of course, when we look at all the rule breaking that seems to get by in the publishing world, it’s hard not to think that you can’t win for losing.

But, I am a sneaky cuss, so let’s put our heads together and see if we can’t come up with a solution. Let’s see if we can sneak in the back door, and tame the wild cliché.

There is the slick-it-by method, but you really have to toe the line to make this one work. In this method you are taking a gamble and putting all your cards on the table. Let one, or two clichés pass as is. The idea here is to teach an old dog a new trick. You carefully choose a cliché that’s old as the hills, one that hasn’t been used in ages, but is still young enough to be remembered with nostalgia instead of nausea. After all, agents and editors are human, too. A cliché that can invoke a bit of nostalgia can have the same effect on them, and they let it pass. After all, you only did it once. Who knows, you might just get away with murder here.

The second method of taming the wild cliché is the fix-it-later technique. While effective, you have to watch this one like a hawk. I have good news and bad news about this method. The good news first; it will not interrupt the flow of your writing. When you decide to use a cliché, you just go right ahead and use it. Don’t worry about it. The bad news is that you have to go back through your story and reword all those clichés you just used. Every single one must be reworded so that you say the same thing but it doesn’t look like you used a cliché.

Since there is no risk of actually using a cliché in the second method, unless you accidentally leave one in, the agents and editors will be none the wiser and you get to use all the clichés you want. Just make sure you have an eagle eye and reword those suckers before you send your masterpiece off.

Sneaky, huh?

Now, incase you haven’t noticed, this post is up to its eyeballs in clichés. I had to shut the cliché finder off on WordPress just so I could write the thing. To any agents, or editors out there who notice all the god awful clichés that I riddled this article with: I can assure you it was deliberate, and I don’t normally write this way. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Clichés are a subject we have discussed many times at AgentQuery Connect, and I’m sure we will discuss them many more times. To use them, or not. Are they effective, or not. But, what the hell. When it comes to getting published, we’re all just squirrels trying to get a nut.


Per-Severe-Ance   8 comments

You’ll probably notice a few things change on here from time to time. Mostly because, I’ve never administrated a blog before and I’m still learning WordPress. Oh sure, I ghosted a few, but all I had to do then was pretend to be someone else, write whatever they wanted me to, and make a couple of bucks. The administration stuff I left to them.

Fortunately, I had a bit of HTML, (Which in my case stands for Help This Moron Learn.), so posting wasn’t a problem. All it took was a little perseverance. The one quality that anyone looking to become a writer needs more than any other.

One of my fellow AgentQuery Connect members, Cherie, has a really inspiring quote by Richard Bach on her signature:

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

Truer words were never spoken. Especially for anyone wacky enough to attempt this career. But we’ll get back to that in a moment. Cherie also has a very proficient blog of her very own, and I think you’ll find it well worth your while to check it out. Ready. Write. Go at Blogspot.

Side note: You’ll notice that I mention AgentQuery Connect quite often in my blogs. The reason for that is, AQC is the best writer’s community on the web, bar none. Also, because the other great members there haven’t lynched my fanny for being a complete A-hole. Yet. 😉

Back to our subject.

While it is true that a writer needs the basics of the craft, such as good grammar and spelling, all the technical aspects of authorship won’t amount to a spit in the Pacific if you don’t have perseverance. (Please, don’t spit in the Pacific. It has enough trouble dealing with all the other crap we’ve dumped into it.)

Some of the harsh realities of this business should be enough to make any sane person walk away saying, “Oh, Hell NO!” Which, indecently, is why I’m still working at it.

You will encounter enough form letter rejections from agents to wallpaper the Whitehouse and the Senate building. Assuming they are into Avaunt Guarde. You will have every editor who so much as looks at your work mangle, uhhh… improve it. (Yes, that was a joke. A good editor is priceless, if you can afford one.) And should you be lucky enough to weave your way through all the myriad roadblocks between you and your dream, you’ll spend more time promoting and marketing than you ever did writing.

Hmmmm? Am I sure I want to do this? HELL YEAH!

Then to top it all off, if you think that every writer who makes it to a contract instantly becomes a wealthy upper class person. Sorry, but your dead wrong. For every name author out there, there a couple thousand who are published, but still barely making a living doing what we love to do.

And, really, that is the point for an aspiring author’s walk through Hades. I didn’t make much more than a couple dollars above minimum wage when I was a graphic artist. I made even less on the independent pro wrestling circuit. But, I did love doing both, and that made it all worth it to me. So what if I didn’t get to work on The New Yorker, or shill for Vince McMahon for mega bucks? I was still getting paid to do something I loved to do.

