Siblings Change Everything

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I’m an oldest child. I have one younger sibling. If you ask us to recount various childhood memories we will remember them differently. The way we grew up, the way people treated us, the ways we interacted with each other, this has shaped our view of the past, and our personalities today.

Our cousin right between us in age and she was an only child for twelve or thirteen years. You can tell. We could tell. Weeks spent at the cabin were interesting. Her personality was different. Her needs and expectations were different.

I studied to be an Educational Assistant and we once took a look at birth order because it does have some effect on personality, in addition to other environmental influences.

Only children are a complex creature. An only child can be very independent, they may learn to entertain themselves, to be content alone for longer periods of time. Depending on other factors they can become independent quickly and benefit from more concentrated parental attention. Other factors can alter this: they may be needy, needing someone to entertain them all the time (I imagine an extroverted pre-school aged only child would be like this), instead of being independent they may be over dependent if the parents do everything for them. Only children have the reputation of being spoiled because they don’t have to share the Christmas budget with siblings.

First borns tend to mature faster, they are expected to help out around the house, to help their younger siblings. They can become resentful of it, or become protective and nurturing, depending on other environmental factors. First borns benefit from being alone with adults until their sibling comes along. They may develop verbal and motor skills earlier.

After that things get complicated depending on how many kids there are.

Younger siblings can struggle to find an identity. My other cousins, two boys, three years apart. The eldest was exceptionally intelligent, like reading Marx in junior high smart. He was serious, dedicated, fairly quiet, even tempered. His younger brother was louder, wilder, and less interested in books and puzzles. He was needy and pouty, at least until he discovered that he could play the piano, and well. Once he found what he was good at people stopped comparing him to his older brother. This one is book smart, that one is musically gifted. Apples and oranges. He had his own identity. This struggle is especially hard for middle children – those who are neither oldest or youngest, but can affect any younger sibling.

Last born, the the baby of the family. You’ll be the “baby” even as an adult. You will always be the last. The last first word, the last diaper change, the last school play. The baby often has a reputation as being spoiled but at the same time they tend to be partially raised by their siblings as well. Often the parents are not pushing the baby to exceed milestones, when they get there they get there. Keep them little and cute as long as possible, especially if it is a planned last.

Historically there were big implications to birth order.

The first born inherited the land and title of the father (if it is a noble or landed family). Freemen also had land to pass down though no titles. In lower class families the first born inherited the shop, the farm, or the trade of their father.

The second son was sent to learn another trade, usually one that complimented the first born’s. Got a family of fishermen? Apprentice out the second son to a fish monger. You breed horses? The second son gets to be a blacksmith. In wealthier families the second son could end up the steward to the first son, depending on just how wealthy the family was. There might also be multiple properties that could be split between them. Otherwise, it’s off to the army where the family’s wealth would buy them a high ranking position.

Third wealthy son? Military, with or without a bought rank.

Fourth wealthy son? Expect to be sent to a church school to serve the church as a priest, clerk, monk etc.

Fifth son and on? Soldier’s life, or trades for you!

In lower classes being battle fodder was always a choice, helping on the family farm or working as a labourer was common. With a little money for gear you could be a “sell sword” working for traders or merchants to protect them on the road. But generally as you went down the line there was less resources to help you get a start on life.

What got me thinking about all this was the huge difference between all this books about teens with no siblings. Or one sibling that’s hardly mentioned. Half the time they have no cousins, no grandparents – they’re either never mentioned or they’re dead or their parents are only children so there are no cousins. When you’re writing you want to keep your cast stream-lined so the reader doesn’t get confused. Why drop in a cousin for a single scene? On the other hand you have the sweeping cast of Game of Thrones. A dozen major and minor houses, each with 1-3 generations – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, in-laws, rivalries. As a fan of the books first and the TV series second I admit that the genealogies are part of the intrigue and appeal of the books.

Having siblings changes a person’s personality and skill set. Only children have less of a chance to learn peace-keeping and compromising skills at a young age (though daycare is changing that in our society). First borns are latch-key kids at 12, escorting younger siblings home from school.

Our characters come to us as teens or adults, but people don’t start out that way. People have a childhood that shapes them, and not just the traumatic backstory stuff, but the little things. At what age did they do their own laundry? Did they have to share a bedroom? That changes you.  Sure, in contemporary western society we’re more likely to have 1-3 children as opposed to the 5 Stark children or (heaven forbid) the 36 recorded Frey children! Even in historical fiction 5-10 children is more than enough!!

As writers large families are hard. Each must be memorable, physically and in personality, or they blur together. It’s tempting to leave off the siblings and cousins for simplicity’s sake. But if we had a world of only children we’d be forgoing the influence siblings have on our characters’ development. As well, siblings can add nice little subplots to fill out a novel, and they give your characters someone to talk to, care about, hate, compete with, or protect.

In the end the choice is the author’s, it always is. But I think that a literary world of only children is going to be bland. I think it’s already on its way there.

What do you think?

