Here you can find articles on the craft of writing. If you have some to contribute, we’d love a chance to include them.
THE BACK COVER BLURB
This has been a never-ending source of irritation to me as a reader.
I’ve alluded to it many times here a Fred Central, but have never dedicated an article specifically to back cover blurbs. It’s time I did so.
To be blunt, the back cover blurb is a marketing tool.
The blurb is like the cover. The cover is the first thing to attract the potential reader to your book. If you have a crappy cover, the reader is more than likely to skip your book to something more aesthetically pleasing. It’s a known fact that there are a few rebellious souls out there that seek out crappy covers, “juss cuz,” but don’t bet the bank on that and expect to have enough sales to afford a Starbucks coffee at the end of the quarter.
After the cover comes some kind of verbiage about the story. What’s going on between the pages? What’s the subject of your masterpiece? Why should anyone read it? This is where you need to entice them to open the cover and explore further. This is where you have to grab them and make them want more.
MOST DIFFICULT TO WRITE?
For some authors, the back cover blurb is the most difficult part of the book to write. Others have said it’s the synopsis, while some have stated it’s the pitch letter. For me, while back in the day, I found the synopsis the most challenging, nowadays, I don’t find any of them all that bad. However, if I had to pick one, I’d still say the most labor intensive is the synopsis. What does that say about the back cover blurb?
To me, it’s not all that hard.
It has to be catchy, but simple. It’s a synopsis without giving away the big Kahuna. It’s a lure to entice the potential reader to buy your book. It’s a quick and dirty few lines that you should know off the top of your head already. You just have to put these words down into something intelligible and honest.
I don’t like to lie to my readers.
TRUTH IN ADVERTISING
There’s nothing that irritates me more than picking up a book that looks interesting. While the covers have some sway, I’m not one that pays all that much attention unless the cover is super amateurish. On the other hand, if I’m going to read this book, I usually just take a glance at the cover and go right to the back blurb. That gives me some idea of what’s inside. I have other criteria which I’ve gone into plenty of times before, but the back blurb is important. What it says is what I expect to see when I read the book.
I expect a certain amount of hyperbole. After all, it IS a marketing tool. However, I expect that blurb to actually be ABOUT the story.
Too often, the blurb is not even (or barely) related to the story between the covers.
WHO WRITES THE BLURB?
If you expect the marketing department at your publisher to take over these mundane tasks, think again! While they may very well do the cover and give you minimal input in the matter, one of the author tasks during the editing phase is to write the back cover blurb. Some marketing genius at the publishing house doesn’t do it. First off, they’re not going to read the book and dream this up. It’s up to you. Second. You’ll be lucky if the artist who does your cover even scans the story to get an idea of the book before they come up with the cover!
Now, if you’re self-published, all that’s out the window anyway. You do it all, so there you go.
ATTRACTING AN AUDIENCE
Often, the back cover blurb has elements of your pitch letter in it. Therefore, what you used to attract your agent you can use to attract your readers as well. Now, if it’s the second or more book of a series, or if you’re self-published, all bets are off. Then again, you’re still trying to attract people. Therefore, do yourself a favor and at least attract them with the truth.
Ease up on the hyperbole if your blurb strays too far from the reality of the actual story!
Jane always wanted to be an artist, but when she enrolled in the Chroma Institute, she had no idea what she was in for.
Soon, her life turned upside down when killing started. If she wasn’t careful, she wouldn’t make it to graduation.
Sounds like a great thriller about Jane and her horrible time at the Chroma Institute. The problem is that the story is about Alexa and Jane dies in the first scene. Also, it’s a romance and Jane is the only one that dies.
While I changed the names and plot to protect the guilty, what I described is from a real blurb of a different book, different genre but the same thing, false advertising.
The Amazon reviews reflected it as well. One and a half stars overall of something like fifty reviews.
This was an exaggerated example, but there are plenty that are much more subtle but might as well be just as bad.
WHAT SHOULD A BLURB BE?
The truth with just a hint of what’s to come.
Given that I made that one above up out to illustrate a real one, let’s use it as the example again.
Jane always wanted to be an artist, but when she enrolled in the Chroma Institute, she had no idea what she was in for.
Soon, her life turned upside down when killing started. If she wasn’t careful, she wouldn’t make it to graduation.
Say, the protagonist really is Jane and she wants to be an artist. She enrolls in the Chroma Institute, which is in an old Victorian mansion up on a hill in San Francisco.
This is a murder mystery, a women-in-jeopardy thriller. Jane is single, after coming off a messy relationship with someone. She’s attracted to a tall dark stranger who’s a teacher/student at the institute. Bla bla bla. Mayhem ensues.
Now that’s staying true to the blurb.
The blurb is your marketing tool. It should ring of truth, not mislead your reader.
It needs to be catchy without going off the rails.
Don’t anger your readers or alienate them.
Your reviews will reflect that. I know I certainly let them know!
WRITING IN MULTIPLE GENRES
Writers can sometimes be focused. That means we tend to stick to one genre, or one subject. Western writers tend to stick with westerns, while fantasy writers stick with fantasy. Non-fiction writers don’t even consider fiction, so on and so forth.
However, nothing is an absolute.
It’s natural for a writer to find a niche and stick with what they’re good at. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with branching out and trying something different. Most writers I know, at least the prolific ones, write in multiple genres.
Some will call this the more artistic name for it, and that’ll be “the muse.”
For other’s, there’s the mercenary approach. Instead of muse, it’s about money and that’s what they write for regardless of how they feel. Sometimes they’re given assignments to write this or that. It doesn’t matter to them. They write whatever the client wants. In a way, it’s like technical writing, but what I’m talking about here specifically is fiction writing. I mention this because I know a few of these writers that have a specialty genre, but they go where the money is. If someone asks them to write something in a particular genre, they do it because they’re trying to make a living. That’s their motivation. There is, of course, some artistic motivation mixed in because they obviously love what they do, but their prime motivation is to make a living at writing, so anything artistic takes second billing to making money.
The majority of writers I know get their motivation from their feelings and inspiration (muse for lack of a better term). If they get an urge to write something specific, they go for it.
That’s me. I have specific interests in multiple genres, so I take turns writing in each one, depending on which one rocks my boat at the moment.
For some, a big stumbling block is how to switch gears from one genre to the next. Hurdles such as using different pen names, web sites, marketing strategies, appealing to different audiences can make your job a lot more complex once you’ve completed your manuscripts.
Since I’ve written in multiple genres, I can only speak for myself. I’ve consulted with others who have also done so, with mixed results.
#1 I’ve decided to go with my real name for everything.
#2 I use a single web site with tabs for each genre.
#3 I use multiple Facebook pages for each book series.
#4 I’ve researched as best I can each audience for the genre and adjusted my publicity to that crowd.
IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE
You can make it as easy or as complex as you want. I decided to keep things simple and I can tell you, I’m a lot happier for it. Like I alluded to above, I’ve consulted with multiple authors that have written in multiple genres and seen what grief and successes they’ve had using different techniques. From their experience, I decided that for me, simple was the best.
It may very well be different for you.
My best advice to you is:
#1 First off, don’t try to put too many pans in the fire. Finish one book before you start on the next one.
#2 Get to know each genre you write in, so you know at least a little on how to market it (and maybe how to write it as well – maybe you’re actually writing something else without realizing it).
#3 Decide how you want to market it. Once you do, stick with it.
#4 Have fun.
WHAT’S IN A COVER?
I originally posted this article in 2014, right after our Las Vegas Writer’s Conference that year. After receiving the draft cover for my latest book, Spanish Gold, plus seeing a few posts on my Facebook forums about covers and blurbs, I thought it would be a good time to resurrect this post and update it. Plus, it fits right in with my recent article on blurbs.
One of the things we talked about at the 2014 writer’s conference was book covers. My section on The Cover -Eye Of The Beholder discussed that a bit in my last post (Conference Aftermath – What I Learned), but I thought this would be a good time to talk a bit more in detail
YOU CAN’T HAVE A BOOK WITHOUT A COVER
Whether your book is a tangible item or electronic, it’s going to have more than a plain brown wrapper (reminds me of how they supposedly used to ship porn). I’ve seen books in a plain brown wrapper as a marketing gimmick for real. Have no idea what these books were, or if they sold. Since I used the plural with that, you can see that it wasn’t a unique idea.
A hard fact that seems to be borne out by many market researchers is that great covers help sell books, while sucky ones can kill book sales. I must say I have a big issue with that for one simple reason:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Let’s take the analogy to another favorite of mine, music. I’ve always been and still am convinced that any old schmuck can go into a recording studio, fart in a paper bag, and it could be a big hit.
Beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. That’s just as true with art as it is with music.
HOW I USED TO BUY ALBUMS
Back in the day, I used to buy albums by unknown bands based on the album cover. It was usually photos of the band with some kind of background. Once in a while, there’d be some kind of artwork. What I looked for were either the ugliest, or the freakiest looking musicians, with the longest hair, and bought the album based on that. Looking back on some of those album covers today, the “artwork” would be considered pedestrian, but I still love those albums. I rarely caught a dud. On the other hand, they were still a form of art, just not paintings, per-se. Your book cover doesn’t have to be a painting either, but I digress.
Over the years, very few albums impressed me with their artwork in the artistic sense. Certain albums had great visual appeal, but I didn’t really care for the music. Some of the best artwork was from an African band called Osibisa. Their first and second albums, with these flying elephants were fantastic. Their music was meh, okay “world music,” but not my usual style. The band Yes had some great artwork, but I couldn’t stand singer Jon Anderson’s voice, and he ruined some otherwise great music. At least the artwork looked great. Eye and ear of the beholder.
On the other hand, one of my top ten albums of all time was Hard Attack, by a New Yawk hard rock band called Dust. Their artwork was done by none other than Frank Franzetta. That album cover is wow! This was about a decade before that became the standard artwork for Molly Hatchet.
We used to see a band in Madrid, Spain at a local club. This band was called Greenslade. David Greenslade used to be the keyboard player in a jazz rock band I loved called Collosseum. His albums had great artwork. In fact, my wife painted their first album cover and it’s still hanging on the wall in our living room. In this case, the music matched the album covers, at least for me.
Whenever I look through my album collection, I can get just as much of a thrill with the album covers as the music because I can tie the two together. I’ve never been able to do that quite the same way with books. I cannot always visualize story details with book covers.
BOOKS DIDN’T QUITE WORK THAT WAY
Very few books have impressed me with their artwork except certain series. The Doc Savage series had a look to them. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series were the same. Then there was the Andre Norton series writing as Andrew North. They had a great pulpy atmosphere to them. Otherwise, the look of a book had and has very little lasting impression except in a more utilitarian way. It’s an initial attraction on the shelf for a few seconds, but once I get past that, it’s just art with writing all over it. In fact, some of my favorite covers are more technical books like several of my favorite books on telescope making, or analog synthesizers. The “artwork” is letters and a few modest graphics. However, I’m able to correlate very fond memories to those familiar words and graphics.
There are many great fictional stories I have loved over the decades since I started reading. Lots of favorites used to weigh down my bookshelves. Yet when I finally had to let them go, I received a nasty surprise when I eventually found some of them reissued. Yeah… have you ever noticed that most reissues always have a different cover? It’s like either the publisher or the author never liked the original cover and “wanted to do it right” the next time, or they wanted to try and reissue, rebrand and make it seem like a different book. I don’t know for sure.
I’M NOT EVERYBODY
You, or everybody else may go totally Bozo over cover art and more power to you. I’ll say this. Something ugly or just functional isn’t going to do you any favors!
On the other hand, who is to say what’s ugly? Eye of the beholder…
You don’t have to use an intricate or artsy fartsy high-dollar cover that’s going to break your bank, if you’re in charge of that. If it’s the publisher, they’ll be footing the bill. However, if you have a say, let’s hope you can steer them a bit from something ugly. Of course, a big publisher has marketing wizzes that should know better than to defeat the whole purpose of putting the book on the shelf. If you’re a self-publisher, the onus is on you.
The key is, it’s up to you to determine what’s good or bad, if you have a choice!
The one thing I’ve seen proven over and over again, since I wrote this in 2014, is that an amateurish cover screams self-published. This is the universal caveat.
Nothing will kill book sales more than screaming self-published with a crappy cover. Using cartoonish or amateurish graphics on your cover and expecting people to see the same quality writing inside are just not going to happen. While the story and writing may be fantastic, if you scream amateur with the outside, when people get that initial glance as the first judgment, it places an immediate roadblock in front of your book before you even get out the gate.
While I have a big issue with eye of the beholder, as I said at the beginning of this article, what’s almost universal is that the majority of people can spot amateurish artwork right off. They may have differing opinions on different graphics, different artwork and colors, subjects or whatever, but when it comes to amateurish, it’s way too easy to spot. Cheap is cheap. That’s different from art. I shouldn’t have to explain that.
BALANCE IS BEST
A few tips.
1. Make sure your cover art fits your genre.
2. Make sure it stands out but isn’t too gaudy.
3. Make sure it doesn’t look like it was drawn or painted by a third grader.
4. If you have it in a galley proof, put it on a shelf and walk by. See if you notice it, and what it looks like next to others.
5. Make sure the artwork fits with what’s between the pages (see #1).
6. Finally, balance is best (goes with #2). Just the right amount of flare and simplicity so you stand out but not slap everyone in the face. You want to stand out, not annoy them!
Until next time, happy writing!
SHORT STORY IDEAS IN TIME OF ISOLATION
I originally posted this story in 2018 under the title Short Story Ideas. What prompted this redux was that many of us are sitting at home in isolation during this current pandemic, with either a lot on our minds, like unemployment, or well…trying to come up with something to keep us occupied. To keep from going crazy, maybe all these crazy ideas might be popping up that need some kind of an outlet.
As a writer, not all of them can end up novels. Why not save some of them for short stories? After all, tis the season of the short story contests, isn’t it? Well, maybe not. I’m not exactly a big fan of contests, but I AM a big fan of short stories. Therefor, when the muse strikes, I go for it. Using that same impetus, why can’t you save some of your muse for those little ideas?
Maybe, just maybe one day, if you don’t submit these little snippets to a contest or anthology, you can expand one or two into a full-length novel.
To go along with my last article (at the time I originally wrote this), Remembering Those Ideas (2018), how about when you’re brewing several short story ideas?
Dorlon, one of my buds that used to attend our weekly writer’s group meetings (when we physically attended them) and I used to get there early most Mondays and often discussed writing and stories. He wrote a lot of short stories, a lot more than I do. We talked about inspiration and writing them all down, saving up the ideas, so on and so forth.
Maybe he still doesn’t write near enough stories for what he wants, given his inspiration and the time he spends on it. I haven’t seen him in a long time now, so I don’t know, but maybe he’s caught up?
As for me, I generally don’t think about it in such terms. My process is a bit slower.
Sometimes I can go months without a specific idea. I may be too busy with my current novel, astronomy project (which is now discontinued), editing something for a friend, a proof read for my editor, or one of the other various projects I take on. Then, the muse will hit out of the blue.
What to do?
I quite often stop everything else, then write the draft on the spot.
Other times, I form the idea, ponder it for a few days, maybe a week or two, then, I write the draft in one session.
A short story, to me is 4K words or thereabouts. If I ramble a bit, it may creep into 5K, in need of trimming. Now you have the basic parameters. They can be a bit shorter, if the story warrants.
With the quarantine, that hasn’t really changed much for me because I still work. I have a mission essential job. The difference is that we don’t go anywhere on the weekends, travel, etc. So I have more free time. Same for the weekdays. So far, it’s all been spent working on book three of the Meleena fantasy series and doing edits on the second Gold series story, Spanish Gold. I have not written a new short story yet.
The funny thing is that I have not seen a lot of discussion on short stories on the Facebook forums. Not as much as I’d have expected given our current situation.
There are occasions when I get a nugget of inspiration and I’m not ready to write. I don’t have the muse. I have an idea, but no motivation, or no set plan. The idea isn’t fully formed, the desire isn’t ready to bloom. The story will sit in the back of my mind and linger until I’m ready.
I have one such story that’s been coalescing since April 2015. It’s personal and will not see the light of day until I’m ready. The problem is forgetting details and not getting some of them right. On the other hand, I have to do the story justice. This is a case where I’ve taken some notes but some is memory as well. Since I originally wrote this article in 2018, this same story is STILL brewing and is STILL not written yet, all of five years later.
There’s another story where I’ve been playing around with the idea for a while, but that one’s been dodging in an out of my mind for some time. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach it. Since it wasn’t fully formed, I wasn’t ready to commit. Still, I did have an A and a B and a few months ago…well, maybe a year now, I wrote almost 1000 words. I had the title right off. In fact, that was the first thing I came up with. Then A and B. I just don’t feel the rest of it yet. Other things have priority. Until I feel the rest between word 1001 and the end, it’s going to sit. I’m also going to pare it down some because I have a feeling it’s going to go over my standard 4K mark.
This story as in the first one I haven’t started yet do NOT fit my normal pattern.
Hey, nothing is black and white in this world.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE ALREADY DONE OR NOT COMPLETED?
I have a few shorts that are done and either rejected submissions to my writer’s group anthology or read to my writer’s group, critiqued but not entirely revised.
Each of them could be tweaked, fixed, re-written, resubmitted, whatever.
Do I even want to?
Do I agree with the critiques? Do I want to change them or do I think the critics missed the point?
These are things to ponder if I ever want to move those stories along as well.
There are even a few drafts I’ve blurted out in a nugget of inspiration when the muse hit. Then I set them aside only to languish, forgotten for the moment. Not many, granted, but one or two.
One day, I’ll pull these nuggets out and see what I can do with them.
As of this writing, they still languish on my computer. I ran across one a while back looking for something else. I was pleasantly surprised!
WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS?
I’ve written so many short stories, had enough published, that I don’t live and breathe every word and dangle my life’s breath on their publication.
How do you handle that?
Do you write for the pure pleasure, like I do, or is it something else?
What’s your process? Is it your entire thing or a side aspect of your novel writing, poetry, or whatever else you do?
What I’ve described may or may not be similar to what you do or have done. I hope it gives you some insight and helps you see from another perspective.
During this time of isolation, whether mandatory or self-imposed, you’re bound to have time to contemplate your navel. Will you have time for inspiration? Will it (hopefully) be stories other than pandemic-related? I have a feeling the market will soon to be flooded with that! Are you so overwhelmed with worry about employment, sickness, isolation, everything that you cannot get inspired? I sincerely hope things are not that bad for you. I hope you can use some of this time to veer off into the world of your imagination and gift us all with some wonderful stories.
You’d think after 495 articles, I’d have addressed rejection, but alas, I never have. I’ve discussed criticism multiple times, which in turn includes rejection, but never rejection specifically.
You might also note the number of articles now says 495, which may be different from what I originally posted some time back being in the 300+ range. As it turns out, the last time I counted, I was referring to the wrong directory! Let’s just say, I have backups to backups, and well…I counted the wrong place. This surprised me because this time, when I went to update my 300+ number I was surprised at the jump and did a double take. Then I followed the clues to figure out why.
Now, on to rejection.
Last weekend, I was purging files and came across a file drawer filled with stuff I need to let go of. Guess what it was? Rejections. I have sample chapters, complete (and now since published) short stories, manuscripts, plus lots and lots of rejection letters. I didn’t take the time to re-read them all. I already knew what most of them said. “While we found your idea intriguing, your story is just a the right fit for our agency at this time. Keep writing and trying…bla bla bla.”
Now, let’s jump to a few days later. I’d submitted a short story for my writer’s group anthology. I do every year. The chances are that since it was fiction, they’d hate it. Usually, when I write a non-fiction piece, this same outside group (to keep things neutral, the group sends all entries to an agency in another state) seems to like my stuff. However, whenever I write a fiction piece, they hate it. As predicted, they hated it. I got my 691st rejection (or thereabouts).
Now that I’m a “world famous” “best-selling” author (LOL), who’s traditionally published, small press notwithstanding, even I still get rejected. It happens to the best of us, right?
Tongue in cheek aside, just because I’m now published doesn’t mean anything has changed. Lightning in a bottle finally happened for me through persistence and never giving up. However, writing new stuff, or writing off-the-wall stuff is still a tough sell. Even writing more conventional stuff is no guarantee. In my case, when I stick to personal, or non-fiction stories, I’ve found my magic with my writer’s group. Fiction? I guess I need to save those up for another venue if I ever bother. The thing is that I have a fair amount of short fiction stories, as I alluded to in my recent short story article, that just languish on my hard drive because I’m not all that interested in entering contests. Not my thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had plenty of fictional short stories published. I have no urgent craving I need satisfied in that regard. I submit to my writer’s group anthology every year for a hoot. So…
Did this rejection discourage me, or does it keep me up at night?
Uh, after 690 previous rejections? I’m afraid it wasn’t something that I dwelled on. I read the critique and while they had their points, some of which I might fix, it’s not likely I’ll change too much. One day, I may resubmit it to a different, more receptive market. This particular story was more sarcasm, than anything, and they just didn’t get it. That’s okay. I’m too busy working on my other stuff. Someone else might love it, as was evident with about half the crowd at my writer’s group, who did. About what I expected.
WHEN YOU’RE STARTING OUT
When you’re starting out, rejection stings a lot more. To me, the rejections were not unexpected at the beginning because I KNEW I was just starting out. I was ready to develop a tough skin. Maybe it was from being a musician and playing in dive bars for so many years that I was ready to be rejected right off. Plus, to be truthful, my stuff sucked before I knew what I was doing.
Some of you jump through untold hoops to get your stuff ready for submission, figuring once you submit, you’re poisoning the well if you submit crap and they get to remembering your name. Uh, I hate to tell you this, but that’s highly unlikely. These agents and publishers receive THOUSANDS of submissions every day, many they never even see directly. You could submit the same manuscript, redone several times and they would never know because the chances are that at best, they may have recalled something similar, but if the writing this time catches their eye because you vastly improved it, it might be the magic moment.
I always get a laugh when someone says they think of quitting because they got ten rejections. Or, they figure they’ll “accept” a dozen before they get published.
Or, some agent sends them a really nasty and cruel critique and shatters their hopes and dreams.
You know what I say to that?
It pisses me off. It’s just the interpretation of one jerk. I’d be glad the guy or gal (and there are plenty of nasty gals in the mix as well) never decided to take me on.
I have one instance in particular where I submitted to one of a half dozen contests I did before I swore off contests. My novel, of course, did not win the prize. When I asked for a critique, a few words on why I was rejected, I was shocked to get the most vile and nasty letter of why my book was not selected. That was completely unwarranted. Now, here’s the clincher. The book that won ended up being a complete non-seller and the “contest” went bankrupt. The last time I checked, which was a few years ago, the book is something like ten or eleven million on the best-seller rank on Amazon, with only a dozen reviews. It’s basically out of print. Not exactly gangbusters.
Another time, I submitted in person to a well-known agent at one of our writer’s conferences here in Las Vegas. I never heard a word from him…until two years later. That’s right. Two years later, I got a little note scribbled in an envelope that said, “Not for me.” While he could’ve just not bothered, I was still shocked he DID bother, especially after two years. Oh, one more thing. This agent also wanted an exclusive. In other words, he wanted an exclusive first look before I submitted to anyone else. If anyone EVER tells you that, what are YOU going to do? I think not.
GET USED TO IT
In this passion, you need to get used to it, from the local level to worldwide. As you submit everything from short pieces to full-length work, expect rejection. If you’re lucky enough to get a response, more than a grunt, a no, something generic, an actual word or two, evaluate it and see what good you can get out of it. Take it in stride. It’s never the end of the world.
Plus, don’t expect rejection to go away once you’ve found your stride and are in the mix. It’s certainly never gone away for me. It won’t be the last time either. I have way too many bizarre ideas, plus lightning doesn’t always strike in a bottle!
In closing I’ll just say that not everyone is going to like your stuff. That goes from your readers to agents, publishers and what have you. That should NEVER stop you from keepin’ on keepin’ on. After all, if this is a true passion, you have to write. The muse will come and you’ll put it out there for the fates to do their will.
FOREST THROUGH THE TREES TWO
The other day, I was trying to figure out a way of rephrasing “forest through the trees” for my latest Meleena’s Adventures fantasy novel. It somehow inspired me to look back to this original article that I posted, the very second one to this web site. The date was June 1, 2011. To let you all know, I DID come up with an alternate way to say forest through the trees.
Anyway…we all get that forest through the trees tunnel vision at times. Whether it be from editing, or maybe overall outlook on writing. Let’s see how I thought back then and how much has changed, given any tweaks I’m going to add along the way.
Why is it that we learn all the “rules” of writing, yet we still cannot write perfectly? That is a question I hear more and more from new writers. No matter how hard we work to edit and perfect a sentence, paragraph, or whole story, we never get it quite right without external input.
The simple reason is that we’re too close to the story. We can’t see the forest through the trees. As tired as that old cliché may be, it’s still the truth. When we’re too close to something, we see what we’re thinking rather than what we wrote on the page. Even professional writers are wise to have a second set of eyes look over their work. The longer the work is, the more chances there are that they’ll get something wrong.
DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP
The point is this: don’t beat yourself up for getting something wrong. Whether it be a misplaced comma, a tautology, or a passive phrase, just fix it when someone else points it out. No big deal. No matter how much you write, you’re going to make mistakes. For those of us that have been at this a while, it’s a fact of life. You cannot have an ego when it comes to writing!