Now, all this isn’t meant to put anyone off of a career in writing. For all I know the next Steven King, or J.K. Rowling could be reading this right now. One thing I can guarantee; you’ll never know if you give up, or let any of these obstacles stand in you way. You’ll have to persevere to find out. 😉


Slush Puppies   4 comments

No, I am not talking about the delicious and often fattening ice drink that can give you a migraine if indulged in too fast. I’m talking about the untold numbers of dedicated, desperate, and generally destitute masses known as the aspiring authors. You know, people like ME!

For the readers out there who may not get the joke, a slush pile is any pile of manuscripts, or queries, that we hope to work our way up through just to get some attention for our stories. Come to think of it, a few bucks wouldn’t break any hearts either. Put untold years into working for peanuts, or for free, in a career you love and you’ll see what I mean pretty darn quick.

An ongoing discussion on the AgentQuery Connect boards about the rise in E-books started my musing about this and I realized that, “I AM a Slush Puppy!” Don’t laugh too hard. If you happen to be an aspiring author, so are you. Just choose your flavor, and in a moment we’ll try to figure a strategy out of this mess. I dibs Blueberry!

Whether your trying to land an agent and get into the continually shrinking world of traditional publishing, or thinking about self-publishing, the result is going to be the same. Your work is still going to be mired in the La Brea Tar Pits known as the slush pile.

If you DO happen to land an agent, then your work ends up in the publisher’s slush pile. If you DO get a contract with a publisher and get published, (Please, please, please!!), then you wind up in the slush pile known as the book rack. Barring all this and going the self-publishing route, Print On Demand, or E-book, you wind up in the biggest slush pile of them all! Why? Because nearly everybody, their giddy aunt, and their uncle thinks they can write.

That last part probably made me sound like Simon Cowell with a bad case of hemorrhoids, but it is the truth. It is also true that some would-be writers should have restraining orders put on them, barring them from coming within twenty yards of a keyboard. As far as I know, I could be one of them!

The point is, if you do have a good novel out there it is not only stuck in the slush pile, but jackasses like me are competing with you. And we’re probably making it harder for you to get noticed so you can get out of the slush pile. But, there is hope.

First, and foremost you must be willing to work your backside off on your story. Do not make the mistake of thinking that every line, every scene, every word of your story is golden. It isn’t. The goal is to turn out the best story you possibly can, and little snits like the ones below are just going to see you sucked further down into black tar oblivion.

“I can cut a thousand words from my epic 530,000k story, but that’s it! I refuse to cut anymore!” Well, then, I don’t think much about your ability as a writer. If you can’t be more concise, or have the imagination to rework the story and have the same thing with fewer words, your in a whole heap of trouble, my friend. At the very least you should be able to find a reasonable cut off area and make two stories out of it. Psssst! The editors aren’t going to think much about your abilities, either, Chuckles.

“This reviewer sucks! I are a great writer, and I has the reviews to prove it!” No. You are a whinny little snot who can not take criticism, and you’ve just proven to every agent and editor out there that you would be the most difficult SOB to work with since Adolph Hitler. Not to mention you just turned off thousands of potential readers by showing them your not willing to improve for their sake. Get over yourself, and grow up. You were lucky enough to get a review, but too stupid to turn a negative into a positive.

Those are just a couple of examples, but I’m sure you have the picture. As a writer it is our job to tell the best story we can, and be willing to do whatever is necessary to improve. That’s the first step out of the slush pile.

The second step is to get out there and make friends. Without them you are sunk. Now, what I’m talking about here are literary friends. Although technically other writers are your competition, they are also your greatest asset. It’s just like any other part of the entertainment business. Celebrities have friends in their line of work who are potential competition, but they still support each other. It’s the same thing in the literary world. You can’t make it all by your onesies out there and without your fellow writers, Gods help you… because no one else will. Above all, do not… I repeat, do not try to fake this. You will be found out eventually.

Make friends with your readers as well. No matter how few. They are your bread and butter. Without them, you might as well go back to writing on role playing fan sites.

The third step is the hardest, and takes more time. Promotion. If no one knows about you, they can’t check out your work. This hearkens back to making friends. Socialize, let people know who you are and what you do. Odds are they will be interested, if you are sincere. People like to know you care about them and their opinion as much you care about your own.

Now that I’ve probably stuck my foot so far in my mouth that I’ll have to call in a surgeon and a Swiss watchmaker to remove it; I’ll end by saying these are certainly not the only steps involved in the transformation from Slush Puppy to author. But, I’d say they are a darn good start.

Remember though… At this point in time, I am still a Slush Puppy. So WTF do I know? 😉