The Struggle of the Self-Published Author


I’m not a self-published author, but I do have a few books out with a small, digital only press. I have been researching the self-publishing process, and I have been listening to concerns and complaints from the self-published author’s I know. The short version: self-publishing is hard work with little reward.

I discussed a little of what goes into the act of writing in my previous post: A Picture’s Worth 1000 Words – but I’ll discuss it in depth here.

First of all, a novel length project, depending on genre and the preferences of the author, requires at least minimal brainstorming, outline, and character/world development. If this is the only thing the author works on for the 2-4 hours they have each day to dedicate to their craft (between family and work commitments) it can take anywhere from one-to-a hell of a lot of days. Still, let’s say on average about two weeks of consistent time spent to make a cohesive outline, four tops if it requires a full world build. That’s 196-784 HOURS just of writing prep. Some of this will take place before the writing starts, some will take place during the writing process, but it will happen.

Second, the novel needs to be written. If we omit the days when the writer works on other projects, sits in front of the screen suffering from writer’s block, and browses Facebook, it will still take anywhere from 30-365 days, or more, for the piece to be written. And those are just the days when writing occurs. Keeping in mind our 2-4 hour per day schedule that’s 60-1460 HOURS of raw writing time. MINIMUM. And that’s for 30-50k. You want something 80k? Try 2920 HOURS of raw writing time.

Third, there’s the editing that the writer does for themselves. No out of pocket costs, just more time. Say one week total for all the various read-throughs and rewrites. That’s 14-28 hours. Now, add to that the option of buying the services of an editor, at least $50, probably closer to $250.

Fourth, there is the final draft and formatting. This is probably 4-8 hours of setting margins, checking for typos, correcting the header/footer, setting font style and size to industry standards, formatting page size to the self-publish website requirements, etc.

Fifth is the cover. $50-$300 for a semi-professional or professional book cover by an artist. Or 2-20 hours of tinkering with it on your own.

Six is the book blurbs and the promotional blurbs and the summary for your blog and the about the author info. This probably takes another 8-12 hours of fussing and asking for opinions and more fussing.

Seven is sitting for 2 hours and fighting with the various upload systems.

And there you have it, it’s done and online. So what did that cost the writer?

Minimum Time Commitment: 2226 HOURS
Higher Time Commitment: 3354 HOURS
Minimum Cost out of Pocket: 0$
Maximum Cost out of Pocket: $550
Average Cost out of pocket: $100
Minimum Wage (Approximation): $11/hour
Time Costs: $24486-$36894

Cost of the book on Amazon? $1.99
Author Royalties? $0.34
Number of book sales required to break even? 72-110 THOUSAND books sold.

Number of Facebook friends, blog followers, Twitter followers, and offline friends who will find out about the book release (overlap has been taken into account) 100-500 people.
Percentage that will buy books: 50%
Guaranteed sales (sales you can count on before you even finish the book): 50-250 sales.

Yeah, 250 is a lot smaller than 72,000. If every person who bought the book convinced one more person to buy the book it would take 288 successful steps in that chain to reach the 72,000 mark.

It’s possible. The BIG books out there are selling millions of copies. What’s 72k compared to that? But it’s a big step above 250, which is the most sales most of us will ever see. Sad but true.

The one thing we didn’t discuss yet was marketing. All the time and costs that go into blogging, tweeting, Facebook page updates, ad design, paying for ad space, book mark design, time to distribute book marks, etc. This can take as little as one hour per week, and as much as a person is willing to give.

In my next post I’ll be looking at a free marketing platform that may interest self-published writers.

A Picture’s Worth 1000 Words


Today a fellow writer on the NaNoWriMo Facebook page made the following comment:

Paying for artwork… now this has been a hot topic with me before (not sure if it was on here), but I don’t believe any drawing, no matter how good (unless you are friggin Royo) should cost 300 dollars/euro’s/pounds or more. I understand that you want to cash in on your abilities and get paid for the hours you spend drawing, but as a writer, if I calculate an hourly rate of the work I put in it a book would actually be impossible to are willing to trade me a small mansion in the south of France for it. I write because it is my passion, you draw because it is yours. I am not getting vast amounts of cash because your artwork is on my cover (again, unless you are friggin Royo), it’s just something nice to wrap the words in, so be reasonable. A 50 for a drawing is plenty. End rant. Peace.

As you can guess this created quite the debate. For the most part people were advocating that artists get paid a decent amount for their work. The definition of decent varied between 50$ and $300 depending on the size and style of the art, the medium (original painting vs print vs cover art vs digital etc), the talent of the artist, and the preceding fame of the artist. There was also intense argument over how much writers should make, and why the discrepancy between art and writing.

That’s all the recap you’re going to get. The rest of this is my opinion on a hot topic. 

