Category: Writing (page 2 of 3)

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

A few weeks ago Jodie Archer signed her new book written with Matthew L. Jockers, The Bestseller Code:  Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore. It was a rainy day and I went on a whim, but it turned out to be worthwhile, perhaps even life changing. A book signing that was life changing? It’s that kind of book.

 

What the authors did:

What makes a novel a bestseller? Can you predict which books will become bestsellers? To answer those questions, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers used computer models to examine the digital manuscripts of 20,000 novels written over the last few decades. First they “trained” the model using 28,000 features to figure out how a bestseller is different from a non-bestselling novel. Using a reduced set of features (the 2,799 that seemed to have best predictive value), they tested whether they could establish if a novel would become a hit. Averaging over the three different methods they used, they were able to predict whether a given manuscript would become a blockbuster with 80% accuracy.

Writing tips:

Right up front, this book is not a how-to for writing bestselling novels. Some of what the authors found, however, can be translated into useful writing tips. The factors they identified in bestsellers are not top secret, but reflect writing techniques used by experienced and well-trained authors.

For example, they found bestselling novels rarely contain the word “very,” whereas “very” can show up frequently in non-bestsellers. The difference is because experienced authors know to avoid the word. To follow their example, you can find numerous tutorials online about more active and concrete substitutes, such as 45 Ways to Avoid Using the Word ‘Very.’

The book also offers insights into titles, themes, characters, and  plotting. For plots, the authors graphed the emotional turns or “beats,” forming curves.  Using E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey as a case in point, they show how the places where the beats occur in the novel are important factors in determining whether the novel will be a bestseller or not.

Not clear what we mean by emotional curves? Kurt Vonnegut explains more about it in this video:

The bottom line is if you want to improve your chances of writing a bestselling novel, this book will reinforce what you already may have learned with supportive data.

At this time the authors are  not using their model to predict bestsellers as a service. To find out more and sign up for a mailing list, see their website.

Dear Reader:

The Bestseller Code also has much to offer to novel readers. In the final chapter, Archer and Jockers have created a list of 100 books their computer model picked as best reads. How did the computer do? On Monday October 24, 2016 we are going to launched a challenge to read through the list and share our thoughts. For now you can see some of the books on the 100 Book List in the navigation bar. We hope you will join us.

Conclusions:

The Bestseller Code offers an understanding of how computers can mathematically predict bestselling novels.  At her book signing, Jodie Archer encapsulated how this may change our future when she compared how a book can be considered a work of art versus how publishers treat books as products. Perhaps computers will be able to pick the most likely products to become bestsellers, but humans are still needed to appreciate a novel’s value as art.

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (September 20, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1250088275
ISBN-13: 978-1250088277

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Join Us For Two Writing/Reading Projects: First is #NaNoWriMo

Fall is so energizing.  Maybe that’s why we are launching not one, but two writing/reading projects around here. We’ll be announcing the big one next week. We hope you will join us for both.

nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant

First up, is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. Basically, the goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. You can read more about it here. Are you going to sign up? The NaNoWriMo theme for 2016 is “Blast Off.” Let’s do it!

Everyone has different reasons to take part in NaNoWriMo. Mine has been to try to improve my writing skills. Believe it or not, it is actually working. This year I have been preparing by taking an October Prep Challenge, too.  It has been helping not only to develop an extensive background for the novel, but also to develop the habitat of focusing on writing every day.

Writing Project for 2016:  A Thriller

the-hidinggame

 

Premise:  J.R. operates in the shadows, doing jobs for clandestine government agencies they want kept off the record. After he rescues a young woman with a violent past, he and his team find themselves battling a hidden adversary bent on destroying them. J.R. must figure out who is orchestrating the attacks before he loses his life, or far worse, his enemy uncovers J.R.’s secrets.

Frankly, there’s much more to it than that, but I’m keeping some of the juicier details under wraps for the time being.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo in November? What is your project going to be?

