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Beware the Pitfalls   9 comments

July 1, 2019

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

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There’s an old Alaskan saying “He has a mind like a steel trap … rusted shut.” Another saying is “His mind is so open, his brains feel out.”

Keep both of those in mind as I run down what I think are some of the traps aspiring novelists fall into.

I guess I’m no longer “aspiring”. I mean, I’ve published eight books and been in several anthologies and at some point that made me an “expert” looking back at my aspirational days and hoping I can be an inspiration to those who follow me. So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

Trap #1 – Not actually writing the story

I get so frustrated at the local writer’s guild because there are wonderful writers there with some great fictional ideas and they talk about their writing A LOT, but they don’t seem to be finishing any of it or publishing. And, they say things like “Oh, you’re so brave and adventurous.” No, I just got tired of making excuses for not writing.

Social media is a wonderful way to promote writing and is essential in today’s book marketing world, but if you spend all of your time on social media talking about the book you want to write, you don’t actually write the book. You need to bang out some words on a keyboard pretty much everyday if you ever hope to make progress on your masterpiece, pot-boiler or whatever. I do take occasional down days because all work and no play makes Lela a crabby harridan, but I write even when I’m chasing my husband down a mountain bike trail. It’s always going on in my head. And then I spend a few hours over the next few days writing it down so that I’m making progress toward my goal of publishing one book every year.

Meanwhile, I pop into social media, post a conversation teaser and try to spend only a few minutes a day maintaining that web presence, while noting so many aspiring authors planning their promotional campaign before they’ve even finished chapter one of their book. I also see a lot of aspiring writers talking about writing, posting on social media about writing, but rarely sitting their butt in the chair and writing their story. It doesn’t matter if it’s magazine articles, screenplays, novels, or non-fiction, I see so many people talking about writing more than they write.

It takes discipline to turn off social media and write. It also takes discipline to stop “researching” on the Internet and start writing. Yes, you need to do research to not have huge mistakes in your writing, but I’ve had colleagues who’ve spent six months trolling the web for a bunch of nonsense notes they will never use. Meanwhile, I write the first draft filled with parenthetical statements like “research”. I come back to these on rewrite and do my research then, when I’m under deadline to finish and I have a definable goal.

Slow down and focus on the work. You can’t sell a book until it is written. You’re going to spend the rest of your life promoting your books, so you want to make sure your first one is the best book you could have written. I took a lot of writing classes back in the days before you could self-publish. I have done my time in writing groups. I run my books by multiple beta readers and I hire an editor. I do some pre-promotion of upcoming books and I’m running ads on Amazon for my catalog, but 90% of my attention is on creating an original, well-written, compelling book.

Trap #2 – Thinking Your Story is Great

Yes, the bones of your story may be wonderful, but is it interesting and well-written? Will a reader actually care about your characters? Will they remember a single line from your book? Or will they yawn and forget they ever read it? Have you asked someone else who isn’t your mom, best friend or the man you’re sleeping with, what they think?

Especially if you write series like I do, you want readers not only to have enjoyed reading a book, but to want to revisit the setting and characters at a later time because something in the way you use language or the characters you’ve developed makes them want to come back for a second-helping.

The first draft needs to be written. That’s it. If you spend too much time polishing the first three chapters, you’ll never get to “the end.” It’s not easy to stop yourself from going back and making changes. I make notes along the way and keep moving forward. When I get to “the end” I go back and polish to my heart’s content. I call it the “pioneer draft” (reutilizing an Alaska Department of Transportation term for a glorified trail euphemistically called a “pioneer road”) Some authors call it the “vomit draft”. Get the words on the page, so there’s something to fix. Good writing always involves rewriting.

Trap #3 – Not waiting for life experience

I know, I just told you to get starting writing, but some stories can’t truly be written until you’ve lived a little. Synchronicity plays a major role in the creation and publishing process. Sometimes the inspiration to write a book comes to us long before we are ready to write that story. It’s  not a matter of talent or skill. Even the best steaks can be improved with marination. There are defining experiences, conversations, chance encounters,  and epiphanies that we need in order to best tell our story.

