The other day I had a long discussion with an author friend, and we were bemoaning a book we’d both recently read (I couldn’t make it past the 20% mark) and discussing all the problems it had (aside from the lack of editing), and he suggested to me that it might be valuable to create a series on how to write a better book.
WOW! A humorous blog with me, about me, focused on my wants and needs, and what I think and feel, with the lovely Patricia Carrigan.
NEWS: A guest blog with the always charming Wren Doloro. The Women of Russell Blake.
INTERVIEW: A brand new interview with author Mel Comley.
MORE NEWS: Another guest blog on how to promote your ebook!
None of what I lay out is new. Nor is it controversial. But it is often ignored by writers at their peril.
What follows is part one of a series of blogs that offer tips on writing a better novel.
TIP # 1: Eliminate unnecessary words. If that seems familiar, it’s because it is the first commandment from Strunk & White. And it’s a good one. Too often we get all wrapped up in word count and novel length, and I think that creates pressure to be less critical of our word choices than we should be. Some writers tend to use a paragraph where a sentence would suffice, or a sentence where a word would be more effective. I’m not counseling that you cut your work down to the bare minimum (although that’s never a terrible idea), but rather that you eliminate any lazy words – words you insert that add nothing, or that you overuse – one good tip is if you suspect you’re overusing something, use the “Find” feature in MS Word and see how many times it appears in your doc. As to lazy words, I’m talking about words like “few” or “or so.” “A few soldiers ran…” “It was a mile or so…” Try to be specific. No sentences or thoughts are improved by the insertion of lazy words. If it was a mile away, say so. If there were three soldiers, or six, or a dozen, say so – do the work, think through how many there were, and give the reader that specific information. Sometimes it’s okay to have ambiguity in a thought (to me, especially with character descriptions, I find that less is more and that they work better with the reader filling in the blanks), but mostly it’s just the writer being lazy.
TIP #2: Don’t be lazy. If a reader is to be expected to invest hours into reading your work, you owe the reader your very best effort. A shoulder shrug and the thought, “That’s good enough,” cheats you both. If you are questioning whether it’s good enough, it probably isn’t and you know it. So stop being lazy and do it better. Only once you feel that you couldn’t have expressed an idea or thought better should you be done with it. And you should turn each sentence over with that idea in mind. “Can I do this better? How?” If you take this approach, you’ll find your writing improves considerably because you are demanding more out of yourself.
TIP #3: Write fast, then rewrite. I don’t like to edit as I go. It breaks up the flow, and I wind up mewling like a bitch kitty in a corner, trying to polish each sentence rather than getting the story out on paper (or in this case, the screen). I’ve found that it works better to write at a decent clip and then do multiple drafts, rewriting only once the story is done. Basically, in my approach, the first draft is only 1/3 of the work. The second, which is where a lot of rewrite time is invested, fixes the more awkward language and grammatical gaffes, and then third is more for pacing, polishing and looking for echoes.
TIP # 4: Watch for echoes. Surely you can think of more than one word for anything. If you can’t, get a thesaurus. Nothing bores a reader faster than repetitive use of the same word. Go for variation, but be sensitive about trying too hard. Sometimes using a word like door twice is preferable to portico, and chair works better than chaise. Sometimes not, but usually you want to steer clear of the obscure. Because job number one is to tell the story in as gripping a manner possible, and showing off your scrabble skills might wind up coming off as pretentious or labored.
TIP #5: Use description as punctuation. You should establish a pace, a cadence to your flow, and balancing dialogue and exposition is one way to create a rhythm. Description can be mesmerizing or tedious, and when it’s done well, it can establish valuable pauses in the narrative.
TIP #6: Know the rules, but be okay breaking them if it creates an effect you are after. One of my favorites is “Show, don’t tell.” That comes from the more important idea of “Keep it entertaining and moving.” But sometimes for stylistic reasons you want or need to tell. I don’t get too hung up in this, as most of these rules are well-intentioned ideas, not mandates. When writers become dogmatic about rules (no adverbs, never end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) they are defeating themselves and confusing helpful rules of the road with narrowly-interpreted absolute laws. Mostly, I find that those who care about this stuff past a certain point got themselves a degree where they’re emotionally invested and there can only be one right or wrong. Again, I’m not saying be ignorant of the rules, but rather learn them well, and then follow them to the extent that doing so makes your writing better.
