Category: Writing Tips & Advice


The one piece of useful advice I received when I was querying my first book to agents was to make sure the story started out with action (check out this article for an example: How to Start Your Novel: What the Movie TRUE LIES Taught Me by Chuck Sambuchino). I’ve heard this advice a lot, especially when dealing with the young adult market, so I took it to heart and deleted the original opening of Welcome to the Darkness. I’m guessing at the statistics, but I’d say 75% of my readers prefer it this way, unfortunately, that means 25% or so think the story starts into the action too quickly. Those people would have prefered a slower opening where we get to know the characters a little bit before everything goes to hell.

Bonus materials for movies and books often include alternate endings… well, I’d like to offer you an alternate beginning! These are the first couple of pages I ended up deleting from Welcome to the Darkness – basically a snapshot of Reed’s normal life before the you-know-what hits the fan. What do you think – should I have left this part in or is it better the way it is?

************ Deleted opening sequence from Welcome to the Darkness Chapter One *************

People always seem to want more in their life: more money, more fame, more adventure. I was no exception, believe me. I was a high school senior and member of the football team (no, not the captain or the quarterback, just a plain old linebacker). I had a small group of friends and I’d dated a couple of girls, but it was nothing very serious or long lasting. I lived with my parents and younger sister on a small farm in the middle of nowhere. My life seemed so freaking normal, of course I yearned for something, anything exciting to happen. Looking back, I realize how good I had it – how great it was to have a home, to have my family, to be alive. To be . . . human.

On a Saturday afternoon in late autumn, I was hanging out at my buddy Jared’s place. There were five of us crammed onto his battered-up old couch. The couch was a disgusting plaid covered with stains and little rips. It was shocking it could support the weight of a single person without collapsing, never mind five teenagers.

Besides being the only one of us who owned a video game console, Jared had the coolest place to hang out at by far. His parents had let him take over an old barn on their property, and he’d fixed it up enough to make it liveable. The couch may have been gross, but it was his couch. Plus, living out in the country, there wasn’t much choice of places to hang out.

Our group of five consisted of Nick, Connor, Julia, Jared, and me. I know, four guys and one girl, but Julia had always been one of the guys. None of us thought of her as anything more than a friend. She was “petite” – she hated it when I said “short” – which made us all feel extra protective of her.

At the moment, she was kicking my butt in Soul Caliber. I sat on the edge of the couch, waving the controller around as if that would somehow help my game playing. I found it annoying that Julia always beat me, and I was determined to get the best of her for once. Suddenly my watch alarm went off, distracting me from the game just long enough for Julia to defeat me . . . again. I jabbed at my watch to shut off the alarm.

“I gotta run,” I said. “Can’t be late for dinner.”

“I’m coming too,” Julia said and she turned and gave me a guilty, sorry-I-kicked-your-butt-yet-again look.

“Hey, Reed,” Jared called. He was too busy setting up the next game to look at me. “You coming back tomorrow?”

“I dunno,” I answered. “I have to finish my homework first.”

No one said anything else as they continued to stare at the small TV screen like a bunch of zombies. Julia and I headed out of the barn to walk home. We walked mostly in silence down the two-lane road past the empty fields toward our respective homes. It was a comfortable silence though. It took about fifteen minutes to get to her place and another fifteen to get to mine. The sun had set by the time I walked in my front door.

My mom called out from the kitchen. “You’re just in time to set the table, honey.”

“Awesome,” I groaned. The smells wafting my way from our small kitchen at the back of the house made my stomach growl.

My sister, Sam, the aspiring fashionista, tromped down from upstairs, barely sparing me a glance. She was way overdressed in a bright blue, sequined top, black velvet leggings, and her curled brown hair was done in a fancy up-do. “When’s dinner, Mom? I’m starving,” she shouted.

“Luckily for you two I cooked enough to feed a small army,” Mom replied, emerging from the kitchen carrying a steaming bowl of beef stew.

I was so anxious to get eating, I even helped set the table and bring out the rest of the dinner without being asked. Dad slipped out of his office to join us at the table.

“So, did you finish your homework, Reed?” Mom asked as I dug eagerly into my dinner. The look she gave me made it obvious she knew full well I hadn’t even started.

“Mmph . . .” I said, my mouth full of food. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“I finished my homework,” Sam said. “And you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, Reed.”

I kicked her under the table and she kicked back.

“Guys,” Dad said. “Sometimes you still act like a couple of six-year-olds, and I have to remind myself you’re fifteen and almost eighteen.”

