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Mastering the Basics: Point of View and Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We have another first page for critique today. See you on the other side.

THE OIL PATCH PROJECT

1. Slinging Pebbles at Goliath

Southwest National Laboratory
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A Monday in October

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers pushed open the door labeled “GEOCHEMISTRY LAB,” strode across the room to a workbench, and picked up a bulging old briefcase that was sitting among tools, a voltmeter, and a jar of vacuum grease. The place smelled like acetone.

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory, locked into Jim’s eyes. “You’ve been spending a lot of vacation time at those oil meetings. Doesn’t your wife care?”

“I suppose, but she’s occupied with her own business.”

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen. It was pleasant to be around Mattie, the lovely tech who analyzed his samples and generated the data.

“No,” he said, as though answering a question about the weather. “I’ve got the facts … it will force change. I can’t let them continue dumping salt on the land.”

Stuffing another paper into his briefcase, Checkers reached for the old dinner jacket and tie he kept behind the door in case the lab’s brass brought official visitors from the Department of Energy.

“You can’t take on the entire oil industry, Jim.”

“Well, I’ll have to. I registered as a technical witness this time.” He brushed a stray hair from his eyes.

“Jim, you’re playing Don Quixote. The oilmen play for keeps.”

“I’m David facing Goliath, not Quixote fighting a windmill.”

She watched him hurry out and shook her head. “They’ll kill you,” she said to the closing door. “I should know. I grew up in the oil patch.” She wished she hadn’t mentioned his wife.

***

JSB: All right, let’s roll up the ol’ sleeves. I am assuming this is going to be a thriller. Thus, the first thing that needs to change is the title. The Oil Patch Project sounds like a chapter from the annual report of a city council’s energy committee … or a children’s story featuring bunnies. Maybe it’s the world Patch (e.g., Sour Patch Kids). Anyway, it isn’t a compelling thriller title, so I suggest you review this post and come up with alternatives.

I don’t like the chapter title, either. This could be the subject of a whole post, but outside of juvenile lit I’m not a fan of giving titles to chapters. In any event, “Slinging Pebbles at Goliath” is confusing. David grabbed five smooth stones from a stream, suitable for killing. So if your hero is taking on the David role in this book, why is he only using pebbles? You may have an ironic meaning in mind, but it tripped me up. Do you really need it?

Then we come to the location/day stamp (we’ll get to the actual content soon, I promise!) I’m not against these, but I do think you need to be more specific. “A Monday in October” has me thinking, Wait, aren’tyou the author? How come you don’t know the date? I’d thus use “Monday, October 13” or just cut it and indicate the month in the text (if necessary).

We’re writing a thriller here, right? Titles and character names are crucially important. Don’t use the name Checkers. It sounds funny. A clown or a dog (see, e.g., Richard Nixon) might be named Checkers, but not the hero of a thriller.

Okay, let’s get to the content. I want to concentrate on two big areas. We can nitpick sentences here and there, but I’d rater you get your craft in order on these two items before you do anything else.

First is the dialogue. It’s expository. Review my post on the subject. You have the characters saying things not so much to each other as to the reader. In a few short paragraphs you’ve told us all about the high stakes. We need to see them, feel them, as they unfold for the main character. Don’t be in such a rush to tell us everything about a scene. Readers are patient if there is some real action and tension happening.

Don’t confuse the reader with wrong pronoun placement. You have:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen.

That is Mattie’s line of dialogue, but you have Jim’s pronoun immediately following. No, no, never, never. It should be:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?”

He stopped to listen.

Also, you have Mattie using Jim’s name three different times in this short segment. Once is enough.

Now on to the second problem—Point of View. The first two paragraphs are omniscient, with the author telling us about each of the characters in the scene:

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers…

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory…

Then we drop into Jim’s POV:

It was pleasant to be around Mattie...

But at the end, we switch to Mattie’s POV:

She watched him hurry out…

This is called “head hopping.” The effect on the reader is subtle confusion. Who am I supposed to care about? Whose story is it?

So here’s what I want you to do, author.

