I Smell Snow

Some of you might recognize that line as coming from Lorelai Gilmore’s mouth in the much loved (or hated–it was one of those shows that pushed a person one way or the other–I don’t know anyone who watched it and came out of the experience middle-of-the-road) Gilmore Girls. Me? I’m one of the former. I was thrilled when the series was revisited by Netflix in the four part mini-series with so many of the original cast members. It took a little getting used to the rapid-fire dialogue again, but I fell right back into the pattern in short order.

But I digress (as usual).

This blog is only to share some photos of the snow I took this morning. Last snowfall was a fizzle here, went from snow to ice to rain to ice to snow… We ended up with an inch or so of slush that froze over and made for dangerous walking. For many on the East Coast, though, and in the South and elsewhere in the country, that recent snow was hazardous, causing stranded motorists, power outages, and worse, so I’m not making light of it. I’m only saying I had hoped we’d have a little more than we ended up with, because I do so like snow under most circumstances.

Today’s snow isn’t supposed to add up to much either, and started with some rain and ice, but it looked quite pretty for a while so I stepped outside my door and grabbed a few photos during the best of it. My favorite is the one that serves as a header to this blog.

Word Count… Really?

I know. Why should there be limitations on how many words are used to tell a particular story? Truly, there aren’t. It’s your story, after all, so you can go on and on and on and on—and on, as long as it serves your tale, right? Well, yes and no.

Adhering to word count isn’t an issue when you’re writing something for yourself, family or friends to read. I’m not saying that’s the only reason you shouldn’t concern yourself with word count, but it is the one time you can count on it not to matter (or at least you can hope it doesn’t—ask a family member at what point in your 200,000 word cozy mystery they tuned out and you might get an idea why genre and word count have such a strict relationship).

And, of course, there are authors out there who, due to their renown or the stupendous stories they weave, will be permitted to exceed expected word count without so much as a peep. There’s nothing wrong with that. We enjoy their stories nonetheless. Their talent shines through. But for mere mortals who are struggling to get published, there are rules and boundaries and expectations.

Even the self-published author might consider keeping their suspense novel to no longer than 75,000 words because, in most cases, those of us looking to read suspense have come to expect the length. Too short, and you’re feeling cheated; too wordy, and the only suspense might be the unfound answer to the constantly circling question in your head as to when it’s all going to end.

There are reasons why publishers have placed word count limits for their various imprints or editorial lines. Experience, naturally, and reader expectation, and some limits ultimately reflect the bottom line (printing costs). Because of this, guidelines regarding length are rather stringent. Self-publishing affords an author more leeway, certainly, but one should still be cognizant of what a reader has come to expect in terms of story length.

For example, let’s say you write romance. Harlequin is a well-known publisher of romance, with various lines. Their Intrigue line is for high-stake thrillers. Word count: 55,000—fast read, fast action. The Harlequin Historical line requires a word count of between 70,000 and 75,000 words. A historical romance (or fiction in general) has more scenery to it, more backdrop in which the characters interact. It moves at a different pace (not dragging, though, or you’ve dropped the ball somewhere else along the line). My novel, Once and Always, a historical set in India in the 19th century, was published by Kensington and consisted of 110,000 words. Each publisher has their own limits. I am only citing these as examples.

Science fiction and fantasy novels require quite a bit of world-building and the usual word count for one of these is 90,000 to 120,000 words. Thrillers generally run about 70,000 words. Cozy mysteries top off at between 50,000 to 60,000 words, although if they’re a bit shorter, no one’s complaining. The length still works. Are mystery novels your forte? Keep it to about 80,000 words. There are, however, mystery sub-genres with varied word counts. In fact, there are exceptions to all of the above, whether because of the story you’re telling, or because a particular publishing house has its own outlines for their needs.

To sum it up, if you’ve written (or are planning to write) the next great [fill in genre here­] novel and are seriously looking to have it published by some other means than self-publishing, take a check on word count to see if you’re in the ball park before submitting. Seriously, you could find your work rejected because it doesn’t fit within the word count parameter. If the novel is exceptional, though, you might have an editor asking you to tweak it to fit the boundaries. You know what I say to that? Don’t take the moral high ground. Sit and think about it for a (little) bit. They are, after all, the professionals. You might actually want to work with them and take their advice.

