Sporadic thoughts about writing and the business of writing
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I love, Love, LOVE talking about my writing. After all, how many topics are there in which you are an unquestioned expert? Engaging in a long dialogue about past short stories or the current novel is a real pleasure, and I have yet to experience an occasion where I’ve grown tired of the exercise.
But, I never start that conversation. Never.
Maybe I’m too polite. Maybe I won’t get to the next stage because I’m not pushy. But I’ve taken the vow to not be that guy. Call it imposter’s syndrome or a lack of confidence, but I think of it more as a way of maintaining relationships and retaining privileges for an invite to the next birthday party or wedding.
Here are my rules to avoid being the writer friends and family avoid:
1 The polite writer must not be the first to mention writing. This rule is made easier by never asking about other people’s jobs. Most people’s work is boring. Travel, hobbies, dogs, baseball, rum, etc. are way more fun to discuss anyway.
2 Even if we’ve talked writing before, the polite writer cannot assume friends and family will want a repeat performance. If you’re kind enough to ask how the writing is going, I’ll give an update, “about half way through the sci-fi novel I’ve been working on” or “about to kill off a troupe of performers for singing the wrong song.” The end.
3 The most important rule of the polite writer, do NOT put friends or family on the spot by asking for any kind of feedback. It’s enough that someone was kind enough to purchase the book, or kind enough to tell you they were going to purchase the book. (Yes, even a small encouraging fib is a kindness.) Don’t get me wrong, I can take feedback. I actually enjoy it as long as it’s thoughtful and not heart-stompingly cruel.
Bottom line, cornering a loved one (who may not be a fiction or novel reader or experienced in the writer’s genre) into a snap appraisal of something you spent years working on isn’t fair to them or the writer.
3a Asking face-to-face about what someone thought is not the same as asking them to leave a review on a website. I always ask anyone who has purchased or read the book to leave a review. “Two words and some stars is all you have to do. It makes a huge difference.”
There you have it. If you’ve been avoiding me out of fear of talking about my writing, I hope you are relieved. If you’ve been avoiding me for other reasons, I hope you’ll give me a chance to explain myself. I’m probably sorry for whatever I did. Probably.
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After holding on to “Above the Storms” for over a year while trying to go the traditional publishing route, I decided facing my fears and apathy for the business side of writing was the right thing to do. I was proud of my handful of published short stories, but novels were always going to be my preferred form. That being the case, I needed to get off my posterior and do something with the completed product. I was proud of the finished work, and wanted to have it out there, even if it wasn’t what I had envisioned for my first publishing experience.
With that in mind, I present to you five of the many lessons learned:
THE BEAUTY OF COVER ART – I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach this prior to my first few web searches. I have artist friends and family but cover art isn’t their thing. What a fantastic surprise that there are sites dedicated to art (I’m assuming) created and rejected for other projects. A few keywords later and you have hundreds of options. I spent a couple days going down the rabbit hole, and could have spent many more. Many thanks to John Lutheran and www.thebookcoverdesigner.com.
FORMATTING or fÓrMätT1nG – Another shocker was how easy it was to format the both the ebook and the printed copy. Granted, my needs were minimal. But considering how much time I had spent worrying about fonts, gutters, and pagination prior to investigating the available tools, the actual process (at least with Amazon) was a breeze.
READ A BOOK – OK, I didn’t believe it. I’d read the completed manuscript a dozen times, and didn’t believe there was another obvious edit to make. I was so confident I didn’t wait for the proof copy. Wrong Decision! Something about the printed page makes for a different read. Not only for the few errors I made in formatting (see above), but obvious typos jumped out at me. My first read through, I found eleven blunders, and felt like I owed every one of my beta readers and editors a huge apology. <Everyone, again, I’m so sorry.>
EXASPERATING RATINGS - Confusing, Inscrutable, Veiled, and a dozen others are the words I would select for the Amazon customer review process. Admittedly, I made a huge mistake, given my past career. I should have seen it coming. I posted a link on this site, FB, and elsewhere with my URL identifiers in place (i.e., the link I got after signing into my Amazon account.) Boom! All those people were instantly identified as being too close to me to leave a review. But it gets stickier, accepted reviews come and go without warning, some get initially accepted only to disappear two days or a week later, and many (at least two out of every three from my experience) are rejected without cause.
So the independent author is left in a catch-22. You need 50 reviews to get included in their promotions and lists, but none of those reviews can come from people you know.
KINDNESS OF READERS – Letters of appreciation. Requests to sign a copy. Deep questions about the characters, world, and plot. Gentle corrections. What I take away as an author (I can say that now) is that someone read one of my books and it stayed with them long enough to take another action. Brilliant!
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As the current fantasy novel progressed, the original planned ending was experiencing a kind of natural drift. Characters often do the unexpected. The halfway mark of the manuscript was weeks in the past, and the trajectory of the narrative kept moving in the new direction. I discovered after one particularly character-evolving chapter that not only was the original ending no longer possible without serious changes, but a different potential ending was emerging as a hard-to-ignore option.
