“From my close observation of writers… they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.” – Isaac Asimov
How do you respond to bad reviews?
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the Kindle made its appearance nearly twelve years ago. It ushered in the greatest boon to writers since Gutenberg—independent publishing. Not only did this sea change give new writers a way to get their work out to the world instantly; it also saved the careers of many midlist writers who were let go by their publishers due to lack of sales.
In those heady, early years a veritable Sargasso of sloppy mistakes were made by over-anxious newbies. Everything from lousy formatting to horrific covers (“But my daughter designed the cover for me, and by golly, I’m going to use it!”)
As the years rolled on, and blogs and books on indie publishing proliferated, quality issues slowly improved. That still did not guarantee huge sales numbers. You still had to write a good book! But we’ve now reached a point in indie publishing that I would call the “mature phase.”
Still, however, rookie mistakes are made by new writers. I’d like to point out three, and then turn the conversation over to you.
The other day I was browsing in the Kindle store when a cover popped out at me. Popped, but didn’t grab. I don’t want to embarrass the author, so I’ll just describe in general terms what it looked like.
The colors were fine, the fonts were good, the image — a small, shadowy figure — communicated thriller.
But the title did nothing for me. At least, what I thought was the title. For it turned out the title was a name. At first, I thought the name was that of the lead character, since it had a “title-like” font.
I should mention that the book cover was displayed in thumbnail form, which is significant because I then noticed, almost too small to read, something below the name.
It was the actual title.
And then, on the bottom of the cover: A ____ _____ Thriller.
Which meant, of course, that the font dominating the cover was the author’s name.
One little problem: this is the author’s first book. We’re not talking Lee Child here. We’re talking a rookie whom no one outside his immediate circle has ever heard of.
To give you an idea, I did a quickie mockup to show you the proportions. The names have been changed, of course.
As much of an ego boost as it is to see your name above the title, your first book is not the time to do it. Your task is to sell books and make repeat readers.
When might you put your name above the title?
a) When you hit a major bestseller list
b) When you win a major award
c) When your book sells a million copies
d) When you have established solid sales over four or five books.
Then you can move from this:
Not Paying for a Good Proofreader
I was teaching at a conference in Oklahoma recently, and took Lyft to the airport for the flight back to L.A. As I usually do, I engaged the driver in conversation. He was a local, a gray-haired ponytail fellow who goes around to fairs with a trio of guys reenacting Old West gunfights. He asked what I did and I told him and he said, “Hey, my buddy writes crime novels. He’s really into it. He’s written two of ’em.” Pause. “He needs an editor, though. A lot of mistakes and typos.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “You can’t do that. At least if you want people to buy another one of your books.”
“I bought his second one,” my driver said, then added: “But only because he’s my buddy.”
You know all those potential readers out there? Not your buddies. So don’t annoy them with a typo infested book.
Typos are the special bane of the indie existence. I’ve often said they are like sand fleas. You get back from the beach, you shower, you think you’re good. Then around midnight, what’s that itch?
Yeah, ick, I know. But that’s how I feel about a typo that slips through.
So find a good proof reader and pay that person. It’s a rookie mistake not to invest in quality control.
And if there’s still a sand flea or two? Don’t worry. A reader will alert you. (Kindle Direct Publishing does, too.) Then you can fix and re-up your book in about ten minutes. I use Vellum for my formatting, so I make the change and then output for both ebook and print. I log into KDP and click a few times and I’m done.
As a rook, you’ll be tempted to try every dang thing under the sun to get the word out on your book. I’ve already written the wisest guide to marketing out there, one that will save you a lot of stress.
For now I’ll point out the two biggest blunders:
Have at it, folks. What other rookie mistakes have you seen? I’m at a conference today so my interaction may be sketchy. Talk amongst yourselves!
I’m a fan of the AMC series Mad Men, which I’ve been re-watching. So smartly written and superbly acted, and its attention to detail in the setting—1960s New York ad world—is fantastic.
Among the many episodes and scenes that have stayed with me, the one that stands out is from the first season—Episode 9, “Shoot” (written by Chris Provenzano and series creator Matthew Weiner ). The title is a play on words, for in the episode there’s a photo shoot, and at the end another kind of shoot, which I’ll get to in a moment.
In this one, Betty Draper—perfectly played by the incandescent January Jones—is given a (seemingly) out-of-nowhere offer to become the new face of Coca-Cola. She had done some modeling before marrying Don Draper and taking on the duties of a full-time housewife.
