What Heinlein’s Rules Mean to Me: An Excerpt

Today’s guest post is from longtime Kill Zone supporter and frequent commenter, Harvey Stanbrough. Harvey is a prolific (now that’s an understatement) writer and publisher who’s here to share his thoughts and experiences on Heinlein’s Rules for Writers and other interesting things… like writing Into the dark and cycling.

When Garry Rodgers invited me to write a guest post about Heinlein’s Rules for TKZ, as an adherent of the Rules and a long-time follower of TKZ, I was flattered. I considered simply offering up my annotated Heinlein’s Business Habits for Writers, but that didn’t feel like enough. It’s more of a what-to-do updated for the 21st century. It says nothing about why-to-do.

What follows is an excerpt from a compilation of five posts from my instructive almost-daily Journal. These posts comprise a would-be interview about Heinlein’s Business Habits for Writers and why, as a professional fiction writer, I personally find them essential.

This series was first published on my instructive from March 8 ­– March 12, 2021 at https://hestanbrough.com. You can download the entire article in PDF, free, by clicking https://harveystanbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/What-Heinleins-Rules-Mean-to-Me.pdf.

Topic: Awhile Back: An Introduction to a Series on Heinlein’s Rules

Awhile back, I received a note from a writer who wanted to interview me about my adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. The purpose was so the writer could put up a blog post on the topic.

Later, the writer decided the post would be too long for their format. I agreed.

But the questions the writer asked, and the incidental comments the writer made, were absolutely typical (usually even word for word) of the questions and comments I’ve heard from writers at conferences and conventions for the past thirty years.

So I decided to use that writer’s questions and comments to post a series of topics here for the benefit of the few who read this Journal. Note: If the writer emails me to ask me to take this post down, I will do so. Then I will paraphrase the questions and comments and continue the series.

Some of this will hit home. Some of it might make you angry. Some of it will sound repetitious. I don’t mean any harm. In fact, I’ve added a disclaimer to the very end of every post now to maybe help satisfy detractors.

In my own experience, I’ve often found I had to hear something more than once or hear it said in a different way before I finally got it. It is in that spirit that I offer this and the following few posts on Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark, which really do go hand in hand.

First, here are Heinlein’s Rules so we’re all starting from the same place. As I’ve said many times, you can download a free PDF copy of Heinlein’s Rules (annotated) by clicking https://harveystanbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Heinleins-Business-Habits-Annotated-2.pdf.

Heinlein first outlined his rules in Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing. Largely as an afterthought to his article, he wrote the following:

“I’m told that these articles are supposed to be some use to the reader. I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.”

Then he lists what he calls his Business Habits:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

Note: Heinlein also add that if you follow these rules, eventually you would find some editor (reader) somewhere who would buy your work. Nothing could be more spot-on the money.

Here are some excerpts from the rest of the writer’s introduction, which contain some of those “typical” questions and comments I alluded to earlier and my responses:

Q: “It stands to reason that if we, as writers, spend the bulk of our time writing, we’re only going to improve. And if, instead of hopping from unfinished project to unfinished project or obsessing over a work to the point of ridiculousness, we move on to the next story, we’re going to spend more time writing. Which is the one thing we all need to do a lot of to succeed.”

Harvey: I agree in principle with this point. Instead of “hopping from unfinished project to unfinished project or obsessing over a work” at all, we should write the current story (even the very first) to the best of our ability, then publish it and move on to the next story.

But this isn’t only so we’ll “spend more time” writing. Writing a lot without learning and practice will not help you succeed. Practice (vs. hovering via revisions and rewrites) is what will help you succeed. To practice, you learn and then apply what you learned in the next story.

Never look back. Always look forward to the next technique to learn and the next story to write.

Q: “I have a few concerns with some of the rules to the point that I’ve never been able to embrace the process. … I’ve always wished I knew someone personally who follows Heinlein Rules so I could talk to them and see what they would say about my concerns.”

Harvey: You came to the right place. I was exactly the same way. Exactly. Which is to say I was filled with unreasoning fear. Unreasoning because there are no real consequences to writing a “bad” (in your opinon) story. The truth is, the world won’t stop if you write a “bad” story and not that much good will happen if you write a “good” (again, in your opinion) story. Your opinion of your work is still only one opinion.

To you, your original voice is boring because it’s with you 24/7. But to others, your original voice is unique and fresh. Given the chance to read your story, some will love it, some will hate it, and the majority will enjoy it—if you don’t polish your original voice off it.

Topic: Post 2 in the Heinlein’s Rules Series

Actually, more introductory stuff today, with some specifics on Heinlein’s Rules mixed in.

Q: To provide context, how long have you been using this process, how many books/stories have you been able to write, and what kind of success have you achieved?

Harvey: I first discovered Heinlein’s Rules and a technique called Writing Into the Dark in February 2014. I made the conscious decision to pull up my big boy pants and give it an honest try. And frankly I was amazed. Since then I’ve written over 220 short stories, 8 novellas and 70 novels. (And I didn’t write for almost 2 years of that time.)

That’s the real secret to Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark, if there is a secret: You have to dedicate yourself to pushing down your fears and really trying it for yourself. It helps to realize you have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. You can always go back to writing the “old” way: outlining, revising, critique grouping, rewriting however many times, etc.

I started with short stories (one a week) and ended that streak with 72 short stories in 72 weeks, all written in accordance with Heinlein’s Rules, all written into the dark.

If you look at a mean average, that’s just over 8 novels per year for 7 years and just over 28 short stories per year in that same time period, plus 8 novellas scattered in.

