Pub Rants

Category: writing

POV—Which Is Best?

STATUS: I had a terrific day but can’t blog about why quite yet. So just know I’m in a great mood.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BROKEN HEARTED HOOVER FIXER SUCKER GUY by Glen Hansard

Life would be good if people would quit asking me impossible questions. *grin*

And yes, I’ve taken the admonishment to do my emoticons correctly.

So this is the situation. Last week we asked for a full manuscript from a partial we had read. The writer emailed to say he was contemplating a big revision shifting POV.

Did I think first person or third person would work best for the story?

My answer? Not the faintest idea.

For some genres, like romance, a first person POV is always a tough sell so in that case, I’d probably recommend third. But for this instant, the manuscript was young adult.

There have certainly been bestsellers in this genre in the first person POV and bestsellers in the third person POV. The real answer is what POV best fits the story and best illustrates the main characters.

If we need to be inside the main character’s head, then first person POV. If the story would benefit from being able to head hop (as you can do in third person), well, then there you have it. But honestly, I can’t read the first 30 pages of a submission and tell you which I think would work better. Perhaps if I saw both submission side-by-side I could make a judgment but it’s very unlikely I would go to that trouble (unless we were talking about a current client).

I heard, and I have no idea if it’s true or not, that Suzanne Collins did the HUNGER GAMES first 50 to 100 pages both ways before choosing the final direction. Makes sense that a writer would need to explore both before making a final decision but ultimately, it’s the writer who will know best what feels right for the story.

At least that’s how I see it.

Writing as Business (Part 3)

STATUS: I finished up to client full manuscripts this week. I’m finally catching up.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ICE CREAM by Sarah McLachlan

As promised, here are some of the books that I’ve read over the years. Please note that this isn’t an endorsement of any book. Read at your own risk. Big grin here. I’m simply highlighting some of the books I have read.

This is by no means a complete list. Just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Live It Up Without Outliving Your Money by Paul Merriman (probably the best book I’ve read….so far)

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko

The New York Times Complete Guide to Personal Investing by Gary Klott

The Motley Fool Investment Guide by David Gardner and Tom Gardner (I actually read a much earlier edition of this book but it’s no longer in print)

Rich Dad Poor Dad By Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter (not really an investing or money management book but an interesting read).

I also have a subscription to Better Investing Magazine. Good, solid articles that are practical. (Note: I belong to an Investment Club, have so for 4 years, and we follow Better investing guidelines)

I also read Smart Money magazine for a while and Kiplinger’s.

And I bet there are a ton other good reads out there that I wouldn’t mind picking up so feel free to add some recommendations in the comments section.

Writing as Business (Part 2)

STATUS: Bursting at the seams. Got two bits of exciting news for one of my clients and it’s under gag. We’re not allowed to share yet. So I guess I’ll just tease all my blog readers with it instead.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LET’S STAY TOGETHER by Al Green

This topic obviously resonated with quite a few people. In all honesty, I probably should have one of my clients do a guest blog about the topic of finances as a published author. Hopefully they’ll all just chime in on the comments section.

Okay, if you are a published author, here are some things that I recommend.

1. Find and then pay for a good tax accountant who can give you sound accounting advice for your writing business. You may start as a sole proprietor but as many of my authors have done, when real money starts coming in, it may pay (as in tax advantageous) to be an LLC or an S-corp instead.

When I say “pay for,” I mean it. It’s worth every dime to pay a CPA for his/her expertise. Be sure to ask around to other writers and get recommendations for a good one. Like all people in service industry, levels of expertise vary.

Gee, that’s true of agents as well.

2. When you have your contract, note the dates in your money management software for when you can expect to get paid. Then pad it by two months at least. I say this because things don’t always happen on time. The contract can take 2 to 3 months to negotiate and then it’s always another 6 weeks after signing for you to get paid. Foreign monies take even longer than that. As the agent, I always expect payment 6 months from when I’ve sent off the contract to my client for signing. It can take that long. For one client, the foreign publisher lost the contract and it took us a year to get paid. And that was even with me bugging them every other week for it.