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#amwriting: Three Great Writing Prompts

Have you ever tried writing prompts? They can be helpful in all sorts of ways, from writing your way out of writer’s block to keeping your writing sharp when you are between projects. If you like to have everything planned out when you write, using prompts might help you loosen up and become more spontaneous. Plus, you never know where an idea might take you.

3-great-writing-prompts

Today I’d like to share the writing prompts I used with a writing group at our local library.

Prompt 1. “I Am From…”

The first writing prompt came from Writing to Change the World: An Inspiring Guide for Transforming the World with Words by Mary Pipher (around page 33, depending on the edition).

 

Mary Pipher describes a project to write a poem by starting each new phrase with “I am from…” Although designed to be a project to reveal things about yourself, it would also be equally useful to write from one of your character’s point of view, for a character study.

Example:

I am from New England stock, hardworking and stoic,
All about ideas and problem solving
Emotions hidden, feelings invisible.

I am from Lois and Kent,
Sheldon and Beulah,
James and Mabel.

I am from pancakes and eggs,
Fried chicken and mashed potatoes,
Garden fresh tomatoes and green peas.

I am from trees, forests, deer, and lakes,
Winding two lane roads,
Weather and seasons,
Dairy farms and vineyards.

I am from New England Stock,
Deep roots, cut free.

Prompt 2. Found Words

For the second writing exercise I read a bit of Elizabeth Berg’s section about plotting from Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.

Elizabeth Berg is a “pantser,” that is she doesn’t plan out her books in detail beforehand. As part of the process, she collects objects, photographs, and sayings to spark her work. She keeps these “found objects” in a special project folder.

Inspired by her system, I collected one word from each participant and the challenge was to incorporate all the words in a story. Our “found words” included: open, ecstatic, confused, cat, amazement. We had 12 minutes to write. Much to my “amazement,” some of the participants were able to incorporate the words into nonfiction stories.

Prompt 3. Fall

Since it was the first day of fall yesterday, I suggested we write about fall and try to use as many senses as possible.

Some results:

  • The smell of burning leaves, Halloween candy, and pumpkin pie.
  • The taste of cider donuts.
  • The sound of children laughing as they jumped into piles of leaves.
  • The feel of the cold water while bobbing for apples.
  • Descriptions of the colors of leaves.

If you use one the prompts and post your work, feel free to tell us about it and leave a link in the comments.

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#amwriting: Editing Your Manuscript (from an Editor’s Perspective)

Over the weekend, editor/author Ann Videan presented a workshop at Tempe Library. Ann calls herself a “book shepherd” and she gave 15 tips for editing based on her extensive experience preparing manuscripts for publication. Rather than simply repeating all her tips, I thought I would share some of the resources she mentioned, plus add a few of my own.

editing-tips

 

Active versus Passive

Her first tip was to use the active voice and active verbs, rather than passive ones. She has a post about passive versus active voice on her blog. By the way,  Ann Videan’s website is a treasure trove, especially if you are looking for local writing events in the Phoenix, AZ area.

Deep POV

Writing from a deep point of view (POV) is very popular right now. Writing in deep POV simply means writing as if you are inside the character’s body. She suggests reading Michelle Massaro’s deep POV tips and the her deep POV example.

Punctuation and Grammar

Puzzled by punctuation? Ann explained that most traditional book publishers use the The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition by University of Chicago Press Staff as the standard. It pays to take a look at the copy to find out, for example, whether you should use the Oxford comma in your manuscript (yes.)

 

Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 16 edition (August 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0226104206
ISBN-13: 978-0226104201

Take Out Words Lacking Impact

In a previous post about revisions, I mentioned using the “Find” feature in your word processing software to locate words such as “saw” and “thought” and reword the sentences you find them in. Ann has a whole list of what she calls “useless words” you should also search for and remove when possible:

  • Then
  • Got
  • Felt – only for touching, not for emotions
  • As if
  • Seemed to
  • Like (unless used in a metaphor or as a verb)

Find an Editor

Ann Videan’s best advice about editing, however, was to find fresh eyes to edit your work. Your brain has its own autocorrect when it comes to what you have written and it’s inevitable you will miss some obvious mistakes. Book Shepherd Ann Videan might just be the editor you need.