But I expect to produce a lot more this year. I finished my 58th novel on March 2, but it was also the 4th novel I started and completed this year. So on average, I’m on track to write 20 novels this year alone. All because I found Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark, pushed my fears down and really tried them. The trust in the process came quickly after that.

My success is because I learn and then I write. I don’t hover. I use a process called “cycling” as I write. Some call it revision, but revision is a conscious-mind process and cycling is a creative-mind process. That’s the big difference, and it’s all-important.

Q: And what is “cycling”?

Harvey: When I return for the next writing session, I read what I wrote during the previous session. But I read as a reader, just enjoying the story, not critically as a writer. And I allow myself and my characters to touch the story as I go. When I get back to the blank space, I’m back into the flow of the story and I just keep writing.

I mentioned that I finished my 58th novel on March 2. On March 3 I started my 59th. I’m not quite 27,000 words into that one. My daily word count goal is 4,000 words of publishable fiction per day, but that’s only 4 hours out of the 24 that we are given in each day. In that regard, and measured against the old pulp writers (who wrote on manual typewriters) I am a total slacker.

Q: I’ve heard many (not all) writers who adhere religiously to Heinlein’s Rules poo-poo the things writers often do to improve their craft, such as attending conferences, reading books and blogs, taking courses, etc. I understand, I think, the principle here, that if you spend too much time doing those things, you’re not doing the actual writing. But there are some things that writing alone can’t fix; sometimes we need direct instruction from people who’ve been there to identify what’s wrong and learn how to address those issues. What are your thoughts on continuing education as an author?

Harvey: Not to be contrary, but on this point I have to disagree. I’ve never heard a writer who adheres to Heinlein’s Rules “poo-poo” doing anything to improve their craft. In fact, all of them stress learning as only a very close second in importance to actually writing.

That said, even a decade or so before the CovID panic, actual physical conferences were falling by the wayside, leaving only large, often unaffordable conferences. But I personally have always urged writers to attend conferences and even the much more affordable conventions that interested them, for networking opportunities if nothing else.

Today most of those opportunities are virtual, a concept I have trouble grasping. I need the physicality and the immediate back and forth between actual people. That said, I still recommend even virtual conferences if that’s something the writer is interested in.

Re reading books and blogs on writing, of course I recommend those and I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t. In fact, I often provide links to other resources in my Journal. And my author website at HarveyStanbrough.com is rich with writer resources.

My own personal caveat is that the writer should exercise due caution and check out the author of the book or blog. For example, if that person doesn’t write novels, s/he has no business teaching others how to write novels. Would you go to a car mechanic to learn the finer points of carpentry or medicine? And re taking courses, I urge writers to do so, again after investing the time to do due diligence.

The process I recommend is this: The aspiring or beginning or experienced fiction writer should

  1. write every story to the best of their current ability, not revise and rewrite their original voice off it, then publish it.
  2. take time to attend a class or lecture (online is fine) and then stick one technique they want to practice in the back of their mind when they start writing the next story and practice it as they write that story.
  3. then write that story to the best of their current ability, not revise and rewrite their original voice off it, then publish it.

Q: How easy is it for you to follow the rules?

Harvey: I find it extremely easy to follow HR1, 2, and 3. I’m dedicated to a daily word count goal of 4,000 words of publishable fiction (no drivel). Re HR1 and 2, I’m a fiction writer, so I write as part of my daily routine.

Re HR3, I don’t even allow my own critical, conscious mind into my work, so even the thought of allowing someone else to tell me how to “fix” the story that came out of my mind is ludicrous to me. As I’ve alluded to before, Rule 4 is the most difficult for me to follow because I’d much rather be writing the next story.

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To read the rest of this article, download the free PDF: https://harveystanbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/What-Heinleins-Rules-Mean-to-Me.pdf.

 # # #

Bio:

Harvey Stanbrough was born in New Mexico, seasoned in Texas and baked in Arizona, so he’s pretty well done. For a time, Harvey wrote under five personas and several pseudonyms, but he takes a pill for that now and writes only under his own name. Mostly.

Harvey is a prolific professional fiction writer by pretty much any standard. In just over 6 years he’s written over 70 novels, 8 novellas, and around 220 short stories across several genres.

He’s also compiled around 30 short story collections and several lauded, major-prize-nominated poetry collections and nonfiction books on the craft of writing. That is in addition to his hundreds of articles, essays and blog posts.

To see Harvey’s work visit StoneThreadPublishing.com or his author website at HarveyStanbrough.com. If you’re a writer and would like to increase your productivity, visit his instructive daily Journal on writing at HEStanbrough.com. You can contact Harvey directly at harveystanbrough@gmail.com.

Oh, as a bonus, you can read about Harvey’s personas at https://harveystanbrough.com/my-personas/. Each has his or her own brief bio

Barnes & Noble Makes a Comeback

Photo Credit: Ethan Hoover, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

What goes around comes around. And around. And around.

So goes the tale of Barnes & Noble.

The bookseller was founded in New York in 1886 as Arthur Hinds & Company. A clerk named Gilbert Clifford Noble rose to partnership and soon changed the name to Hinds & Noble. In 1917, Noble partnered with William Barnes to become Barnes & Noble.

Fun fact: In 1940, B&N was one of the first businesses to feature Muzak. 

A single NYC store grew to a nationwide chain. In 1974, the Fifth Avenue B&N became the biggest bookstore in the world.

Along the way, B&N gained a reputation as a corporate bully that gobbled up smaller chains and elbowed aside numerous independent bookstores, putting many out of business.

