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Writing Children’s Books – My Thoughts

Little Alien

When I first starting my writing endeavor over nine years ago, it was exciting, and I had a blast creating and learning. I bought and read the book, The Business of Writing for Children by Aaron Shepard, and it sent me on my way. The author suggested joining a writing group, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which I did, and finding critique groups to bounce around ideas and share material with other writers. I did that as well, and it was a great piece of advice. It was the best step I took to improve my writing, meet great people, and have lasting friendships with people who support what I do.

Ways to Improve Writing Skills

I’ve been to many conferences and lectures to hear authors, agents, and writers’ advice on how to improve my writing. I’ve also paid to have agents critique my manuscripts at these events. All of these steps have improved my writing tremendously—or so I believe. I’ve always learned something from any writing event I’ve attended. If you do the research, you can find free and low-cost events as well as big conferences.

So Where Are the Big Bucks?

Good question. I went into writing knowing children’s authors overall don’t make much. I’ve actually spent more money than I’ve ever earned from book sales. I’ve bought more of my own books and given away for promotion than I can count. I don’t write just for the money because I have yet to see any. If anyone has tips on this, I’d like to hear them.

The Joys of Getting Published

I had my first book, Pirates Off the Deep End, published in 2013 by Short on Time Books, a small publisher. I was beyond thrilled to see my work escape the jammed-packed folders of my computer and sit on a shelf with a beautiful, glossy cover. I still am thrilled. Although I don’t have a huge following or really even a small following, many people have enjoyed my books, and it makes me happy. Good reviews make me even happier.

That’s the bottom line for me—writing makes me happy, and I want my writing to make others happy as well. If you’ve read this far, you’re now going to get the best advice I have to offer.

The Old Man, Boy, and Donkey

If you don’t know the Aesop’s fable with the old man, boy, and donkey about trying to please everyone, it’s worth reading. It ends with the old man and boy carrying the donkey over a bridge because someone shamed them into it. The donkey fell off the bridge. Use its moral in your writing, too. Getting a critique is great, but you can often wind up with contrasting opinions: too much detail vs. not enough; too much dialogue vs. not enough; etc.– you get the picture. You can change your manuscript back and forth forever, and not everyone that reads it will be satisfied. At some point, stop changing it when YOU’RE happy with it.

The “It Takes Over 100 Query Letters” Rule

I’ve read time and time again if authors haven’t sent out at least 100 query letters to agents for a single manuscript, they haven’t given it a chance. I would agree with that statement. Persistence is the key to getting published, but it can be frustrating.

For instance, I write children’s books specifically geared for boys but the majority of agents seem to be women. Thus, my dilemma is I have to “sell” manuscripts to women that have humor meant for little boys. Little boys and women don’t have the same taste in “funny.” Let’s do the math:

Subject                           +           Boys’ Reaction         –    Agent’s Reaction  = Accept/Reject

Alien blue fart bubble             Laughs hysterically      Grimaces                    No thank you.

Alien ninja skills                      Laughs hysterically      Moans                         Doesn’t reply

I think I could send 10,000 query letters, and Aliens at Camp will reside in my computer. I’ve read it several times and laughed out loud. It makes ME happy. All I can do is keep trying to find that one agent who shares the same sense of humor and wants a wacky boy’s book. In the meantime, I keep writing because I enjoy it.

Bottom line, I can’t lose sight of the fact that writing is fun for me, and when bad critiques, agent rejections, and non-existent sales get me down, I need to take a step back and rewind. My favorite quote came from a very wise man, Captain Jack Sparrow, and it applies here. “The problem is not the problem; the problem is your attitude about the problem.”

 

Describing Fictional Characters

The object of the game Guess Who is for two players to guess which of the 24 characters their opponent has selected and visa versa. The first one to guess right wins. Players narrow down the field of “suspects” one question at a time such as “are they male or female” and “do they have brown hair.” After several rounds, many of the “suspects” are still standing because they all fit the same descriptions. The bottom line, physical descriptions given in great detail are wonderful for a police sketch artist but not for characters in a fictional story.

