What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Next year will be my 24th as a professional writer.

When my first book hit the shelves nobody used a cell phone (Seinfeld had that big brick handset with the antenna, remember?) O.J. Simpson had been found not guilty and Bill Cosby was still America’s most beloved dad. Microsoft released Windows 95. And a guy named Bezos launched a website that was purportedly going to sell books to consumers right over the internet! Everybody thought he was nuts.

For the seven years previous I’d been studying the craft of screenwriting and fiction, and writing every day. I devoured books on writing and gobbled up each monthly issue of Writer’s Digest. I have several shelves of my beloved writing books (and binders full of WDs), all highlighted and sticky-noted in some form or fashion. Every so often I like to pull one off the shelf to see what I highlighted, and relive some of the excitement of discovering something that worked for me.

The other day took down The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction by Barnaby Conrad, published by Writer’s Digest Books. It’s a collection of articles and interviews from the famous Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which Conrad directed for many years.

There was something tucked inside the book. It was a pamphlet titled 12 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Writing by Ben Bova, the science-fiction writer and editor. I think this came as a freebie with a book ordered from the Writer’s Digest Book Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member. So I had another look at Bova’s lessons and thought I’d reflect on them with you today. The first two are unsurprising:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Read widely.

All serious writing students know this, though I would edit the first one thus: write to a weekly quota. Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, then up that by 10% for your goal.

  1. Write about WHO you know.

Bova stresses the importance of well-rounded characters. Basic, of course, but coming from the sci-fi genre Bova knows it’s a temptation to overemphasize world-building.

  1. Character + Problem = Story.

I would change Problem to Plot, where plot is defined as a life-or-death battle which the character meets by strength of will.

  1. No villains.

This is Bova’s most important tip. The “villain” does not see himself that way. “Every tyrant in history was convinced that he had to do the things he did, for is own good or for the good of the people around him,” Bova writes.

I always counsel writers to know the bad guy’s “closing argument.” If he were on trial, what would he say to defend himself? And mean it?

  1. Start in the middle.

My heart sang. Had Bova anticipated Write Your Novel From the Middle? Ahem. No. He was talking about the opening pages, and he echoes one of my constant refrains: act first, explain later. Bova explains:

[Start] your story in the midst of brisk, exciting action. Start in the middle! Don’t waste time telling us how your protagonist got into the pickle he’s in. Show him struggling to get free. You can always fill in the background details later.

Particularly in a novel, it’s tempting to set the scene, explain the protagonist’s background, describe how she got to where she is. Cut all that out. Or, at least, save it for later. Start in the midst of action. Hook that reader right away or you won’t hook him at all.

  1. The chain of promises.

Don’t present a problem on page one and then solve it. Pile them up. “Each problem you present to the protagonist is a promise to the reader that there will be suspense, excitement, adventure in solving that problem.”

  1. Use all five senses.

Bova rightly notes that writers tend to favor sight and sound. Add touch, taste, and smell.

  1. Point of view.

Bova makes a case for close 3d Person, so you can be intimate with a character in one scene, then cut away to another character, and so on. He does not favor First Person because he finds it too limiting. Hmm. Tell that to Raymond Chandler.

The last three tips come from another world, when hard-copy manuscripts were submitted to agents and editors. Imagine that!

  1. Make your manuscript readable.

“Typed, whether on a typewriter or a computer printer.”

Remember when that was an actual choice?

  1. Study the markets.

“Publishers think in categories. You must too.”

  1. Cover letters.

“And always remember to include the SASE.”

(For you kids out there, SASE stands for “Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.” Ask your parents what that means.)

All this got me thinking: what is something I wish I’d known when I started out? I’ll give you a twofer:

  1. Scene Structure.

I wrote four or five screenplays that didn’t generate any interest. What finally broke me through was an epiphany while reading Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. Specifically, his chapter on scene and sequel. More specifically, understanding the scene beats of Goal, Conflict, Disaster. No more weak or meandering scenes after that. The next script I wrote got me an agent.

  1. The Mind is as Important as the Keyboard

The initial thrill of being published eventually ran into a new set of challenges familiar to all writers who make it inside the gates of the Forbidden City. Stuff like comparison, envy, self-doubt, bad reviews. All of which interfere with the joy of writing. Faith and family were in place for me, but I also studied specific topics like gratitude, contentment, focus, and discipline. So important are these that I wrote a book to help writers prepare for and deal with the mental game of writing.

So, TKZers, if you’ve been around the block, what is something you wish you had known when you were starting out?

And if you are just starting out, what is something you want to know? Ask away, and one of our crack team of bloggers will take a flyer at an answer—for I am in travel mode today and my check-in may be sketchy.

 

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Beating Free

monk

February 1973 was a month of uncertainty for me. I was ready to graduate from college in a few months and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I “grew up” (a state of mind which continues, verily, to this very day!). I somehow found myself being interviewed by the head of an insurance firm, a very nice guy who sensed almost immediately, as I had, that putting me in his office would be inserting a round stick of dynamite into a square…well, office. We had a cordial conversation anyway, and at the conclusion of it he showed me a blocky machine that was hooked up to a television. “This,” he said, “is the future.” He picked up a rectangular object that looked like an audio cassette on steroids, inserted it into the machine, and turned on the television so we could watch a gentleman nervously give a lecture about actuarial tables and premiums and whole life insurance and the like. What I was being shown was something called a VCR in U-Matic format, the forerunner to Betamax and VHS and the grandparent to DVDs and yes, streaming. I was assured that within a few years there would be one of these machines, or something like it, in every home in the country. My new friend probably had no idea how that machine, and its descendents, would change things. I didn’t either, but I felt that ground move. This thing was a game changer.