My sister bit her lip and gave me a guilty look. I returned her look with a mischievous grin.

I’m currently working on book three of my first trilogy and I’ve discovered some interesting things. There are definitely positive aspects to writing a trilogy or a series, but yes, there are also some downsides. I wondered if anyone else had similar observations, but I couldn’t really find any other articles at all about writing trilogies. So, I decided to do this blog post for anyone else out there planning to tackle writing a trilogy, or for people who are interested in learning more about the process behind the scenes.

I’d like to end this article on a positive note, so let’s begin with the bad stuff, shall we?

The Bad Part about Writing a Trilogy

The first book in my Darkness Trilogy has been out for over a year now, and the second book’s release was almost three months ago, so I’ve received a good number of ratings and reviews. Overall, readers seem to enjoy my books, but of course, you can’t please everyone and there has been negative feedback as well. So here’s the biggest problem: there are a couple of things in particular that people didn’t like, but I can’t change those things without losing consistency throughout the series.

For example, I wrote the story from three alternating points of view, which many people liked, but others hated. I got the idea from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series because I loved how she did it. I thought, “If I ever write a book, I’m doing that!” So, I did, not realizing how many people would be turned off by it. But it wouldn’t make any sense to write book three from a completely different point of view, would it? So I’m stuck with it.

Also, people seem to have a huge problem with the “giant” three and a half year age gap between my two main characters. Well, I can’t exactly make them magically the same age in book three now, can I?

So what’s the solution? I think you can avoid some problems by playing it safe, for example, I’ve made the two characters in my next series that become romantically involved the exact same age. However, if you play everything safe, your book will probably end up being unoriginal and boring. I’ve decided to write my next book in a first person, present tense point of view, despite knowing some people don’t like that writing style. It’s what I want to do though, and I accept that I will be criticized for it. Receiving criticism is an unfortunate part of being an author.

The Good Part about Writing a Trilogy

Okay, it’s not all bad, but I feel better having vented a little bit, ahhhh. On to the positives!

I’m not a professional cover artist, but I have done some graphic design, and creating the cover for books two and three in a trilogy has to be easier than for book one. You already have your basic colour scheme and fonts chosen, and in keeping the look consistent, you don’t have to come up with too many new ideas.

Speaking of consistency, you already have your basic cast of characters and you’ve defined the world within your book. It feels good slipping into the universe you’ve created, like snuggling under a familiar blanket. Writing about your tried and true characters feels like visiting old friends.

Here’s a big plus side to writing a trilogy: people like reading trilogies! They enjoy reacquainting themselves with your world and its characters too. It can be tough to keep a series of several books interesting and new, but a trilogy is the perfect length for a balance between familiarity and freshness.

The Coolest Part of All

I know quite a few people who say they’d like to write a book, and they’ve written some stuff, but never finished an entire book. Well, when I finish writing book three of my trilogy, I’ll be able to say, “I wrote a trilogy!” Not everyone will like my trilogy, but I’m okay with that. I’m driven to write, and if you are too, then don’t let anything stop you. Overall, writing a trilogy has been a great experience for me. I only ask one thing: if you read my books and hate the three and a half year age gap between my characters, can you just…not mention it to me? ;)

I’m surprised it took so long actually, but after six months on the market, my novel finally received its first (and second!) 1-star review. Every book out there with more than a handful of ratings has bad reviews, so I expected this at some point. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a published author, it’s that you can’t please everyone.

The thing that made my first couple of bad reviews particularly painful was that they didn’t come along with a wave of good reviews. There had been a dry spell of no ratings at all for almost a month, so when two ratings finally arrived and they were both terrible, it was a double whammy. My initial instinct was to curl up in a corner and cry. My second idea was to drink a glass (or seven) of wine. Eventually I turned to the Internet to find other authors lamenting their own bad reviews. I read a bunch of other authors’ posts about dealing with bad reviews, but the one that cheered me up was this one. Why? Because they pointed out that every book has 1-star reviews, even classic kids’ books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle!

So if you’re in need of some cheering up after receiving crappy ratings yourself, or if you just want a good laugh, check out these quotes from actual reviews on Goodreads of classic kids’ books. Seriously, people will criticize anything… these reviews are so awful they’re downright funny!

On Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne:
- Had Christopher Robin and his silly old bear been shot in the head at the beginning, it could have been a pretty good book.

On Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown:
- Reading Goodnight Moon is like drowning in a huge bowl of oatmeal (or “mush”, if you must): Bland, stultifying, lukewarm, heavy, soggy, and so sticky that it drags you down into its gross beigeness until you succumb to a clammy death in its depths.

On Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt:
- Bunnies disgust me.
- Why on earth would I want my child to rub her fingers on another man’s sandpaper beard? Worst book ever.

On Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson:
- Hey this kid is a total dick. Someone should tell him to put that goddamn crayon away and that drawing on the walls is a total dick move.

On Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss:
- Even in the womb, when my parents would read it to me, I would pitch a fit.

On Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle:
- Horses aren’t blue, cats aren’t purple. Zero stars.

On If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff:
- Why can’t you just give the mouse the cookie and then say “No, you cannot go to school with me and steal my pencil and use it all up to write the story of your life that no one but you can read because mice can’t write in English. You cannot take up anymore of my time so that I have to run around and find very obscure objects and things for a mouse to want. No, you’re fine with just a cookie, and maybe a glass of milk.” Stand up to the mouse.

I’ve read conflicting advice on this subject, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Some suggest that authors can glean pointers for improving their writing from reviews, but I’m not so sure. The problem is that people’s opinions vary so widely, for every person who loved a certain aspect of the book, there’s someone else who hated it. Unless there’s a consensus across the board, it’s impossible to please everyone.

I think it’s fascinating how much people’s opinions differ, so I’ve decided to highlight a selection of actual quotes taken from reviews to illustrate this phenomenon. So without further ado, here are:

Examples of conflicting opinions taken from real reviews of Welcome to the Darkness

The main character, Reed:

  • “Reed was an okay character for me… he was way too whiny”
  • “I enjoyed the action and the characters, particularly Reed.”

The character Sarah:

  • “I didn’t feel as much of a connection to Sarah as I did to Reed and Nathaniel”
  • “Sarah was definitely my favorite character in the book. She was smart and compassionate and not afraid to take things into her own hands.”

The character Nathaniel:

  • “I wasn’t as much a fan of Nathaniel. He’s a bit on the pretentious side.”
  • “Nathaniel was actually my favorite character in the book. He had a very dry wit and humor that I have always enjoyed.”

The action (or lack thereof) in the book:

  • “the story seemed like it dragged along at times, and there were a lot of pages where the three main characters were just sitting around and waiting”
  • “This book from the first sentence went gang busters and NEVER slowed down!”

Alternating POVs:

  • “I wasn’t too keen on the narration going from character to character.”
  • “I love the way Justus flips back and forth telling the story through all three of their eyes”

How the story began:

  • “2% into this book and I almost gave up… the opening scene… should be fraught with emotion, and probably more than a little gore, but instead it was factual”
  • “Justus starts Welcome to the Darkness off just right. It’s immediately action-packed and fast-paced”

How the story ended:

Actually, this is the only thing people seem to agree on (at least, so far…) with the general opinion being they can’t wait to read the next book in the series. Yay!

The moral of the blog post

Reading the reviews for my own book has been highly entertaining, but not one review has affected my cast of characters or my writing and narration style in book #2. Personally, I think I’ll stick with the constructive criticism I get from my writers group and my beta readers, and maybe read the 5-star reviews to boost my confidence.

So, should authors read reviews of their own books? Maybe for entertainment purposes, but if writers are looking for useful input on improving their writing . . . probably not. I think the reviews are more for the readers to figure out if they want to invest the time and money into reading the book or not. :)

Whether your books are traditionally published or self-published, it can be tricky getting them noticed amongst the millions of other books out there. On June 5th (which was six days ago as I’m writing this) I released my latest book cover into the world with the help of many amazing book bloggers. Giselle over at Xpresso Book Tours organized the cover reveal for me and I’m so pleased with the results!

I’m sure there’s lots of other reasons, but here are 5 reasons why I think book bloggers are awesome:

  1. They’re passionate about books in every genre imaginable.
  2. They help to promote authors without any compensation whatsoever.
  3. They create a sense of community world-wide with fellow book lovers.
  4. They help people find books they’ll love.
  5. They offer authors constructive criticism to improve their writing.

Not a single one of the book bloggers who featured my cover reveal knows me personally (yet), but they still signed up to help me out. So I’d like to say a special thank you to each and every one of the book bloggers listed below who featured my cover reveal on their sites. You guys are awesome!

I’ll admit I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but it looks like there are less guys reading in their spare time than gals. Particularly with the younger generation – at least within the circle of people I know – it seems relatively unlikely for a middle-grade or teen boy to sit down and read a book for fun. Not to over-generalize of course, there are always exceptions.