Guess Who.jpg

Physical Attributes Just Scratch the Surface

A character’s hobbies, habits, gestures, likes and dislikes will give a reader a more in-depth look than a running list of physical descriptions. In The Troubled Souls of Goldie Rich: The Zombie Next Door, my young adult/safe for middle grade adventure, the main character is 14-year-old Goldie Jean Rich.

Goldie’s physical attributes are petite, curly hair and young-looking. The rest I’ve left up to the reader’s imagination because it is not an integral part of the story. It doesn’t matter if Goldie is a blonde or redhead nor does it have any bearing on this story if she is of Hawaiian descent or Italian. The same goes for her best friend, the eccentric and fun-loving Rita, and their classmates, Jonny and Blake, who hang around the girls because they have crushes on them. Goldie is also adopted and may/may not look like the rest of her family. That’s up to the reader.

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Characters Need Problems, and Goldie Has Her Share

The problems a character has and the way they handle them add to their personality. Entering high school is scary and exciting. Shy Goldie is anxious to be a freshman because of how she sees herself. She confides in Rita “I’m going to look like an eight-year-old when I start high school in three months” to which Rita replies, “Get over it, Goldie.  You look at least nine.”

Gema, Goldie’s adult sister, is watching her over summer break while their parents are on vacation. The sisters butt heads constantly. After catching Goldie reading a book about voodoo, Gema asks her sister if she plans to make a voodoo doll in her image. Goldie fumes silently, “Obviously, she (Gema) didn’t know me that well.  I couldn’t sew, make crafts, and I didn’t fare well with pointy objects.  My last experience with a serrated knife left a permanent scar on my hand from the three stitches I received at the emergency room.”

Goldie’s teenage attitude sneaks out here and there. When she and Rita are plotting to hide a video camera in Gema’s house, Goldie has the situation under control. “Gema has all this stuff already, and I know exactly where she keeps it.  It’s in her art studio that I’m not supposed to go into, locked up in a file cabinet that I’m not allowed to look in.  But I know where the key is hidden, so we won’t need to pick the lock.” She added, “It didn’t hurt that gadgets and computers had become a hobby of mine since I’d joined the computer club at school.  It wasn’t as geeky as it sounded.  Or maybe it was.  At least, I was putting the knowledge to good use now.”

Habits, Hobbies and Gestures Make a Character

Goldie blushes constantly, especially when she’s around her crush Blake. But, as usual in teenage drama, the guy she doesn’t like, Jonny, is the one who shows interest in her.

The tennis court seems to be the only place Goldie isn’t a walking disaster. She falls down more than a bowling pin and is in double trouble when she doesn’t have her glasses on. “I jumped backwards and stumbled over my own feet. My cellphone flew out of my hand and zoomed through the air. It smashed into my flimsy, green aluminum lamp, knocked it off my nightstand, and it crashed to the ground.”

She is a horror movie addict, watching everything and anything scary—especially zombies. With a big bowl of buttery popcorn, her little dog, Chanel, on one side and Rita on the other, she’s a happy girl. When the zombies are in real life and not on the TV screen, however, Goldie doesn’t find them as fun, but it’s exciting for the reader.

Goldie has a definite personality, which I hope readers find likable, and her image will vary from one reader’s imagination to another. I keep in mind something I read a long time ago that fiction writers shouldn’t force their opinions about the characters on the reader. Lay it all out there, and let the readers decide.

If you like mysteries, a short, fast-paced read, dogs, and, of course, magical zombies, give The Troubled Souls of Goldie Rich: The Zombie Next Door a try.

Supernatural, Paranormal, Fantasy or Science Fiction?

There doesn’t seem to be a cut and dry answer when choosing a genre for some books. If a book has a ghost element, is it paranormal, supernatural or fantasy? When does a book with a vampire, werewolf or demon cross over from the supernatural or paranormal category into horror? Some books, such as Twilight, may fall under romance or thriller although most of the characters are supernatural. This is my take on paranormal and supernatural, using my book Pirates Off Kilter as an example. Please feel free to leave comments if your opinions differ.

Supernatural Characters Include Phantoms and Ghosts

In Pirates Off Kilter, pirate captains François l’Olonnais and Red Boots add a ghostly element. To me, ghosts are supernatural characters. L’Olonnais is evil, but not evil enough to make the middle grade book a horror. The Klopt family, who l’Olonnais frequently haunts in the Pirates Off series, may disagree.