Betty is flattered and excited. It’s a chance to break out of the routine she’s in, to escape some of the mundane problems she has to deal with at home. One of those problems is a neighbor who raises pigeons. The man chewed out Betty’s kids for letting their dog attack one of his free-flying birds. He threatens to shoot the dog if it happens again.
Now Betty has this opportunity! An exec at McCann-Erickson, one of the big agencies, calls her into a studio for a photographic session.
And then she gets canned. The agency tells her it’s because the higher-ups have decided to go in a different direction. It’s a lie. Unbeknownst to Betty, the exec at McCann gave her the gig only to coax Don to come over to his agency. When Don tells him to pound sand, Betty is shown the door.
You really feel for Betty, of course. She was so thrilled at getting selected for a prime role, while all along she was just a pawn in a man’s game.
At the end of the episode, Betty is dressed in a flimsy robe one morning. She lights a cigarette and sticks it in her mouth, gun-moll style. Then she takes her son’s BB gun out into the yard and starts shooting at the neighbor’s pigeons, as he screams at her to stop.
It is one of the most stunning and surprising endings to a TV episode ever. Variety called it “the first truly brilliant moment of the 2007-08 television season with the pitch-perfect end…”
One of the secrets of page-turning fiction is what I call unanticipation. It’s the opposite of boring, for boredom comes when a reader anticipates (even subconsciously) what will happen next—and then it does.
If that occurs over and over, the reader is not going to finish the book. Why should they? They already know what will happen.
Thus, it behooves a writer to constantly be asking, What would the average reader expect to happen next? and then do something else.
Even more to the point, sometimes go to a place that is at the far end of the unanticipation scale, so far that it makes you nervous.
I wonder what the story meeting on this Mad Men episode sounded like.
“So Betty is deeply hurt and despairing about getting dropped as a model. She tries to save Don’s feelings by telling him she didn’t want the gig after all. How do we fade out?”
“Maybe Betty is sitting alone, smoking a cigarette, pouring herself a drink.”
“Kind of what we’d expect, though.”
“Yeah…what if she looks at herself in the mirror then breaks the glass?”
“Again, seen it.”
“So then what?”
“I dunno. What if she drives the car into a lamppost … no … what if she stands in the window at Macy’s as if she’s a mannequin … wait … she goes outside her house with a gun and shoots at some birds!”
“We’ll plant a neighbor in act one, who’s obnoxious and raises pigeons. Betty’ll blast ’em!”
“Whoa! That is so un-Betty like. She’s Miss Perfect.”
“That’s what’ll blow people away!”
That’s the kind of thinking you should do. Learn to reject the first, second, even third idea you come up with in order to get to a place you never thought you’d go. Because if you never thought it, it’s certain the reader won’t think it, either!
So when was a time you went to a place in your writing that surprised or even shocked you? How did it turn out?
First, on health:
Over at Project Gutenberg I happened upon the definitive treatment of the healthy side of coffee, published in London in 1721, with the snappy title of The Virtue and Use of Coffee With Regard to the Plague, And Other Infectious Distempers. We all know coffee gives you a lift in the morning, among other benefits. But until I read this little book, I had no idea of the number of infirmities a daily cup of joe can overcome. To wit:
[Coffee] cures Consumptions, Swooning Fits, and the Rickets; and it helps Digestion, rarefies the Blood, suppresses Vapours, gives Life and Gayety to the Spirits, prevents Sleepiness after eating, provokes Urine and the Catamena.
It contracts the Bowels, and confirms the Tone of the Parts, being drank after Victuals, provided it be fresh made; for if it stands but two or three Hours, it loseth much of its Virtue. … It is an effectual Remedy against Worms in Children; so that if the Mother drinks frequently of it when she is With Child, the Infant will not be troubled with Worms, during its first Years.
’Tis likewise useful to such as are afflicted with Rheumatick or Gouty Humours. The Dutch Physicians commend the Use of it in Intermitting Fevers, and hold it to be good against Infection; because of the great Refreshment it gives the nobler Parts of the Body, and its sudden Effect upon the Spirits, which are wonderfully recreated by it. And it is apparently the Opinion of all Physicians who have yet wrote concerning the Plague, That such Bodies whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections. And again, That the Spirits must be refresh’d only by such Liquors, or Preparations, as will not promote Inflammations. And of this nature, say they, is Coffee, which by a right Use supports the vital Flame, and defends the Body from Pestilential Infection. And as such it is generally recommended, as a necessary Drink, at least twice a day; the first thing in a Morning, and at four in the Afternoon.