You as the author might run into draft problems and not deliver the manuscript on time and so that d&a payment you were hoping to trigger might not happen until several months later. Trust me, this happens more often than not so keep that in mind.

So a couple of addendums to this:
–If you are a debut and your career is young, don’t start by living off your writing. I think you’ll find yourself in a world of hurt if you do that. Writing money is gravy money. Not factored in as part of the monthly living expenses but it can pay for a great vacation or a down payment on a car or what have you. Personally, I say put all of it into a good interest CD that you can’t access for a year. That way you’re forced to ignore it for a while. But heck, I know that’s not always feasible. I’m just suggesting it.

–Don’t quit you day job until the back end royalties can pay for your daily living expenses without issue. Back end is the royalty money you earn once your advance has earned out. This does not include the advance you might earn for your next book because that’s an advanced that hasn’t earned out yet. And just an FYI, statistically speaking (and this is by no means exact), only about 10% of books actually earn out their advances. The good majority of them don’t. And here’s another interesting tidbit, if a book does earn out the advance, it can take 2 years or more before that happens. One of my authors just earned out (which is hugely exciting) but it took 4 years. Now you know why I emphasize back end royalties that pay your daily living expenses without an issue.

3. When you get your check, pay your taxes right then and there. Now some folks are really great money managers. If you are, then you can ignore this. However, I think the majority of us are not quite that anal and I’ve heard stories time and time again where authors don’t do this and find themselves in a world of hurt. Work with your tax accountant to find out what is the likely percentage that you’ll owe and don’t wait, just mail the dang thing to the IRS and tell yourself, this was never my money anyway. If you don’t have a tax accountant, a good rule of thumb is 20% of whatever the check was and send that in. If you’ve overpaid, you’ll get it refunded.

If you’re disciplined money manager, okay, stick the monies you owe the IRS into a high-interest bearing account and then only draw from that account to pay your quarterly taxes (April 15, June 15, Sept. 15, Jan. 15). Make some money on the interest at the very least. Now if your honest with yourself and know that you’ll fall into the trap of thinking the next advance will pay those taxes, don’t wait. Mail your check to the IRS the minute you get your check from the publisher or agent. I can’t force you to do this but I’m really encouraging it.

4. When you get your check, pay yourself first. What exactly does this mean? That means you put away money for retirement even before you pay your bills. If you’re under the salary cap, open yourself up a ROTH IRA (one of the best investing tools out there because when you retire you won’t be taxed on monies you withdraw from a ROTH because you will have already paid the taxes on it). Damn straight folks. And even if you are not good with numbers and investing, just go to Vanguard’s website and look at the ROTH IRA here. Sign up for an index fund that follows the S&P 500. Usually those are the safest with the least amount of crazy ups and downs.

Max it out. Pay in the full amount you are allowed to legally in any given year.

And folks, I’ve been investing for years but I’m no expert. My suggestion here is not to replace advice from a professional financial advisor but if you don’t know where to begin, maybe this will help you to get started.

I’ll also try and dig up the money management/investing titles of all the books I’ve read over the years. It might be a good reading list for you.

5. Open up a SEP (Simplified Employee Pension Plan). You’re a writer and you’re self-employed. This is a retirement vehicle for the self-employed and it allows you, percentage wise, to put the most money away for retirement than you can in an IRA.

6. If you are living off of your writing, create a budget with all your expenses and only pay yourself X amount a month and stick to that. That way you won’t suddenly run out of money and be really anxious for your next payment (see above—which might get delayed, or yikes a contract canceled, or a manuscript rejected and you have to pay back the advance). All grim scenarios but can be a reality.

7. Buy yourself something nice to remember your first check by. I know. Totally opposite of everything I’ve said above but your first check from your first book advance is special. Celebrate it.

Then do all of the above.

Do You Run Your Writing As A Business?

STATUS: I tackled exactly one thing on my To Do list today and there are something like 20 items that need immediate attention. I’m still wondering how that happens.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD by the Beatles

Today I had a morning meeting with my tax accountant to review my company’s P&L (Profit and Loss Statement) and the Balance Sheet. We wanted to review how we were doing in comparison to last year. We analyzed our current cash flow, upcoming expenditures, quarterly taxes, and generally made certain that we were financially sound and would continue being so.