Big fish eat little fish. To the dismay of readers, few indie minnows survived B&N’s dominance.

“Barnes & Noble was perceived as not just the enemy,” said a former chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, which represents indie shops, told the New York Times, “but as being everything about corporate book selling that was wrong.”

Then…along came a whale named Amazon.

Photo credit: Stephane Wegner, Unsplash

Online book sales thrived while physical bookstores dropped by the wayside. The juggernaut of Amazon led to mergers and bankruptcies of sizable chains like Waldenbooks, Crown, and B. Dalton. In 2011, Borders filed bankruptcy, leaving B&N the sole remaining national bookstore chain.

Amazon was fast gaining ground.

In 2010, B&N introduced the Nook e-reader to compete with Kindle but it never came close to Kindle’s success. Stores added coffee shops, free wi-fi, gifts, and non-book merchandise, hoping to survive. Nothing worked. Sales dropped, employees were fired, stores closed.

Per Ted Gioia, The Honest Broker:

“By 2018 the company was in total collapse. Barnes & Noble lost $18 million that year, and fired 1,800 full time employees—in essence shifting almost all store operations to part time staff. Around that same time, the company fired its CEO due to sexual harassment claims.”

The bookseller that had put so many other bookstores out of business appeared ready to join their fate.

Enter James Daunt. The 59-year-old former banker and business exec had founded Daunt Books and turned around Waterstone’s, a British bookseller that had once languished in similar straits to B&N. In 2019, he took the helm as B&N’s CEO and set out to rescue the floundering chain.

A daunting task (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

Daunt turned the focus back to books and got rid of unrelated merchandise. He gave control of stores to local staff, correctly reasoning that the people who meet customers every day are in the best position to know what their particular readers want.

Y’know, like mom-and-pop indie bookstores used to do.

Managers have free rein to stock books by local authors, including good-quality self-published ones, and those of regional interest. They no longer have to stock books chosen by a single head buyer from thousands of miles away.

A few months ago, I visited B&N in Missoula, Montana. The manager not only ordered some of my books, she is also happy to host an in-person event later this year.

B&N stores are now becoming more like the indie bookstores they used to put out of business.

Daunt’s strategies are succeeding. In 2023, B&N plans to open 30 new stores. Ironically, some will take over the same locations where Amazon’s experimental physical bookstores failed.

What goes around comes around.

What’s coming around now for B&N is good news for readers. It also gives a boost to local authors who want to see their books on real shelves.

~~~

TKZers: Have you visited a B&N store recently? Do you see changes? What’s your opinion about them under the new leadership?

~~~

 

COMING SOON! SPRING 2023!

DEEP FAKE ~ Tawny Lindholm Thriller #8

You can’t believe your own eyes.

To be notified when Deep Fake is released, please sign up here.

First Page Critique — Filthy Money

Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review and critique. Please read through this submission, Filthy Money, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Filthy Money

It’s effortless, like a gliding albatross.

A shaft of sun bounces off the silver leading edge of the Cessna’s wing. I blink and glance down at the instrument panel. Only seven minutes, thirty nautical miles to the island. I scan the horizon.

And there it is.

Santa Catarina.

A dark iris surrounded by the tranquil cerulean blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

The runway, a bleached grey stripe, cuts through the sickle-shaped piece of land. It’ll have deteriorated. It’s been twenty years since this runway, once a carpet-smooth welcome to the wealthy and famed, was abandoned.

The question is how badly has it deteriorated?

I can see pockets sea grass in the still shallow waters. The dune bush barely ripples. I dip slow and low over the runway to check the condition of the surface.

I peer down. It’s a crumbling ribbon. The tar has cracked and burst in the searing sun. The hairs on my nape and arms lift.

Tall yellow weeds droop at the outer edges.

A second loop confirms my fears.

It’s not safe to land. Only an idiot would try. I’ve got to think of the safety of the five passengers sitting cocooned in luxury behind me. Never mind the likely damage to the state-of-the-art jet I am piloting.

Vonn will not take this news well. Not after all the months of strategy meetings and preparations. I wipe my clammy hand on my trousers.

‘Mr Le Clezio?’ At first, he doesn’t hear me. My voice is reluctant. I clear my throat and call again.

He acknowledges me with a nod of his head, then swallows the half inch of Wild Turkey in the tumbler and turns to Butch. ‘Drink up, we’re about to land.’ He slips the now half empty bottle into the side pocket of his holdall.

‘Mr Le Clezio, I’m sorry. It’s not safe to land. The runway’s in a far worse state than we were advised.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, José.’ He spits the words at me.

In my peripheral vision, I’m aware of Butch turning to face me. Judging, watching. He’s the only investor invited to join Vonn in this first recce. Embarrassing Vonn is not an option. Sweat pricks in my hairline.

‘I thought this bloody fancy jet was designed to land on rough terrain?’

‘It is, but —’

‘Well, land it. That’s what I pay you for.’

 

* * *

First Impression: Right away, the first sentence caught my attention by juxtaposing the serenity of gliding with the foreboding of the word “albatross.” Nice. And anytime a scene begins with people in an airplane, you know there’s going to be trouble.

The setting: The author did an excellent job of setting up the environment without going into too much detail. “A dark iris surrounded by the tranquil cerulean blue waters of the Indian Ocean.” We know where we are geographically.

Pace: Each sentence drew me to the next one. The contrast between the beauty of the island and the impending danger is well done.

Stakes: In just a few paragraphs, we learn the problem. We can feel the pilot’s angst, and we know even before he turns to call to Mr. Moneybags that things are going to escalate quickly. James Scott Bell wrote in a recent TKZ post, “Unless the conflict is a life-and-death struggle, the plot will not engage as it should.” This plot clearly avoids that problem.

