Helpful Hints

Monthly Theme: What Makes a Compelling Blurb?

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What is a blurb?

A blurb is a brief description of your story, a text-based advertisement to attract a future reader. It either appears on the back cover or inside the front cover on a printed book, or is the second piece of information you will find on a website (after the cover and the title).

Why is it important?

Because, after the potential reader has admired your cover and clever title, they want to know what the book is about. If your blurb does not entice them, then they’re going to put it back on the shelf, or move on to the next option.

How can I write a compelling blurb?

  • Keep it short, generally between 100-150 characters.
  • Write in third person, present tense (generally, however, exceptions may apply).
  • Be true to your genre and use words that cater to your audience. ie: If you are writing a romance, your blurb shouldn’t make it sound like a thriller.
  • Your first sentence has to hook the reader, most easily done by getting them interested in the character or intrigued by the setting.
  • Once the attention has been gained, it must be maintained. One easy way to do this is by following the basic formula below:

Basic Formula

Introduce:

A. the main character (generally including one defining feature).

Here are some examples randomly selected from my book case.

  • Nine-year old Bruno has a lot of things on his mind.
  • When the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus is summoned by Nathaniel, a young magician’s apprentice…
  • Pi Patel, a God-loving boy and the son of a zookeeper has a fervent love of stories…

OR: the setting

  • London is on the move again.
  • Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.
  • In a ruined and hostile landscape, in a future few have been unlucky enough to survive…

With the character, you are seeking a way to connect with the reader, establishing the main protagonist as someone they wish to learn more about, and with the setting you are establishing a mystery: ie: is London literally moving? (yes, yes it is). You are endeavouring to engage with the reader and hook them in.

Tip: When trying to decide whether to focus on character or setting, ask yourself: which is more interesting? If unsure, write both and ask your friends/writing buddies/random strangers which they prefer.

Follow up with:

B. The problem

What goes wrong?

Tip: This is likely to be connected to the inciting incident of your story: it is the situation that takes your character from their previously predictable and reliable life and plunges them into the plot.

  • Alas, the ship sinks – and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger.

And connect this with your protagonist and the actions he (or she) will have to take:

  • Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi. Can Pi and the tiger find their way to land?

You must end with mystery – don’t spoil the end!

Tip: Although many blurbs do end with a question, if the answer is simply “yes” then your blurb may have more power if, instead, the reader is made aware of the cost to the protagonist should they fail, or the price they will have to pay to succeed.

C. The Mood

Finally, many blurbs choose to conclude with a final paragraph conveying the Mood and indicating the intended genre or audience. Here, if you have not previously, the setting can be mentioned.

  • Set in a modern-day London controlled by magicians, this hilarious, electrifying thriller will enthral readers of all ages.

Tip: Whilst it may seem logical (and is perfectly permissible) to start with the mood, you do run the risk of the reader going “oh, it’s a thriller, I don’t read thrillers” and proceed no further. Also, some readers may read the first sentence and the final paragraph before determining whether to read the middle.

What about Non-fiction?

Non-fiction blurbs are very diverse, depending on the genre.

  • Memoirs and biographies can be written in much the same way as fiction blurbs.
  • Manuals or guides for specialised topics can begin with:
    • the author and their credentials (third person, present tense).
    • with a series of questions (second person).
    • by informing you (the reader) why you might like this book (second person).

Important things to note about writing non-fiction blurbs:

  • Reach out to your intended audience and make your premise clear.
  • Demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about (list credentials/give an example).
  • Include testimonials if you have them. Of not, it won’t hurt to get some!

Tip: If you can make an outrageous, but substantiated claim, then that is a great way to attract the reader’s attention. However, never lie or mislead your reader!

I intend to publish traditionally;  do I still need a blurb?

Whilst it is true that, if traditionally published through a reputable publishing house, it is unlikely you will be writing your own blurb, first you have to get that publishing contract! Therefore, you still need a brief and enticing advertisement for your book.