Just three weeks prior to this meeting, I had connected with my bookkeeper to evaluate the P&L and Balance Sheet to see if anything was out of whack—which, interestingly enough, always happens. Just the nature of accounting.

Years ago, I read in a book (and I wish I could remember the title) that Americans who spent at least 1 to 2 hours a month reviewing their finances, discussing budget (or for heaven’s sake creating a budget), learning about investing, reviewing one’s 401k or Roth IRA, and just generally doing money management ended up 10 times wealthier than their fellow Americans who didn’t. (And it didn’t matter where these money planners started in terms of their income.) This book also highlighted that 90% of Americans spent more time watching TV did they spent on managing their money. I believe it.

So where am I going with all this? If you are a writer, even if you are unpublished, you need to treat this like a business. You need to sit down at the beginning of the year (or the beginning of the quarter) and create a business plan for yourself and your writing. This is how much I’m going to budget for my writing, for paper, for ink cartridges, for getting an agent, for attending a conference to learn the craft, or for joining a site like Backspace, and so on. You need to an excel spreadsheet or quicken or whatever money program you use to track expenses and hopefully, monies earned.

Why? Because even if you are unpublished, it makes good money sense to know exactly how much it costs you a year to pursue your dream. It allows you to plan. It shows you the cost benefit (or not) of pursuing this as a career. It gets you primed and ready for when you are published author and you definitely need to be doing this, budgeting appropriately, paying your taxes, and deciding on when you can write full-time versus when you need to keep that day job.

You might as well start making a good habit of it now. Besides, don’t you want to be one of those people who are 10 times wealthier than their counterparts who never discuss money on a regular basis? I know I do—which is why my tax accountant and I spent 2 hours discussing it this morning and this is just one of many sessions we’ll have throughout the year.

Dancing With The Stars Analogy

STATUS: Today was my final round of meetings. I’m taking tomorrow off and then heading back to Denver.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MAD WORLD by Gary Jules with Michael Andrews
(I rather like this remake of an old Tears For Fears song.)

When I was at the Backspace Conference last week, a fellow agent made an analogy that I thought was rather apt. Here’s my lame attempt to paraphrase the thought.

For all other forms of art, say being a dancer or a painter or a musician, the general public rather believes that it takes years of practice to master the art form. In fact, the artist might do an apprenticeship, take classes, study under a master, or have many practice tries that are then thrown out.

People, in general, don’t actually believe that if they take one tango class, they are ready for Dancing with the Stars.

But for whatever reason, this same viewpoint doesn’t apply when it comes to writing novels. Lots of aspiring writers really do think they can hammer out a first novel without studying the art form, without participating in a critique group, without learning the mechanics and boom, get a publishing contract. Get a big advance. Become a bestseller.

Now I know that my blog readers don’t think this way—because you read this blog as well as other industry blogs. You guys are smart enough to know otherwise but I’d say that for at least 50% of the queries we receive, the writers contacting us did very little to master the craft of writing. In fact, they probably didn’t even bother researching elements of the biz.

And yet they think they are ready for Dancing With The Stars. They get angry with agents who they perceive as impeding their success because we aren’t recognizing their talent. And these same writers make it that much harder for you savvy people to be heard through the noise.

So my little rant for the day.

The Black Sheep of Fiction Writing—Guest Blogger Carolyn Jewel

STATUS: Lots of meetings at the end of last week so I’ll type up some notes and get that to you tomorrow. Book Expo is starting on Friday (could it get crazier?). And just a heads up that I’m at the Backspace conference all Thursday (May 28) so if you are in town, you might think about attending. And a reminder, there’s only a couple of days remaining in the Brenda Novak auction for Diabetes. I’m doing a breakfast at RWA (or in Washington D.C. if you live in the area. You don’t necessarily have to be attending the conference just as long as you are in the City). A 24-hour read with an intense critique.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME by Jewel

For me, Carolyn is one of those amazing writers who should be getting a lot more attention than she is. Her historical romance, SCANDAL, was a tour de force. Reviewers were stunned at how complex and sexy it was. It’s as good as anything that the established titans are doing in that genre.