Don’t expect to publish the best book you can if you haven’t earned a litlte scar tissue as a human. Don’t publish that book before its time. That said, you don’t want to wait too long. You have to rely on instinct to know the difference. I first wrote the draft for “What If … Wasn’t” 20 years ago and it’s still not ready, but I know it’s getting near. It was a great story based on someone’s true life experiences, but I needed time for my own life experiences and thought-processes to do it justice. The result, I think, will be a far more nuanced and mature commentary on self-destruction, redemption and the prison-industrial complex than I ever could have completed prior to this point. In the grand scheme of things, trust the timing of your life and quality of your craft.

Trap #4 – Craft Matters

There are all kinds of reasons writers fail and sometimes even best-selling authors fall into traps.

I recently beta read a story that had a great plot and one character with 15 names. Really! The writer’s personality shown through at every level, in every scene. Often the only way I could tell that the characters weren’t all the same person was through carefully following the dialogue tags. Voice needs to vary from POV character to POV character, but also within dialogue. In Transformation Project, I’ve got a 96-year-old man from rural Kansas. The way he talks should be different from the way the 28-year-old Egyptian-American virologist speaks. And if you can’t tell the difference when they are talking to one another, I haven’t done my job as a writer.

Originality matters. Writing is not only about what’s written but also about the impact it brings. Fancy words mean nothing if authenticity is lacking. The comedian Christopher Titus says his career was going nowhere until he started being honest about his life in his sketches. You wouldn’t think a schizophrenic-bipolar mom who killed her last husband, a womanizing, child-beating alcoholic dad, and the damaged offspring they produced would be comedic fodder, but I’ve wet my pants laughing while watching Titus prove that contention wrong. As authors, we don’t to lay our lives raw that a comedian does, but the reader senses authenticity when we’re writing with passion and having our characters claim our own truths.

There’s a temptation that many authors run up against. I call it the Stephen King Syndrome. I can’t stand Stephen King’s horror novels. Yeah, I don’t really like to read horror, but it’s also that he writes to a formula so that I can pretty much guess what’s going to happen within a few pages. I get it. He had a publishing deadline and formulaic writing goes down faster than discovery writing. And King proves that to me in his non-horror writing, which I quite enjoy.

Yeah, I’m a writer, so maybe I’m just more aware of the “best-seller plot line”, but I’m willing to bet that any aspiring author reading my blog doesn’t have a following like King’s and so can’t afford to give their readers the blue-plate special of novels. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know — all the writing gurus say to structure your plot this. It’s good to know the rules and it’s better to break them, bend them, twist them into a pretzel and keep your readers guessing — unless you’re writing a mystery and even then, you don’t want the reader to guess whodunit before the end of the first chapter.

Trap #5 – Not managing expectations

You are an aspiring author and you’ve written a great book. Now the hard work starts. You aren’t James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Even if you sell your book to a publishing house, you’ll be doing all of your own marketing and publicity and spending your own money to do it. Welcome to modern-day publishing. It’s easier than ever to get published, but publishers don’t help you unless you’re already famous.

Stop crying, put on your big girl panties and get back to work. You will spend more time working to get your name and books out to readers than it took to write the book. I’m not all that friendly. I live in Alaska for a reason. I like writing stories, but I’m not all that fond of finding the next way to get my books in front of readers. Learning Photoshop for making images, learning to write ad copy, finding placed to put the ad copy and images, tweaking online advertisements, posting on social media — these all take an extraordinary amount of time that takes away from being able to write the next story. If you want to be an “inspiring author” instead of just an aspiring one, these are a part of your life now. Nobody will read your book if they don’t know it’s there.

Learn to meter your time and focus on what is important – writing the next book — but be aware that you do actually need to pay attention to all the window-dressing. And, who knows – maybe you’ll never make more than a few dollars selling that wonderful novel you wrote … or maybe you’re the next JRR Tolkien or Ray Bradbury. They had to do a lot of work to before they became household names.

So my oil for the traps is ….

Just write! Enjoy it. Strive for authenticity. Write the very best book you can and don’t be afraid to let it rest for a few years or a decade until you’ve matured enough to tackle the meat of it. In the meantime, write other books. Be yourself. Be aware of the rules, but don’t try to slavishly follow a strict plot structure or character map. Make sure your characters are entertaining and walk, talk and fart like real people. Let them run through your setting creating their own plot. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get a little messy for your craft, like I did with Hullabaloo on Main Street. And above all, plan to publish because nobody can read your book if it stays on your hard drive.