POV: I also like the use of first person, present tense. It gives a sense of immediacy that works well here. (There were several comments about writing in first person, present tense on John Gilstrap’s TKZ post last week, so I’ll be interested to see what others think of this.)

* * *

There were a few areas I thought needed some work:

The Title: I don’t particularly care for Filthy Money as the title. “Filthy” isn’t one of my favorite words, but I don’t have an alternative since I don’t know the entire story. Maybe some commenters can chime in and make a suggestion.

Grammar: I spotted a couple of small issues in one sentence and I show the corrections here:

I can see pockets of sea grass in the still, shallow waters.

 

Other Issues:

“A shaft of sun bounces off the silver leading edge of the Cessna’s wing.” When I initially read this, I assumed the Cessna was the kind I flew: a single-engine, propeller-driven, four-seater. To avoid that misunderstanding, add the specific model (e.g., Cessna Citation).

“He’s the only investor invited to join Vonn in this first recce.” I had to look up the word “recce.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the process of visiting and quickly looking around a place in order to find out information about it.” Maybe readers of thrillers would know this, but I didn’t. If it isn’t common knowledge to the intended audience, replace it.

“The runway, a bleached grey stripe, cuts through the sickle-shaped piece of land.”  The island was originally described as an “iris,” which I assume is round.

British vs. American spelling and punctuation. The use of the word “grey” rather than “gray” in the snippet above and the use of single quotes rather than double quotes to enclose dialogue throughout the piece indicate the author is British. If the intended audience is largely American, it would be wise to change to the American standard. (i.e., “gray” and double quotes for dialogue.)

Those were the only real issues I found. However, I think the prose could be tightened up a bit. I noticed the words “deteriorated” and “runway” were used more than once in close proximity. I’ve taken the liberty to make suggestions below. A few of the suggestions rely on my own sense of cadence. Deletions are in blue, changes and additions are in red. My comments are in green.

* * *

 

It’s effortless, like a gliding albatross.

A shaft of sun bounces off the silver leading edge of the Cessna Citation’s wing. I blink and glance down at the instrument panel. Only Seven minutes to go. Just thirty nautical miles to the island. I scan the horizon. [Good short sentences set the pace. I changed a couple of words around.]

And there it is. Santa Catarina. A dark green iris surrounded by the tranquil cerulean blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

The runway, a bleached grey stripe, cuts through the sickle-shaped piece of land. It’ll have deteriorated. It’s been in the twenty years since this airstrip runway, once a carpet-smooth welcome to the wealthy and famed, was abandoned. [Rewrote two sentences into one and changed the second use of “runway” to “airstrip.”]

The question is how badly has it deteriorated? how bad is it? [No need to repeat “deteriorated.”]

I can see pockets of sea grass in the still, shallow waters. The dune bush barely ripples. I dip slow and low over the runway to check the condition of the surface.

I peer down. It’s a crumbling ribbon. Tall yellow weeds droop at the outer edges. The tar has cracked and burst in the searing sun. The hairs on my nape and arms lift.

Tall yellow weeds droop at the outer edges. [Moved this sentence up for effect.]

A second loop confirms my fears.

It’s not safe to land. Only an idiot would try to land on that corroded strip of disintegrating asphalt. [Strengthened the danger.] I’ve got to think of the safety of the five passengers sitting cocooned in luxury behind me. Never mind the likely damage to the state-of-the-art jet I am piloting.

Vonn will not take this news well. Not after all the months of strategy meetings and preparations. I wipe my clammy hand on my trousers.

‘Mr Le Clezio?’ At first, he doesn’t hear me. My voice is reluctant. I clear my throat and call again.

He acknowledges me with a nod of his head, then swallows the half inch of Wild Turkey in the tumbler and turns to Butch. ‘Drink up, we’re about to land.’ He slips the now half empty bottle into the side pocket of his holdall.

‘Mr Le Clezio, I’m sorry. It’s not safe to land. The runway’s in a far worse state than we were advised.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, José.’ He spits the words at me.

In my peripheral vision, I’m aware of I see Butch turning to face me. Judging, watching. He’s the only investor invited to join Vonn in this first recce. Embarrassing Vonn is not an option. Sweat pricks in my hairline.

‘I thought this bloody fancy jet was designed to land on rough terrain?.

‘It is, but —’

‘Well, land it. That’s what I pay you for.’

* * *

 

Lasting Impression: Fine job, Brave Author. I’d turn the page. Now let’s see what everyone else thinks.

 

TKZers: What’s your impression of this first page? Would you keep reading? Please offer your comments and suggestions.

Have Fun in the Writing Game

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

On this day in history, in 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame selected its first group of inductees. They were inarguably the five best players of their time: Ty Cobb, the greatest hitter. Babe Ruth, the greatest slugger. Honus Wagner, the best all-around player; Christy Mathewson, the most skilled pitcher; and Walter Johnson, the man with the greatest (and most feared) fastball. No one seriously questioned this inaugural class.

But during the first two decades of the 20th century, the question of who was the best player of all boiled down to a choice between Cobb and Wagner.

Thy Cobb, the ultimate (and many considered dirtiest) competitor.

Honus Wagner, quietly dominant as both hitter and fielder.

Cobb, an outfielder, trim and fast as an antelope.

Wagner, a shortstop, bow-legged and built like a beer truck.

Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner in the 1909 World Series

The one time they faced each other was in the 1909 World Series. Wagner’s Pittsburgh Pirates beat Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in seven games.