In stubborn fashion, I put off the decision for another ten thousand words. By the time I called a temporary halt, each new action felt like I was stretching the future of the narrative to the breaking point. Three things got the story back on track:
1 - I read (without editing) the manuscript. It’s harder than I care to admit, but experiencing the story in the same way and at the same speed as a reader gives a perspective hard to get in any other way. Following hard on the heels of the readthrough, I put together a synopsis for my own reference including a list of questions about how each ending would impact the current story and any potential future stories if this were to grow into a series.
2 - With my favorite editor, I did a multi-hour story review. Having to explain your novel in some detail is beneficial all by itself, but another writer asking questions helps break out of self-limiting patterns. Not to mention, the challenges another writer will throw down. It’s amazing how any question starting with “why don’t you just…” can both thrill and deflate.
3 - The creation of a “potentials” post-it wall took an entire day. It started as notes on character development, open questions requiring resolution, and the components of both the new and original endings. Three columns emerged; yes, no, and maybe. The notes tripled before discarding one. In the end, dozens wound up in the yes column, and only handful were exiled.
The columns of notes are the result I needed to push on toward the end. My words per day more than doubled for the weeks following. But, it would not have been any near as effective (or possible?) without having done all three.
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Worse Than None at All
The anniversary of transition fulltime to writing is almost upon me. It’s been a great year. I’ve found out a lot about my work habits. I’ve learned how many hours a day I can reliably devote to creating new material, what I need to produce to feel good about myself, and the absolute minimum effort required for the business side. (The three-sentence, query-letter summary of a novel which took five years to write felt more difficult than writing the novel itself.)
In the last ten months, I’ve completed the aforementioned science fiction novel which I’m currently shopping to agents and publishers. I’ve also started a fantasy novel I’d been thinking about for years. As of this writing, I’ve passed fifty thousand words, and have about two thirds of the plot yet to come. The other thing I’ve been doing is writing and submitting short stories to themed collections, genre web sites, and the occasional contest.
The best thing about these short story forums (other than the satisfaction of getting published) is the feedback from passionate and experienced professionals. The first of the fantasy stories published (even though it was the second accepted – publishing isn’t exactly a fast-moving business) in 2019 was rejected by another contest but included feedback from several editors. The direction I received was a primary contributor to accetance on the next submission.
I’m surprised to find feedback from editors and beta readers (LOVE EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU) on writing easier to accept than it ever was while I was in tech. Maybe I won’t feel that way in twenty years. I hope there’s enough success ahead for me to find out.
The downside to the process is a small but significant portion of the feedback is awful. Not awful in the work gets torn apart for being bad, awful in that the feedback is wrong – as in incorrect. The first time this happened I was embarrased and found myself pouring over a short to try and find where I’d made the grave error of “problems with verb tense changes”. Hours later, I un-hunched myself from the obsessive editing posture with plenty of improvements to the story but not one problem with verb tense.
I’ve since encountered this type of feedback, where it is clear the editor never read the story, more often than I would have guessed. I’ve concluded (or chosen to believe) it has more to do with overworked and overexposed editors. It’s easier to read the first sentence or two, and copy and paste comment block number seven rather than invest time in something they already believe they’ve seen a hundred times.
I can sympathize with an editor feeling like their time is being wasted, but sending copy-and-paste feedback causing authors to look for problems which don’t exist is worse than no feedback at all.
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A question I get more often than I could have ever expected is, “Do you outline?” The interested party is almost always someone who has tried writing themselves or at least given it serious consideration. It’s not an easy question to answer, and not because each book is different, although it is. No, it’s because my first thought goes to what is really being asked. Do they want to know if I know the ending before I’ve put fingers to keyboard? Or is it more along the lines of wanting to understand how locked in to a story line I am?Before answering, I ask about their own writing and experiences of planning a storyline. I like to ground myself in their process before I try to explain my not-quite-normal process, before revealing that I don’t have any special magic.
I do outline…usually…kind of.
Although what I do more closely resembles a flow chart (see totally fake version below). By the time I’m ready to start putting words on a page, I’ve envisioned the key characters (protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, and sentient monkey-dog), several handfuls of supporting roles (rover caravan that dies off in the first act, colony of elusive elves who exclusively make belts and hats, convict in hiding not realizing he’s no longer wanted), twenty key story elements (usually complete with location), and the key themes I want to keep coming back to throughout the story (see your English 17A text book for the classic conflicts).
Each box is a scene. Each diamond a recurring theme. Questions and comments sprout up alongside each box, helping flesh out the scene and its possible repercussions. Arrows point from scene to scene creating the chronology of the story, sometimes arrows go from one to many or in a circle revealing key plot points in need a great deal more setup or conundrums needing attention. New scenes start appearing to answer questions posed on the far side of the page. Others get deleted or shelved for reconsideration. All these things help me see the breadth of the story, and the coherence or through-line of what I’ve thus far only plotted in my imagination. When it works, wonderful things happen, whole sections of the book can be told out of chronological order, flashbacks appear to explain a character’s fears and flaws, links to themes become crystal clear only because of that one last impossible diagonal, connecting arrow.