So, as always, research your market. Research, research, research, and always write the best you can and then write it again.

Until next time folks, have a great week!

Writing – How Goes That Short Story?

Last week, I was blathering on about starting at the beginning, but not necessarily the beginning, or something like that. I’d suggested an assignment, writing a 500-word short story and I did manage to write one. It’s not outstanding, but it does have all the elements needed, beginning in the middle of action, paragraphs that allow the reader to get into the character’s head, understand a bit about her motivation, her personality, her attitude and maybe a hint at the reason for it. There is immediate introduction to the “protagonist” as well. The story is set up, progresses, reaches a climax and resolves in 500 words. Understanding these elements will help a writer no matter the tale’s length (next week’s blog will be about word count and genre, which could be helpful to someone out there). Believe me, I learned the hard way.

I had also said that I would get into ways to “cut the fat” in the writing endeavor, especially the short story. As my eyes droop, I realize this will require more discussion in another blog. However, one way to cut extraneous words is to recognize that they are such. You must be your best first editor. Adjectives and adverbs are great (I use a lot when blogging, because they can be so much fun), but not often necessary to get the point across. Also, can you find a way for a thought or action to be complete without expounding on all the motivations for it? Back story has no real place in a shortened tale, and it is important to dive right into the main character’s reason for being there in your work. If you tried the 500-word story exercise, were you able to edit out those words, sentences, phrases that ultimately did nothing more than increase word count rather than move the story forward? If you did, that’s great, because the same editing will help in all your writing. Like I said, I learned the hard way.

Well, that’s going to be it for now. I ran behind in preparing my blog for this week and the hour is getting late, but I hope this is enough information to keep your interest until next week’s blog. In the meantime here is my short story, for what it’s worth.

Perspective by Robin Maderich

I stop short, my heels skidding on the icy sidewalk. Rubber heels, yes, but soles without tread. I should know better. I am an adult, fully responsible and all that. Lucky for me I manage to save myself and my packages, smashing bags against my abdomen in a crushing grip.

Every year the Christmas season becomes less joyful and more stressful. The guy screaming at the parking meter a dozen feet away truly isn’t helping me feel any jollier.  Jollier is a word. I’ve looked it up. It’s a comparative adjective. Why do I bother looking up words, you ask? Try spending two hours every day on the bus commuting to work. My pocket dictionary has become my steadfast companion. I vowed to make myself smarter when I bought it. Don’t ask me how I’m doing. The answer should be obvious. No tread on my boots, after all, and the snow falling at an inch an hour.

At least I’m wearing a hat. A fuzzy knit hat designed for fashion rather than warmth, but it provides some protection, working great at catching snow, allowing it to build and build until, well, it doesn’t anymore and slush skids down my cheeks and into the hood I’ve neglected to pull up. Yes, I’m having the best day in the most wonderful time of the year. Although, I suppose my day’s not as bad as the one the guy now punching the meter is having. He’s still swearing. I can hear him despite the traffic in the street and the snow clumping around my ears.

I need to get past him. Unless I want to backtrack, cross the street at the light, make my way up the blasted hill once again with all my packages and then struggle back over to this side where my car sits only about thirty feet beyond him and his uncontrolled anger, this is exactly what I have to do. The very idea, however, turns my bowels to jelly. I talk big, act like I can conquer anything with the holiday chip on my shoulder, but really, I can’t. His display scares me silly.

So I stare at him, undecided. And in the next minute the worst happens. His focus turns on me.

A word slips past my lips. Not a comparative adjective but a good, old-fashioned four-letter word that is used as verb, adjective, and adverb, handy for many occasions. His red-rimmed eyes are wide. The color deepens on his cheeks to rust. His mouth opens. I try to suck in a breath, maybe to scream. He takes a step toward me, and then another. I stand there, foolishly believing my many Christmas packages might shield me.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

I—what?

“I’m sorry,” he says again. His head bows. “My wife passed away three weeks ago. This is my first Christmas without her.”