I had the same feeling, and not in a good way, when I was wading through my emails yesterday and found a news release about a company named CzurTek (pronounced “SEE-zer Tek”) which has developed a relatively high-speed book scanner called “Czur” (just like Julius) which it appears to intend to sell for around $169.00 and which it is attempting to bring to market by crowd-sourcing.

czur scanner

The video of it is impressive, for sure; Czur does involve some human interaction, but nothing that a semi-sober fraternity brother couldn’t handle. There is a lot of talk about algorithms and the like that I didn’t understand but the legal part of me got went on high alert: the bad kind. I remember what happened, and is still happening, to the music industry, when CD players and copiers started appearing as basic equipment on home computers. “RIP AND BURN!” became the catchphrase of the day. It used to be that if you wanted to have a bestselling album you had to sell a million copies or more in a week. A lot of people did that, too. Now, not so much. You can hit the top of the charts on some weeks by bringing home unit sales of five figures. People don’t buy a lot of music anymore; they go to peer-to-peer sites or they stream it but they don’t buy a lot of it. It’s tough to beat free. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened fast enough that no one knew what was happening. I think that we are about to see the same thing happen, and with books this time. And it comes at a time when the industry, including the publishers and authors, can’t take the hit.

The folks at CzurTek know exactly what they are doing. The video I have linked you to above seems benevolent enough — there’s talk of copying rare and delicate manuscripts to preserve them, for but one example — but when you go to their Facebook page the 800-pound bear in the room is too much to ignore. Witness this, taken from the August 30, 2015 post off of CzurTek’s site, which infers that the idea for Czur sprung from the high cost of textbooks:

Normally one textbook is more than 100 dollars, and sometimes a professor will ask us to buy 6 or 7 of them.

In order to solve this problem, some of my schoolmates would buy second-hand books, or photocopy them. I once borrowed my roommate’s camera to take pictures of an entire book. It was really tiring, and hard to get high-quality pictures when the pages are curved.

Two years later….

in Shenzhen, we decided to have a go at solving this problem. After several attempts, we found that digitizing the books seemed to be the best approach. However, a book scanner costs tens of thousands of dollars, which is beyond the reach of ordinary people. So we decided to create one ourselves! Over the past 3 years, in the course of visiting numerous factories and testing our algorithm hundreds of times, we have turned ourselves into specialists in this area.

Now….

all the technical problems have been solved, and the prototype is ready. Ten minutes is all it takes to scan a 300-page book easily and comfortably; scanning of personal documents is possible as well. No more lugging heavy books all over campus! What’s more, if you haven’t finish reading a library book by the due date, just make a permanent copy for yourself. The robust OCR software included means the electronic document can be edited, a great help for essay writing.

In other words, if a book is too expensive, just copy it. If it’s due back at the library and you’re not done with it, copy it. If the books are too darn heavy, copy them. Edit the text and put it in your essay! The CzurTek website even talks about building your own library for free, of course.

I’m not without sympathy, up to a point. College textbooks are extremely expensive. There are reasons for this, particularly with respect for those dealing with higher mathematics, biology, and physics, but that’s a topic for another time. But does the cost — or that they’re too heavy, or due back at the library — make it okay to steal them? Just copy them.

This isn’t the future. It’s already here. There are a bunch of book scanners on the market right now that don’t quite do the job well, but have the basics down. If Czur isn’t the gamechanger it appears to be, someone else will make one that is, and make it soon. The issue then becomes whether you want to spend a year of your life creating something that gets copied and probably illegitimately disseminated as soon as it is published, with no compensation to you. To go back to the music business: musical artists have found other revenue streams, such as licensing their music to film projects, tee-shirts, bumper stickers, tours, and the like. Their music? The newbies give it away, in the hope that someone will come to their concerts and buy merchandise. What are authors going to do? Tours? Please. Do you really think that someone is going to buy a ticket to listen to (fill in the blank) read or give a talk. Tee-shirts? C’mon.

I’ve prattled on a bit too long on this, and I apologize for that. I see this, however, as a significant problem. Am I Chicken Little? Or am I Dr. Miles Bennell? If I’m right, what are we — you, me, and the publishing industry — going to do about it? You tell me. And as for you folks at CzurTek…how would you feel about someone reverse engineering Czur, and giving it away for free? Sound good?

 

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Is Our Writing Culture In Mortal Danger? Part I

Kant_fotoThe philosopher Immanuel Kant was sipping his morning coffee one day, reading the philosopher David Hume. That’s what philosophers used to do––drink coffee and read each other’s work.

At some point, Kant slammed his mug down with a great thunk, for what he was reading was an outright challenge to the whole enterprise of philosophy. Hume, the great skeptic, was saying, in effect, “Dudes, you can’t really know anything. Deal with it.”

Kant would later write that this provocation awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber.” He had to answer! So he went out and wrote one of the towering works of all Western philosophy, The Critique of Pure Reason.

I was thinking about good ol’ Immanuel the other morning as I quaffed my own warm brew. I’d traveled over to that great writing blog Writer Unboxed to read a post by my friend Porter Anderson. Porter is one of the more astute observers of the publishing scene.MwNaNqJY_400x400 You can and should check out his work here.

This day Porter pulled a Hume on me. Like the Scottish skeptic, Porter has doubts. They are somewhat evident in the title of his post: The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught? By “it” Porter means the art and craft of writing fiction. Since I am one of those who believe it can be, he definitely had my attention.

There is a lot of material in Porter’s wide-ranging and expressive rant. He challenges the notion that it’s the best time on Earth to be a writer, suggests a definition of writing “success” that seems to me too restrictive, and intimates that “better books” and indeed our “writerly culture” itself may be doomed.

