Thursday, June 9, 2016

When a Maxim is Just a Maxim


By Kim McDougall
Some rules of writing seem to be carved in stone. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Don’t split infinitives. Use capitals and periods. Blah, blah, blah. 
I’m writer, dammit. If I want to split my infinitive, I am going to happily, earnestly, spitefully split it!
So when is it alright to break the rules? I’ve been mulling this question for the past week, since I finished a new fantasy book with rampant head-hopping. I won’t mention the book or author because this isn’t a book review. For convenience’s sake, we’ll just call it “The Epic Swordsman,” by Johnny Rulebreaker. 
There is a big difference between head-hopping (when the point of view jumps from character to character) and an omniscient narrator. Omniscience is often the excuse touted by head-hopping authors to justify it. “Tolkien did it. Why can’t I?” Well, no, Tolkien didn’t head-hop. The Lord of the Rings was written with an omniscient narrator that stands back and looks at the story as a whole. Rarely, does he get right inside a character’s head to tell the reader what that character is feeling. Think of is like a Greek god standing on Mount Olympus and telling the story of the people he sees living below him. That’s omniscience. 
Johnny Rulebreaker is a blatant head-hopper. The point of view (POV) bounced around from character to character within the same section and often within the same paragraph. And these POV’s were quite deeply rooted to the characters, showing thoughts, feelings and observations.

Head-hopping is normally a big pet-peeve of mine. If a book is poorly written, I won’t finish it and head-hopping is a big determining factor for me. But, for some reason I really liked “The Epic Swordsman.” Somehow, the head-hopping worked. I didn’t get whiplash from the jerking points of view. I wasn’t taken out of the story (a big complaint about head-hopping) when the POV switched. It didn’t feel cheesy. 
So I ask the question: Is rule breaking bad if the reader still enjoys the story?
I have to go with no. Story is the only thing that matters. If you have a really great tale, with terrific characters and you can tell it in a way that engages the audience, go for it. Jonny Rulebreaker did and it worked for me. 
I decided to analyze why the head-hopping didn’t bother me in “The Epic Swordsman” like it did in other books. I came up with this:
A. The story depended on a misunderstanding between the main character and his friends. It was interesting to see how each character interpreted events differently. There was a purpose to the head-hopping.
B. The character voices were distinct. Each character was well-defined. So following the head-hopping train wasn’t difficult. That being said, I would have still preferred that the POV’s didn’t switch in mid paragraph. That took a bit longer for me to get used to.
Thinking about head-hopping got me thinking about two other writing “truths” that can be broken.
Show Don’t Tell
Anyone who has taken even an introductory course on the craft of writing has had this idea tattooed on their brain. Show don’t tell. Make the action happen now rather than relate it from a later date. Don’t tell me how the character felt or reacted. Show me the physical effects. Doing it right brings on the much lauded Deep POV, a state every author strives for.
That’s great most of the time. But once in a while, short and sweet is more important than deep POV. Sometimes, “Joe felt sick” can have more of an impact than “The room spun and Joe’s stomach clenched.” Just like in an action scene, short sentences can speed up the narrative, so can ‘telling.’ Used sparingly, this technique can add a sense of drama or urgency.
Write What You Know
This is one rule that I think should just be chucked right out the window. I have an odd rant on this topic here: http://blog.castelane.com/2016/06/dont-write-what-you-know.html. But here’s the gist of it: 
Don’t write what you know. Write what inspires, terrifies or thrills you, what makes you clench your teeth or cry out loud. Write words you wish you said and about characters you wish you knew.

That’s all I got. Now get back to writing!
Kim McDougall is the co-founder and video producer at Castelane. She's coming up on her 500th video. Get in on the fun at www.castelane.com. Castelane - For the Prose.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Don't Write What You Know


Let’s call her Kate (secretly, my favorite name in high school). She’s fourteen years old, completely unaware of life barreling down on her. An idea pops her head. Where does it come from and why? Thankfully, she’s too green to question it.  She decides to write a story about fox hunting. 
She knows nothing about fox hunting.
Her innocence leads her to the library. (These were the days when a Google search was known as the Dewey Decimal System.) 
Kate researches, learns the jargon, the history, smells and sounds of the fox hunt. She writes a brilliant story, fresh with sentiment and overflowing with details. (Okay, it’s a mediocre story, but it’s her first. Give her a break.)

