Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Better Blurbs: Write Before Chapter 1

 This Week's Topic: Writing Better Blurbs

Once upon being a baby writer, I hated writing a blurb. What is a "blurb," you ask? It's the 100-200 words on the back of the book that describes what your book is about in a way that will make readers want to buy it. It's also used on the sales page for your book at most online retailers. It's SUPER important. It's not something you can skip doing. Oh, sure, you can outsource it, but why pay for something that's actually going to save your ass?

Wait, what? Save me? The author? Yep. I said what I said. As a baby writer, I wasn't able to distill my 90k-250k novel into 150 words. Why couldn't I? It took me a long while to answer that question, and the humbling truth was...

There was something wrong with my story.

I know. I know. I know. You're thinking, "KAK, that's impossible! Your works are flawless!" I thank you, dear reader, for that misbegotten belief. (Keep buying my books, though. I swear they get better and better!) However, the inescapable truth of why I struggled with the blurb had nothing to do with "distilling" the novel, and everything to do with a messy plot. I couldn't say it in one sentence because the story didn't hug the plotline. My novel was a freakin' Tree of Life with lots of branches running away from the trunk. It somehow managed to have an ending (probably an unsatisfactory one), but the middle was a disastrophy. How can someone summarize that many tangents? You don't. You also don't publish that book in that state. All hail The Blurb for finding the HUGE problem before the invasion of the 1-star reviews tank your hard work. 

The three pieces of a blurb are Hook, Character, and Conflict. 100-200 words works out to roughly two-three sentences per section. It's not very much, is it? This blog post is a lot longer. 

The Hook is a one- or two-sentence plot summary that should carry throughout the story (no matter how many twists) and be answered/ resolved by the end of the book. Even if your book is one of a series, that Hook is specific to that book. You're going to use, reuse, and morph that hook all over the place, from advertising to in-person conversations. Learn it, love it, and keep it SHORT.

Character Tip: in genre writing, especially SFF, your character description should include a "classification" that is recognizable to fans of the genre, combined with what makes your protagonist unique from every other protag in that class in your genre. Example: A rock-eating, parasite-wielding, fire warrior is the short description of my protagonist in my high fantasy LARCOUT. "Warrior" is the classification that readers of the genre recognize. "Rock-eating, parasite-wielding" are the uncommon traits meant to lure the fans. Did I have that in the initial blurb? No. Have I used that short description in social spaces in the 8 years since publication? You betcha. Lesson learned? Ayup.

Conflict: If you can't summarize the 500ft -view of the conflict into two or three sentences, go back and take a look at your plot. Did you lose it around Ch13? Did you make it too complicated? (I suffer from this problem, which makes the book clunky and hard to follow. A too-complicated story is a story  readers put down and never pick up again.) In the conflict section, add a thrill by including what's standing in the way of the protagonist's success, but also what price the protag will pay for failing. 

The best piece of advice I can offer for writing better blurbs is: 

Write your blurb before you write your book
(then go back and revise it once you're done with the 1st draft)

Girl, you crazy! Nah. I'm serious. Writing your blurb before you write your book forces you to really think about "what am I trying to accomplish with this story and how am I achieving it." Plus, it saves you so, so, so much rewriting during edits. True for plotters and "organic discoverers." 

Friday, March 3, 2023

Ethical Dilemmas in Writing

Ethical situations in writing. Hmm. I've had a situation where I felt I was being dealt with in an unethical fashion by my agent. When an editor offered information that confirmed my suspicions, the relationship with the agent was severed. I would like to tell you that was the end of the ethical dilemmas I've faced in writing but it isn't. That particular situation cast a long shadow and to this day, I shy away from looking for representation because the agent I fired is still out there and most of the agents in publishing know one another. I'm probably being unreasonable about this. I admit the situation has probably played an outsized role in how slow I've become at getting books together. What's the point if it feels like there's no where to go with them? Anyway. Whose idea was this topic?? I didn't intend to write my own psychoanalysis in blog post form today.

Most of my minor ethical dilemmas have to do with the business end of writing. The squick about finding a new agent is one. The other my confusion over requesting reversion of rights on books that technically never go out of print because they were never in print to begin with. I suppose I could resolve that with a letter requesting reversion of rights of digital works and see whether the lawyers laugh me off. Yet is seems to be one of those things I never get around to doing because I seem to define conflict avoidant. Ye gods. Again with the psychoanalysis. Honestly. The other issue I have is promoting books that have been out long enough to be learning to drive. That may not strictly be an ethics issue to anyone but me. I feel pretty strongly that back list should be promoted, yes, but with the expectation that the back list being promoted isn't still a series in progress that hasn't seen a new book in several years. This is me remembering how much I hated finding a series I loved only to find out I couldn't binge the entire series because the final few books weren't finished yet. You'd think that would hurry me up on finishing a series, wouldn't you? No one's more annoyed with me than I am about it.