TIP # 7: It’s okay to love language. You should. You’re a writer. If your goal is to merely crank out ten word paragraphs at a second grade level, you may be a candidate for the James Patterson novel factory, but you won’t be writing evocative, interesting prose. Balance your use of language with what mood you want to create. You’re defining the atmosphere, the environment your reader will be inhabiting. Choose your style carefully so it achieves what you want. My advice is to not try to create a voice that you hope will be one readers are receptive to – rather, just write in your voice, whatever that is, and make your voice an extremely interesting and compelling one – work to develop it as such. Perhaps readers would love twenty thrillers by me, each with a different voice and style, but in truth, I believe that consistency is preferable. When I buy a Ludlum or Grisham novel, I want their distinctive, unique voice, not their attempt at a new one each book. In the end, the more you write, the more settled your voice will become, and the more confident you will be with it. That assurance is essential if readers are to have confidence in you as an author – and there’s no faking it. They’ll spot it a mile away.
TIP # 8: Read as much as you can. The more you expose yourself to, the more evolved your voice will become. I read voraciously – fiction, non, thrillers, economics, politics, you name it – anything but YA, romance or erotica (and poetry). Mainly because I’m a curmudgeon and don’t like it much. I can’t see how you could wind up being a good writer if you don’t read a lot. It’s like trying to be a good cook without eating or tasting a lot of different foods. Exposure to new ideas broadens your horizons, whether it is a device another author used to create an effect you like, or a stylistic trick you want to incorporate in your work, or a tangent the author goes off on that creates an unexpected sensation you’d like to make your own. If you don’t expose yourself to a lot of different work, you will have a limited vocabulary, which will translate into a hamstrung ability to tell an interesting story.
TIP # 9: Write as though your life depends on it. This speaks to quality. Write each book as though it was the only one of yours anyone will ever read. Because if it isn’t good, it will be. More importantly, nobody is holding a gun to your head to force you to write. There are more than enough good, and bad, books out there. The world doesn’t need any more bad ones. So if you are going to foist your work off on readers, make sure that it’s as good as it can possibly be. If you find a passage or chapter your gut says shouldn’t be there, or could be better, your job is to act as the quality control department and either axe it or fix it. You should write with pride and sincerity, and strive to improve each day. Your work is your calling card, and it will build, or destroy, your reputation. If you don’t take what you are doing seriously and assign importance to it, then you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
TIP # 10: Tell the story as efficiently as possible. Another way of saying this would be don’t waste the reader’s time. Every chapter should be there for a reason, and each paragraph within it should as well. Same with each sentence. If it doesn’t move the story forward or create an effect you’re after or provide information that the reader needs, it shouldn’t be there. I’d rather read a gripping 70K words than a meandering 85K. Cut the fat. Lose the deadwood. Cut to the chase, and ask yourself with each page, “Is this interesting?” If the answer is anything but, “You bet your ass it is!” you should lose it.
TIO #11: Don’t be a douchebag with your vocabulary. You should have as large a vocabulary as possible (in order to best select how to convey your ideas, you need the largest palate of colors possible), but you don’t need to put defenestrated or axiomatic or antidisestablishmentarianism into your book just because you know what they mean. That’s kind of douchey, and it bugs me. It’s okay to use complicated language if that’s part of your style, but don’t write Nancy Drew and then drop in an antipodal or pantheistic for giggles. Keep it appropriate to your voice. Likewise, don’t write to moron level if you don’t naturally do so. Readers hate insincerity, and if you are trying to dumb your work down because you feel it is too smart for your target audience, my advice is to go after a different audience. Daniel Silva shoots for a different audience than John Locke. Neither of them would be good at writing what the other does. So keep it real and just write what you write.
