What is your writing Kryptonite? Have you learned a trick to overcome it or are you still dealing with your Achilles Heel?
Today I want to share some thoughts with you about a writer’s role on social media. I’ll start with my experience and understanding of it, but I’m very curious to know what your thoughts and experiences are, so there are lots of questions for you at the end. Also, just to say, whatever you put on the internet, look into using something like a privacy tool to help reduce the risk of your data or any other form of work being stolen or invaded. It’s just about being safe online.
I’ve been very active in social media since 2006 and MySpace. I liked MySpace a lot. It was new and fun, and I dove right into it as soon as I signed my first book contract. Author book promotion was in its infancy, and I gained reader, writer, and social connections. Other emerging writers and I were all trying to figure out book promo/social networking together. I blogged there several times a week, usually writing long, long pieces that were very essay-like. Telling stories on myself. Talking about learning to write, and the publishing process. When MySpace began to wane, I—and many other folks—drifted to Crimespace and eventually Facebook. Group blogs like Jungle Red Writers and Murderati sprang up. (Forgive me if I don’t know when Kill Zone began, but I know someone here will be able to say.) I started my own Blogspot blog, where I added interviews and book reviews. Last year, I moved my blog to my (fourth) website.
That all sounds like ancient history doesn’t it? Maybe I’m just old, but the pace of change on the Internet sometimes feels inconceivably fast. The rules—especially the rules for author promotion–change constantly. But the biggest rule is that there are no rules because things move so quickly that there’s little time for non-professionals to figure out what works before things change again. You would think publishers would have entire departments full of professionals that have this stuff figured out, but you would be wrong.
There’s a genuine expectation—sometimes stated, sometimes just understood—for authors to be active on social media. For now, author social media outlets have stabilized: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Goodreads. I don’t know many authors who are very active on Google +, or Snapchat—well, I tried Snapchat and it made me crazy. Some Instagram authors can also use websites like Kenji to boost their content out to people that it would never reach before and may even one day become a key influencer because of it! If there are other very active platforms, please let us know. (Oh, and if someone could help me figure out Instagram Stories so I don’t end up just taking live video of my shoes until I freak out and turn it off, I’d be eternally grateful.)
While many people in the writing/publishing business strongly believe that social media doesn’t sell books, some folks disagree. I’ve put up a lot of links here, but if you want to save a few clicks, here’s the gist: Social media is there to build relationships. The aspect of building relationships is key, no matter on what industry you work within. Take a look at examples of Digital Transformation to see why this is important and how you can use it to your advantage.
People with whom you have relationships will like you. If they like you AND you spend at least 80% of your time giving them great “content” they will tolerate the 20% of time you spend promoting your work. But the conversion rate will be less than 2%, which means you’re selling yourself and your time very, very cheaply. But folks truly dislike a hard sell. Many of the people who say you can sell books through social media want you to pay them to tell you how to do it, and they won’t give you quantifiable forecasts.
(Traditionally published books still sell best through tried and true methods like word-of-mouth, tv, radio, magazine, and web ads, vertical marketing to influencers like librarians and booksellers, hand-selling, and peer reviews. But almost none of those methods is free, and it’s only rational that publishers would prefer free methods that rely on author execution to methods that cost money.)
What is content? Content is added value, often in the form of information: lists, quizzes, articles, expertise, audio or video entertainment, memes, blogs, observations. Given the 80/20 rule, if you do fifty posts in a week, the theory is that at least forty of them should be content and not mention your work at all. Ideally, the content should be at least tangentially related to your field of expertise or the lifestyles of your audience. But even if you automate those posts with Buffer or HootSuite or some other social media-scheduling program, it takes time to curate that content.
A brief cautionary tale: A self-published writer I know spends a lot of time posting on Instagram, but I’d say 80-90% of the writer’s posts are specifically about the book. They’re quotes formatted as memes, or pictures of the cover, or bits of dialogue taken out of context and framed with artistic graphics. The posts are careful and attractive, but I gloss over them, and even find myself a little angry at having to scroll past them every time I log onto Instagram. If the 80/20-percentage figure is at all valid, it’s completely upside down. And the writer uses a blue million hashtags, but only ever gets 10 or 11 likes. I can only imagine how much time the writer spends creating those posts (or perhaps the writer pays for them). Plus, even though it almost looks like content, it’s not, and is off-putting.
There are two big dangers for me when it comes to content. I spend a lot of time crafting my blog posts. This one (I’m adding this bit in editing) has taken me about 3.5 hours, and I’ll spend at least another 45 minutes editing and posting it. On my own daily blog, it’s a challenge to come up with fresh concepts. Then there’s finding the right photos, adding links, and pumping up the SEO. Unfortunately there’s no way to quantify the ROI on publishing blog posts. Another particular danger for me is rabbit holes. Ideally, I like to spend about thirty minutes online in the morning checking out news stories and resources for my own amusement and edification—but I often spend an hour or more. Usually, I’ll manage to bookmark only one or two links to pass on to social media. But which ones to choose?
I read a lot of crime news stories—many are too sensitive or explicit to share without grossing people out over their morning coffee. But I also read some politics (no, never post about that), bits of history and archeology, and stories about textiles or architecture. I’ll occasionally post about writing and books. Nearly everyone likes books. But I don’t think of my personal blog audience as being full of writers. I’m not selling books on writing, and few people who aren’t writers care about writing motivation, or how to build a character. So I save the writer-centric stuff for here or my own blogs about the writing life.
Making content choices is tough. And how much me should my audience have to bear? Where is the balance between plucking out articles that might interest the people who might be interested in my writing, and sharing bits of my life that might actually make me human and likeable? The whole thing feels a bit cynical to me.