Got that? Drink coffee first thing in the morning and at four in the afternoon, and your kids won’t get worms.
Now, about writing. Louisa May Alcott wrote this letter sometime in 1878:
I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.
I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.
Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.
But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an earthly Providence to those we love.
I hope you will win this joy at least, & think you will, for you seem to have got on well so far, & the stories are better than many sent me. I like the short one best. Lively tales of home-life or children go well, & the Youth’s Companion is a good paying paper. I do not like Loring as he is neither honest nor polite. I have had dealings with him & know. Try Roberts Brothers, 299 Washington St. They are very kind & just & if the book suits will give it a fair chance. With best wishes for a prosperous & happy New Year I am your friend
What is your beverage of choice when you write?
Where are you on the “long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials” road that we call the writing life?
What part of writing brings you the most joy?
When I was a kid my big brother loved the TV Western Maverick. It’s been running on a cable channel and I’ve enjoyed catching up with it. The series introduced the American audience to James Garner as Bret Maverick (who often shared adventures with his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly).
Garner became an instant star, and it’s not hard to see why. He was masculine without being obnoxious; handsome but not too pretty; charming but not cloying. Most of all he was a natural, relaxed actor (though he put in a lot of hard work to get that way!)
Which all led to a storied career. He created not one, but two, iconic television characters—Maverick and Jim Rockford. He transitioned easily to movies, and was at home in light comedy (The Thrill of it All; Victor/Victoria), action adventure (The Great Escape; Hour of the Gun), romance (Murphy’s Romance), and showed considerable dramatic chops in the experimental Mister Buddwing.
By all accounts, he was as decent a fellow as there was in Hollywood. Married to the same woman for 57 years. Not a party animal or public boor. A true professional who showed up on time and knew his lines.
In the 1970s he did several commercials. I was starting my stint as an actor in Hollywood then, and in a commercial acting class the teacher held up Garner as the quintessential pitchman. “You just believe him,” she said. “It’s all about trust.”
So we students all had to pick an ad out of a magazine and memorize the copy, then spout it as naturally as we could. I still remember my product: The Pentax ME camera.
The exercise paid off. I nabbed several commercials, which helped pay my bills and later gave me nice residuals all through law school. (Remember the guy at that picnic who pours everyone some Pepsi? Yep, that was me. And I’m sure you recall the handsome lad sliding a tray of hamburgers in a McDonald’s serving window. Me again!)
Which brings me to today’s clever writing segue. James Garner’s “secret”—which applies to writers as well as actors—was that he was always himself within the role. He knew his parameters, and that was his zone. That’s also what my favorite actor, Spencer Tracy, said about his acting style. He would see himself as Spencer Tracy as a priest, or Spencer Tracy as a bride’s father…or a fisherman or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Which is why, when we write, we must put ourselves into our fiction by seeing ourselves as the characters.
How does your Lead character feel at each stage of the proceedings? The answer is the way you would feel if you were that character.
That goes for any of the cast, including the bad guy. Why does he do these things? That’s backstory. What’s going on inside him? It’s what would go on inside of you if you lived that same past.
When you tap into these things, you get a James Garner effect—readers will trust your story. (It is also, by the way, how you get at that elusive thing agents and editors call voice.)
In an interview Garner once said, “When people see me in something and say, ‘That’s just you, that’s not acting,’ it’s the best compliment I can get.”
He also said, “I’ve had to work hard at that easy-going manner you see on the screen.”
Working hard to get natural. Good advice for writers, too.
What’s your favorite James Garner role? Mine has to be The Great Escape, especially the moment where Garner insists on taking the blind forger (Donald Pleasance) with him. The outcome of this plot line gets me every time.
The other day I reread Hemingway’s famous short story “The Killers.” It takes place in a small-town diner at twilight. Two men enter the diner and start talking tough. It is unlike any other Hemingway story in that it is clearly pulp style. “The Killers” was published in 1927, but because it was Hemingway it came out in Scribner’s Magazine, not Black Mask.
The tough guys order the diner owner and the one patron, Nick Adams (Hemingway’s alter ego in many of his stories), behind the counter. One tough takes Nick into the kitchen and ties him up with the cook.