Let’s start with artwork, shall we? Artists are talented individuals, some more than others, and each in their own area. I know many artists, some who work with traditional drawing mediums such as pencil, charcoal, and coloured pencils, some who do graphic design, some digital artists, a few photographers, and a couple of painters. These are people trying to make a living in the artistic world (except the two painters, they aren’t “professional” artists per say but that’s off topic), most of them work as graphic designers for local businesses, taking care of web page maintenance and updates and helping with ad campaigns. They work a 9-5 job for a wage doing graphic design related work. I can’t tell you how much they make because I don’t know, but since they’re all less than 10 years out of college I’d say they’re not making the BIG BUCKS yet.

So, when you buy a book cover, or hire a photographer, or buy a print of a picture in any medium, what are you paying for? Just an image? Just a few hours of someone’s time? Or are you also paying off the four year art degree? And the equipment and supply costs? Look at any other commodity. When you buy fruit at the grocery store the cost includes the produce, the cost of shipping it to the store, the wages of the person who put it out on the shelf, the wages of the person who supervises the shelf stocking staff, and a portion of the costs of maintaining the store (electricity, janitor, water, etc). When you pay for a university course you are paying for the professor’s time and knowledge, access to the classroom for one hour, the wages of the person who has to keep that room clean, the electricity for the lights in that room for one hour, the heating of that room for one hour, and the upkeep on the desks/tables/chairs. When you think about it, there are a lot of hidden costs to everything we buy. And artwork is no different. 

My sister is a photographer. For a one hour photo session she spends 30 minutes checking her equipment and loading it for the session, 15-45 minutes driving to the session location, 15 minutes setting up, 15-30 minutes in conference with the client deciding on poses, locations, group configurations, etc., 60-120 minutes actually taking the photos, 15 minutes packing up, 15-45 minutes driving home, 60-120 minutes reviewing and editing the photos to correct lens glare, red eye, over saturation, under saturation, and blurs, 15-45 minutes loading the photos onto a transportable medium, 15-45 minutes driving back to the client, 30-60 minutes reviewing the photos with the client and collecting the money, and 15-45 minutes to get home. Plus wear and tear on the equipment. Plus fuel costs. Plus someone has to watch her daughter while she’s working. Plus she has a student loan to pay off. So for a 1 hour in home photo session she puts in 5-10 hours of time plus additional costs. And most people want to pay her $20 for one hour of taking pictures. 

Do you think she’s getting paid fairly?

Other artists are putting time and supplies into their artwork. Plus the costs of making prints, and paying for a booth somewhere or internet hosting costs. They have to put those costs into the price of the artwork or they’ll lose money.

How many times have you seen someone ask a friend to do their photos for free, to design something for free, because they’ll get “exposure” for it? When my sister was still in university she would do my family photos for free because she was building her portfolio and because there was no travel time or client conference time since we lived together and we could talk over dinner. But now she’s trying to make a living at it so I get her to do my family photos only if we’re going to see each other anyways (she’s coming over for dinner this weekend and bringing her camera) and I pay her for the time, and I get my own prints at my own expense, and I still let her use the photos for advertising herself. They’ll pay $15 for a 6000 word erotic story – no credit to the writer. 

I work an average of 4 hours per day when I’m on a deadline (two hours while my daughter naps and the other two either before the kids are up or after they’re in bed), 6 days a week. It takes me just over a week to write a 6000 word erotic story. It takes me 5 weeks to write and edit a 40,000 word novella. So at 24 hours per day or 144 hours per week, that would work out to 1440$ per 5000-6000 word short story and $7200 per 40k novella – and that price includes all the editing and formatting. But I’m not getting paid that. I’m getting paid 15-75$ for a story and $400 for the novella – with no royalties. 

Besides time, what are you paying for? I have a BA in English Literature so I understand the mechanics of a story, character building, imagery, subtlety, etc. I took courses in grammar and punctuation and I do take on work as a freelance editor. I have a laptop that occasionally needs work. I have to pay for a word processing program. I have to pay for an internet connection so I can communicate with my clients/publishers and deliver my work on time. I have to spend time managing my various networking and job search accounts so I can promote myself and find more work. And I have a naturally creative imaginative mind which I am putting to work for you – in other words, natural talent and ability. Other writers are also paying for editors and cover artists.

If I self published a novella I wouldn’t charge $7200 for it. The difference between art and writing is that art is a one time sale (for the most part, or a limited sale in the case of prints) They rarely get royalties, even for book covers, and they don’t mass produce. But I have 127 friends on Facebook. Considering that some are related to each other and live in the same household even if every one of them bought a copy of my book out of support that would be 110 copies, tops. Add the 10 copies that other NaNo writers might buy in support, and maybe another 10 that my blog followers might buy in support that’s only 130 copies. Add another 15 for friends and family who aren’t on Facebook and that’s 145 copies. And this is thinking BIG. Realistic would be 75 copies. That’s right. Out of 200+ friends, family, and acquaintances I could count on less than half of them to actually buy a copy of the book to show support and of that 75, only 5 will go back and post a review. Anyways, that book is worth $7200, and I would get about 35 CENTS per copy in royalties through Amazon if I self published it. And we said a guaranteed 75 copies sold? $26.25. To get paid a decent wage for that book I’d have to sell 20571 at $1.99. And I have to do all my own marketing. If I pay for any ads or bookmarks or posters that means 100 or 1000 more copies before I see a profit. 