I do like this quote from Amy Cuddy’s deservedly influential book, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges. “When we are trying to manage the impression we’re making on others, we’re choreographing ourselves in an unnatural way. This is hard work, and we don’t have the cognitive and emotional bandwidth to do it well. The result is that we come across as fake.”
Coming off as fake is never, ever good.
As someone born in the sixties at the tail end of the baby boom, I grew up reading books and newspapers, and watching television and films. No one knew anything about authors. They rarely showed up on television, and if they did, they were already super famous. It was a time when public images were carefully crafted by publicists, agencies, network people, and record labels. Image crafting now begins at birth. Children—and not just celebrity children—have their own Snapchat and Instagram accounts curated by their parents. Soon after, kids learn how to use phone cameras, and take selfies. And they’re not posting pictures of their dirty bedrooms. They’re curating their lives, using images for complaints (school lunches) or self-gratification (I’m wearing blue and puce eyeliner every day this week, and check out my #hairfail hahaha!). They learn early to make their lives appear as they want them to appear. Who knows what’s real?
An entire generation is learning to promote without actually having something to promote. We writers have a LOT of competition for time, interest, and dollars. (Because a lot of people on social media are selling something, or their sponsors are.)
Personally, I don’t remember ever purchasing a book after seeing it on the author’s social media, unless I had already planned to buy the book. Fiction writers seriously are not the best representatives of their own writing—and, of course, their ultimate goal is always to sell me their books. I’m more likely to buy books after reading reviews, associated news stories or essays, coming upon compelling covers, or listening to word-of-mouth from booksellers or friends (sometime even social media friends), or other people I respect.
I buy into the notion that maintaining an active social media presence—including one on one contact through newsletters—is part of a professional writer’s job. But how little is not enough, and how much is too much?
All right. I asked for your help, but I’ve done a whole lot of talking. Now it’s your turn. I have many discussion questions, so feel free to pick and choose. I can’t wait to read what you have to say.
How important is it for a writer to have a strong social media presence?
If you participate, are you programmatic about it?
Do you enjoy it?
How much time do you spend on it daily, and/or weekly?
Who are some writers that you see doing a great job at social media?
And the $64,000 question: Have you ever bought a book because of an author’s social media posts?
**Photos via GoDaddy Stock
By Debbie Burke
A log line or logline is a brief (usually one-sentence) summary of a television program, film, or book that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest. – Wikipedia
A blurb “is a short description that praises something (such as a book) so that people will want to buy it.” – Merriam Webster
Okay, the definitions sound simple enough, but the truth is, most authors would rather write an entire novel than struggle over these few words that are critical to successful marketing. How do you condense your 100K-word masterpiece into a few lines that are so intriguing, so compelling, readers will drop everything and click on the “buy” button?
The quote by Mark Twain comes to mind: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Brevity is essential. Elevator pitches used to last 10 floors. Now they better fit between the lobby and the mezzanine.
For instance, the Kindle Scout contest requires a book one-liner of 45 characters or less. Yikes! That’s only one-third of a tweet. The book description itself allows a slightly more generous 500 characters (fewer than 100 words), but is still tight, compared to a typical synopsis length of 250-500 words.
I checked out a number of successful authors we all know to discover how they handled these daunting tasks.
A few examples of loglines:
“When he sleeps, the hunt begins.” – Jordan Dane
“She was beautiful and naked and dying…” – James Scott Bell
“No names. No feds. No trace evidence.” – John Gilstrap
“Welcome to Durham, North Carolina, the diet capital of the world.” – Kathryn Lilley
“Three women. A cursed house. Generations of lives at stake.” – Laura Benedict
“When the old money façade fails, the lies come to light.” – Elaine Viets
Six different approaches, yet each reflects their particular subgenre, showcases a distinctive voice, and sinks a hook that draws the reader in. Jim’s is a paean to Raymond Chandler noir. John’s is stark and no-nonsense. Kathryn’s hints at her ironic humor.
For the slightly longer blurb, consider these examples:
“In darkness…. Two strangers meet. A woman without inhibitions…a man without limits…for a private game between two consenting adults.” – Larry Brooks
“They say it’s better to battle the devil you know. But what if you don’t recognize him before it’s too late?” – PJ Parrish
“Exchanging their bodies for machines, these teens will defy expectations, brave danger, and defend civilization. They are The Six.” – Mark Alpert
“Ursula Marlow thought she was done with death, but when her fiancé, Lord Wrotham, is arrested on charges of treason, her world is turned upside down.” – Claire Langley-Hawthorne
And last, but not least, Joe Hartlaub knows how to sum up books in his reviews that are both pithy and intriguing: “BRONX REQUIEM serves up a heady, dark, double shot of urban noir.”
Why are loglines so stinkin’ hard to write?
For authors new to marketing, loglines and blurbs are especially intimidating. Let’s break down the reasons for the difficulty and, one by one, find ways to overcome them.
- Overwhelming – How do you distill 60-100K words into 45 characters? Or 100 words?
- Hard choices – What do you include? What do you leave out? Will the story make sense to a reader who is unfamiliar with the plot, characters, or your intentions?
- Lack of objectivity – You’re too close to the story. You no longer have any idea what will capture the interest of readers.
How to overcome being overwhelmed:
First, identify what elements must be in a logline: Character, conflict, stakes, and reader engagement.
Consider the legendary Hemingway six-word novel:
While questions still swirl whether or not Papa actually wrote the story, it illustrates a skillful example of a logline.
Even though no specific characters are mentioned, we understand the inference that a baby has died, leaving behind grieving parents.