As a writer, if there’s any way possible, I highly recommend that you seek out a writer’s group. A writer’s group can be two people or fifty. The key is that these people must be nice! The point of getting together is to help each other out. Helping is giving good advice, opinions that’ll help you and your fellow writers improve their craft. This does not mean demeaning, intimidating, or embarrassing them. I’ve been-there-done-that. It’s ugly, and doesn’t help. The “tough love” argument is just an excuse to be mean.
Some of you have heard my example of the writer’s group from hell. It’s ultimately unproductive and destructive to be part of a group like that, unless you’re a masochist. I have yet to meet a successful agent, editor, or publisher face to face that’s that mean and cruel. I have met a few, mostly through the mail, but they don’t make it far in the business and as the more successful ones know, it’s just plain bad for business. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that being a “tough” critiquer is the way to go. I hate to quote another cliché, but you get more with honey than vinegar.
OBJECTIVE NOT SUBJECTIVE
Critiquing should be objective, not subjective. Critique the work, not the person. Sometimes, it can be tough, especially if you find the material objectionable. If it’s that bad, maybe it’s best just to defer rather than say anything. There was one case where a lady read some material that really got under my skin and I wanted to shout out “bull!” However, I held my tongue. I thought about all the times I read some of my icky bug, a genre where I use a lot of “colorful metaphors,” and a bit of gore and violence. Some members of our group are a bit religious, yet they gave me objective critiques. I kept that in mind as I sucked it up and gave her an honest critique of her writing instead of her content. Luckily, she did not come to too many meetings, so I didn’t have to bite my tongue often. You may run across this in a group, but that’s just part of the deal. Not everyone is going to be a fan of your stories. Critique the work, not the person!
When you read before a group, you’re presenting many new eyes and ears with things you can’t see, no matter how many times you’ve read and re-read your story. Trust me on this. You’re too close to it. Your jaw is going to drop when someone will point out something so obvious. For instance, your villain pops a few shots at the hero with his silenced revolver, misses and steals away. Screech! Halt! Any gun enthusiast will tell you, you can’t silence a revolver!
That was a rather blatant example, but you get my point. Your audience will catch repeated words, run-on sentences, misplaced modifiers, characters names changing from one section to the next, technical errors, the list goes on.
I self-edit these articles each week, and mainly for expediency, they’re all self-edited. I sometimes share them with other publications like Writer’s Tricks Of The Trade. Sometimes months or even years later, when they get published again, I see them in print and cringe at a glaring typo or phrase I messed up because I thought it rather than wrote it. I do my best to edit each article, but don’t be surprised to catch an error here and there. I can’t afford a staff here at Fred Central to keep me straight!
OH, BUT THERE’S MORE!
As I alluded to last week (present time 2020), when it comes to rejection, unrealistic expectations are also part of forest through the trees. If you are so focused on getting published and not enough on #1 honing your craft, or #2 why you’re doing this in the first place – the love of writing, you’re going to get lost.
That’s right. Don’t forget the whole point of writing in the first place. If you’re doing this for a hobby, I suggest you take up golf or knitting or something far less stress-inducing. If you don’t love writing, if it isn’t a passion, if it isn’t something you HAVE to do, something you’re going to do whether you get published or endlessly rejected ANYWAY, then find something else to do. If you’re in it just to make money, well…I can show you a bunch of slot machines near my home that probably have better odds for a payoff.
I’m not saying you won’t succeed with time and persistence, but lightning rarely strikes in a bottle. The chances are, it won’t happen to you in an instant, and the only way to be successful is with hard work. If you focus too much on lofty goals, you’re not going to see the forest through the trees. You’re going to miss the pleasure of writing and let the frustration overwhelm why you’re doing this in the first place. You’re going to let the criticisms eat at you and forget the original reason you took pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
Stop. Breathe, and take a look, so you can see the forest through the trees.
HOW DO YOU PREFER TO READ?
This is a multi-faceted question because I’m not only talking about the format, but the mood and setting.
As a writer, I’m assuming you’re a reader as well. After all, most, if not all of you had to start as readers. Like me, I started with a love of reading long before I ever thought of writing. My first, disastrous stumbles at this passion were a far cry from what I do now and could’ve brought this all to a screeching halt. Through it all, I had a few flashes of brilliance, more or less, and they slowly nurtured my interest into a passion for writing.
None of that would’ve happened if I wasn’t already a voracious reader.
OLD SCHOOL HOCKEY
Back when I grew up, we had no choice but to read paper books, whether hard cover Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or Bobsey Twins, or later on, soft cover trad paperback Edgar Rice Burroughs tomes. Then there were the “wyberry” endless supply of hardbacks, of which everything under the sun was available. Admittedly, I found little use in those because I had no interest in the classics, and frankly, knew close to nothing of genre fiction, being such a young spud.
My parents had the odd paperback lying around the house, but they were often thick (lots of pages) and had tiny (at least for me at the time) print. Plus, the books were usually older and smelled funny. Paperbacks did not age well back then and to tell the truth, still don’t, but nowadays, I’m more inclined to appreciate the smell of an old book.
ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY
To avoid a further history lesson and just jump to modern times, we have available nowadays paper books, e-books, audio books, video books, you name it. For the modern reader, there are a host of media available to enjoy your stories.
The question is, if you enjoy reading, how do you choose to partake?
Time is a factor for a lot of people. I know that’s affected book sales, no matter the format. While it takes time to sit down and read a book, some people just don’t have the time, with busy schedules (admittedly not as much a factor during the pandemic, but let’s push that aside for the moment). Then there’s the competition of TV and those with more active lifestyles.
How do you fit in reading time?
Some do it with audiobooks.
I, for one, cannot multitask and listen to an audiobook as well as read. While I can listen to music CDs on my commute to and from work, I also tend to drift off into other worlds. Not only am I paying attention to the road, but the music is taking me places. Listening to Howard Stern interviewing someone, for instance, I miss details of the chat because I’m only catching some of it while something they say makes me think of something else. I don’t stay focused on all of what they’re saying. While I could, I suppose, I just don’t, because I don’t have to. The same with an audio book. I miss half the details because I drift.
If I’m sitting down and reading, I absorb a lot more details over a longer period. It just works better for me. Less distracting.
On the other hand, maybe a more active reader can utilize audiobooks better than I can. Is that what works for you?
How about videobooks? Sitting at a computer or a TV, watching someone read a book to you? Not a very common format, but around. Like sitting on grandma or grandpa’s knee and having them tell you a story. Maybe that works for you.
Some people swear by e-books. They’re cheap once you buy the reader. They’re easy to work with, some say. It’s really easy to save your place. You can usually adjust the font size to make them easier to read. You can store thousands of books on a slab the size of a piece of bread.
They’re the cat’s meow for many people.
On the other hand, they’re not something with any significant tactile feel. They have no new or even old book smell. You can’t peek ahead to the end and “cheat” to see if the hero lives in the end. You can’t get signed copies…well not real ones anyway.
Oh, and let’s not forget those sometimes fantastic vivid color covers that may or may not live up to what’s inside.
There’s nothing like the tactile feel and smell of a good paper book. Holding something of significant weight and texture in your hand is the best. Sure, they cost more, and you have to mark your place, but I much prefer that. I can’t adjust the font size, but I’ve been used to that little annoyance for many decades.
Time and place are critical for reading, no matter what the format. On the go may mean audio. E-books or paper can be anyplace. Video requires the technology and is usually in a fixed place.
For some of you, things have to be quiet like a library. For others, like me, bombs can be going off and I don’t care. I’m usually reading in a mix of situations between early morning when everyone is asleep to the evening when everyone is watching TV, to me reading during commercials, or half reading when I’m only moderately interested in something showing on TV. It’s funny how that doesn’t work with audio books, but that’s just the way it works for me.
How about you? What do you need to read?
Other important factors are stress level, smells, physical condition, and where you’re sitting. If you aren’t comfortable, it’s pretty hard to concentrate on prose. Maybe it can be a welcome distraction from your uncomfortable situation, IF you can concentrate on it. Maybe not.
We mustn’t forget the most important thing of all. The story and writing! If the writing and story sucks, it makes things so much more difficult! The story may be wonderful, but if the writing sucks, how can you suffer through it, regardless of the format or environment?
The writing may be top-notch, but the story may suck. This is a much rarer instance. Usually if the writing is great, the story is also great. Not always, but if the writer has their stuff together with technique, they more than likely know how to put the rest together as well.
How you read, how you prefer to read, all can make a difference in how much you enjoy what you’re reading.
Something to think about when you write for others and they put your book in their hands (or whatever).
DO DREAMS AFFECT YOUR WRITING?
On the Facebook forums I participate in, with regards to inspiration, once in a while the question comes up on whether dreams affect one’s writing. That thought inspired me because this morning, I had to make one of my inevitable trips to the bathroom. When I lay back down, with my mind racing, I thought of the upcoming final confrontation in my latest fantasy novel, Across The Endless Sea.
Personally, my dreams have nothing to do with my stories, because I rarely, if ever recall my dreams anymore, not like I did when I was twenty. Most of them are a mishmash of things. They aren’t nightmares, or unpleasant, but busy from what I recall, and I usually forget them as soon as I wake. To me, that means they aren’t worth remembering. Sure, I can recall a few here and there, but they’re silly and have nothing to do with anything I’m writing. On the other hand…
When your brain is either shutting down for the night, or ramping up for the day, how often do you think about things?
In my case, most of the time I just shut down and next thing I know, I’m waking up for a bathroom break. Given my age, that’s inevitable most nights. I’m lucky if I can sleep through the night. At the same time, I’ve always had evenings, when despite being tired, or having napped too late, I can lay there for a while before I doze off.
Since I work and have a regular schedule, I go to bed at a certain time. If my body decides not to cooperate, I may lay there a while. My mind drifts and quite often, it may include some writing “thinking time.” This does not constitute dreaming. It rarely happens in the morning, but once in a while, that can happen too, like it did this morning (as I write this).
As the forums have shown, some people have come up with everything from details to complete plots based on dreams. This is something I’ve not been able to do because when I do recall a dream, it rarely has a lasting impact, and the details quickly fade. There are only a couple that have stuck with me over the decades, and I have no interest in writing about them. Not my genres, at least so far.
Some of you may write down your dreams when you wake. While your memory is still fresh, you can record them for later use. There are very thick books full of the meaning of dreams, which one can take with a grain of salt. We used to have a couple of those books and maybe they have some psychological value, but they may also be hocus pocus, depending on your philosophical outlook. My problem is that even at the time, I was never able to recall enough details of most of my dreams for the books to do any good…or bad. They certainly wouldn’t have been any good to use for plot details if I’d been a writer at that time!
For some, dreams are gold. From writers to musicians, dreams can be the golden goose when it comes to inspiration. I guess it all depends on your recall and what you interpret from them. While I can recall details of many obscure events in my waking life, I guess I’ve been spared those same details from my dreaming life. For others, it’s just the opposite. They recall exquisite details of their dreams, but can’t remember what they had for dinner the night before.
IS THAT DREAM REALLY SUCH A HOT IDEA?
You may be all hot and bothered by a truly inspiring idea, however, when it comes to execution, is it something you have the capability to carry out? Is this idea something that can be turned into a logical story that others will buy?
To me, people have lots of crazy dreams. Over my many decades, I’ve recalled dreams I’ve been able to talk about (yeah, I have had a few) and while they were great to talk about, they were also weird and didn’t make a whole lot of sense in execution. Same for friends who also recalled dreams. We’d once in a while talk about some weird dream we had, and it was something contradictory…something that was impossible in real life. How do you turn that into a believable story?
Then again, fiction is fiction. That impossible dream, with a little nuanced adjustment, can be turned into a perfect story. It can be turned into one with a minimal amount of suspended disbelief. Sometimes that’s how some of the great stories are created.
Yup, once in a while, dreams actually work for inspiration, in that regard.
While it’s never happened to me yet, it could very well happen to you. You just have to make sure the original “not such a hot idea” is adjusted so it becomes the next “hot idea.”
As it turned out, I was able to write the final confrontation scene in Across The Endless Sea later in the day. Part of that twilight thinking helped me work out what I needed. The rest came while daydreaming while eating breakfast.
Whether the before sleep or waking twilight time gets you going, or dreams themselves help you, it’s something to consider when coming up with ideas for your writing. Then there’s always daydreaming…
CRUTCHES AND FALLBACKS
The other day I got an e-mail from my publisher to give her a call. I did, and she said she’d gone through Spanish Gold to format it for a September release. In the process, despite already having done the major edits and just now waiting a final proof read, she noticed something that she thinks needs to be fixed.
We discussed the issue and I agreed. It’s a crutch I fall back on, something I unconsciously do, that despite all, and the editing we all did, it took a fifth or so set of eyes to see it in the “clean” edit. It’s something that jumped out to her after everyone else was so close to it, they couldn’t see the forest through the trees.
I’m not going to say what it is because I don’t want every potential reader looking for something that won’t be there when it finally gets to print.
I’ve corrected countless bad habits over the years. Despite all, I still fit into a comfortable writing pattern, and after the hundreds of odd quirks I’ve corrected over the years, I haven’t ironed out all of them. I probably never will.
WE ALL DO IT
No matter your experience, you’re going to fall into patterns and have certain crutches and fall backs you use to get out of situations you find yourself in when you’re writing. It’s only natural. It’s, of course, far worse when you’re first starting out. Then again, you haven’t developed your chops yet, so some of these quirks you haven’t had enough experience to learn yet. On the other side, you may have learned some of these things to correct other errors and got to use them a bit too much.
Many of these repetitious quibbles, such as the same dialogue tags, using the same phrases over and over again, using the same noun-verb combinations, misspelling the same words or using them in the wrong context are all developed as you come up with your bursts of writing inspiration. The better you get, the more honed your chops become, the more natural you are at self-correcting as you write.
There’s nothing that squelches creativity than bogging down to think of every nuance of writing just to make each individual sentence and paragraph perfect right out of the gate.
Call it verbal diarrhea – just blurt it out and fix it later.
The trick is to get better enough so that when you self-edit and then let others edit, there’s less work to do.
NOBODY LIKES EXTREMES
I’ve mentioned this a few times here at Fred Central, but I’ve known of a few writers who are extremely slow at writing because they ponder over every word, every sentence and every paragraph before they ever commit it to paper (or electronics). To me, that would squelch all the creativity right out of me.
Like I’m sitting here at my desk blurting out this piece right now. It’s just flowing and I’m trying to self-edit as I write it. I’m only going to go through it once, probably Tuesday right before I post it. Maybe I’ll re-look at it Sunday just for kicks. That’s it. The reason is that I’ve been doing this a long time. Also, I’m not going to go to extremes and pick over every word and run it through the Chicago Manual of Style, or the AP Manual. I’d never get anything done.
The same for your stories. You need to learn your chops, so you have fewer crutches and fall backs. Face it, you’re going to have some.
Don’t go to extremes to avoid crutches and fallbacks. Just learn from them and if you can, avoid them in the future as you work at it.
Don’t squelch your creativity just to squelch a habit. If you can minimize it, do so, but not at the expense of losing your spark. That’s what editing is for.
Most of us are not even aware of our crutches and fallbacks initially, until an editor or beta reader or critiquer points them out to us. It’s then that we can act on them by slowly incorporating the fix into our prose. Learn from it, but don’t make it a psychological phobia.
The more you write, the better you’ll be at avoiding crutches and fallbacks.
As you’ll notice, I didn’t list a lot of examples. The reason is that this isn’t an instruction guide. Why? There are way too many crutches and fallbacks in writing to list. It would go way beyond the scope of this article. Let critiquers, editors, and beta readers tell you what you’re doing over and over again. THAT will let you INDIVIDUALLY know what your crutches and fallbacks are.
THE JOYS OF EDITING
Through the several Facebook forums I subscribe to, one of the things people hate the most next to marketing is editing. For me, I can go along with the marketing thing. However, when it comes to editing, it’s a natural part of the writing process and I enjoy it almost as much as writing. I say almost only because I’m not spewing out the verbal diarrhea that is the freedom of pantsing the initial manuscript. In some ways, I almost enjoy it more because I’ve already accomplished something, and now I’m revisiting it to where I can sit back and enjoy it. The only difference is now I’m mopping up.
INITIAL BURST AND SELF-EDITING
The initial burst of writing will likely include some self-editing. The better you get, the more self-editing you do as you write, usually in the same session, or maybe a few days later. Then, if you have a critique group, after they get a crack at it, you fix things and move on.
That’s all part of the initial burst and self-editing phase.
FIRST HARD EDIT
The first hard edit should come after you’ve divorced yourself from the manuscript for a few months, or longer. During this time, you should’ve sat the book (or story) aside and moved on to something else. Get it completely off your mind so you can come back with a fresh perspective.
Advantages of this are not only that you can more readily see flaws you missed, but after so much time, you’ve probably also gained a few more snippets of skill you can now apply to your work. That’s right. Maybe through some means, you learned about consistent contractions, or never start a sentence with “But” or “And”, or mixing POVs (head hopping), or a host of other things that you can now incorporate into the work.
This rest period might also highlight plot flaws you missed on the initial run-through.
If you’re lucky enough, give the story to a few beta readers and get their HONEST feedback. This may highlight things you cannot see because of forest through the trees.
STUFF PEOPLE DON’T LIKE
There are many things people don’t like about editing. The repetition of having to go through the story again. Having a fear of not knowing what to do or how to fix something. The fear of changing too little or too much. The tediousness of it all. These are all understandable issues. Let’s look at a few things one-by-one.
1. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING – While you can write the story okay, I’ve seen a lot of writers that just want to hire an editor and are willing to pay big bucks for it. They have all kinds of excuses for it like time, effort, they have the money, they don’t have the skill…bla bla bla. All are excuses for not sucking it up and getting with the program. However, there are always practical reasons for this approach as well, like a one-time project.
2. NO TIME – If you had the time to write the book, you should have or find the time to edit it.
3. NO FUN – If writing is a passion, editing is a part of it. Editing is like revisiting an old friend. You get to tweak and retweak to make the story even better for your potential audience.
4. DON’T HAVE THE SKILL – Back to #1. Of course, when you start out you don’t have the skill. That’s part of what editing is all about. It’s a learning process. The more you write, the more you learn how to write. The more you edit, the more you learn how to edit, and the more you learn how to self-edit, and the better you are at initially writing. Then, you have less to edit when you do subsequent edits on the next book. It’s a self-improving cycle. You can’t get better if you never start.
HOW YOU EDIT
How you edit is important as well.
On a computer, especially a program like Word, it’s a simple as correcting a sentence by deleting the word, sentence, paragraph or whatever and typing over it.
If you’re writing on paper, it’s a bit different because you have to red-pencil or blue-pencil it, then come back and re-write it which makes it a lot more labor intensive.
If your MS is in a .pdf, you may have to count lines and use a separate correction sheet, which is very labor intensive as well. Count down the lines. On the correction sheet, not the page number, then the line, then write down the correction for the publisher or editor.
If you’re editing a manuscript online, it can be even more labor intensive, especially if you have to track the changes. Colors may be used and side notes to tell the editor what you changed and why. The editor may also use the side notes to suggest a change and let you agree or disagree with any changes, and why. This is a very labor-intensive process as well, but it pays in the long run.
The joys of editing are many, at least if you love writing and the process of it. Face it. If this is a passion, every aspect of the creative process should be loved as much.
For me, revisiting the story and making it as perfect as possible are all part of it. As I read through the manuscript over and over again, I get a thrill to see my words down there, and what I’ve already created. I know that someday, those words will be out there for everyone to read. Hopefully, those words will bring entertainment and joy.
FUNERALS IN YOUR STORY
The other day, on one of my fantasy Facebook forums, someone asked about how we’d address a funeral in our fantasy world.
Since I personally don’t believe in funerals, I said so and also said since I don’t, why should I write about them?
Understandably, I got quite a reaction to that.
The thing is that I don’t believe in NOT mourning for the dead, per se. I just don’t believe in the traditional funeral. Never have. My reasons are my reasons which are neither here nor there. However, as others pointed out, what about my audience? How do I handle death for THEM?
That made me think.
As authors, how do you handle death in your story? It doesn’t matter what genre you’re dealing with. Be it fiction, or even non-fiction. How do you deal with death? It may be a beloved character, a main character, or it could be someone peripheral, or even hated. People may grieve for them in some way.
The traditional funeral, which most know of according to popular media (or personal experience), are usually based on Christian values. While that sounds biased, which it is, that’s mostly what you’ll see on TV, in movies, and in books. While there are other forms of traditional funerals, by the numbers, they aren’t near as prominent. I’m sure most religions are represented in one form or another, but how many of you can count on your hand the movies or TV shows, or even books that portray a non-Christian funeral?
Add that to the many biases conveyed by media in general.
Diversity is finally becoming more prominent in the media, and other cultures are creeping into the list.
In a fantasy world, they often tend to be a Pagan variation of the traditional funeral. A lot of times, they’re based on the Viking or Druid ceremonies. I could go on and on.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a fantasy world, but there’s a particular freedom in fantasy to make something up with a funeral, or more precisely, a mourning of the dead. On the other hand, why does it have to be restricted to any genre?
It can be as simple as digging a hole and placing the body in it. All the friends gather around, say a few words, and that be it. Or, in a more rowdy story, everyone pees on the grave as a salute, even the women, or they all pour a beer over the grave. As my father-in-law used to joke, pour a beer on the grave after circulating it through his kidneys.
In a more modern real-world tale, that may not be possible with all the legal implications of disposing of a body, if one does not want to suspend the readers disbelief too much. Instead, maybe disposing of the ashes off a cliff, something that’s actually done in real society wherever it’s legal.
The characters could just leave the corpse where it lies, and mourn later with a simple thought of better times. I’ve seen that in at least two movies in the past two weeks alone.
Or…mourn them on the spot and that’s it…for practical reasons. Later on, maybe do something in honor of the character. Not exactly a funeral, but a necessity.
DEALING WITH DEATH
In a lot of cultures, dealing with death is as much or more of a ritual than dealing with life. You, as a writer, have the opportunity to write about it as you see fit.
Depending on the type of story, you can choose not to deal with it at all. It has nothing to do with realism. It has to do with your taste as a writer and whether it’s important to what you want to say.
A story is about what you want to tell. If you want to deal with funerals and mourning the dead as part of your story, so be it.
If you do, you have the freedom to choose what type of “funeral” for that character you want to choose. It can be some elaborate Christian traditional deal, some other religious ceremony, to something made up, or as simple as tipping a glass and be done with it. It’s all in the nature of the characters you create, what the story demands, and how you want to deal with it.
I personally don’t believe in funerals, so why should I write about them?
Does that mean I’m going to deny my readers of the “pleasure” of a good funeral?
Depends on your definition of a funeral. I’m going to deal with death in my own way and I’ll guarantee, it will not likely be with a traditional funeral…but then again, if the muse strikes and I find a good reason…you never know. After all, I do also write icky bug.
DOES ASKING FOR HELP MEAN YOUR STORY ISN’T ORIGINAL?
Since this question NEVER comes up on the Facebook forums I participate in, I thought I’d address it. While I’ve continually hinted at it, I thought I’d bring it on full force.
There’s such a thing as independent creativity. Then there’s creativity by committee. When someone asks for help through an on-line forum, I consider that creativity by committee…at least in a way.
It’s not the same as research. There IS a difference.
Let’s think about this.
THE FANTASY FORUM
To be clear, the main forum I get the creativity question on is the fantasy forum. The other forums I’m on don’t usually address creativity questions. With the others, it’s usually about grammar, syntax, marketing, general writing, and research questions. On the other hand, in the fantasy forum, at least half if not more of the questions have to do with specific details about the unique worlds these authors create.
Should an elf be named so and so. What would you call a wizard who does so and so. If you developed a race based on Japanese Samurai, what would…
My standard answer is always: “It’s your world. Just make it up. The only key is when you do, follow your own rules and be consistent.”
HAVING OTHERS NAME YOUR CHARACTERS
When you ask for help naming characters, does this mean those characters now belong to those who named them?
It all depends on how you look at it.
In real-world fiction, many popular authors have run naming contests as publicity and marketing deals to generate interest in a book or series. The lucky winner gets their name, whether personal or made up as a character in the next book. In this way, the author still owns the rights to the name in the context of the story, but has pulled off a clever marketing deal to gain publicity and fans.
When you ask for help over the internet on a forum, obtaining offhand offered names is a grayer area. You can take the suggestions, customize them into the final product, and then hope these totally unknown people don’t try to sue you for using “their creation.” As unlikely as that seems, it’s not impossible in our litigious society. On the other hand, that person may have bragging rights for saying they contributed to your book, especially if you remember and give them credit on the thanks page.
On the other hand, since you did not pull the name out of the air, it’s not your creation. For some authors, that can be a deal breaker.
BORROWING FROM OTHER CULTURES
Since you’re creating a fantasy world, that genre is a misnomer, but only partially. Depending on how deep your fantasy is, you could be writing in a half real-world setting, turning it into a sub-fantasy genre. The closer to reality your world is, the closer to the truth your cultural references have to be. So…asking for help through research or on the forums keeps your FANTASY from being totally original in that respect.
In the same vein, your made up world is no longer made up, because now you’re strapping yourself to something real, and you’re no longer bound just by your own rules. You’re now hindered by something besides just a suspension of disbelief. You’re bound by hard reality, history, and real-world culture. When you ask for help, especially on line, you’re not only relying on others for originality, but also for their supposed expertise. I’d sincerely hope you’ll verify any facts they give you.