And because I do have to market my own books, maybe you could help an indie author out and check them out. I promise, you will enjoy them.

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Posted July 1, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Available for #Preorder #discount   1 comment

Book 4 of Transformation Project, Day’s End, is available for pre-order, to be launched in mid-November. If you buy it on Pre-order before November 10, you’ll get it $2 off. And watch for free days of Life As We Knew It and sales of Objects in View and A Threatening Fragility during this pre-launch month.

Setting Makes the Gem   Leave a comment

My friend Jane Bwye asked me for a guest post recently and here it is. The topic was novel setting.

Setting Makes the Gem

Today, Lela Markham shares a valuable message about settings for a book. A very warm welcome to my long-standing friend from Authonomy days; we are privileged to have you with us, Lela – over to you.

*** 

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to interview a jeweller. As part of the interview, he showed me some of the gems he was working on. I was unimpressed. Sitting there on his work table, they were dull and uninspiring. He was apparently used to that reaction because he then showed me what makes gems sparkle. He put uninspiring jewel upon jewel on a black velvet cloth and suddenly, they sparkled.

“Setting is everything,” he explained.

I am a character-driven writer. They appear to me when I least expect them and they want to tell me their stories, which is what makes the plot. Given that beginning, I focus my writing on relationships and how characters interact and react to one another. Setting is an afterthought … and yet, it is everything.

LMarkhamIt’s the writing equivalent of the black velvet cloth or the jeweller’s setting. It is what makes characters sparkle.

None of us live in a void space. We’re all surrounded by the world we live in. I live in Alaska, where the grandeur of the setting definitely can overwhelm the character, but it also shapes the character. People here cannot help interacting with the environment and even large personalities learn you must adapt to it.

When writing, I try always to remember that my characters can’t live in a void space any more than I can. They need a backdrop to sparkle against. Far more than simply a geographic location or an era that makes a nice backdrop for the characters to work out the plot in front of, setting creates a mood and atmosphere that directs the plot and challenges the characters.

For a gem, it’s all about how the jeweller cuts the stone. Similarly, it’s the little details that provide the sparkle by teasing the senses. What would a newcomer or even a resident see, hear, taste, smell or feel if they arrived in your story’s world that moment? Ever notice what people smell like when they haven’t seen a shower for a few days? The sky is blue, except when it isn’t and then it may be all sorts of colours during sunset, sunrise, as a storm is gathering or a tornado is about to hit. What does wind sound like as it sighs through palm trees? Different from how it sounds when it sighs through pines. If there’s an ocean to the east and a desert to the west, the wind from each will feel different on your skin. Small details are pennies that pay big dividends.

While the grand backdrop grounds the characters in reality and provides the reader with something to hang their imagination on, small details evoke the senses and bring the reader into the story.  Whether you start out with a setting that fulfils these requirements or add them later as I do, they are essential to good storytelling and make all the difference in how your story engages the reader.

Author pic ditch close-upLela Markham is the pen name of an Alaskan novelist who was raised in a home built of books. Alaska is a grand adventure like none other with a culture that embraces summer adventure and winter artistic pursuits.

A multi-genre writer, Lela has published tales of fantasy, alternate history, apocalyptic and political satire, but she’s also got works in progress for literary fiction, new adult, YA, mystery and, her nemesis, romance.

Lela shares her life with her adventuresome husband, two fearless offspring and an extremely-happy yellow Lab.

 

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Spark That Lights the Fire   4 comments

Feb. 19, 2018 – Tell us a story about a time when a piece of inspiration hit you. We’ve all had them.

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I get inspiration from a lot of different places. My apocalyptic series Transformation Project comes from news media interacting with my college studies of political science and all the lovely conspiracy theories available out there.

The Willow Branch (The Daermad Cycle Book 1) by [Markham, Lela]But I can’t point to just one point of inspiration. It’s more like a lot of bits of information that finally got together to propel me toward a story.

Now, Daermad Cycle started with an inspirational moment. It was close to 25 years ago. Our daughter was a baby. It was a hot summer day and a rainstorm rolled in. My husband and I were sitting in our one-room cabin, watching the kid try to catch her toes and listening to the raindrops pattering on the roof. Brad turned on one of Enya’s albums.