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#Suspense Author J.A. Jance: How A Brush With A Killer Launched Her Career

New York Times Bestselling suspense author J.A. Jance was in town this week signing her most recent book, Downfall: A Brady Novel of Suspense.

Judy Jance is an incredible storyteller. During her presentation she told some remarkable and emotionally-charged stories about events from her own life. She admits one particularly intense event was pivotal because it launched her career as a mystery/suspense writer.

One day in 1970, Jance’s husband was hitchhiking and accepted a ride from a man in a green car. She and her husband lived well outside of town in an isolated area, so her husband wasn’t suspicious when the man asked if his wife was often home alone. Her husband explained that they had dogs.

Within the next few days, Jance learned that there had been a brutal rape and murder nearby. The victim’s friend had spotted a green car at the scene. Putting two-and-two together, she and her husband contacted the police. They learned the man was a serial killer who had killed two other people on the twenty-second day of each month at 2:20 p.m. After realizing the man was dangerous and knew she was often home alone, Judy Jance began carrying a gun. It might have been a wise precaution because when the man was arrested on the 2oth day of the following month, Jance learned that he had intended to make her his next victim on the 22nd!

As one might expect, Judy Jance admitted that the experience changed her. It led her to write her first book, which was a fictionalized account of what happened. Although she found an agent and revised the book, she never sold it. She reported, however, that her second novel sold relatively quickly. It was solidly fiction.

Many things can be taken from this story. First of all, if the detective had taken a few more days to track down the killer, the world might not have J.A. Jance books. On the other hand, if the killer had never existed, she might not have been inspired to write, and if she had chosen to write, she likely would have written something besides police procedurals. Going deeper, you might conclude stories based on true events don’t always make good fiction, no matter how good the writer is.

Beginning writers may find comfort in the fact even bestselling authors may have a “trunk novel” that didn’t sell. Probably Jance’s best advice was that she didn’t fire her agent when her first book didn’t sell, but “fired the book” instead. She still has the same agent, one who has fully supported her career as a bestselling author. What a story!

What do you think?

(By the way, I’m not revealing anything that isn’t already in print. You can read a more about J.A. Jance in an article in the East Valley Tribune from 2004.)

Related posts:

WhoDunIt Challenge with J.A. Jance

Jance interview with Mark David Garrison

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Laura Gibson: Music to Write By

Do you listen to music when you are writing?

I don’t listen when I’m actually writing, but I do look for music to get me into a certain mood or to motivate me before I start for the day.

Laura Gibson (no relation) is not only a singer-songwriter, but also recently completed her MFA in creative writing. Maybe that’s why this song is so inspiring.

 

 

In case you aren’t familiar, the Empire Builder is a train route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.

Some of the lines are haunting. I like that you can see the lyrics so you don’t have to guess the words.

What line(s) do you like best? What kind of music inspires you to write?

foggy-road-writing-prompt

Related:

Pitchfork has more information about Laura Gibson’s Empire Builder album and a review.

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Capitalizing Names of Dog Breeds

At a recent writing group meeting, we had a discussion about how to properly capitalize the names of dog breeds. Because there was no consensus. I thought it might be worth doing some research.

belgian-malinois

 (Photograph of Belgian Malinois by GBokas via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA)

Looking at various dog breeder websites, there is no consistency as to how dog breed names are capitalized. Apparently no rules apply.

I decided to go to a grammar expert instead. According to Grammar Girl, the parts of the names derived from proper nouns are capitalized and those from common nouns are not. To be sure, she suggests checking a dictionary.

Examples:

For the German shepherd dog breed, German is capitalized because it is a proper noun (Germany) and shepherd is not because it is a common noun. Dictionary.com agrees with this pattern of capitalization.

Using this model, a standard poodle is not capitalized, but the proper noun in Labrador retriever would be capitalized. Cross those two breeds, however, and the resulting labradoodle is not capitalized (Oxford concurs).

The dog breed that started the discussion was a Belgian Malinois, which is a type of working dog currently favored by law enforcement. Obviously Belgian is a proper noun, but what is Malinois? It turns out Malinois is also a proper name. It is derived from Malines, the French name for the city where the breed originated. Thus, both parts of the name should be capitalized.