Paranormal Characters Are More Solid

Witches, sea witches, vampires, werewolves and ghouls are paranormal in my book. Literally, sea witches are in my book. Volange and her brother Dedris are sea creatures that cause problems for the Klopt family. Enchanting but scary, Volange’s voice is melodic like a siren’s—a creature that is both paranormal and mythical. Dedris is just as powerful and tricky as his sister is. He may appear passive with his fiber-optic looking hair and lavender eyes; however, he turns Hoody Klopt into a statue with a wave of his hand.

Dedris Sea Witch

Science Fiction Is a Whole Other Realm

Science fiction doesn’t have to be in outer space, but Star Wars and Star Trek come to mind first. An alien invasion of Earth and weird science are science fiction, too.

 Any way you look at it, it’s all fantasy—to most people. The bottom line: if a book is good or even marginal yet entertaining, it doesn’t really matter how you categorize it. If you like supernatural, paranormal or fantasy, check out the Pirates Off series available on Amazon.

Plots, Protagonists and Pirates

Protagonists in books are supposed to go through some kind of change from the beginning of their adventure to the end. Usually, they learn or grow through their experience, accomplish a goal, or attain both. In fiction writing, the character’s transformation makes up the plot.

For most of the crew of the Fleurie Jean in Pirates Off the Deep End and subsequent books in the Pirates Off series, their main goal in every book is to complete a task, which is usually delegated by a ghost pirate and is non-negotiable. The crew, Tommy, Connor, Dillon, and their captain, Hoody, always gain a valuable lesson from each quest. The fifth crew member, Cosette, changes in a different way.

Cosette and Her Pirate Boyfriend

Captain Jacques Mignard was a terrible boyfriend for Cosette back in the 1800s, and he didn’t improve after he turned into a ghost. Because he double-crossed Volange, a powerful sea witch, she turned Cosette into a ship’s wooden figurehead, a curse that was in place for over a hundred years. Mignard was unable to reverse the witch’s spell when he became a ghost, and he couldn’t find anyone who could.

Cosette figurehead

Cosette went from the front of a ship in France to a restaurant’s wall in New England when the days of wooden ships had past. She hung there in limbo for a long time until Connor and Tommy sawed her off. To fast forward, they cut a deal with Captain Mignard, which involved taking Cosette, the figurehead, to Volange to have the spell reversed.

Read the Fine Print on Any Contract

Tommy is clever, or so he thought. However, Volange had hundreds of years’ more experience in making deals than the 12 year old. After Mignard’s original deal with the sea witch went sour, Tommy bargained with Volange so she’d bring Cosette back to life. She held to her word, and Cosette was freed of her figurehead state and made a living, breathing—dog. A Brittany spaniel. However, if Tommy didn’t make good on his part of the bargain, Volange vowed she’d reverse Cosette’s living status and turn her into a figurehead for eternity.

Brittany spaniel

Spoiler Alert : Cosette Changes Once Again

Tommy and the rest of the crew go to Scotland to fulfill the bargain with Volange. Tommy’s ever-present mentor, Francois l’ Olonnais even provides “help” by recruiting a Scottish ghost pirate, Captain Red Boots, to guide them. Boots refreshes the boys’ memories that pirates can’t be trusted, and they learn the value of brotherhood, selflessness, and the fine art of negotiation. Cosette learns that she can trust the Klopts with her life, which she gets back with their persistence, and that the world has changed a lot since the 1800s.

Cosette 1 watercolor

Characters have to grow and change to make a story interesting. From figurehead to canine companion to person, Cosette wins the Pirates Off character prize for going through the most changes. Dealing with the Klopts on a daily basis, however, should be a prize in itself. Read about Cosette and the crew’s latest adventure in Pirates Off the Mark.

A Quick Read with Action, Adventure, and Laughter on the High Seas

Being eaten by cannibals was just a setback for one of the most feared pirates in history, François l’Olonnais. The 16th century French pirate’s name may not be as well known as Blackbeard, Calico Jack, or William Kidd, but his evil reputation has hung around long after his demise in 1668.

lolonnais face part 1

Accounts of his life and treachery are sketchy; yet, what little is known paints a gruesome picture of the buccaneer. He honed torturing techniques, such as beheading and popping captives’ eyes out of their sockets, when he wasn’t pillaging or engaging in his favorite pastime, taking revenge on the Spanish. You can find more non-fiction on l’Olonnais, but the rest of this blog focuses on his current, and, of course, fictional activities.