Tip: Read a lot of blurbs before writing your own! Pick some randomly from your bookshelf or the library (or browse Amazon) and look at the structure. Try to determine what makes you pick them up or put them back. Specifically target books written in the same genre as yours: what do they have in common with each other, what are the differences? Are some more compelling than others?

Also, TEST your blurb, write several attempts, share them on a writers’ forum or with your friends, get feedback and make alterations accordingly.

Favourite first (or last) sentence in a blurb?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!

Monthly Theme: Research

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Why is research important?research.jpg

  • Research adds authenticity:
    • Details are important: Maybe not all of your readers will notice, but someone, somewhere will, and they may be ruthless!
    • To avoid making embarrassing mistakes
  • Research can lead to new ideas, or help your story take flight in an unexpected direction.
  • Research is fun!

When is research important?

Research is extremely important in historic novels, as you do not want to incorporate anachronisms, and if your contemporary novel is set in a real-world location, then you should familiarise yourself with its general layout and major landmarks.

It is especially important to undertake research if you are writing about cultures (ie: ethnicity, religion, social economic, etc) that you are unfamiliar with, for if you make a mistake, it could highly offend someone – and in this day of social media, readers can be ruthless.

In fantasy and (some) science fiction, you have an element of flexibility*, and readers are generally happy to suspend their disbelief a certain amount, but the most convincing stories are those in which the fiction is grounded, at least somewhat, in fact. For example, a common error in fantasy novels, is to use horses like all-purpose vehicles.  In science fiction, especially hard science fiction, a solid grounding in science is required.

In dystopic or post-apocalyptic novels, adding in the remains of well-known landmarks can really add extra impact (ie: the original “Planet of the Apes”)

(* but your setting still needs to follow, and remain consistent to, a set structure of rules.)

How much research should I do?

Research can be a slippery slope. The more you learn, the more interesting it can become and you must figure out how much of it to keep. Libbie Hawker (author of “Take Off Your Pants!”) recommends writing first, then researching to fill in the gaps. This means that you will only be researching that which is relevant to the plot. But what if your topic is so fascinating that you just can’t stop researching it? And you just want to learn more? Well, that’s fine too, however…

How much of what I discover should I include in my story?

The iceberg theory applies here too. The answer is: as much as is necessary to the plot and the characters. No more. Sure, you may have learned a plethora of fascinating facts, but if they’re not advancing or enhancing the story, then you shouldn’t share them with your readers. Sorry. If it’s that fascinating, then add an appendix!

Anything additional that you learn will remain in your subconscious, and may reveal itself later, in another story or idea. So nothing learned is truly wasted.

There is also the risk that you may become so hung-up in your research that it becomes a form of procrastination – there can be a fine line between too much and not enough.

How do I go about researching my novel?

  • Google and Wikipedia are really good for quick authenticity checks and basic details. However, be aware that not everything you read on the internet is true!
  • Google Earth is a great resource for those who set their stories in real world places that they’ve never visited. Need to plot a car chase through Copenhagen? Well, street view will help.
  • Visit the location: Road trip time! Take photographs and notes. Observe using all five senses, what scents do you notice? What sounds do you hear? All such details add to the authenticity of your settings. Just remember not to overdo it!
  • Talk to people: your friends, family – people are generally happy to share their knowledge. This is also useful if you want to find out how it feels to, say, have a dislocated shoulder, if you’ve never done it yourself, you probably know someone who has. If you don’t know anyone personally, you can take it to Facebook or various discussion forums (such as the NaNoWriMo Reference Desk).
    • Be Aware: if you are researching a controversial or opinion-based topic, speaking to just one expert can lead to bias. Seek to research as broadly as possible, then use what you learn to determine how your character thinks/behaves.
  • the library: still relevant.
  • YouTube: planning a fight scene but you’ve never wielded a sword in your life? Well, you can probably find footage of someone who has.
  • Experts: Historians, scientists, educators, cultural leaders, police detectives, the Citizens Advice Bureau. Organise an interview, and write out a list of questions. As above, seeking from multiple sources can reduce bias.
  • Personal Experience: Your character needs to ride a horse? Well, ride a horse! Volunteer your services. Take pottery classes. Try archery. Join the SCA… Not only can physically experiencing the activity yourself truly enhance the story, it could also lead to a new hobby or passion.