Ethics, fairness, and honesty matter. It's possible I read too many superhero comics growing up. I want people to feel better for having worked with me. I don't want readers hurt because I'm being racist or because I'm culturally appropriating what I have no business in. At the same time, I recognize that the difference between appropriation and appreciation is caring (and actual research and sensitivity advisors from within the culture). I'm not going to avoid writing an experience or culture that isn't mine *if the experience or culture is intrinsic to the plot*. If it's window dressing, ethically, I'm out. I'll find some other way to evoke a feeling - some way that doesn't objectify another person's way of life or race or gender/lack thereof or orientation. And maybe all of this last paragraph isn't really about ethics - it's about respect. But in the end, I feel like ethics and respect are entwined. We have ethics because we respect ourselves and we respect the other people who share the world with us. Or maybe I'm just naive. Still.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Do Good

Ullr the Husky Pup standing in a snowy embankment

 Ethics—what thorny issues have you dealt with or worry about as an author?

So far this week Jeffe and KAK have posted about conflict of interest in our writing world. So I’ve been trying to come up with anything else to do with writing ethics. But I have’t found my author self in any thorny issues revolving around ethics. 

The closest instance I can come up with is that I’m a member of SFWA’s romance committee and as part of that group I want to be sure we’re doing our best to provide an even playing field. 

So many things in life aren’t fair or even, which means if I’m given the chance to attempt to make it so, I sure will. And I hope you will too. Never forget to look around you and extend a hand to those who could use help. I don’t mean overextending yourself. I’m talking about things that are small and easy to you, but to someone who is struggling they’re huge. 

If you put good out in the world, karma will send it back. The age old: do unto others as you would have done to you. And so I hope your weekend begins with all the good things which include many words!

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Ethics and Authoring - When Is COI a Problem?

This week at the SFF Seven we're talking ethics. We're asking each other: what thorny issues have your dealt with or worry about as an author?

I can't say that I've dealt with thorny issues as an author. The ethics there are pretty clear to me. But then, I'm often described as a very ethical person, which pleases me because being ethical is a core value of mine. 

Most of the ethical issues I wrestle these days are author-tangential, primarily in my role as the President of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association). As a 501(c)3 charitable organization, we have a fair number of ethical lines assigned to us by the IRS in order to maintain our tax-exempt status. One of the primary concerns is that I avoid "self-dealing." What this means is that I can't line my pockets with SFWA money. Remember Unicef in the mid-90s, when it came out that they'd "lost" billions of dollars? Lots of hands dipping into those pots of money and stowing the funds in their own pockets instead of using them for the charitable purposes of the organization. That's the clear, bright line: don't take money from the organization.

Where it gets fuzzier are the areas of conflict of interest (COI). In my old day job, I had to take COI training, so I find myself often in the position of explaining COI to people. A clear example would be that I can't use my position as president to get the board to vote to hire me as an author coach for SFWA members. That's absolutely conflict of interest, because I'd be using my influence to send SFWA money to my pockets. What's less clear is when I'm not using my influence and the recipient isn't directly related to me, but it might LOOK that way. This is where it gets difficult for people, because we have to understand that the APPEARANCE of COI is just as much of a problem as actual COI.

For example, if the board votes to pay my friend to be an author coach, that can look like I influenced that decision, even if I had nothing to do with it. Think about a Sopranos scenario, where the lucrative construction contract "just happens" to go to the niece who is a contractor. Because people can and have attempted to do scurrilous things with money they're responsible for directing, everyone has to be so far aboveboard that no one could possibly believe there was anything shady going on. What do we do in these cases? To continue the example, what if my friend is the very best candidate? I recuse myself from discussion and voting. In that way, we avoid not only actual COI, but any appearance of COI.

Next week - Tuesday, March 7 at 6pm MT! - we'll be announcing this year's finalists for SFWA's Nebula Award. I've been in rehearsals for the show and it's very fun, so tune in! https://www.facebook.com/events/198142222865460 I'll be there announcing, but I won't be one of the finalists. That's because, as long as I'm President, I recuse my works from consideration. It could appear to be a conflict of interest, should one of my books final. Recusing myself is the ethical thing to do. 