If you have any friends in the Indie publishing biz ask them how many copies of their books they’ve sold. I’m better 90% have sold less than 2000 copies. 

That $7200 was just for the story. It didn’t include the editor (which runs $50-$300 dollars) or the cover art (which runs $50-$300 dollars – and was the start of this whole debate) because as a freelance writer I’m not expected to provide those things. As an self-published author, I am. So now we’re looking at $7800 for all out of pocket expenses, including time, which is 22,285 copies. Or 22,200 copies more than I know I can sell. 

What about traditional publishing? At least then I’ll get a four figure advance and some chance at royalties. But even at a $2000 advance and $2/book there’s this clause that says the advance is against future royalties, I need to sell more than 1000 copies before I see any extra money. Still, at $2 per printed book, that’s 3600 copies to make back that $7200 figure we’ve been using as an example. But of course you have to pay taxes on that like everyone else, and EI, and CPP (I’m Canadian), and you pay your agent out of that so you’re only getting $1.50 per book before deductions (now we’re looking at 4800 copies). But you don’t pay for the cover and you get the book into physical stores. Still, that’s 4725 more copies than I know I can sell. Which is why it’s so hard to break into traditional publishing.

And it all comes down to the fact that people don’t want to spend 2$ on an ebook by an author they’ve never heard of because if the book sucks they’re out 2$. People don’t want to chance it on a $20 book because if they don’t like it they’re stuck with the book cluttering up the house and they’re out the money. At least with artwork you can preview the piece in its entirety before buying. Same thing with music. It doesn’t help that writers and artists aren’t supporting each other – advertising for each other, providing word-of-mouth recommendations for writers they like, liking pages and blogs, sharing links and release news, BUYING from each other. It doesn’t help that so many non-creatively engaged people are surrounded by so many “starving artists” and “starving writers” that they can’t support all of them. It doesn’t help that we’re under-pricing ourselves in the market place. It doesn’t help that our culture no longer values books and art. 

I suggest we work to change things. Charge what you’re worth. Advertise for each other. Let’s put some value into art and literature again.


Unbreakable, Bendable, Breakable – Rules for Writers

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Yes, I said rules. Not guidelines or suggestions. Rules. Why? Because there are some rules that are completely unbreakable. The rest really are more like guidelines and suggestions but I’m sticking with the term rules.

1) Spelling – get it right. Between the computer spell checker, your own knowledge of your primary language, and your ability to utilize dictionaries and proofreaders, there is no excuse for spelling errors. If big name authors can put out 900 page novels with less than two spelling typos in the finished, published product, you can too. Alien languages, ancient spells etc. are exempt of course, but keep your spelling consistent.
2) Grammar – get it right. While there are more grey zones in grammar than in spelling, and the rules are more complicated, you should put the effort in and get it sorted out. Getting the words of your sentences in the right order is critical for reader understanding.
3) Punctuation – there’s wiggle room with some punctuation marks, and you may need to use some marks in weird ways if you are conveying alien languages or ancient rituals but there are rules to follow. Learn them and use them properly.
4) Sentence Structure – part of this is grammar, part of this is punctuation, part of this is identifying sentence fragments and run on sentences, part of this is identifying places where the sentence is confusing. If the story is not readable people won’t read it. Craft each sentence carefully so its meaning isn’t lost.
5) Consistency of Facts – yes, people lie. Yes your characters will lie. Yes you can use that to build suspense within a story. But a fact is a fact is a fact. Don’t let characters change names or identifying features without explanation. Keep geographical features consistent. If there’s a lie involved that needs to be explained, either at the time of the lie or when the truth comes out. If you lack this consistency you’ll confuse the reader to the point where they put down your book and never pick it up again.
6) Consistency of Tense – if you’re writing in past tense, stick to it. Same if you choose present tense. Yes, there are a few, rare, situations when you need to switch tense, most of them dealing with flashbacks or occur within dialogue. But overall you’ll need to pick past or present and stick with it for the entire piece.