Research is important to maintain the authenticity of your tale and keep the reader engaged.

What are some of the weirdest things you’ve ever researched?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!

Monthly theme: Procrastination

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For our Guild Monthly gatherings (held the second Monday of each month), we now have a set discussion topic to begin the evening with. March’s topic was a blight experienced by many writers: procrastination.

Now, I’m not sure about you, but my creative productivity has been at an all time low over the last year, and my writing even more-so. So what is it that is holding me back? What is preventing me from writing?

There are many things that can lead to procrastination, here are just a few that we came up with:

  • Self doubt
  • High stress (either caused by the activity we’re procrastinating doing, or other life events)
  • Intensity of the effort ahead (particularly experienced after the first draft is completed)
  • Striving for perfection
  • Too many distractions
  • General emotional burn-out

Sometimes, when you overthink situations, and try and overwork your piece, the thing you love the most becomes the thing you hate. This, I believe, is where my problem arises, and one that I have found pretty much across the board: you’ve finished the first (or second or even third) draft. You know the story’s not perfect. You’ve read over it numerous times, you’ve people interested in reading it, you love the characters and you want to do them justice, but the self-doubt monster has reared its ugly head and you’ve listened to too many podcasts and read too many books telling you what you should be doing, that you’ve almost lost the will to do it. You know it’s broken, but you’re overwhelmed by the amount of effort required to fix it.

So what can you do?

How does one recover from procrastinating?

Easiest answer is, of course, just write. But if something is hard to write, then it’s also likely to be hard to read. You don’t want your story to feel forced. The trick is to get yourself back into the writing mindset.
Here are some solutions we came up with:

  • Set deadlines: If re-writing the entire piece is overwhelming, break it down into manageable chunks: ie: “this week I’m going to rewrite chapter one”.
  • Timetable: If you are procrastinating by engaging in other activities, set them to a schedule. For example, “I will only spend 20 minutes on Facebook tonight, then I shall write”. Set a timer, and stick to it.
  • Take regular breaks: If you are trying to write, and the words aren’t coming, don’t feel obliged to force them. Take a walk, play with the cat, etc. You may find that your brain becomes more alive the moment you step away from the computer, and suddenly you’re rushing to get back to it. Try not to take the breaks too often though, else they’re just another form of procrastination!
  • Free write: Sometimes the computer can be inhibiting. Try writing on paper: stream of consciousness or a scene you’ve been looking forward to, or putting your character in a difficult situation and seeing how she wriggles her way out of it. If it’s on paper, it’s more ephemeral, and if it’s good, you can then commit it to type. I wrote about this in my own blog last year.
  • Write that scene you’ve been hanging out for: I write my stories sequentially and sometimes I know where a story is going but not how to get there. If you’re having issues writing and there’s a scene you’re excited to be writing, write it! You can always re-work it later to better fit the build-up!
  • Seek a critique: Not sure where the story is going? Ask someone that you trust to be honest to read your story. Be careful choosing people to close to you emotionally (ie: spouses), as if they are a little too honest, it can marr your relationship! I suggest finding a writing buddy, as you can read each other’s work (and writers understand other writers). For help in taking critiques well, we have made a post in the past.
  • Distract the cat: We adopted a kitten last year, and she always seems to want to be involved in what I’m doing. This can vary from sleeping on or beside me, to chewing on my arm and climbing on the keyboard. If your feline (or puppy, or child) is proving distracting, you can either shut them out of the room or set up another activity to keep them occupied (I recommend “Cats Meow” for kittens). If you have children, schedule your writing time when they are sleeping, or when there is someone else to either watch them or field their attentions.
  • Start something new: If you’ve written your story so well in your head that you lack the motivation to put it to paper, take a fresh approach. Either consider the story from a different character’s perspective, or start something else entirely. Take your characters, and write a short story, change the setting, heck, you could even write fanfiction!
  • Set a time to write: Set yourself a time to write every day – say between 9 and 11 at night. Sit in front of your keyboard (disable your internet if need be) and don’t permit yourself to move until that time is over. Pretty soon you’ll get sick of staring at that blinking cursor and will put your fingers to the keyboard and, maybe, magic will happen.