All my breath rushes out. I leave my packages behind me in the snow and take his hands in mine.

Next week: Writing – Word Count – Really?

One thing to add about Christmas…

I know I talk a lot about Christmas and how much I love it…and I do. But the past couple years, despite grasping at enthusiasm and expressions to the contrary, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed. I suppose we all have. One thing I have noted though, and I take comfort in this, is the fact that as Christmas passes into the New Year a kind of peace settles into me, a belated spiritual cognizance, a harkening back to the way I felt in childhood. It is not a scream-in-your-face feeling, not one that would make me dance around the house and sing, but one that makes me feel rooted and warm and hopeful. I’ll take it. This is Christmas to me and if it’s not falling on the actual day itself, well, who am I to question how that ol’ Christmas magic works?

The point is that it does, despite one’s best attempts to lure it in. Like a faithful old dog, the Christmas Spirit comes because you need it, not because you’ve called.  

Writing – Start at the Beginning

I don’t mean the above title in a literal sense. You don’t have to start creating a story at its beginning. In time, you’ll end up with a beginning (whether fiction or non-fiction, composition does require one), but when you first start out to put your story down on paper or a computer monitor or on the bedroom wall with an eye to its eventual form, the beginning is not always where you’ll find yourself.

However, that will be another blog’s topic.

No, by saying “start at the beginning” I’m referencing a birth, an inception to your creation.  Many reading this blog are already accomplished writers (although you still might find the content interesting, so stick around), while others may not have taken the plunge. Heck, you might not even want to—yet you still could find the blog content interesting, so…yeah, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

In recognition of my recently-blogged, coincidentally-timed, not-New-Year’s-Resolution, I am determined to write more about, well, writing. I can’t help it. The written word was, is and always will be an amazing device. A force to be reckoned with, calling up wonder, distress, joy, sorrow, peace, terror…and right on through the emotion dictionary. (I believe there is such a thing, a tome put together for writers stuck for words. Imagine that.)  

Besides writing about writing, I’m going to suggest certain exercises to those inclined to try them. No one needs to see a thing except you. My initiation into authorship many years ago utilized pencil, notebook paper and crayons. I think I showed my little “book” to my mother, but I might not have done so. I likely coveted it in secret, amazed that I’d managed thirty-six pages and illustrations all by my seven-year-old lonesome. It’s all too long ago to recall for certain. I do know I’d been prompted to the task by my love of horses and of drawing and, naturally, words and all the worlds to be found within them.

This little foray into reminiscence brings me to the point. (Finally! you cry out inside your head—or maybe even out loud, if you’re getting exasperated.) We, as writers, garner our ideas from so many places. Sometimes the smallest incident can prompt a tale in our heads. Perhaps we’ve walked down the street and a door on a house has opened, only to be slammed shut again. A cat looks both ways before crossing a street. A bright red balloon, obviously lost without its child’s hand, bobs in a tree’s naked branches. Someone scribbles a note in a restaurant and drops it in disgust on the table occupied nearby. We’re always observing, we writers, always wondering, always inventing, always studying people, places and things. Researching, too, although sometimes by accident, seeking out and finding those kernels that sprout into a whole scenario, perhaps the entire motivation for the next work. This is why we often seem distant and confused (she says and wants you to believe). There’s just too much going on in our conscious brain to be handled. It can hardly be contained. Except for the dreaded writer’s block, of course, but we’re not going to talk about that today, either.

I am designating Tuesdays for the write-brained-scribbler category in my blogs. This Tuesday, if anything I’ve been blathering on about sparks your interest, break out a notebook, rescue a wrinkled envelope from the recycling bin, crack open your laptop, whatever medium you use, and make a list of…things. Things you’ve seen, thought about, wanted to know, want to pretend you know, with the goal being that one of these will be the idea behind a short story. And I’m talking an extremely short story for starters. The word count for short stories is considered to be anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 words. They can be as few as 1,000 words, and I’ve read some incredible shorts, the most recent written by the twelve-year-old daughter of a friend, which topped out at approximately 550 words. I was, quite honestly, stunned.