My coffee mug came down with a thunk. I was awakened from my own dogmatic slumber. I would have to reply! I left a comment, but deferred a fuller critique until now.

This is Part I.

I see the issues raised by Porter this way:

Issue 1 – The Toadstool Effect

Issue 2 – Is It The Best or Worst Time to Be a Writer?

Issue 3 – Is the Party Over?

Issue 4 – What Counts as Writing Success?

Issue 5 – Can Fiction Writing Be Taught?

It’s always good to begin a discussion like this with points of agreement, and that’s what Issue #1 provides. Porter writes:

“Like toadstools,” one seasoned observer called it in a note to me recently — this sudden proliferation of “author services,” especially the ones there to teach you, instruct you, train you. They’re everywhere, these kitchen-sink companies, and many of them seem to be peddling (or claiming they do) parts of the job we’re not even sure can be taught.

As he made clear to me in the comments, Porter is concerned about the onslaught of less than “adroit” training:

I do believe, however, that we have generated here an overheated “training wing” attached to this new everybody-into-the-pool stage in the industry’s development. I think the mushrooms are getting pretty thick on the ground and that many, many offerings are neither as adroit nor as potentially valuable as yours. Beyond the buyer-beware rule, always good, is an implication that I think overstates what many people believe they can learn to do on the receiving end of instruction.

Porter and I agree on this, though I don’t find the “toadstool effect” unique to writing. The digital age has unleashed a veritable planet of multiplying fungi, making promises about everything—business, sex, health, wealth, writing, acting, plumbing, fame, “dogs and cats, living together. Mass hyseria!”

The only antidote to this in a free market is the ancient and wise admonition, Caveat emptor. A writer-in-training simply must be about due diligence in these matters. How?

Look at samples of the work. Look for recommendations. Distinguish mushrooms from toadstools.

I note in this regard that none other than Mr. James Patterson is offering an online course on writing for $90. Were I a newbie I would reason thus: James Patterson has sold a few books. He seems to know how to tell a story. The course is 22 lectures. The price is quite reasonable. People who’ve taken the course seem to be pleased. If I’m going to invest in being a writer, this looks like a winner. Sign me up!

But what about some high-falutin offer by someone I’ve never heard of? I’d look at what’s being offered, the cost, and the background of teacher. From Porter in the comments:

So I’m saying that if someone is instructing other writers but has not had the experience of success AS a writer — if they’re teaching you fiction but their own fiction doesn’t sell — then I think, yes, that’s reason to stop, think, and carefully assess whether this is the person to study with.

Completely agree. Which, I quickly add, does not rule out taking a flyer on someone whose artistic output is limited. Some of the best teachers are like that. Michael Hauge in screenwriting. Lee Strasberg in acting. You just have to dig a little deeper to make an assessment. Look for what other students say about them. How have those students fared themselves?

As far as dollars go, you can spend a lot for a course, but relatively little for a book. I love books on writing. My shelves (and my Kindle) are filled with them, all highlighted. My philosophy has always been if I learn only one thing from a book, and it helps my writing, it’s worth it.

I can think of only two writing books out of the many hundreds I’ve read where I did not learn something. Exercising mercy, I shall not name those books.

A further note. There are toadstools that are extra toxic. Right now there is a class action lawsuit against one of these services. Such services will always be with us. The Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross could have run one of these, believing as he did that people are “sitting out there waiting to give you their money! Are you gonna take it? Are you man enough to take it?”

Well, we’ve only covered Issue #1, and I’m happy to say a general agreement has been reached.

Next week, not so much.

So what is your view of “author services” out there? Good, bad, ugly? How can you tell the difference?

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Shorter is Better

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Recently, Science Fiction publisher TOR published an article on why novellas are the future of publishing. They based their theory on one important element: time. For the modern electronic reader, time is a precious commodity. If the reader can sit down with a Kindle or Nook and read a novella on a cross country plane ride or over a rainy Sunday afternoon, they can become just as satisfied as trudging through a 120k word novel. The enthusiasm of publishing novella e-books is spreading throughout the traditional publishing industry. Lower costs, quicker turnaround, more product in the pipeline.

A novella can fall anywhere between 17,500 and 60,000 words. There’s a lot of latitude in that gap and publishers are going to give some wiggle room with word count. No agent or publisher is going to reject your book if you missed the count by 1k or 5k or even 10k, especially if the story blows them away.

Have you ever written a novella? Thought about it? Have you read one? Did you get as much fulfillment out of it as a full-length novel? Is your reading time becoming more precious to you than ever? Chime in and let us know.

For those who wonder about word count, here’s a general rule of thumb guideline to counting words:

  • Epic: A work of 200,000 words or more.
  • Novel: A work of 60,000 words or more.
  • Novella: A work of at least 17,500 words but under 60,000 words.
  • Short story: A work of at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words.
  • Flash fiction: A work of less than 2,000 words, usually under 1,000.
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Think your book is ready to publish? Maybe not.

Note from Jodie: I’m busy packing to move to another city next week, so bestselling – and prolific! – author Allison Brennan has kindly consented to share some valuable advice for aspiring authors today. Welcome, Allison!

Allison Brennan

In 2002, I finished my first full-length novel, a masterful romantic suspense. It had everything … and I mean everything … that a romantic suspense novel could have.

A Heroine … beautiful, smart, sweet. And a virgin. She was a computer expert who worked from home.

A Hero … tough, dedicated, handsome. And a cop.

A Chance Encounter … the heroine thought the hero was an intruder in her apartment building. An old house converted into three flats. How was she to know the landlord had rented the vacant unit?