The conflict is how/why the death of the child occurred.
The stakes are also inferred. Can the parents survive the unimaginable nightmare?
Reader engagement comes from the need to learn the details behind the tragedy.
How to overcome hard choices:
Again, the focus must be limited to only essential elements. No matter how attached you are to subplots, minor characters, and lyrical setting details, there’s no room for them in loglines and blurbs. Stick to “just the facts, ma’am.”
Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What does each want/need? How do their respective wants/needs come into conflict? What happens if they don’t achieve their goals?
Which qualities of your story are universally understandable?
What is unique, that only you could have written? If your voice is distinctive, let it show through.
How to overcome lack of objectivity:
This is where you enlist the help of coworkers, friends, critique partners, beta readers, book club members, and sometimes total strangers. They offer fresh eyes and fresh perspectives because they are not as intimately involved with the story as you are. You’re lost deep in the trees, while they see the whole forest.
Write at least 10, preferably 20, different one-liners and short descriptions. Show the examples to some (but not all) of the consultants described above.
What are their reactions? What intrigues them? What makes them yawn?
What questions do they raise?
What isn’t clear to them (even though it seems obvious to you)? Does the story make sense?
Would they buy the book based on your logline?
Next, combine the best elements of your examples and rewrite.
Put yourself into the mind of a potential customer. What qualities of your story might fascinate a reader living in a different region, or in a different socio-economic strata? Would a reader who’s younger or older than you identify with the story?
Winnow the choices down to three loglines and three blurbs. Show these to different consultants than you approached in the first round. You’re seeking fresh perspectives on the revised versions. Ask the same questions as before and see if you’ve resolved confusion, filled in missing parts, and deleted unnecessary information.
Like Blanche DuBois, rely on the kindness of strangers.
Strangers and casual acquaintances can be more accurate barometers of typical customer reaction because, unlike family and friends, they’re not as concerned with hurting your feelings. You don’t need to be embarrassed because you may never see these people again.
Visit your local librarian and verbally audition your short description to him/her. Librarians read thousands of blurbs and decide from a few words whether to stock a book or not. Ask if your book would be ordered or passed over based on your description. If a librarian offers a suggestion for improvement, take it!
On a plane trip, find out what your seatmate likes to read. Then ask, “What do you think of this idea for a book?” and recite your logline. If the person expresses further interest, try out your blurb. Pay close attention to their questions and opinions. You’re seeking honesty, not compliments.
One caution: if someone responds positively, don’t become a pest and regale him/her with a scene-by-scene outline. Thank the person for helpful input and offer your business card (which of course lists all your books for sale).
Based on feedback, refine your examples further. The process should yield several solid, compelling variations on a theme to use for different applications. One might be appropriate for entering contests, another for submitting to agents or editors, yet another can be your Amazon description and the back cover of your book.
Barter with other writers – You write my blurb and I’ll write yours. My beta readers and I have successfully come up with titles, loglines, and blurbs for each other. Sometimes you’ve already written the perfect logline, but it’s buried in your novel. A helpful beta will spot it and point it out.
When a stranger can read your precious few words, understand the gist, and wants to know more about your book, you’ve succeeded.
TKZers, do you have a secret formula for crafting loglines and blurbs?
Debbie Burke just endured the ordeal of writing a 40-character logline and an 83-word blurb for her entry in the Kindle Scout contest. A sample of her thriller Instrument of the Devil is online until July 7. If the book is selected for publication, everyone who nominates it will receive the eBook for free. Thanks for checking out the link.
by Larry Brooks
Quick story from the writing conference front.
A while ago I was doing a couple of workshops at a major writing conference, and as is often the case at these gatherings, the spare hours between sessions were spent meeting one-on-one with writers to go over their projects.
One writer’s novel stood out as a case study in what can go wrong… when you don’t know what you don’t know.
This writer believed he knew what he needed to know about writing a novel. Because he had read a lot of them, he was a really smart guy, and he’d been working on this story for years.
It should be noted here that this writer had a way with words. What some call natural talent. But here’s what may be a newsflash to some: a talent for writing sentences and a talent for choosing and developing good stories are different things.
Millions have the former. Few are born with the latter… which is where the learning comes in. Because how to cobble together an effective, compelling story is, contrary to recent popular belief on this site, something that can absolutely be learned. It happens all the time, especially for writers who don’t buy into the lie that it can’t.
This is where the learning comes in. Because how to cobble together an effective, compelling story is something that absolutely can be learned. It happens all the time, especially for writers who don’t buy into the lie that it can’t.
Which means it can be taught, as well. Let us hope so, lest all of us on both sides of the head table at all of these writing workshops and conferences (guys like Jim Bell and myself) have been wasting our time for half of our lives.
Me thinks that’s not the case, however. I have hundreds of letters from writers – published writers – who have written to thank me for showing them what they did not know, many after years of seeking out enlightenment, are to be believed.
This writer’s story pitch had promise. It was a spy thriller with a hero and a bomb that must be found before Paris went up in smoke.
But when we popped open the hood to see how the thing was built, the wheels started to come off.
I asked him about his opening hook. His response was that he’d opened the story with some deep backstory about the hero. I asked if it would link directly to the forthcoming plot of the core story, and he said no, he just wanted to add characterization before putting the hero in harm’s way. “So we would really know this guy,” he said.
Strike one. Because a thriller needs a killer hook, almost every time.
Which implies the writer knows what a killer hook is, where it goes, what it does. It doesn’t matter if someone else shows that writer this knowledge (this being, of course, a case of the writer learning how to write), or if they figure it out for themselves… either way, they need to know.
