Category Archives: Member Contributions

One Small Step For Self Publishing

Self-publishing just took a big step up in the world. Penguin gave self-publishing a big boost this summer by purchasing Author Solutions, one of the biggest self-publishing platforms available to authors. This kind of nod from a major publisher might allow self-publishing to finally gain a lot more acceptance, respect and legitimacy in the publishing and book-selling communities.

Penguin has a history of thinking outside the box, for example its recent two book deal with author Kerry Schafer, a digital-age book deal that came about after the author uploaded her NaNoWriMo novel to Penguin’s Book Country.

Self-publishing has been slowing shedding its old stigmas layer by layer. More services are popping up to help authors achieve higher levels of quality.  How long can traditional publishing last against the growing force of self-publishing?

The old idea of getting an advance up front for getting a book deal the traditional route is not all that and a bag of chips any more.  Most authors are fed their “advances” in bits and pieces, and they aren’t usually huge jackpots.

Who needs advances in the age of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo?

The draws of traditional publishing are rapidly dwindling. The distribution power of the big publishing houses and the air of legitimacy are the only things traditional publishing still has going for it. Now that Penguin has jumped into self publishing with both feet, even the legitimacy factor is starting to look shaky.

Are the big publishing houses being stripped down to nothing but distribution machines? Will distribution even be necessary in the digital future? Where is it all going? What do writers, publishers and booksellers have to do to stay in the game? Penguin has obviously decided what it’s path will be. Where will that path lead?

How to Pitch Your Story

As an author, you need to learn how to pitch your stories, both in person and in query letters. Writing a pitch really helps you to focus on your story line, not on all the little details. When asked, “What’s your book about?”, the worst thing you can do is go on and on about plot events in your story. Don’t do that–pitches need to be succinct. By the way, I didn’t invent this technique; I learned it from pitching experts.

Here’s the basic structure of a pitch:

My screenplay/novel, TITLE HERE, is about PROTAGONIST NAME HERE, SHORT DESCRIPTION OF PROTAGONIST THAT WILL MAKE US FEEL SYMPATHETIC TO HIM/HER. When INCITING INCIDENT HERE, s/he decides to WHATEVER YOUR PROTAGONIST DOES IN YOUR STORY in spite of OBSTACLES HERE.

Pitches don’t need to be especially elegant. It’s more important to convey the essence of the story. If the listener is intrigued, she will ask for more details.

To show you what I’m talking about, here are examples of pitches I wrote for my novels and screenplays:

My novella/screenplay Call of the Jaguar is about Rachel McCarthy, a woman who realizes on her 40th birthday that the life she has chosen is meaningless. When she sees a newspaper article about the romantic archaeologist lover from her youth, she decides to seek him out in spite of the fact that he is working in the midst of a war-torn country.

My novel Shaken is about Elisa Langston, who takes charge of her family’s plant nursery after her father’s sudden death. After the business is struck by vandals, an earthquake, and finally arson, Elisa must prove to a suspicious insurance investigator that she’s not the criminal behind all the destruction.

My novel The Only Witness is about Matthew Finn, a big-city police detective who moved to a gossipy small town only to have his wife leave him for an old flame. When a baby disappears from a parked car, Finn works relentlessly to solve the case, despite the fact that the only witness he can find is a signing gorilla.

You get the idea.

Other Elements You Need

If you’re asked for more information in a face-to-face meeting or if you’re writing a query letter, you should also be able to point out deeper elements explored and explain why you wanted to write this story. It’s best if the reason for that comes from your personal history. Here’s one example of that, using a screenplay I wrote that I am currently turning into a novel:

The pitch:

My screenplay Between Water and Earth is about Jess Crowder, a 20-year-old pregnant journalism student who is determined to prove to everyone that she can still have a career as a reporter. When the body of her long-lost aunt is unearthed on her grandfather’s property, she decides to cover the story and solve the mystery of a series of murders in the past in spite of the fact that the killer may be a member of her own family.

Deeper issues explored: Secrets within families and communities, violence and anger among veterans returning from war.

I wanted to write this story because my work as an investigator has taught me that criminals are people. A man who murders is always someone’s son, father, brother, or husband. Some families choose to ostracize the perpetrator; others choose to believe the crimes never happened. So I wanted to explore the dynamics of a family and a small community when a killer is in their midst.

Now get your head back into your own story and write your own pitch. Good luck!

The Fictionalists

The Fictionalists
© 2010 by Frederick Su

“Fine fiction is eclectic and, like fine food, delights the palate of the mind.” F.S.
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The greatest sin of a writer is to be boring. And, believe me, there are greater opportunities to be boring when writing fiction than there are in writing nonfiction. Nonfiction essentially catalogs a series of events under “what is,” “what was,” or “how to.” Fiction, on the other hand, has the author step out of his/her own skin to create a “what if” universe of untrue people doing untrue things with all the verisimilitude of real life. Moreover, tastes in fiction are entirely subjective, so appealing to the breadth of readers—as in a bestseller—is a monumental, often unfulfilled, task.

A novel, then, creates a world unto itself populated by characters who, though imagined, are real enough to jump out of the page, grab you by the lapels, and drag you into a set place and time. A good novel makes you care about the protagonist as you witness his/her struggles via a plotline, whether that plotline is grandiose or understated. A good novel paints, with words, a picture of setting, time, and characters who are as alive in the reader’s mind as people who inhabit our everyday lives. We become more intimate with the characters than we can possibly be with friends (at least my friends). The author invites you to peer into the most private aspects of the characters’ lives: their foibles; their hopes, dreams, and desires; their fears; their actions; and the reasons for their actions. In other words, this fictional world is real because it is alive in your imagination through the skills of the author. And, you—the Peeping Tom or Jill—lustfully desire to learn more, by turning the page.