  1. Study Point of View

Don’t worry. Many, if not most, new writers struggle with POV. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it makes an almost magical difference in your writing. You can begin your studies right here at TKZ. Emeritus blogger Jodie Renner did a great series on POV a few years ago:

POV 101 – Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There 

POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping 

POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View 

  1. Study Dialogue

Get a few novels by dialogue masters and see how they do it. Notice how tight their dialogue is, how there’s no rush to give out information, how it is consistent with their characters, and how it contains tension or conflict. Let me suggest Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker (1980s and 90s Parker) as exemplars. Perhaps others will have suggestions in the comments.

And for the definitive text on the craft of dialogue, I humbly suggest this one.

Don’t let this discourage you, author. Craft improvement is hard work. But the rewards are great. Study, write, get feedback, write some more. Do this for the rest of your life. You’re a writer, after all.

9+

How Do You Pick a Title?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It goes without saying that titles are important. So I won’t say it. Instead, let’s explore how you go about finding the right one for your book.

Sometimes a title will come to you the moment you have a concept. Other times you may start writing without a title in mind and put off the decision until later.

Have you ever had a title come to you, demanding a novel be written to go with it? I have one right now that I love. I just don’t know what the book is about yet. But someday I’m going to write that thing.

I don’t know of any formula for finding a title, but here are a few suggestions (please share your own in the comments):

First, look over a bunch of titles of books in your genre. Go to Amazon and search the bestsellers in that category. Get a sense of how they sound. If you’re writing thrillers, for example, you probably don’t want a title like The Policeman and His Lady or A Cold Wind Bloweth the Badge.

Second, make two lists, one of nouns and one of adjectives. For example, when I was under contract for legal thrillers, I wrote down a bunch of legal nouns: trial, guilt, jury, witness, justice, evidence, etc. Then I wrote adjectives with thriller possibilities: night, dark, hidden, and so on.

Put the lists side by side and mix-and-match, e.g., Dark Justice. Hidden Guilt.

Next, play with phrases that have key genre words. I was doing that one day when I thought of the word alive. How could I use that in a phrase for a thriller title? A little more playing around and I wrote Your Son is Alive. That grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I had no idea what the book would be, only that it demanded to be written. So I wrote it and published it.

After you’ve come up with half a dozen or more titles, do a little testing on people you know:

“Hey Stan, which of these do you like best? Dark Justice, Justice in the Dark, The Darkness of Justice, The Justice of Darkness, or The Girl Who Searched for Justice in the Dark?”

If you’re doing a series, a “link” word or phrase is often a help. John Sandford’s Prey series, for example. I did a lawyer thriller series with the word Try in each title. Why? Because I had planned the first one to be Die Trying, but some writer named Child had used it. I could have gone ahead anyway (titles cannot be copyrighted, see below) but I decided against it. Then the play on words, Try Dying, came to me and I liked it.

The other titles in the series are: Try Darkness and Try Fear. I actually made a list of more title possibilities, e.g., Try Justice, Try Running. But when I got down to Try the Veal, I determined I had enough. (FYI, the first book in that series, Try Dying, is free today through Wednesday in the Kindle store. Use this link.)

Okay, suppose you come up with a title and then find out another author has already used it. Can you use it, too? Yes. Titles are not copyrightable.

But that’s not the end of the matter. How well known is the other author? There’s a “rough” copyright protection out there in the form of consumers who are likely to be very upset (and nasty in their reviews) when they learn that your novel bearing the same title as Big-Name Author’s book is not actually by Big-Name Author.

If the book was published ten years ago, however, enough time may have elapsed that this won’t be a problem. Use common sense. How likely is it that a significant number of readers will be confused? I once had a title ready for a book I was prepping to publish, when I saw that Mr. Harlan Coben had a book with that same title about to come out. Ouch! I could have gone ahead with it, but in addition to the confusion, I knew I’d have reviews that would say something like, “What a ham-fisted way to try to feed off Coben’s readership!”

So I changed the title. (For the curious, the book is Don’t Leave Me. My original title: Stay Close.)

While titles cannot be copyrighted, in some cases they may be trademarked. You can’t, for example, write a novel with Star Trek in the title without getting a letter from a law firm with several names on the letterhead. Actually, you probably won’t get that far, because Amazon won’t allow you to publish it. So don’t get clever and try to write The Space Adventure of Civil War General Harry Potter.

