The conference will be virtual this year and the organization has again invited me to speak.
Here’s what I’ll be presenting. I’ll also be participating in The Blue Pencil sessions, 15-min. meetings where authors can ask about anything related to writing.
I hope you join us!
Flaming Good Dialogue: How to Create Unforgettable Characters Through Exchanges That Singe
11 a.m. PST Sat., April 10
You think you’ve got fantastic, unique, bestselling characters? You’ll have to prove that to readers, not only through your characters’ actions, but also by what they say, how and when they speak almost as important as what words they use. In this workshop, you’ll not only learn how to sidestep the most common dialogue pitfalls, including why characters all too often wind up sounding alike, but also how to employ the five techniques that will make your characters unique and eminently believable.
The Little Red Riding Hood Dilemma: What Kind of Publisher to Aim for, Big, Medium/Small, Self
9 a.m. PST Fri., April 9
10 a.m. Sat., April 10
Over 2 million books a year are published annually in the United States alone. That intense competition pushes authors toward three avenues: publication through a big publisher, a medium or small publisher, or self publishing. This workshop will offer the advantages and disadvantages to each, while helping participants form a concrete path for their current project that includes resources for pursuing that route.
Now available via Amazon and all other online booksellers.
For me, dialogue makes or breaks a book. Cliche dialogue typically indicates cliche characters. What do you think?
If you’re a writer, help is on the way via the 2-hour online workshop I’m teaching this Saturday in which I’ll combine lessons in character development with dialogue. If you know a writer, pass on the news! I’ll post the description at the bottom.
There’s no way your character can authentically voice a fabulous comeback, desperate plea or brilliant courtroom argument until you know exactly how s/he operates! Through discussion and writing exercises in which you’ll actively work on your own characters and scenes, Martha Engber, author of GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP will first explain how to grow your characters, whether for a memoir, novel, screenplay or other project. Then she’ll teach you the secret to fantastic dialogue that leads to exciting, unforgettable scenes where your characters truly speak for themselves!
What a treat! Vogue’s poetry reflects her demeanor: emotionally accessible. The way she read her ode to British singer Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, was unbelievable. She cried during the recitation, the emotion such a natural outpouring of her powerful words. She’s a truly talented spoken word performer! If I get a chance to share the Zoom recording, I will.
She was the Poet Laureate of Clark County, Nevada, during with she read her poetry during events now posted on YouTube.
Do you feel unqualified to read poetry? If so, try reading Vogue’s work, or listening to her speak her work, because she’s clear and passionate in talking about universal topics: love, loss, self-doubt.
I’ll be teaching three writing workshops in March and April. In anticipation of so many of your stories pouring fourth as a result, and to encourage them, I’m offering the above giveaway. Entry is easy! Subscribe to my newsletter via my website and email me about what you’re currently working on. If you’ve always wanted to write, enter! If you have loved ones who aspire to pen stories, pass on the news!
Though only 75 minutes long, I plan to pack in simple, yet effective process for developing characters your readers fall in love with during Grow Your Great Character and Plot on Sun., Sept. 13, during the SavvyAuthors 2020 WritersCon.
I’ve created a great slideshow packed with writing exercises, so plan to come ready to work on your own character.
I’m including the syllabus below to give you a detailed idea of what we’ll cover.
I hope to see you there!
To demonstrate how, if we writers spend the time necessary to understand what makes our character tick at a deep, internal level, the character will write an exciting plot all the way to a dynamic climax.
What’s Your Story About?
Exercise #1: In one sentence, what’s your story about?
A word about exercises: Don’t panic if you can’t easily complete an exercise. Instead, make a note to start at that point during your next writing session. Sometimes writing one simple sentence can take hours of thought.
You and Your Character
Definition of a character: a living person
Definition of a great character: consistent, believable, admirable
Types of characters and their general purposes (page 22 in GGC):
Protagonist: goes on a journey that leads to an epiphany
Antagonist: opposes the protagonist
Catalyst: jumps the tension by greatly upping the size/severity of an obstacle
Support: supports main character
Side: brief appearance
Exercise #2: In one sentence, what’s your character’s type?
The Defining Detail
A defining detail:
shows the reader what makes a character tick
can be based on a prominent physical characteristic, incident, imagined
blemish, object, what interests you most about the character
must be specific
Exercise #3: In one sentence, what’s your character’s defining detail?