The Pirate Ghost

Four hundred years after becoming a meal, l’Olonnais continues to haunt people as a ghost. All hell breaks loose when his cherished cutlass is removed from the wreckage of his ship, somewhere off the Panama coast. After the cutlass is stowed away in a trophy case out of the buccaneer’s reach, he stops at nothing to get it back. L’Olonnois believes only a special person can reclaim what is lost, and he has his sights on that person.

Cliff Klopt, the Captain

Enter the Klopt family. The patriarch, Cliff, is a mild-mannered, all-around family guy. The college graduate is a skilled mechanic, among other talents, good looking, and environmentally conscious. However, times are tough. He lost his job, wife, home, and most of his ability to reason along with his common sense. The only possession he has left is his old boat, which he decides will make a great pirate ship. Steal from the rich and give to—charity. The Robin Hood pirate, nicknamed Hoody, isn’t the best pirate in history, but he’s handy and tries to be prepared. However, nothing could possibly prepare him for an angry pirate ghost on a mission.

The Crew of the Swashbuckler

Hoody’s crew is comprised of his boys, Connor, Tommy, and Dillon. Connor is quick-witted and cautious, Tommy is creative and reckless, and Dillon is smart and carefree. The three brothers know Hoody has gone off the deep end, but they honor their mother’s dying wish—watch out for each other—and they play along.

Boys dock small

For a while, living on the boat is fun, but a brush with real pirates is a wake-up call. The boys come up with a plan to get Hoody to quit pirating; however, the plan is shattered when they encounter l’Olonnais and he chooses one of the boys as his protégé.
The ghostly buccaneer doesn’t negotiate with the boys. Besides, he holds a major bargaining chip—Hoody. He gives the boys and hourglass and says, “The sand will run out in three days. You cannot cheat the hourglass or stop it. You have until the sand runs out to return my cutlass. If you do not, your captain dies.” With their father’s life on the line, the journey begins.

Don’t Trust a Pirate or Make Assumptions

If you enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and Goosebumps, you may be surprised that all three series are considered middle grade books. Don’t automatically assume that middle grade means boring and babyish; books are classified that way simply because they lack dirty words, sex, and are a shorter read.

Who doesn’t like a good pirate tale after all? If it’s short enough to read on a plane or train commute—even better. Give Pirates Off the Deep End a try and see what François l’Olonnais is up to.

How to Make a Low Budget Book Trailer: Step by Step

In my other blog series, Creating a Low-budget Book Trailer: The First Steps, I went over the process I used to create my middle grade and young adult book trailers for under $40. This blog will go through the step-by-step process for my new book trailer from the original ideas to the final product and all the changes in between. Do not confuse low budget with easy. To create a decent book trailer that is one to two minutes long, you will have to invest a good deal of time. Are you ready?

Keep in Mind

I am not a professional videographer, and I do not put together book trailers for a living. I am not promoting any software or companies that sell audio or video. I am just an author on a really tight advertising budget, passing along tips to fellow authors. Even if you don’t find my book trailers as wonderful as I’d like you to, you may be able to pick up a useful tip or two to make an even more fabulous one of your own.

Although I have books published, the trailer I’m going to create will be for a manuscript that isn’t published. Why would I go through the trouble? The reason is simple: I want to be prepared. Hopefully, my agent/publisher will want to publish the book, and when/if I get the thumbs up, I can start promoting it to build interest.

Key Points of the Book Trailer

My manuscript, Dagger & Brimstone: Town from Hell, is a young adult, horror, supernatural adventure. It’s suspenseful and has some gross scenes. I want those points to come across in my trailer without giving too much away. The quick synopsis is: two 17-year-olds are very much and love and decide to run away just for the summer to escape their meddling parents. The juvenile delinquent Racer and college-bound Arloe are as opposite as their families. They go off the grid exactly like they planned to a remote town and wind up in a nightmare. Of course, their parents can’t help them because they have no clue where the teens went.