Okay, over to you. How are you at picking titles? Do you have a method?

8+

The Curse of Expository Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There are times when I need ten minutes of The Three Stooges. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve spent a long day writing some tough pages. Or you were bottled up in your cubicle at work, untangling your boss’s mess. Or maybe you were caught up in the latest news cycle, and you find yourself neck deep in the blues.

That’s what the Stooges are for. You don’t have to think. In fact thinking is precisely the wrong thing to do when watching the boys.

Now, I know the Stooges are not everyone’s comedic cup o’ noodles. Moe is often hard to take. Anything could set him off and get you a slap in the face or, worse, two fingers in the eyes. I had my run-ins with bullies as a kid, so Moe always made me uncomfortable (in real life, Moe Howard was a delightful man—who I met—and a great storyteller about the film business and the history of the Stooges).

But there is always Curly to save the day by giving us a nice, hearty belly laugh. (When Curly suffered a stroke in 1947, he was replaced by his and Moe’s real brother, Shemp. Most of my kid contemporaries didn’t like Shemp, but I did. While no one could ever replace Curly, Shemp is funny in his own way.)

Anyway, the other day I was in need of a respite from brain work and went to a Stooges short I’d recorded on the telly. It was We Want Our Mummy (1939). As you might guess, it’s about the boys, playing detectives, going to Egypt to try and find a mummy on behalf of a museum.

Well, the opening made me laugh, but for another reason. It was a full-on example of expository dialogue. Of course, these were short comedies that were produced like pancakes, and had absolutely no pretensions about being anything else. Still, it provides me with an illustration for teaching purposes.

The short begins in a museum of ancient history. Two professors in stuffy garb speak to each other in the Egyptian Room.

Prof 1: Bad news. The police aren’t able to find any trace of Professor Tuttle. His disappearance has them completely baffled.

Prof. 2: That ruins our hopes of ever finding the tomb of King Rutentuten. Professor Tuttle is the only man alive who knows its exact location.

Prof 1: First Professor Dalton dies mysteriously, and then Tuttle disappears. Something terrible happens to anyone who tries to explore that tomb. I’m telling you, it is the curse of Rutentuten!

Prof 2: But unless we secure the mummy of King Rutentuten, our entire collection is worthless. We must find Tuttle!

Prof 1: Well, I’m doing the best I can. I sent for the three best investigators in the city. And they are our last hope!

Okay, King Rutentuten is funny. But the dialogue, as you can see, is there merely as set-up material. It’s blatantly obvious, and I’m sure the writers, Elwood Ullman and Searle Kramer, snorted as they wrote the lines.

But in our fiction, such dialogue is a drag. It always sounds phony, which turns the reader against you. They are investing their time (and perhaps some discretionary income) on your book. You want them into the story, not catching you in a cheat.

The primary way to avoid this is: Do not have characters reveal information that both characters already know. Here’s a ham-fisted example of what I mean:

“Sally! I didn’t expect to find you here at Central Market.”

“I often come here at lunchtime, Molly. Doing research for the senior partners at Dewey, Cheatham & Howe really creates an appetite.”

“Does your husband know his petite, thirty-year old wife enjoys greasy hamburgers?”

“Bill? What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Being a cop on the street, he has enough to worry about.”

Ouch. Most of the time you’ll find such dialogue on the opening pages of beginner’s manuscripts. They think they have to get a bunch of exposition out there so the reader will understand what’s going on. Not so. Act first, explain later.

On the other hand, dialogue can be used to reveal information when the info is hidden within a tense exchange.

Let’s say the key bit you want to reveal is that Sally is married to a cop. The scene might go this way:

“Sally! What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?”

“I’m just surprised. A hamburger?”

“So?”

“You’re usually so careful.”

“What do you want?”

“Are you meeting Bill?

“No.”

“Is he on duty?”

“Is that your business?”

“Got to be hard.”

“What?”

“Being a cop’s wife. Nervous time. I can understand—”

“Thanks for your concern. Can I finish my meal in peace now?”

So relax about exposition, and get your characters into more arguments. Readability will go up, and reader trust in you as an author will not be compromised. And you will be able to sit back and utter a satisfying nyuck nyuck nyuck. (Further dialogue techniques may be found here.)