Why are these bendable? Because while it’s a good idea to follow them, most of the time, there are more occasions when you’ll want to soften them, or forget them completely.
1) Consistency of Point of View – there are multiple POVs to choose from: first person (I did, I thought), third person singular limited (image a parrot sitting on single character’s shoulder, whatever that parrot sees or hears can be related to the reader), third person singular omnipotent (like the parrot example, but you can hear that character’s thoughts), third person multiple limited (or fly on the wall, your fly can follow anyone anywhere so lots of events can be related to the reader), third person multiple omnipotent (like fly on the wall but you can hear anybody’s thoughts when needed), second person (you saw, you did – VERY hard to write) – some are easier and more common than others and each serves a different purpose. MOSTLY you’ll pick one POV and keep it for the entire piece. Sometimes you’ll change POV, alternating between two first person narrators for example. This is allowed but the change needs to be clearly marked.
2) Dialogue Tags – this is the part that comes before or after the dialogue that identifies who’s speaking. MOSTLY you’ll use very simple words like ‘said’, ‘shouted’, ‘asked’, ‘replied’ or ‘whispered’ – and of those ‘said’ is used most often. For the most part we do just speak to each other. Sometimes you’ll need to put some force behind some dialogue, or some emotion, or some action, and that’s okay. “Get the hell off my property!” he bellowed – is very different from – “Get the hell off my property,” he said through gritted teeth, his hands tightening on the shotgun. OR “Kiss me,” he whispered VS “Kiss me,” he demanded. Those descriptive words exist so use them, but rely mostly on ‘said’ and other things like actions and separate descriptive sentences to get emotions across to the reader. Variety is the spice of life after all.
3) Adverb and Adjective use – some very strict writing instructors will tell you not to use them at all. It’s impossible. However, you can make your writing heavy and slow if you overuse adverbs and adjectives. Space them out, use them sparingly to brighten up your writing, and avoid cliches. Golden hair is so overused – why not sun-kissed blonde, or ‘like a wheat field’ or glowing blonde? Try to find interesting new combinations of descriptions, one unique descriptive phrase is worth 10 cliches.
4) Character Names – Yes, you need to name them, or at least give them a title to refer to them by. As a suggestion, make the names most of the way pronounceable. Avoid randomly changing the spelling of a common name (writers often replace the letter ‘i’ with the letter ‘y’) unless you have a reason. Same for “hippy” names or culturally uncommon names – they should have a reason for being there. For a true life example – a woman I knew lived in Vietnam and had two children, she and her husband and those first two children had traditional Vietnamese names. Then they moved to Canada and she worked for my grandmother for many years. Here she had a third child and she wanted to give him a good Canadian name (she chose Patrick and no one had the heart to tell her it was Irish). If your character isn’t Asian (or if you’re not in a future setting where Asian culture has dominated the world) then don’t give your character an Asian name. Alien and fantasy settings do have their own “rules” for naming characters but give each race or cultural group a style of names. One other point, I always try for variety in the first letter or overall sound of the name. Having an Aewyn, Aelwyn, and Aelfhaven in the same book (a prince, a goddess, and a place respectively) would be too confusing (so Aewyn got his name changed because the other two were culturally based and had to stay). I’ve honestly put down a book because I kept confusing the first two characters because the names were too similar. Now, I do have a Jonathan, son of Johann and a Ronan, a Richard, and a Robert in the same family. In some cultures that’s the way naming within generations worked (There’s a Robert, a Robb, and a Robin in Game of Thrones after all). The best thing to keep in mind is that you want to keep things fairly easy and straightforward for your reader.
5) Scene Order – it makes sense to write from point A to point B to point C and on to the end. But sometimes we need flashbacks or memories, and sometimes we want to write completely out of order, placing a nearly last scene first (Megamind) or even more scrambled (The Time Traveler’s Wife). Always keep scenes clearly marked if they are not in chronological order! If there’s no good plot or presentation reason to mess with the natural order of time then leave it, just for simplicity’s sake. But there’s nothing saying you can’t play with your timeline as long as the story remains interesting and understandable.
6) Format – who said a novel had to be prose anyways? You can write it as a series of letters, like CS Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” or as poetry like Ellen Hopkins “Crank”, “Glass” and “Fall Out”. Remember, when someone picks up a novel they are expecting something familiar. If you’re going to step outside of the traditional here you need to grab people, and keep the clarity of storytelling.

These are rules that shouldn’t even be rules. They’re more like conventions.
1) POV choice – you can choose anyone to “tell” your story. 1st person, 3rd person, I read a story that was told by the house plant of all things. It was very good actually. Some are more common than others. Some are easier for short pieces while others are better suited to long pieces. There really is no rule here except clarity and consistency. And we already know consistency can bend as long as clarity is maintained.
2) Tense choices – immediate past tense and present tense are the most common choices. You can choice either of these or play with others (like far past tense which is used for extended flash back stories, or future tense). Present is hard to maintain in longer pieces. There is no rule for which to choose, only preference and how which works better for your story. (Oh, and scripts are in present tense).
3) Language Choice – I don’t mean English vs. French. I mean using technical jargon, profession specific words, and fancy language. Don’t go to the thesaurus just to spice up your writing, but if there’s a little used word that is perfect for your work, use it. If we all use the same dreary words over and over again we’ll lose all creativity!

This is way longer than I intended, and I’m sure I’ve missed rules. If I get enough comments on things I didn’t cover I’ll do a part 2.

Sending it Out

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The story is finished and edited. Congratulations. You’ve made it farther than a lot of writers. But you’re not home free yet. There’s a lot to do before the public will ever see your work. The first thing you need to do is make a very important decision: self-publishing or traditional publishing? There are pros and cons to each, and that’s the subject for another post. But I’d like to present a short to-do list for each option.