In one game, Cobb got to first base and yelled at Wagner. “I’m gonna steal second, krauthead!” The mild-mannered Wagner said nothing.

On the next pitch Cobb took off. The catcher threw the ball to Wagner, who knew Cobb’s penchant for sliding into bases spikes high, often ripping flesh from an opponent’s leg. Wagner gracefully avoided Cobb’s dreadful skewers and slapped his glove across Cobb’s face. Cobb was out and with a bloody lip for his troubles. (This account comes to us through oral history. If it isn’t true, well, it should have been.)

In the series, Wagner outhit Cobb, .333 to .241.

I bring this up because I am a baseball history buff, and recently ran across a YouTube video of Honus Wagner, age 59, talking about how he still loves being around the game of baseball. It was during spring training for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933, and Wagner, now a coach, was out there taking batting practice and fielding with the young players.

It’s wonderful to see! Here he is, smacking fastballs and scooping up grounders. And not like some old man. His swing still had power, and his fielding was beautiful.

Then we see him coaching a runner at third, clapping his hands, chattering, “Come on now, here we go now, let’s go now, come on, baby!”

He is having so much fun. He played the game because he loved it, not because of the peanuts players were paid in those early days. He did eventually get paid the princely sum of $10,000 a year. (In 1930, Babe Ruth managed to squeeze $80,000 a year from the Yankees. When a reporter asked how Ruth could accept a larger salary than President Herbert Hoover, and during the Depression yet, Ruth said, “I had a better year than he did.”)

So…have fun when you write! When I’m typing, I try to stay loose and let the words flow. I tell myself, “Come on now, here we go now, let’s go now, come on, baby!”

You know who was the Honus Wagner of writing? Ray Bradbury. You can sense the joy he had when writing his stories. He talked about the need for this mindset, especially in Zen in the Art of Writing. His prime output was the 1950s, but he never stopped, all the way until his death in 2012. “Every morning,” he wrote in Zen, “I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”

That’s the sense of play we need to nurture.

Yes, there’s work involved with this craft. Of course. But treat it like practice. You can still have fun knowing the effort it making you better.

Another thing about Wagner (which was the opposite of Cobb) is that both fans and fellow players loved him. On the field, he played fair. Off the field, he was humble and thoughtful of others. He famously demanded that the American Tobacco Company stop distributing his baseball card with their product because he didn’t want his likeness to entice kids to smoke. As a result, the few of those 1909 cards that remain are the holy grail for collectors. Last year one of them sold for $7.25 million.

Remember that, writer, when you put yourself out there on social media, which pretends to “reward” rudeness, confrontation, and ranting with “likes.” That becomes a drug from which you will inevitably crash.

Keep it fun, keep it clean, keep writing.

So what about you? Do you do have a sense of fun when you write? Is there anything you purposely do to keep it that way?

And here is that two-minute clip of the great Honus Wagner, talking about the game he loved:

Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Last September I gave a presentation on self-publishing at the Newport, Oregon Public Library, for the Coast Chapter of Willamette Writers. It was well-attended, and there were a lot of thoughtful questions asked by the engaged audience. One of my challenges was focusing on evergreen advice rather than tips for the passing moment. Digital self-publishing has seen a lot of changes since 2008. Gold rushes have come and gone, as have marketing fads. The market has matured. But, you can still make money, possibly pretty good money, perhaps even enough to live well on, and, as important, you can still reach readers directly.

With that in mind, this Saturday’s Words of Wisdom shares excerpts on self-publishing from past January Kill Zone posts. James Scott Bell gives timeless advice on succeeding as a self-publisher, while Joe Moore gives tips on editing yourself, and P.J. Parrish looks at giving your book covers a makeover. It is always a challenge being selective in choosing an excerpt, but especially today. All three posts are worth reading in their entirety, and I provide links to each below.

So what does all this mean for the indie writer, new and used experienced? Is the “gold rush” over? Is the sky falling?

First of all, just like in the Old West, the gold rush made scant millionaires. There were never going to be abundant strikes except for the few. If the gold rush in digital publishing ever was, it was irrelevant to the vast majority of authors.

Second, the key to making a living as a writer (subtle plug for my book of the same name), has not changed and will never change, because it’s always been the same!

To wit:

You have to write books that are good enough to get the people who read them to want to read more from you, and to recommend you to their friends and social circles.

It doesn’t matter how glitzy your marketing or how cleverly you try to game algorithms. You have to be good at what you do. Imagine that! You get rewarded for merit, not gamesmanship!

And that also goes for discoverability, a word that has overstayed its welcome and is too often used as a Cassandra cloak for expostulations of impending doom.

Phooey.

The indie writers I know who were making a living writing in 2013 were still making a living—and in most cases, a better one—in 2014.

I’ve noticed a few things they have in common:

  1. They know their craft.All the successful indie writers I know personally paid their dues back in the “trad old days.” They studied and wrote and sacrificed and wrote and submitted and got rejected and kept writing. They spent years getting good at what they do. When the trad publishing contracts started looking grim compared to what self-publishing offered, they jumped in with one or both feet. And they were ready.

So what does this mean for the newbie writer? It means that you must set your standards high and create what I call a grinder. You must set up a system that holds your writing feet to the fire, and makes you get better at your craft.

Early in my career I was fortunate to work with one of the best fiction editors in the business. He would send me long, single-spaced letters, ripping into my books at the plot, character, and style levels.

I feared those letters. I would place them unopened on the corner of my desk and just look at them for a few days. I had to work myself up into readiness. Finally, I would read them several times, highlight things with a felt-tip pen, and then take a few hours to recover. Then I’d start revising.