For giggles, you can watch the opening dialogue below…and the rest of the short if you so desire. Excelsior!

We Want Our Mummy (1939) from Patrick J Mele on Vimeo.

8+

Further Reflections on the Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I enjoy getting emails and tweets from writers regarding the “mirror moment,” which is the subject of my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Recently I received two that I thought would make good fodder for a post (we at TKZ are always looking for good fodder).

The first email was a great question from someone who asked about the mirror moment in a long series. She used Sue Grafton’s alphabet series as an example. Should each book have a mirror moment? How can a series character go through so many changes?

I wrote back reminding her that there are two kinds of mirror moments. The first kind is about identity. It asks questions like, “Who am I? Why am I this way? What must I become?” It’s Rick in Casablanca.

The second kind is about death. It is the realization, “I’m probably going to die. The opposition is too great. How can I possibly survive?” That’s Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

So I suggested that in any Kinsey Millhone mystery (and in mystery series in general), there could always be a realization in the middle that this case, this puzzle, this villain is the most perplexing or dangerous of their career. It looks like they could “die” (professionally) this time.

But that is not to say the character in any given book in a series cannot have a personal crisis of identity, too. Exhibit A would be the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly.

C is for confession: I have not read all of the alphabet books by Sue Grafton. I think I may have stopped around F. But the question intrigued me, so I went to the library and picked one of the later books at random—Q is For Quarry. I sat down and, as is my practice when mirror hunting, turned to the physical center of the book and just started looking around. Was there anything relating to identity? Or anything indicating this was the biggest challenge of her career?

Lo and behold, I found that it was about identity. Kinsey, who lost both her parents in a car accident when she was very young, has had a hole in her identity ever since. In this scene from the middle of the book, she is looking at a photograph of her mother. You don’t even have to know the details of the plot to know that this is the language of an identity-type of mirror moment:

I placed the frame on my desk, sitting back in my swivel chair with my feet propped up. Several things occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of before. I was now twice my mother’s age the day the photograph was taken. Within four months of that date, my parents would be married, and by the time she was my age, she’d have a daughter three years old. By then my parents would have had only another two years to live. It occurred to me that if my mother had survived, she’d be seventy. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a mother in my life—the phone calls, the visits and shopping trips, holiday rituals so alien to me. I’d been resistant to the Kinseys, feeling not only adamant but hostile to the idea of continued contact. Now I wondered why the offer of simple comfort felt like such a threat. Wasn’t it possible that I could establish a connection with my mother through her two surviving sisters? Surely, Maura and Susanna shared many of her traits—gestures and phrases, values and attitudes ingrained in them since birth. While my mother was gone, couldn’t I experience some small fragment of her love through my cousins and aunts? It didn’t seem too much to ask, although I still wasn’t clear what price I might be expected to pay.

I locked the office early, leaving the photo of my mother in the center of my desk. Driving home, I couldn’t resist touching on the issue, much in the same way the tongue seeks the socket from which a tooth has just been pulled. The compulsion resulted in the same shudder-producing blend of satisfaction and repugnance.

Thus, any book in a long-running series can include subplot elements that relate to the hero’s identity and transformation.

Shortly after this I got an email from my friend, writer Rich Bullock. He told me he’d been watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and in the chapter titled “The Mirror Cave” Rey is being tempted by the dark side (what a shock) and challenged by Kylo Ren on her true identity. Rich told me it was smack dab in the middle.

So I checked out the DVD from the library, chucked in the player, and went to the scene. Rey has fallen into this mirror cave, and is hoping it will give her a clue about who she truly is. Kylo Ren is somewhere else, but able to communicate with her:

KYLO REN: Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

REY: No! No!

REY (VOICE OVER): I should have felt trapped or panicked. But I didn’t. This didn’t go on forever, I knew it was leading somewhere. And that, at the end, it would show me what I came to see.

REY: Let me see them. My parents … please.

She touches the mirror. Two shadowy figures approach from the other side of the glass. But when the frost clears, Rey is looking at … herself!

I took a look at the DVD timeline:

Hmm, we’re 1:16 into a 2:32 movie. I’m no math whiz, but I believe you can’t get any more middle than that!

The mirror moment works every time.