A poorly written novel is flat and bland and easily recognized as such. Most likely, the author has failed to adequately describe the essence, movement, and emotion of the scene and characters, thus failing to persuade you to read more. On the other hand, a good novelist, through the subtlety of the written word, has transmuted those words into life on the written page. A good novel, then, has rhythm, tone, nuance, artistic grace, and the seamless transition of measured prose that sometimes approaches poetry, all the while capturing at least some aspect of the meaning of life. A tall order? Sure, but doable, and mightily strived for by many a man and woman. (That’s why writing good-to-great fiction is “damn hard writing.” That’s why the legacy of a good-to-great novelist is eternal fame. That’s why celebrities want to be novelists.)

As a proud member of Whatcom Writers and Publishers, I enjoy the thrill of discovery in reading other members’ books and being pleasantly surprised by the level of writing.

I am a fictionalist (novelist and short story writer), so I’m drawn to other people’s attempts at fiction. I’m especially drawn to small-press and self-published (sp2) novels. And while we have nationally recognized novelists who are members, such as Jo Dereske and Alma Alexander, I would like to comment on the sp2 novelists I’ve met and read, including fellow WWP members.

The best self-published novelist I know is Gary Worthington, author of the historical novels India Treasures and India Fortunes. I first met him when he and I were invited to speak at a Book Publishers Northwest meeting in Seattle in 2002. His novel India Treasures was a finalist in the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year, Fiction, and my novel An American Sin had won an IPPY award and was a finalist in two other contests. A few years back, Gary was invited to speak at WWP, and other members had a chance to buy his novels. If you doubt my word about the quality of his writing, just query Carolyn Leeper. More info about Gary’s novels can be found at www.timebridges.com.

As for WWP members, two are mystery writers—Sara Stamey, author of Islands, and Pam Beason, author of Wild. Both have captured the essence of place in their novels, Sara’s being the Caribbean and Pam’s being the wilderness of Utah. Their characters are alive. If you enjoy mysteries, you should enjoy these two. Pam’s novel is in the new genre of eco-mystery.

The other two WWP novelists (excluding me) are Jerry Watson, author of The Antiquarian Chronicles (Tate Publishing), and Dick Vander Yacht, author of Camp on the Crazy (Meadow Creek Press) and other Westerns. I’ve just recently read these two books and can say that I enjoyed both of them immensely.

In Jerry’s book, the protagonist, Lee Styles, is a Charleston antiques dealer pursuing the history of a Civil War-era Savage rolling block rifle he purchased from a New York City dealer. Styles has dreams about the rifle, and he and his pretty assistant slowly piece together its history. Along the way, we are introduced to the characters and circumstances associated with the rifle. One of the highlights, in my mind, is the total immersion I felt entering Bonesteel, South Dakota, where I became part of the Schumacher homestead and felt embraced by the Schumacher’s hospitality. The scenes bring back memories of the experiences I’ve had with farmers and Midwestern generosity.

In Dick’s book, Camp on the Crazy, set just after the Civil War, a Confederate veteran and his ex-slave leave their ancestral home in Georgia to head west. Garnett Stone and Rufe first visit St. Louis, where Stone would be reunited with his sister and his son. From there, the two head west to lay railroad tracks and hunt buffalo. Finally, Stone would settle in Wyoming territory near Crazy Woman Creek. Dick brings to life the history of that time, especially the hunting and decimation of the buffalo. Garnett Stone is a strong man and Dick fills that characterization nicely. Stone takes no guff, and he wreaks vengeance when it needs wreaking. (Love that!) And Dick’s portrayal of Maria MacDowell makes her so real (vibrant, beautiful, athletic, sassy, and sexual) that I’m left to wonder, how come I never met such a young woman when I was young?

Dick also paints landscape beautifully: “Like a whirling dervish, the water swirls over the canyon walls, throwing a white glistening spray into a halo on all sides. A wide pool beneath a waterfall slows the pace for a moment, dropping insects to feed the elusive cutthroat trout lying in wait in a small eddy. A tiny slate colored bird, the water ouzel, wanders along the bank, body constantly dipping up and down before it dives into the swirling stream to steal a morsel of food from the hungry trout.

The fluid moves onward, thrashing and churning, relentlessly wearing away pieces of rock, slowly turning many into gravel and sand. Bits of wood and other debris are seized up in the torrent and carried downstream until finally cast aside on some tiny, isolated beach. Each foot of travel has a purpose in the grand scheme of nature.

The roar of racing water is at times deafening, drowning out every other sound of the wild. One can sit, continuously watching this spectacle, and each moment see something different, always thrilled as the scene changes before your eyes. The drama is not unique to this one area. Similar scenes can be found in a thousand places all around the world but this particular spot is important to our story because it is the birthplace of Crazy Woman Creek.”

I have only one small criticism of Dick’s novel. If Garnett Stone had been real, I doubt he could have remained celibate. Mother Nature, though beautiful, is a cold, ambivalent mistress.

So, I suggest that, hey, the WWP fictionalists are pretty good writers! Their novels are as good, if not better than, a lot of those coming from New York. Buy their books!

“Here’s to us, none like us!”