Like research into a real-world setting, you can ask for help with cultural references and still make your story original. However, be prepared for some to call you on whatever customizations you make. Also be careful about cultural appropriation. That’s a big thing nowadays so to me, it would seem safer to just make something up and stay completely away from something you’re not intimately familiar with. You never know who you’re going to piss off. If you make up your own world with your own rules, NOBODY can call you on it unless you break your own rules. You can’t insult anyone or smear someone’s culture, at least not intentionally.
Surprisingly, this one I see a lot.
“I’ve started the story but I don’t know where to go from here. Please help.”
Here at Fred Central, I’ve said over and over again, no matter what type of writer you are, whether a pantser or a plotter, NEVER start a story until you at least have A and B. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200 until you know where you want to start and where you want to end FIRST! End of story, both figuratively and literally. If you can’t figure that out first, set the idea aside and find another story to work on. You are going to flounder.
There’s nothing wrong with B modifying a bit as the story develops, but you need a solid finish line to shoot for or your story is going to ramble and get lost and it’s not going to have anyplace to go.
Now, if you DO have a B but have written yourself into a corner, got off on a tangent, then maybe you aren’t cut out to be a pantser. That could be your problem.
Asking for help on the forums will mean others are creating your story for you, maybe not specifically, but in general terms. In essence, they’re ghost writing it for you.
Is that not making the story original?
I’d say that’s up to debate because after all, EVERYTHING has been done before.
Say, you complain that you are lost and have written yourself into a brick wall. Someone comes to the rescue and tells you how to get out of the mess.
Have they just re-written the book for you? Is it now their story?
Maybe the plot isn’t your idea, but you still have to write the words. Therefore, what’s left on paper aren’t the helpers words, they aren’t his or her voice. He or she may have come up with the idea, but it’s still your voice. Therefore it’s your story.
On the other hand, whoever helped you may want credit for helping you.
That may get sticky for you, the author. The idea wasn’t originally and uniquely yours.
See the predicaments you can get into by asking for certain help?
This is especially true for CREATIVE help.
Research help is a whole different animal.
Most authors have no issue with asking for research help. I do all the time.
This applies to technical issues, NOT creative ones.
There’s a big difference.
You can ask creative questions without getting yourself in an originality pickle. You just have to think first before asking, and make sure it’s not something specific to your originality.
The intent here is to make you think before you ask. That is all. Asking is the only way to learn, but asking the right questions can also save a lot of grief in the long run.
VAMPIRES NEED THEIR OWN GENRE
Okay. What brought up this rather brilliant (maybe…read on) bit of marketing and categorization was a bit of misdirection that fooled me recently.
Some that know me are aware that I’m no big fan of vampires. I never have been, even from the times when Bela Lugosi was still alive. Yeah, I’m THAT old.
For some reason, of all the icky bugs in horror, those particular monsters have never clicked with me.
Over the generations, vampires have gone through stages from the horror inducing fanged suit-wearing Dracula to the sparkly whatevers of Stephanie Meyer. In-between those have been a slew of variants as people have indulged in their passion for the bloodthirsty icky bugs (monsters).
However, two things have stayed true to this day.
Vampires have almost always been classified in the horror, romance or fantasy categories.
I’m not a fan.
Of course, the second one is completely off the map to the rest of the world. Then again, I can’t be the only one that either never was a fan, or is by now, so sick of them they want to scream at the thought!
THE FINAL STRAW?
Well, there were actually two, but the most recent was a reminder of the first.
Before I digress, let me give you the most recent.
While browsing the science fiction/fantasy section of Barnes & Noble, I ran across an intriguing series of books (well, two so far) by this British author. The description or back cover blurb and the endorsements gave a different impression of what I actually got once I read them.
While the first book was okay, about a third of the way through the second book, in my opinion, it “devolved” into “another one of those.” In other words, it turned into a vampire story.
I almost put it down.
The writing was okay, but a bit tedious. I was willing to go along with that, given it had some intriguing icky bugs. That is…until the vampires showed up. Then things went downhill. Nowhere on the back cover blurb did it say anything about vampires. Otherwise, I probably…no I never would’ve picked up the series in the first place. I can just bet that from now on, the series will continue with vampires. They always do, not to be too cynical.
Now, on to the first incident. About three decades ago, I read a great UFO series which will remain nameless because I know the author (who I met at one of our writer’s conferences). I enjoyed about a dozen of the books. When it came to the grand finale, the last novel in the series where the aliens finally arrived, the author ruined it for me. Why? Yup, you guessed it. Vampires! Aaagh! Shot down the entire series. I was SOOO disappointed. I let him know it too. He just shrugged it off and told me he had to end it some way, and that’s the way he swung at the time. Oh well…
Nowhere in that entire series was there any kind of hint that this was all going to be a vampire story. Not a hint.
While there HAVE been a select few vampire stories I loved for a change, they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, and no apologies for the cliché. They Hunger by Scott Nicholson was a good example. In this one, the vampires were true and savage icky bugs.
So, what to do? How about a bit of categorization and truth in advertising?
In other words, make a specific category for vampire fiction?
While they have romance and horror and western and fantasy. How about a genre specifically for vampire fiction? Let it cover all the sub-genres that go with it like horror, romance, fantasy, western, what have you.
By doing that, nobody will be fooled again, and those of us that just can’t stand vampires, no matter what form they take, won’t have to suffer though some story only to find out it’s about vampires!
AM I SERIOUS?
I’m only being partially facetious here.
The issue is that the bookstores, whether they be brick and mortar, or on line, tend to lump just about everything they can into as simple a category as they can because of marketing.
The more they break it down, the more they have to categorize things and the more complicated things get when they try to shelve books.
Why is this a problem?
When authors don’t follow the rules of creativity!
That’s right. When authors mix genres, then what are the bookstores to do? How are they going to shelve a book that mixes fantasy with vampire and horror and western?
What shelf would that go on?
While this all sounds like a rant for nothing, I only bring it up because you, as writers, will run across this when you write anything at all. Be prepared, because you’re going to be creative. You’re going to write what you want, and when you’re dun didded, what’re you left with?
Does your story fit neatly into mystery, western, fantasy, romance, horror?
Are you a pure genre writer, or…does it fit into a sub-category?
Does it mix those elements and sub-elements?
When YOU, AS A READER, go to the bookstore and get upset because you find a romance in the SYFY section, because it’s BOTH, who are you going to get upset with?
All I can say is that it can be a tough call for a publisher and a bookseller to categorize mixed-genre stories. It’s even worse to sub-categorize them, so basically, they don’t. That’s probably one reason the filters on the likes of Amazon or other on-line sites are not all that great. Ever wonder why those “If you liked this book you may like…” lists of books are at the bottom of the screen are there? They may be similar, but step carefully.
To me, my take is that as an author, you should use truth in advertising, especially with the back cover blurb. Also when submitting to a publisher, you need to know what genre you’re writing because if you don’t know, how are they going to know?
In today’s times, books are lumped into too few general categories so it’s up to us, as authors, to use the back cover blurb to let the reader know the specifics. All the publisher can do is give the bookseller the general category of where to shelve the book. We need to help the reader by giving them a decent idea of what they’re about to buy beyond the basic genre.
In my case, I would sincerely appreciate that if your story’s about vampires, you state so! It’ll save some grief for those of us that are not fans. That goes for any genre, pure or mixed.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
I’ve talked about this in 2013 and as recently as 2018. I thought it worth revisiting again since it’s come up multiple times on the Facebook forums.
Yeah, you hear me quoting Facebook a lot here at Fred Central. Especially since COVID, that’s the main way to communicate besides Zoom or some other remote forum app. Little if anything is done in person anymore. In fact, going back, a lot of my articles were inspired by forums anyway, if not from my writer’s group meetings or our annual writer’s conference. While some people deplore Facebook, it does have it’s merits when it comes to open forums, if they’re properly monitored.
Where was I?
While I AM going to repeat info I’ve conveyed before, I’ve been inspired to add to that. There’s stuff I failed to mention before when it comes to naming your characters. Without further adieu, let’s get going.
WHERE TO START?
It may seem like an easy task to come up with character names for your story, whether they’re fictional or real (and you generally have to use fictional names to protect the innocent or avoid lawsuits) (more on this later). You can pull the names out of a hat, out of the air, or mix and match them from a baby name book if you want. Maybe you can pull them randomly out of the phone book. Some well-known authors even run contests to publish fan names in their novels. As new writers, you probably don’t have a fan base for that purpose, so you’ll have to rely on other means.
Most of us, I imagine, pull them out of the air, probably inspired, like me, from random people and events around us at the time. Maybe they’re from something that happened in our past.
The inspiration for the name (not the actual character) Joseph “Detach” Datchuk, the main character in my Gold series, came from a guy I knew in elementary school.
On the other hand, in that same series, I pulled Mildred Pierce out of the air. It wasn’t until almost nine years later that I learned she was the name of a very famous character in a novel from the 40’s that I’d never heard of. That was purely coincidental.
Meleena, from my fantasy series is completely made up. I’d never heard of anyone with that name until recently when I discovered a disc jockey on Sirius XM radio with a similar, but different spelled version of that name.
NO BEARING ON REALITY
I must make one thing very clear. These character names, even if inspired by real people, have no bearing on the real people! One has nothing to do with the other. The kid I got the name Detach from in no way resembles the character in my novel in either appearance or personality. The same for Mildred Pierce, or any other character I’ve named, so far at least. Maybe someday, the fan that wants to be in one of my books will get a little piece of their appearance or personality added to a character. Not much, but maybe a tiny bit, as a tribute.
I could go on and on. For you, sometimes you just hit it right and sometimes without realizing it, you nail some famous or infamous name and don’t know until someone tells you about it. As for Mildred Pierce, she’s a sidekick in the Gold series and I’m very fond of her. I have no intention of changing her name. I may throw in a comment about the famous novel but maybe not. There are probably hundreds of women named Mildred Pierce, so I don’t see changing it. It’s not like her character is named Angelina Jolie. That would be too unique to get away with.
FANTASY NAMES – PITFALLS
An issue with making up names, especially in fantasy and science fiction worlds (world building) are similar sounding names. During a recent Facebook forum, this exact subject came up. My response was part of the following, but a shortened version. Below is the long version.
The subject of similar sounding names came up in Meleena’s Adventures – Gods Of The Blue Mountains. The main character is, of course, Meleena. That name is totally unique. In this first sequel, she’s hanging with a female Elf I’ve been calling Alinda. One of my critiquing friends pointed out that Meleena and Alinda sounded too much alike. I referred to my handy-dandy Meleena’s Adventures encyclopedia. I hadn’t alphabetized it yet, which prompted some much needed housekeeping. I have sections for names, places, creatures and things. It was enough of a sidetrack just to get through reordering the names. With that done, I went through every character name, one-by-one, from both books. Since then, I’ve added more from the third book as well. Since Alinda and Meleena did sound a lot alike, I had to find something unique, something that didn’t sound like any of the other common character names. It wasn’t long before I settled on Niin. There’s no other name like it. Where did I come up with it? I pulled it out of the air. I could’ve spent all day doing the same with random names, but that was honestly the first one that popped into my head. No indecision, no agony or worrying. Guess I just got lucky.
When you’re creating names for your story, similarity must be a consideration. Sound-alike names tend to confuse the reader. After a while, readers may not be able to distinguish between characters and that’ll weaken the impact of your prose. Each name should be different and distinctive. Alphabetizing my encyclopedia, which I should’ve done a long before this point, helped me see the big picture. It’s especially important in fantasy world building, where I have to make up names. I can’t be using Karl and Joe and Fred.
In a conventional novel, you don’t want your common characters to be named Ted and Fred and Jed. Or Jan and Fran and Nan. That would drive a reader nuts, and it wouldn’t be long before they’d lose track of who’s who.
There should be a distinct difference between names.
COMING UP WITH THESE NAMES
Where do I come up with these quirky fantasy names in the first place?
Maybe that goes with my fascination with foreign languages. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been keen on foreign tongues. Then, as an adult, I lived overseas and was exposed to multiple foreign languages. I got used to alternative tongues, accents, spelling and such. Making up my own words and names is no big deal. In fact, I’ve seen that in plenty of other fantasy authors. I can’t vouch for how easy they came up with the names, but they do.
Over the years, on multiple threads on the Facebook fantasy site, many people have polled the forum for ideas for names. While that’s one way, to me, these names should come from you, the writer, not from others. If someone else gives you the name, then it’s their idea, not yours. You don’t completely own it. Of course, if you take their name, modify it to make it your own, you could say you came up with it, but I, personally, wouldn’t want that. That’s just me.
However, you have to do whatever works for you, and if polling others is the method that gets you there, go for it.
EASY TO PRONOUNCE
The final thought on made up names is to make the names easy to pronounce. Don’t have them tongue twisters that need pronunciation guides just to figure out. Words with lots of punctuation, or with “French” or Gaelic spellings that don’t correspond to how they’re pronounced in English isn’t a good idea either. Okay, maybe a little, but only one or two…maybe. Give the name, how it’s pronounced, and leave it at that. Don’t have a whole bunch of names like that, or the reader is going to skip over them and blank out your “finely crafted artistic expressions.” I know I would. In fact, I often just make up my own pronunciation, regardless of what the author says.
Sometimes getting hung up on a pronunciation can be a distraction too. This can be a major way to jerk a person out of the story.
WHAT ABOUT REAL-WORLD PEOPLE IN AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OR NON-FICTION STORY?
When you’re writing an autobiography or real-world historical story, things can get tricky. If your story requires you to use real people, you must be aware of possible lawsuits and slander and the whole gamut of real issues. Even using someone’s name supposedly in an innocent fashion can lead to major heartache if the person doesn’t want their name in print. It’s a lot more difficult to vet something like that. In some cases, it might be better to substitute fictitious names rather than deal with all the legal implications.
Whatever the case, naming characters can be fun or a real headache, depending on how you want to approach the issue.
WORD COUNT REVISITED
Quite often, word count comes up on the Facebook forums. I last wrote about it in 2018 with this article, Word Count. The other day, I finished the first draft of my third Meleena book, Across The Endless Sea, so I figured now would be a good time to resurrect the subject.
I was recently asked a question about word count. I get that quite often. There are “rules” of word counts floating around out there. If you look hard enough, you’ll find set counts for certain genres. However, here’s the clincher – there’s no one set rule!
It all depends on the source.
It’s like the “pirate code – guidelines.” Aaaargh!
When it comes to visual observing in one of my other passions, astronomy, it’s the same thing with the magnitude of celestial objects, in other words, how “bright” (or dim) the object is. It all depends on the source you get the magnitude number from, and how and what they took the reading for. Say your telescope has a magnitude limit of such and such. The object you’re trying to look for has a magnitude of such and such, which is well within range of your telescope. However, you cannot see it. What’s up?
There are other factors at play.
Just like with word count.
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON?
There’s a difference between a short story, a novella and a novel.
A short story is usually up to around 15K words, however, many are around 4K but can be as much as 25K.
A novella is usually around 50K max.
A novel is from 60K on up.
Already see problems…vagaries?
Already see the “pirate code” in play?
WHAT ABOUT THE “RULES?”
Over the years, variations of the “rules” have been published in various forms. However, they’ve not only been fluid, but have contradicted each other.
Without even going into details, depending on what’s been discussed at the conventions that particular year, novels can range for a first-time author from 60K to a little over 100K, depending on the genre.
Westerns, mystery, and romance tend to be the 60 – 80K range.
Thrillers and some horror 70-90K.
Fantasy and science fiction 80-100K+ (the + is what gets many writers).
Keep in mind that this is anecdotal. Some of that info was derived from various numbers over the decades and these statistics are highly flexible. They’re in no way set in stone.
Not only that, but there have been lots of exceptions to the rules in BOTH extremes!
WHAT ARE AGENTS REALLY LOOKING FOR?
I’ll tell you right off, do not go by what you see in the bookstores!
Generally, the examples you see in the bookstores are by established authors who already have a fan base and can get away with murder. They get far more leeway than any first-time author. Don’t think you, as a newbie, can just do what you want and get away with it, especially if you’re trying to break in fresh with the big six (or how many are left nowadays). There are, of course, first-time author exceptions from indie publishers, but don’t go by them, either. Read on…
Now, on the other hand, if you’re going the self-publishing route, all bets are off, but then again, don’t expect to see your book on the shelf in the bookstore either, or at least in the same quantities or as easily as someone going the traditional route!
So, what are agents looking for?
For a first-time writer, regardless of genre, if you submit a manuscript that’s very long, especially for your genre, the agent is going to think that this author doesn’t know how to get to the point.
With the exception of certain epic fantasy or literary tropes, a high word count is a red flag for an author that doesn’t know how to write tight and right!
When that agent sees your cover page with the word count up top, they’re already biased to some extent. Now, when they get to the first page and see what you accomplish, or don’t, they know right away if you can make a story move.
Can you show a good western or romance in 60-80K words?
Can you do a good thriller in 80-100K words?
Can you convey a good epic fantasy in 120K words?
These numbers are general, slightly arbitrary, but in the ballpark. I hesitate to give anything more specific because what you really need to do is go to the individual web site for each agency and look at their specifics.
What’s all this about word count?
What you’re likely going to find when you get down to the real deal is that when you go deep into the query process, a lot of the agencies are going to have their own statistics, their own requirements of what they expect for a word count. Many won’t. They’ll either expect you to know because you’re either supposed to know what’s expected of your genre, or you’re a maverick and don’t care about the rules.
If you’re a maverick, you need to step carefully. If it were me, as far as word count, I’d rather be on the short side than the long side.
Back to what I said before.
Writing right and tight is a lot better than a manuscript full of bloat.
I originally wrote my latest novel, Lusitania Gold in 1995. That rough draft was 133K to 134K words. After multiple edits and reading it to my writer’s group here in Las Vegas, I got rid of the bloat. I pared it down to 96K without losing a single bit of the story or plot. That’s right, I cleaned it up and made it better. Right and tight.
You can do that too.
What about the other side? What if your novel is too short?
WHAT IF YOU’RE TOO SHORT?
So far, I’ve mostly been alluding to manuscripts that are too long, at least indirectly. However, what if your MS is too short? What do you do?
Rather than bloat it up with irrelevant material, why not just submit it as a novella?
Just because the story doesn’t warrant a longer format doesn’t mean you have to add bloat to make it qualify. Bloat is bloat, and an agent can spot that just as easily as they can in one that’s already overbaked.
The point is, write the story right and tight, no matter what the actual length.
I can tell you if it’s much over 150K, it’ll be hard to sell for a first-time author unless it’s really killer. It can happen, but you have a lot of competition out there, so be prepared. Even that’s a vague number when you get down to it, and there have been success stories on both sides of that figure.
Whatever you do, the key is to write efficiently and without bloat. That’s the best way to get through the door, regardless of word count.
Like I said at the beginning of this essay, I just finished the first draft of Across The Endless Sea. Right now, it sits at 135,418 words. Since this will be either the fifth or sixth book with my publisher, as an established series (the third in my fantasy series), I’m within the ballpark already. However, I KNOW it’s got some bloat. After all, it’s a first draft. There are things I can probably cut that won’t affect the story. Maybe not. Maybe I can correct a few commas and it will be perfect. Yeah, sure! I’ve been at this passion way too long to believe that.
What I DO know is I don’t need to add a bunch to it. I’m set on that front.
RESURRECTING AN OLD FRIEND
The other day, I was purging file cabinets and shredding files. In one of them I found most of my old rejection letters. Not all 691 of them, of course, but a lot of them. As a bonus, I was able to tear off the cancelled (and some not used yet) stamps. While I have long given up on my regular stamp collecting, one never knows, but I digress. Besides the rejection letters, I also found more examples than I expected of old manuscripts. I think I printed them for friends, beta readers, just to have hard copies, or whatever. Needless to say, when I now have copies of the books published sitting in a box right next to me, there’s no need for an obsolete manuscript! It’s not like I’m Clive Cussler who had so many fans, he was giving out copies of rough edited manuscript pages at one time. Besides, what I have published now is so different in quality compared to the original that I’d rather it not be out there, considering how much more refined my chops are now.
Amongst all of those manuscripts, I ran across a binder with the entire, hand edited copy of The Cave.
As some of you hard-core fans may know, The Cave was the very first novel I ever wrote. My usual quote is that “The Cave will never see the light of day.”
My perception then was that while it holds affection as the very first one, it’s also before I knew what I was doing, therefore it’s probably so bad it’s beyond resurrecting.
LO AND BEHOLD
Since I had this hard copy in my hands, before I shredded it, I wanted to make sure I still had a viable copy on the computer. THIS COMPUTER.
When I pulled up the copy that has been transferred from computer to computer since 1995, it at least pulled up on the screen. However, the version of Word was so old that it wasn’t editable. In fact, it was so old that it wouldn’t even resave as the current version!
What to do?
The only thing I could do was select all (at least it would let me do that), and then paste all 82K+ words into a brand new file in the current version of Word. Therefore, The Cave, written in early 1995, now has a modern compatible and editable version readily available.
Why should I bother?
Lo and behold, before I even did this, I compared side-by side a few samples from the printed version to the old file and found they matched. Turns out, the last time I edited it (way back when), the version I printed WAS the last edit. I cannot recall who did the edit for me. Unfortunately, their name is nowhere on the sticky notes or the write-in edits.
Digging a little deeper, I noticed something. While the manuscript needs obvious work, on first blush in twenty-five years, it isn’t nearly as bad as I recalled.
Without a complete read-through, I don’t know for sure, but The Cave almost looks like it might indeed be salvageable. If so, that means I might be able to add another genre to my growing resume. Science Fiction/thriller. Well, at least, that’s the sort of genre so far. I’ll have to go through it again to make a determination as to whether that’s a solid category or not.
I’ve said this many times before. I’ve never trashed an MS. I never really trashed The Cave. I didn’t take advantage of it because I didn’t think it was up to snuff. However, on second thought, after some sample paragraphs, there might be some life to it. If I’d really trashed it, I would’ve deleted the files.
I DO have a few stories I’ve started but never completed yet. Why? I got distracted by other more pressing things. Those half-started stories will be completed someday, just not today. They don’t have a priority. That’s not my usual pattern, but a few times in my life, I’ve veered from my writing technique (one book at a time) due to life. Until recently, I’d forgot all about those.
Just think, The Cave might be another book under my belt. Don’t get your hopes up yet. I still have to read through it all the way, then see if I had too much wishful thinking. However, it’s something I can work on between my other books and before I get my nose down deep into the third Meleena book again.
Never trash anything you’ve done!
Never trash anything you’ve completed.
Set it aside for however long it takes you to go back with fresh eyes. Later, it still may not be a winner, but maybe once again, by waiting, you’ll have better chops, have learned a few things, had more life experiences, something that makes you better prepared to fix or even just tweak that “hopeless” story you were so ready to dismiss.
Will I be successful with The Cave?
Maybe not, but at least I can give it a more experienced try. After all, it’s been twenty-five years.
I talk about editing quite a bit here at Fred Central. Most recently I did this past May with my article Forest Through The Trees Two. THAT article was a repeat from 2012. There are many more.
There’s a good reason I bring this subject to the forefront. It’s a major part of what we do as writers. Writing the story is only the first step. Writing chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences…these all have to be perfected before they can see the light of day (publication). The last thing we want to do is embarrass ourselves, alienate our audience, come off as amateurs (well those of us that care).
The other day, a question came up from another do-it-yourself author.
“What if I can’t afford an editor? What are the chances of doing all the editing myself?”
Something to that effect.
Needless to say, but I will anyway, most of the responses told this person it just doesn’t work that well, if at all. Without a second set of eyes, no matter how good you think you are, you can’t see the forest through the trees (or words to that effect).
Here we go again.
THERE’S SAVING MONEY AND THEN THERE’S CHEAP
The market is flooded with self-published books. Most of them are easy to spot from the cover alone. The artwork is cheesy and atrocious. That’s a red flag. Given the author somehow has an artistic flare, and slips one out that gets through the cracks, what about what’s inside?
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of purchasing questionable self-published icky bug stories, since that’s usually all I’ll buy sight unseen (except I DO check the “what’s inside” sample on Amazon for third person, past-tense).
After reading a few chapters, it becomes readily apparent that the author self-edited their masterpiece. Not only is the spelling syntax and punctuation out there, but the point of view is usually out of control. Then there are often plot threads that go nowhere, plenty of things that don’t make sense, and many times a conclusion that’s stupid or left hanging with no satisfaction. Oh, and let’s not forget excess backstory. Why is it people insist on so much backstory. Why not just start the story with the backstory and work forward?
Sometimes some of these things are found in EDITED stories, but not as rampant. When you go cheap and have no second set of eyes, you’re blind to your own work. What you see on the page isn’t necessarily what you actually wrote.
THE UGLY TRUTH
The ugly truth is that you can only cut so many corners. A big selling point is the cover, but some people are not all that concerned with the cover.
A catchy title is key for some, but that can be fudged to some extent.
What will kill you is between the front and back cover.
If the text is crap, you’ll gain no audience, or at the least, severely impede your potential audience. Sure, I’ve seen some horribly written EDITED stories be huge hits because they touched on hot-button topics. They’re rare, but not unheard of.
Most of the time though, the MAJORITY of the time, I emphasize, your story will have to grow, slowly pick up an audience on the merits of your writing. That means your message must be clear. For it to be clear, it needs to be properly and well edited.