(For more on this, see my post “Revisiting the Mirror Moment”.)

That’s it for today, kids. I’m on the road most of the day, but will try to check in later. Talk amongst yourselves, esp. those of you writing series characters. How do you handle any inner transformation?

10+

Reader Friday: Failing Up

“In both life and football, failure is inevitable. You dont always win. You can, however, learn from that failure, pick yourself up with great enthusiasm, and place yourself in the arena again. And that’s right where you will find me. Because I know I still have more to prove.” — Tom Brady

Applies to writers, too?

8+

On Cheating

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today is a “need to vent” post. Indulge me.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, my Dodgers, who have not won a World Series since 1988, were cheated out of the 2017 series by the Houston Astros. It was a seven-game series, mind you, so any small advantage engendered large-scale results.

That’s what happened when the Astros mechanized a sign-stealing system. The whole art of pitching is about mixing it up to fool batters. But if a batter knows when a pitcher is going to bring the heat, he can prepare to swing early. If a change or breaking ball is coming, he can sit on the pitch. This is an incredible advantage for the hitter.

Now, there’s always been a “gentleman’s agreement” about stealing signs with your eyes. If a runner on second is able to figure out the pitch, and pats his knee so the batter knows what’s coming, that’s acceptable. Catchers know this, and adjust accordingly.

What the Astros did was different. They used a combination of high-tech and low-tech. They had a camera in centerfield trained on the Dodgers catchers, connected to a monitor just off the Astros dugout. A player in the dugout would read the catcher’s signs, then relay the information to Astros batters by—get this—banging on a trash can lid. A sort of garbage Morse code!

It worked. As the Astros celebrated their victory, Dodgers fans sulked, for that 2017 team was the best we’ve had in a generation.

But after an investigation by Major League Baseball, the Astros scheme was brought to light. As a result, the team has been fined the maximum, $5 million, and will forfeit its next two first- and second-round draft picks. The manager and general manager were both suspended, then immediately fired by the team.

The only remaining question is whether the Astros should be stripped of their title. You can guess what the vote would be in Los Angeles.

(And as if we didn’t need more salt in the wound, the same thing may have happened to the 2018 Dodgers in the World Series against the Red Sox! That is currently under investigation.)

Cheating, of course, has always been with us, from test answers jotted on the sweaty palm of a nervous student, to stuffing ballot boxes with the votes of dead people. (A 2012 report by the Pew Center found that more than 1.8 million dead people were registered to vote, and not one of them was named Casper.)

Which brings me to writers. There are temptations out there to “cheat” or “game the system” in various ways, and for various purposes. Here’s one example, reported by the gimlet-eyed David Gaughran:

One particular guy — who I won’t name — … presents himself as a million-selling author, and an expert, when he’s neither. I dug into his background and found a cute little cheat had propelled him to what looked like chart success, when really there was a skeevy little formula behind this appearance of a fanbase.

Back when this was possible, he would drop the price of his books to $0.01 on Google Play, and then self-report the lower price to Amazon, whose bots would dutifully match that price, despite this being against the TOS. It was like having a free book in the paid charts, and at that price it attracted a lot of downloads, of course. The book would then rise up the popularity list also and start getting recommended to Amazon customers, at which point he’d raise the price to $2.99 and drop the price of his next book.

This heavily touted “success” of his — where he’s waving around sales numbers rather than quoting income — was then parlayed into a thousand-dollar mastermind course a couple of years ago, which he proceeded to sell to hundreds of fiction writers, without disclosing this wheeze, or that all his books were non-fiction: public domain prayers he had simply repackaged.

He’s not even a writer! Now he’s an expert talking about “The Amazon Algorithm.” What a world.

Among real writers, those who truly care about their craft, I’m convinced the overwhelming majority are on the up-and-up. And there are many who are particularly skilled at understanding algorithms, meta-data, CPC versus CPM, and so on. It is right and proper to optimize these things.

What isn’t right are obvious sins like plagiarism, paid-for reviews, and sock-puppetry to leave bad reviews of another writer’s books.

I don’t have any grand lesson here, except to say—echoing the doctor responding to the patient who complained that it “hurts when I do this”—don’t do that! We have enough “integrity deficit disorder” going on in our culture. Leave us not add to it.