And the same is true for her paranormal series that begun with MY WICKED ENEMY. The writer she is compared to the most? J.R. Ward. If you are a romance lover and haven’t picked up a Carolyn Jewel book, I only have one question for you. Why not?

So in the spirit if huge generosity (as this blog entry took some time to write!), Carolyn teaches you the art of the back story. From some of the sample pages Sara and I have read lately, this is a lesson that any aspiring writer (no matter the genre) should pay attention to. Enjoy! Happy Release Day Carolyn.

Backstory: Can’t write with it, can’t write without it.

Most writers have heard repeatedly that backstory is bad. I’m here to say that backstory isn’t bad; it’s just misunderstood and misused. In fact, I’ll lay it all on the line right now and say that the more backstory you have the better. With some pretty important caveats. Yeah, there’s always a catch, isn’t there?

Please keep in mind that I am speaking in generalities here, though I will give concrete examples. Your specific story may call for a different use or construction of backstory. After you read this, don’t rush back to your story to slavishly apply these principles without more.

What you need to do, what you MUST do, is figure out how to adapt these concepts to the story you are writing. You need to make sure you understand why we, as writers, even talk about something called backstory. It’s not easy, but the time you spend thinking about it will serve you and your writing very well.

What is This Backstory of Which I Speak?

That’s easy.

It’s all the stuff that happened before a story actually starts. It’s the baggage your characters bring with them to their story, their hang-ups, history and life stories. It’s the political and historical past that matters to the story you’re going to tell.

James Michener is one writer who built a reputation by including ALL the backstory in his actual story. Other writers, however, are not James Michener and they (we) do not have his special dispensation for backstory. Do not let Michener lull you into thinking it’s OK for you to describe the formation of the universe before you get around to introducing your characters.

Backstory can be a swift and sure route to readers who end up enjoying a book that isn’t one you wrote. But it’s also the key to making your story resonate and having people dying to find out what happens next. Powerful backstory will do that for you.

A frequent mistake I see from writers who are starting out (or sometimes, just in an early draft of a work) is too much backstory revealed. They write prologues, start their story too soon, or most egregious of all, stop the story dead to explain how the hero’s mother abandoned him as a child and therefore he believes all women will abandon him.

The problem is that we are not writing a story about the backstory of our novel. We’re writing about what happens BECAUSE of the backstory. Readers aren’t very interested in what happened to the heroine ten years ago. They want to know what’s happening to her right now. Every single time you stop telling your present story to relay the past, your story dies on the page. D. E. A. D.

Because of this, backstory is something you release into the wild in small amounts and, whenever possible, indirectly through active, present-story events. I like to think of backstory as a door I am not permitted to open except in case of dire emergency. My job is to find a way to include the backstory without opening that door.

Sweat over writing a scene in which your hero interacts with the heroine but is driven by his abandonment issues without ever explaining that he has them. Yes, I know. It’s hard. (This is me, shrugging.)

What to do In Case of Dire Emergency

Eventually, you will probably have to explain something about the past. The less time you spend doing this the better. (That’s time on the page, by the way, not time working on how to figure out where, when and how much.)

When you’ve reached the point where you have to insert some backstory or risk confusing your readers or making a character seem unpleasant or illogical, then make the revelation count. Make the reveal complicate things or add complexity to a scene or characterization. Do it and move on.

Depending on the sort of writer you are, you may or may not have all this worked out in advance. I never do. I spend a lot of time re-jiggering where and when I reveal backstory. If you’re like me and are on the write by the seat of the pants side of the spectrum, you’ll need to pay a lot of attention to where to place, add, move or remove such scenes as your story develops. If you’re more of a plotter, then these are all things you’ve struggled with before you start writing chapters. It doesn’t matter where in the process it happens, as long as it does happen.