YOU CANNOT DO THAT ALL BY YOURSELF.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO CUT CORNERS, DON’T DO IT WITH EDITING!
I cannot emphasize enough how bad an idea it is to self-edit an entire book.
You only see what you INTENDED, not what you WROTE!
Your mind fills in the blanks, regardless of what you wrote. It takes a SECOND SET OF EYES, maybe more to catch the things you cannot see.
Sure, editors cost, but it’s worth it to find a good one. That’s one of the best investments you can make.
Initially, if you want to go on the cheap, you can at least start with beta readers. Unless you live in a cave somewhere, or are a hermit, find a few beta readers willing to go through your manuscript and give it a run-through. Let them give you honest feedback on what might be fixed. That can give you insight on major and even minor issues to fix before you seek out an editor.
WRITERS CRITIQUE GROUP
If you’re in an area with a writers critique group, join and if they’re a good positive group, read your stuff to them and get feedback. This type of group can be invaluable.
LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR
If part of the reason you don’t want to get edited is not only to save money, but because you can’t take the criticism, or are “too shy,” or whatever, leave your ego at the door. Just think of how reviewers are going to tear your precious “best book in the universe” apart when you get it posted to the world?
In my case, I pitched and queried and was persistent. I used a little of everything and finally, after a long time, since I refused to self-publish, I landed a traditional publisher with a small press. I never paid a dime for editing. I had beta readers, read most of my entire manuscripts to my writer’s group, and self-edited. Through my self-editing, I discovered what I’m blind to, and always will be. I know my limits. You should too.
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Most people like to express their views. It’s a natural tendency. Why not? With the advent of social media, it’s even more prevalent than the old water cooler, or coffee shop, or bench in the park.
The thing about social media is that it’s completely unfiltered, not face-to-face, and somewhat anonymous. Plus, what one posts is not always reliable.
Given that, when one decides they want to become an author, their social media may come to haunt them. Notice I didn’t say come BACK to haunt them.
Because, quite often, authors never develop a separate media platform from their personal lives. Hence, when they speak their mind about sex, religion or politics, guess what?
I’ve probably talked about this multiple times here on Fred Central, but I’m not even going to go back and look up the specific articles. I’d love if YOU did, but hey, this isn’t about that. This is a cautionary tale for you.
I HAVE A FELLOW AUTHOR FRIEND(S)…
I have a fellow author friend (actually more than one, but I’m keeping it singular for simplicity) who published a book. It’s a great book. It should be a best-seller. However…
My friend has very strong political beliefs and is not afraid to express them on his/her personal Facebook page.
That’s fine and dandy.
The issue is that this person also uses that same Facebook page as their author page.
As soon as the book launched, this author got a one-star review, a very nasty one, that had nothing to do with the book. It was all about the person’s political views. While most who read reviews might disregard this review, on the other hand, if they read it and agree with the reviewer, they may never read the book, or anything else the author ever writes.
I’ve seen this happen over and over again. I’ve been inspired to write this article, for once, not by the usual forum threads on Facebook, but because of the increasingly polarizing political views of Facebook friends and fellow authors.
It just struck me as something that anyone with marketing savvy, of which I admit I’m no expert, would want to think about.
I may not be the best at marketing, but I’m also not a complete dummy. I know how not to shoot myself in the foot.
You have to keep in mind that as an author, you live in two worlds. There’s your author world and your personal world.
You need to separate them unless you are a political writer.
I’ve said over and over again that as a reader, I cannot stand someone preaching to me in their writing, or being overtly political, even if I agree with them.
When I read, I read to escape. Subtle is okay, but overt pisses me off.
Sometimes I think I can tell an authors’ political stand by their writing. Quite often I can’t, and when I see something personal from them, I’m just as often surprised. This is good, because that means their writing has nothing to do with their personal biases.
On the other hand, if I can tell from the first page how they lean, I’m just as likely to put the book down, or never pick it up in the first place.
You need two worlds. An author world and a personal world.
If you are bound and determined to use your personal Facebook page as your author page, it’s best to keep yourself neutral. Stay away from sex, religion and politics unless you want to alienate half if not more of your audience.
IT’S CALLED MARKETING, DUMMY!
The whole point of writing a book and getting it published is to sell it, right?
If you want to sell it, you need customers.
If you want customers, you need to sell said book from a neutral front. You need to attract an audience.
It’s just like going to the supermarket and buying cereal (my bias is cereal right now because I’m about to eat breakfast as I write this).
Do you name your cereal Catholic cereal? Is it cereal just for Baptists? Is it for women only? Is it cereal for Trump supporting conservatives? Is it cereal for liberals only?
Doesn’t sound very commercially viable does it?
If you’re trying to sell a fantasy, western, murder mystery, thriller, romance, why pigeon hole it by marketing it through a web presence full of political, sexual or religious posts that polarize so many different people?
PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE SEPARATE
Just like at work, at least for many of us, we have to keep our personal lives separate from our professional life.
Of course, you don’t have to. You can do anything you want.
However, of you expect, or care about selling books, it behooves you to set up a separate media platform whether a Facebook page or a completely different web site. Direct your fans and readers there. Limit your personal friends to those who agree with you!
HOW I DO IT
I’m a hybrid.
First off, during one of the last visits to my dad before he passed away, he told me some profound things. One was that he told me for the first time ever, some things about World War Two that he’d never told me before. I was shocked. It took forty-plus years for him to reveal these shocking details.
Second, he gave me a bit of advice. Something that has stuck with me. It wasn’t the first time he told me this, but it was the first time I actually listened. He said that if I wanted to keep friends, never discuss sex, religion and politics.
That piece of advice has always stuck with me, so I pretty much keep my feelings close to the vest. While I do discuss that stuff occasionally with close friends, I keep it rational and never post publicly.
I have occasionally slipped and posted something on Facebook that might be considered political by some, but it’s always done as sarcasm, or humor, or once in a while, just plain frustration. Never to start anything.
Hell, nobody’s perfect.
To my point, besides keeping my personal page as neutral as possible, I also have two Facebook pages, one for each genre that I currently have published. If I start another genre, I’ll start another Facebook page. Besides that, I also have this, my web site. While my web site also contains other stuff like my personal astronomy and woodworking pages, it’s mainly for writing and books.
Nothing political, about religion, or sex. I keep it neutral.
You, as a reader, can feel safe coming to any of my sites knowing you’re not going to get badgered to death about something controversial. You’ll get a break from the torrent of politics and whatever on regular social media.
While some of my friends have let their voices be heard, many of them have ultimately paid the price in sales. That’s their call.
As a new writer and author, I strongly suggest you separate your personal from professional life and be very picky who you let into your personal world.
It’ll pay off in the long run.
HOW DO YOU AVOID OFFENDING ANYONE IN YOUR STORY?
I thought about titling this article different things to do with race, but this goes beyond just that. While race IS at the forefront of many conversations right now, there’s…to use a tired but true old cliché… more ways to skin a cat. Now I’ve probably offended cats or PETA people.
In today’s cancel culture, one can become offended over just about anything.
While that sounds almost facetious, in fact, it’s quite true, especially when it comes to social media. In the context of a book, where there’s more time for an explanation and context to go with it, it’s not as much of an issue, but that ugly premise is still there.
Let’s look deeper.
THE 400LB GORILLA
Race is by far the easiest way to offend someone.
As an author, no matter how well intended, when you add in diverse characters to your story, since you have not lived those characters lives, you’re bound to write something untrue or unrealistic that’s likely to offend someone. The more insulated and unread you are toward these diverse people, the worse and more unrealistic the faux pax is going to be.
TV doesn’t always count.
Quite often, script writers throw in unrealistic dimensions to racial characters all for the sake of drama. They often skirt the borderline of what’s acceptable, consciously or unconsciously creating stereotypes for minorities or even majority races. On the other hand, sometimes these portrayals can be quite accurate, especially now as the entertainment industry is slowly forging ahead with diversity.
Books can be a great source of realism, if the right books are consulted.
By far, the best source is the people themselves.
If you want to write a race you are not, talk to them and feel them out for their experiences. That will help you build a more realistic character.
Just today, as I edit this, someone on one of the forums asked the question about describing someone’s skin using food, such as “olive skin.” What about “mahogany skin?” Skin the color of coffee, or skin the color of whatever? Is that an insult? I’m sure it is to someone. When you think of white people, they aren’t white either. Very few people except those that are albino even come close to actually being white, and they’re more pink than white, usually. So, how do you describe the color of someone’s skin, hair, other features without insulting them?
A good question.
This is something people don’t often think about and once again, media is quite often the source of numerous stereotypes. Of another more common source is the “I heard,” or the “I just assume” bunch. This is where real research is necessary.
If you portray a plumber as the typical butt crack money grubbing guy who won’t even listen to what you have to say, you have a problem.
Are all lawyers the same stereotype? Do all doctors automatically ignore women? Do all bankers ignore the little guy? Do construction workers all leer at women?
Not only are those stereotypes, but they’re also clichés and can offend as easily as ignore the reality.
Another 400lb gorilla in the room is religion. Quite often, religious people are portrayed as stereotypes. While one can’t deny that these stereotypical people DO exist, constantly badgering the reader with these people in every story gets kind of old.
When you’re NOT of said religion, of course, you should observe some real people of that religion. However, you should also talk to some of those people. Do some reading. You might be surprised.
Not every disabled person is completely helpless.
Not every disabled person is a saint.
Not every disabled person is a jerk.
If you don’t know someone that’s disabled, it would behoove you to seek them out and observe. You’ll find them just like everyone else.
This is an often overlooked area. One of my personal heroes from way back, Billy Barty, stared the organization Little People of America back in 1957 (I think). Little people are quite often dragged into stereotypes. It’s only been recently that we’ve seen them gain acceptance in major roles, such as Peter Dinklage.
This is another one that gets people riled, especially right now in an increasingly polarized time.
All conservatives are whacky right wing religious gun nuts.
All liberals are dirty liberal weenies who secretly want a communist state.
To some, there’s no in-between.
The reality is far different.
In the world of political thrillers, this gets to be a touchy subject because the bad guys usually have to lean one way or the other, or sometimes in a completely different extreme. The reader is then going to accuse the author of slanting one way or the other automatically, because of who the author made the bad guy. In this case, one automatically offends the other side even if it was just done for a good story.
You can’t win either way unless you come up with some bizarre third party? Some people will still twist it around so you lose, no matter what!
While this has to do with plot, it doesn’t necessarily include the individual characters. The individual characters can be portrayed as normal people and all the offense is with the plot. Maybe that mitigates things to some extent, maybe not.
WHAT’S THIS ALL MEAN?
The fact is, in today’s cancel culture, there are going to be people trolling for this stuff. In a way, they’re out looking, spoiling for a fight. Inevitably, they’re going to find something no matter what you do, if you’re unlucky enough to be targeted. Fortunately, most of that is saved for the immediacy of social media and not books. After all, who wants to take time out of their day of outrage to read a book, rather than Tweets?
Of course, I’m being facetious.
On the other hand, as an author, I want to grab the largest and most diverse audience I can. I want to be the most inclusive I can. The last thing I want to do is offend anyone, intentionally or unintentionally.
On the other hand, have I intentionally played to stereotypes? Sure, deliberately to make a bad guy bad, or to make a point. It’s not done with malice.
I know that as my own race, I cannot realistically write a main character for another race. The best I can do is portray that diversity in my secondary and minor characters to the best of my ability.
How do I do that?
I’ve been on this planet a long time. I’ve had my ups and downs, seen a lot and learned a lot.
I lived in both Spain and Turkey and have been exposed to some widely diverse cultures. I also grew up in a melting pot in Southern California. Not only that, I spent almost my entire adult life in Guv’mint service, and I’ve continually observed racial and cultural diversity as a matter of course and normalcy.
I try to bring that to my writing.
It’s very simple. When portraying people of different races and cultures I’ve learned a huge lesson that more isolated people may not realize.
No matter who or what you are, people are still people.
We all share the same basic DNA. We all share the same planet. We all share the same basic human experiences. We all breathe the same air.
Outside of a few minor cosmetic and cultural differences, we’re still basically the same.
There’s no avoiding it. We’re all human.
While you want your characters to be colorful and diverse and dynamic, do NOT forget that they are still people. Don’t get trapped into the world of stereotypes. That, my friends, is the quickest way to offend someone.
Do NOT forget that basically, we’re all the same.
WHEN YOU HAVE A BLOG AND NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT
Over the past few months, I’ve run across situations where not only have friends been needing advice about starting author platforms and blogs, but there have been forum questions about deadlines and things to do with creativity.
Say you DO have a recurring blog, whether daily, weekly, monthly or even annual, what happens when you reach the point when you have nothing to talk about? I very much wanted to add the adverb absolutely, but knew I’d cut it on second blush. THAT was going to be my original article for this week, by the way. However, when inspiration hits, you have to go with it.
You would think that after three-hundred plus articles since 2012, I’d have, by now, run out of things to talk about since my platform is writing. Then again, just take a gander at the page count of the Chicago Manual of Style. It doesn’t include half the stuff I talk about (like this article) and I haven’t even included a quarter of the stuff the manual talks about.
I don’t think I have anything to worry about in that regard.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I always have a stack of articles lined up, ready to publish. Quite often, I write these on the fly, Sunday morning, when the inspiration hits. Sometimes they come out of thin air, on-the-spot. Sometimes, I’ve been brewing them in my head from something that inspired me during the week. Sometimes it’s something that inspired me for a while, and I just got around to bringing it up. Like now.
For some, deadlines are a motivator. For me, they’re an inspiration killer.
To me, Sunday morning isn’t a motivator, it’s just my time to write. If I know I’m not going to be around my computer Sunday morning due to other circumstances, I may write ahead. There have been occasions when I haven’t been able to, and my blog articles have been late. I’ve always had something to write about.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
This is the meat of the matter.
What about you?
This is YOUR issue.
You’ve decided on a subject for your blog. Say (from a recent friend), history of a certain time period.
You’ve been doing this for a while. You think you’ve exhausted that time period. Maybe you’ve been doing it so long you could write an entire thick textbook on the subject.
What to do now?
What if you’re just starting out, maybe even picked a subject, but don’t know which way to go?
First, if you’ve done it all, then maybe you should concentrate on articles on HOW to do the research itself, rather than the results. Instead of giving stories of what you found, relay to your audience HOW you found it.
On the other hand, if what you do is explain HOW you do your research, instead give results.
If you already do both, then it’s time to vary the subject matter a little and veer off the time period.
Now, say you’ve been doing this a long time, like me, for almost a decade. What about recycling some old stuff with a fresh update? What are the chances many of your new fans have actually taken the time to go back and read all of your past articles? I’d say for the most part, slim to none!
Recycling old articles with an update is a great way to give yourself not only breathing room, but a chance to resurrect subjects that may be currently relevant. I do it, especially given current events on the forums I frequent. I’ve found that I’ve covered so much, it keeps coming up again and again for fresh newbies.
IT ALL DEPENDS
The best blogs are about something informative because the subject matter is not only researchable, but it comes from knowledge or expertise you have. If you don’t have that expertise and learn as you go, it has to be a continual learning experience and you really have to be on your toes.
If it’s a creative blog, such as a serial story, it’s all up to you to create the next installment. Your readers depend on you to come up with the next brilliant chapter. If you already have the story planned out, whether plotted, or just A and B, as long as you don’t lose your motivation, you should always have something to write about until you finish the story. This is only dangerous when you get that dreaded writer’s block, or life gets in the way. That’s the other thing that happens to everyone else and causes nothing to write about.
Life can throw surprises at all of us. If you have a regular blog and your readers expect an article at a certain time, it behooves you to keep that self-imposed deadline. That means that to the best of your ability, when you know something is coming up, you should build up a stock of articles to cover that period of absence, or period of your normal writing time.
I’ve always hated the word deadline, and I don’t consider my weekly blog and Facebook posts as deadlines, per se. They’re regular posting periods for me, but I could just as easily post whenever I want to. Out of habit and to keep my followers on a regular schedule, I post the same times each week. You can call that self-imposed deadlines all you want. Since I enjoy what I do, I prefer to call them regular habits rather than deadlines.
So, in my regular habits, I sometimes anticipate when I won’t be available to write. If so, it throws my usual inspiration off. If I had something to write about already in mind, I go ahead and write it all then. If not, I may have a bit of this articles title, in “nothing to write about” for a few split seconds.
Then things will hit me.
I can recycle a myriad of old articles.
I can visit the forums and see what’s up that may inspire me.
I can just ponder a bit until something hits.
In a word, something always pops up.
I get creative.
For you, if you have to anticipate, vary your normal habits until you come up with something maybe off the usual path to write about. It may be short or long compared to your usual blog. It may break your own rules a bit. However, it may inspire you in a way you never knew existed within your brain before.
You may surprise yourself.
Last week I was going to address this subject, but something else came up. Now it’s time.
MOST COMMON CUTS
Keep in mind that I’ve been writing for decades now. That doesn’t mean I write perfect. Far from it. However, I do have a bit of proficiency after all these years. In fact, my at least initial proficiency is one reason I took up this passion to begin with.
That being said, I still have to edit my work, whether it’s these weekly blogs, my book manuscripts, or even my impromptu Facebook posts.
Very little gets by me without some kind of editing.
Outside of typos, what are the most common cuts I make?
WHAT’S AN ADVERB?
Rather than specifically define an adverb, per se, let me give you a red flag.
Yup, that’s it.
Any word that ends in an “ly” is probably an adverb. There are a few exceptions. In fact, I just used an adverb right there! In this case, I feel it’s justified.
Speaking of justified, how about the word just?
While just is an adjective, it’s well overused and can be cut most of the time.
However, back on track. When you see an “ad” as in “add” “verb”, it’s an enhanced verb. One way of looking at it. It’s an emphasized verb that quite often doesn’t add anything to the sentence.
There’s nothing like good examples.
It was a really big mountain.
Really is unnecessary. While the mountain was obviously huge, really emphasizes it and initially sounds reasonable enough. However, in writing narrative, it only adds fluff.
It was a big mountain.
Or even better.
The massive peak stood before him.
The street was completely devoid of movement.
The street was devoid of movement.
Nothing moved on the street.
I could go on and on.
DO A WORD SEARCH
In your manuscript, do a word search for just (see I used just for effect) “ly” and see what comes up. You may be shocked.
This isn’t an effort to sanitize your manuscript of every adverb, especially in dialogue. People don’t speak like narrative. That’s a whole different set of rules.
On the other hand, be careful using adverbs in dialogue as well. Consider speech patterns and realistic ways people talk.
Sometimes you’ve probably been told to do word searches for was, has been, to be etc. This time it’s “ly” words.
Next time, it may be another word.
I’ll surprise you!
There’s nothing more annoying (well there are LOTs of things) than random capitalization. This is the sure sign of an amateur writer.
WHAT’S RANDOM CAPITALIZATION?
What’s random capitalization?
It’s the Capitalization of random words that have no business being Capitalized. In other words, they’re usually, but not always certain nouns that the author capitalizes for reasons unknown, or maybe to emphasize the word, or because the author just feels it should be capitalized. Maybe they think because it’s the title of someone, it needs to be capitalized.
The fact is that this is simply not true. The only time a word needs to be capitalized is when it’s used in reference to a proper name and certain titles.
WHEN TO CAPITALIZE A WORD
You capitalize a word when it’s used as a proper title or name.
I once was the editor of the Observer’s Challenge. I would get input from amateur astronomers from around the country and then clean up their grammar. Quite often, they would capitalize the cardinal directions. For instance, “The star GSC409+2129 sat East of NGC2409.”
Nope, no ceegar.
It should say “The star GSC409+2129 sat east of NGC2409.”
Now, if the east was part of a proper name, that would be different.
“We took a trip to the south of France.”
Nope, because it isn’t a proper name. It’s describing a cardinal direction within France.
“We took a trip to Southeast Asia.”
That’s a proper name because it describes and named region. That named region includes several countries, mind you, but it’s a region.
“We’re heading up north.”
Nope. It’s not describing a named region.
We’re taking a vacation to South America.
In that case, it’s a named continent.
Now, let’s take another example.
When it’s used to describe a proper name, it’s capitalized. When it’s describing beings, not necessarily.
God, as in the being, is capitalized.
“I’ve always had faith in God.”
In this case, you’re talking specifically about the being.
“There is no god I care about.”
In this case, you’re not specifically calling out a particular god by name or affiliation. Therefore, no capitalization.
How about public figures?
I knew the mayor of Detroit.
No capitalization because you’re just describing a political position.
My mother went out with Mayor Dodderidge when they were younger.
In this case, it’s a title.
Brand names can be more tricky since sometimes brand names can be confused with the objects.
For instance, crayon is a wax colored stick for kids to draw colors on paper.
A Crayola is a brand of crayon which does the same thing.
Then there’s Fred’s English way of saying it, “kuller kranz.” That’s not capitalized either!
You can tell a rank Amateur because for some reason, they Capitalize random words for no apparent Reason. I’ve edited countless Manuscripts and have, for the Life of me, never figured out why the authors capitalized What seemed like every other word. Once in A while, they blame the software, but I have Yet to run across Software that does that.
I’ve given only a few brief examples, but there are plenty more. The Chicago Manual Of Style gives plenty more. Also, if you’re published, your editor will have certain standards they go by. Follow them.
I’ve been reading a lot of icky bug (horror) lately. Unfortunately for me, a lot of it tends to be literary writing, which I cannot stand.
What do I mean by literary writing?
Endless characterization and description. In a way, I’m including description in this piece on characterization.
BEGINNINGS – TASTE
While I’m a huge fan of icky bug, I’m no fan of literary writing. I once read a very thick novel by a well-known but shall remain nameless icky bug author and I was so mesmerized by the lack of action, I could barely get through that draggy tome.
This was the great so and so?
You’ve got to be kidding!
Then after suffering through all that, several reviewers had the audacity to complain that they never got to know the main characters!
You’ve got to be kidding!
There was almost no action at all because this top-of-the-line author rambled on-and-on-and-on about the characters, endlessly going through trivial feelings and hopes and dreams and bla bla bla. I wanted to give up reading after suffering through that.
So, in a nutshell, and I don’t apologize for the cliché, I hated the book.
GETTING TO KNOW THE CHARACTERS
For those of you that have been reading my blog a long time, you have read my infamous quote from old cowboy actor Jack Elam. He once said that he was sick of all these movies that went into the heads of the bad guys and their feelings. “Maybe they just wanted the money.”
That’s kind of how I feel about things. I don’t like to waste a lot of time characterizing. I don’t like to spend a lot of real estate building up an entire world for a character while letting the action, the entire plot, come to a screeching halt. To me, I want the story to progress.
Why take five chapters to say something you can say in a paragraph?
Come on now!
I’d much rather leak out bits and pieces for the reader to put together as the action progresses rather than bring everything to a screeching halt while the reader has to slog through another flashback, or a sideline while I explain why the character does or doesn’t like something.
Geez, give me a break.
I’ve just read two examples of icky bug recently while I was on vacation. Both should’ve been quick reads. However, they were excruciating.
The plots were fairly simple.
The characters were not.
Each chapter would start with something happening. However, right as the action started, the author brought it to a screeching halt as the characterization started. Then for ten or more pages, he or she would then go off into la la land, describing the characters history, feelings, hopes, dreams or whatever, then at the end of the chapter, finally get back into the action.
Then in the next chapter, start doing the next thing.
Sometimes, the author wouldn’t even do that, but go right into the characterization before starting the action.
I was practically yelling “come on!” so often, my wife was wondering what was going on.
The reviews were mixed on both of these books. Some loved it, while others slammed the authors for never getting to the point.
I won’t specifically mention them because I don’t want to slam other writers and authors specifically. Let’s just say that they were not the huge writer mentioned in that other section above and leave it at that.
BACK TO TASTE
There is a big literary crowd out there.
There are some that are midway, so they could enjoy both.
However, there is a huge crowd of readers that like to get to the point.
For me, I get to know the characters just fine with a few sentences and a random paragraph mixed in with the action. I don’t need page upon page, chapter upon chapter to get information I don’t want while the plot stews on the back burner.
I’m not alone.
I’m a strong advocate for tight and right. Characterization does not have to be half the book. It can be done in small doses, so the author doesn’t lose sight of why they’re writing the book in the first place. Story and plot. If the story is about the character, fine. Don’t make it out to be a thriller or a mystery or something with action. Make it a character study and make it plain to the reader. If it’s a thriller, MAKE it a thriller that moves (or whatever category it is).
Characterization should be an enhancement to the story, not a hindrance.
BOOK MARKETING SITES
A potential way to market your book, once it’s published, is through so-called book marketing sites. There are a bunch of them.
I’ve done it before with mixed results.
Before you take the plunge, there are some things you need to consider.
WHY DO IT?
You’re either a self-published author or with a small press. Numbers aren’t exactly setting the world on fire. Another issue that isn’t hepling is a lack of reviews. More on that later.
While you’ve maybe done a lot, or maybe little with your own marketing on social media or word of mouth, things just aren’t happening.
So, you want to add a bit of boost to your sales.
Hence, one solution is book marketing sites.
WHAT DO BOOK MARKETING SITES DO?
When I say book marketing sites, I’m specifically talking about sites that readers subscribe to. These sites feature e-books, usually Kindle, or maybe even Nook books that readers can buy with one click. These sites encourage the author to offer (but usually don’t force) their books at steep discounts.