Also, this writer didn’t know that a thriller is not a character-driven vehicle, but rather, a premise-driven narrative, one that does indeed give us a compelling character chasing a specific goal, against specific exterior antagonism.
Which means the hero’s crappy childhood is not a primary story element.
He seemed surprised by this. Because apparently this principle had not been taught to him, an chances are he’d probably misunderstood the half-truth that “fiction is all about the characters.” His personal story instincts – the very same instincts that some claim are all you need to get you there – weren’t able to recognize and assimilate this principle.
That’s the thing, you see. Not all really smart people who want to write a novel are able to recognize and assimilate what they need to know simply by reading novels, or sitting in a room discussing them with imaginary beings. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have talent (also a recent assertion), and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t learn these truths.
This instinctual shortcoming is everywhere. In fact, it far exceeds the number of writers who are born with a natural gift of story, to the extent of the degree of resolution required. And thus this explains, as a generality, the primary reason so many writers never reach the finish line in one piece: not because of a lack of talent, but from a lack of knowing. Which too often stems from not knowing what to know.
Two strikes now. No hook, and character-intro overkill. An editor at a publisher would have already bailed.
I was still in listening mode. I wanted to see how badly he’d mangled other principles before I got specific about what his story – any story – should look like.
Before long, though, I had to ask the deal-breaking question: “So when in your story do you stop showing backstory and put your hero into action?”
He quickly answered, “When he gets his assignment to find the guy with the stolen bomb.”
That was the what and the how. I’d asked for when.
So I explained, again: the hero needs to seek something in the story, have a need or a mission to engage with, to take action toward, with something at stake and significant obstacles – a villain – in his/her way. And within classic story structure – not a rule, by the way, but a principle observed by nearly every published commercial novelists working today… including those that will tell you earnestly that they don’t – there is an optimal time and place to turn that corner in the story.
“Oh sure,” he said, momentarily relieved. “It has that. Like I said, it’s when the spy gets his assignment to find and disable the bomb. That’s when all hell breaks loose.”
I was nodding, but not in agreement.
“So when does that happen? Give me an approximate percentage based on total length.”
Mind you, this was a thriller he was writing. Not a literary novel. Not that it changes the answer… the best answer is the same for any genre.
He had to think a moment. Then his eyes suddenly lit up.
“It happens just short of the halfway mark. Maybe, like, forty-five percent in.”
I think he heard me gasp.
Or maybe that was the sound of his story going off the rails.
Because he didn’t know what he didn’t know. Which was something he needed to know – a fundamental principle – because of its critical role in the efficacy of his or any other story.
I asked what his hero was doing in those first 200 pages of the manuscript, before the hero’s primary quest entered the narrative.
He said, with some amount of confidence, that he was building up the character, showing us his life before he became a professional in the black ops business, adding a lot more backstory. Mostly backstory.
For the first half of his novel, there was no plot. No conflict. No dramatic tension.
He was certain that this was a good thing. Because he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
That’s when I told him that, in my opinion, he needed a major revision before it would work.
“How can you know that?” he asked, not a happy camper at this point. “You haven’t read it yet.”
“That’s true,” I replied, “I haven’t read it. I don’t need to read it. Let me ask you this – did you understand my question about when you begin the hero’s core story quest? The actual plot itself? And was your answer accurate?”
He assured me that he did, and that it was.
Both of those answers were wrong. He didn’t know at all.
And then I told him the deal-breaking truth:
Based on his responses, he didn’t actually know. He knew when, as I’d asked, but he didn’t understand that he hadn’t aligned with a core structural principle in doing it as he did.
I told him that until he knew about this principle and understood that it wasn’t something he could ignore, or even stretch to that degree, he would continue to struggle.
A setup simply cannot take that long. And the optimal place to turn the corner from setup, via something massively significant happening, toward the path that the hero would embark upon in the story, was closer to the twenty percent mark, give or take. The more give or take, the higher the risk.
No matter what you call it (because it is labeled differently from teacher to teacher, and probably not labeled at all if this is something you figured out on your own, which is rare), the is arguably the most important moment in a story – especially a thriller.
He thought a moment, then I saw a light in his eyes.
He said, “Okay, then. I’ve got it. I’ll open with it. Make it a hook.”
Still shaking my head. Because he still didn’t get it.
While there may eventually be a way to make that work, simply moving the First Plot Point into hook position wasn’t it. The principles of story architecture demand more finesse than that, which is the entire reason for knowing and using those principles, so the forces of story – what I call story physics – have a chance to work their magic on the reader in the best possible way.
This, too, being something he didn’t know that he didn’t know.
And since he’d been tinkering with this story for years, was unlikely to be enlightened on by one of those imaginary beings he was counting on.
More likely he’d heard this and written it off because there are no rules… never understanding that this never was about rules at all, it’s about a principle of storytelling that is universal.
I suggested he dig into this to learn more about the core principles of making fiction work – writing books, blogs, workshops, a writing coach – to understand it all at a deeper level. And when he does, he should test it out there in the real world – this is where the sitting alone in a room part kicks in… if done in context to an awareness of what you’re looking for, that becomes a powerful learning experience – look for these principles in play within the books he reads and the movies he sees. Especially thrillers.
Seeing the principles in play is to believe in them. To finally know what you didn’t know before, and were unlikely to realize on your own, at least within a decade or two.
Our time was up. He asked me to wish him luck with his agent pitches.
I smiled, forcing a smile, knowing he would need it.
But the story has an epilogue.
Next day I ran into him in front of the hotel elevators. I asked about those pitches. And he was excited to answer.
“Went great! Two agents want a synopsis. I guess they didn’t agree with you.”