The story gets noticed by the powers-that-be: the editor of the school district’s student magazine, Fledglings. Kate thinks it must be a fabulous story to be published in such an august journal, but the truth is the editor didn’t have much fodder to choose from. Her peers are too bleary-eyed with hormones to worry about arts or literature. Few of them even notice her startling debut, and those only wonder why she would bother.
Kate does get her moment to shine when Mr. Walter Whitehead, English teacher extraordinaire, calls her into his office, something he has never done. He wears a purple silk shirt and his horn-rimmed glasses are attached to a long silver chain draped around his shoulders. Geez, you can't make this stuff up. 
Kate wonders why he wears the glasses, because he never looks through them. They perch on the end of his nose and he peers over the rims. His face is ruddy and flaky. He mouth is either an exaggerated grin or melodramatic frown. Never anything in between. Students say he has a beautiful young wife. Kate doubts it.

He asks Kate in his Shakespearean voice (Walter Whitehead is also the drama teacher) how she knows so much about fox hunting. Pride and fear tinting her voice, Kate tells him about the hours she spent researching the topic in the library. His smile plummets to a frown.

"From now on, you should only write about what you know. That, my young friend, is what separates us from the apes,” says Walter.

That is the end of Kate’s interview. All through math class and part of geography she ponders Walter Whitehead’s attempt at mentorship. She looks at her peers who sit with glassy eyes while the teacher drones on about plant-life in the Canadian tundra. Someone snores quietly. Others agonize over first love jitters and first heartbreak horrors, but with much less panache than Kate gives them credit for. 
Kate feels that now familiar urge to pick up a pen. She opens her notebook. The idea is coming…it’s almost here…yes…She writes:
What do you do with a drunken sailor when she’s your mom?
Because Kate has failed to learn a lesson from Walter Whitehead. Kate won’t write what she knows. She’ll write what inspires, terrifies or thrills her; what makes her clench her teeth or cry out loud. She’ll write words she wished she had said and about characters she wished she knew. And her future fans thank her.

By Kim McDougall
Kim McDougall is the co-founder and video producer at Castelane. She's coming up on her 500th video. Get in on the fun at www.castelane.com. Castelane - For the Prose.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Insidious 'the' and 23 other words you can cut from your writing

When I was fourteen, my descriptive paragraph of a drowning man won me a place at the school district’s yearly creative writing workshop. This workshop turned out to be a big deal for me, and not just because I got out of classes for a week. Though that was a terrific bonus for a tenth-grader. But this was the first time I found myself surrounded by like-minded individuals: writers. 
I discovered that writers don’t think like other people. Writers don’t record words; they choose words. Good word choice can set a mood, evoke emotion and leave a reader wanting more.
At this long-ago workshop, one big eye-opener was the idea of over-used words. I’d never considered “very” or “nice” as ill-chosen words. That was how people spoke. I started to think about word-choice and how it was the difference between sounding intelligent, brash, poetic, enthusiastic…or just very nice. 
As a hobby turned into a craft and then into a job, I learned the rules of good writing and marketing. I took classes, attended conferences, published books, wrote, read, and wrote some more. Even after all these years, certain unnecessary words still creep into my first drafts. I realized this as I edited my current work-in-progress. I’m not talking about the much maligned adverb or the boring choice of adjective. These are easy to find and fix. I’m talking about words that are insidious because they are small and go mostly unnoticed…until you notice them. Then they’re everywhere.
My newest personal offensive is against the. But, you say, the is just an article. It’s meaningless and nobody notices it. Perhaps. But consider these two sentences:

1. The morning sun revealed the paint peeling off the siding and the moss growing on the cracked foundation.
2. Morning sun revealed paint peeling off the siding and moss growing on the cracked foundation.