I remember the dog and the baby were snoring in unison and the music and the rain took my imagination to a new world. It was a rainy green meadow that stretched from high mountains to distant forests. A man was riding a sorrel mare along a trail between tilled fields and intermittent copses of trees. I could see water around the foots of bushes and trees and see young shoots pushing their way into the spring air. And, then, ahead, was a stone wall and a rough gate in it.

And that was my image of Celdrya and the character of Padraig who forms the central ensemble of Daermad Cycle. The scene appeared in The Willow Branch. I wanted to get to know that character and actually, the first several scenes for the book wrote extremely easily. Of course, things have changed as I worked on the early drafts, but that scene had to make it into the published book because … well, it is the spark that lit the fire.

Welcome to Launch Day   Leave a comment

A Threatening Fragility Front CoverA Threatening Fragility goes live today. All my books will be on 99-cent sale this week and A Threatening Fragility will be FREE for four days.

Cai Delaney Speaks   Leave a comment

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November 6, 2017 Open Book Blog Hop

Pick a character from one of your books and interview him or her.

Rules:
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Welcome to the blog. My guest character today is Malacai Delaney from Transformation Project. Thank you for stepping out of the pages of my books and into our world for a brief moment. Tell us something about yourself.

Life As We Knew It (Transformation Project Book 1) by [Markham, Lela]Hi, Most people call me Cai. I don’t know that I’m all that interesting, but I’m willing to talk to you because you are my creator and I’m curious.

I wrote your character to be an intensely spiritual person who is curious about God. As authors are, more or less, the gods of their fictional universes, it makes sense that you would be curious about me. But this interview is about you. Where are you from?

Emmaus, Kansas, which is a community of about 5,000 people in northwest Kansas, just off I70. You know, mainstream, middle America. The most exciting thing we usually have is driving to the State Fair in Hutchinson and maybe drinking a beer in a corn field, round a bonfire after the harvest.

Life as We Knew It available on Amazon

How long have you lived there?

Pretty much my entire life. My father was born and raised there. The family goes back more than 100 years and lived at the old townsite of Jericho Springs before it was relocated to Emmaus for the railroad. Dad was in the military, so I was born in Seattle where my mom is from, but he retired when I was two and went to work for my grandfather at his feed store. I lived in Lawrence for several years through college and grad school.

Was it your intention to live in Emmaus after you got your law degree?

No. Actually, I sort of wanted to move to Kansas City, Wichita, Denver, but my wife – my girlfriend at the time — was offered a job at Emmaus Clinic, working with her mentor Dr. Vashon, so I changed my plans. It’s worked out. The City attorney of Emmaus retired and the City Council accepted my application. I’ve picked up some extra work with Mara Wells — a nearby town that is important to the Transformation Project — and Beulah County. Plus we’re living with my parents, who have a huge house, and that’s allowing us to pay down our student loans.

Do you wonder what happens to your debts in the current situation?

I think I still owe them. I spent the money, after all. Working three jobs — four with Marnie’s job — and living at my parents’ house makes more sense to me than my brother’s way of dealing with student debt. I still don’t know how I feel about what Shane’s been doing the last few years.

Conflicted?

Definitely. My feelings about Shane would be conflicted anyway, I guess, but … I just can’t imagine him as a mercenary, even though I’ve seen him in action.

I tried to interview him, but he’s pretty taciturn.

He’s always been a private person. These days, he’s very closed-up. Something’s going on behind that facade, but he isn’t letting any of us in.

So why’d you go to Wichita and leave him as your dad’s only deputy? Sounds like a cooler head might be needed.

Image result for image of objects in view markhamHe’s not the only deputy. Dad’s got Grandpa Jacob and Joe Kelly really ought to be in charge. He was a deputy before. He’s got training and a more even personality than Shane. But, fact was, I thought I’d be more use going with Ren Sullivan to advocate for the town. I’m a lawyer, not a cop. I didn’t expect things to slide sideways on me.

Do you kind of wish that Shane had come with you now?

That feeling comes and goes. I’m a 30-year-old man. I’ve spent more than half a decade living as an adult in Lawrence. I shouldn’t need Shane or anyone else to hold my hand, but his skills would be nice right about now.

Objects in View available on Amazon

What’s going on right about now?