A Villain … he worked at the coffee shop where the heroine bought her morning coffee after her daily run. He loved her. He was certain she felt the same way, but he couldn’t talk to her, so he stalked her.

A Victim (or five) … the villain, unable to share his feelings for the heroine, rapes women who look like her. Of course my hero catches the serial rape case.

The Ex-Girlfriend … the hero has a psycho ex-girlfriend who is none too happy when she sees the hero kissing the heroine. At some point, she trashes the Heroine’s apartment.

The Ex-Fiancé … yes, the heroine had been engaged. She broke it off for some reason I don’t remember (but I’m sure it was a very good reason), and then she learned that her ex was selling company secrets to a rival. So of course she turned him in.

The Heroine’s Brother. A priest. Well, a former Marine turned priest. (Why? I don’t know. It sounded good at the time.)

Danger. The Heroine’s ex-fiancé, furious that he was fired, plots to embezzle money from the company. But he needs the Very Smart Heroine to hack into the system and steal the payroll before it’s direct-deposited into employee accounts. To force her to help him, he and his gang hold her brother (the former Marine turned priest) hostage, shooting him in the leg when she refuses to help.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day!

But lest you forget Stalker Boy, he was just as upset as Ex-Girlfriend that Heroine and Hero were kissing. Around this point, Hero realizes that the rape victims (and he’s escalating, because one died) all look like our Heroine. He gets all Alpha Hero wanting to protect her. But because Villain is a psycho, he kills Ex-Girlfriend and frames our Hero. While our Hero is in jail, our Stalker kidnaps the Heroine and takes her to the Cascade Mountains where he forces her to wear his mother’s wedding dress in a mock ceremony so that they can “legally” consummate their marriage.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day … again.

Did I mention that Villain also killed his mother and kept her decomposing body in her house?

Yes, Hot Latte had it all. Literally.

(Stop laughing. Yes, I called it Hot Latte. Because that was the heroine’s preferred beverage at the coffeehouse.)

Alas, Hot Latte has never been—and never will be—published. Truly, I had at least six good books crammed into that one novel! I’ve used some of the plot twists in future books, and I still have more to spare.

My first book taught me a lot about writing. In fact, writing Hot Latte was essentially a crash course in fiction writing. What to do … and, mostly, what not to do.

I sold my fifth completed manuscript, The Prey, to Ballantine in 2004. My first four books aren’t publishable, but I truly believe my career depended on me writing them. Through the process of writing those books, I learned how to structure, pace and plot a story. (I use the word “plot” loosely because I don’t plot, per se.) I learned about character, backstory, conflict, and self-editing.

My first book isn’t salvageable. I would also argue that ten years ago, I didn’t have the skill to completely rewrite anything into something that was the same core story … but different. Better.

I owe more than I can say to my former editor at Ballantine for helping me learn how to see the big picture. In fact, I still hire her to edit my indie books because, even after twenty-five traditionally published novels, I crave editing. I also insist on revisions for every traditional book I write. I don’t consider it a failure to get a long revision letter—to me, that external guidance makes a good book great. While I’m a better writer today than I was ten years ago, but that doesn’t mean my books don’t benefit from a thoughtful developmental editor. (I’m not talking about copyediting and proofreading – those are a given. I’m talking about someone who looks at the big picture and helps make it clearer.)

I thank God that self-publishing was not a viable option in 2002 when I wrote Hot Latte. Because I honestly thought that it was a good book. My best friend read it and she liked it, too. (Ahem. See tongue in cheek?) It was clean – meaning there were few, if any, grammatical or spelling errors. Who wouldn’t love it? I mean it had everything in it! Literally!

But all the agents and editors who rejected it were right. When I found an old copy of the manuscript a few years ago, I cringed. It was that bad. Every cliché in romantic suspense found a home in my book.

I recognize that the publishing world is different today than ten years ago. Yet … there are some truths that remain the same. The primary truth is that you should only put your best work forward.

Just because the new climate has allowed everyone to publish doesn’t mean that everyone should publish their first … or second … or fifth book.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they were rejected by “New York” and obviously “New York” doesn’t know what’s good, so they’re going to self-publish.

Or how many people have said they can’t afford an editor, but their daughter/mother/best friend is a good proofreader. (Proofreading is NOT editing.) One person actually told me that once they start making money selling their books on Amazon, then they can afford to hire an editor.

Or how many people feel they have written the perfect book and any editorial input would make it less perfect. That they don’t want to change anything in the story because it’s exactly the way they want it.

Or how many people tell me they don’t really care whether they make money or not, they want to “get their story out there” and since it’s free to do so, they don’t want to spend any money on editing or cover design. These people actually make me angry – because I take my career seriously, I take books seriously, and I don’t think that “just getting something out there because you can” respects authors or readers.

New York rejects books for two primary reasons: either the book is total crap or they have no idea how to market the book (meaning, it doesn’t fit into one of their pre-defined genres.) It’s much easier to sell a thriller to New York because they know how to market a thriller, they can look at the book and see exactly who the audience might be. It’s much harder (not impossible) to sell a book that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the pre-established genre shelves at Barnes and Noble.

I’m certainly not opposed to self-publishing. There are many authors who have chosen self-publishing to great personal and professional success. Sometimes it’s because they’ve tried New York and couldn’t break out, but had built a solid readership who then moved with them into the digital world where they were able to grow and thrive. Some were successful in New York, but for one reason or another felt they would be more successful in the indie world. Others don’t fit neatly into the mold, but readers simply like good stories and therefore they found a readership because they told good stories.