Tuesday, February 28, 2023

An Unpopular Opinion on an Ethical Issue

 This week's topic:
Ethics: What thorny issue have I dealt with or worry about as an author?

Oh. Eeeeee. Hmmm. Because I love you, dear readers, I'll brace for the tarring and feathering that comes from holding a very unpopular opinion about a sticky sitch, a slippery slope, a squicky scene that is not an uncommon occurrence in the publishing industry:  

Being a professional editor or agent in the same genre you are an author.

By "professional" I mean that you get paid. It's not that I don't understand leveraging one's skills into additional income streams. On the whole, authors aren't wealthy. We need $$. On the other hand, one job entitles you to finances, information, resources, and opportunities that benefit your other job. Mildly stated, it's an unfair advantage. The practice enables easily exploited circumstances and acts as a gateway to all sorts of ethical breaches. It's akin to government officials trading stocks in industries they regulate or legislate. Conflicts of Interest aren't--by-in-large--illegal, but they are unethical. 

I know, I know, I know there are people of good repute who are both authors and editors/agents in the same genre. Some have success in one field more than the other; some are equally unsuccessful or successful in both. Yes, I do know a few of these folks personally and they are lovely people. However, none of that makes the practice any less of a Pandora's Box of ethical issues. 

{checks temperate of tar. winces.}

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Being a Better Critique Partner / Beta Reader


As an educator, I believe all of us are always learning. As a writer, I can be shy and anxious when sharing my work to a new person or group. I try to remember both  these attitudes when I'm a critique partner or a beta reader.

Writers are always learning

When I teach creative writing, I help students take risks and experiment. We know that publishers, readers, and agents are looking for fresh, unique voices. Yet young people today are caught by the expectations for instant success and living perfect lives. Failure is difficult, even though more seasoned writers know that is how we learn. 

Writing is messy. It's necessary to try and fail and try again. 

Young people are also hampered by social media's value of conformity, which can be the death knoll to the creative process. Much of my efforts as a teacher go into encouraging their unique perspectives: helping them find their voice. What are their individual style and interests? What genres do they like? Tone and narrative voices? What sets them apart from the other students in the class? When they can answer these questions--and not fear being vulnerable and authentic--they can lean in to who they are as a writer and their writing will improve. 

A common mistake beginning writers make is to think that their critique partners don't "get" what they're trying to do. That's not a helpful altitude--it infers that you cannot learn from your writing group and it ruins any chance for building trust. It stops you from listening to your first readers. Remember, if you are planning to publish your work, then you are writing for readers not yourself. You need to think about your readers and their experience reading your work, not your experience writing it. Listen and learn. You'll get something out of it, even if you don't agree with everything.

Sharing your work can be hard!

Many writers can have a thin skin or may feel uncertain about a piece of writing--though we can gain confidence as we gain experience, many of us are sensitive artist types who appreciate a positive, encouraging attitude. Some authors prefer tough criticism, while others like a gentler tone--it's worth asking your critique partner if they have preferences or certain needs. I've never forgotten a student who exclaimed, "I love praise!" when we were discussing her work. This was a key motivator for her, and it was so helpful for me to know this information.

Think about the goals of the critique session. Is this a first draft and they need advice on story structure and character development? Or is it a more polished piece and they are looking for more granular suggestions? Does their confidence need shoring up because they're stuck in the muddy middle? Could they use some brainstorming or a sounding board? Are they ready to be challenged and take their writing to the next level? Is it time to pull out the tough love?

Writing is like learning to walk. So many small pieces go together to make up the actions, and not everyone learns them in the same way or at the same pace. It can be overwhelming if we try to tackle everything all at once. Be conscious of where your critique partners are in the learning process.

Critique partners, alpha readers, and beta readers all make our work better, if we respect the process and use it as a learning experience for everyone. 


Friday, February 24, 2023

Critique Ground Rules

In offering: One perfect white rose from the bush in the front garden:

Critique situations have the potential to be fraught with emotional mines. You can make it harder on yourself or you can make it easier.

Hard: just join a group of people you don't know and who don't read the genre you write.
Easier: It helps to at least be familiar with your proposed critique partners. Not everyone has to write the same genre and subgenre, but if you write scifi or erotica, it sure helps to dodge groups full of people allergic to those genres. You'll be happier if you're reading stories you generally like to read and you'll be far more confident of the critiques you'll receive if the people reading you understand the conventions of your genre.