TIP #12: Don’t write for an imaginary audience. Trying to second guess what some hypothetical demographic might like is silly. Write what you like, do it with sincerity, and make it as interesting as you can. In other words, write a book you would enjoy reading. If that means you take risks and push the envelope because you’d find it boring to read otherwise, then trust that instinct. If you try to make everyone happy you wind up writing a book by committee, and please nobody. Write what you would read – not what you would read if your mom was sitting reading with you, or what you’d want to tell your priest or rabbi you read, or what your critique group might be impressed with – if you would find what you are writing boring as a reader, go with that instinct and spice it up. Don’t pull punches, but don’t try to be outrageous for shock value alone, unless you enjoy books that have outrageous, shocking scenes or language for no other reason than the effect. Be true to what you like as a reader and you can’t go too wrong.
TIP # 13: Have fun. Creation can be painful, but at the end of the day, there should be an emotional payoff. There should be joy in it. Some might even say it should be fun. Given that the chances of any writer making real money from their work are miniscule, the work itself is likely to be the only reward one gets, so it should be rewarding. Love what you do, and love yourself as you do it. In the end, nobody gets out of this alive, and you will only have your experiences when you’re lying on your deathbed. So if you choose to occupy your time – the only time you have on the planet – writing, then make it count and do it for real, and enjoy it.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I will write more blogs on the topic as I feel inspired. A lot of this is good for me to state for myself – it’s easy to lose sight of some of these tips when you’re cranking out about a million words a year. So it’s a reminder to myself as well.
What do you think? Any tips you’ve found are helpful to your writing?
I was walking to my favorite restaurant, minding my own business, when suddenly I heard this ungodly squawking from the sidewalk at the base of the building across the street.
Sounded like someone was killing a little bird.
Turned out that was close to the truth – it was a baby ostrich that had somehow fallen from its nest and made its way along the sidewalk, shrieking out of fear.
I, being the sucker I am, cancelled my dinner plans (my friend thinks I’m nuts, BTW) and we rescued the little guy (or gal – I’m not so good with bird physiology – barely have the human kind nailed, truth be told), which began my stint as indentured servant to a two ounce dictator.
I had no idea that baby birds need to be fed every hour. Nor did I have any idea what they should be fed. It turns out that warm canned puppy food mixed with a little water and milk does the trick – my vet recommended that, assuming I wasn’t ready to regurgitate worms and bugs for it. Given that I try to avoid regurgitation in general, a few cans of Pedigree seem a small price to pay.
That was 8 days ago. I have since fed the little monster at least 80 times. I’m getting pretty good at it, actually. Too bad it pays about as well as writing. I have also been informed that contrary to my initial impression, it is neither an emu or an ostrich. Apparently it’s more exotic for these parts of Mexico. A sparrow.
Anyway, my hope is that the bird will be able to fly within another few days, and then it will be off into the wild blue yonder with it. Hopefully. I have no idea how to teach it to fly. I draw the line at dressing up in a bird suit and flapping my wings while shouting encouragement. I hardly ever even bother doing that for first dates. Unless there’s a lot of drinking involved. Or she’s hot. Or both.
Although I confess I’ll miss it. Or maybe I won’t. I spoke with the vet today again, and she said that most birds that are saved like that die once they’re released, because the owls and cats and whatnot get them before they can figure out what an owl or cat even is. That the ones that make it this far are the survivors that figured it out between being born and this point, so all I’m doing is postponing the inevitable.
Now, given that all I’m doing with my own mortality is postponing the inevitable, I have mixed feelings about sending the tyke out into the world to watch it get eaten by the feral felines in the neighborhood. And so, this morning I bought a cage. Not a forever cage – an “until I figure out what to do with the little rat” cage. I will say it’s endearing the way it hops onto my finger after it is done screeching as though I’m going to kill it. Seems to like going for little rides, like from the modified puppy crate I was using to its new, sumptuous digs.