But with the glut of books available digitally, and so many of them really not publishable, readers are having a harder time picking the wheat from the chaff.

I am disheartened that so many aspiring writers have completely forsaken the process in the rush to be published. It’s your name on the book. You’ve spent hundreds of hours writing a book—usually while working at another job or raising a family. You wrote that book in your free time, meaning it had value to you—you sacrificed doing other things in order to write. Respect yourself! Respect your time! You deserve to invest in that book, to make it as strong as it can be.

If you want a career as an author, if you want to build a readership and grow your audience, the process is important—whether you walk down the traditional path or the indie path or, like many, a combination of both.

If I was starting today, I would have self-published Hot Latte and, in effect, lowered the bar for myself. It was a complete story, it had great characters, and it was cleanly written. Yet … it wasn’t a good book. I didn’t see the flaws because I didn’t know what to look for. It took me many books before I could see the flaws in my own work. Even now, I don’t always see the problems and am grateful to my editor because there is always something I can do better.

And that’s my goal: to make every book better than the last.

I’ll pop in and out today to talk about anything you want or answer questions! I’m easy that way 🙂

Oh, and for my BSP … COMPULSION, book two in the Max Revere iAllison Brennan_Compulsionnvestigative reporter series, is on sale now in hardcover, digital, and audio. RT Book Reviews gave COMPULSION a Top Pick: “Brennan really pulls out all the stops in this intense, terrifying thriller!” and Catherine Coulter says, “Don’t miss Max Revere’s roller-coaster new thriller. Talk about grit and courage—Max never gives up.”

You can check it out on my website, allisonbrennan.com.

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Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romantic thrillers and mysteries. She’s currently writing the Max Revere investigative reporter series (COMPULSION, April 2015) and the Lucy Kincaid romantic suspense series (upcoming: BEST LAID PLANS, August 2015.) She lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.

11+

Submission Protocol

Nancy J. Cohen

Last week, I sent a submission via snail mail. “What’s that?” you ask. It’s almost a forgotten art. I hadn’t sent out a physical manuscript in so long that I’d forgotten the specifics. I think it’s been at least five years, likely longer, since I last had to send anything from the post office. This submission went to a niche market and was another of my father’s travel journals.

So what was involved? After reading the online submission guidelines, I reviewed my manuscript. Oops, I’d forgotten all about headers and footers with the book title, author name, and page number. Having formatted for ebook requirements, I added those back in.

writing

Since this book is nonfiction, I had to include a Table of Contents. No problem. I know how to do this in Word. Oh, wait. I forgot to write a Foreword like I did with my father’s other journal, Thumbs Up, that I’d indie published. So I added the TOC. Then I deleted some of the book buy hyperlinks in the back. I shouldn’t include those for this type of submission.

A query letter topped it all off. I polished mine once more before adding it to the pile of papers. It’s also been ages since I’d had to write one of these things. It’s never easy, is it?

Now what? I printed out the whole work, since it is short and about equivalent to a normal book proposal in page count. Next came the SASE. How do you do this again? If you want the manuscript back, you have to put actual postage stamps on a suitably sized manila envelope. This means you have to weigh the envelope for return postage with the manuscript inside, affix the stamps, remove the pages and stuff them into the outer envelope along with the folded SASE. A complicated business, isn’t it? Or you can just include a stamped and self-addressed #10 business envelope for the form rejection letter you’re sure to get.

envelopes

And then comes the great sigh of relief when you send your baby off at the post office. This generates a more visceral response than sending a book into cyberspace. Somehow the physical manuscript seems more a part of you.

Weeks pass and then months. You watch the mail for the return envelope. Once you see it, gloom sets in. You’ve been rejected. And you start the process all over again.

At least that’s how it used to be done in the old days. Do you remember those times? Do you miss them?

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The Ten Commandments of Writing Failure

new_cokeMr. Donald Keough died this past week. He was 88 and was for a time the number two man at Coca-Cola. This was during an era called the “soda wars.” Keough’s job was to beat back the challenge of Pepsi, which was winning the younger set while Coke was out there trying to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Keough was also the mastermind of one of the worst product blunders in history.

The original formula Coke (at least the one that came after they took the cocaine out of it) was, and is, the best tasting cola ever. It was Fred Astaire to Pepsi’s journeyman hoofer. It was Spencer Tracy to Pepsi’s high school senior starring in the school production of Our Town.

But for some unknown reason––probably due to overpaid consultants––Keough decided to change the formula, and “New Coke” was born. With great fanfare they rolled it out. And the country responded with a loud, collective YECCH!

So passionate was the push back that only 10 weeks later they brought the old formula back, calling it “Classic Coke.”

timenewcoke-copyAnd sales boomed. The controversy had become national news. The publicity turned out to be priceless.

Some cynics suggested the whole thing had been planned.  If so, it was brilliant. But when asked Keough said, “We’re not that dumb and not that smart.”

Later on, with a bit of self-deprecatory wisdom, Mr. Keough wrote a book called The Ten Commandments for Business Failure. I thought they might also apply to writers, especially now that self-publishing is a viable business option for the “authorpreneur.” Let’s have a look.

1. Quit Taking Risks

Resting on your laurels. Mailing it in. Doing the same old, same old. Maybe that works for a few traditionally published and bestselling authors. But for the true writer, the one who wants to honor the craft and get better, risk taking is part of the plan. Risk in characterization and plot and style and theme. That, in turn, brings a certain excitement to the writing, and you know what? Readers can sense that you’re excited. That makes your writing more appealing.