Regardless of length, all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, or an introduction, a build to the climax, and a resolution. These are fairly simple descriptors, but you get the picture. So, if you’re into it, and I daresay you might be if you’ve read this far, get that idea list in hand. Create a story in your head and get it written down using a 500 word limit. That’s about two double-spaced pages in your word processing program. In the course of those two pages, your character will go through a change, whether in perspective, or attitude, or simply course chosen. Sound good?

Next Tuesday we’ll get into ways to “cut the fat” to reach that limit, in case you’re having trouble. It’s not always easy. I’ll write a short story, too, and post it in next week’s blog. I’m not saying it’ll be great or earth-shattering, because it won’t be, but hey, it’ll be fun.

Tuesdays won’t only be something of this nature, although I would like to take this eventually to the plotting and writing of a novel. We’ll have to see. I’ll still do general craft of writing posts, the occasional interview or review. In the meantime, if you have questions between now and next week, pop them in the comments. See you then!

New Year’s Revolutions

Yes, that’s not a typo, nor is it a call-to-arms. It’s merely a comment on how many times we make New Year’s resolutions with high expectations, abandon them, feel we’ve failed somehow if we don’t meet them, resolve to make new ones when the next year comes around, and round and round and round between plans and, well, plans gone awry. I, for one, have not made any New Year’s resolutions for many a new year. I recognized the circling inevitability for me many moons ago. I’m not saying resolutions aren’t a good thing, because they are, and the beginning of a new year provides a wonderful starting point—what could be so bad about that? Nothing, really. Not for many anyway, because I do know there are people out there who successfully make and keep their New Year’s resolutions, but not me. So, why I am writing this particular blog? Because I’ve made a resolution which, by coincidence, happens to fall on the holiday that brings so many of us to determined expectations and long, slow tumbles away from them. 

Maybe it’s my age; maybe it’s the appalling circumstances I, we, the population of the entire world, has had to face these past two years (and it hasn’t stopped yet, folks); and maybe it’s because somewhere inside I’ve reverted to my young self, to a time where I believed in New Year’s resolutions and their power to change us.

Or, at the very least, to change me.

Not change, as in make me a different person. I’m quite happy with who I am. I’m talking about subtle changes, the ones that make us progress, move to something that better suits us, start a project, a hobby, a diet, a new direction. A new, ahem, blog—or the focus of said blog, at any rate.

I’ve been a writer my whole life. I started writing in earnest when I was seven years old and I’m not stopping now. Since my accident nearly three years ago (a tale that shall not be told here), I’ve had many issues with writing, issues which are slowly resolving. In fact, as an aside, I lost my ability to play the piano, but even that is coming back—I sat down and played a number of Christmas carols recently, with only a little struggle. So my happens-to-fall-at-the-New-Year resolution is to celebrate this integral part of me—the author. Right now, I have a royalty check staring at me from the refrigerator door (to be deposited once I get off my lazy behind) reminding me this is what I am: a writer; a published author; a wordsmith.

Therefore, starting with the New Year, I will be revamping my blog to focus on writing. These blogs will cover the writing craft, the stories behind it, the successes and failures, the successes of others, some reviews and more interviews, with regular rather than sporadic content (that is the BIG change for me). I’ll still continue with my Life as it Comes forays and will also increase the posts regarding handcrafted endeavors (one of my other joys, beyond and at a tangent from writing). There will always be my Christmas blogging, naturally. I can’t abandon Christmas. After all, it hasn’t abandoned me.

Here’s hoping this isn’t a revolving commitment but one that sticks. I guess we’ll find out. Check back and see.

Happy New Year everyone. May you be blessed with health, contentment, peace and joy.

Country Road

I live on a country road. I once prepared a photo essay about this road for submission to a magazine because, to me, it represents a great deal of the beauty to be found in Lehigh County, all on one and a half miles of narrow, curving asphalt. One can find woods and farm land and history, the latter embodied in a one-room schoolhouse, a more than two-hundred year old mill, a structure from the eighteen hundreds that housed a little general store for many years, several more homes that date back to this country’s beginnings, as well as some truly magnificent trees that have been here through it all. There once existed an ice dam, damming up the Hosensack to flood the small valley. Ice blocks would be cut from it in the winter and shipped on railroad cars to the city. It is rumored part of that dam is on my property, and I believe I have glimpsed its shape beneath the undergrowth in the wooded section. One day I suppose I will take a shovel and explore the possibilities, but I’ve always been content, somehow, in leaving the history at peace.