Oh, and one other thing: Belated congratulations to the 2017 World Champion Dodgers!

8+

Getting Serious About Your Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Kris had some great advice this week on becoming a smarter writer. I thought I’d weigh in (oops, wrong post-holiday idiom, but so it goes) with a few thoughts on how to get serious about making writing a career, be it full or part time.

Because everybody wants to be a writer. Your ficus tree wants to be a writer. I’ve lost count of the times someone has uttered to me a variation on “I think I have a book inside me” and I choke back the urge to say, “That’s a great place to keep it.”

Then there are those who take a real step. They actually write a novel. Huzzah! I’m all for it, though most first novels are like first waffles. A good beginning, a great learning experience, but not yet ready to be served. Many writers drop out at this point, disappointed that their initial effort was not met with universal acclaim.

The serious writer makes a second attempt, and a third, and determines to keep on going. This writer wants to make a legit run at a) getting signed by an agent and gaining entry into the Forbidden City of traditional publishing; or b) going indie and creating a real income stream (for more on such choices, see this post).

If you have made the decision to be this kind of writer, let me give you ten pieces of advice forged over a quarter century of getting paid for my work.

  1. Make production your priority

I’ve long advised the following: Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, considering your “real life” situation. Then up that number by 10% and divide that number into the writing days available to you. I write six days a week, and take one day off to recharge. If I have to miss a day, I don’t beat myself up. I simply try to make up the word count by doing a little extra on the other days.

And if I botch a week, or have something interrupt it—sickness, crisis, the running of the bulls in Pamplona—I forget it and start the next week afresh.

Now, I know there are some writers who find a quota onerous and claim it’s a hindrance to creativity. I don’t buy it. Creativity is a muscle that gets stronger when it works out. Try my method for six months and see for yourself.

If, after that time, you feel stifled by your quota, don’t give it up. Just reduce the number to something easy. Like 250 words. Your ficus tree can write 250 words in a day. Don’t be shown up by your ficus tree.

  1. Be intentional about learning your craft

A guy who wants to play golf doesn’t get better by going out with a bad grip, terrible stance, and an ugly swing, and chopping holes in perfectly fine grass. At some point he’s got to learn fundamentals and practice to embed them in his muscle memory.

Same for writers. You can keep writing and writing and chopping holes in your stories. You can repeat things that put readers off or don’t allow them to fully engage with what’s in your imagination.

Or you can determine to learn techniques that make your writing better. 

Dedicate some time each week to studying the craft, and putting into practice what you learn. At least once, go to a good writers conference. Invest in a great course.

  1. Set up a system of quality feedback

When I was under contract with a publishing house, I was answerable to an editor. I was lucky to work with some good ones. One in particular would send his authors multi-page, single-spaced letters. When I got one of these in the mail I’d set it on my desk and pace around it for a couple of days before opening it, because I knew there was going to be a lot of work involved.

Which was good, because it made me a better writer.

Hiring a freelance developmental editor can be expensive, though if you connect with the right one it becomes a good investment rather than an expense.

An alternative is a trusted set of beta readers. Here are some tips from TKZ emeritus Joe Moore in that regard.

You might also benefit from a good critique group, with good as the operative word. Here are some tips from Jordan.

Every serious writer needs other sets of eyes on their work. Which reminds me: you do need to pay a good proofreader if you’re publishing on your own. Nothing screams amateur to a reader like a stream of typos.

  1. Set aside time for pure creativity

As I mentioned above, creativity is a muscle that gets stronger with use. I try to take an hour a week just to do wild, creative exercises.

Two of my favorites:

The What If? Game — Write down as many one line premises as you can. Base it on what you observe around you. What if that woman sipping a latte by the window is a serial killer? What if my phone is actually an alien taking notes on everything I do and say?

The First-Line Game — Just make up first lines, not knowing how any of them will turn out! I once wrote: It’s not every day you bleed to death. I came back to it and the plot for Framed started to come to me. I have a ton of these in a file. Do the same and you’ll never run out of story sparkers.

  1. Detox from social media

Everybody knows that social media addiction is real. Hopping onto Twitter or Facebook or Instagram gives your brain an instant dopamine hit. It’s like digital crack. And it’s really doing damage our ability to concentrate and focus.