They say the same thing. Yet number 2 rolls off the tongue more easily. It sets a soft tone and leaves the focus on the scene. By adding extra (and perfectly proper) instances of the, sentence 1 becomes heavy-handed. 
I started seeing the everywhere in my draft, and my red pencil wore down to a nub eradicating it. Now, lets be honest, you can’t delete every the. Some of them are necessary. But try taking out the, and if the sentence still makes sense without it, you probably don’t need it.
There are some caveats to this, of course. The children like candy is not the same as Children like candy. In the first instance, we are talking about specific children. In the second, we’re talking about all children. You don’t want to sacrifice precision for brevity. 
But I noticed a trend, as I went through my manuscript. Grand or generic topics tend to need the modifier less. Stars shone instead of The stars shone. Or, Rain fell heavily instead of The rain fell heavily
Other insidious words creep into our writing because they are perfectly acceptable in normal speech. You might say “I blinked my eyes.” But do you really need to say “my eyes?” What else could you blink? Same goes for other bodily actions like clap hands or nod head. 
And my final word to rant about today is own. As in, “it’s my own fault,” or “he made his own choice.” In these instances (and many more) own can be deleted without losing meaning. And yet, we hardly think of deleting it because it’s a normal part of speech. But remember, writers don’t record words, they choose words.
I challenge you to go through your work-in-progress and eliminate unnecessary words. Get tight with your writing and don’t let your tone be set by default. 
Here’s a handy chart of 24 overused, insidious words—the kind that sneak in under your radar. This list is by no means complete. I’d love to hear about your pet-peeve words. Leave a comment below.




Monday, April 18, 2016

Interview: Author Rebecca J. Hubbard

Please welcome Rebecca J. Hubbard, author of The Gifta novel about horses, friendship and patience. 

Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself? 

I am a Texan. For some that says it all, for others it is an enigma! I was born and raised in Texas by a single mom who had dancing feet, so we moved around the state a bit. I grew up with a strong love of animals and a deep affection for horses. From age three I proclaimed I was going to be a veterinarian. My best friends as a child were a cat and a horse. I was lucky enough to spend time with my dad who allowed me to help take care of the cows on his father’s farm, and vets who took me under their wing. I have stuffed uteruses back into cows and removed cat food from a lamb’s belly. 

I grew up in a rodeo family. I have an uncle and a brother who were professional cowboys. I, myself, ran barrels, poles, and did break-away roping. I, however, was not a great performer. I always saved my best for home. I guess my nerves always got the best of me. 

I went to Texas A&M University with the desire to become a vet but quickly found that was not my calling. I wanted to study psychology but was told that I had to graduate with a degree I could earn a living with. So, I became a teacher. I taught science for a couple of years. While I loved teaching, I found myself drawn to my passion of helping children who had experienced traumatic events.

Currently, I am a therapist and the clinical supervisor at Spirit Reins, a non-profit organization that provides treatment to children and families who have experienced trauma. We specialize in trauma-focused equine assisted psychotherapy TM and use the Natural Lifemanship TM treatment model. My book, The Gift, organically explains Natural Lifemanship TM and the principles of developing a healthy relationship. 

I live with two high-energy, playful souls (dogs) and my soul-mate, (cat). I have two wonderful equine buddies, who also help me with my work, Cloud and Cash.

When did you decide you wanted to become an author? 

I don’t think I really ever decided to become an author. It just happened as a result of my passion for writing stories that help others. I didn’t consider myself an author until I saw The Gift in print. Now, I fully embrace that I am an author.

I began writing when I was in the fourth grade. It was a way to express feelings that I thought were difficult and things that were unspeakable. I have written most years since with some years writing less than others.

I became a therapist in 1994 and immediately began writing therapeutic stories as a way to help my young clients. Most of my clinical work centers on treating children who have experienced numerous traumatic events from an early age. While doing this work I realized that many of the traumas the children experienced had not been written about. So in 2012 I wrote my first therapeutic picture book about a young girl who was used to produce pornography. It was written from the perspective of a little girl and her teddy bear. After that I continued to write therapeutic stories about different types of traumatic events so that children could feel less alone. These books have been used by therapists to help children but they have not yet been published. In the midst of writing this series a friend asked me to write a simple story about a kid and a horse, that was not intended to be a therapeutic book. As I was writing The Gift, I didn’t conceive it as a therapy book but the therapist in me focused on the healing and meaning of relationships.  Although intended to be a simple story, it became something more. It took some time for the story to come to me but once I had written it, I found I had done what I can’t help but do—write a story to help others. 