Behold, the great head-scratching paradox of confusion on the part of the over-confident, under-enlightened writer. Which comprises a massive percentage of the manuscripts submitted to agents and editors.
Writers who don’t yet know what they don’t know.
Pitches primarily reveal concepts and premises. Rarely do they expose to the listener the nature and depth of what the writer does not yet know.
Now I was nodding. Not in humble contrition, but with sad certainty. Because if he had written that novel as he described, he was in for a dark journey of frustration.
“Are you going to revise the draft before submitting?” I tossed out as the elevator doors opened.
“Naw. They want pages right away. We’ll see what happens.”
He smiled, as writers often do when they mistake the uncompleted conversation for the one that affirms their limited skill set.
This is what happens. This is where rejection comes from.
We don’t know what we don’t know. And thus, what we don’t know squashes our dreams. Usually without us knowing why.
That is, until we finally learn what we didn’t know then.
Story architecture is very much like anything in life that lives or dies by how functional it is. An engine, a first date, your computer… one thousand moving parts can be perfectly tuned and positioned and connected and humming along, but if one single essential thing is off the mark, if it sputters at all, the whole thing will crash and burn.
And the event will be fatal.
Knowing the broad strokes of how a story seems to be constructed isn’t enough. And while you may have heard it before and dismissed it as just one presenter’s opinion – when what we hear contradicts what we have, that’s usually the outcome – it is just as likely that you’ve heard it and haven’t yet fully grasped it.You need to. Not knowing will kill you, every time.
You need know.
When you know the core principles, everything about your creative choices – including how to break the so-called rules – will be enriched.
And best way to know is to seek out this information… and learn it.
I love having Brother John Gilstrap back on TKZ. He doesn’t pull punches. He’s the Conor McGregor of writing bloggers. Witness his post last week, Tell the Damn Story. It’s a straight right to the chops.
John and I have gone around on this topic in the past, and I’m inspired by John’s post to do it again today. But rather than get all Floyd Mayweather about it, I’d like to start by looking at where we agree.
There is a lot of good packed into the simple admonition to tell the damn story. To me the gist of this advice is: You are a storyteller, and that is your first and greatest function. So don’t get tied up in “rules” and analysis when you are writing. I even wrote a post on that subject called Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due to Over-Analysis.
John and I agree that when you’re sitting at your typer, with the story in your heart and head yearning to get out, let it out! Get it on the page!
Where John and I part ways is on what to do to make the story better, both before and after the typing.
John says he holds this truth “dear”— “that no one can teach a person to write.” I could pounce on that, but I believe the disagreement may come down to what John means by “to write.” A few lines later John says:
I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none. Some people are not wired for storytelling.
Ah! Then “to write” for John is tied up in that thing called “talent.” There’s where we could spend more time, talking about what talent really is and how it might be coaxed … or coached.
Further, what John calls “honing and developing” I would simply call “teaching.” So if we parse our terms precisely, I believe John and I would agree that in some measure you can teach a writer things that will make their fiction better.
I also agree that there are some people who are not, as John puts it, “wired” for storytelling. But you know what? In my twenty years of teaching and reading countless manuscripts, I have run across very few who fit this description. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve taught do have story sense, because how can you avoid it? We grow up reading and watching story after story. We press our reality through the gauze of beginning, middle and end. And most people who come to a workshop do know how to string coherent sentences together. Part of my job as a teacher is to help them stack those sentences in the most effective way.
Which is what the craft is all about.
John further stated in a comment:
A gifted musician is first and foremost gifted. Studying with a master maestro will help him to greatness. For most of us, though, our piano lessons will only help us become really good amateurs. Ditto athletic prowess. Beyond that innate talent, though, there needs to be the drive and desire to work one’s butt off. That work for us writer’s includes not classroom time, but lots and lots of alone time with our imaginary friends.
I liked this up to and excluding the last sentence. We do agree on this basic point: someone with talent can be made better at what they do through lessons. The boy George Gershwin had monster talent, but he needed lesson after lesson for that talent to shine through.
Still, you only get a Gershwin once in a lifetime. But there are countless superb piano players who make good money in bars and restaurants and hotels. They please a lot of people with their music.
It’s the same with writers. There are not many Hemingways or Chandlers, but there are (now) thousands of fiction writers making bank writing entertaining, well-structured, satisfying novels and stories.
Many of them have been my students.
John and I also agree that “working one’s butt off” is a non-negotiable for anyone to make it as a writer. But I am puzzled by his disdain for the classroom. What’s wrong with listening to an experienced writer sharing techniques that make fiction better, stronger, more compelling, and deeper? Why isn’t that something an ambitious writer ought to be anxious to seek out?
At the very least it might save that writer years of frustration and rejection.
Working with a good editor is another way fiction writing is taught. Now, really good fiction editors are rare and always have been. I had the good fortune to work with one of them, Dave Lambert at Zondervan. He was the reason I chose Zondervan over three other publishers back in the day. Dave was famous for his “Dave letters” — multi-page, single-spaced documents of pure insight and instruction. I was a pretty good writer before Dave. He kicked me up several notches. Without his instruction, and my working hard to incorporate that into my pages, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today.
So to me the big disagreement with John comes down to his statement: “The breakthroughs—the true light bulb moments—can only come via self-discovery while pasting butt to chair.”
That’s like saying to a hacker killing gophers on the golf course to just keep hacking, you’ll find your way eventually. Meanwhile, year after year, he continues to stink and give gray hairs to the groundskeepers.
I react this way because my experience is the opposite of John’s axiom. I did write and write, to no avail and no “breakthroughs.” Indeed, I was told several times that “writing can’t be taught.” So I gave it up. For ten long years.