Here’s how to pronounce Malinois:

 

In conclusion, whether you are writing about a beagle or an Irish setter a little research will keep you out of the dog house.

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Untangling The Genre Labels: #Mystery #Thriller #Suspense

A few weeks ago I shared the premise of my “mystery” work in progress with a published mystery author and she said it wouldn’t work. She gave me the following reasons:  There has to be a dead body in the first few pages, the female main character needs to be an expert from the beginning (my character learns her trade and grows throughout the story), a female main character couldn’t learn from an older male character who is her mentor (which would make her look weak, plus is sexist), and to never, never, never have characters who get or are married (which my characters are likely to do at some point). She suggested I shelve the project.

I was devastated. I put aside my manuscript and started working on another book. The stoppage lasted for about a week, until I started to question what she told me. What about Precious Ramotswe, the main character in Alexander McCall Smith’s hugely popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, who rarely encounters a dead body, learns as she goes, and gets married to Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni?  Or how about the protagonist in Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series? She doesn’t fit the mystery detective stereotype. Then it struck me. What if the problem wasn’t the product, but the label?

MysteryThrillerSuspense

The Labels:  Mystery, Suspense and Thriller

The dividing lines between mystery, suspense, and thriller genres can be blurry because:

  • The terms have been used interchangeably in the past.
  • They have been defined differently by various agents and publishers.
  • The definitions are made more confusing by popular novels that cross the boundaries into two or more genres.

Regardless, having a clear genre in mind will help you write and sell your work.

Mystery
Usually the protagonist stumbles on a murder or other serious crime early in the book and struggles to find out the truth about it. The level of danger/action is moderate. The identity of the culprit is the main secret.

Suspense
The crime or murder hasn’t taken place in the beginning of the story and the reader may know more about it than the protagonist. Tension arises from wondering whether the characters will be able to stop bad things from happening. In suspense, the identity of the culprit is usually known. It is not a secret or surprise.

Thriller
Danger and tension are the key words in a thriller. Packed with action, the protagonist and other characters are usually under threat from the beginning and the levels escalate. Some people consider thrillers to be a branch of suspense, or basically suspense on steroids.

Based on these definitions, the best label for my work in progress is suspense. Looking deeper, it turns out there are many sub-genres of suspense.

Some Sub-genres of Suspense

Romantic Suspense
Vastly different novels have been labelled as “romantic suspense,” from the Sisterhood series by Fern Michaels  to Shelley Coriell’s dark, twisty The Apostles series, to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. The common thread is that relationships pop up between characters and prove to be an essential part of the plot.

Domestic or Relationship Suspense
Domestic suspense novels feature crimes revolving around family members. Although examples have been around for awhile, it has recently been gaining in popularity as more readers discover it. Depending on the level of action/danger, this sub-genre may be called a family thriller. Also related is the malice domestic mystery, which involves solving a crime against a family member.

Personal Jeopardy
In this sub-genre an ordinary person goes up against a powerful enemy. Will they be able to prevail? Sometimes if the persons in jeopardy are family members, this may overlap with domestic suspense.

Paranormal/Supernatural Suspense
This is a suspense novel with supernatural or paranormal elements.

Bickering Team or Cohort
Two friends, acquaintances, or a married couple work together to prevent bad things from happening. The less-than-smooth relationship between the two adds to the interest/tension in the story.

Of course, there are more sub-genres of suspense and even more thriller sub-genres. Hopefully, knowing that the different types exist will free you to explore the story you want to tell.

What are your thoughts about these categories? Do you think they are helpful or lead to formulaic fiction?

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If you’d like to learn more about mysteries, thrillers, and suspense, try Carolyn Wheat’s How to Write Killer Fiction

Disclosure: I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

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Awesome Advice from Mesa Writer in Residence @ShonnaSlayton #amwriting

Arizona writers are incredibly lucky this year because our libraries are offering Writer in Residence programs with local published authors. Author Shonna Slayton is the current Writer in Residence at the Mesa Public Library and she gave me some excellent advice this week. I’d like to share the highlights.