Do you have another job besides writing?

Many people would say I am a shrink but I swear I have never shrunk anyone! My passion is helping people who have experienced traumatic events. I have been doing it for 23 years and believe I will do it until my boots are in the ground.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading? 

If I was not on the back of a horse, I had my nose in a book. I would hide in closets to have private time to read. I loved reading everything I could get my hands on! I read every book in my granny and papa’s house. Those books included the Happy Hollisters, The Boxcar Children, The Hardy Boys, the poetry of Abraham Lincoln, Moby Dick, Old Man and the Sea, and a ton of western novels. My favorite western author is Louis L’Amour. I also read every horse book that Walter Farley wrote. My favorite of those was Man “O War. My favorite book of all time is To Kill A Mockingbird which I have read too many times to count.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

The Gift is a story about a young girl who receives a horse for her birthday and her desire to have a best friend. She believes that her horse should be her best friend without having to develop a friendship. She learns from her father how to develop a friendship with her horse. The story is told from the perspective of the girl and the perspective of the horse. It is a story about understanding, patience and friendship.

My inspiration came from a young girl I know who fell deeply in love with a horse who refused to give her the time of day. It was their journey of becoming friends that inspired me to write The Gift.

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

Usually a book starts by waking me up in the middle of the night with an idea or an actual sentence that starts the book. When I write it is like the characters speaks to me. Once that happens the book feels as if it comes out of me rather than me creating it.

Re-writes feel more like a creative process, instead of writing what I see and hear in my mind. As part of the re-writing process I read my work out loud and I allow people I trust to read what I am writing. I just finished a book and part of that rewriting process was to actually have children read the book and tell me what they liked and did not like. I tease that it takes a village to write a book! During rewrites I take the feedback I am given and make changes to make the story better. I have never created a novel so I have not ever completed an outline. I think I would like to try writing that way some time.



Why do you write?

This is such an excellent question. I wish I had days to sit and talk about this with you. I write for many reasons. Sometimes it is a salve for wounds that ache. But mostly, it is to educate and help others, especially children. I want people to better understand how trauma impacts people and to help them understand the healing process. When people read my stories I want them to feel what it is like just for a moment being in someone else’s skin. 

Do you belong to a critique group? How has this helped or hindered your writing.

I do not belong to a formal critique group but I present my work to the audiences that they are written for and request critique from them. I like this process as it helps me to hone the message and to better understand how the intended audience is experiencing what I have written. My favorite statement I received recently from a young boy was “I liked the book because it made me feel loved.”

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

I have had long periods of writer’s block. For a few years I didn’t write at all. My soul felt like it had nothing to say during those periods. When I was asked to write a story about a child and a horse I found myself in unfamiliar territory because I was not writing a therapeutic story. It took a long time for the idea for the story to come to me. No matter what I did to try to engage my muse she wasn’t interested! Finally, she came around and gave me the first line and the first part of the book flowed smoothly. I found Buck’s part of the book difficult to write. Finding Buck’s voice was an arduous process. Once I found his voice though his story flowed from me just like all the other stories I have ever written.

Technically speaking, what do you struggle the most with when writing? 

Commas! Oh my goodness is there ever an abundance of conflicting advice about them. I put commas in, a few friends take them out, then more friends put them back in and add more! I love the Oxford comma for instance but more than half of the people who read my work hate it. I always wonder what my English teachers would think about that!

How do you tackle it?

Usually, I read my work aloud and put commas where I pause. In the end I usually rely on the editor for the final say.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

Finding a publisher is hard. It is difficult to get your manuscript in front of someone when they do not take unsolicited manuscripts. So, finding someone who can represent you and understands your work is key.

My advice is to enter contests, and look for Indie publishers if you are having difficulty getting in with a traditional publishing house. Before you send your manuscript to a publisher have it professionally edited. It gives your work the best opportunity to shine and it represents you as a professional.