When the owner asks what’s going on, one of the tough guys explains that he and his partner are there to kill “a Swede.” The Swede’s name is Ole Andreson. He’s supposed to come in for dinner at six. But he doesn’t show. After an hour the killers leave, presumably to go hunt for their prey.
The owner unties Nick and the cook. Nick runs over to the rooming house where Andreson lives. Nick finds him lying on his bed with his clothes on. Nick tries to warn him, but Andreson refuses to go. He says he’s tired of running. Nick returns to the diner, and we are left with the impression that Andreson will soon be dead.
The classic film noir adaptation of “The Killers” was released in 1946 (and features the film debut of Burt Lancaster, who plays Ole Andreson). It uses the short story as the opening sequence. The rest of the film is told through a police investigation and flashbacks.
I first read this story in college, when I was going through my big Hemingway phase. This time, with twenty-five years of my own writing behind me, some things bothered me about the story.
First, the killers walk in and immediately start talking like killers. They might as well have had name badges that said, “Hi! My Name is Al, Assassin, Chicago.”
Second, they come right out and say they are there to kill Ole Andreson.
Third, they make no attempt to hide their faces.
Fourth, when they leave, they don’t shoot the witnesses they’ve just spilled their guts to.
Fifth, if they wanted to kill Ole Andreson, why do it in a public place? Why not just look him up in a directory or politely ask the diner guy where they might find him? Or stake out the diner from across the street and wait for him to show?
Sixth, they overuse the term “bright boy” when they talk. Something like thirty times in just a few pages. Maybe they are indeed killers … who annoy people to death.
If I’d been around in 1927 and met Hemingway in a bar, I might have asked him these questions, then ducked.
All this leads to me to my assertion today about the most important question you can ask about a scene. This is a question that you should ask both before and after you’ve written it. There are, of course, some other questions you need to consider before you write a scene, e.g., Who is the viewpoint character? What is his or her objective in the scene? What are the obstacles? What are the agendas of the other characters in the scene? Where is the conflict?
But then should come this final and ultimate question, for it overhangs everything. Plus, it’s what the readers will immediately pick up on if it’s not answered correctly. Here it is:
Would they really?
Would the characters, if this were “real life,” act this way? Would they make these choices? Or are you, the author, pushing them to do certain things in order to move your plot?
Would hired killers really act the way they do in “The Killers”? Or was it a way for Hemingway to show that he could out-pulp the pulp writers of the day, especially in the dialogue department?
Another way to pose this question to yourself is: are all the characters in this scene operating at maximum capacity in order to get what they want? The sci-fi author Stanley Schmidt has wisely said, “At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view.”
Do you have a “would they really?” example from a book or movie? Carry on the conversation in the comments. I’m on the road, so will try to respond as I can.
And speaking of conversations, my book HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE is now available in audio, as read by the author.
I’m going to assume arguendo (every now and then I trot out my legalese, especially if it’s Latin, because it makes me sound so authoritative) that you want to be in the writing game for the long haul. Further assumption: you would like your fiction to create a river—or at least a stream—of income. You nod your head in agreement with blogmate Laura Benedict when she describes success as, “I’m still here. Readers still read my stories—often paying for them—and I still write them.”
There used to be only one way to go about this: get a contract from a publishing house and sell enough books so you get another contract.
Now, of course, there is the viable alternative called indie publishing.
Jane Friedman recently interviewed two literary agents on the topic of establishing a career as a traditionally-published author. Two takeaways:
1. Many writers crave a large advance for a first novel.
2. That may not be a good thing to crave:
Maybe that big-advance book doesn’t get as many pre-sales as the publisher wanted, or gets mediocre reviews, or underperforms in its first quarter. A publisher at that point might re-strategize, or they might cut their losses, and the author ends up never earning out that big advance. That can hurt in the long-term. When it comes time to sell the next book, a publisher may use those figures against them by offering a lower advance or passing entirely. Publishers want to see that an author will make them money.
Thus, a modest advance is not a bad thing:
Depending on the publisher’s budget, the house might want to keep the advance lower to give the author an opportunity to earn out and also apply some of those funds to marketing. The biggest advantage to a smaller advance is that it’s easier to earn out. If your first book/contract earns out, that gives you a much better chance at a second contract.
But what if you fall well short of earning out? The publishing world is littered with the bleached bones of careers that didn’t make enough green for the house and were cast outside the gates of the Forbidden City.