I also had to get rid of any chip on my shoulder. I had to be willing to make changes. Yes, on occasion there were things I fought for. But I came to realize that this editor knew his stuff, saw things I could not, and thus made me a better writer.

As a new author, you have to figure out a way to get this kind of grinding feedback, and be willing to dig in and work hard. Some time ago I listed a way to do that with beta readers and a professional editor. Look for it within this post.

James Scott Bell—January 11, 2015

 

The next type of editing is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Read your manuscript out loud, or better yet, have someone else read it to you. Mistakes and poor writing will become obvious.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Remember that indie publishing means that you set the deadline and pub date. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

Joe Moore—January 20, 2016

 

What I think we should pay attention to is:

  • Professionalism
  • Consistency of brand
  • Messaging

Professsionalism means you can’t get away with a lousy, cheap-looking cover. Because it yells in neon to a potential reader “I am an amateur!” This applies especially if you are just starting out. Like they used to tell us in “women’s magazines” — dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Don’t design your own cover unless you have solid graphic background and even then — GET INPUT! Would you edit your own story? No…you get beta-readers, you hire copy editors. (If you do edit your own books, you’re a fool). You might have to hire a pro to do this. There are lots of good ones out there. Please don’t skimp on this. Please.

Consistency of Brand means your books have to look alike. I don’t mean literally, but they have to all be of a kind so potential readers can immediately sense a unified brand.  All good authors do this. And periodically, they go back in and re-design their older books en masse to give them face lifts. Time for an object lesson….

My friend Neil Plakcy (a member of my old critique group) has been publishing his Golden Retriever mystery series for about ten years now. His books are a lot of fun (the dog helps solve the crime), light in tone, but also deal with some serious issues. (his hero did prison time for computer crimes.) Recently, Neil decided he needed a make-over.  The first line is before, the second line is after. Click to see enlarged.

What was wrong with the first ones? Inconsistency in type-faces. Type too small. The main important image (the dog!) was usually too small and static (the dog is just sitting or standing around mainly). No one compelling image for the eye to focus on. The pictures didn’t capture the books’ playful tone. Dull colors. And hard to find Neil’s name!

What is right with the second ones? The type is consistent and DOG is set bigger and in contrasting color to drive home the content in a glance. The subtitle “A Golden Retriever Mystery” is always the same size and in the same place. Neil’s name is consistent and authoritative. There is negative space for blurbs. And the dogs are so cute they make you want to adopt them. These covers look designed, not slapped together.

Disclaimer time: My sister Kelly designed the new covers. She does this as a side business and this is not an infomercial to get her work because I don’t want her attention on anything else but our stuff for now. But she and I also are redesigning our own back list covers.  And, I gotta tell you, it’s not been easy.

P.J. Parrish—January 1, 2019

***

Are you a self-publisher?

What evergreen tips do you have?

What constants do you see in self-publishing?

True Crime Thursday – GoFundMe Scam

Photo credit – Marco Verch, CC 2.0

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

In November, 2017, Katelyn McClure met a homeless veteran named Johnny Bobbitt when she ran out of gas on a Philadelphia highway. Bobbitt gave McClure his last twenty dollars. Grateful for his selfless generosity, McClure started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help the former Marine get back on his feet.

Their feel-good story went viral. Within three weeks, 14,000 people donated more than $400,000 to the campaign.

HEA (happily ever after), right?

Nope.

Turns out the entire story was a scam concocted by McClure and her boyfriend Mark D’Amico.  Although Bobbitt didn’t initiate the fraud, when donations skyrocketed, he joined their conspiracy.

In 2018, the plot thickened when Bobbitt sued McClure and D’Amico, claiming he had received only $75,000 from them out of the $400,000 raised for his benefit. McClure and D’Amico used the rest of the money on vacations, gambling, expensive handbags, and a BMW.

According to Military.com:

D’Amico attempted to justify withholding the money from the veteran because of Bobbitt’s purported struggle with drug addiction, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018 that he’d rather “burn it in front of him” and that giving him the money would be like “giving him a loaded gun.” Though the couple told the paper that they had paid for a hotel room, electronics, food, clothing and eventually a camper for the veteran, they declined to provide receipts.

The unusual lawsuit drew the attention of prosecutors in Burlington, NJ, the NJ Department of Justice, and federal authorities.

During the investigation, a text from McClure came to light. Less than an hour after kicking off the GoFundMe campaign, Military.com reports that McClure messaged a friend:

“Ok so wait the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn’t,” she said, according to New Jersey prosecutor Scott A. Coffina. “I had to make something up to make people feel bad.”

“So shush about the made up stuff,” she reportedly added.

Digging deeper, investigators found a similar scenario in Bobbitt’s past from a Facebook post in 2012 where he claimed that he’d given his supper money to a woman in need, garnering sympathy and donations.

The GoFundMe scam unraveled. Ultimately, all three pleaded guilty to state and federal charges.

D’Amico, 43, pleaded guilty to misappropriation of funds. In 2022, he was sentenced to five years in prison on state charges, and 27 months for federal charges, sentences to be served concurrently.

In October, 2022, Bobbitt, 39, was sentenced to three years of probation for conspiracy to commit money laundering and ordered to pay $25,000 restitution. He was admitted to an addiction recovery program.

In January, 2023, McClure, 32, guilty of second-degree theft by deception, was sentenced to three years in state prison and is already serving time on a one year and one day sentence in federal prison. She was a former New Jersey state employee and is prohibited from holding any state job.