And Now, Some Concrete Examples

In my June release, My Forbidden Desire, my heroine, Alexandrine, is a witch who doesn’t have much power. She knows she’s adopted and has searched for her biological parents, with some limited success. She has an adoptive brother she believes is dead. She also wishes she had more power and regrets that she doesn’t fit better in the normal world to which her lack of magical ability more or less relegates her. Creatures she’s only read about actually exist. There really are demons and there are mages who use their power in horrific ways. She also has an amulet she hopes will boost her power.

The hero is Xia, a fiend who hates the magekind because they kill and enslave creatures like him. He hates witches in particular because he was betrayed by a witch and ended up enslaved because of it. He also hates them because his species is attracted to the magic, and he doesn’t like being vulnerable. Unbeknownst to Alexandrine, her amulet contains the spirit of a murdered fiend, and though she thinks its supposed power doesn’t work on her, in fact, she’s bonding with the amulet in a way that may cost her her life. Xia intends to release the spirit of the trapped fiend and end its suffering.

These two paragraphs of backstory are condensed for this article, by the way. My challenge was to find a way to reveal these elements without directly visiting the past unless or until there was no other choice.

I could have started the story with Alexandrine finding the amulet or started with a scene about how Xia was betrayed by a witch. I could have started with Alexandrine trying to use the amulet, or, even, with Xia being told he has to go protect a witch. Any of those choices would contain a lot of emotion, and they certainly would have mattered to the protagonist.

Keep in mind, however, that My Forbidden Desire is about Alexandrine and Xia and the collision of all that backstory.

How Backstory Helps you Figure Out Where to Start

My Forbidden Desire is not about Alexandrine finding the amulet or trying to use it. It’s also not about Xia having been betrayed. It’s about what those two characters do BECAUSE of the backstory I’ve laid out.

Another way to look at this is to consider at what point the backstory carries so much weight in the present that forward motion is unavoidable.

If I’d chosen to start with Alexandrine finding the amulet, the other backstory does not come into play. The identity of her biological father doesn’t matter at that point. Nor does the existence of fiends. Same with the betrayal Xia experienced. If I’d started with her finding the amulet, I would have ended up with a very different story.

Instead, I chose to start My Forbidden Desire with Alexandrine meeting the brother she thought was dead. That isn’t enough on its own to make the story move forward. Her brother is there because he’s learned mages are willing to kill her for the amulet. Since he’s leaving the country in a few hours, he’s arranged for her to have a bodyguard – the witch hating Xia who hates her even more when he learns Alexandrine’s biological father is none other than the mage who once enslaved him.

All the backstory is present in chapter one, but not all of it is explicit. From page one on, the story has no choice but to move forward. Alexandrine’s father is after the amulet and willing to kill her to get it. She is now sharing her small apartment with a creature she thought wasn’t real. Xia has to protect a witch whose father once enslaved him.

And neither of them knows just how much their world has changed.

Some Nuts and Bolts Tips

It’s been my observation that more often than not a prologue makes things worse, not better, in terms of backstory. If you have a prologue, I suggest deleting it (at least temporarily) while you confirm that it really truly needs to be there. Just because you like it isn’t enough reason to keep it around. This, of course, is true of every single scene in your story.

The use of “had” in your prose is a strong signal that you’re dumping backstory. It’s boring. Stop it. When you find yourself writing, He had gone to the store that day, never knowing his mother had been packing her bags while he had been buying Frosted Flakes.

Find another way. If that goes on for more than two or three sentences: snooze. Think up a scene or predicament or even a secondary character through which you can imply or otherwise reveal this information directly and actively. It’s hard work, I know.

Summing It Up

I am of the firm belief that every writer must find her own way to truths about writing. My advice is to think about what I’ve said about backstory. If you disagree with me, and I’m sure some of you will, spend some time making sure you understand exactly why you disagree. It’s quite a valuable experience. After a good faith effort and study, use the parts that resonate with you and discard the rest.

I’ve always been frustrated by articles that wrap up their writing advice in pretty metaphors that show off one’s prose more than they give concrete advice. And yet, there’s gold to be mined in those metaphors. So here’s mine:.

Backstory gives your story heft, weight and shape and help you find a way into your story. But for all that, backstory isn’t your story. It’s just chasing your story down a dark alley.