The whole idea is to expose the book to a wide audience. The larger the web site, the larger the audience. However, the larger the audience, usually, the larger the fee.
This can be the sticking point for a lot of self-publishing and independent authors.
It can be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type scenario.
Many of the sites require a minimal number of reviews to qualify. In other words, if your book is right off the press, forget it. If your book doesn’t have enough reviews to qualify forget it.
Another qualification is quality. This one I agree with. If it’s self-published, a crappy cover, poor editing, poor quality with see it turned down. These sites don’t want to sully their reputation with crappy books. Then again, some of them will probably sell anything for the fee. I’m just saying.
THOUGHTS TO CONSIDER – MY EXPERIENCES SO FAR
This goes back to why do it?
You want to generate sales, right?
You want to get more reviews, okay?
Let’s take the first one.
Depending on the site and their fee, there are certain things to consider. First off, don’t believe the hype on their web page! The first thing you will see is all these success stories, whether true or not.
Do the math. I took the plunge and things didn’t quite add up. For instance, I spent $25 on one site. Fine and dandy. I dropped the price of my book down to $.99 to sell more books. I think I sold 8 books. After the publisher’s take, I made a couple of dollars (small press). I generated zero reviews.
I did it once again, same price, sold I think ten books for a little more money. Almost enough for a Starbucks. I still generated zero reviews.
Not exactly like the booming sales expectations of the endorsements touted on the web page!
On the other hand, I also maybe got a few fans for the next book. I did sell a few, however I still got no reviews on that one either.
What did it do to my Amazon sales ranking?
It skyrocketed for a couple of days, then slowly plunged once again.
It wasn’t enough to take me into an elite category, but at least the number changed for a while.
In the end, was it worth it?
To me it was. Sure, math-wise, I lost money, but sales wise, I may have converted a few more people. Time will tell.
As of yesterday, as you read this, I’ll have tried another site with a different book. I won’t know any significant results for a while, but we’ll see if it results in anything different.
As of today, the day before I post this (Monday), my book sold at the normal list (Kindle) price. I maybe sold a couple as my sales ranking leaped up into the thousands. Sure, it never set the world on fire and of course, I didn’t make my money back. Then again, just maybe I made a few more fans, especially considering this particular book is the first in the series and is going to be just prior to the launch of the second one. Finally, I gained a review! Yes, lo and behold, out of all of that, regardless of the math, I gained one new review. A five star one at that. The problem is that while the number is there, the review isn’t. That’s an issue for another article.
Book marketing sites, at least the ones I’ve run across so far, deal exclusively in e-books. They all have a high readership, which exposes you to a large number of people who may or may not have an interest in your book. The sites all push for pricing your book from cheap to free, but you can still charge what you want, sometimes at a slightly higher fee.
The math almost always doesn’t add up, but once in a while, some lucky bastard strikes gold, at least according to their own marketing data. I cannot seem to find any reliable reviews on the marketing sites themselves.
The qualifications vary from site to site. The fees vary from free to almost a thousand dollars. You heard me right…a thousand dollars.
Keep in mind that regardless whether you are on a budget or not, marketing is going to cost something. If you want to sell your book, you have to do it somehow. This is one avenue, especially now with COVID going on and no personal book signings on the table.
So, folks, another option on the table.
I could’ve called this Reviews Revisited. After all, I’ve broached this subject multiple times here at Fred Central. However, Revisited doesn’t quite cover it. Again, is a better word because reviews are the lifeblood of an authors marketing world, as explained below.
Amazon has now made it even harder. Somehow the software geniuses at the site have now decided, in their ultimate wisdom, to start cutting “irrelevant” reviews. While you may see an author has 20 reviews, only five of them may actually show for reading.
Now, to top that off, apparently, you can rate a book with just the star rating and no narrative. While I welcome a five star rating, it would be nice to know why they liked the book. The same if they’re allowed to post a one star rating.
No idea what that’s all about but they seem to be either cutting down on space, or their new algorithms have been randomly cutting what their filters consider either offensive, irregular, or somehow incestuous material. I’m purely guessing here.
So, with some editing, I want to emphasize, once again, how important reviews are to the author and go over some do’s, don’ts, and some preaching to the choir.
When it comes to marketing your book, one of the most difficult things to obtain are independent reviews. When you’re a total unknown, one of those brass rings you have to grab for are independent reviews. I’m not talking about “paid” ha ha “independent” reviews. I’m talking about legitimate and honest independent reviews by people you don’t know who actually read the book and either like it, think it sucks, or somewhere in-between.
The whole point is to get independent feedback from the real world. You want that feedback, hopefully good, of course, to help sell your book. After all, “word of mouth” is one of the best ways to sell something.
To me, there’s something inherently dishonest about paid reviews. Okay, the “reviewers” can go ahead and say they’re a business and they have to eat. On the other hand, you’re paying them for a supposedly “unbiased” review of your book.
Have you ever actually looked at one of those paid reviews?
I have and it wasn’t pretty.
Does the phrase boiler plate ring a bell?
A couple of them, who I won’t name, were so boiler plate, they almost mimicked a certain blatant paid reviewer I used to rail about on Amazon, one I warned you about that was an obvious fake reviewer. This “lady” if she really existed, used to take the back cover blurb, use that as her review and give the book either four or five stars. That was her review. She had like 100K reviews on Amazon, and every one of them was exactly the same format. They were all on books I wasn’t particularly happy with, by the way.
Back to the paid review sites. You go to their submission pages and they’re full of warnings and “no guarantees.” This is all the usual bla bla bla stuff about how you could be throwing your money away, could lose your book in the slush pile and may never see your review. Or, if you did, it may be up to a year before it ever shows. Also, there would be no guarantee of a good review.
Ahem…once again, go right to the boiler plate. I looked and looked and of all the boiler plates, there might be a single sentence attached to the standard boiler plate that varied to tell the truth about the book. Those single sentences didn’t vary much. So, if the book really sucked, I guess it never made publication and was culled. Those are the ones that got “lost” in the shuffle, or never made the “no guarantee” cut.
Only the good reviews or at least the better ones made the cut.
Now, you may ask, what was the boiler plate the review was based on? I can’t give you the exact words without giving the web sites away, but they were all customized to each genre, let’s just say that. If it was fantasy, it was about the beasts and wizardry. If it was western, it was about the boots and cows and so forth. If it was romance, it was about the whatever romance is about. Every review on each genre page was the same except for one sentence that actually applied to the book!
So much for paid reviews.
NON-PAID REVIEWS – INDEPENDENT
These are the gold, especially to the new and struggling writers. Unfortunately, to the new and struggling writer, these non-paid review sites can be just as struggling and unknown as you are, and their viewership can be a few to non-existent.
However, you’re more than likely to get a more specific and honest review. The good with the bad?
Obtaining a meatier review on a web site that nobody sees doesn’t get much promotion potential does it?
Who says that review has to sit there in obscurity?
What about you?
There’s always your own publicity machine, however small and limited you might be, starting out the gate. If you’re any kind of marketer, whether you get out there in the trenches, or do everything from a computer, you should at least have a few sources. How about a web site, Facebook page, forums for your genre? All of these present an avenue to trumpet your new review.
How about Twitter as well?
All of these are potential sources to repeat that review, provide a link to it, spread the word. Not only are you helping yourself, but you’re drawing more traffic to that web site. Maybe, just maybe that’ll draw more of an audience to that site and multiply exposure to both of you. The reviewer’s site gets bigger, more prominent, your review becomes more important in the big picture.
Ever think of that?
How about adding that review to a list of reviews for a publicity sheet?
One day, you may want to accumulate all these independent reviews into a consolidated package, maybe to be used for a re-print of the book.
We mustn’t forget the retailer reviews like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Goodreads etc. Of course, you can’t copy them directly, but maybe quote lines. I did a bad review of a monster movie and the produces took one line from my review and used it out of context to tout their movie. I saw that and went what??? If they can get away with it, why not you?
Whether all of your reviews are good or bad, copping the best lines from your reviews may be a thing to do. It may be a bit shady, but you can also go the high road and just pick the best of the best of the best. Keep it true and use it to your best advantage.
GETTING BLOOD OUT OF A TURNIP
The hard fact is the 99% of your readers never do a review. That’s a huge hurtle to get over. No matter how much you beg and cajole your readers, most never will review your book. You may have decent sales, but that doesn’t mean it will reflect in reviews. Besides Amazon spending restrictions, there’s the fact that some people are just readers and not writers. Then there’s the effort to actually write the review.
It all sums up to authors getting desperate and some giving in to the temptation to pay for reviews. As stated above, not a good idea.
The only real solution is in the numbers, which is in itself a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing. Reviews help sell books, but if you don’t get reviews, you don’t sell books.
All I can say is outside of paying for reviews, do whatever it takes to get them legitimately and unpaid, wherever possible. The more the better.
This will be the fourth time I’ve covered endings in one form or the other.
Subjects have ranged from Endings in 2018, to Crappy Endings and Crappy Endings Revisited appeared in 2012 and 2017 respectively and for good reason. The ending can have a huge impact on my enjoyment of the story, and it’s the same for a lot of other people.
The reason I bring it up this time is the book I recently finished. It was icky bug. Sure, they can be practically synonymous with crappy endings where everybody dies. Just to make sure (and one reason I don’t read e-books), I always peek at the last few pages to see if the main character (MC) survives. While this is usually a good way to tell, sometimes those last few pages, especially with a quick scan and by not actually READING it, can fool you.
The day I originally wrote this, I’d almost reached the end of the book. The way the author set things up, the gang, including the MC, HAVE to die. I was already pissed. There was about a ten percent chance they might’ve survived, but the way the story went, if they did, it wouldn’t be good. As it turns out, they didn’t. I was pissed, and my review showed it with one star.
That leads me to the main gist of today’s discussion, which I breached again the last time I wrote about it.
WHY DO YOU READ?
This is the real reason that determines what type of endings one is able to tolerate. Since this discussion primarily focuses on fiction, why do you read?
We’re not talking about non-fiction because it has a pre-determined, and inarguable conclusion. You can’t change history or real subject matter unless it’s opinion or a philosophical discussion.
However, with fiction, it’s entirely up to the author to decide how the book ends. In that regard, you, as the reader decide why you’re reading.
When you read for pure entertainment, it’s all a matter of taste. The ending may or may not matter, depending on your personality. It can be a happy or a bummer ending, depending on how you swing.
JUST SOMETHING TO DO
Same as pure entertainment. It can go either way.
NO PARTICULAR GOAL IN MIND
Same as the other two.
OPEN TO ANYTHING
I could’ve lumped the previous three and this category together, but broke them down for illustrative purposes. Like the other categories, open to anything means the reader doesn’t mind happy or bummer endings. They don’t feel ripped off when the hero dies.
ESCAPE FROM REALITY
Here’s where things get a bit more complicated. I’m in this category. My whole purpose of reading fiction is to escape the real world. Unlike any of the other categories, which of course, include bits of the rest in there, as well, my MAIN goal of reading is to escape reality. I don’t want anything to do with the real world, and especially now in 2020 with our COVID mess. I want a happy ending. If the ending’s a bummer where the hero (or everyone) dies, I automatically hate the book. If I want reality, I’ll watch the news, get a college textbook, or a non-fiction book. When I read fiction, I read explicitly for a happy ending! That’s the whole point.
I don’t want to learn any life lessons, I don’t want to get emotionally jerked around. I don’t want to get philosophized up the yin yang about this and that. If some or all of those things are thrown into the mix, fine, as long as the story ends on a high note. That high note had better not be bittersweet, where the hero dies, or where there’s any kind of bummer. I don’t want to hear “well, it’s like real life.”
Real life is 2020. Real life right now is stuff like COVID!
I know very well what real life is like. I’ve certainly lived long enough to experience all that, and still see enough of it all around me every day. The last thing I want to do is read about it in a damn book! I’m trying to escape all of that!
A large number of people escaping from reality feel the same way.
ENFORCE NEGATIVE VIEW OF THE WORLD
This is where the negative or bummer endings really come into play. The Debbie Downer group love bummer endings. They love the big twist at the end where not only the hero dies, but everything turns to crap. They love to be shocked.
When the author turns the whole story on its head, the negative people love it. It enforces their negative view of the world. That’s why certain authors, infamous for doing this, sell a lot of books. While they have plenty of haters, they also have substantial followings.
There’s the group of people that are bored with happy. They specifically want reality in their fiction because they’re sick of happy and “unrealistic” endings. That’s not real life. They cannot stand the fantasy of happy, or simply like to switch it out once in a while.
There’s a big audience that loves to grovel in their misery.
So, if you want to grovel in your misery, suck it up and see life for what it really is, then I guess “everybody dies” is for you.
It all boils down to why you’re picking up the book in the first place. That turns around to you, as a writer, and what your goal is, and what type of audience you’re trying to attract.
Sure, everybody dies in real life. However, what IS the purpose of writing fiction anyway? It’s a chance to escape all of that for a little while. At least to me. Do I mean, nobody dies? Of course not. All I mean is that someone needs to survive. Someone you can invest in and root for needs to survive so there’s a positive payoff, a reason to close the book with a big smile on your face, not a scowl or a tear.
If you want to write the big twist and a bummer ending, a shocking ending, you’re going to draw a certain crowd. However, if you write a positive ending rather than shock value, you’re going to draw a much larger audience.
You can mix it up, but once you shock an audience, it may be hard to earn their trust back. Some won’t care, but for those that prefer a happy ending, you may lose readers. It’s hard to tell. Either way, you’re always going to have an audience.
It’s up to you.
Think of yourself as a reader and then as a writer. Sure, you have to follow your muse, but you also have to think of your potential audience and your reputation. Once you go down a certain path, it may be difficult to recover the trust.
Happy writing, and I don’t say that lightly!
VISITING HISTORICAL SITES
It just dawned on me how different we perceive things through words versus what we see in person. My latest book, Spanish Gold is coming out soon. Through it, I do my best to describe various places I not only visited (well, with one big exception), but actually lived a significant time. Through my words, I hope I was able to draw a vivid picture without bogging the reader down in excruciating exposition. As many of you know, I prefer action over excessive detail. At the same time, I like to convey details others would neglect. Which brings me to today’s subject, visiting historical sites.
This past weekend, we had to skip our trip to Disneyland and find someplace else to go. We decided to go the other direction. Since we didn’t want to mess with bad weather or snow, we opted for south. We chose Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the OK Corral and Wyatt Earp and all that good ole’ cowboy stuff. There were a couple of other things in the area to see as well, so we went for a self-made package deal and took in as much as we could.
Here’s the deal.
What I pictured about the place was a far cry from what I actually saw.
THE REAL TOMBSTONE ISN’T LIKE THE MOVIES
Let’s forget the blatant tourist trap side of things for a moment and just look at Tombstone, the reality. While it’s a vibrant and friendly little town, it’s still a far cry from the myopic images one sees in the movies, TV, and fictional books one might read. The impressions I got were completely different. Not only that, but the local terrain wasn’t even close.
I’ve enjoyed quite a few Joanna Brady mysteries from J. A. Jance. When I actually went to her hometown of Bisbee, saw the Lavender Pit (which was named after a guy, not the color), visited the mining museum, and ate at a restaurant across the street from the museum, the place didn’t look anything like what I pictured in her books! To tell the truth, it reminded me more of Weston, West Virginia, the town my wife’s family is from, except for the desert vegetation on the mountains peeking above the buildings. Plus, maybe there was a dash of New Orleans Square in Disneyland from the little park next to the museum. What I pictured in her Joanna Brady novels was, well…now when I read the next one, maybe it’ll click different.
Since I don’t read westerns, I may never have a chance for stories of Tombstone to ever click with me, unless someone writes a thriller or icky bug involving the little town. After all, the Goodenough silver mine runs underneath the town with literally hundreds of miles of tunnels (the mine tour guide told me that). That might make a good icky bug setting.
No matter how we describe things, or even show them on TV or in movies…by the way, the movie Tombstone with Kurt Russell was filmed elsewhere…people are going to see things differently.
You can use a thousand words or ten words. It’s not going to matter. People are going to draw their own picture anyway. Sure, you can bore them or mesmerize them with page after page of description, but they’re still going to fill in their own details.
Now, if you think I’m just giving this from my own perspective think of this:
“I thought it would be bigger.”
“I thought it would be smaller.”
“This is it?”
“I’m not impressed.”
“Wow! This is so much better than I ever thought!”
I rest my case. A word picture is just that, a word picture. They say a photo is worth a thousand words, but I can tell you it isn’t worth much more than that because photos are just as myopic as words in their own way. They can tell a lot, but unless you’re there, a photo can only show you what the lens is aimed at. Sure, it can be worth a thousand words, but there are so many words it leaves out, so many sensations and angles the camera can’t capture.
The only way to get that is to be there.
As authors, all we can do is our best to describe a setting and hope for the best from our readers. We’re never going to get it right. So, with that in mind, don’t even try to make it perfect. Don’t try to beat yourself or your reader up with details. Give them enough to get the idea. If it’s a real place, maybe they’ll visit one day and see for themselves. If not, no harm, no foul. In the meantime, we have to rely on their imaginations to go where our prodding leads them.
THROWING THE DICTIONARY AT YOUR READER
The last time I addressed this issue specifically was way back in 2012 in my article, Are You Writing A Story Or A Dictionary? I’ve addressed it since then, indirectly, in articles about the writing getting in the way of the story. I thought it worth addressing again, specifically, since it was brought up on one of the Facebook forums just last week.
I’d originally participated in a discussion on the Absolute Write Water Cooler in the Horror Forum. A participant asked if he should use a certain word to describe a gory scene involving a victim being stabbed in the eye. The word he picked was a medical term that I’d never heard of. He asked the forum if he should use that word or pick something simpler. There were several responses asking what the word meant. I gave him my philosophy, which I’d mentioned here in an earlier article.
Here’s my quote from the forum: Simpler is better. It’s best to use word economy and keep it at a sixth-grade level whenever possible. Don’t try to impress your reader with big words unless you define those words. That means extra narrative that usually slows things down, unless it’s a key plot point.
Whoa… hold the fort! The board suddenly came alive. Several responded saying that the writer shouldn’t dumb down the story for the reader. Okay, I can understand that. One responder qualified that you shouldn’t throw the dictionary at the reader, but it’s okay to throw in new words and not explain them so that the reader has to go look them up. He said he appreciated it when he had to look them up, so he figures others will too.
WHAT I’VE REALIZED SINCE HASN’T CHANGED MUCH
Jumping forward to the present, the Facebook forum had about a fifty-fifty mix of responses this time. Many went for simpler is better, if at all possible, while some said it’s up to the writer to write what he feels, and it’s up to the reader to educate themselves up to the level of the writer (or thereabouts).
How have I changed in that? Let’s look at this from a logical standpoint.
How many of you would appreciate stumbling across a word where you have no idea of the meaning? Will you stop reading and go pick up a dictionary, ask someone, or go online to find out what it means? Does the term, jerk you right out of the story mean anything? It certainly does to me, and that hasn’t changed since day one.
Look at me today, with two master’s degrees under my belt. I’m not exactly a walking dictionary but I have a fairly good grasp of English, my native language. Then again, I still don’t know a good many high-falutin’ and obscure words. Some I can imply from the context of the narrative or dialogue. Some, I don’t have a clue. So, what do I do now? If the word doesn’t jerk me out of the story, I just skip it. I don’t keep a dictionary on the table next to my chair. So, it’s not only my loss, but the author’s loss as well.
When I was twelve, I didn’t have the greatest command of the English language. If I read the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or Edgar Rice Burroughs, did I go to a dictionary to look up the words I didn’t know? Not a chance. Did I ask someone? Maybe once or twice. I either guessed the meaning by how the paragraph was written (like I do now), or I just ignored it. I figure that’s what most readers today are going to do if I start throwing in a bunch of fancy words in my writing.
I like to use the occasional fancy word. However, it’s usually a technical term key to the story. I always explain it either through the narrative or dialogue. Besides, if I do throw in something wonky, my writer’s group will be sure to call me on it!
As a reader, even now, when I read someone like Dean Koontz (I’m a big fan when he writes third-person), who likes to throw in the occasional freaky non-technical word without explanation, I’m not about to go running to the dictionary to figure it out. If the narrative or dialogue doesn’t explain it, I just blow it off. I don’t care that much. It’s most likely a word I’ll never use in real life or in my own writing, so who cares? Using it doesn’t make me any more sophisticated or make my two Master’s Degrees any more or less valuable, so I just move on.
Sure, it would be nice to expand my vocabulary, but once I do, who am I going to use it on? There was a guy I worked with at the AGE Shop in Spain back in the 80’s. He was a walking dictionary. Half the people in the shop couldn’t understand him, and I was among them. On the other hand, I’d love to learn Cockney slang, for a hoot, but who would I use that on?
As a writer, please consider your audience. This is especially critical to young adult, but it applies to even the older crowd. If you’re shooting for the highbrow intellectual bunch, maybe you can dazzle them with ten-dollar words, but if you’re appealing to a wider audience, KISS!
If I have to explain that acronym…NO, it’s not the band!
Once again, I’d like to make this as plain as possible:
Your job is to entertain your reader, not force education on them. It’s great to provoke thought, but much better through subtle philosophy and ideas woven into the narrative and plot, not complicated words that put up a barrier to the prose. Therefore…
DON’T LET THE WRITING GET IN THE WAY OF THE STORY!
PUBLISHING IN UNUSUAL FORMATS
This reminds me of the old warning about sending out query letters to agents. “Don’t get cute.”
By that I mean, don’t use frilly stationary, soak it in perfume, or send a tattered note with a bad typewriter key on it, coffee stained, with a cigarette burn…things like that. Agents usually don’t appreciate when the author goes into character for their query letters.
How about the book when it gets published?
WHAT’S AN UNUSUAL FORMAT?
This should go without saying, but not everyone is on the same wavelength. Any book that does not fit on the shelf is the simplest way to put it.
When you go to the bookstore and you see row upon row of books, and something sticks out because it looks like it doesn’t belong on the shelf, THAT’S an unusual format.
In the past few years, maybe more, the only games in town (brick and mortar bookstores) have narrowed so that nowadays, trade paperbacks are now mixed with mass market paperbacks as well as hardbacks. A long time ago, things didn’t used to be that way. Each format had their own shelves. With shrinking brick and mortar space, and variety, that’s no longer true. It’s all mixed together.
Still, when you browse the shelves and see something that looks like it doesn’t belong, it’s going to stand out.
For instance, when the shape and size of the book looks like it should be in the art department, or sewing, or maybe crafts, that’s going to stand out.
When the binding is three-ring, or spiral-bound, we have something unusual.
When it looks like it has foldouts or appears to be a children’s story in the adult fiction category, uh oh…
CAN THIS WORK?
There can be significant hurdles to such an endeavor. First off is why? Does the story fit the unusual format? If so, can you get the publisher to go along with the format?
Another big if is will the public go along with it?
Think of this. Consider the extra expense involved in publishing something in this unusual format. Will the public be willing to spring the extra bucks for it?
Now, consider those that collect books at home. They’re going to have to figure out where to place your “masterpiece” on the shelf.
Have you considered whether this “experiment’s” really going to be a hot seller, or just a novelty that’s going to fall flat?
WHY I BRING THIS UP
I just read an icky bug novel that I’ve seen on the horror shelf at Barnes & Noble a few times but have skipped for a while. The format was like an art book. It was set up as a furniture store catalog, a very familiar furniture store catalog. The difference is that the text was a highly entertaining haunted-store icky bug story. Each chapter had a heading with a piece of furniture just like out of a real catalog. I loved the story. The book was a bit pricey, but considering the format and the cost of a regular trade paperback, it was equitable. So, I broke down and bought it.
In this case, the gimmick worked. The book would still be a bit hard to shelve, as it sticks out and doesn’t quite fit with either hardbacks or trade or mass market paperbacks. Since I now only save signed copies, after having purged a whole room full of books, it doesn’t matter.
I’ve seen plenty of other gimmick books that I’ve turned my nose up at. Maybe I did that not because of the gimmick itself, but because of the subject matter. Makes me wonder if they were sellers or not.
ARE YOU THINKING OF THIS?
A big caveat to this is just remember, the e-book wipes any physicality out of it. Then again, I’m not sure how the illustrations would survive. Since I don’t read e-books, I can’t vouch for illustrations to translate to that little screen.
I only personally know of one case where it worked. I just read it and seen the proof in the many reviews this book received.
It might be a bit difficult not only to come up with something original, but to get your publisher, or if your self-published, to spring for the extra expense of printing (and/or) manufacturing it.
Keep in mind that breaking the mold is always a risk. Then again, as they say, you can’t win if you don’t play.
On the other hand, don’t go through hoops looking for some freaky way to publish a book juss’ ‘cuzz. I’m not. I’ll stick to convention. I have enough to deal with already. If an inspiration hits me one day for something like this, I’ll think long and hard before I ever spring this on my publisher. If I do, I’ll have a real good reason for it. For now, I’m quite happy to keep it simple.
WRITING IN UNUSUAL FORMATS
I wasn’t originally intending on piggybacking on last weeks article, but it slapped me in the face this week.
I happen to be reading a book that did just that.
If you want to see how being a maverick can either be genius, or shoot you in the foot, read on.
WHY DO IT?
You’re a new, or maybe even an established writer. You want to buck the rules, break out and start something new.
Maybe you’re emulating one of your heroes from the past.