Wildflowers grow naturally along the shoulder-less road. Mailboxes line one side for the rural delivery. In the growing season, corn tassels wave in the sun, heaps of soybeans cover the earth. Creatures such as deer, wild turkeys, coyote, foxes, hawks and vultures and owls are sighted regularly. Domestic animals are raised in lesser quantities on gentle pasturage. A little side street with an older community ending in a cul-de-sac exists to one side, but the rest is as it’s been for a very long time. Even my home has been here since the middle of the past century and feels like part of the history.

Recently, though, the next road over had to be closed for emergency bridge repairs. Being an emergency, there was no notice and no contingency plan for the traffic that travels along that wider road with its painted lines, straighter runs and somewhat greater speed limit.

Need I say more? Probably not, but I will. Drivers used to the convenience of that other road with its straighter runs and painted lines and somewhat greater speed limit have taken to using this road without any adjustment in attitude or consciousness to the fact they are NOT traveling that other road to which they have become so comfortably accustomed.

Those rural mailboxes I previously mentioned? Crossing the street to retrieve the mail has become a hair-raising endeavor. Fortunately, on this whole stretch, there are only three of us who actually have to do so. Everyone else lives on the mailbox side of the road.

As to daily constitutionals for health and enjoyment? Well, my neighbor has resorted to driving over to the closed road in order to walk safely now. I am not sure what the others are doing. I walk in the yard.

The noise prevents me from recording my podcast, because the room from which I do it is only about twenty-five feet from what was once a quiet country road, and the increased number of vehicles passing by at well over the speed limit can be heard in the background. I tried to record between vehicles in my last podcast. If one listens carefully, you can hear the rush to finish sentences before the car I hear coming gets close enough to become part of the soundtrack. I’m giving it another try, though, and hoping for the best.

As I have said, the road is narrow and possesses more than one blind curve. It has a posted speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour for justifiable reasons. There are occasional drop-offs that could come as a nasty surprise to drivers careening their vehicles past each other in opposite directions at speeds that are not only unnecessary but unsafe. And really, don’t get me started on those idiots staring down at their cell phones while they maneuver speeding hunks of metal. Yes, I’ve seen them, now that I have to wait for an extended period before I can cross the road to get my mail.

This all sounds very disheartening, I’m sure, but I have confidence that—eventually—the bridge on the other road will be repaired (although there is no timeframe to be had from the authorities) and that quiet will once again reign on this lovely stretch of road epitomizing Lehigh County’s natural beauty and wondrous history.

Not holding my breath, though. But I am eyeballing the chain saw and some strategically located trees that might need a little pruning. Can you say roadblock?

Just kidding.

For now.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

This worn-out cliché has come to be known by all as a reference to being quick to judge people, places and things by outward appearance, without giving them a real chance. As readers we take this adage to heart, sometimes without meaning to—it can’t be helped. We are drawn to what attracts us through our senses. And since we cannot smell a book (at least not at a distance—love the smell of new pages pressed to my nose, though), or hear it, the first aspect to catch our attention is, of course, the visual. We’ll check the title next, or perhaps the author, read the blurb describing the hopefully wondrous contents between the front and back of the well-crafted covers.

Or at the very least, that’s the idea, the grand plan.

As authors, we are perhaps even more aware of the treacherous vagaries bound into our book covers. A bad or mediocre image, or merely one that does not reflect the novel’s content, can dampen sales. Traditional publishers employ professional, often freelance, artists, but even they have been known to occasionally fall short of the mark.

A cover is the crucial first impression. We can all hope what we’ve written will draw the public’s interest, but if we can’t get them past that first look, where are we? If you have ever walked up to a rundown restaurant, have you turned away or paused to read a menu plastered to a smeared window that sounds amazingly interesting after all? More than likely, you’ve walked away. Something more is needed to entice a body inside. What is needed is a welcoming door.’

