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!