2. Be Inflexible

“Flexibility,” writes Keough, “is a continual, deeply thoughtful process of examining situations and when warranted, quickly adapting to changing circumstances.” These days, every writer, no matter who butters their bread (i.e., New York or Seattle) needs to be aware of process, changes in the marketplace and distribution channels, and quality improvements.

3. Isolate Yourself

Success in business means being in touch with both workers and customers. A good manager is one who walks around and knows what’s going on in the building and in the satellite offices.

Writers, who by the very nature of the work spend most of their time alone, need to know how to nurture a fan base, work social media wisely, grow an email list and, if contracted with a traditional house, schmooze a little with the increasingly nervous staff therein.

4. Assume Infallibility

You want to fail at this game? Then put a chip on your shoulder and always blame somebody else. Your critique group is a great place to start. Tell them you’ve forgotten more about writing than they’ll ever know. Reject editors’ notes. Then rail at the marketplace when your books don’t sell. Do anything but admit you have weaknesses that need to be addressed.

5. Play the Game Close to the Foul Line

What Keough means by this is that cheating, even a little, will eventually catch up with you. In recent years we’ve seen instances of plagiarism and sock-puppetry snag writers and impact careers. Trust is built up over time but can be lost in an instant. Just ask Brian Williams.

6. Don’t Take Time to Think

The saying in business is “data drives decisions.” You have to stop doing things that don’t lead to profit and do more of the things that do. Which is why traditional publishing companies drop authors who aren’t selling enough books. If you are a midlist writer and that has happened to you, maybe it is time to think … about going indie.

For the full-time indie writer, data is available so you can see what’s selling and how certain promotional ventures pay off. You can keep on developments via many fine blogs (start with The Passive Voice, a good aggregator of publishing news).

When I was running a small business I took time each week for “thinking, planning, and studying.” I called this my “TPS time,” which must never be confused with the TPS in this clip.

7. Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants

Writers, more than ever, need to take responsibility for their own careers, no matter what side of the walls of the Forbidden City they’re on. You cannot simply hand everything over to an agent or publisher. You have to know what questions to ask and what terms to refuse. You have to know how to limit a non-compete clause and define “out of print” in a way that is meaningful and fair.

If you self-publish, the worst thing you can do is give some outfit thousands of dollars to get your book out there, and then thousands more for them to “market” your book. You need to know how to do this yourself. You need a plan, like the one I’ve followed and put into a book, which is on special now for 99¢ (you also have to know how to spot a real bargain, and this is one of them).   

8. Love Your Bureaucracy

In business, the bigger the organization the harder it is to move. Traditional publishing has been living this challenge for the past five years. Why only five? Because when digital publishing took off in 2008-09, the main reaction of the Bigs was to see it as a blip, nothing to worry about. They had their comfy bureaucracies.

Oops. Now we see all the changes that have been happening inside the Forbidden City, from the cutting of editorial staff, to tussles with Amazon, to new direct-to-consumer programs. It’s been a difficult transition period and it’s still going on.

The indie writer, on the other hand, can move quickly, but can also fall in love with systems that aren’t ultimately helpful. For example, if you’re spending 80% of your time on social media and 20% on your writing, you’re actually heading backwards.

9. Send Mixed Messages

In business they say “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” As a writer, your main thing is to tell great stories. If you also want to be a bad-boy blogger, or a mouthpiece for some political persuasion, just know that readers will have mixed reactions. If that doesn’t bother you, fine. Just be intentional about it.

I consider myself a writer first and a teacher of writing second. What I do on this blog and in social media is consistent with those two things. That doesn’t mean I won’t share the occasional opinion, or even write a book with opinions in it [drop intriguing teaser about upcoming book here]. But I keep most everything consistent with those two roles.

10. Be Afraid of the Future

Oh, this is major. For 150 years the publishing industry has operated one way. It had a settled distribution system and there were plenty of bookstores for their stock. All that has changed in a flash, leaving agents, editors and trad-based writers wondering how this is all going to shake out. To which the answer is: no one knows. It’s like what old Carson the butler says with a sigh in a recent episode of Downton Abbey: “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

So the successful writer keeps writing and doesn’t let anxiety freeze up his flying fingers. Keep writing, keep trying to get better.

Keough finishes his book bonus eleventh commandment:

11. Lose Your Passion for Work, for Life

You’ve got to find ways to keep the joy in your writing life. That doesn’t mean it’ll always be unicorns and rainbows. A lot of the time it’s tar pits and tsetse flies. But an inner core of love for what you do, and hopes for what you can achieve, will keep the fire burning.

When the flame begins to dim, take a couple of days to relax, regroup, rethink. And reread. Take a few of  your favorite novels off the shelf (or off your ereader) and look at a few chapters. Get caught up again in the romance of great storytelling. Soon enough you’ll be itching to get back to the keyboard.

So here’s today’s command: write your best scene ever. When you’re done, pour yourself a Coke … the real thing. Once in a blue moon the calories won’t hurt you!

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14 Questions People Ask Writers

Nancy J. Cohen

As a writer, you might encounter the following questions during the course of your career. Preparing answers ahead of time will prevent you from becoming tongue-tied when hit with one of these verbal arrows. If you feel left out, don’t worry. Once you get published, these people will jump out of the woodwork.

1. At Thanksgiving dinner, your cousin comes up to you, leans forward and speaks in a conspiratorial tone. “I have this great idea for a story. Would you be interested in working with me on it?” Before he launches into a lengthy and convoluted plotline, give this response: “I have more ideas than I can write, thank you, but I know another author who acts as a ghostwriter. He charges $10,000 per book. Shall I put him in touch with you?”

thanksgiving

2. “I have a friend who’s written a book, and she needs someone to edit it. She’s desperate for help. Can I give her your phone number?” Let this person know that your services, if available, are not free. You would require a fee, a contract, and a waiver of liability. Or suggest she gain feedback by joining a critique group or entering a writing contest with score sheets. Another alternative is for her to hire a professional freelance editor, but you still have to make clear it’s a long road ahead. See Question Number 8.