1) choose a platform, be it Amazon, Good Reads, Lulu, Kobo …. there are lots out there. Remember, you should not have to pay to be published. Self publishing platforms and print on demand platforms tend to take a small share of the sale price from each unit sold or copy downloaded. If they want you to pay to have copies printed, up front, out of your pocket (and you’re not placing an order for them) they are a vanity press. You don’t need a vanity press when there are so many other options.

2) choose a format – digital or paper or both. Digital is so cheap and easy to do you’d be crazy not to. Most platforms are digital only with a few print on demand sites to mix it up. With the technology available, digital really is the future for the publishing world (another controversy for yet another blog post)

3) get your (generally) free membership to your platform, download the formatting guides, and study the upload system and the pricing rules. Yeah, there’s research involved. You can still change your mind if you find you don’t like something about this platform.

4) format your work according to the guidelines, get a cover.

5) upload the document and the cover, set the price, and you’re off to the races

6) self-promote and start writing the next book

While there are still a handful of publishers that will accept unagented manuscripts your best bet for a first book is to get an agent. I don’t have an agent yet so I can’t tell you how to get one, only the process.
1) Research – find literary agents accepting submissions in your genre for your intended reading audience (age group).

2) Follow the query instructions (which will include writing a cover letter or query letter, a summary or synopsis, a log line, and/or an author bio) and send them out

3) WAIT.

Repeat steps 1-3 until an agent gets back to you WHILE working on the next book. If you finish the next book before you get a response to the first book start sending out the next book (provided they aren’t a series) If an agent contacts you give them exactly what they ask to see in a timely fashion.

The agent will take care of sending the manuscript to publishers for you, they will help you with the contract negotiations, and they can answer some questions for you, as well as give you a little guidance about the market so you can plan your next book.

Sending straight to a publisher who accepts unagented submissions is basically the same process. Research, prepare, send, wait, repeat.

Query letters, synopsis, summaries, bios – I’ve never had to write them so I can’t give you concrete advice. I can tell you to research them extensively and as for help from your readers. There are also things like in-person pitches to agents at writing conventions, I live in a small city, we don’t have this where I live so I can’t help you. This is definitely a tedious, soul-wrenching stage that can take YEARS if you go the traditional route. If you’ve gotten this far I wish you the best of luck, and please, if you get an agent or a book deal, please share your advice with the rest of us!

Bringing it All Home


Actually this post is a little misleading. You’ll be repeating this step in between every edit and every reading done by a friend/family member/editor because you’ll have new changes to make. Let’s take a look at the types of edits and how to apply them to the original document.

Now, one good method of backing up your work is to save a copy of the finished, unedited manuscript on an external drive or your preferred back up location. Having a print copy that never sees a red pen is a good thing too, if you can spare the paper and ink. This is so you have a copy without edits to go back to in case you don’t like a major change, or you want to compare an edited passage to the original. Save a second copy on the computer, with a new name (like TITLEDRAFT2) and do your edits on there.

TECHNICAL – this can be tough when you’re editing, but actually applying the changes is easy. Many times you’ll be reading on screen and you can make these edits as you read. Or you’ll be running the computer spell checker. If you have comments on a word document, or scribbles on a page, it’s as easy as retyping a misspelled word or adding a comma. There are a few places where you’ll need to completely rewrite a sentence but often I’ll have done that by hand on the editing copy so I just need to copy in the changes. Sometimes, however, I’ll simply make a note (like “choppy” or “smooth this out”) and then I’m stuck sitting there tinkering away with it.

CONSISTENCY – name changes are easy, use the Find/Replace tool. If there are timeline consistency issues you may have to make multiple changes across multiple scenes, especially if you have a work with extensive travel or season changes. For example, if it actually takes four weeks, not three, to travel from point A to point B you need to change every reference to that trip so it matches. You may have to change setting details, like the weather, because a week’s difference in early spring is huge in some places. You may also have to change references to fixed events, such as birthdays and holy days. Having a timeline or calendar can help keep that mess straight and tidy. While it’s tedious, it’s mostly checking facts, not creating new scenes.

CONTINUITY – you may to rearrange scenes to correct timeline issues. This requires the same tedious fact checking I just mentioned. It also includes editing the transitions between scenes – the entrance and exit of characters, the introduction of setting, removing a setting or character intro because of redundancy, etc. After a major continuity edit have someone read it for redundancy and confusion issues. This is time consuming because you will have to recreate parts of scenes, move pieces about, and fact check.

AUTHOR SPECIFIC – if you had a specific issue, like the new casts that were worrying me in my short story, hopefully you’ll have feedback directed to that issue. The note I got was “this sounds to personal. try listening to some news on CNN or CBC to get a feel for how the people talk” then I sat down with my dad and discussed his feedback, he gave me specific lines in the story that needed changing. With his suggestions in mind I went back and rewrote those segments.