Hard: Mixing beginning writers with very seasoned writers. Not saying this to be a snob. This is about offering critique at a level someone can fully comprehend and *action*. My example: my first few RWA conferences, I had the option to attend Margie Lawson workshops. Went to one and left halfway through because it was so far ahead of where I was as a writer, I couldn't understand what was being presented. Now, after a few books under my belt and a critical eye toward how I put emotion on the page, I can and do grasp the concepts I once couldn't. Further, I can apply the teaching and see the immediate change in my craft. Mixing wildly different skill levels makes life hard for everyone.
Easier: Finding a group of writers who are about at the same level as you are - some are farther along the road and they'll pull you along. A few will be a little way back on the road and you'll help pull them along. It creates synergy.

Once you've found your group, you have to learn how to both accept and offer critique with grace and with humor. These are some hard won ground rules I'm about to lay on you. We won't talk about how I worked them out other than to say it wasn't pretty.

  • Leave your defensiveness at the door. Learn to listen with your mouth closed whether you agree or disagree with someone's critique (until it's your turn to talk.)
  • Assume the best intentions./Come with the best intentions. If anyone in the group hasn't come to help make books better, you have a problem. Don't be that problem.
  • Address the writing and only the writing. Zero personal attacks.
  • The words 'that's dumb' or 'that's stupid' may never leave your mouth in reference to another person's writing.
  • Ask questions. Rather than saying 'you have no point to this scene', ask 'what do you want the point of this scene to be'? This helps if the other writer is getting a little tense in the face of critique. It asks them to think which moves them out of emotion.
  • Suggest possible fixes for any issues you identify. I'm a stickler for this one - if I can't make a suggestion for something that bothers me, I'll mark the section in text and talk through why I'm bothered and then ask for input from the rest of the group for ideas on how to fix because I care enough about my crit partners that I don't want anyone left hanging.
  • Offer ideas and suggestions without ego. You're offering up ideas and suggestions, yes, but release any attachment to having someone use them. Your goal is to spark the other person's imagination, not get your way. If you feel really strongly about an idea, use it yourself. Let everyone else decide what's right for their stories.
  • What happens in critique, stays in critique. Your critique group needs to be a safe space to try new things, make mistakes, learn new technique, and air intellectual property that isn't ready for public consumption. Trust matters for and from all members.
  • Share the wealth of knowledge. Recommend classes that helped you. Share notes where it's ethically legit to do so. Remember a rising tide lifts all boats.

Critique is hard. There's a lot of emotion involved. Learning to navigate your own and everyone else's is no small task. Give yourself and one another grace. I've learned to couch suggestions in terms of opportunity. Ask anyone who's ever been critiqued by me about my favorite phrase: "I feel like you have an opportunity here to <insert plot point, emotional hit, etc>". It's served me well because it offers a writer choice without intimating that they've done something wrong in their book. I may feel that they *have* done something wrong, but I'm sure not going to say that. Maybe that's the last rule: Care about other people's feelings and remember that WIPs are fragile little birds. Gentle, honest handling strengthens them so that when they are released into the world, they're ready to fly.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Want to be a better Beta Reader?

Critique Partner: a fellow writer who you exchange chapters, manuscripts, partials with for feedback.

Beta Reader: a reader who gives feedback to an author on their work in progress.

Definitions for these two roles vary, but at their heart they provide feedback to the writer. Editing help for free, it hardly gets any better! But not all advice is useful, so how do you become a better beta reader or CP?


Yes, I seem to keep saying that, but it applies in so many areas. The more you read the better you’ll become, even subconsciously, at recognizing issues with plot, characters, pacing, you name it! So keep reading! 

Beyond that fun assignment, there are a number of things you can consciously do to become a better beta/CP. 

First, and I’ll argue the most important: make sure you read the genre they are writing in and vice versa. You may have well meaning writing friends, but if they only read say, historicals, they may not be the best fit for your fantasy. 

Second: determine what kind of feedback the writer is looking for. If someone wants commentary throughout of what works and what doesn’t, but you read it through and offer your impression at the end, they won’t be happy. Is it a line edit? Would correcting typos help or get in the way of unraveling the plot hole? So many questions that need answering!

Third: be specific when pointing out problems. Telling someone the story just didn’t hook you isn’t nearly as helpful as hearing their character’s personality changes after the third chapter without any reason why. Or if a scene isn’t necessary, help point out why it drags or lacks connection to the goals/plot. 

Fourth: let the author tell their story. It’s a fine line to help improve a story and attempting to make it sound like your voice. You’re offering suggestions, but in the end it’s their opinion that matters.

And here’s a fifth that’s more than a cherry on top: remember to point out what works. Even writers who want feedback and are expecting their work to be torn apart need to hear some positives sprinkled in here and there. There are always good parts to be found, make sure you point some out!