I find this “drug” calling to me whenever I’m struggling with a scene. Rather than stick it out, I’m tempted to do a little traipsing through Twitter. It’s a cop out, and I have to tell myself—sometimes out loud—to keep writing. Deciding how much time to spend on social media and creating an actual schedule for it (as opposed to haphazard hopping) is a very wise thing to do.

And when you do engage socially, follow Clare’s sage advice by sticking to positive and kind give-and-take.

  1. Be thinking two projects ahead

One of the worst things you can do is work, re-work, and keep re-working a book without getting ready to write the next … and the next. I’ve been to writers conferences several years in a row where I’ve seen conferees returning with the exact same manuscript.

Think like a movie studio. You have a project that is in production, one that is “green lit” as your next, and at least one “in development.” Spend part of your creativity time jotting ideas and scenes for these works to come.

  1. Write when you’re not writing

Keep training your mind to be observant and curious when you’re away from the keyboard. Carry a notebook, or use your phone, to record things that occur to you. If you overhear some intriguing dialogue in a coffee house or other venue, write it down.

The benefit of this practice is that the “boys in the basement” will work for you, even as you sleep. I’m slogging through a first draft right now, and over the last few weeks I’ve awakened several times with an insight that’s helped me, or a reminder about something I’d written a month ago that needs revisiting. Love those boys. I send them extra donuts.

  1. Read widely

Of course you should read authors you admire and can learn from. Copy passages that move you (the best way is by using a pen and paper, to really capture the rhythm). You’re not doing this to use the words in your own work—that’s called plagiarism. You’re doing this to stretch your writing muscles and expand your style.

When I read a page or paragraph I love, I sticky note it, or highlight it on my Kindle. I go back to these and read them out loud from time to time.

Don’t neglect non-fiction. Learn more about the world, dig into areas you might use someday in your fiction. Become the kind of autodidact who is welcome at social gatherings.

  1. Nurture your motivation

All writers face moments when they think, Sheesh, should I still be doing this? Why keep beating my head against the door of the Forbidden City? Why self-publish books that languish in the Amazon basement?

The answer, of course, is that you’re a writer. There’s something in you that wants—needs—to put words on paper (or screen) and transfer a story you feel deeply to readers, so they will feel it, too.

That’s your motivation, and you should nurture it regularly, not just when you want to drown your sorrows.

Make a shelf of your ultra-favorite novels and novelists. I’ve found that reading some pages from a book that has moved me gets my writing juices flowing again.

Collect some quotations for reflection. Here are two of my favorites:

“If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.” – Leonard Bishop, Dare to be a Great Writer

“For me, that is the secret to a successful, prolific career as a writer: Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you’ll most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you’ll have a happy life.” — Dean Koontz, Strange Highways

  1. Be businesslike

This could also be #1 for the serious writer. In a way, everything else in this post can be viewed as “best practices for writers” advice. If you do such things regularly, you are systematizing, which is what good businesses do.

A good businessperson also looks at the world through clear (not rose-colored) lenses.

Clear lenses recognize that a publisher is not your friend or your mama; it is a money-making enterprise. Make them money and they will keep you around. Cost them money and they won’t. So you’d better understand publishing contracts, the concept of leverage, and what you are prepared to give up in order to have a shot at traditional success.

For indies, clear lenses see that this is not a get-rich-quick pathway. It’s going to take years of production and quality control to build a readership. You’ll need to make informed judgments about things like “going wide” or being exclusive with Amazon; about producing audio versions; about where to concentrate your marketing; and much more.

This is a lot to take in, I know, but then again getting serious about anything takes time and effort. Your brain surgeon doesn’t say, “I think I have a brain surgery inside me!”

So don’t ask if you have a book inside you. Ask if you have a writer inside you. Then get to work.

So where are you on your writing journey?

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Reader Friday: Your First Story

Dean Koontz

“When I was eight years old, I wrote short stories on tablet paper, drew colorful covers, stapled the left margin of each story, put electrician’s tape over the staples for the sake of neatness, and tried to peddle these books to relatives and neighbors. Each of my productions sold for a nickel.” — Dean Koontz

What’s the very first story you remember writing? How old were you? What inspired it?

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