3. You are in the doctor’s office, and he asks your line of work. “Really?” the doctor says after you reply that you’re a writer. “What do you write?”
“I write mystery novels.”
“Are they, you know, published?”
“Yes, I’ve written over twenty books. You can buy them online.”
“That’s impressive. I’ve been thinking about writing a book. How do you get published?”
“You join a professional writing organization, attend meetings and workshops, go to writing conferences, and learn the business aspects of the career along with the craft. I’d love to talk more about it. How about if we exchange an hour of my time for an hour of yours?”

4. “How are your books doing?” is another question you might get from friends and family. Here’s your answer: “They’re doing great, thank you. Have you bought a copy yet?”
Another writer once told me she’d like to say her books had failed, she had entered bankruptcy proceedings, and did anyone want to help her out with some cash?

5. “Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question at book talks. Well, I pull them out of thin air, don’t you? You’d think this one would be a no-brainer, but it’s a question that genuinely baffles people. Ideas are all around. It’s having time to write these stories that’s difficult.

MountDora

6. “Are you making money at it?” I’d really like to reply, “No, I’m starving, and I need a loan.” Many people think published authors are rich and famous. “I guess you earn a good living, right?” is another variation. Some folks will come right out and say, “So how much do you get for each book?” That’s like asking your doctor, “So how much do you make on each patient?” I have a standard response: “I write because I love to tell stories. My advice to new writers: Don’t quit your day job.”

7. “I want to write a book, but I don’t have time to learn the ropes. Can I pay you to write it for me?” See answer to Number One. Add a bit on the publishing biz and how writers are expected to spend time promoting their novel. Even if someone else writes the book for them and it sells, are they willing to put the time into marketing?

8. “Can you recommend a book doctor?” My answer: “If you’re serious about becoming a writer, you’ll learn how to edit your own work. All careers require practice and training, and writing books is no different. The only magic bullet is persistence. But you can hire a freelance editor to help you in the right direction. This still won’t guarantee a sale. Plus, publishers expect more books than one work. You’ll need to start on book number two right away, and be prepared to do your own marketing.”

9. “Can I find your book in the library?” Librarians order books, so we want patrons to request them. But this question could be a good opportunity to launch into an explanation about the sources of distribution and the different formats for books today. You could counter with, “Do you like to read your books in print or on ebook?” And even if the person gets your book at the library, encourage him to write an online customer review.

10. “Where can I find an agent?” Hello, anyone hear of the Guide to Literary Agents? The AAR site online? Attending professional conferences? Entering writing contests? Let this person know about local writers organizations, classes, and seminars. They need to do their homework. And no, I am not going to introduce them to my agent.

SFAugustBlogs

11. “Is your book on the bestseller list?” This one is easy to answer: “Not yet, but if you buy a copy and tell all your friends about it, that will help me get there.”

12. “Have you been on any talk shows?” The line is blurred here between the concept of an Author and a Celebrity. Becoming a published author may take years of learning, rejections, submissions, and rewrites. Celebrity equates to stardom. Serious writers work at the craft because they love to write. They know it is not an easy road to follow, and they’re willing to put in the effort, suffer the indignities, and keep going regardless of whether fame or fortune come their way.Your answer: Repeat the one from Number 11.

13. “I’ve never heard of you. Are your books in the bookstore?” Again, this is a good opportunity to mention the various platforms for distribution.

14. “Any chance of getting your book made into a movie?” Realistic answer: “Unfortunately, it’s not up to the author. The publisher may [or may not, depending on your circumstances] own the film rights. An agent might be approached by a studio or interested party who pays a fee to option the book. But even then, that might go nowhere. So the chances are slim for most authors.”

Many of your answers will be individual based on your preferences. Consider every encounter an opportunity to educate the public about the publishing industry and what they, as readers, can do to help authors.

What we write comes from the heart. It’s our personal expression, not ideas we pluck from someone else’s consciousness or can teach in a quick lesson. Each person’s journey is his own. We get where we are through hard work, grit, a thick skin, and persistence.Yes, we can offer tips and point wannabe writers in the right direction, but they have to be prepared to do the work. And they have to love telling stories.

So how would you answer some of these questions above?

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Top Three Tips for Getting Published

Today we welcome our guest, friend and TKZ emeritus, Michelle Gagnon filling in for Jordan Dane.

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By Michelle Gagnon

On the road to publication, I was fortunate to receive many tips and pointers along the way. Today I wanted to offer the three pieces of advice that had the biggest impact.

high res Michelle_Gagnon color Perseverance

Getting published was an extremely long and tortuous process for me.

More than a decade ago, I started compiling a series of short stories into a novel. Like many debut novels, it didn’t have much of a story arc, and was largely autobiographical (sounds great, right? J). Convinced that it would be an instant bestseller, I immediately send it off to dozens of literary agents.

Then the rejections started rolling in. I seriously must have set some sort of record; by the end, more than 50 agents had passed on it.

A few wrote lovely letters, encouraging me to try again. But frankly, I was heartbroken. By that point, the book represented years of my life; time I would never get back.

So I stopped writing for a few months. Then by chance, I attended an author event. Lee Child spoke about how it usually took a decade to become an “overnight success story.” And he explained that in his opinion, the authors who succeeded were the ones who didn’t give up.