Maybe you simply just want to do something different. In other words, throw something at the wall and see what sticks.
You’re gambling on starting a new trend that could either take off or fall flat.
KEEP IN MIND
No matter what “brilliant” idea you’ve ever had, it’s all been done before.
Published books haven’t been around to the masses for a long time, historically, but long enough that everything has been tried sometime. With that in mind, some books that have become classics because of the story, not the writing. Some became classics because there was no competition at the time of publication. Some became classics because they were re-written or edited so that they became readable.
LEARNING OVER TIME
The publication “industry” has learned a lot over time. Publishers and agents and writers have learned what the public wants, what readers are willing to put up with, tolerate, and what works best.
That’s not to say they won’t let authors try new things. They will, obviously.
Like in the old days of music, the old mafia guys would take a lot of weird and unusual bands and symbolically throw them against the wall to see what would stick. That’s a lot harder for some great and unusual bands to accomplish nowadays, given the rather bland state of pop music. Not as much so with books.
The best, and most tried and true formats for books are still the ones that sell the best because…and I have to go back to my mantra…
The writing doesn’t get in the way of the story.
CASE IN POINT
I just finished a book by a highly qualified writer. This is his or her first novel.
The book has no quotation marks.
That’s right. The dialogue is blended in with the narrative.
I could use a series of colorful metaphors but I’ll refrain.
I could go back to the section on the why’s, but given this author’s qualifications, I can’t even venture to either guess why he or she did this, nor why this big-name publisher let the author get away with it.
I’ve found it to be a decent story, but one that’s not only flat and emotionless, but very hard to read. It’s jarring, and also full of other faults like tautologies and no point of view whatsoever.
I’ve just about seen it all.
One that’s particularly annoying is mixing points of view. Going from third to first to second, mixing tenses, changing from fast-paced to literary narrative. All of this in one book.
My favorite example is that book by a Spaniard from decades ago. I never read it, of course, because it was in Spanish. What made this one weird was because the entire 200+ page book was one sentence. I’ve mentioned this example before, but that’s right. One sentence. The only bit of punctuation in the entire book was a period at the very end on the last page.
Can you imagine trying to read a 200+ page sentence?
That’s kind of how I feel about this very annoying book I just read, though it had relatively short chapters and scenes.
Whether this book is a one-off, or your “style,” are you ready to punish your readers or alienate half your potential readers with sone weird, or off-putting style of writing? Maybe you have some high horse or artistic “integrity” you want to stick with. Fine.
Or, do you want to reach the widest audience possible?
While I’m no fan of first-person, that’s just a personal choice. If the story is written well, it’s still a popular option because it can be done well, and the writing doesn’t get in the way of the story.
As many of you know, my preference is for third limited. That’s personal taste, and it’s the most widely read and appreciated.
Also, past-tense in fiction is my preference though some are fine with present tense. I find it unreadable and irritating, but some can write it just fine and some readers are fine with it. Once again, personal preference.
Mixing and doing weird things doesn’t bode well for broadening your audience. Punishing them or making them work for their story isn’t a great way to introduce yourself either.
It’s up to you, of course, but if it were me, I’d leave these weird experiments for the writing classes.
I’ve discussed several aspects of description here at Fred Central, but this one pertains specifically to objects, sounds, smells, rather than people or locations.
Quite often on the forums lately, I’ve seen questions like “How do I describe…”
While I consider that a legitimate research question most of the time, once in a while, these queries veer into the creative realm. When it does, I don’t like answering because then it gets into writing the story for the author, which is another subject.
There’s a weird sound that’s hard to describe because it’s not something one can easily compare it to anything familiar. In more than one book and magazine article from the distant past, I’ve heard the sound a UFO makes described as like cellophane being peeled off a roll.
Have you ever actually peeled cellophane off a roll before?
If you peeled say…plastic wrap off a roll, would it make the same sound?
What about wax paper, or aluminum foil, or that new sticky plastic self-sealing stuff?
In other words, does it HAVE to be cellophane?
THE VAGUARIES OF DESCRIPTION
Smells are a good example.
The pie smelled like rhubarb but looked like apple.
How many of you have ever smelled or even know what rhubarb is?
Out of my relatively long time on this earth, while I know what rhubarb is, have seen it plenty in the grocery store, I have yet to taste or smell it (that I know of). As old as I am, I couldn’t tell you what rhubarb smells like if it slapped me in the face.
So much for that description.
It sounded like a car horn honking.
Okay, generally, that’s fine except in what context?
If that sound is critical, as in a clue in a mystery story, then which car horn?
Do all car horns sound alike?
I think not.
What model car?
European car horns sound a lot different than American car horns. European car horns are usually more of a beep than a honk.
Different model American car horns sound different.
The green house trim contrasted with the brown walls.
Maybe that’s not important in itself. However, what if it is? What shades are the green and the brown? Most writers will add in the color tones.
Now, here’s the tricky part.
How many readers know their color tones or even care?
Hunter green (a dark green).
Dark brown (how dark is the brown).
Cerulean blue (a mid-dark blue).
Ebony black (a tautology).
RELATING DESCRIPTION TO THE FAMILIAR
When you relate description to the familiar, you have to keep in mind that the familiar you are using is YOUR familiar. You have to consider your reader’s familiar. Generally, they’re the same, but not always. You can assume to a point. A lot of times when I have read a description, I assume an image in my mind that may not be what the author sees. It’s probably similar, but may not be at all. It’s my reality versus the authors.
As a writer, when we come up with these descriptions, we have to assume a certain education and experience level from our readers. What we shouldn’t do is veer too far into the realm of the bizarre.
Now, for you literary writers, I don’t even have to say this means straying into a full page or chapter description of something simple when a few words will do.
ONE MORE EXAMPLE
Though this one is about a person, it still holds true.
I’ve said time and again, I don’t like to describe my characters in relation to celebrities. In fact, most of my characters I don’t describe at all or very little. I’ve gone into the reasons why many times here on my site.
I made one exception and have kept it as sort of a running joke.
The hero (MC) from my Gold series, Detach I’ve described as looking like the infamous (and lucky for us) dead former leader of Russia, Vladimir Lenin, but with hair. Those that see him for the first time and are familiar with history say he sort of looks like either Lenin with hair, or some crazed biker with tattoos.
Now, I got the idea for Detach from a lot of places, but the image of him came from a factory worker I once knew of where I was working when I original wrote the manuscript. The guy, which I never knew personally, always reminded me of Lenin, but with hair. At the time, I thought it was a great idea, so I incorporated that into the story. The real guy has no idea.
Now for the clincher. Years later, when I did some research and looked up the real Lenin, I saw a short movie clip of him disguised with a wig on. I was shocked. He looked nothing like what I pictured. He looked nothing like Detach! My whole image shattered.
What did I do?
Once in a while, I still see some guy with long hair and a goatee and moustache and tattoos, and you know what? He still reminds me of Lenin. He also still reminds me of the “image” of Detach. Yet neither of them look like what the real Lenin actually looked like with hair.
How many other people have seen that short clip of Lenin with a wig on?
Probably not many unless they’re history buffs or maybe watch a lot of the History Channel.
Another thing is that I wanted my hero to be the complete opposite of what the real Lenin was like. I think I did that.
Description is in the mind of the beholder, to borrow part of a phrase.
When you describe something, it’s always best to use the most familiar way to describe something so the most people will “get it.” Maybe not everyone will, but hey, you can’t please everyone. You have to toss it out there and hope for the best. Also keep in mind that not everyone is on the same wavelength as you are.
DO YOUR HOBBIES INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?
For once, this idea just popped into my head this morning as I sat here thinking of something to write about. Often, these ideas come from whatever is trending on the Facebook forums. Not this time.
Throughout Fred Central, I’ve alluded to the influence of hobbies and other interests and their influence on your writing indirectly and directly, but have never summed it up in one place before. So now, here it is.
FIRST OF ALL…
I’d first like to define the difference between a passion and a hobby.
A hobby is something you do for fun, like tennis, or dancing, coin collecting, or macrame. It’s something you may do once in a while, a lot, or something you do in spurts. Then it may fade for years, or you may quit it and the gear or “residue” from it may sit in a closet only to be sold at a garage sale years or decades later.
A passion is a lifetime interest. It’s not something you throw money at, only to end up, inevitably, with that closet or garage full of gear, but something that consumes your life. It’s something you live and breathe, and even if there are lulls due to unforeseen circumstances, you take it up again at the first opportunity. When you look back on it decades later, it’s a lifetime thing.
Now that the definitions between a hobby and a passion are out of the way, for simplicity purposes, I’m going to call them both hobbies from now on. To that point, with you deep into your passion over a lifetime, or deep into a “hobby” at the moment, do you reflect that in your writing?
MAKING IT OBVIOUS?
One would think the way characters or situations are drawn, an author makes it blatantly obvious their hobbies and interests come through in their writing.
For example, in a murder mystery, the protagonist has a thing for tennis. Therefore, the story features scenes where the hero plays it at least once in every book (assuming a series), or mentions it often. One would assume the author is a big tennis fan. You go to the back of the book and sure enough, right in the bio the author states they play tennis every weekend.
What have I said before here at Fred Central?
It doesn’t hurt to write what you know.
NOT SO OBVIOUS
The characters in the series always end up in some kind of cave for at least part of the story. One would think the author might be a spelunker, right?
The author, while having a mild interest in caves, has no desire to crawl underground. When he or she was a kid, sure, they were all full of adventure and the thought of diving deep into a cave was a great idea until they actually did it. Then the flashlight went out. All the fascination went out of their great and fantastic idea of the great adventure. Decades later, while not particularly scarred for life from the experience, they’d still rather be an armchair spelunker, a mild interest in the subject, and not a real-life cave diver. You’ll never see that in their bio.
REFLECTING WHAT WE KNOW
There’s nothing wrong with…in fact it’s great to reflect your hobbies in your writing.
The key is that when character building, or in fact, story and plot building, those hobbies need to be relevant in some way to character, story and plot.
In my Gold series, my interest in rock and metal plays a minor but significant role in the “coloring” of the series. Several other of my interests do as well. As for my fantasy series, Meleena’s Adventures, I confess that my mild interest in caves do as well as several other things, though that metaphor I used earlier is not my reason for not being an amateur spelunker. While that actually happened to me a few times, it was just a matter of squeezing through tight spaces, scaling drop-offs, and a general lack of enthusiasm for the overall thrill. Spelunking is a great passion or hobby for some people, but not mine. Besides, now I’m way too old to be crawling around in the dark.
Quite often, the general subject matter of plots in stories are reflections of the interests of the authors. Given spelunking, for instance, I’ve read several thrillers where the author was a spelunker as well. I’ve seen cozy mysteries where the plot was centered around a knitting circle and the author was a big knitter. Same with quilting. I’ve seen authors who were painters and the plot had to do with painting.
It’s great to use your personal knowledge from a hobby as part of your story. In that way you can be assured you get the details correct!
WHEN IT’S NOT
This is where it can get tricky.
When you use a hobby that you’re not familiar with. You come up with this brilliant idea for either a character quirk or a plot device, but you don’t have a clue about the particular hobby.
You can read up on it, research and go for broke.
The best way is to talk to someone who is deep into it.
Chat them up and learn some quirks and details that the books may not tell you. Or, they can clue you into details you may not notice because you don’t even know to look for them.
If a reader deep into that hobby notices something off, your bad. Therefore, if you can drop in a few intimate things that only an expert would know. That makes it even more realistic.
Examples are the proper or slang names for gear. What happens to your hands when you do certain repetitive motions. Sounds, smells, reactions of passerby.
LESSER KNOWN HOBBIES
Some authors use lesser known hobbies. This can be tricky because when you do, very few people can relate to them.
I’m a deep sky visual observer and telescope maker. To the world, that’s known as an amateur astronomer. I don’t particularly like the term “amateur astronomer” because what I do isn’t astronomy, per se. Why? Because I’m allergic to math and I don’t do any science. I have a large telescope, I look through the eyepiece and I observe galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. I also record my observations for my own pleasure. I sometimes even draw them. I have no interest in taking pretty pictures of these objects. I do nothing to advance science. However, like writing, this “astronomical” thing is a lifelong passion I’ve had since 1967.
If I used that in a book, how many people could relate to that? Maybe a handful across the entire country. How many of them would even read my books?
Most of the country could not even tell if a telescope was set up correctly in a movie scene. That’s not slamming anyone, that’s just a fact.
It’s a rare hobby, or in my case, a passion.
Have I used it in my stories?
Sure, but in small doses. I not only don’t want to overwhelm my readers with jargon they won’t understand, but I don’t want to alienate them with a hobby (or passion) they cannot relate to.
Consider that when you have a hobby that is out of the mainstream.
It’s great for an author to write what you know, and hobbies are another way to add color to your story. That’s especially true if it’s a popular one. If not, I’d have second thoughts about letting it dominate character color, story or plot.
HOW MUCH TIME DOES IT TAKE TO WRITE A WHATEVER?
How much time does it take to write…whatever?
This is a question that comes up a lot on the Facebook writing forums.
When I think about it, for a beginning writer, it’s a good question. However, for those already into it, not so much.
Before we go on, you may wonder the disparity in my two answers. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Everything takes time, no matter what it is. Writing is no exception. It’s taking time to write this article. How much? I can tell you that the average time it takes me to write one of these articles, which average 800-1200 words is about twenty minutes.
That’s a big question.
Why would anyone care?
How about a short story of say 4,000 words?
On average, it takes me about an hour for the initial draft.
It used to take me about six months because I had plenty of extra time at my job. Now that I have to do it at home on my own, it can take up to two years.
How many words?
65K to 130K or thereabouts.
Now that I’ve given you actual statistics, once again, who cares?
When new writers are starting out, many want to know how hard it is. They also want to know how much time they must invest in something to compare with where they are.
They also want to know if they’re spinning their wheels on something they’re working on.
They want to know if their pace is too long or too short.
This would seem like legitimate questions. It is, to a point.
First off, to me, the speed in which you write isn’t a competition. It isn’t a measurement of your worth, or of how much better or worse you are compared to someone else. If you think that way, writing may not be a passion for you. It may be a sport or a hobby.
If writing is a true passion…
You’re going to be compelled to write regardless of time.
If you’re looking at time because you’re worried you’re in a rut, or because you think you have a problem that needs to be addressed, that’s only natural.
Time management can be a part of the learning process.
However, when it’s being used as a competition process, or to measure up against someone else, here again, you’re turning it into an ugly sport instead of a pleasure and a passion. That’s not good.
WRITING SPEED CONTESTS
The most infamous contest, which I’ve discussed here at Fred Central before, comes up once a year and it’s a great way to hone your chops and to see if you can do it.
On the other hand, why do it at all? Why write a full novel in a month? Why churn out something instead of taking your time, doing it right, doing it for fun instead of under pressure?
To me, that’s once again turning it into an ugly sport.
If you’re competitive minded, I guess that feeds your competitiveness. I sincerely hope it also feeds your passion for writing as well.
I’ve never had even an inkling of desire to participate in something like that.
I have my own pace and my own passion, and no speed contest has ever even entered my radar. I personally find it destructive, but that’s just me.
If it encourages other writers, I’m all for it, even if I find it personally demotivating.
MY STANDARD ANSWER & SUMMARY
Even though I’ve answered the technical side of how long it usually takes me to write something, the answer I give on the forums is always the same.
When someone asks how long it takes to write this or that, I always say:
“As long as it takes.”
There’s no way to gauge how someone writes. Everyone’s different. You can’t standardize the capabilities of any one person. A five-hundred word essay is not going to take everyone the same number of minutes, hours, or days to write.
It all depends on the person’s skill level, inspiration, and passion to write it.
This is not a speed contest, like some new writers seem to think.
This is about quality and passion.
Why is that so hard to comprehend?
WRITING THE OPPOSITE SEX
A question came up the other day about writing the main protagonist in the opposite sex. The gist of this question was that it was a male, and he was worried about writing a female protagonist and being too misogynistic.
Throughout the history of writing, authors have written using protagonists of the opposite sex. It’s nothing new.
Maybe it’s a millennial thing, but at the same time, it’s still a valid question.
So far, I haven’t heard that question coming from female writers.
WHAT’S THERE TO WORRY ABOUT?
A biggie is, of course, getting it wrong.
A biggie is, of course, using stereotypes.
A biggie is, of course, assuming.
Wait…that’s a lot of biggies.
There are a bunch of little ones too.
What’s missing here?
As writers, we observe things. When we create our stories, we observe everything around us. It should be a given that it must include the people! That would naturally be people of both sexes, right? Well…unless all the action takes place in a segregated setting, it’s unlikely both sexes wouldn’t be involved somehow. That’s picking at straws.
We, as writers, must observe, absorb, and reflect what we see in our writing.
With that in mind, we should be comfortable writing both male and female protagonists, regardless of which sex we are.
NOT SO FAST
There are still things about each sex the other doesn’t always see or understand. While males see women as complex and can never understand them, women see men as simple and predictable. Now, aren’t those two predictable cliches?
How do you write to that?
You can read plenty of examples in books already out there and emulate them. The problem is that many of them may or may not get it right. Or, they portray the opposite sex (from you) the way they should or you want them to be for your story.
The world is a lot different than what it used to be in the “good old days.” Let’s not even go there.
Let’s just say that men are not rocks and women are not weepy and helpless.
On the other hand, no person, regardless of sex, is one extreme or the other. Everyone is full of strengths and faults and deserves to be portrayed as an individual, not a stereotype. It’s way past time that you, as an author, look past the typical and go for the new and extraordinary.
Quite often, someone will say something like “a guy” or “a girl” would never do something like that.
“Guys don’t think like that.”
“Girls don’t think like that.”
On the basis of past norms, that may very well be true. However, is that so not only in today’s world, but in the world you’re creating?
Maybe that man or woman, boy or girl would never do what you’re having them do in your story in the real world.
Does that mean your main character isn’t being realistically drawn because you’re not of that sex?
Does that even have value in today’s world?
Maybe not anymore.
This is where it gets tricky. If there is any real-world historical setting to your work, and your protagonist is the opposite sex, you’re darn right you’d better do your research and know how that character should react to the setting! In this case, your whole world has changed. You no longer have the freedom to change the actions and reactions of your opposite sex.
When those same questions I outlined above are raised, you’d better have a very valid explanation for saying why you went against the norm. While there may be a plot-driven reason, and one or the other sex may have reacted a certain way, you’re skating on thin ice.
Men have not always acted like men and women have not always acted like women throughout history. We have well-established societal norms that are taken for granted and expected. Yet, as history shows, that’s not always what happened behind closed doors or in the shadows.
As a writer, when you portray the opposite sex, to do it realistically, you need to make sure you have your stuff together to make it believable or you’ll lose your readers. Justify it.
THE IMPACT OF MUSIC AND YOUR WRITING
A question that comes up often on the forums is “Do you listen to music when you write?”
While I’ve addressed music to some extent here at Fred Central, I want to take this a step further as well.
First, do you listen to music when you write?
Second, does the music influence your writing?
Third, do you name-drop bands if you’re writing a real-world story?
Fourth, what would the soundtrack be if one of your stories was made into a movie?
DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHEN YOU WRITE?
I’ve talked about this before in my articles on writing environment. From the forums and personal experience talking to other writers, the answers cover a wide spectrum.
Some, like those who write at coffee shops, are subjected to whatever soundtrack the store plays, unless they wear their own headphones.
Speaking of which, many writers go into their own world by wearing headphones (regardless of location) and play everything from Pagan music to disco to rap to classic rock to country to heavy metal (and a few other genres I left out).
Others who have the capability, turn on the stereo and blast out while they write, or have it on low volume in the background.
Others prefer the TV in the background.
Me? Silence. I don’t even have a soundtrack in my head.
I have enough going on in my head with the creative process that I don’t need two things going on at once. It used to be that I had jets taking off, callsigns blurting out from a radio and people talking in the background, all of which I blanked out as I wrote. Now, I’m either writing in silence early in the morning, with the occasional car going by outside, or it’s late in the day, and TVs are on in the other rooms.
Those are my soundtracks.
While I could be playing a CD on my computer, I choose not to for the simple fact that I don’t need a cacophony to just ignore. Plus, I cannot stand to wear headphones if I don’t have to. I had to deal with earmuffs for two decades in the Air Force, and I have to desire to relive that!
DOES THE MUSIC INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?
This can be a mixed bag. When the subject or plot of the book is music oriented, of course. Most books are not, so the question is, does music somehow influence what you write.
So far, in my experience, I’ve heard a bit of this and that. Song lyrics have inspired people with their story and plot lines. Bands have inspired certain stories either directly or indirectly.
There are series out there where certain types of music play a significant role in defining the characters. To name one, Jazz is a significant coloring in the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly.
In my Gold series, rock and metal are significant coloring.
DO YOU NAME DROP BANDS IN YOUR STORY?
So far, I haven’t mentioned fantasy writing. It’s obvious certain types of music cannot play a role in a made-up world, unless the genre is urban fantasy. In that case, contemporary music is all in.
With that in mind, and including all other genres of fiction, do you name-drop bands?
I’ve seen plenty of bands name-dropped into stories, from Aimee Mann to John Coltrane to Dwight Yoakum to GWAR.
In my Gold series, I drop the names of some of my favorite bands, plus a few not so favorite, mainly for shock value. It’s no secret that the original Alice Cooper Band and Lothar And The Hand People are a significant part of my series. Many of my readers are too young to even know who Lothar is and they only know of Alice Cooper, the solo artist. So be it.
It’s the same with any author that name-drops bands. Not everyone is going to get it.
Now, how about fantasy writers?
Outside of urban fantasy which blends real world, when concerning hard fantasy like my Meleena’s Adventures, nope. Not going to happen. In her world, there are no bands, per se. There are probably groups of musicians, which could be considered bands of a sort. They’d be more like travelling troubadours. So far, I haven’t addressed music all that much in her world. I will eventually, as in the next book, but I can’t reveal much more about it yet.
The same for science fiction, which all depends on the setting, which may or may not include real-world Earth.
WHAT WOULD THE SOUNDTRACK OF YOU BOOK BE IF MADE INTO A MOVIE?
First off, there’s no way you’re going to likely have any influence on the soundtrack, let alone much else if your book is ever made into a movie. Time to get that right out there!
On the other hand, one can only hope.
Michael Connelly did it with the Bosch series. If you get big enough, anything can happen. However, for the most of us, we must dream on.
I can see you already picking the songs.
For me, with either the Detach or Meleena’s Adventures, I can only hope there’s some rock and roll in either one. In the Gold series, the influence slaps you in the face. As for Meleena’s world, hey, they did rock with A Knights Tale, why not Meleena’s fantasy world?
USING HOLIDAYS IN YOUR WRITING
This subject is as much for world-building as it is for color, but also for plotting.
Do you use holidays as part of your stories?
If so, which ones?
Since Christmas and New Years have just passed, probably the most common ones used in books would be those two. Maybe add Easter and Halloween to the mix.
What about the lesser used ones like President’s Day, Three Kings Day, Kwanzaa, Groundhog Day, or so many others?
WHY USE HOLIDAYS AT ALL?
There are basically two reasons to use holidays.
In world building, the setting is important. As a writer, you want to build, populate, and color your world as vibrantly as possible. You do this by building it from the ground up. That not only includes the environment such as the climate, geography, population, and customs, but also the time of year and for the added touch, local or even national holidays.
Your story may center around a holiday as part of the plot. A crime thriller may be due to a robbery or a murder on Black Friday. Or, a horror story may be set on Halloween (and no, not THAT one).
IN A FANTASY SETTING
In a fantasy setting, the same thing applies to both color and plot. The difference is that you, as a writer, have the freedom to make up your own holidays.
That’s right. You’re not restricted to any norms or traditions of our real world. In your made up world, which you’ve possibly created from scratch, you have the freedom to make up holidays based on anything you want.
The only catch is: It has to make some kind of sense, and you need to stick with your own rules!
The above rule is a mantra I repeat often here at Fred Central when it comes to fantasy. In a made up world, while you have certain freedoms, the only real-world constraints need to be that #1 whatever it is has to make sense in some way the reader can understand, and #2, once you make this thing up, you need to stick with your own rules throughout the story or series. IF you ever bend or break those rules, you’d better have a good reason and be prepared to explain it to the readers through the narrative or dialog, once again back to #1, SO IT MAKES SENSE!
DO YOU HAVE TO USE HOLIDAYS?
Absolutely not. In fact, many stories never refer to them, even in an oblique sense. There’s no mandatory requirement to do so. However, it’s fun to add in a holiday and they’re another color on your artistic writing palette.
The biggest rule to remember is to use them correctly.
That sounds rather obvious but if you think about it, even something as simple as Halloween, Easter, or Christmas can be screwed up if the author uses it improperly.
The writer makes an offhand and improper remark about some aspect of the holiday or gets some detail wrong.
This is especially true if the author decides to throw a little historical or political perspective into said holiday.
Here we go…
AVOID POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS DIATRIBES
If you’re going to use a holiday, make sure you use it correctly and don’t spew propaganda or improper rumors or religious biases.
There, I’ve said it.
There’s nothing that can jerk a reader out of a story than to use a real-world holiday in a story and have the author add in a personal bias with something factually untrue. Or, a religious or political opinion that is highly polarizing, regardless of any real or perceived truth.
I’m not talking about something like the brash commercialization of what used to be the innocence of youth or tradition for a holiday. That almost seems to be a universal truth nowadays. I’m talking about religious or political biases that teeter or veer into polarization and browbeating.