DIALOGUE – if your dialogue is cliched find a way to spice it up. If a conversation is confusing start by adding more dialogue tags. If a conversation is bland add more emotions and reactions to the dialogue tags. Break up dialogue with little notes on character description and settings and character emotions. Or use dialogue, even thought dialogue, to break up long pieces of description.

CHARACTER COMMENTS – what if you get that dreaded comment “the characters feel flat”? Well, step one is to get more details. Where in the story did the character fall flat? Is it their dialogue, their personality, their actions, their appearance? Do you have too many background characters with no real purpose? Your readers may even have suggestions for spicy things up.

Step two is to do some character brainstorming. Because my fantasy novel has a large cast and I didn’t want the characters becoming so similar to one another that you mistake one for another I made a list of their goals and motives. Why do they act the way they do? Why does my fantasy princess want to fight with a sword? Why does she hate dresses? How do I stop her from becoming a cliche? I did this for the two leading ladies and the main cast. With the background characters I looked at each and asked “Why are they in the story? What plot lines are they involved in? What purpose do they serve?” Each named character had to have a purpose, they had to propel a main character into or through a situation. They had to provide a problem, or the closure to a problem. They had to do more than walking in, say a line, and walk out.

Doing the background work may be the easiest part of that edit. Applying that to the story is difficult. Go into scenes where main characters interact and, armed with your new knowledge of goals and motives, see if you can spice up their reactions, or their expressions. Add a few snippets of back story or memories or flashbacks. Keep your eyes peeled for cliched phrases, facial expressions, settings, and situations. You don’t have to delete them, just give them a new spin. Hopefully your readers have picked a few of these out for you. After a major character edit get another read through. If it’s just a few scenes that needed work send just those scenes back to the reader. If it was a whole piece edit send the whole piece for another review.

SETTING COMMENTS – sometimes people will note that your setting is cliched, too vague, boring, non-existent … setting is crucial to plot and can be set up in a few words, “a hole in the wall cafe” for example, or over a few pages with short descriptive paragraphs and little notes and dialogue. Setting tells the reader where they are, the time of day/month/year/season, the weather and so much more. Setting can set the mood or the pace of a scene. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader with details all in one large clump but if your landscape is too sparse you’ll lose the reader (geographically, not as in “I put the book down”). This is a little easier to edit because you can go through and add details to transition scenes and dialogue tags (He shivered as the cold autumn rain trickled down the back of his coat. “Why are we still out here?”).

GENERAL OPINIONS – Character and setting will generally come mixed in with the rest of the general opinions. You may also get notes on overall readability, the acceptability of the level of graphic/explicit content, and if the plot was believable. Readability is addressed mostly in technical (smooth sentences, well ordered paragraphs, enough dialogue tags) and partly in continuity and consistency. Believable is partly setting, partly plot, partly character. This can be a bugger to edit and may result in MAJOR reworkings. The acceptable level of graphic and explicit content changes depending on intended audience, genre, and who’s reading it. Take these comments seriously and examine the questionable scenes. If you can achieve the same emotional reactions with less gore/sex etc. then go with less. Subtlety is an art form of its own. If you’re writing slasher horror, maybe your reader is just squeamish. If everyone says it’s too much, tone it down. If all but one person says it was fine don’t worry about it, or just tone down a little.

After all the readers are done with it, and they’re all saying “it’s looking really good” you have to let it sit. This isn’t always possible with short stories since we’re often writing them for specific open calls with deadlines. But if possible ignore the piece for a few days or a few months. Stephen King’s rule (and I’m paraphrasing again): the longer you work on it the longer it will take you to gain that unbiased professionalism needed to really see the work for what it is.

After that wait time give it an honest read through. The edit process this time should be fairly short, just some little tinkers. Then stick a fork in it baby ’cause it’s done. All that’s left is the logline, synopsis, summary, cover letter, and back of book blurb. But those are issues for another post.

Critical Readers – Tips for Readers

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So, a writerly friend has asked you to read their work and you’ve agreed. Congratulations, you’ve completed step #1! Reading to critique, or to help a writer, is different from simply reading for pleasure. Here are some things to keep in mind.

#1 – writers need readers who can help them polish their work before sending it out to the public. No one gets it right the first time and very few writers can get it right on their own without that second (or third or fourth) set of eyes. Open any work of fiction and there will be names in the acknowledgements listed as “first readers” or whatever phrase they choose. So, when a writer asks you to read an unpublished manuscript, please say yes. Obviously if you’re swamped to the point of breaking, for your own sanity say ‘not right now’ but please offer to read another project, or this project at a later stage.

#2 – Be clear on what the writer expects of you. I used to post work on a writing forum, asking for help. I was a lot younger then and I knew my writing needed a lot of work (it still does). What I’d get were comments like “Nice work” or “Not my preferred genre but you write well”. What I wanted were comments like “Good chapter but about halfway through the dialogue falls flat” or “You know the servant’s name changes half way through this section”. What I needed was technical and consistency editing, what I got was general opinions. When you are given a piece ask straight out what the writer is looking for. And go back and read the Tips for Writers article since it details the types/stages of the editorial process. If they need help with technical, give then help with the technical. Of course if they want consistency help and you notice a typo, highlight it for them anyways.