Now, of course, dem bones can get up and walk around (now hear the word of the Lord) via indie publishing. If these authors can get the rights back to their published books, so much the better. [Though publishers have wised up to the asset value of backlists. So get wise yourself, trad authors: huddle with your agent and negotiate a realistic reversion clause tied to a minimum of royalty income.]
My advice for authors seeking a long-term traditional career is as follows:
My advice for authors seeking a long-term independent career:
Finally, for all writers looking to make this gig a career: be patient and resilient. Success rarely happens right out of the gate. It takes years to get established. Setbacks are more frequent than bestsellers. But the only true defeat happens when you stop writing.
So don’t stop.
Other advice is welcome in the comments.
Today’s post comes courtesy of a first-page critique. Here we go:
Tobias Martel walked from the sidewalk to the back door of an older, one-story house that screamed for basic repairs. One block east of South King Street in the historic district of Leesburg, Virginia, the run-down state of the property, which faced the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail, violated all the stereotypes of the richest county in the United States. Overgrown bushes and trees provided some needed cover for his operation, safe from the passing cyclists and runners on the W&OD trail.
The targets that lived in the house used the back door exclusively because the gravel driveway led right to it. The front and back doors were the newest parts of the house, along with the locks. Both were secured with Kwikset double cylinder locks, a grade 1 lock requiring a key to open from both inside and outside the home. It was designed to keep out a large majority of burglars, criminals, and thieves.
Martel was none of the above.
He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. His wrestling days in high school and college gave him a rugged physique that made it hard to shed any more weight. The gray hair, which had peeked through fifteen years ago, quickly accelerated because of the shock according to the doctors. It now covered his entire head, with just glimpses of his former color still visible. He kept his hair trimmed, never going more than four weeks between haircuts. Martel hated that shaggy look. Complimenting his mane of grey was a close beard. More like a five o’clock shadow. It made it easy to change up his looks or grow it back fast when needed.
Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Besides easy identification, he never saw anything socially redeeming about sticking ink under your skin. His only visible identifier was a four-inch scar on his left arm, starting below his thumb and working its way at a jagged angle towards his elbow. It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife. Martel had made sure the man had understood the consequences. He was dead certain this mistake wouldn’t happen again.
In three months, Martel would turn 48. He wondered if this was it—if this was how life would be until it was over. He had thought many times about taking the end date into his own hands. Stopping this perpetual madness before it overwhelmed his nightly thoughts. He argued with himself whether to stay in the game or not. The only issue would be how he exited —his terms or someone else’s.
JSB: Here’s what we have: the kernel of a good opening—an assassin about to do his thing. That would make a gripping scene. The problem is we don’t have a scene. We have description from a disembodied voice (i.e., the author’s).
So rather than going line by line, I’m first going to advise the author to re-write the entire opening chapter using no description at all. That’s what I said. Do this as a discipline to force yourself to write the action of the scene. Don’t put in any backstory, either (e.g., It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife…)
Once you’ve done the re-write, then you can go back and marble in some descriptive elements, but only what is necessary for the reader to envision the scene. I’ll also allow you three sentences of backstory, which you can use together or spread out over the first 10k words.
But the big issue I want to talk about is this pesky thing called “author voice.” It means that as we are reading, we get the vibe that the author is telling us things in his or her own words. (Note: obviously we are discussing Third Person POV.)
It’s often subtle, but the way to tell is when the narration doesn’t seem like anything the character himself would say. A few examples:
Martel was none of the above. That’s the author telling us something, because it’s not what Martel would ever think about himself—at least not in those words.
He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. Again, not how Martel would think of himself.
Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Would Martel ever use the word eschewed? I think not.
The reason this is so important is that readers crave intimacy with characters. When the author sticks his voice into the proceedings, that intimacy is diluted, if not lost altogether.
That’s why I advise a “powerhouse secret” that is simple to understand, but requires care and craft to pull off. Once you get it on the page, however, it will return massive dividends in reader engagement. Here it is:
Put all narrative in a form that sounds like the character would think or say it.
In other words, everything on the page should seem to be filtered through whoever the viewpoint character is. It should feel like this:
To illustrate, let’s compare a couple of passages.
Ernest Stickley put down his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing the men around him talking and trying to sound like they were from the mean streets. He also thought it was a mistake to have made that call to Rainy. If the call had been about having a drink sometime, that would have been fine. But he shouldn’t have promised him anything.