Logic arguments about the origins of holidays border on political or religious diatribe, which can alienate the reader. This is getting into facts versus fiction.
It’s best to use holidays at face value. Maybe a snarky remark is okay and leave it at that. Diatribes on the other hand distract from the story and show the author’s bias. They jerk the reader out of the story, even if the diatribe is in the context of the character, which can be borderline author intrusion.
The exception could be in a fantasy world with a made up holiday, unless the holiday is a thinly veiled real-world one.
Then again, it’s your story, so you be the judge. It all depends on how many readers you want versus how many you want to piss off. The fact is that you’re not going to convert the already converted and are only going to piss off those that don’t agree with you. Plus, maybe (probably) you’ll lose some potential new fans.
Holidays make for great color in your world, whether used as such or going full out as a plot device.
Use them wisely.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW OR NOT?
The debate about writing what you know or not comes up quite often. I’ve discussed it directly or indirectly here at Fred Central in numerous ways, but now is the time to address it directly.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
When writing your big lie, it’s always best to stick as close to the truth as possible.
Simple. The closer to the truth it is, the less likely you are to get real details wrong.
This line is one used quite often in fiction, and it applies just as well in real life. When we write a fictional story, it is, after all, a big lie. It’s a made up story. If it’s not fantasy, in which the entire world is made up, it sticks to certain rules that one must know or adhere to for the story to come off as believable. If not, the reader is going to scoff at the page and likely put the book down. The reader is going to think the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Your big lie is busted.
Therefore, when you construct your illusion of the truth, you need to get your facts straight. Following this philosophy, it’s much easier, and better, if you at least somewhat know what your talking about coming out of the gate.
To save on time, effort and research, if at all possible, it’s best to start with writing something you know.
Whether it be time, place, talent, profession, or whatever, the more you already know, the more realistic the lie is going to be. The better your story is going to be.
WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
There’s a faction out there that’s of the philosophy that when you construct your big lie, it’s all about the research.
Research research research.
You should write about what you don’t know so that you challenge yourself, you force yourself to get better educated, to delve deep into the unknown, to learn new things, to adventure into new horizons.
This way, you can craft a much better and mor exciting story because you’re picking up the energy of discovery and translating that to the page.
Plus, you aren’t restricting your creative freedom to what little you know right now.
A great philosophy if you have the time and money.
A PRACTICAL PERSPECTIVE
As for right now, I personally own the luxury of having lived in a lot of places I can use for my thriller and icky bug novels. I have a wealth of ideas brimming over. I’m in no short supply. I’ve lived the places I want to write about. Therefore, my actual cost of research is minimal compared to someone more homebound and wanting to branch out.
Would I want to write what I don’t know?
Fat chance. I have so many ideas for places I already know, I probably won’t run out in my lifetime.
What about you?
For those of you with more limited travel or means, you have to follow either your inspiration or your limits.
You can do either or both together.
If you write what you know, all of your work can center around one location, the subject matter involving one occupation or hobby, or be from one genre.
If you want to write what you don’t know but are homebound or have no means of travel, you can challenge yourself and leave your inspiration open and travel through others.
If you want to write about another location, time, occupation, or hobby, it boils down to a good internet connection, a good phone, library, and communication skills.
For instance, do NOT get frustrated when you read the bibliography, final thoughts, or web site of some of these big-name authors who took six months to research a thriller. So and so author traveled to exotic locations, swam with the dolphins, went to remote Nepalese temples, trekked into the remote Amazon, bla bla bla just to write a few paragraphs of detail into their story.
It’s nice if you can flaunt it.
You don’t need to do that to get the nuances of your story.
You can do the same thing with books, the internet, letters, phone calls, etc.
Or, the most universal of all…
Everyone has had some experience going somewhere or doing something. If you have a desire to write, whether you desire to write what you know, or challenge yourself to write what you don’t know, the means are out there for both.
If your inspiration takes you to unknown places for you, don’t be afraid to reach out. Once you get there, that mental trip may change your inspiration. Once you get the facts, you may decide that it wasn’t for you after all, especially when reality sets in. On the other hand, maybe the trip into the unknown inspires you even more.
Then again, when you already HAVE the experience, the skill, the inspiration from something you’re familiar with, why not use it rather than let it go to waste? Don’t let someone talk you into forging a new path you don’t need to take.
Whatever you decide, don’t let either writing what you know or don’t know become a roadblock.
MADE UP WORDS
An interesting subject came up the other day on one of the Facebook forums. It was about made up words. The gist of it was how the English language is ever expanding with how invented words are being added to our language and whether authors should make up their own.
Of course, the “opines” varied, from “sure” to “you shouldn’t mess with English.”
For those that know me, I’m definitely in the “sure” camp. I not only continually play with words, but make them up, make fun of words, subvert them, distort them, invert the first letters, and change them in all sorts of ways.
This doesn’t always translate to the written page, of course. I DO have my practical limits, but once in a while, something might sneak into my published prose.
Now, as for my everyday chatter, either oral or written, no holds barred.
WHY NOT USE WHAT’S ALREADY THERE?
The English language has 170,000 to 220,00 words already available for use (if you include the obsolete ones). Why not make better use of the more obscure ones?
First off…many of them are obscure for a reason.
Try unpronounceable, or close to it.
Try obscure meanings.
Try obsolete meanings.
Try college level.
Try upgraded by simpler or more direct meanings.
If you’ve been a reader here at Fred Central, have you ever heard me use the phrase, “throw the dictionary at the reader?”
There you go.
There are some authors that love to do this. While these complex and college level words are legitimate and right there in the dictionary, they’re also little used, and come off as snooty and pretentious to the average reader. Sure, nothing wrong with whipping a little education on the “unwashed masses.” However, some words go into obscurity for a reason.
MODERN TERMS ARE MORE FITTING FOR THE TIMES
There’s nothing wrong with bringing in the new and throwing out the old, to an extent. While the root of the language is the basis to call it what it is, in this case, English, terms and definitions can vary based on changing times. That’s called evolution.
Nobody in 1500 had likely ever heard of the word skyscraper.
Just like nobody in 1700 had ever heard of a jet or jetsetting.
Therefore, new words need to be added to the “dikshunerry” all the time.
That, of course, does not account for deliberate misspellings. That’s just me, like wyberry, or dun didded.
That’s me, playing with words.
Those words I sometimes use in my personal communication, but unless I have an opportunity to use one in dialogue someday, they’re not appropriate for narrative.
WHEN YOU MAKE UP TERMS OR WORDS
When, in the course of your book, whether fiction or non-fiction, you make up a word, you’re not committing a major crime against humanity. You’re making up a word.
They key to doing so is that you must define the word and have a good reason for doing so.
What good reason?
This is the sticking point.
Defining good reason can mean a lot of different things.
To me, what it means is that it’s important to the story. That’s it.
It can be technical, key to the plot, or no other reason than humor. Those are all good reasons.
If your book becomes a best-seller and the word catches on, guess what? You may be the source of a new word in the dictionary!
I PLAY WITH WORDS
I’ve played with words since I was a little kid. Maybe that’s why I’ve had such an easy time coming up with names for creatures, places, characters, plants and such for my fantasy world in Meleena’s Adventures. Same can be said for any of my fiction writing. When I need a fictional technical term, guess what? Boom! Off the top of my head.
I love to make fun of the English language, or any language I’m exposed to. I love to play with words, manipulate them, and change them around.
Therefore, it only comes natural that I can make a mess of things when I want to.
On the other hand, to do that, it means I also have to have an intricate knowledge of English to be able to make fun of it and manipulate it, at least to the level I do.
I couldn’t write what I do with out that knowledge. I can’t say that for other languages, of which my skills are much more rudimentary.
I’ve picked up a lot from listening to kids, or recalling kid talk from when I was one back in the day. Those years being a kid, or raising them has provided a wealth of words to covet.
Listening to groups of people around the country has provided the same thing. Every region and sometimes even neighborhoods has their own wealth of variances and quirks of the English language, full of gems to be exploited.
Now these gem words just need the Fred touch to be utilized.
Some authors are dead-set against made up words, and they have a point.
We already have plenty in our language.
On the other side, our language is evolving all the time as times change. Obscure words get shelved for a reason. New ones take their place to keep up with current trends.
THE PURE FUN AND JOY OF CREATING
I guess I should break this down a bit, right up front. There are writers that are plotters and there are writers that are pantsers. I’m in the pantser category.
What this means is that I don’t spend days, weeks, or even months plotting out my story before I ever type a line. The sole planning of my story is that in my head, I figure out A and then B and then the title right up front. After that, my plotting is dun didded.
Upward and beyond (to quote someone ((Galaxy Quest??)).
Following an outline, would turn the writing into a task rather than a pleasure. Consequently, it would suck all the life right out of the whole process, though I’d still somewhat enjoy it because it IS writing. Instead, I follow a seat-of-the-pants approach.
In other words, I write freeform, with the goal being B, or, the end of the story.
As soon as I start from A, the adventure begins. It’s a pure pleasure.
A PURE PLEASURE
It’s no secret I love to write. Here I am, Sunday morning, everyone else is asleep and what am I doing? I’m writing this. I could be sleeping, or reading a great book (the current one is by Preston & Child, two great authors). Instead, I’m plonking down another Tuesday article.
Because I love it.
I this case, it’s not one of my novels, or a short, plotted story.
It’s a weekly blog article.
It’s still writing.
When it IS one of my plotted stories, when I sit down to write, I go off into my own world, my own adventure.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like.
It’s a pure pleasure.
For some that profess to love writing, it’s a torture, an effort, a source of agony.
WHEN WRITING IS OTHER THAN A PLEASURE
Writing can be other than a pleasure for a multitude of reasons.
A very common one is that a person gets an inspiration to be a writer. They have great ideas for stories. The issue is that when they sit down to put it to practice, the mechanics of the actual writing don’t pan out the way they think it will.
Another one is that a writer has certain chops but they’re trying to emulate their tortured artist hero. This person is of the impression that every word, every phrase is pure torture and that’s what makes their output a great work, when and if they ever get done with it.
Another one is of course, most people. They want to be a writer, but they haven’t yet developed the skills to be able to sit down and just write. This is the most common. They know they don’t have the skills yet, are willing to learn, but get too hung up in the mechanics of it to enjoy the process. This is similar to the first one above.
Another common one is someone who’s good at writing, but doesn’t get immediate results for their effort. They expect a big bang for their buck, and have allotted a certain amount of time to be a success. When it doesn’t pan out, the virtual tears come. They like writing, but their main motivation is money, rather than pleasure. They’re out to make a living at something they love doing. There’s nothing wrong with doing both. It would be great to be able to do both, but this is a very difficult bid’ness to break into and very frustrating to most, like any other profession. It can stifle pleasure and creativity in a short time.
Those are a few examples of typical writers, but not all-inclusive.
WHY I WRITE
I have described my writing processes numerous times here at Fred Central, but I can only stress that when I write, when I create my stories, my “big lies,” to be facetious, I go to a different place. I’ve done that since I was at show and tell in kindergarten and told the class my sister went down the drain at bath time, or showed the ladies in the cul-de-sac my “polka-dot-sewer” drawing. I’ve never been at a loss for strange new worlds, and now I have an outlet.
What makes it easier is that once I seriously took up writing, I discovered I actually had the chops for it. When I sat down at the keyboard and hammered out The Cave, way back in 1995, I discovered for myself that I could pull it off. I finished that novel, as crude as it was, in about three months. This was in the evenings after work.
At this moment, I am now editing it. I have been quite surprised and shocked at how this very first attempt is not nearly as bad as I first thought it was. I’d never had any intention of publishing it until I found the original manuscript and scanned through it. Then I decided to go through it, sentence by sentence and clean it up. It’s slow going because my chops have improved immensely, but story-wise, it’s not that bad, and I think I have something that might just work.
When I wrote it, I went off into another world. I did not stop to think, I just did. Right there and then, I figured A, the start, and B the ending. I even had the title which I figured while I was contemplating B. After that, it was a matter of going off into my little world and typing away at my very crude computer.
Somehow it worked, despite the quirks of the software, and whatever other obstacles I had to deal with at the time. I went off into my dream world and because I could type almost as fast as I could think, which admittedly can be rather slow at times…kept me at a rhythm and pace that worked.
It’s almost impossible to translate that feeling to a non-writer, or even to some of you that don’t possess the skill to write that fast, or that on-the-fly. I take my ideas and just spill them out. That’s it.
Pure joy and pleasure of creating.
There’s no high greater than that for me.
THAT’S why I’m a writer.
How about you?
WHEN YOU’RE SICK AND DON’T FEEL LIKE WRITING
The other day, I got my second COVID shot, and I must say, it kicked my butt!
On top of that, I’ve been off the entire week because we’ve had house painters here. That meant a lot of disruptions, not only because of the painters themselves, but arranging to let the doggies out among other things. While it sounds like the perfect opportunity to write, think again.
It turns out I did some major reading and napping. Not exactly a productive week. During that time, I managed to finally file away some paperwork I’d sorted the week before, write my usual blog and Facebook articles, and come up with the title for the A and B I’d already formulated for book #4 of the Meleena’s Adventures series. However, the day I decided to start Chapter 1, guess what? I kept getting interrupted, plus I didn’t want to miss my COVID shot appointment.
That was Thursday. Then good old Friday came around and that shot kicked my butt! I spent the day under a blanket in my chair, barely able to move, let alone write or do anything else except do the dog routine and a final walkaround when the painters finished.
The sum accomplishment of my new book #4?
The title, the header, and a blank Chapter 1.
Then that all made me think.
HOW CAN YOU ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING WHEN YOU FEEL SICK?
It’s okay for everyone to take a day or two when one feels sick for a cold, flu, or even mild COVID, for instance.
What about chemo therapy?
What about extended bouts of MS or Lupus, or worse?
As crappy as I felt yesterday (as I write this draft, I still don’t feel 100%), it was, and is a struggle to write what I’m doing now.
Just think of someone in a worse state.
This is another reason I’m against self-imposed deadlines. While some people need them to stay motivated, I always ask the question, why do you need motivation?
If writing is really a passion for you, that passion IS your motivation, not the other way around. If you’re a serial procrastinator, well…I have trouble computing writing as a passion versus writing as a hobby. I’ve been slammed before by the writing community for suggesting the writer take up knitting or tennis, or something that takes less effort and stress…something more immediately satisfying…something that takes less patience and longevity for a payoff.
Placing a self-imposed deadline on your writing turns it into an ugly contest…a sport. It puts undue stress on something that should be a pleasure, a passion, a love and not an agony and a stress.
What happens when you get sick and don’t feel like writing?
That old self-imposed deadline looms. So, you aren’t feeling good and don’t want to write, but now you have a deadline and you freak out. Guess what? You fall apart.
What was supposed to be a pleasure becomes torture.
Are you after that tortured artiste thing?
I sure hope not!
PATIENCE IS KEY
I’ve certainly had my down times. I’m like everyone else. However, that’s not to say I wasn’t thinking about writing. I WAS thinking about writing. I just wasn’t executing because it was too much mental and physical effort. Like yesterday. Even today, as I type this, about now, I’m almost rushing because I’m running out of steam. Geez, my day hasn’t even started yet. At the same time, I feel a lot better than yesterday so there IS hope. I have a couple of major tasks ahead of me to finish up the house painting thing, now that the crew is gone. I could probably delay these tasks again, but I’m going to suck it up and get them out of the way. No self-imposed deadline here. I just want them out of the way.
What about my next novel #4 in the Meleena series?
There’s still a good chance I won’t even touch it the rest of this weekend.
I have no deadline, self-imposed or otherwise.
As it turns out, the next morning, Sunday, I managed to squeeze out a page and a half before I got interrupted again. Maybe tonight, Tuesday, after I post this article, I can finish that chapter. Who knows?
IF YOU DON’T FEEL LIKE WRITING…DON’T
It’s simple as that. If you don’t feel like writing, don’t.
If it’s a true passion, you’re going to find yourself sneaking in a sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter or two when you get to it.
You may be doing a blog article, just communicating with friends on Facebook, writing letters to friends, or nothing at all for a while during a rather harsh spell or treatment.
Don’t fret the little stuff. Don’t stress not writing.
Get yourself well then return to writing with gusto. It may even be therapy when you get right down to it.
Your stories aren’t going anywhere. Nobody’s going to steal your ideas. Remember, your ideas have already been done by someone else a hundred times, just not with your unique vision and voice!
Relax and get better.
YOUR WRITING IDOLS
Every writer has other writers they tend to idolize, emulate, admire, copy, give a nod to, or at least are somehow influenced by. For many, it’s a host of authors.
My list is long. I’ve mentioned them numerous times here at Fred Central.
If you go to the thank you and dedication pages of many a book, you’ll often find mentions of these authors. Some authors don’t, while some writers, who are not published yet, may or may not tout their favorites.
Nobody starts writing from a vacuum.
Many writers develop styles that emulate their favorite writers. It comes naturally. After reading obsessively and enjoying the writing of someone for years, maybe decades, when one takes up the passion (or hobby) of writing, it’s a natural progression to be influenced by those you admire. It could be one writer or a blend of many.
I’ve seen a lot of blends, such as myself, which, depending on which genre I’m writing, can emulate, to a degree, everyone from Clive Cussler to Carol Davis Luce to Lester Dent, to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Franklin W. Dixon, to R. Karl Largent, to well…the list goes on.
I just read a book not long ago that emulated the style of Cormak McCarthy and I almost stopped reading. I ended up finishing it, but the lack of punctuation was so off-putting, I struggled to get through it. It was a horrible experience.
On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of novels influenced by my favorites, such as Clive Cussler or Lee Child, or Preston & Child, or James Rollins that were outstanding. These novels kept me glued to my seat.
I’m sure the same could be said for genres I don’t read.
EMULATE VERSUS COPY
This gets into the realm of being a clone, something writers worry about all the time.
The thing about copying or emulating some other author is that unless you use the exact same names and exact same plots, or exact same devices, even though you may be emulating a favorite author, you’re still telling a story in your own voice.
If you recall from past articles here, I’ve said repeatedly that every plot and every possible story twist has been done before. What makes them unique is that no matter what way you tell it, it’s in your voice and your voice is unique. THAT’s what makes your story yours. Not the plot, or the trope or the cliché, but the VOICE.
You can emulate a favorite author all you want, but as long as you choose your own path and don’t try to copy their book exactly, you can own your own story.
That, my friends, has been going on since books first existed.
Some schmuck wrote a story.
Then another schmuck wrote that same story with a twist.
Then another schmuck wrote that story again with another twist.
Mix and match, so on and so forth.
What made each one different?
It’s great to emulate your favorite writers.
It’s not great to copy your favorite writers.
Unless you rewrite their novels and add a new title, you can’t help but add your own outside influences and make them your own. That voice of yours makes them a different flavor in the mix, something unique.
When someone asks you what your book is about, you can say it’s about such and such and it’s similar to so and so. That’s it. You don’t need to add that it’s not a clone of so and so, it’s just similar, or in the same style. You shouldn’t have to make that distinction.
I write Agatha Christie type mysteries.
I write Clive Cussler type adventures.
I write Lee Child type thrillers.
I write Zane Grey type westerns.
I write Nora Roberts type romances.
You can say you’re not like anyone else, but more than likely…
ADDING THAT UNIQUE TWIST
Everybody, especially publishers, are always looking for something different.
Authors, writers, and readers get bored with, tired of, the same old same old.
Well…depends on who you ask.
This leads to a lot of experimentation. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
What it usually boils down to is that, especially publishers tend to push writers and authors to do something different, yet when they do, these same publishers resoundly reject them as too off the beaten path and “not marketable” or “too radical” or “too something.”
They want different but then they reject it right off.
In other words, they can’t be pleased.
It’s like they’ll know it when they see it, but they rarely, if ever do.
WHEN QUIRKY DOESN’T WORK
You, the writer and/or author, come up with a brilliant idea for a story. It’s either in the way you market the book, the way you write it (as in style), or something about the plot.
Since it’s more than likely fiction, you have to deliver a finished product before an agent or publisher will even talk to you. There are some instances where you can query an unusual idea and may get a yea or nay response from a “potential” agent or publisher. However, once executed, there are quite often a lot of second thoughts, plus due to the turnover rate, the person you pitched to may not even be available anymore.
How are you supposed to market something like that?
Maybe you should try a test audience.
The barriers start to evolve.
Need I say more?
WHAT IS THAT UNIQUE TWIST?
Like I alluded to at the top, it can be several things.
The book could be presented in a unique format such as a catalog, which was done successfully in one case I just read. It might be a coffee table book. It might be in a plain brown wrapper and be about sex or have a sex-related or some other sensitive plot. I covered that in a recent article.
The problem with this is shelving it and making it alluring to the reader. Having it mistaken for something else.
The plot could have any number of twists, convoluted and turned back on themselves.
The problem with this making it too weird or complicated for the average reader to either follow or enjoy. Plus, you have the issue that just about everything has been done before.
While not new, this is something that is especially tricky. Writing without punctuation. Writing with no point of view. Mixing point of view all over the place. All dialogue. No dialogue.
No paragraphs. All paragraphs.
These weird formats and styles can turn off any number of readers.
BEING DIFFERENT BECAUSE YOU’RE AN ARTISTE
Oh boy, here we go.
There is for the writer that writes purely for themselves and could care less if anyone reads their work. We all are to some extent, a little or a lot. At the same time, the majority of us would love to have others enjoy our work.
When a writer refuses to bend to any convention at all, because it’s their art, they expect other like-minded individuals to “find them.” If not, they’re okay with that. In this case, the unique twist is that they write what they write, and could care less for convention, whatever that is. Publishing and the world is wrong. Eventually, the world with discover their genius and flock to them.
Ever hear of the starving artist?
The caveat of that is my old tired but true saying, “lightning in a bottle.”
It can happen, but the odds are extremely high against you.
I’ve personally been reading for sixty plus years and have seen plenty examples of the twist. Some I’ve enjoyed. Most I have not. Some that I’ve enjoyed were not really unique at all. They were reflections on something already done before but just in a different voice.
What goes around comes around, again and again and again. When the publishers want something different, it really boils down to they want something different but not too different.
You’re next big unique twist, whether it be plot, format or style, may be the next big thing since sliced bread.
Just remember, the slicing of bread hasn’t changed all that much since it was created. Just the thickness, if that says anything.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR MUSE DISAPPEARS?
I’ve talked many times about the muse. Some of us writers have them and some don’t. Or, some only use the muse when convenient either as a temporary inspiration or an excuse when we don’t want to write or are too lazy to get around to it.
The other day, I was thinking about the re-opening of Disneyland. Not Disney World, but the original, to me, the “real one” here in nearby Calee’fornia. It’s been closed for almost a year, and given the state of affairs with the pandemic, might not reopen until later in 2021, if at all.
As I’ve said repeatedly, Disneyland is one of my favorite muses. It’s certainly not my only one, if I were to say I have any at all, but it’s certainly one of a multitude.
Then I thought, “what if a writer lost their main muse?”
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR MUSE?
This is, of course, hypothetically speaking.
As an artist, regardless of medium, many say they get inspiration from a muse. That muse is the root of all (or most) of their art.
All of a sudden, that pipeline is cut off for whatever reason.
Does the artist shut down after that?
Does all that talent and inspiration fade away?
Is that muse so key to their creativity that they lose it?
In some instances, historically speaking, that has happened. Then again, many artists have gone through many muses in their lifetimes, some more notable than others, while the general public is often never aware of it unless they’re huge fans who dig deep into the lives of these people.
I’m asking that question to you, the writer because I sincerely hope you haven’t hinged your creativity all into one single thing.
INSPIRATION SHOULD COME FROM MANY PLACES
If you think about it, most big-time artists have lost a muse or two over time. A lot of those muses were people, and of course, people change, pass away, or whatever. Therefore, an artist using someone for a muse is doomed to eventually lose that person. The same might be said for a location given development or other circumstances like weather or natural disasters.
Has this stopped most artists?
As I alluded to in the last section, in a few cases, maybe, but in most, nope.
Speaking of our medium, if you’re a good writer, you draw inspiration from many places, and no “muse” is going to get in the way.
Back to the point others had touted over and over again. A muse is just an excuse for being lazy and not getting off your duff.
Am I that hard core?
Not really, because there may be other extenuating circumstances for not wanting to write. Or, maybe writing isn’t a passion. Or, maybe you never should have started a particular story or series. Or…maybe you have physical or mental ailments keeping you from continuing.
A host of reasons may be your issue, that have nothing to do with a muse.
The best way I can illustrate is repeating my example.
While Disneyland has always been a huge source if indirect inspiration, and I mean, really indirect, it is by no means the only one. I don’t have a single muse and never have had only one. When I go there, do you have any idea where I get the most inspiration from?
There are four places that give me that shot of adrenaline that has nothing to do with physical thrills. They are: Mr. Toads Wild Ride. My earliest memories of Disney are when my dad took me on that ancient ride in 1957, just after the park opened. I still appreciate it as much today as I did as a young whippersnapper.
The Haunted Mansion. The ride is way corny and not the least bit scary, even if you consider the park still kicks plenty of guests out for scattering loved one’s ashes along the tracks. I love the pseudo-creepy atmosphere. I still get a kick out of that old pipe organ used in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the dancing holograms.
Pirates Of The Caribbean. Even after politically correcting it, that river ride still rocks. Nothing more to say about that one.