Everyone knows I write action/adventure novels featuring unlikely protagonists battling impossible odds. I’m not really set up for bird daycare. It might cramp my otherwise lavish lifestyle of dream yachts, super models and globetrotting. Hard to do all that carrying the world’s ugliest budgie around in a cage.
I looked up life expectancy for sparrows, BTW, and the oldest living bird clocked in at 17 or 16 years, depending upon which website you believe (I use Wikipedia because everyone knows 100% of the info there is accurate). That’s good news and bad news – if it was an ostrich I’d be adding a bedroom to the house, whereas for a sparrow, not so much. Be that as it may, it would seem that when I scooped up the bird, I was signing up for a commitment that will last roughly the time it takes to raise a child. That wasn’t really my plan. I’m hoping I can teach it to sell Chiclets or something so it can augment the Blake family income. I already have the dogs pulling a modified sled 10 hours a day for tourist rides. That helps with the bottom line – they seem to love it until they drop from heat stroke. Lazy buggers.
So what have we learned? First, no good deed shall go unpunished. Second, small decisions can have life altering consequences. Third, birds don’t like tequila as much as some humans. And fourth, that I now have to keep breathing another 15 years at least, or my karma will suck a bag of d#cks. Hrrmph.
Here are some blurry shots of the little beast. Don’t know if you can see its bloody fangs – I think the razor sharp mandibles hide them in resting position. And yes, I know my photography skills are right up there with my editing talents. Don’t be such a hater. You’ll get brain ebola and die cold and alone in a drainage ditch mocked by your gleeful enemies.
I get a lot of e-mails from fellow indie authors, mostly cursing me or telling me I’m a dark stain on the profession, but some discussing trends in the business, such as it is.
While I try to avoid making predictions, primarily because I’m usually wrong (or the clowns use the information against me in their ongoing persecution), it’s hard to be in this business, if it can be called that, and not try to divine the future.
NEWS: I was listed as one of the top 50 indie authors by IndieReaders.com for March. I wonder if I get a ribbon or something?
UPDATE: A great new book review of The Voynich Cypher.
So here are a few random ramblings, in no particular order.
Free is the new .99 on Amazon. Last year, .99 was the attention-getting gimmick some author used to propel themselves to all-too-brief stardom. This year, if you want to get noticed, at least in the first 100 days of the year, you gotta go free. It’s a very odd formula, but one you either adapt to, or die.
The rub is that the giddy sales high from free days is getting weaker and weaker, and doesn’t last. Books that were in the top 40 following their free days are now right back where they were before the bump they experienced. So free can buy you fleeting increased sales and visibility, but it’s a false God. The downside for readers is now obvious to me – there is so much content out there I can download free it’s shameful, but at the same time, there isn’t enough time in the day to read even a third of what I’ve downloaded. I’m just now getting to things I got in DECEMBER. I suspect that 99% of all books downloaded for free go unread. Don’t quote me on that, but it’s my gut feeling, at least if I’m anyone to judge reading behavior by.
The market is getting more cluttered. Everyone, from third graders to octogenarians, are writing “books” and publishing them. That means there are now millions of books out there, with all the authors making noise to get noticed. Not surprisingly, few of them do. Why? Because your chances are better of being struck by lightning than of making a living as a writer. Really. But nobody wants to hear that. That’s a big party pooper, and doesn’t play into the whole “The Indie Road” mantra that seems more akin to a religion for some than a business decision.
The content glut doesn’t really bother me much, just as the millions of blogs out there don’t really impact my enjoyment of writing this one. I write it, whether hundreds of people read it a day, or just a couple. Just as I am writing my books, just as I was when I sold 30 in a month. Because, as I said in a blog long ago (maybe six months ago, maybe eight), I write first because of love of the craft and a compulsion to do so, as well as to tell stories, and yes, out of ego that gets stroked when I get a few miserable sentences right. But I don’t write to be a commercial success, because I have no idea what will be commercially successful. Nobody does. If they did, they’d be writing it, and we’d all be reading their books in awe and wonder, not going, “Why is this crap selling?” Likewise, if the trad pub apparatus did, companies wouldn’t do six figure deals for duds. Lots and lots of them. The truth is that even the pros have no idea what will sell, so the notion that they only sign “the best” books is flawed. Scott Nicholson, a great writer, says something to the effect that “if the 100 best books of all time hit NY today, only 10 would get signed, and the other 90 would get rejected, because the industry didn’t have a slot for them that day.”