When I finally felt I had to try again, I decided not to listen to the naysayers and started studying the fiction column in Writer’s Digest every month (penned by Lawrence Block, followed by Nancy Kress). I bought writing books and joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One of the featured titles, Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell, gave me the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had in my writing life. It was a huge breakthrough, and led directly to my stuff starting to gain interest, and eventually to sell.
When I wrote, I wrote. But I also valued my study time. And as I tested things on the page, I began to formulate my own theories and techniques and then teach them to others, many of whom have written to thank me for helping them along the fiction journey.
Where would I be if my desire to write had stalled again at the man-made wall with the graffito Writing can’t be taught? In the introduction to Plot & Structure, which keeps selling, I went so far as to call that “The Big Lie.” Because it is.
And now let’s get this deal about “rules” straight. Artists hate that word, because they want to be free! So fine! Don’t use that word!
But do think in terms of fundamentals and guidelines, the tools and techniques that work, that have stood the test of time, and will work for any writer. They are there not only to help you as you try to figure out what to write next, but to help you understand why something you’ve written doesn’t work, and how to fix it.
Perhaps this will ease the conscience of my blog brother: The most important thing a writer can do is produce the words, to write his own stuff, every day if possible. To a quota. That’s always the first and most important thing a writer does. It’s the first advice I always give anyone who asks me what they need to do to become a successful writer.
But I also say this: the writers who have the best chance to make it, to have a career or a good part-time income, will also study their craft with diligence and desire, and without a chip on the shoulder. I’ve seen it happen time after time after time.
Here is my Exhibit A, the highly successful novelist Sarah Pekkanen:
I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.
So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us.
The books Sarah mentions are Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and my own Plot & Structure. And she explains exactly what she learned from each.
That was back in 2009, just before her debut novel came out. You can check out Sarah’s career trajectory here.
So leave us not speak in extremes. Don’t give us a blanket “writing can’t be taught,” because that is demonstrably false.
On the other side, don’t speak about iron-clad rules. There are critique-group commandos who will take a tip or suggestion and turn it into a law. Like the now infamous Don’t start with the weather. The real guideline should be Don’t start with the weather unless you know how to use it to hook the reader! (For further elucidation on these , see my post on Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore.)
That’s my case. Fiction writing can be taught .. and learned … and practiced .. and made profitable. I know because I’ve got a huge email file of testimonials to prove it … and I’ve lived it myself.
The boxing ring is now open. Discuss!
I would be remiss if I did not mention that the best of my workshops has been put into a complete video course on the craft. It’s called Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.
The Kill Zone is honored to have literary agent Mark Gottlieb as our guest today, from the Trident Media Group. Feel free to ask him those burning questions you may have about what he’s looking for, or how he sees publishing trends, or his insights into publishing and the role of literary agents. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College where he helped establish Wilde Press, from a publishing club of students. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with the VP of Berkley Books (Penguin). Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Exec Assistant to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.
As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter… Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:
1) FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.
2) DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.
3) PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author? It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.
4) READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.
5) THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.
Trident Media Group, LLC
41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
New York, NY 10010
Mark has consented to answering your questions. Feel free to ask away. Thank you for being our guest, Mark.
Building on PJ Parrish’s post from yesterday, it occurs to me that the casual discussion of writing poses many false dichotomies. Is your work character-driven or plot driven? Is it about action or about vivid storytelling? If your story meets its potential, the answer to all of the above is simply, “Yes.”
I also hear a lot about rules that don’t really exist. We all know that prologues are a mistake–unless they work. We know that we should never start with the weather or with backstory. Bull. Anything that works for the story will work for the reader. Countless works of successful fiction break the rules, thus proving that the rules were never truly rules in the first place. Take a hard look at the latter Harry Potter books. While I am an unapologetic devotee of Harry and his exploits, there is no objective evaluation of the prose itself that could rate it any higher than average-plus. JK Rowling never found an adverb that she didn’t like, and she’s quite the fan of passive sentence construction. A TKZ First Page Critique would not make her happy.
Yet her books work–really, really work. Why? Because the story and the characters are so compelling that we’re willing to overlook some of the basic mechanics.
When I teach writing seminars–as I will next month at the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University, and again on August 5 at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC–I reveal two basic truths that I hold dear: 1) that no one can teach a person to write; and 2) that successful writers get out of their heads and out of their own way and just tell the damn story.
I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none. Some people are not wired for storytelling. I say this from the point of view of a writer who is entirely self-taught and was driven by my unblinking desire to make my writing better by reading the works of others and dissecting them. And I whole-heartedly admit that what worked for me may not work for all.
Some of the most creatively constipated writers I’ve ever spoken with have spent gobs of money over the years attending writing classes, yet paradoxically have few stories–and often no books–to show for it. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they believe in the rules and the dichotomies. They value perfect sentence construction over compelling characters. In short, they spend too much time stressing over getting it right when maybe they’d have been better off if they’d just gotten it written.
In my own case, my “first” book–the first to be published–was in fact the fourth book I’d written. Those other three were my own private master class in fiction. But the single biggest difference between Nathan’s Run and its unpublished predecessors is that that was my first effort to forget about WRITING A BOOK (read that with a rolled R) and instead tell the story the way I would tell it orally, using the same turns of phrase and the same rather cynical squint that pretty much defines my worldview. As I wrote each scene, and I found that I liked them, I began to realize that I’d discovered that elusive “voice” that people always talk about.
At that point–before agents or sales–there was no way for me to know if the book was any good, but I knew that it was exactly the book I wanted it to be, exactly the book I’d set out to write. And because I have always been a voracious reader, I had enough confidence (hubris?) to believe that it was as good or better than any book I’d read that year.