Show and Tell

I picked out a few scenes from the manuscript that would set up the story and let the viewer know the teens didn’t arrive at a pleasant place. On a sheet of paper divided into 10 sections, I roughly (as in Pictionary drawings) sketched my ideas for the scenes. I am very visual, so this helps me a lot. It took a few days to decide what to use; I didn’t zoom through it in five minutes.
Creating House rough sketch

I copy and pasted lines from the manuscript into another document. I chose short lines that I thought were interesting, informative, and would introduce my main characters, Racer, Arloe, and Sheriff Blue. Again, it was a time-consuming process. For the next blog, I’ll match the scenes with the lines. Examples of lines:

• Our parents will never find us—I made sure of that.
• Everyone we’d met in Winthrop had a name from the book of nursery rhymes. It was all too weird, and I couldn’t get out of town fast enough.
• “Jack hid bodies!”
I stared at the frozen face of a middle-aged man. His blue lips had frozen squashed against the clear plastic that encased his body, and his pale, lifeless eyes had partially rolled back in their sockets. “I think Jack is a body.”
• “We’ll never get out of here. Things are roaming all over this place.”
“What kind of thing is Blue exactly?”

Just like a manuscript, this is a first draft, but it gives me a starting point. From here, I’ll work on tightening the sentences, finding music and sounds to enhance the scenes and figure out where I’ll shoot or acquire my envisioned video and stills. I recently found this blog by author Kate Bloomfield that also has helpful tips, and I think her trailer is well done.

Check back on my blog to see how the trailer for Dagger & Brimstone: Town from Hell is coming along.

Why Write a Book Review?

Book reviews have taken on a whole new meaning for me since I’ve become a published author. Before any of my work was published, I didn’t always write a review for books I’d read. Shame on me. What I didn’t realize at the time is how much the review would mean to those authors—the old quote ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ caught up with me.

How Reviews Help an Author

I can’t speak for all authors, especially best-selling ones, but I can for myself and a few close author friends. We love reviews and getting feedback on work that we’ve toiled over for years. Bad reviews aren’t our favorite, but I’ve actually had one of my friends laugh off a bad review. He said it made other people want to read what was so bad about the book. One of my favorite reviews was written by a 10-year-old who had read my young adult/middle grade book The Troubled Souls of Goldie Rich: The Zombie Next Door. She gave my book a good review and wrote how much she loved it. Nailing the material for the age group it’s written for is what I strive to do as an author. Her review confirmed that for me.

Accumulating book reviews is also great advertising for authors. Word of mouth can’t be beat in my opinion. Who doesn’t ask family and friends for advice or opinions? Reviews also can translate into increased sales and unlock better promotions for books from sellers as well.

How Do Book Reviews Help Readers

As a reader, I choose a book by its subject matter, which I gather from the back cover and readers’ reviews. Sometimes, I admit, I’m sucked in by an amazing cover, but the book has to pass the back cover test to actually get purchased. For me and many other readers, we use reviews to determine if we really want to spend our time and money on a book. A glowing review can seal the deal for me, especially if someone knowledgeable on the subject recommends it. I was very excited to get a wonderful review from Cindy Vallar, author, editor, and historian of all things pirate. In her monthly maritime history column entitled Pirates and Privateers, she posted the review of my middle grade book Pirates Off the Deep End.

Lesson Learned

I’ve walked in an author’s shoes and have been seen the light. I actually went back and wrote reviews on Amazon for books I’d read years before. Even if a book isn’t your favorite, there is probably something worth mentioning that is positive about it: good characters, fast-paced, kept my interest. To say a book ‘sucks’ without elaborating doesn’t help an author or anyone trying to learn something from your review. More useful information would be ‘I couldn’t connect with the characters’ or ‘the plot wasn’t believable.’ A simple, three-sentence review can tell a lot. Keep in mind most authors spend several years and countless hours on each book, and granted, we realize not everyone will love our work, but respect and common courtesy is always appreciated no matter what your profession.

I may never reach my goal as ‘a best-selling author’, but as long as good reviews trickle in, I’ve done my job as an author to entertain readers. So keep this blog in mind the next time you read a book, and spend a few minutes typing your opinion of it. It’s not only your chance to make your opinion count, but your time and energy will be appreciated.