All were ordered to pay restitution to GoFundMe.

GoFundMe refunded all donations to contributors who were taken in by the fraudulent story.  

GoFundMe posts warnings on how to spot scams and frauds here.

Most people want to help others in need. Con artists prey on those generous, compassionate instincts.

Give from your heart but, first, investigate with your head.

~~~

TKZers: Do you check out people or organizations before you donate to them? How?

Have you heard of similar scams?

~~~

In Stalking Midas, a glamorous con artist takes advantage of an aging, addled millionaire who loves his nine rescue cats. She can’t allow investigator Tawny Lindholm to disrupt her profitable scam. After all, she’s killed before and each time it gets easier.

Buy at Amazon and major online booksellers.

The Invisible Writer

By John Gilstrap

I spent last week in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, the once-again-annual convention thrown by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). Attended by roughly 65,000 people, the SHOT Show is to the shooting, hunting and outdoor adventure industry what the Detroit Auto Show is for cars. It’s the place where firearms manufacturers announce their new products. It’s also the place where I can meet up with the various subject matter experts who keep me from making huge mistakes. Good times.

On the flight out, I watched an episode of a documentary called, “One Perfect Shot,” which turned out to be entirely different than what I was expecting. The shots in this series refer to movies. Each episode highlights a different film director, who chooses his or her favorite shot, and reveals the story behind the story. I chose to watch the episode in which Michael Mann discusses the the bank robbery sequence from Heat–hands down, I believe, the best gunfight ever filmed.

The episode was interesting, but it featured a filmmaking quirk that is the point of writing this post. The director of the episode, whose name I cannot find in the brief time I am willing to dedicate to the search, chose to shoot much of her interview with Michael Mann in a wildly asymmetrical way. If you’ve studied filmmaking at all, you know about the rule of thirds, where the subject of an interview is rarely in the center of the screen. In this episode, which appears to have been shot in a black box theater and is formatted in wide screen, the subject spends much of the screen time in the lower corner, with his eyes looking off screen, rather than toward the center, which is the expected convention.

It was an interesting choice, but I think it was also a foolish one. I chose the episode because I wanted to hear the director’s story. The quirky filmmaking took away from that in a way that felt almost disrespectful. Mann was the man of the moment, yet the director decided to call attention to him/herself. It interrupted the story that it was trying to tell.

There’s an analogy her to writing for the page.

I strive to remain invisible in my writing. I want my readers to be fully aware of everything my characters are thinking and feeling, thoroughly immersed in Brother Bell’s “fictive dream.” The moment I draw attention to myself, I show disrespect to my characters and their tribulations.

Writerly affectations–lack of quotation marks for dialogue, impossibly long paragraphs, and the like–annoy me. They eject me from the story. Good writing isn’t flowery, it’s concise. This is why word choice matters so much. Why the flow of sentences matters.

If you’re reading this and you’re new to the craft, think twice–and then twice again–about the nature and structure of that oh-so-important first book. Adhere to conventions while still being interesting. I have repeated proclaimed that there are no rules in this writing game, and I always will. But there are expectations and human reactions.

On the rare occasions when I agree to critique rookie writing, I cringe when I see that the piece is written in present tense. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but it’s hard to pull off, and my Spidey sense warns me that there’s likely to be trouble ahead. The reason? Because the author is deliberately writing against the current and trying to draw attention to himself. One of the reasons I don’t read fantasy/science fiction (or many foreign novels) is the propensity for unpronounceable names. How am I supposed to keep the characters straight in my head if I can’t say their names?

Are you Mensa and have a giant vocabulary? Good for you. If you want to succeed in a commercial fiction market, check your brilliance at the door. Obeisance is a fine word, but respect is better recognized and known by more people. If you’re hoping to sell your stories, you’re hoping to break into a corner of the entertainment business. Everything you do is about your customer–your reader–not you.

When I mention this in seminars, I often field objections from students who are incensed that I expect them to write down to people. Inherent within the objection is a sense that writers are smarter than their readers. (One cannot write down without considering oneself to be above.) I don’t believe that to be the case at all. My job is to give readers a fun ride, and to make it feel effortless on my part. That effortless part is where the really hard work comes in.

So, TKZ family, what do you think? How easy is it for you to be ejected from a story? Do you like authors to show off, or do prefer for them to stay in the background?

Finding Those Laser Beam Words

“When I read, I notice with pleasure when an author has chosen a particular word…for the picture it will convey to the reader.”―Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By PJ Parrish

The older I get, the more words fail me. This is a common ailment, I realize, but that’s cold comfort. What’s worse, there’s no logic to these lapses. I can sing all four verses of the theme song from The Patty Duke Show. But “thing” has now become my go-to noun in daily life — as in when I asked the husband to hand me “that thing over there” so I could change the channel on the TV.

You’d think that, as a writer, I’d be used to this. Not being able to claw up the right word from the morass of our memory is just normal for us, right? It’s part of the torture of our creative process. I’m telling you, crime dogs, this doesn’t get easier with age.

I’m judging a contest right now for a writer’s conference. The entries range from derivative to really delightful. What separates the standouts from the pack is not a matter of just plot and character or mastery of craft. Sometimes it is coming down to something as “small” as word choices. There is nothing better, as the late justice said, than to come across a phrase or sentence that is so striking and original, that you pause in your reading to savor it.

As a writer, when you hit upon just the right word, your sentences and scenes take on a vibrancy and alive-ness. The right word, phrase, metaphor, has a magical power to instantly connect with a reader, making them go “Yes! I know exactly how that feels!”

When you settle for the merely adequate word, your story becomes mundane and bloodless.