What can I do if I can’t break the procrastination blight?

Use your procrastination for being productive in other fashions, here are a few things you can do if you really, really can’t bring yourself to write:

  • Housework: I’ve cleaned out my pantry, tidied up my closet and unpacked the last two boxes of books. Pretty soon I’m going to move onto gardening.
  • Research: Watch documentaries related to your topic or read articles. Maybe they will re-spark the motivation to write.
  • Read: Time spent reading is rarely wasted. Read in your genre – you can always label it as “research”. Read other genres, as a fresh perspective is always worthwhile. Something might inspire you.
  • Take up a new hobby: Cooking, drawing, painting, sculpting etc. Then at least your creativity will have an outlet.

Have you any more tips to break the procrastination blight?

Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!

We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!

Book & Resource Recommendations for NaNoWriMo’s.

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For NaNo Newbies

No Plot, No Problem
Chris Baty
No Plot, No Problem
Chris Baty
Write your Novel in a Month: How to Complete a First Draft in 30 Days and What to Do Next
Jeff Gerke
The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Hallie Ephron

For Writers

Scene and Structure
Jack M Bickham
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King
Save the Cat!
Blake Snyder
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story
K. M. Weiland
The Emotion Thesarus
Angela Ackerman & Becca Peglisi
(their Thesaurus series have a several other books that are invaluable to writers – available both in hard copy and e-Book)
Recommended by: Judy Mohr, Em Lowe

Websites

www.nanowrimo.org
www.jamigold.com/for-writers/

Facebook has several pages dedicated to including the main NaNoWriMo group as well as municipal groups.

Writing Non-human Characters

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Back in July, I did a presentation on “How to Write Non-human Characters” as part of our Character Building Workshop, and I thought it time I shared a little of it here for those of you unable to attend. I have written several novels, and numerous short stories (including fanfiction), about birds, lemurs, animal-people (“furries”) and fantastical creatures such as goblins and Pokemon. Whilst I do, on occasion, have human characters in my story, they are generally not the main protagonist.

silky-header
Pierre, Ophelia and Aurelia, characters from my novel-in-progress “Tail of Two Scions”

So, why do I favour non-human characters?

First and foremost, I love animals, plus I have a zoology degree and I’m not afraid to use it, to educate while I entertain.

Other reasons you might choose to write non-human protagonists:

  • Challenge, to explore the world from a different perspective.
  • Adds an extra quirk to a fairly mundane or traditional plot idea.
  • Allegory or parable.
  • FUN.

Non-human characters can range from realistic style animals (Incredible Journey, Watership Down), through to the aforementioned furries. Generally speaking, I prefer to read animal-protagonist novels in which the animals behave much like their wild counterparts, but with increased insight and complex communication, or truly anthropomorphic ones, where the characters still show some of their natural animal traits. The movie, Zootopia, is an excellent example of this. However, shows like Arthur, where the characters are basically just children that happen to look like animals, don’t interest me.

Of course, “non-human” can also refer to werewolves, elves and many other near-human species.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to deal predominantly with mostly-realistic animal characters.

The first thing to do when writing an animal character is RESEARCH. I watch documentaries, read books, look up information on the internet. Remember, if you get one facet wrong there is someone out there who will notice and most zoologists aren’t shy about correcting errors! Of course, the more popular your animal is, the more is known about them, so not only will you have a plethora of information at your hands, there will also be more folks out there looking to correct any errors you might make. If you are making up the species, as I did with my goblins, then you can create as crazy an ecology as you like, but remember to keep it consistent!