My family is the perfect example of this possible trend: my husband reads approximately one book per year and my ten-year-old son reads maybe 6-10 books per year, including books he has to read for school and graphic novels. As for the females in my family: I read about two books per week on average, and my two daughters read probably 3 or 4 books each per week.

But why is this? You might guess that books can’t compete with video games, but my husband doesn’t even play video games (although yes, my son certainly does). My girls and I also love video games!

Does it even matter if guys just don’t feel like reading? Maybe not, but I’m so passionate about books and reading, of course I want to share it with everyone. So how can we get more boys interested in delving into a good book?

Consider the following young adult (YA) book covers. These are pretty typical of what greets you when you walk into the YA section of any book store.


I’m not saying all the covers in the YA section look like this, but let’s face it, a lot of them do. These are obviously meant to appeal to girls (and women). Also, you’ll find most of the main characters within these books are female. So here’s the next question: are most of the books in the YA section meant to appeal to girls because they’re the ones doing all the reading or is the reason guys aren’t reading more because hardly any of the books are marketed towards them? I’m guessing it might be a bit of both.

I could be way off base here, but my intention with my latest book, Welcome to the Darkness (which comes out in August 2013), was to appeal to both sexes equally. Firstly, the main character is a guy. I believe this might help boys to identify with the story more easily , yet girls still enjoy books with male main characters, like Harry Potter for example. Secondly, my novel is packed with action and adventure; there’s no sitting around trying to figure out what to wear on prom night in my book. There’s also no girl in a flowing dress staring off into the pastel-coloured distance on the cover. And my author name is L. M. Justus, which if you don’t know me, prevents you from knowing whether I’m male or female and thereby instilling preconceived notions about male or female authors.

So, who knows, maybe this method won’t work, but I’d be so thrilled if I found out I’d engaged even one reluctant reader with my writing. I know I can’t please everyone, which will become clear once I get my first set of one and two star reviews. The only way to avoid the poor reviews is to not get any reviews at all, which would be even worse! I think the whole negative review thing is a topic for another post though.

Happy reading everyone!

I’ve recently created my official Facebook author page, which was not as straightforward as I thought it would be. It seems Facebook accounts are set up using your email address, so I figured the first step would be creating a new email address. Turns out, none of that was necessary; you don’t need to create a whole new Facebook account to set up your author page. Basically, your author page is linked to your personal Facebook account.

After much searching around on the Internet, I figured out that I had to go to this page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/create to start setting up my author page. From there, I chose “Artist, Band, or Public Figure” and then I chose “Author” from the drop-down list. The rest of the process was relatively simple.

The part where things got tricky and confusing again was with the Like feature. I wanted to Like things as my author self, not me personally. At first, this was relatively easy – at the very top of my author page it says, “You are posting, commenting, and liking as [my author page] – Change to [me personally].” So I could easily click to choose who I wanted to Like things as. However, for no apparent reason, that feature just stopped working.

I figured out another way to Like things as my author self however. Basically, if you go to a page you want to Like, near the top next to the Like button, there’s a Message button and one of those gear symbols for Settings with a drop-down arrow. The second item in that drop-down list is “Like As Your Page.”

Now all I need to do is figure out how to drum up some Likes on my author page. Of course I started with my personal friends on Facebook, and I had lots of support… unfortunately a lot of my friends Liked my post where I announced that I have a new author page instead of going to the actual author page and Liking it. ;-) Oh well, this Facebook thing is frankly pretty darn confusing, and these instructions will no doubt be obsolete as soon as the next “latest and greatest” Facebook update comes along.

In my continuing quest to share things I’ve learned about how to improve my writing, I’d like to address the issue of showing versus telling.

First of all, what does “show vs. tell” mean? Let’s consider the photo below. You can see the man is angry. In a novel without any pictures however, the only way the reader will know the man is angry is if you tell them or show them.

Angry_Man

Telling:

Example #1: He was angry.
Example #2: “This is the worst customer service ever,” he said angrily.

Showing:

Example #1: His eyebrows furrowed and a vein pulsed in his neck.
Example #2: He clenched the phone so hard his knuckles turned white. “This is the worst customer service ever.”

Telling the reader something isn’t wrong, but you can add flair to your writing and increase the emotional factor by showing things instead. Describe how things affect the senses – how things look, feel, sound, etc. – to paint an image in the reader’s mind.