Look at these lovelies:

Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 describing the “beauty” of the pages of a book being burned: “Each becomes a black butterfly.”

John LeCarre in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold describing torture: “The pain just increases like a violinist going up the E string. You think it can’t get any higher and it does–the pain’s like that, it rises and rises.”

Does it give you, as a writer, any comfort to know that all writers struggle with this? It helps me. It’s just one more thing we have to worry about as we move through our stories, trying to keep all the pie plates spinning.

Gustave Flaubert was tortured by his quest for le bon mot, as he lamented in a letter to Guy de Maupassant:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, or to verbal pirouettes to escape the difficulty.

Well, I don’t know if this will make your trials any easier, but here are a couple things I’ve found useful to keep in mind as you struggle for the right words.

Keep word choice true to the characters background and age. Streetwise characters in a PI novel have their own jargon. Ditto the hero of a historical regency romance. Country folks speak a different vocabulary than city swells.  Nothing will yank a reader out of your story faster than ill-fitting words coming from your characters mouths or brains.

Be a good listener. We’re always saying here at TKZ that you must be a great observer of human behavior to write well. So must you be a great listener. Now, in daily life, people talk in cliches, banalities and tried metaphors. If you ever use one of these…

  • play your cards right
  • bring to the table
  • low-hanging fruit
  • it’s an uphill battle
  • bite the bullet
  • nerves of steel
  • weak as a kitten

…I will hunt you down. You can take that to the bank. But listening to people talk gives you a good grounding by which to fashion unique character voices. Everyone on earth has their own music. It’s your job to hear each note.

Be aware of your tone. Humor demands a different vocabulary than hardboiled. The word choices you make for mystery set in the Civil War South are going to be more specific and regimented than those for a dystopian fantasy wherein you are free to invent words and phrases. (See below!)

Beware the Thesaurus. I know, I know…it is useful but it can be a dangerous crutch. If you are overly reliant on standard synonyms, your brain will never become muscular enough to come up with something truly original to your own voice.

Okay, okay, if you’re really constipated you can take a dose of Thesaurus. Sometimes just looking a list of almost-right words can free up the juices. Just be careful that you’re not so desperate that you fall for the first pretty synonym that comes along. Here’s a really fun site for word shopping:  https://onelook.com/ (Enter your word in the box but don’t hit enter; hit Related Words)

Don’t gild every word. Sometimes, “He walked into the room” does the trick. It’s usually not “a verdant swath of fescue,” it’s just “grass.”  Pick your places to punch things up and don’t overdo it because you’ll just end up looking silly. Don’t get addicted to metaphors. As Florence King said, writers who have nothing to say always strain for metaphors to say it in.

Likewise, be aware of the moment. This is a problem I’m finding with some of the entries I am judging — the writers over-describe or strain for originality when the context/situation calls for tightness, simplicity, or specificity. This is especially true in their action scenes. The tenser the moment, the simpler the writing, I say. Do you write this?

Frank reached a trembling hand into his holster and pulled out his blue-black Glock 22,, grimacing as the hulk of his would-be assassin emerged from the shadows, lit for only a second by the red reflection of a nearby neon sign. He fired the gun, blinded for a moment by the muzzle-fire, then blinked the scene back just in time to see the large man fall forward, face first, down onto the wet street.

Or something like this?

Frank jerked out his gun, squinting to see the man in the dark alley. A second of neon throbbing on the man’s gun was enough to get off one bullet.  The man fell to the asphalt, his gun skittering into the shadows.

With this example, I cut all extraneous words to keep things moving fast. I purposely left out some things to leave room for imagination. And I tried to find the right word(s) — jerked, squinting, skittering, neon throb.

Don’t sweat it on the first draft. Sometimes, you just can’t find the word. You’re in the ballpark, but it’s not a home run. You’re sorta, kinda, just about, not far from, close to, nearly, more or less…almost there! But nothing comes. Don’t do what I often do — sit there, staring at the screen, brain in knots, paralyzed by the perfection police. PUT ANY WORD IN THERE AND MOVE ON. Believe me, the word will be there in the next draft. Or in the middle of the night.

Have fun. Don’t be afraid to make up words or use them weirdly. Now, this comes with a big caveat because you can end up looking like pretentious fool. But every once in a while, you can get away with this. I didn’t know this until I did some research, but there’s a fancy (specific!) word for this: anthimeria  It means subbing one word for another, usually a noun for a verb. “Chill” was originally a synonym noun for “cold” but has morphed into a verb meaning to relax. After Clint Eastwood gave his famous speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, “Eastwooding” meant talking to an empty chair. Thankfully, this one didn’t catch on.  Here are a couple of good examples:

I’ve often got the kid in my mind’s eye. She’s a dolichocephalic Trachtenberg, with her daddy’s narrow face and Jesusy look. — Saul Bellow in More Die of Heartbreak.

Until then, I’d never liked petunias, their heavy stems, the peculiar spittooning sound of their name. –Kate Daniels in In the Marvelous Dimension.

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’ — Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walking.

I unwittingly committed anthimeria at pickleball once when I joked to a female opponent after she fired off a nasty shot: “Stop mean-girling me.” It stuck, though we don’t have an equivalent for the guys.

Okay, go forward and find the right stuff. And relax! This is supposed to fun, right? As I often try to do, I leave you with some final words of inspiration. These come from the great American bard, Frankie Goes to Hollywood:

But shoot it in the right direction
Make making it your intention-ooh yeah
Live those dreams
Scheme those schemes
Got to hit me
Hit me
Hit me with those laser beam [words.]