Do you have another book in the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

I just finished a book about grief titled The Boy Who Was So Sad. This book is about a small boy whose mother died. He is so overcome with grief that he cries so many tears that he floods his room and eventually his house. He cries so much that his tears create an ocean that separates him from his family who are also grieving the loss of his mother. On his journey he meets some wonderful friends who help reunite him with his family. 

I have just started another Pip and Buck story to explore where their relationship goes next.

Where do you find ideas for stories?

The ideas for almost all of my stories come from experiences children have told me about that make them feel alone. I recall a time looking out of a window with a child thinking about her mother who had died and the overwhelming grief she felt. The Boy Who Was So Sad was written for her and other children who have said, “I will never stop crying!”

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

People can find more information at rebeccahubbardlmft.com


All eleven-year old Pip wanted was a best friend.  When Pip gets a horse for her birthday she is delighted. She thinks that the horse she names Buck will be her best friend the moment that they meet. But she finds out that friendship does not come easily. Her father gently guides her so that Pip can discover for herself how to make Buck a true friend.
Pip’s new friend, Buck, has a story of his own.  After leaving his own herd, to move to Pip’s house, he is looking for a relationship that will help him feel safe.  He, too, learns that making a friend takes patience and understanding.

Now available at Amazon.com and Ravenswood Publishing.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Interview with Ruth Finnegan, Author of "Black Inked Pearl"

Please welcome the irascible Ruth Finnegan, Emeritus Professor, The Open University,  Fellow of the British Academy, Hon. Fellow Somerville College Oxford and author of many nonfiction books and the highly acclaimed novel, Black Inked Pearl.


Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself? 

But that’s so boring now I'm in 80s, look up one of my author pages instead, or the start of my ‘Ruth Finnegan Anthropologist’ book. Oh, except that though I don’t live there now I love my native Derry founded in the 6th century (A.D. of course, don’t be so slow!) by an angry warlike peace-full saint (my favourite, St Columba – do you know his beautiful melody for the 23rd Psalm, best of the lot?), the Irish daire, the oak grove; full like its founder of strife and killing  yet now, with its amazing unique peace bridge (google it) a place of peace and community, can you believe it. So beautiful too, once an island in the lovely Foyle river, girt with the green hills of far away.

Oh yes, and  I've just, somehow, by accident, written a novel. It's called Black Inked Pearl since you ask ( didn't? Too  bad, ‘everyone,’ whoever that is,  says I must keep dragging it in, relevant or not, so I will, see?).

When did you decide you wanted to become an author?

Oh before I was born I’d guess. Who knows (except my tall-story-telling Irish green-eyed spook-aware mother).

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

Homer, Homer, Homer, my first real book (then later in Greek too, read aloud, how can you ask). Then Lady Gregory’s stories of Cuchulain, that great hero of Ireland (died tragically, maybe that’s what all the best heroes have to do so they can live on? His dear horse’s head sorrowfully in his breast. I liked that, even though all I  had to ride at seven was a bareback donkey. It ran away with me too right up the strand until I was pushed off when he went under a low oak bough. My poor mother left on the shore, just the flying Jack (good name for bad ass?) with her li'l  girl on  the back. Symbolic? Not sure.

Who says I have to close my brackets, I'm an AUTHOR, see? (did I mention Black Inked Pearl by any chance?)

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

Black Inked Pearl (in case you’ve forgotten) . They say it's an inspirational epic fantasy romance that stays with you and sinks into your unconscious (watch the video). I wouldn't really know. It bypassed my conscious mind, came in dreams 

Did your book require a lot of research?

NONE. Oh not true. 82 years. And reading. And years of hearing and studying oral story-telling in Africa, and listening to tall Irish stories from my mother (and she was some witch and high-tale teller, I can tell you, bet she’s interrupting her soiree up there and eavesdropping on this from heaven and laughing and wondering why I don’t make more of it. ‘Exaggerate a bit, my dear.  It’s all only white lies you know. Well I had to learn all that as your father, you know, only understood LITERAL truth’ (well do I remember - though hmm, what is truth said jesting Pilate etc, etc). She likes my novel, only thing is she thinks she wrote it herself, well maybe she did)

If you could have any vice without repercussions, what would it be?