Use the defining detail to reveal:
What the character fears most (internal belief)
What he’s motivated to do (external behavior)
Once readers know what scares the character most, they can understand his motivation and interpret his actions. He’ll strike readers as both consistent in how he views the world and believable in what he does.
Exercise #4: In one sentence, what does your character fear most? In one sentence, based on that fear, what’s he/she motivated to do?
The Five Questions
What defines your character? What’s her greatest fear? What motivates her? What’s her greatest strength (cause for admiration)? What’s her greatest weakness (point of vulnerability?
Exercise #5: In one sentence each, answer the last two questions. (Hint: the last two answers should match.
And obstacle is the same as a conflict. Your character wants to do one thing, but faces the prospect of being forced to do the opposite.
Obstacle/Conflict + Action = Scene
A scene is when your character is in one emotional state, confronts an obstacle/conflict, takes action (he/she is a doer), and as a result changes to another emotional state. Over time, those small changes lead to the character’s final transformation.
Series of Obstacles/conflicts = Plot
Obstacles should increase in size and intensity and drive the character toward the moment she confronts her worst fear (the story’s climax). Each obstacle should be organic, meaning the new conflict/obstacle is a direct result of the previous one.
Exercise #6: Create a list of the obstacles your character encounters. Do they get progressively bigger and more severe?
By independent press, I’m talking about publishing houses that put out 2 – 15 books a year, are typically operating on a small budget, have a relatively small staff and operate as a traditional publisher. The last means these presses offer a clear and written contract that states they’ll publish your book within a certain time period and take a stated percentage of the profits. They DO NOT ask for money from authors.
If a publisher suggests you’ll have to pay fees up front, the company is most likely a vanity press that helps authors self-publish: for a fee, the company helps put the book together. The company may even help market the book for an extra cost.
Now for the 5 reasons why an independent press may be the road to your success:
The large conglomerate publishing houses like Random House and Hachette are literally closed to submissions by authors. To get your work considered by them, you need to get a literary agent who acts as a go-between.
Getting an agent can take a month or years and so adds to the publication process.
In contrast, authors can submit their work directly to small independent presses.
Here’s the process:
Find a small press that seems suitable for your work.
When you find a possible publisher, carefully peruse the company’s website. I read the “About” page that states the press’ mission, then go read through the company’s catalog of books to see how closely they resemble mine.
Follow Submission Guidelines
If I perceive a possible match, I follow the submission guidelines and send the requested information, typically a query letter that includes a bio, a synopsis and 1 – 3 sample chapters.
Almost all publishing companies take only digital submissions via email or Submittable or via another online submission management form.
Electronic submissions have greatly reduced the time necessary to collate a submission package, not to mention there’s no paper wasted nor money spent on postage.
Occasionally publishers will require a $10 – $25 reading fee, but that practice is, as yet, rare. If you don’t want to pay the fee, move on in your search. If you decide the charge is fair, given most small presses operate on a small budget, pay the fee.
When I first began submitting to literary agents in hopes of landing a contract with a large publisher, they would typically respond within a number of months. Nowadays agents get so many submissions, they stipulate in their submission guidelines that they won’t respond unless they’re interested in your work.
Since literary agents are the gateway to big publishers, you and your work can languish while waiting for a response. And what happens when you reach the end of agents who are suitable to query?
In comparison, I’ve found that small independent presses are reliably responsive. They’ll give you a yay or nay within the time period they specify on their websites. Most take simultaneous submissions, which means you can submit to them while also submitting elsewhere. If you get your manuscript accepted, the etiquette is to withdraw your book from the other publishers to which you’ve submitted so they won’t spend more time considering your work.
In the past, a publishing company would typically publish authors from the country where the company is based. Most of the books would be for audiences in that locale.
But times have changed and independent presses have been at the forefront of embracing what’s now commonly known: the reading public has gone global. People — like me! — love to read about other places by authors from those foreign locales.
The editor of Vine Leaves Press, for example, lives in Greece. The publishing director lives in Germany. The company is based in Melbourne, Australia, and the authors are from all around the world. I’ve had a marvelous time connecting with writers who live in other countries and who’ve had such different experiences!