Having said all this, I had an idea that seemed like a good one. Of course, I can’t do it, because I’m busy writing. But check out the concept. Are you ready? Sitting down?
Consumer Reports for Indie books, including the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Maybe you have to submit your work with the contact info for your editor, so it can be verified as having actually been edited, and the name of your cover artist, so it’s clear that a pro team was used. That doesn’t mean the book will be good, but it increases the chance that it will be decent, at least, as in relatively free of typos and incoherent gibbering.
Why would this be good? Because in spite of all the hyperbole, most authors don’t use pro editors, and most don’t use pro cover artists, so their offerings range from mediocre to beyond terrible. That turns readers off to entire price points for books – “Oh, not another $2.99 screed filled with lousy writing, grammar and typos.” How many times have you read authors saying, after getting a host of terrible reviews on the editing or formatting, “Now I’m sending it off to a real editor, and it will be fixed within X period of time!” Really? Given that it’s near impossible to succeed, you wanted to wait until your readers, few as they might be, confirmed that un-edited work is, er, lacking, to say the least? That’s your plan? Let the readers tell you it’s sh#t, and then fix it? “This tastes like dung.” “Thank you for your patronage, sir. We will now be closing the restaurant while we hire a real chef to fix our recipe, which largely consists of dung at the moment. Bud don’t worry, in the meantime, we will still be offering our dung sandwiches for sale through the front dining room – we have a lot of them left. Please come back soon.”
Is it just me, or is that nuts?
I pay an editor – a Brit, who is a talented writer himself. I also pay a copy editor once he’s done, and then a proofreader. I do this because if I am going to charge for my work, whether it is one person reading, or 10,000 a month, they deserve the best I can do. Not the best I can do with no investment. Not the best I can do without taking the steps that are necessary to create a quality product. The best I can do. My reasoning when I started publishing was simple – if I am to be taken seriously, I need to pay to create quality. I want to be taken seriously. So whether I ever recoup my investment, I have to bite the bullet and do what it takes.
The point is that it would be nice if well-edited, professional books had a seal of approval that recognized that they had been put through at least cursory quality control. I would gladly pay to receive that seal. I don’t know, maybe $20 per book. Whatever. If it makes it easier for the readers to decide to try my work, it’s worth it. Then, it’s up to the writing. You can put all the lipstick on a pig you want, but in the end, it’s still an oinker with ruby red smackers.
I have a friend who has put out a bunch of books in the last year. I tried to get through two of them, and just couldn’t. The editing was non-existent, and it was obvious that he hadn’t even gone back to do a second draft or polish – he is just spitting out words and then uploading them as books. His philosophy is that once he makes money selling the books, he will have adequate funds to have them edited, and presumably, more desire to polish his work. That’s sort of like a business plan that says you’ll start a taxi company, and then buy gas for the cabs once you’ve done your first 100 trips, because then you’ll have that money. It ignores that cabs without fuel don’t get paid. Seems obvious to me, but that’s what he’s doing, and so far, guess what? Almost no sales. It is mind-boggling that someone would waste their time in this way. His stance is, “Hey, look at X, his work sucks, and he’s experienced success, so my work can suck too, and I can be successful.” That’s quite a model.
So that’s my thinking at present, and my rant. The world of indie publishing is rapidly changing, in terms of what promotions work, what social media has an effect, what pricing is optimal, etc. What doesn’t change is that badly edited and produced books don’t get a second chance. If you’re an author, look at yourself hard in the mirror, and ask yourself whether you made the investment, or figured you were somehow different and didn’t have to. I’d say most fall into that category. Which is partially why the odds are so long of being successful. At least, that’s my hunch.