HURRAY! my favourite question! SELFISHNESSS of course, am not so good at that (so they say anyway – daughters have to I suppose). I’d really like to have a PROPER sin (not just my little ones like greediness or laziness or getting bored or not getting up in time so leaving my husband--so he says he does--to do everything). How else could I have a proper experience of bittering repentance and so get saved in the end – will have to write a novel about that (though come to think of it perhaps it DID apply to my dear heroine Kate – I suppose that’s how I thought of the thing in the first place. She had to stop all this giving and accept for a change). My mother always said ‘self-sacrifice’ was the worst and most selfish and most IRRITATIING of sins and I think she was right (I used to think her love of burnt toast was self-sacrificial [is that what ‘burnt offerings’ comes from?] but actually now I’m old I see that it was actually that she loved it, as I now do too – come and eat with us sometime, you'll love our nice smokey kitchen.

What kind of promotions do you do for your books?

Those lovely Castelane videos. Not sure how many people are lucky (I mean sensible) enough to watch them though, have a try.



What is the funniest/most embarrassing/scariest story from one of your books signings or events?

Good God, I forgot to get dressed ….  O-o-oh just a dream ( bet you have them too, they ( ’they’? ) say they’re very common, like forgetting your notes or not being able to find the place in the book when you’re doing a big presentation, have these dreams quite often, also, useless me, getting lost, again and again and again). Another – real – embarrassing one but lips sealed.

What so you see for the future of publishing and ebooks?

eBooks are flourishing all right (good thing, the more books around in any form the better) but (yippee) print books are fast coming back again. And you know what? (MUCH to the disgust of the traditional book sellers of course – competition is great naturally but only if to your benefit ):  Amazon is opening hundreds of physical book stores in the US, so presumably soon worldwide. More the merrier I say. Why are people so grudging of new things ( like climate change  - actually the oldest of things that, innit?)

Which of your characters do you love/hate/fear/pity the most and why?

Oh the little dog Holly, what more pitiful, truly, than when she thought her dear Kate was coming and then she wasn't, just the smell if her. And what happier than when at the end she lay at - but DID she?  So what is real what not-real in the novel? In life?

Tell us five random things about yourself.

I'm 5 foot seven inches (imperial) or maybe six, thus less than my very short mother whose passport said 5.7: carefully measured by herself, tape measure in and out all the curves, she never could see anything misleading about that (you see now where I got that dream-reality ambiguity thing,  don't you)

I like dogs and cats

Favorite flower-- primroses

Favorite colour--dark sea-blue eyes (the hidden ‘him’ of the novel , love him ... )

Is that five? Like Kate I can't count very well

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

Actually I love them (nothing 'would' about it, just look at Amazon!). They always tell me something about me and my book and its style, as well as about them and to whom to try to sell my book(s),  and things to take account of next time (aha, but that’s another story – pun). Fancy them being kind enough to go on reading (even if only some of it) and then ATUALLY WRITING A REVIEW! I (confess it -  I love the positive ones too). 

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Short paragraphs. Short sentences (unless you’re James Joyce – I try…). Short  words, and don't forget to learn the rules (how else can you break them?).

Do you have another book in the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

Hmm. A secret  - except that , sshh, not a sequel but all the same related to my Black Inked Pearl -  expanding on the bit that didn’t get proper visibility in the novel, can you guess what, or more likely WHO? But not for a while, must finish off a couple of academic books first. I love them too.

What book do you wish you had written and why?

The Alchemist (and guess what, someone actually compared my novel to that; and  to Game of Thrones, wow) It's so fairytale and SIMPLE. Beautiful. Oh and of course The Odyssey. But is that a book? ( well, I tried, all that long quest, did I mention Black Inked Pearl? Only my novel has a girl as hero not a hardened war-man wise sailor)

What’s your worst writing habit?

NOT (not-writing I mean, isn’t that everyone?)

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?






Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why Size Matters…in your book video trailer

I’m a sucker for videos of cute baby animals. Kittens, elephants, bears. Thankfully, the Internet is full of these and millions of other videos that help pass the time between waking up and when the caffeine kicks in.
I must confess that I’m miserly with this bit of morning time. Before I watch a video, I check to see how long it is. Over three minutes? I won’t even click play. Doesn’t matter if there’s a dancing penguin and kissing a polar bear in it.
Certainly, I’m not the only fussy video viewer out there. With our social media feeds being bombarded by video, viewers are pickier than ever with our viewing diet. So, if a three-minute video about something that I know interests me isn’t going to get watched, how much worse would it be for a commercial endeavor such as a book preview?
Book video trailers have been a staple in publishing promotion for nearly ten years now. And like regular commercials, some are terrific and some stink. Most fall into the middle ground. They are good representations of a book, but fail to hook viewers. 
No hook, no views. That’s the sad reality of promoting on social media today. I will be talking about visual hooks in a future post, but today I want talk about how you can hook your readers before they even click play. 
It’s simple. Keep it short. Think about it. Would you sit through a two minute commercial if it interrupted your favorite sitcom? I’d probably get up and make a snack. We have a little more leeway online, but keeping your book video to the one minute mark will ensure that more readers hit the play button. And like medicine, it doesn’t matter how good your promo is if readers don’t digest it.
Hold on! There are many book videos that are two minutes and longer. That’s true. And, just like commercials, longer videos can work. Take for example the Budweiser ads or Friskies “Dear Kitten” series. But these commercials aren’t pure promo. They tell a story. And viewers watch them for the same reason that I watch baby elephants taking a bath. They’re fun. 
Longer book videos that tap into the fun, cute or inspirational vein can work well. Likewise, videos that offer something more, such as an interview, often need more than two minutes.  In fact, while researching this article, I looked at the view count for many trailers I’ve made over the years. The ones with the higher view count weren’t always the 60 second trailers. I’ve made many successful trailers of 2 minutes or more. But these videos use visual and audio cues to hook the reader along throughout the video. As I mentioned, I’ll be talking about this in a future article.
Unfortunately, many book video trailers fail to hook the viewer. These tend to be the longer videos that could have easily been trimmed to a shorter, more effective promo. Let’s take an example. A friend of mine (we’ll call her Leslie) made her own trailer for a memoir she self-published. Leslie’s video was two and a half minutes long with images of her early life, landscapes of the farm she grew up on, and sweet music playing in the background. Each image stayed on the screen for over ten seconds, far longer than I needed to take it in. The accompanying text did a good job of describing the book, but the slow pace soon made my finger itchy to click “next video.” Because Leslie is a friend and I wanted to learn about her book, I watched it to the end. But those were 150 seconds of my life that I will never get back. 
A snappier, sixty second, video could have related all the same information and left me satisfied rather than grumpy.
So while the length of your video is not the deciding factor of its success, consider it as the first and most important hook. For more tips on creating great trailers, see my past article Trailer Gaffes and Greats

Feel free to post a link to your trailer in the comments. I’ll offer a short and honest critique of all trailers posted. And just to show that I can take it as good as I give it, here’s the trailer for my new book, Hibernaculum. 


As a side note, while researching view times for this article, I realized that I’ve made nearly 500 book video trailers since 2009! Wow! I’ve had the opportunity to work with some fascinating authors. I think I should celebrate when I hit the 500 mark? What do you think? Any ideas to celebrate this landmark? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Kim McDougall is the founder of Castelane Inc, a book promotion hub. Since 2007 she has made nearly 500 book video trailers, lectured on the art of book videos and critiqued trailers for several review sites. 


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How I Outline

One of the main reasons I go to writing conventions is to talk to other writers about how they outline. I ask every presenter during panel discussions and bring up the subject of outlining during lunch and cocktails. Maybe I'm a bit obsessed. But I find the wildly different answers from writers both enlightening and frustrating.

There is no single 'right way' to outline. Every writer has their own tricks to laying down the foundations of a book.

A casual observer might say that there are two thought camps to outlining: those who do it and those who don't. Some call this the plotter versus the pansters (as in seat-of-the-pants) theory. But of course that is oversimplifying things. There are many hues of variation between one extreme and the other. Some pansters might create general outlines and only leave the individual scenes up for free-writing. Plotters come in many colors too. Those who create elaborate, detailed schedules of every scene, POV, and character, to those who prefer to outline in a single narrative summary.