Writing Advice 1. Set a Deadline.

When you participate in NaNoWriMo or have a book publisher hounding you for a book, deadlines are obvious. When you just finished your first draft and are slogged down in revisions, you can find reasons to put them off forever. Setting a deadline, no matter how arbitrary, means you will keep making progress toward your goal.

Deadline:  I hope to finish the revisions on my current work in progress by the end of October so I can start NaNoWriMo in November with a fresh new project.

Writing Advice 2. Analyze bestselling books in your genre for plotting, etc.

Shonna Slayton suggested StoryFix 2.0 by Larry Brooks as a good place to get started. Once you reach the website, scroll down to the categories section in the left sidebar. There you will find what he calls “deconstructions” of best-selling novels and movies. Take a look to learn how to do it yourself.

Note: although these deconstructions are more for plotters (those who outline) than pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants), they can be helpful for pantsers who need to make revisions, too.

Personal advice:

She also gave me some helpful personal advice. First, she suggested I shutter some of my many, many blogs. She said we only have a limited amount of time to complete our projects and if we want to accomplish the big ones, sometimes we have to let some of the distractions/little things go.  Following her advice, today I shut down my children’s book review blog, Wrapped in Foil. One distraction gone.

Secondly, she helped me sort out a problem I was having about when to start the narrative of my book. I had started at the point where my main character met her mentor, but it wasn’t clear who the main character was because the story is told from both points of view. I had considered starting later in the story when the main character is stronger, leaving their meeting as backstory. What I had not considered, and what she suggested, was starting earlier at the point where the main character had a crisis that sent her on the path to meet the mentor. Success! I’m now writing passionately again after two weeks of painful limbo.

Hopefully some of Shonna Slayton’s advice will help you move forward with your writing project.

And, be sure to check out Shonna Slayton’s YA books for an enjoyable mix of fantasy and historical fiction.

Cinderella’s Dress

Cinderella’s Shoes

And coming soon, Spindle

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@ShelleyCoriell’s The Apostles Series: The Buried

Today we are continuing with Shelley Coriell’s romantic suspense series The Apostles. The second book, The Buried, FBI Agent Theodore “Hatch” Hatcher and his state prosecutor ex-wife, Grace Courtemanche race to find a serial killer who buries victims alive.

(Affiliate link to Amazon)

As a member of The Apostles, Hatch Hatcher specializes in crisis negotiations. His office is a sailboat where he retreats between jobs, ready to respond to a call on his satellite phone at a moments notice. When the call comes to tell him he has a son he didn’t know about, things start to tumble out of control. Running into his ex-wife who is chasing a serial killer further complicates matters. Can the two of them put their personal feelings aside long enough to catch the killer?

Because each book in The Apostles series features a different set of characters, they could be read as stand alone titles or in any order. In The Buried the romance side is less steamy and more of a slow burn than in book one. Once again, the suspense side is dark, complicated, and the author throws in a whopper of a plot twist at the end.

As with The Broken, the setting helps add to the atmosphere of the book. The Buried is set in Cypress Grove, a town in the Florida panhandle. The background oozes swamps and alligators, adding to the suspense.

At the workshop I attended, Shelley disclosed that she actually put off working on this novel for two years. It wasn’t until she added a teenage character did she find the right mix to move the plot forward. I would say the teenager was a brilliant touch because he adds backstory and conflict in a way that ignites Hatch as a character. She also revealed it was difficult to write about the killer, who has a complicated and painful/sad backstory. She talks more about writing the book on GoodReads.

This title won’t remain “buried” in your TBR pile. The Buried is a compelling story that will keep you hooked to the very end.

Related:  Review of The Broken by Shelley Coriell

Series: The Apostles (Book 2)
Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Forever (October 28, 2014)
ISBN-10: 145552851X
ISBN-13: 978-1455528516

 

egret-florida-white-bird-wildlife-nature-wild
(Public domain photo via Visual hunt)

This review is based on my personal copy of the book.

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