Many independent publishers are nonprofit. Those that are for-profit are usually not in the business to make a lot of money. Instead, the presses are operated by people who love to read and want to produce books that further their particular vision that appeals to a specific group of readers.
Some companies are passionate about nature and publish works where nature is front and center. Others love mysteries set in the Wild West era. Others promote stories by traditionally marginalized people, whether due to sexual orientation, ethnic or racial heritage, or other reasons.
Because small presses are not looking for the next big blockbuster, they can be gutsy and take risks big publishers won’t touch for fear of not making enough money.
Connection to Audience
Because small publishers have equally small budgets, they require authors to play an active role in promoting their books.
This can include:
putting together a media kit with a press release, photos, Q&A questions
building and maintaining an audience via a dozen social media platforms
pursuing publicity opportunities, such as guest blogging gigs, interviews on podcasts or getting articles or other work published
creating extra content for their book, like the below playlist I made and circulated on social media and that reflects the tastes of Mary Donahue, the 15-year-old protagonist of Winter Light.
If you’re new to promotion, the above can be absolutely overwhelming.
But if you—
take one step at a time
pay for help that fits your promotional budget, whether purchasing Facebook ads, hiring a book consultant (as I did with Kate Tilton), or paying a pro to arrange a blog tour (as I did with Rachel’s Random Resources)
share ideas with other authors
all while describing the journey to your readers
—you’ll get to know those readers so well they’ll feel loved and willing to accompany you on your next book adventure.
A Last Note
Life is too short to spend it waiting, or worse, suffering from the repeated message your work isn’t suitable for a mass market.
Instead, consider looking for an independent press that seems like a good match to your book. If the editor extends a contract, and those at the helm respond to your questions in a timely, considerate way, consider going that route.
The best moment in my life was when I no longer sought the favor of agents and large publishers, but instead moved toward the independent presses — and their authors and readers ! — that enthusiastically embraced my work.
Author Byddi Lee has created a dystopian tale in which she’s nailed all three facets of great science fiction:
a flawed, yet highly admirable main character readers care about
a plot that accelerates in intensity and speed toward en exciting conclusion
a deftly-written narrative where facts and descriptions about the world are slipped in around the character’s actions, thus creating a smooth read
Three reasons I loved this book!
The setting is some twenty years after aliens attack the earth, causing billions to die and ice sheets to melt so high there’s little arable land left. Most people live in subscrapers embedded in the ocean floor and that rise high above the surface. To control the population, no one can have a child until someone within the family dies, typically an older person, who feel pressured to die and make room for the younger generation.
Dr. Bobbie Chan is a doctor who works in a subscraper off the coast of Ireland with the ultra-elderly, 110 or older, whom she loves. Every day she tells her patients they have value and should live to the fullest until the very end, a passion that makes Bobbie extremely admirable. What she doesn’t divulge is that the death of her twin sister when they were young so traumatized Bobbie she fights the very existence of death.
When a strange disease spreads among her patients and the elderly elsewhere in the world, causing them to seemingly get younger, Bobbie at first sees the heightened quality of life potential. But when enough disturbing symptoms emerge, Bobbie begins to suspect foul play on the part of the Belus Corporation that runs the world. Bobbie’s diehard commitment to her patients’ wellbeing pushes her to investigate.
The author does such a fine job of slipping in descriptions of this new world and its advanced technology that there’s never a feeling of being overwhelmed. Instead, the story stays riveted on Bobbie’s changing emotional state and her fight for truth based on her belief that no one should be made to feel like a burden.
Often books and conferences for writers focus on the big parts of stories, such as plot, characters, pace, dialogue, etc.
I tend to approach writing in the opposite manner. Specifically, that the best writers are those who start from the smallest of details and build upward. My logic is that if they’ve taken the time to imagine a single, spot-on gesture, they’ve thought through the characters and story with equal care.
In the short story collection titled Cheers, Somebody, author Katie Lewis consistently nails the minute details that make the characters and their interactions real. Often simply admirably precise, other details are appropriately blunt and crass, while others are painfully truthful. Together the constant and consistent attention to the smallest parts of each story quickly create the mini-universe that is a short story, while also providing that necessary spin of uniqueness on common themes of love, loss, conflict and culture.