I was always a panster, probably because I wrote mostly short fiction and could keep all the plot points in my head. When I put aside my third draft of a novel because of irredeemable plot holes, I decided it was time to trade camps and learn how to outline.

That's when my frustration really began. I wanted someone to tell me, "Here. This is how you outline your novel. Now sit down and do it." Of course, like in real life, no one was going to hold my hand to that extant.

Instead, when I asked the question, "How do you outline," I received hundreds of different answers, each one valid for that particular author and each with the caveat, "You have to take what works for you and discard the rest."

That was just the problem. I didn't know what worked for me. Yet.

At this point, I should give a shout out to two talented authors who did help me answer that question. One is James Scott Bell with his book Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish and the other is K.M. Weiland with Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Both of these books helped me focus my thoughts and streamline my unwieldy story into a coherent plot.  Like the others, both Weiland and Bell advocate taking what suggestions work best for me. And after a few tries, I'm finally learning what is best for me. For instance, Weiland likes to write her initial notes by hand in notebook, then transcribe them onto the computer. This was exactly the kind of hands-on advice I was looking for, especially since she took me right through her note-taking process.

However, my own attempt at this failed miserably. You see, I often have pain in my hands and fingers which is exacerbated by writing with a pen for long periods of time. So my notes were barely legible and the process was painful and not inspiring.

Simple fix: I make my initial notes on a computer. It works better for me. I'm learning.

Since I am so interested in how others outline, I thought I'd share my process here with you. This is by no means a complete dissertation on the art of outlining. I'll leave that to the masters who have come before me and expressed themselves so well. But maybe it will inspire some other writer lost in the fog of plotting. I would invite you to share your outlining insights in the comments below, so we can all take what is useful for us.

How I Outline

1. I write a one page narrative that gives a basic shape to the story. For this, I use a pared down version of the Snowflake Method, which begins with one potent line and builds exponentially from there.

2. I spend some time in "What if" land. This is where I question every motive and action made by the characters. This often points out gaps in the story or suggests new turns in the plot.

3. I highlight the 2 main scenes that will hinge the book. These are the doorways that the character must go through. Doorway one is the point of no return. This is the action or decision that propels the character into the story. The second is the action or decision that ignites the climax of the story.

4. I fill in the blanks. How do I get from doorway 1 to doorway 2? Here I use small blocks of text that highlight key scenes in a chronological order. I'm not worrying about chapters yet. Only scenes.

5. I write. Outlining doesn't stop here though. Before I start each chapter I decide which scenes it should include and where the best cut off point would be, to leave the reader wanting to turn more pages. Then I take that small chunk of outline and expand it into a full page. Here I lay down specifics. If it's a fight scene, I trace each character's movements. If it's a dialogue scene, who is saying what and for what reason? Even internal monologues can get this treatment. What info needs to come out here? What are the key motivations of each character in the scene? What is the conflict that moves the scene? I call it my floor plan because it's like those footsteps painted on the floor for dance lessons.

This last bit of outlining is new to me, an innovation that I added after trying many other ways of outlining. It works for me and here's why:

-With a clear floor plan, I can be free to write creatively, knowing that I won't forget important plot points.
-Staring at a blank screen can be daunting. The floorpan reassures me that I have some place to go. In fact, I often end a writing session by creating the floor plan for the next day. That way, I feel confident to get right into it as soon as I turn on my computer (after I get distracted by Facebook, my adorable pets, the need for coffee, etc. But that's another blog post.)

So that's it. Does it work? We'll see. After four failed attempts at my current work-in-progress, I swore to myself that draft #5 would be the last. If I don't succeed this time, I'm scrapping the whole project (which has years of world building behind it) and moving on. Such is the life of a writer. Sometimes we must kill our darlings.

But draft #5 is now at 65,000 words and holding its own. So far, no major plot holes. Just a few leaks that I plugged with chewing gum until revising time. I'll let you know how it goes.

Feel free to share your outlining successes or failures (those are just as important) in the comments below.