A good part of this writing biz is about attitude, I think. It’s about believing from your own experience that the book you’ve written is exactly the book you want it to be. If you know its close and you know what’s wrong–or at least you think you do–then by all means workshop the manuscript and attend classes and seek guidance. Similarly, if you want to be introduced to the basics of the craft–the literary equivalent of learning how miter joints in carpentry–then classes and workshops are a terrific resource.
But never lose sight of the fact that if you truly believe that a scene or a chapter or a whole story is exactly what you want it to be, yet others in your group disagree, only one name goes on the spine. Only in workshops do people sit down to read with an eye toward nit-picking and changing things. In the real world, when people sit down to read, they have every expectation of a good story well told.
Don’t let them down.
Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. — Picasso
By PJ Parrish
So I cracked open a new thriller the other day. Starting a new read is like going on vacation. You buy your ticket and you’re filled with excitement and expectations. Where am I going to go? What cool sights will I see? What fascinating people will I meet? What great adventures await me?
I had heard this book was really good, and I haven’t been swept away by a novel in a long time. I was ripe for seduction.
Then I started reading it. And the writer in me took over the reader in me. I started to analyze what the author was doing. Good grief…he broke every rule we here at TKZ talk about:
- The opening graph was slow and boring.
- The style mixed past and present tense
- The writer cut away at a crucial peak moment in the set-up action scene and didn’t show it “on camera.”
- The first four chapters are heavy with backstory info dumps
- The point of view head-hops between characters in mid-scenes
- One chapter ends with “little did he know that…” (death was coming for him)
But I couldn’t put the book down. See all those bullet points above? I didn’t care about any of them because the story was so darn compelling that the writer in me was elbowed aside by the reader in me. I’m now about halfway through the book and it’s getting better and better. I’m totally invested in the characters, even the detestable ones. I can’t foresee what is going to happen. And I can’t wait to see how this all plays out.
I guess you want to know the title. It’s Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. It won the Edgar for Best Novel this year.
Now Hawley isn’t exactly a novice. He’s written four novels before this, including two that could be classified as thrillers. He’s also a screenwriter, best known for creating and writing the television series Fargo and Legion.
Before the Fall definitely has the bones of a good screenplay. Here’s the setup: A privileged family sets off on foggy night from Martha’s Vineyard with a down-on-his-luck painter tagging along for a ride back to Manhattan. The plane goes down into the ocean and only two survive — the painter and the family’s four-year-old boy.
The story then moves into flashback, with detailed dossier chapters on the main characters, and the driving ideas and themes start emerging — the harsh price of our 24-7 media culture, the twists fate takes, how ordinary people become heroes, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.
Let’s go back for a moment and the rules that Hawley broke. Here’s the opening paragraph:
The private plane sits on a runway in Martha’s Vineyard, forward stairs deployed. It is a nine-seat Osprey 700SL, built in 2001 in Wichita, Kansas. Whose plane it is is hard to say with real certainty. The ownership of record is a Dutch holding company with a Cayman Island mailing address, but the logo on the fuselage say GULLWING AIR. The pilot, James Melody, is British. Charlie Busch, the first officer, is from Odessa, Texas. The flight attendant, Emma Lightner, was born in Mannheim, Germany, to an American air force lieutenant and his teenager wife. They moved to San Diego when she was nine.
Snooze-fest, right? I mean, none of these people is important. They all die within sixteen minutes of takeoff. Who cares where the plane was built? If this showed up on one of our First Page Critiques we’d tear it to shreds. Here’s the second paragraph:
Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.
Again, this breaks the usual thriller rules. It is omniscient point of view, the writer telling us something about the book’s theme. It’s a tad portentious. The protagonist artist won’t even come on scene for another nine pages and even then he’s a blip on the narrative radar. Yet I was very willing to let the writer rather than the characters steer the story at this point.
The plane takes off. At the end of what is essentially a prologue (untitled as such) we drift into the wife’s POV:
As she does at a thousand random moments of every day, Maggie feels a swell of motherly love, ballooning and desperate. They are her life, these children. Her identity. She reaches once more to readjust her son’s blanket, and as she does there is that moment of weightlessness as the plane’s wheels leave the ground. This act of impossible hope, this routine of suspension of the physical laws that hold men down, inspires and terrifies her. Flying. They are flying.
Then here is the last sentence of the “prologue”:
And as they rise up through the foggy white, talking and laughing, serenaded by the songs of 1950s crooners and the white noise of the long at bat, none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea.
Little did they know…
Maybe Hawley deserve a small wrist slap for that one, but I was willing to let him get away with it. It fit in with the tone he was using, like he had gathered us all around a campfire and was pulling us in. We know from the back copy what is going to happen, so he’s not stepping on any surprise here.
Back to the broken rules. In the next chapter, Hawley switches from present tense to a more conventional past tense. And it is all backstory on the artist, Scott Burroughs, starting with a key childhood memory of Scott going on a family vacation to San Francisco that culminates in the boy watching Jack LaLanne swimming from Alcatraz pulling a boat in his wake. The chapter is laden with details and ends with the author telling us that as soon as Scott got home, he signed up for swimming classes. We are left to understand that this memory chapter is here to underscore the theme of heroism and doing the impossible. But we really want to return to that plane crash, right?
Here is the opening of chapter 2:
He surfaces, shouting. It is night. The salt water burns his eyes. Heat singes his lungs. There is no moon, just a diffusion of moonlight through the burly fog, wave caps churning midnight blue in front of him. Around him eerie orange flames lick the froth.
The water is on fire, he thinks, kicking away instinctively.