I think the showing vs. telling advice goes hand-in-hand with the use (or overuse) of adverbs. In my Telling example #2 above, the adverb is “angrily.” Basically, you can get rid of an adverb and show what the adverb described instead. Again, it’s not wrong to use adverbs, but the excessive use of adverbs doesn’t involve the reader in your writing as effectively.

Interested in reading more about Showing vs. Telling? Here’s a few articles I liked, and there’s tons more out there. Good luck with your writing, and don’t worry too much about it being perfect; there’s no such thing!

Show Vs. Tell, by Maria V. Snyder
Show vs. Tell – My Take, by E. A. Hill
Show Versus Tell – The Small Details, by Melanie Card
“Show v. Tell” is a Good Rule to Follow, by Mike Duran

When I joined my writers’ group just over a year ago, one of the first things they constructively criticized me for was my use of the passive voice (versus active). The thing is, I had NO CLUE what the heck active or passive voice meant.

I believe in sharing what I’ve learned to help other people, so here’s my explanation of the difference between the two voices, and how to find and fix the problem.

Passive Voice

washitbyball

Example sentence: I was hit by a ball.

Look at this poor guy. Something bad happened to him. Oh yeah, he was hit by a ball. But do you feel like an immediate part of the action? Can a subtle change in sentence structure give the action more impact?

Active Voice

ballhitme
Example sentence: A ball hit me.

Holy cow, a ball hit him! Now do you feel like part of the action? Sure, the photo helps, but the active voice can give your writing more punch. It’s shorter and clearer. There’s nothing wrong with using the passive voice, but generally speaking, the active voice is better.


How to find passive sentences in your writing

  • Use your word-processor’s grammar checker. I’m using Microsoft Word, and there are a ton of things you can choose to include in its grammar check. It will suggest fixing sentences that might be passive.
  • Search for various forms of the verb “to be.” For example, being, was, and were. When those words precede another verb in past tense (past participle) like hit or walked, there’s your passive sentence. He was hit by a ball.

How to fix passive sentences

Once you find a passive sentence, all you have to do is reword it to get rid of the “to be” verb.

Passive: We were given an invitation by Sam.
Active: Sam gave us an invitation.

Passive: Her car was sold.
Active: She sold her car.

You’ll probably get used to writing in the active voice, hopefully to the point where you don’t have to search for it any more. I know I still use the passive voice in my writing sometimes, but I also know my writing is a lot cleaner than it used to be. There’s always room for improvement; all we can do is try our best!

So you’ve started submitting queries to agents and/or publishers – congratulations! You’re ready for the next step. Unfortunately, I know what comes next . . . that’s right, the dreaded “R” word. Rejections.

Okay, you were probably expecting a few rejections, in fact, maybe you feel like a “real” writer now that you have a few official rejections under your belt. No big deal, everyone knows all of the world’s most famous and successful authors received loads of rejections too.

Wait a minute, now you’ve received more than just a small handful of rejections and not one little nibble of interest. The rejection letters are piling up and it’s starting to hurt. Your dream of getting your book published is going down the toilet. Now what?

snoopy

I’m afraid there’s no magic answer – rejection is a part of life, not just in trying to get a book published. There are some things I’ve learned to help deal with the feelings of disappointment though, so I thought I’d share them with you.

  1. Know that you are definitely not alone. You can talk to any writer who’s ever submitted anything because they’ll understand exactly what you’re going through.
  2. The proof you’re not alone: there are a ton of other articles and blog posts out there dealing with the issue of rejection because it IS such a common thing. Here are three posts I read and appreciated:
  3. It’s okay to feel disappointed – you don’t have to hide it. Allow yourself to feel disappointed for a while, then move on. Come up with a Plan B. Self-publishing, for example, is an excellent Plan B. It’s such a great option these days it’s often an author’s Plan A.
  4.  Instead of crawling into a corner to wallow in self-pity while listening to Adele’s “Someone Like You,” listen to some high-energy, uplifting music! Try Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” or “Catch My Breath.”
  5. Don’t forget, it’s not personal – agents and publishers are not rejecting YOU the person. They need to feel pretty confident they’ll be able to sell millions of copies of your book, and they’re just guessing – they don’t KNOW for sure if your book will be the next big thing or not.
  6. Remember, the only way to guarantee your book won’t get published is to not even bother trying. Sure, you risk rejection by trying, but isn’t it worth fighting for?

positive

Best of luck to all you writers out there. Try to stay positive and continue following your dreams!