Choosing an example from the multitude is difficult, but here’s one from the first story for which the book is titled:
Collins danced his empty cup on the table, making a pock-pock-pock noise with the indented bottom’s echo until Stew placed his hand on top of the cup to make it stop.
The author continues that careful attention to detail throughout the story’s dialogue. Here’s an example from Ink J, the story I found most powerful.
“I, uh, I don’t know how to bring this up,” Bilson after several silent minutes of chewing rubbery licorice. “Not ‘I got news today’ or ‘Here’s something,’ but, well, I suppose. Anyway. I found out today that my college roommate died.”
While I’d term most of the stories accessible literary, a few stretch the mind, including a dystopian love story and a tale that uses brief and highly intimate scenes to portray the narrator’s relationship, seemingly with one man.
The teen age of the protagonist is obviously not a deciding factor. My upcoming novel, Winter Light, for example, has a 15-year-old protagonist, but is not a YA novel. And think of Scout, the protagonist who ages from 6 to 8 over the course of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is not YA, either.
The current definition of YA is a category of books for readers age 12 to 18. Interestingly enough, the YA Wikipedia page notes that almost half of YA audiences consist of adults. The page also mentions that in 1802, a young writer named Sarah Trimmer for the first time differentiated between books for adults and for those in “young adulthood” between the ages of 14 and 21.
The following decades produced a variety of classics featuring young adult protagonists, including Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Then in 1967, 15-year-old S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders about the troubled kids at her school. That was the first book specifically marketed to young adults.
And there you have it, the obvious answer to the initial question: marketing. YA has since branched out in the same categories that apply to adult books: mystery, romance, sci-fi, cyberpunk, Christian, etc.
Yet the more subtle answer seems to lie in the treatment of subject matter. While many YA novels deal with adult themes — sexuality, abuse, love — the language is typically softer and cursing is at a minimum. That and the stories often revolve around what’s important to young adults, such as working through the transition to growing up, establishing independence and developing principles to live by.
Literary works, which appeal to people who like to puzzle about human nature, tend to focus more on the underlying themes of humanity. Think of Lord of the Flies where the shipwrecked boys quickly establish a power structure based on the physical prowess necessary to survive along with the ability to charm and persuade, which mirrors the power struggle in most societies.
Similarly, in my novel, the underlying premise is how some people are born under a tremendous burden simply by virtue of who they’re born to.
If you have anything to add, please do! I live for literary discussion.
I was happy to receive an advance copy of this book. I was even happier to truly appreciate the author’s restraint when it comes to telling vs. showing.
I’m not a fan of books that explicitly tell me everything, which implies I’m too stupid to figure things out for myself. Carolyn R. Russell, on the other hand, doesn’t make that mistake in this new YA dystopian thriller, In the Fullness of Time. Instead, she has confidence in the intelligence of her young readers and drops them into the States — a filthy, overpopulated urban environment — right behind the story’s teen protagonist, 17-year-old Somerset, where they have to fend for themselves just as she does.
The slang and terms used immediately create a sense of claustrophobia, both physically and emotionally. In this world, only the children of the elite go to school, where they’re fed propaganda. Somerset is one of the few who reads the “old-timey flatbooks” from the Lost Ages to learn how the world could have changed so drastically. She’s also one of the few who has access to Hydracomputers. She’s afforded such privilege because she’s one of the privileged, a status she despises.
The only hope of getting fresh air in this chokingly-controlled society is for Somerset to follow the trail of mysteries that begins on the first page when she snatches up a little girl who falls amongst the street masses and is almost trampled. By showing such compassion for innocence, and such intolerance for the few privileged at the top, Somerset reveals the bravery and independent spirit of a true hero.
Wearing her clerical robes, Somerset clandestinely performs acts of rebellion with her antiauthoritarian friends. With every action she takes and every questions she asks, she forges ahead to expose the government’s criminal acts, both in relation to the masses’ cheap food source, ‘Brix, and the mysterious means of Revving, an act the government bills as a spiritual transformation and that Somerset suspects leads to a much darker outcome.
At some point I plan to write a book about showing vs. telling, probably the trickiest aspect of writing anything. When I do, I’ll call upon such examples of how to respect readers’ intelligence.