Finally, the exit to the Winnie The Pooh ride has some benches. I like to sit there while the rest of the family goes into the candy store next to them. Behind me, some schmuck in a costume dressed as Tigger does autographs and photos with the kids. I sit there and take in the gorgeous trees surrounding me and listen to Splashwater Mountain across the way. That little spot, buried in the midst of the park, is pure paradise.
On the other hand, maybe I should say that the world is my muse and leave it at that because not only is it, but I can’t leave out Spain and Turkey or many other places I’ve visited.
Now, all I have to do is sit here at the keyboard and start typing.
That’s good enough for me.
THE EASY READ
In a way, this is a summary of what I’ve been preaching for years here at Fred Central.
The easy read is all about making your book the best product imaginable, producing the best format for your readers, creating the easiest way to get your story out to the public. In other words, creating the easiest read for your readers.
That brings up the question as to how? Or, more importantly why?
Do you care?
WHY DO IT?
As I’ve pointed out before, some authors don’t care to make things easy. They want you, the reader, to come up to their level, not the other way around. They want to “edumacate” you, teach you something, bring you up to a higher level with their prose, style, and format.
They want to break the mold.
Nothing wrong with that if they can find an audience, which many do.
On the other hand, there are those authors who just want to get their message across, whatever that might be. They aren’t out to force their readers to bend to their will. They aren’t out to try and mold readers into their image of a particular kind of reader.
They want to communicate with as many people as possible, plain and simple.
Nothing wrong with that either.
There are those authors that like to throw a little of the mix in there, by keeping it simple, yet throwing in a little more complexity without going overboard in either grammar, style, or format.
Nothing wrong with that either. There will always be an audience for that as well.
WHICH APPROACH ARE YOU?
Since most of you reading this are not likely best-selling authors yet…I have to be realistic here…you’re struggling to make your mark in a huge market filled with countless writers and authors. You want to reach as many readers as possible. Therefore, I personally recommend the “simpler is better” approach.
There’s the philosophy that since you’re not exactly setting the world on fire yet, why not go for broke and take the highbrow route right off? It wouldn’t matter if you alienate most of your readers with complex prose in some off-the-wall format because you’re not selling many books anyway, right? Maybe, someday, your style will catch on. I say, if that’s what you want to do, go for it.
On the other hand, if you’re in that same boat, but want to sell more books, and are willing to make a more readable story, try the easier-to-read approach and see where you go.
HOW I APPROACH IT
This is mainly for new readers here at Fred Central, but it can apply to you that have been visiting a while.
My philosophy, from day one, has been the same.
Long before I was ever a writer, I was a reader. Sixty plus years now, not to age myself!
In all that time, I’ve read a LOT of books…thousands. I’ve suffered through every style and format imaginable. I must also say that I’m not just the average schmuck with a high school degree and only technical training for a background. I have several graduate degrees behind me, so I’m above average “edumukated.” In other words, I’ve been around the block. I’ve also had twenty-six years plus as a writer to add to that. Since the late nineties, I began reviewing them on Amazon, though a lot of them have since disappeared due to age or obsolescence.
This resume is not meant to brag or tout anything special about me except to state that I’ve been exposed to a lot of writing and reading, including plenty of college textbooks and intellectual tomes.
My reading interest, despite all that college, still remains with fiction, which many consider “lowbrow.” It will be for the foreseeable future.
Since I’ve been exposed to so many different writing styles, I know what works for me and what doesn’t. Of course, I’m not everyone, but at the same time, I’ve been around long enough to have punished myself with stuff I haven’t really been comfortable with until I finally realized why I wasn’t comfortable with it. That revelation came about when I started writing in the mid-nineties. It became even more pronounced as I became a better and more proficient writer.
Despite that rather lengthy resume, I still must say that I’m not everyone. What I have at least proven to myself is that despite anomalies, a lot of the stuff I like best ends up being on the best seller lists. Sure, many of what I call anomalies end up as best sellers as well, but many of them are not as enduring and tend to polarize a lot more readers than the easer-to-read styles.
THE WAY I SEE IT
It boils down to the easy read.
Some authors get slammed for boiling their work down to the “base level” and pandering to the lowest common denominator.
So, that means that when an author writes something so that it’s an easy read that everyone can enjoy, it’s supposed to suck? It sucks because it’s not “challenging” or “intellectually stimulating” enough to satisfy the highbrows?
Without naming names, I’ll give you examples of what I’m talking about.
The books don’t throw the dictionary at the reader.
The books aren’t filled with endless characterization.
The books don’t jerk at the heartstrings with some complex deep meanings or political or philosophical candyrock psychedelic profundities.
The books aren’t written in some odd format like no punctuation or 150K words with only three chapters.
The books aren’t written in multiple tenses or point of view switching from first to third to first every chapter.
The books don’t have taboo subject matter for shock value.
The shame of it all is that there are thousands upon thousands of great stories out there. It’s all in the manner of telling (or showing) them that’s the issue.
Then there are plenty of lousy stories as well. Many of them, unfortunately, get published. I’ve read a few. My reviews reflect the good and the bad.
Do you prefer to tell your great story in a way that is accessible to everyone, or to few?
That’s the choice you have to make.
WHAT’S A CASTLE REALLY LIKE?
For writers, regardless of genre, there’s nothing like a good castle to add to the atmosphere. I got the inspiration for this article partially from my bud, Richie Billing, who just did an outstanding article on fantasy castles. The problem is that many of you never have and never may have the opportunity to visit a real castle in your lifetime, especially if you live in the good old You Ess And A.
You can go with thousands upon thousands of photos, endless descriptions from others, but there’s nothing like visiting one yourself. When you describe one in your story, since you’ve never actually been in one, you can just make it up on the fly, depend on the descriptions of others, or do what James Rollins once told me, be vague if you can’t find out (or in this case, see for yourself).
Then there’s the point of gaining inspiration when all you have is print, or maybe video.
How can you possibly do something with that?
I’m going to try an experiment and make an attempt to find ways for you to gain a bit of inspiration without having to book a trip to (mainly) Europe.
I lived in Spain and Turkey for a total of fifteen years. I lived and breathed castles, every chance I could get, so I chalked up a bunch of castles over those years, including a few in Jolly Olde’ Englande’. In both Spain and Turkey, we (I was not a lone adventurer) often made it a habit to take a weekend drive. In Turkey, it was a bit more planned for safety reasons. In Spain, it was a case of just picking a random road, then driving. More often than not, we’d run into some kind of castle, whether it be a ruin or one fully functional. In other words, I’ve actually been there, done that. While most of them were ruins, living and intact edifices were an occasional prize. In your story, who am I to say that your castle is intact or not?
Below, I’ve compiled what I hope are a few ways to gain some insight into what a castle is like from everyday places here in the You Ess And A. These examples are a far cry from the real thing, but they’re not all that dissimilar, when you boil it down and use a little to a lot of imagination.
The thing is to be smart about it and be safe. Some of the better examples I had to omit because the last thing I want to do is encourage risky behavior. These examples may give you your own ideas, but please, don’t go overboard and at the same time, maybe you’ll find even better and still safe examples than what I suggest.
This is by far, the safest example, whether you’re religious or not.
I’m talking about a Catholic church. However, I’m not talking about just any old church. I’m talking about the biggest, and most elaborate Cathedral, with a capital C. You need to find one with the fanciest filigrees and maybe some gold leaf and fancy woodwork.
Now, just ignore the pews, substitute the pulpit for a pair of thrones, and there you have it. Instant throne room. Keep in mind that in real life, the thrones were not all that big, at least the ones I’ve seen. It may be shocking to learn that many of them were rather small, given the stature of the populace at the time.
If the priest allows it, sit there in different places and start substituting in your mind a bit. Add in details like tapestries and filigrees and whatever else you can think of and you have an instant throne room.
Imagine in place of the pews, obedient subjects kneeling before the throne, a bard or two off to the side where the band sits, maybe a jester on the other side.
Oh, and any residual incense smell in the air is fine. In the old days, it would probably have covered the body odor and damp, moldy smell in the air.
I can’t vouch for other churches, synagogues, or mosques. I’ve been in some, but the examples I’ve seen didn’t have the right structure for what I’m talking about.
DUNGEONS AND PASSAGEWAYS
I had another possibility in mind originally, but the negative possibilities that came up as I wrote it made me erase it all. Instead, I came up with a much safer alternative.
This all, of course, depends on where you live. If you’re in a rural community, you may have to travel to a larger town or city.
You need to find a parking garage.
The more elaborate the better.
Now go for the stairwells.
If there are any tunnels leading under the street, even better. The plainer the better.
While this example isn’t the first thing that popped to mind, it’s far safer than what I originally thought of.
In the stairwells or tunnels, you, of course, have to stretch your imagination, but these places aren’t too different from a castle.
The sounds and smells would be different, and you’d have to blank out any posters or graffiti on the walls, but just think plenty of silence, mold, dampness and unpleasant malodorous things lingering in the drafty air. Change the concrete to large or even small stones. Narrow the passageways down so that you can stretch your arms across and touch the walls. Lower the ceiling to just above your head. Add in some mold growing from the cracks and maybe a bit of water trickling along the floor. In the stairwells, remove the guardrails and any metal change to stone. Once again, narrow the steps to just wide enough to pass through.
In the parking garage itself, blank out the cars, substitute the car exhaust for a dank sewer-like smell and you’re close. Where the cars sit, or the parking spaces are lined up, substitute walls and jail cells. Make sure some of them are broken down and the doors missing.
This example is more of a stretch, but it can still work.
What you need to do is go to a furniture warehouse. Not just a regular furniture store, but a warehouse with a high ceiling.
Now, find the beds.
Pick a child or teens bed and lay on it. I say this because a lot of the people back then were a lot smaller than we are today. From my experience, every single bed I saw was on the small side.
Pretend it’s surrounded by a canopy with all the trimmings. Think of the high ceiling of the warehouse and imagine it covered with filigree and tapestries. Imagine instead of the new furniture smell, the smell of damp mold, old wood and the faint odor of sewage from a nearby chamber pot.
If you can find an actual canopy bed, great. Try that one too.
That, my friends, is…oh, and don’t forget the drafts wafting by.
Now, try to ignore the salesman.
Like I said before, most of the castles I saw were ruins. What this means is that they were shells.
That’s right. Instead of stone all the way through, they were outer walls with hollow insides. That means that the thick outer walls were the framework for wooden insides. The insides rotted out. When the castles were either conquered, caught fire, or abandoned, the wood structures inside either burned out, rotted out, or were salvaged.
So, when you see the inside of a castle on TV or in the movies, you see a lot of stone, but what you’re actually seeing are outer walls. The insides were quite often a lot of wood with stone bracing. That, of course, did not help with the dampness. The wood beams were little more than squared tree trunks with brick or stone buttresses. There was no such thing as insulation or ventilation or a sewer system.
Being Europe or even the Middle East, dampness and humidity prevailed, and your local A/C and heating companies were not exactly around to help bring things into the comfort zone.
Me thinks a lot of the peasants, while living in hovels, actually may have sometimes lived in more comfort, if not less protected from invaders than the above ground caves the royals lived in. That’s not saying much, but those were pretty awful times no matter who you were.
Secret passages are great for stories and fiction. However, in real life, they were a lot harder to pull off. First off, secret passages significantly weakened those thick walls, which were meant for protection. Second, when examining castle ruins, if secret passages existed, most if not all had to be incorporated into the inner workings which burned like everything else or were salvaged or whatever. In all my time exploring castles, I never saw a hint of secret passages. One reason may be because they were no longer secret. Maybe back in the day they might have been, but in modern times, they became incorporated into the regular structures of the still functional castles. In the ruined ones, not once did I see any indication of one in the outer shell. If there had been one, it would have been fully exposed after four-five hundred to a thousand or more years of plunder, I can imagine.
So, I cannot give a real-world example of a secret passage except if you have a crawl space under your house and aren’t afraid of spiders, or an attic, use a bit of imagination and go for it!
Moats were common around castles except as barriers, they weren’t as glamorous as you might think. They were actually used as the sewer. Yup. All that drainage had to go somewhere.
The moat wasn’t as deep as it appeared to be, but deep enough to take all the wastewater and wide enough to discourage those attempting to try and sneak in. Besides, dredging through sewage just to come up against a sheer rock wall doesn’t encourage invaders.
To get a sense of a moat, find a storm creek, particularly one that’s polluted or stagnant. It’s much better if it’s fenced. Just stand there on the safe side of the fence and imagine wading through that nasty water, up to your chest, and imagine that chain link fence being fifty feet high without a break. There you go.
I hope this helps spur your imagination, especially if you will never be able to get to a place with castles. I know I didn’t cover every aspect of a castle, but this is a good gist of the main points.
One place I forgot to mention for inspiration was of course, Disney. While those castles are ridiculously far from reality, they can still be an inspiration, for looks alone.
HOW TO START A STORY
You might be surprised how much this question comes up on the writing forums.
“I’ve always wanted to write but I don’t know how to start the story.”
Some people have a great idea for a story, but don’t have any idea how to start.
Uh…okay. Let’s take it from the ground up.
BACK IN THE DAY
Long ago, in a galaxy far far away…
Well, not quite, but back in the day, when I was just an avid reader, around the time I made my first attempt with that disastrous Star Trek satire, written on a Royal typewriter, I think back on browsing the books at the Stars And Stripes bookstore at Torrejon Air Base in Spain. Even then, my creative mind was itching to take a try at writing something. Like so many others, I had no idea where to start, and that Star Trek attempt proved it.
A big issue was that at the time, I may have had a mild urge to create my own stories, but not only did I not know where to start, I had no idea where I wanted to end either! I had no plan. No A and no B, no title, no plan at all. I just had an urge to write.
Not much of a plan, and with almost zero skills, or idea what to do, I stuck with music, with which I was actually making money at the time. It was a lucrative side job.
When I think back on those times, I can relate to the modern writers, starting out, full of ideas or “idea,” but not fully formed.
THE IDEA OF A AND B
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, it’s critical that you have a plan before you ever start writing. To do otherwise is inviting disaster.
That’s the basic idea of A and B.
A is the beginning.
B is the ending.
Plus, if it were me, I’d have the title as well.
When a writer asks the question, where do I start, I have to ask, why are you even asking that if you haven’t even thought this whole thing out yet?
The young grasshopper hasn’t figured out their master plan. For instance, whether they’re going to start from A and write to B, or if they’re going to start from A and plot out every detail to B or some variation thereof. None of that matters if they don’t have an A and a B in the first place! If there’s no master plan, there’s no start.
So, to give an example, you have the great idea. Of that I’m making a big assumption. This great idea includes a killer of an ending and premise, but you don’t know how to start.
Let me say right off before we go any further, if you just have a vague idea of something in mind, STOP! DO NOT CROSS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200. You should NEVER start a story with only a vague idea of what you want to write about.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, you need to have the big idea and the plot laid out before you start. It’s not going to write itself for you and surprise you. It’s not going to magically evolve from nothing. You have to know where you’re heading before you start. You have to know what B is or you’re going to have a directionless mess. The purpose of this is to help you start, so you can get to B, WHICH YOU SHOULD ALREADY KNOW.
HOW TO START THE STORY
The plot of your story is the butler did it.
This example is a detective story. It could be anything, but I decided on the good old butler for simplicity.
There are several ways to start.
Right off, it’s always best to start with an action scene, so every example is going to be with some form of action. NOT BACKSTORY.
#1 The murder. The heiress walks into the room and someone sneaks up behind her and clubs her over the head with a candlestick. She slumps to the floor. A few minutes later, someone finds her, the police are called.
#2 A few days before the murder. The heiress is having tea with friends and the butler serves everyone. She’s a bit snippy with him, but he’s polite and lets it roll of his shoulders. The exchange is noticed by the guests in the room, especially the niece.
#3 After the murder. The story starts with the detective examining the murder scene. She looks for clues and from then on, learns facts and any backstory comes out through interviews with the suspects.
#4 Maid discovers the body. A maid walks into the room and discovers the body. She has a fit, calls in the butler, and in all the hoopla, ends up being the one that calls the police. During all this, you drop in a few things that will later make it look like either one of them could be the suspect.
#5 The day of the murder. There’s a party at the house. Everything seems hunky dory, except there’s an argument between the victim and several guests, NOT involving the butler. However, one of those guests turns out to be the butler’s lover, thus the reason for the murder.
#6 The funeral. The detective attends the funeral and starts observing all the staff and how they react. As they all leave, the detective watches where they go, then his or her gut determines who to follow. It’s the wrong person, of course, the first of many false leads, which eventually lead to the butler.
These examples can be adapted to any genre of story. All it takes is a little imagination.
B and the title should already have been set before you ever thought of A. Now where to start? There are many ways, as I just outlined.
No matter what your story might be, getting started is just a matter of choosing something to HAPPEN. DO NOT START WITH BACKSTORY!
The story has to start someplace and the last thing you want to do is drag it down with backstory. That’s one reason prologues are going out of favor, though there are still plenty of them around. They’re not exactly illegal, but what I do instead is just make the prologue Chapter 1 with a date as a subtitle. Then, Chapter 2 is subtitled “present day.” That is, IF I don’t want to start the story in present day to begin with. That’s the extent of my backstory unless I want to leak in SMALL DOSES here and there so as to not bog down the action.
My fantasy stories have no prologues while my adventure/thrillers and icky bugs do, but as I said, the prologues are now modified to Chapter 1 with subtitles. They’re also action oriented so they don’t feel like a narrative drag.
So, there you have it. There are a multitude of ways to start a story.
HOW TO END A STORY
Far less common, but not rare is the question, “How do I end my story?”
Whenever I see this question, I want to go, “Huh?”
It’s like why in the world would you even start writing when you don’t have a goal?
Then I think back to my first Star Trek satire and think how I just wanted to write, but thank my lucky stars (there’s an old cliché for you), that I tried it on an old manual Royal typewriter and it was too much effort to get anywhere. Add to that a total lack of skill, and I saved myself a lot of trouble and never got past three quarters of a page.
Today, one can take a directionless mess several hundred pages with a computer keyboard and end up with no idea how to put it all together in a neat package with a proper ending.
This is why I consistently emphasize that no matter whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, ALWAYS figure out A and B, and more likely the title, before you ever write a single sentence of the story.
Without a goal, you’re going to end up with a mess.
Speaking of goals…
THE GOAL IS THE PLOT
Someone with a more smartass approach might say, “Uh, duh…”
However, that’s not the right way to look at it.
When one wants to write a great story and they have a great idea, execution doesn’t always wash when one doesn’t have the idea fully hashed out.
The idea that the goal is the plot should be obvious but not always.
Setting aside any twists and turns, the goal IS in fact the plot, the whole point of the story.
Back to the butler did it from my last article.
The butler did it is the plot of your mystery story. It’s a murder mystery. A detective story. The goal is to solve the mystery, therefore that’s the plot. Solve the mystery. What twists and turns you put in it along the way are the plot twists.
Now, you might think that the ending would write itself. In the end, the butler is caught. That’s the ending. The plot is solved. However, resolving the plot is not the ending in of itself. While you may catch the killer, so to speak, that may not be the actual ending.
This is where some writers get hung up. While they may have written out their story and have come to the resolution of their plot, they cannot figure out how to end the story.
They’re not the same thing.
HOW TO END A STORY
I’m once again using the very simplistic example of the butler did it. It’s a murder mystery but it could apply to any story, any genre.
In the end, the detective or protagonist (doesn’t have to be a detective) discovers the identity of the murderer.
Murder mystery = discovery of the killer = plot resolved.
How do you end it?
There are many ways to end this thing depending on what you want to do.
#1 Abrupt ending.
The story ends with the protagonist discovering the identity of the killer in a big aha moment.
#2 Elaborate ending.
The story ends with an elaborate discovery of the killer and the protagonist calls the police who arrest the butler. The hero then gets the girl/or guy (which is a romantic subplot).
#3 The killer wins.
The killer is discovered and kills the protagonist. As much as I hate bummer endings, this surprise twist ending has the butler find out he’s been discovered then kills the protagonist before the good guy or girl can inform the authorities. Then the bad guy or girl carries on with a big smile.
#4 The killer gets away with it.
The protagonist discovers the butler did it but can’t prove it, and has to let the bad guy get away with it.
#5 The killer dies doing something redeemable.
In the process of chasing the butler, he or she saves someone while confessing to the killing. The protagonist decides to keep silent and let the killer keep his or her reputation.
FACING YOUR OWN ENDING
It’s a huge given that you have a point to your story. In other words, you have a plot after writing thousands of words of a story that meanders toward some sort of conclusion.
Somehow, you have to end it eventually. All it takes is a bit of imagination and looking at possibilities. You can use any number of twists. Asking a forum to write it for you is not the way to do it because then it’s not your own. However, I can understand letting them throw ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. Then twist that around to make something your own. I personally would never do that because I want my stuff to be my own.
The examples I’ve shown are super generic and meant to apply to anything. They’re meant to spur your imagination in ways I can’t possibly predict, and that’s exactly what I want. I don’t want to write your ending for you. I want you to do that on your own.
I cannot emphasize how important it is to at least plan out A and B before you start. For me, that doesn’t mean I write the exact details. Not at all. For instance, the current book four of Meleena’s Adventures is in the works. I have A and B down and the title. I’ve already written A because I’m currently on Chapter 4. However, I have NOT written B yet. I have it in my head, but won’t specifically write it until I get there. I DO know what it’s going to be, or generally so in my head. It may change a bit by the time I get there, but not significantly. I know my goal, my plot and how it’s generally going to end. I don’t have to scramble and freak out when I get to B to figure out what to do. You shouldn’t either!
I can’t say it comes up all the time…yeah, actually, it does. On the writing forums, disdain for writing rules comes up a lot. People just don’t want to follow them. They hate, abhor, despise, them (fill in your word for hate). Oh, and I mustn’t forget resent.
Why is this?
Some of them are easy to comprehend, while others are a bit more difficult to grasp, like show versus tell (anyone?).
The thing is that people, especially in the heat of writing, break these rules all the time when they spew out their mental diarrhea. That’s all good and fine. However, when it either comes to editing, or being hung up on the “rules,” some authors come to a dead stop. They feel creatively stifled because they either don’t understand these rules, can’t figure a way to make their story work using them, or just want to rebel and don’t want to use them. There are more reasons as well, but one of the “rules of writing” is not to use lists, ha ha.
THE DIFFICULTY FACTOR
Following all the rules can be tricky because there can be a lot of them. Some may seem obscure from the outset and take a bit of effort to grasp. Some need to be doled out in doses and not taken to the extreme. More on that in a moment.
Probably the most difficult one to grasp is show not tell.
This “rule” is one that frustrates so many writers that they just want to throw out the book. Then they’ll write their story with all tell and forget about rules altogether. Understandable.
Backstory is another one. This is one of the most broken rules out there. Most authors want to tell their story out of whack. They want to screw with their timeline to justify why this and that happens. It’s only natural. It should be done with a feather instead of a sledgehammer. When an author lays down their “masterpiece” and the first half of the book is backstory, no wonder they can’t find a publisher…or readers!
So, it can be difficult to not only grasp the rules, but to follow them even when you know them.
BAD EXAMPLES ON DISPLAY
There are plenty of outstanding examples of authors (you notice I didn’t say writers) who use the rules effectively. Sure, they may break one here and there, but for the most part, they use the rules, and it shows with an outstanding and easy read.
Unfortunately, there are a wealth of bad examples, which as reviews will show, polarize readers. Those that tout the rules love it because while many of these rule breakers are still best sellers, these bad examples are automatically building in a polarized audience.
THE RUMBLINGS ON LINE
The rumblings go from “rules suck” to “there should be no rules.”
I sigh when I hear this and it usually makes for a substantial boost in the self-publishing world.
Unfortunately, not always. Plus, it gives negative encouragement to up-and-coming writers, who need to at least learn to do it right before they try breaking rules they don’t even understand yet.
THE CRAP OUT THERE
As I constantly remind forum readers, I was a book reader long before I was ever a writer. I’ve read thousands of books. It has, more than once, made me wonder why some books turned me off and some I drank in and couldn’t put down.
Was it the subject matter? Sometimes.
Was it the writing style? More often than just the subject matter.
When I started writing, I learned the mechanics and the rules of writing, some of which have adapted and changed over the decades since I first started. Some of these rules have changed a bit, but not by much. Most of those well-established rules still apply today.
Through writing, I discovered WHY I didn’t like certain books, even though the subject matter was interesting, and the stories were great.
Through writing, I also discovered why some books were great to read but the stories sucked.
It was all about the rules.
I discovered that the rules were there for a reason. When I was a young writer (young not being age!), I was not all that happy with some of the rules either. However, I knew that if I ever wanted to make my stories easier to read and up to the level that I would want to read, I’d better learn those rules myself!
Comparing my first manuscript, which I’m editing now, to my later work has reminded me of how far I’ve come in 26 years!
While I feel their pain, it still pisses me off to see writers touting throwing out the rules or saying there are none. It still pisses me off to go into the bookstore (or use the “peek inside” function on Amazon) and see what looks like a great story ruined when the author can’t even follow a few simple rules of writing.
Folks, there’s a lot of crap out there that doesn’t need to be. Sure, some of it sells, unfortunately, which clouds the issue.
I hope I can steer some if not all of you to at least learn and get good at the rules, so you’ll know when to break them. Learn to break them in small ways, not enough to take away from that “easy read.”