Next you need a plot, and with that, CONFLICT. Is your character wild or domestic? If domestic, you could write a family drama from the animal’s perspective – The Last Family in England (aka The Labrador Pact) by Matt Haig is an excellent example of this. Murder mysteries seem popular too: why have several cats in the neighbourhood been found dead? Sit down and brainstorm a list of possible adventures that your domestic cat or dog could get up to. For both domestic and wild animals, there is the classic theme: trying to get home/find a new home, in which either the original habitat is destroyed (Animals of Farthing Wood) or the animal is taken from his/her home and must find her way back (Far From Home Cats). Survival in general is also a popular theme, (ie: Black Beauty and Bambi), but you will still need the plot to build to something – whether it be the battle for dominance to claim his position as head of the herd, or that final hurdle before being reunited with her owner or finding his forever home.

Even animal characters need PERSONALITY. They should always be a character first, animal second. They should have needs and wants, hopes and dreams – and forces (be it another character, or nature) acting against their achievement of these. Cliches are fairly common in animal-driven narratives: cats are sly and manipulative, dogs dependable and loyal, but it is fun to twist the stereotypes. After all, hyenas are generally portrayed as scheming and malicious thieves and rogues, but did you know that they do regularly hunt their own food (not just steal it), have a matriarchal society and form strong clan bonds, not entirely dissimilar to the oft-romantisied wolf?

Whether your animal character is predator or prey, pet or stray, it can be fun to delve into the world, look at it from a different perspective (don’t forget the senses!) and challenge yourself to write something different!


avatar-angAngela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer. She has independently published two novels via Amazon’s CreateSpace, Aroha’s Grand Adventure, about a weka (a flightless NZ bird) and her adventures as she makes her way home across the island, and Fellowship of the Ringtails, which she describes as “epic fantasy with lemurs”.

Finding value in a critique…

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As a writer, if you ever want to publish – be it indie or traditional – you are going to need feedback on whether your novel works or doesn’t work. Critiques can be hard to take, and here’s some tips from our President, Judy Mohr, on how to find the value in even the harshest analysis.

Self Publishing? How to format your book

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You’ve finished your book. It’s been edited thoroughly and all the typos and grammatical errors have, to the best of your knowledge, been removed. Well done!

You’ve eyed up the pros and cons of the self-publishing and traditional routes, and have decided — for whatever reasons— to go it alone, and do it yourself.

So, how to make your book look professional?

This step will vary depending on which site you’ve chosen to publish through. Some offer templates, which merely require a cut-and-paste, then a quick tidy through. If you’ve chosen an unusual trim size, or just want to maintain complete control, then here are a few steps you can follow to make your book look as professional as possible:

– First, adjust the page sizes of your manuscript to match those of the Trim Size you have chosen. Most writing programs should allow you to “custom” your page sizes. It will then reformat your entire work.

– Now, you must add in the front pages. For some ideas here, pick up the nearest book in your house and look at the way the front pages are set out:

(Odd numbered pages are on the right hand side, evens on the left. Therefore, even numbered pages are on the back of the odd numbered pages)

book page layout1
The first 5 pages of my novel, “Fellowship of the Ringtails

Page 1*: In some books this is merely the title, in others, a page of glowing reviews, others choose to put in a passage from the text that it particularly gripping.

Page 2*: Often blank, or you can list other books you have written here.

Page 3: Title page – shows title of book, author’s name etc

Page 4: Copyright details, ISBN, perhaps a dedication (unless you want that on the next page)

Page 5: Dedication or quote

Page 6: Blank, Map or other Illustration

Page 7: The story begins.

 * My earlier self-published books skip these two pages, and start with the title page (meaning the story starts on page 5). There are a few traditionally published books that do this too, but not many. 

book page layout2

> The story should always start on a right-hand page, even if this means leaving a page blank.

> Page numbers should not be on the pages before the story begins.

> Justify your text. Unjustified text in a printed book pretty much screams of amateur publishing (however, poetry and books written for dyslexics are the exception to this rule). After justifying it, you may like to look through for any sentences that have been stretched too long and manually add in hyphens/divided words. Do this after the ebook conversion, or you’ll find random hyphenated words in your ebook. Either that, or you can also adjust the kerning (the spaces between letters).