#3 – Be honest about what you can provide. If you’re not very good at technical editing, say so. Offer to help with consistency instead. If it’s a genre you don’t like, say so. Don’t read to give a general opinion because you won’t be able to comment on the quality of the writing if you’re too busy disliking the genre. You can read for technical though since typos are the same in every genre. Be honest about how long you think it will take, how much you have on your plate, etc. I gave a piece to my dad and didn’t realize he wouldn’t have time to read it before the contest deadline. Lack of communication on both our parts and I missed a good contest.

#4 – Be clear and detailed in your notes. How you edit will depend on your personal style/preference, and the physical format of the piece (paper or screen). If working on paper make typo corrections directly on the text (red pen not required). Short comments and notes can be made between the lines or in the margins. Longer notes should be made on the back of the sheet or on a separate paper. Put a number 1 beside what the note reference, circle it, then put a #1 beside the comment (next comment gets a 2, etc) so the writer knows what you’re talking about. If you’re working on the screen you can use the Comment option. Select the word or phrase that needs correcting, hit New Comment, and type in the correction. For a longer passage highlight the first word, or the last period, and write out your note. You can also use the separate sheet of paper (either a notepad in front of you or a new document on the computer) as long as you signify which comment lines up with which part of the story.
Typos don’t require any explanation when you correct them. Things like missed words or changed names require a brief note (hey, you missed a word here, maybe “her”; who’s James? did you mean Jeff?). If you notice something that distracts you, bothers you, is confusing or flat or unbelievable, or generally doesn’t sit well with you for any reason, you need to point out what and why. “This section of dialogue was confusing. I lost track of who was talking.” “Amy starts out okay but by chapter 3 she felt like a cardboard cut out. Her responses are too cliched.” “I couldn’t read chapter 5, it was too graphic for me. I know the murder is a major part of the book but you might lose readers if it’s too gory. Try focusing more on the emotional instead of the physical? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.” Etc, and so on. Writers need that level of detail so they know what you were thinking and what other readers might think. That gives them a direction to take the changes.

#5 – Be polite and respectful. Yes, you are being asked to point out mistakes. That doesn’t give you the right to be cruel, rude, or mean in the process. Saying “your story sucked, I couldn’t read it” tells the writer nothing except that there are a lot of errors, of some sort, and you’re a grump. Saying “I found the story hard to read because of all the typos. Could you do another edit and give it back to me? Or would you like me to do some technical editing for you?” tells the writer why you didn’t like the story at this stage, and what they need to do to fix it, and it’s politely conveyed.
When I do a read through I always include a brief cover letter to the writer. I start and end this note with something positive about their work: a character I loved, a chapter I found delightful or witty or well written, an overall sense of liking the book, or the readability was great – whatever.
So, start with a positive:
“Dear Writer, I finished reading your story. What a great concept for a novel!”
Then a brief overview of each aspect of the book:
“Your writing style is easy to read and the pacing was good. I did make a lot of technical corrections, especially in the earlier chapters. (They can go to the manuscript for details) I did find the relationship between FMC and MMC awkward at times. I left you some notes about that. There were a few other scenes that need some work but overall I think you’re on the right track.”
Then your positive ending:
“Keep up the good work, I can’t wait to see it finished. Signed, the Reader”
That positive beginning and ending may be the only positive words you have to say about the entire work. And even if you give nothing but ‘negative’ feedback, be polite, offer encouragement and suggestions, and remember, you don’t have the right to crush a person’s dreams.
EXCEPTIONS: if you’re reading a really rough draft for your sister or best friend and it sucks and you know that turning to them halfway through the story and saying “Hey, this sucks” with a laugh in your voice isn’t going to hurt their feelings, do it. But be ready to sit down and discuss why it sucks in heavy detail. Writers love detail.

#6 – Be clear about payment. Often we read for friends or family members and we do it for free. Sometimes we are reading in a professional or semi-professional capacity and we’ll be paid per page, per hour, or per project. If you’re doing this as a favour consider asking for payment in the form of a coffee date. You get a free coffee, they get the chance to talk to you about the notes and suggestions you made. This gives the writer a chance to brainstorm with someone who has read the book. If you both write, be each other’s reader. They can also watch your kids or mow your lawn if they really feel they need to pay you. Most writers don’t have A LOT of money to put into their craft – not after you consider postage, buying paper and ink, the initial software cost, keeping their computer in working order, and just basically trying to survive while their writing isn’t actually making them any money. Writers should offer to at least mention you in the acknowledgments, especially if they’re not paying you.

There you have it. Tips for readers. Next we’ll look at applying the edits, then the extras required for publishing, and then a guest blog about rules for writers.

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