And then, after a moment of shock and disorientation:
The plane has crashed.
Why didn’t Hawley show us the crash “on camera?” He’s a screenwriter! We should have seen the whole crash, like that terrifying scene with Tom Hanks in the film Castaway? Yet Hawley CHOSE to withhold it. As a reader, I initially felt deprived of a visceral experience. But when I got to a later chapter, I understood why he did it. When Scott the artist is finally safe and has to recount the crash for authorities, the horror of the crash feels even more vivid and it becomes a tool for Hawley to comment on the fragility and unreliability of memory.
The chapter is all action (again in present tense) that intensifies when Scott happens upon the little boy clinging to a cushion. Scott, dislocated shoulder and desperate, takes the child on his back and starts swimming for a shore he can only see in his hopes. The chapter after takes place in the hospital and starts dealing with the media frenzy and Scott’s realization that he is man who has been hiding from a failed life and now has been pushed into the light.
The next chapter is titled DAVID BATEMAN, April 2, 1959 — August 23, 2015. This reverts to past tense and is devotes to the backstory of the dead father, who is a younger, handsomer version of Roger Ailes in that he created a Fox News type network.
The rest of the book jumps back and forth between present (Scott and the boy) and the past (backstories on all the key dead characters). Again, the rule is broken: Stay with the linear more visceral plot. But I wanted to know, needed to know, what had brought the dead characters to their tragic ends. There is reason the book is called Before The Fall. Yes, it can be a biblical allusion, that people are innocent until they are corrupted. But it is also a comment on the novel’s structure and the choice Hawley made: What happened BEFORE is just as important as what happened after.
I didn’t realize until I went back and looked at the notes I had made in the margins that Hawley broke another basic rule. He has no chapter numbers. Most chapters are titled: “Storm Clouds,” “Orphans” “Funhouse” and such. But the titles are not what they seem; they all have double meanings.
I wish I had finished the book so I could comment more fully on it here for you. But as I said, I am halfway through and it is keeping me turning the pages and the characters are very alive in my mind when I put the book down. So yes, you can break the rules. In fact, sometimes you must. I will probably go back and read Hawley’s other novels now, because I am interested not only in what the author has to say but how he says it.
But for now, I’m off on an adventure. I’ll let you know how it turns out when I get back.
Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing a first page submission for a novel entitled Finn Slew which begins in Afghanistan and appears to be the start of an intriguing suspense/thriller. My comments follow.
Title: Finn Slew
MAY, 2011, Kandahar, Afghanistan
The phone was vibrating. Again. Alive and angry, like he’d stuffed a rabid weasel in the breast pocket of his ballistic vest. If Finn was going to be shot, it was small consolation the phone would die first.
The ringer was off. Best not to draw attention on the streets of Kandahar City. If the phone squawked his two soldier escorts, front and rear, would want to shoot him before the Taliban had a chance.
The first four messages this afternoon were from increasingly higher links in the Astral Media chain of command.
The fifth, just now, was a text from his direct boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of his home newspaper, the Vancouver Journal, the westernmost outpost in Astral’s media empire: “WTF Finn? Supposed to file from the base newser on plans for our troop withdrawal. Major heat from head office AND our publisher. Also fm Major Cahill, at CFB Kandahar, wondering where the hell you are. Call me. Now.”
He ignored that, too.
He’d written the ‘glorious farewell’ story weeks ago, with too much emphasis, in Cahill’s view, on those allies who felt Canada was cutting and running with the job unfinished.
Not that the job will ever be finished. Ask the Brits. Ask the Soviets. Hell, ask the Afghans.
The news conference would play out as others he’d endured. Cahill, the public relations flack at Canadian Forces Base Kandahar, would lay on what soldiers cynically called “the Full Canuck.” A visiting general with a full display of chest candy would share Tim Hortons coffee and donuts with the troops as he declared the mission an unqualified success.
There’d be a moment of silence for those killed in the service of their country during Canada’s decade in Afghanistan, and a nod to the grievously wounded. Not a mention of those tortured souls carrying the war home in a nightmarish loop of pain and fear. Soldier suicides? What suicides?
Then, off to the ball hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield where the big guy would play enough shinny for network visuals before hopping a flight home.
They’d make damned sure a dead soldier wasn’t catching a lift in the cargo hold. Don’t want to go off-message.
No more press-release journalism. Finn was chasing bigger game: misappropriated aid money, corrupt military contractors, black market trade in weaponry. That’s why Cahill’s shorts were in a knot.
I think this first page is off to a great start. I’m intrigued by the premise of a Canadian journalist investigating corruption in Afghanistan just as Canadian troops are being withdrawn. The voice of our main protagonist is strong, cynical, and determined and the short paragraphs, clipped sentences and snide comments all fit the protagonist well. This is an easy first page to critique as I don’t have much to say, except well done and I want to read more!
I have only three (relatively minor) comments:
- The first is to reconsider the title of the book. Finn Slew (to me, at least) sounds strange and a little awkward. I think a stronger, darker title that gives a reader a better sense of the book would work better.
- The second is to perhaps shorten the 4th paragraph as the reader gets some extraneous information here about the newspaper/media corporation that slows the pace of this first page. Something like: “The fifth, just now, was a text from his boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of the Vancouver Journal” – it would be simpler and the extra information can be provided later.
- Finally, the last line suggests Major Cahill knows the story the main protagonist is pursuing, and yet in Kate’s text he’s trying to find out where the protagonist is so I’m not totally sure if the author intends Cahill to know (and hence have his shorts in knots) or not. Maybe this could just be clarified.
Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific beginning and I would definitely want to read more. What about you, TKZers, any comments/thoughts?