> Be consistent. Make sure your line-spacing remains consistent for the entire novel, that you don’t accidentally change font size or style, or the size of your margins.

Other Things to Consider:

Margins: I generally set the same margin left and right, with a larger gap top and bottom. You may choose to have a narrower margin along the gutter of the page. My margins are quite wide, which worked well when CreateSpace did one of my print runs at a smaller trim size (the books were still readable), but you may choose to make them narrower. Study printed novels of the appropriate size to determine your own, preferred, measurements.

Headers: I don’t really like Headers, and a random opening of my shelved books shows that not every traditionally published book has them anyway. If you do have Headers, remember to remove them from the pages which say “Chapter One” in them, or whatever. Otherwise they look poorly formatted and ugly.

Footers: Page Numbers are ESSENTIAL. The library needs to put a tag in your book on page 33, after all. You can center your page numbers or set all the left hand pages to the left hand side, and all the right hand to the right side.

Font: I prefer serif fonts for my manuscripts and all of my novels use Century Schoolbook. You can use Times New Roman, but it’s so common, it’s kinda blah. Century Schoolbook adds a bit of class (in my opinion!). Make sure the font you use is easy to read, also be aware that some fonts are not royalty free, meaning you can’t use them in something you’re making money from. If you set your font too large, it will look like a book for young kids or the elderly. If you set it too small, it is difficult to read. I use font size 10-12, Century Schoolbook for my novels. Note that font size (and line spacing) will affect your number of pages, and if you want a really thick book, you need a bigger font! (Which is why I think some traditionally published authors use such big text, either that or it is for their older readers!). Sans serif fonts (like Arial) are good for children’s books, however, as they are easier for dyslexics or those with reading difficulties.

Paragraphs: Note that after a line break, the first sentence of a paragraph is not indented, but all the rest are.

Line Spacing: I publish my middle grade books with spacing set to 1.5, because these make it easier to track the lines. In my adult books, I set it to 0.54, which allows some space  between lines without looking too “childish”.

Chapter Headings: Make sure your fonts, size and style are consistent. Don’t write “Chapter One” then have “Chapter 2”, for example. Also note that changing the size of the font here may affect the way the text lines up at the bottom of the page, and it is preferable to have these consistent. For this purpose also, you should Kill all Widow and Orphan Control*. Adjust the font size of the Chapter headings until you can see that they line up in the PDF version. An easy way to do this is to make sure that the line spacing is proportional – ie: I usually set my line spacing to 0.54, which leaves a bit of a gap between lines, and for the headers I set it to 1.08 (2 x 0.54). This seems to work.

book page layout3

Adding Illustrations to Text: There are two sorts of ways you can include illustrations in the story – one is as a full page spread, the other is as little line drawings interspersed with the text. There’s no real rule to doing this, just make sure it looks right. Personally, from here-in I intend to draw my images at a size that is proportional to the page size so it will fit without having one or two sentences around it. Aroha and Midsummer Knight both have them mingled with the text, but for my Lemur Saga books, I’ve got them on full single pages at the end of the relevant chapters. Use lineart, or grey-scale your colour images first, to make sure they look right; you can make adjustments to brightness etc to make it clearer. If intermingling it with the text, use the “padding” option to provide a few millimetres of space around the image so that the text doesn’t run into it. Trying to get them to sit right on the page can be endlessly frustrating and I have no advice but perseverance. If you are also writing for ebook format, illustrations will mean the text on the page preceding may run for half a page or less, as they often (but not always) show up on an individual page. I have removed the illustrations from most of my ebooks, as it gives more incentive to buy the physical book.

 * Widows and Orphans – when the page re-formats itself so that if you have two lines in a paragraph at the base of the page that would be left hanging, they get shifted up to the next page leaving a gap of two lines. They are the bane of my OpenOffice existence, since I want my text to line up at the base of the page, and I don’t care if there are only four words on the next page. I keep turning this off on OpenOffice, and it keeps coming back to haunt me.

Once you think you’re done – export your novel as a PDF file and look through it, to make sure everything looks as it should.