I’d come close to doing just that. But the next day, I started writing another book. That book became THE TUNNELS; the first literary agent I sent it to offered to represent me (and mind you, this was an agent who had rejected my first novel).

So tip #1: never give up

Don’t pick up that red pencil until you’ve reached the end

I meet a lot of writers who have written 50, or 100 pages of a book. And that’s precisely when a lot of them give up. Listening to them, I’ve figured out why: when they got to that point, they went back and started editing their work.

Granted, everyone has a different process, but here’s my advice: don’t start editing AT ALL until the bones of the story are in place. I’m currently finishing the rough draft of my 12th novel; and when I say rough, believe me, it’s no exaggeration. The manuscript is riddled with typos, overwrought metaphors, and clunky dialogue. I accept that much of the time, I’m going to despise what’s appearing on the page. But I grit my teeth and keep going, because the rough draft is called that for a reason. It’s all about getting the bones of the story in place. Later, I’ll end up reworking it chapter-by-chapter, scene by scene; I usually make between 15-20 passes on every book I write. So there’s plenty of time to fine tune it later.

The problem with editing as you go is that it’s a much slower process. I usually write 10 pages a day; during the editing process, I’m lucky to get through 3. So when a first time writer finally gets back to page 50, after perfecting those opening chapters, it’s daunting; like looking up at Everest, and realizing that you’ve barely reached base camp. Many, many people give up at that point. Avoid that by not stopping until you reach the end.

You don’t have to write every day

Stephen King famously claims to write 4 hours a day, and read 4 hours a day. Every time I hear that, all I can think is that he probably never has a day that starts with driving carpool, followed by a PTA meeting, then returning home to discover that the water heater burst and somehow he has to get that fixed and clean all the water up off the floor.

Or maybe he does, I don’t honestly know. But the truth is, we’re not just writers, we’re people too; with families and pets and homes to maintain. We need to go grocery shopping and pay the bills. We need to take care of the people in our lives, and sometimes that doesn’t leave a lot of extra time to work on our manuscripts.

And you know what? That’s okay. Because here’s the thing: even if you only write one page a day, by the end of a year, you’ll have a book. And if you manage to write five pages one day, and nothing for the next four days: same result.

I write when I can, for as long as I can. And there are days—heck, weeks—when I don’t write at all. I don’t bring a laptop on vacation; I don’t take it with me for family visits. It’s not always easy to get back into the groove of a story after a long absence, but it’s manageable. And preferable to not writing at all. So don’t buy into the myth that a “real” writer spends every spare minute slaving away at their keyboard, because by and large, that’s not the case.

I hope these three tips are helpful; I honestly wished that I’d known them when I was starting out. So persevere, plow through your rough draft, and know that skipping a few days doesn’t make you any less of a writer.

We all take different paths to publication; the important thing is that we all end up at the same place.

Michelle Gagnon

www.michellegagnon.com

Michelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of thrillers for teens and Dont Let Go_jkt_des6.inddadults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Bourne Identity,” her YA PERSEF0NE trilogy was nominated for a Thriller Award by the International Thriller Writer’s Association, and was selected as books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The final installment, DON’T LET GO, was just released. She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Practice, Persistence, Professionalism

Nancy J. Cohen

Usually when I’m giving advice to aspiring authors, I name the 3 P’s as Practice, Persistence, and Professionalism. In his recent post, James Scott Bell mentioned his 3 P’s for writers: Passion, Precision and Productivity. These are all valid and equally important.

Practice
It helps if you set a daily word count or page quota and a weekly quota, then put yourself on a strict writing schedule. This gives you definitive goals. Keep moving forward. If you get stuck, either you haven’t laid the proper groundwork or you are letting outside distractions snag your attention. Don’t get hung up on self-edits until you finish your first draft. It’s easier to fix what’s on the page once the story is complete. The point here is to write on an ongoing basis. Then follow James’ advice about Precision by learning how to hone your skills. Attend writing conferences. Read Writer’s Digest. Enter contests with feedback. Join a critique group. Go to meetings of your local writing group and sign up for workshops. And keep writing.

editing

Persistence
Persevering at this career despite rejections, bad reviews, poor sales, and other setbacks is critical to success. If you drop out, you have only yourself to blame. Keep at it, and your skills will improve along with positive responses from readers, critique partners, and editors. “Never give up, never surrender.” That holds true for a writer same as for the crew of Galaxy Quest. Have faith in yourself. If you have the drive to write, you can improve your craft and learn marketable skills. The more books you have out there, the more chances you have to gain a following. Keep going despite the odds, and be versatile. At times, you may have to try something new and different. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Whichever route you take, quitting isn’t an option.

Professionalism
Always be polite and gracious, even when you get a bad review or a rejection. It’s hard not to take these personally, but they’re aimed toward your book and not you. You don’t want anyone saying you’re a gossip or you bad-mouthed your publisher or you made condescending remarks toward another author. It’s better to be known as someone who shares her knowledge, is helpful to her peers, and is a consummate professional in her dealings with editors and agents. If you need someone to hold your hand, turn to your critique group and not your publisher or agent. With their busy lives, these people don’t care to take on needy writers. They want career authors who will persistently turn in polished manuscripts, who establish and maintain a platform, who are active online, and who understand the publishing world. Act toward others as you’d wish to be treated. You never know when a writer friend from today might become your editor tomorrow, or an editor might become an agent, or a reviewer who raked your previous books over the coals might give you a rave review. The old adage, “Don’t burn your bridges,” holds true here, too. Be polite, courteous, and helpful at all times.

shaking hands

Follow the P’s along the track of your writing career. If you have to step off for a brief interval, be sure to hop back aboard the train before it gathers speed and steams ahead.

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