Stickley soaped his hands from the dispenser and washed up. Then he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked pale and a bit solemn. In fact, he looked like someone else. He looked like the man he had been before that trouble in Jackson, Tennessee. Back then he had a hard look that helped him stand up to people.
There’s nothing distinctive in this narration. It’s a dry, objective recitation of facts.
Now let’s look at how Elmore Leonard did it in his novel Stick:
Stick left his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing guys talk, guys wanting you to believe they were street, guys saying man all the time. He shouldn’t have called Rainy. Well, maybe call him and have a drink, but he shouldn’t have promised him anything.
Stick washed his hands with the fragrant pink soap that came out of the dispenser, washed them good and stared into the clear mirror at his features. Pale, solemn. Who was that? Like looking at someone else. Back in another life before Jackson he could narrow his eyes at his reflection––hard-boned but not bad looking––and say, “That’s it? That’s all you got?”
It’s obvious how much better this is. It is Stick’s voice we hear, his attitudes, his musings. It pulls us further into his character, rather than keeping us at arm’s length.
That’s what I want to see in this piece, author. So for your final exercise, after you’ve given us a scene with action, rewrite it in FIRST Person POV. This will force you to write in Martel’s voice.
Then…convert it back into Third Person!
Here’s what’s going to happen: when you re-read your chapter and compare it to what you have here, you will utter the word Wow.
You have the TKZ guarantee.
Two quick notes before I go. First (because this drives me bonkers) there is a difference between complimenting and complementing. You should have used the latter.
Second (from the shameless self-promotion dept.) I’ve written an entire book on the crucial subject of Voice.
Comments are welcome.
You’ve probably heard Parkinson’s Law articulated, even if you didn’t know its name. It was formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson, one of those appellations whose authoritative grandeur makes you stand at attention. He was actually an English naval historian and novelist, and quite prolific. So it must have been with some consternation that his most famous work turned out to be the little book Parkinson’s Law, which arose out of a satirical article about government bureaucracy.
In short form, Parkinson’s Law holds that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. As explained in this article, the adage…
…signifies that the more time we dedicate to a certain task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if we could have gotten the task done just as well in a shorter period of time.
For example, according to Parkinson’s law, if we’re given a week to perform a task that it can normally take us a day to complete, then we will end up unnecessarily stretching our performance of that task, until it takes us a week to complete it.
This is why publishing houses give writers deadlines. And why writers almost always find themselves massively stressed in the weeks before a manuscript is due. They could have been early with the book, but they aren’t because they’ve expanded the work all the way to the deadline. It’s almost magically perverse.
This is why it’s important for indie writers to establish SIDs—self-imposed deadlines. Otherwise, it’s just too dang easy to loaf about you manuscript, especially if it’s giving you some trouble.
The article suggests the following:
To account for Parkinson’s law in your work, you need to start each task by identifying its scope, and trying to determine how much time it will realistically take to complete it.
That is, don’t ask yourself how much time you have to complete a task. Instead, ask yourself how much time it should realistically take you to complete that task, and do your best to complete your work within that timeframe.
In other words, set your own deadline based on what you could realistically accomplish if you parked your keister in the chair each day and did your work!
Further, you can put time constraints on a micro level as well. Let’s say you have four months to write 70k words, and you know your writing schedule and daily quota can easily get you there. Don’t get cocky.
Instead, figure out what you can optimally produce per week, up that number by 10%, and make that your goal.
You can even go smaller. Every now and then I give myself five minutes to write 250 words. I’ll often use Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die for this task. Nothing jump starts the writer’s mind like forced, fast writing (with the possible exception of a double espresso).
Final bit of advice. Parkinson had another law, the Law of Triviality, which holds that members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.
Might I suggest that this applies to individuals, too.
For writers this might mean that when you sit down to write you first check your social media or email, or rearrange your desk, or finish that Sudoku you’ve been working on.
Indeed, there even seems to be a new corollary at work today: the amount of available triviality on the internet exponentially expands our desire to experience it.
Which leads to another law: Every “peep of steam through [your social media] whistle — Listen to me! Listen to me! — [reduces] the boiler pressure … needed to write another novel.”
Solution: Practice digital minimalism, set your own strict time limits when you work, and write!
Does Parkinson’s Law resonate with you? Do you find yourself filling up all the time you have for completing things?