A couple winters ago, I took a turn through my local Barnes & Noble with nothing particular in mind. I wanted to be inside a brick and mortar bookstore. However, while I traipsed around aimlessly, absorbing the bookiness (I know that’s not a word) of the place, a cover caught my eye on a hardback for sale in the “new adult” section. I walked over, pulled it down, studied the lovely image, read the reviews on the back, about the book and the author on the inside flaps. The author was unknown to me. Nevertheless, I shelled out $18.99 plus tax and went home the proud owner of Wintersong. The cover’s promise was fulfilled by the book’s contents. This book was as poetically expressive as the title suggested, evocative, involving, and imaginative.

Conversely, one could make a shambles of one’s writing debut if you’ve enticed readers with a wonderful cover and the interior is as rotten as an old apple.

So, I guess what I’m blathering on about, most particularly to those engaged in the limitless opportunities offered by self-publishing, is this—don’t permit the cover or your words to let you or your readers down. A cover’s purpose is to:

  • Engage the reader visually and immediately
  • Depict the genre in a recognizable fashion
  • Make a promise to the reader regarding the book’s contents (and follow through)

So, peruse your local bookstore or an on-line marketplace for books in the same category in which you are writing. Check out science-fiction, fantasy, cozy mystery, hard-core mystery, crime novels, romance, middle grade, young adult, historical fiction, non-fiction—whatever matches your subject matter.

Romance and young adult/children’s books will likely have the most varied covers, due to the range of sub-genres. Even so, all books in a category will have something in common to give a reader a “feel” regarding what they can expect from the novel’s contents.

You may note certain fonts, images, layouts being used. Some may consistently utilize photographic images, others illustrations. For example, photos are mostly used for thrillers and mysteries, although cozy mysteries will most likely be depicted by an illustration. Young adult novels can have photographic covers, but middle grade/children’s books nearly always bear an illustrated cover. Science fiction has a certain popular font; as does fantasy. Both these may utilize photographic covers, but fantasy usually lends itself to illustrative. Check them out and get a feel for the genre.

While you do want your cover to stand out and, of course, always be original, it is important to display the elements of your genre—the promise to your readers as to what they will find inside.

For those who are both artistic and computer savvy, you may be able to craft your own covers using programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel (formerly Paint Shop Pro). I use the latter when creating cover art for my self-published works. Images are available on a variety of sites for a fee or free, and can be downloaded for manipulation on your computer. Always check the terms of use, and make sure you are not infringing on copyright. Also, when creating a book cover, follow instructions regarding size, bleeds, etc. The cover specs needed to display your image on, say Amazon, for your digital release, is a totally different animal from what is needed for a print book, or even for touting on your favorite social networking site.

If you don’t have the expertise to prepare you own cover, then you can, and should, pay for a cover artist to create a cover for you.  It can’t be repeated enough that when it comes to book covers, first impressions count. You’ve worked so hard writing your book, gnashing your teeth through all the edits, making your story the best it can be—don’t shortchange yourself on the artwork. 

If you are introducing a series, it’s always important to make the covers similar in nature so that they are immediately recognizable as being a serial, by layout, font, or some other defining commonality.

Below are three mockup covers I did for what I called in my head the Sassy Redheads Series. Fairytales re-imagined, the reader would receive the impression of a strong, sexy heroine. These books still dwell only in my head… You can find more HERE.

Also for your information, these are two cover designers with which I am familiar.

https://www.syneca-originalsyn.com/

http://www.covertocoverdesigns.com/

Remember, book covers are your first intro to the reading world. Make them count!

This blog is also available as a podcast at anchor.fm/robin-maderich/

Longing for a Look, Any Look

Despite best-laid plans, my garden has now suffered from a couple years’ neglect. All of the gardens have. I read the below article this morning and yes, found myself longing for a certain garden “look” the way it used to be, or better. Although the article referred to freshening up one’s garden as the seasons change, it did give me some inspiration for quick fixes to my own. Unfortunately, when as overgrown as my gardens have become, quick fixes won’t work, but once I have them back in shape, I will certainly consider these seasonal changes of color to keep them fresh Spring through Fall.