That’s a long story. The night of the bombs, I’d just left Denver and I got stuck in a traffic jam near Kanorado. Shane knew the military was planning to kill all the people in the containment zone because of the radiation risk, so he came to get me. That was … wow! For as much as we fought when we were kids and even as adults … that he would do what he did to save me … I really need to rethink our relationship. (shrugs and sighs).

I guess the military was still looking for us. When I was in Wichita, the military tried to detain me, but I ran. I dove into a river to get away from the drones and soldiers chasing me. I climbed into a culvert and now I’m waiting to see what happens. So far, no humans have followed up searching for me. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow when the third book in the series comes out whether I’m still alive. Since you started Objects in View by killing over a hundred Emmaus residents, some of them named characters, I’m not real hopeful.

You’re talking to me so as not to piss off the person with control over your fate?

(Laughs nervously) Something like that.

I only kill characters if they stop talking to me, so that’s a good strategy. So, you think maybe someone with Shane’s skills could rescue you?

The guy I met at the Kanorado line sure could, yes.

Are you scared of what happens if they find you?

Image result for image of a threatening fragility markhamVery much so. Shane shot two National Guardsmen. He deliberately shot their body armor, but that’s still attempted murder and this is the military — so I think it’s probably treason. But they had summarily decided my fate without a trial, so I’m … there’s that word again – conflicted. I’m not sure what the charge is if you’re the one who was being rescued.

You’re a lawyer and you don’t know?

Not my field of expertise. Of course, neither is municipal law and I’ve been teaching myself that for the last year.

A Threatening Fragility available on Amazon

Do you have any hope?

Of course, I do. My faith gives me hope in all things. I just don’t know where rescue is coming from. I’m cold, damp, dirty and scared and I want to go home to my wife, take a shower and sleep for a week. (Pauses) Now that look on your face is making me nervous. You don’t have home and showers planned for my future, do you?

It makes a much better story if you have adventures. A Threatening Fragility comes out tomorrow and readers can find out what I’ve got planned. I’ll let you go, Cai. I hope you can get some sleep in this culvert. We’ll see you in the morning … if you survive.

LOOK FOR “A THREATENING FRAGILITY” ON AMAZON AND CREATESPACE TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2017

LELA MARKHAM

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Surprised by My Muse   2 comments

I’m trying a new monthly blog hop on the 1st Wednesday of the month, hosted by the Insecure Writers Group (part of the Readers Gazette).

Their writers’ prompt for September 6 is:

Have you ever surprised yourself with your writing? For example, by trying a new genre you didn’t think you’d be comfortable in?

Why, yes, I have.

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Last year, a contact sent me an invite to join the Agorist Writing Workshop’s anthology project “Echoes of Liberty.” First, I had only written one other short story in 25 years. That had been a teaser for my fantasy series, included in an anthology of Breakwater Harbor Books authors, so it was a shoe-in (so to speak) and based in a universe I know very well. Second, the theme was alternative historical fiction, a genre I hadn’t read … well, maybe since high school. I’m a novelist. I’m a fantasy novelist. I don’t write short.

However, I had determined that there was a niche audience for my Transformation Project series among libertarians, voluntaryists and agorists, so the best way to crack that audience seemed to be to submit to the anthology … and, besides, I like a challenge. Alternative historical fiction with a libertarian theme … how hard could that be?

I did more research for that one short story than I have done for the entire Transformation Project series. I ended up writing three actual short stories. Two of them weren’t very good. I tend to be a character-driven discovery writer and they were all about plot and theme and … yeah.

“A Bridge at Adelphia” was worth a rewrite because the character of Lai could live beyond the project. It is based on the founding of what is now Marietta, Ohio, an area of the country where my mother’s tribe was active around the time that the US Constitution was ratified. My crux for the alternative history was that the Constitution failed to be ratified. And from there … well, I’m not going to give away the story, but it turned out pretty good and I met the theme’s requirements.

What surprised me, besides that I actually made it into the anthology, was that I enjoyed writing it and want to write some more. Lai has more story to tell. I may expand the short story into a full-length novel. It’s an interesting theme — what would have happened in North America had the US Constitution not been ratified? It is especially interesting to explore what might have happened to my mother’s tribe had the Articles of Confederation stayed in effect.

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