Early in my writing career I noticed something happening when I got to around the 30k word mark in a manuscript. It was like I hit a wall. It’s not that I didn’t have ideas or know the direction of my plot. It was just a strange feeling like I wasn’t sure what to write next. I’d look ahead at the 60k or more words I had to write, and got the heebie-jeebies. What the heck was going on?
Luckily, I found out I wasn’t alone. Lawrence Block reported the same thing in his book Writing the Novel:
One thing I’ve come to recognize is that I tend to run into a wall at a certain point in all of my books…. I find myself losing confidence in the book—or, more precisely, in my ability to make it work. The plot seems to be either too simple and straightforward to hold the reader’s interest or too complicated to be neatly resolved. I find myself worrying that there’s not enough action, that the lead’s situation is not sufficiently desperate, that the book has been struck boring while my attention was directed elsewhere.
I got to thinking about “the wall” again while reading Kris’s post on settings and Game of Thrones. It put me in mind of the current plight of author George R. R. Martin. Now, I’m not an epic fantasy reader. I’ve never made it past the halfway point of The Fellowship of the Ring (stop with the singing already!) But I am definitely an admirer of those writers who excel at the genre. Especially Martin, whose page count and popularity I look at with awe. He is, at the moment, in the midst of a long patch of writer’s delay involving the next book in his series. Last year, he talked about it:
I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds of Winter isn’t finished. And I’m mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it’s not. And I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, “God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind. What the hell is happening here?”
This sounds like the wall and is completely understandable in light of the complexity of the books, not to mention the TV series running ahead of him!
Patrick Rothfuss, another popular fantasy writer, has also been in the midst of a very public delay for the third novel in his Kingkiller Chronicle (the second book was published back in 2011). Fans have expressed their displeasure—some going way over the line.
In an interview Rothfuss said something interesting:
“But I am moving forward. More importantly, I’m finally getting my life sorted out so that I can go back and approach my writing and my craft with the joy that I used to feel back in the day, when I was just an idiot kid playing D&D or working on my unpublishable fantasy novel.”
I think most of us can relate to that. When we first sat down to write a novel, we felt the joy of creation, the pure fun of making stuff up (see Jordan’s post on the “fun mojo” of writing). We shouted Huzzah! when we typed The End (or something that sounded like Huzzah. Maybe it was just Whew.)
But then we got the stunning news that what we had written didn’t work. We had to figure out why. We had to learn the craft. We had to work.
Then some of us got contracts and had to finish books with the cold, merciless wind of deadlines blowing across the backs of our necks. That chill was even more ominous if we found ourselves at a wall in our manuscript. So I developed some strategies to prepare for that dreaded moment.
1. The 20k Word Step Back
At 20k the foundation of my novel had better be strong. There’s a whole lot of words to write, characters to flesh out, plot twists to justify. So I stop around 20k to assess my plot:
A. Is my Lead compelling enough? Will readers care about his plight? Is he likable? Does he have qualities with which readers can empathize?
B. Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)? What can I do to ramp up the stakes?
C. Has my Lead been truly forced through the Doorway of No Return (when the book plunges into Act 2)? [Note: if your Lead isn’t forced into Act 2 by the 20% mark of your novel, the readers will feel it dragging.]
D. Do I have enough of an orchestrated cast? Do my secondary and minor characters have enough uniqueness about them? Are they sufficiently in conflict with other characters?
2. The Joy Factor
I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating. This is from a 1919 text on fiction writing by a man named Clayton Meeker Hamilton:
In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction)
“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”
Finding—and keeping—the joy in your book is thus absolutely essential, not just to break through the wall, but to elevate the entire thing. For me that means:
A. Going deeper into characters. This is a source of originality and interest. Giving even a little bit of backstory to minor characters creates all sorts of possibilities. You’re more likely to feel joyful when your novel teems with the possible coming out of characters.
B. Make things even harder for the Lead! Stop being so nice. Keep asking: what could make things worse? Oh, yeah? How about worse than that?
C. Keep a novel journal. This not only keeps you in the story; you can look back at early entries to recapture what got you hooked in the first place.
3. The Skip Ahead
If you’re still feeling hampered or unsure at the wall, get a long pole, back up fifty yards, then run like mad and vault right over the thing. Land a few scenes ahead. Pick the future scene you’re most excited about writing. Then write it!
Now, turn around and look backward. You should be able to plot a way to get from the wall to the scene you just wrote.
So what about you? Do you ever hit a wall in your writing? How do you deal with it?