Let’s Help a New Writer Out

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Got an email from a reader of my craft books, who is finally ready (he says) to complete a novel. He wanted some career advice before taking the plunge. Below are his questions and my answers. Let’s put our heads together and help him out. We can continue the discussion in the comments!

[NOTE: I am assuming the writer is going the self-publishing route, based on question #2. If so, my opening advice is this—put your novel through the same grinding process you would if you were going to submit it to an agent or editor. Being indie is no allowance for being skimpy when it comes to prepping for publication.]

1. You mention learning to love a marketable genre. I’m a mystery and crime fan, but I realize the old school historical noir pieces may not sell. Here’s my plan: write the following sub-genres under a single pen name: (a) Hard-Boiled Police Procedural series a la Michael Connelly, (b) humorous detective/cozy a la Carl Hiaasen/Big Lebowski, and (c) romantic suspense because romance is huge but the crime element makes it interesting for me to write. Does this make sense? Would I spread myself too thin? Am I too far off the commercial mark? For example, should I go whole-hog into Romance and leave crime behind just for the money?

Establish yourself first in a single genre. You need to build up a readership and fan base, and that’s best done when you a) write a crackerjack book in a genre; and b) follow that up with another crackerjack book in the same genre.

The traditional publishers know this. It’s called branding, and they want to keep their money-making authors on brand because that keeps their bottom line in the black. When you start to sell gazillions of copies per book you can convince your publisher to let you try an off-brand novel…before getting back to your basics. See, e.g., John Grisham, James Patterson.

As an “authorpreneur,” you can make the call when you want to try something different. One of the benefits of indie is that you can branch out in short form as an experiment. For example, I write full-length contemporary thrillers, but have a comedic series of novelettes about a vigilante nun. I did some boxing stories for the love of it. But I always return to full-length suspense.

As for going “just for the money,” my advice is that you find the sweet spot where a marketable genre meets your love for the material. As you rightly point out, I believe you can learn to love a genre if you give yourself to the characters and make the stakes death (as explained in my craft books). At this point, ask yourself where you would find the most joy. Joy has a way of translating onto the page in a way that takes competent fiction up another level.

2. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to become discoverable, but is that a long-term solution? Do you plan to eventually “go wide”?

There’s an ongoing debate about this. To boil it down, those indies who favor “going wide” have concerns about the future of Amazon and possible digital disruption to same. Those who are Amazon exclusive are looking at what’s working now.

This is my personal view: since the future is unknowable, I opt for present-moment lettuce. I was wide with my fiction during the first seven or so years of the indie boom. My income via Kobo, Nook and iBooks was steady but not exciting. When I moved to KU, my income experienced a sharp increase. An added bonus is when I land a BookBub deal, my “pages read” (the way an author gets paid in the KU program) go way up for several weeks.

I know many folks have an issue with Amazon’s dominance, but betting against the company has not proved a winning strategy in the past. I recall in the late 90s when Barron’s dubbed the company “Amazon Dot Bomb.” I only wish I’d bought my shares then.

3. I used to be a pantser and, to show for it, as mentioned above, I’ve finished precisely 0 novels. Your books convinced me to outline, but I find some of the beats and plot points vague. Should I start building from the vague outline and drill down in detail until I have a card per specific scene?

Taking your question as a whole, by “vague” you mean you don’t have a sufficient idea in your mind of what the scenes would actually look like, not what the scene should accomplish within structure. That said, the beauty of the “signpost scenes” idea is that you don’t have to “drill down” before you write—unless you want to! As a pantser, you’re not used to summarizing all scenes ahead of time. In the alternative, you can start with the first couple of beats, and when you’ve gone that far look ahead to the next beat or two. You are driving at night with the headlights on, as E. L. Doctorow put it. You can always see ahead to the next signpost.

For both my plotting and pantsing students, I prescribe the “killer scene” brainstorming exercise. Go to your favorite local coffee house with a stack of index cards and start brainstorming scene ideas, not worrying about structure or where they might fit. Come up with 30-40 cards. Go back the next day and shuffle the cards and go through them, selecting the most promising. Figure out in which act—1, 2, or 3–those would logically fit. You’ll be amazed and happy.

4. When do you know to abandon a series or subgenre experiment and move to something more commercially viable?

There is an easy answer to this in the traditional publishing world: when your publisher does not offer you another contract.

Being indie, my view is that after three books in a series you should have a pretty good idea of how it’s going. Look at sales trajectory and reviews. Then ask yourself how wedded you are to the series. It may be that your next book is the one that brings attention to the others.

Or not. Erle Stanley Gardner developed several series characters for the pulps, including Speed Dash, Sidney Zoom and his police dog, and Ed “The Phantom Crook” Jenkins. But when he felt his writing had stalled he tried out a character he named Perry Mason. The rest is publishing history.

5. You studied under Raymond Carver. I’ve read each of his collections and am a huge fan. I’ve loved minimalist prose since I started reading Hemingway as a kid, and Carver’s style to me is a joy to read. Did he share anything specifically with you or your class you could pass on to me as to writing lean?

The main thing I picked up from Carver was his use of the “telling detail.” He was a master at putting a simple image into a scene that illuminated the emotional moment and often blew you away. Hemingway, at his best, did the same.

When a genre writer pulls this off, the effect is glorious. So glorious, in fact, that I am going to make this the subject of my next TKZ post.

Onward, writer. Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!

Over to you, TKZ community. Help this new writer out.

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Avoiding Reader Burnout by Texting the Gods

(c) Copyright 2017, Random House Books for Young Readers

I’ve been repeatedly having the same vaguely disturbing conversation in person and via email with a number of individuals recently about books and reading. The topic is variously referred to as “reading fatigue,” “book burnout,” and “reading slump,” among other terms. The complaint centers upon the perceived feeling that new books being published are “all” following the same pattern. Elements of that pattern would include 1) “the placement of the word ‘girl’ in the title; 2) the unreliable first-person narrator; and 3) a missing child/husband/sister who seems to suddenly reappear with an inability to explain their absence.

It is true that publishing industry generally is reactive and not proactive. We all remember The Da Vinci Code. That book became a sub-genre unto itself. It seemed for a while as if every other newly published book concerned a hunt for an ancient relic that, depending on what it was and who was hunting it, would destroy, save, or enslave the world. Going back a bit further, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and John Grisham’s The Firm revived the popularity of the courtroom thriller, though it’s not as if that sub-genre ever really went away, once Erle Stanley Gardner had taken that beachhead in the 1930s with his Perry Mason novels.

There is some method to publishing’s madness, based on the proposition that if the public likes a certain type of book then it will want more of the same. I don’t recall a research  ever calling me and asking, “If you went to the library tomorrow, what type of book would you look for?” My answer would be “bound,” but that’s beside the point.

What does this mean for budding authors? My best advice is to not follow trends. If someone writes a book about an alcoholic housewife on a train who suspects that she has witnessed a murder being committed, and it becomes a bestseller, write your book about something else. Flip the script. Write about a recovering alcoholic who is as reliable as a Fossil Haywood and who, while doing some backyard gardening,  believes that she sees someone being murdered on the LIRR. I’m only kind of kidding. Do something different, because by the time you write your book and find an agent the publishers will probably be looking for something else. As for readers: if you’re tired of new books, look for an author who is new to you, or go back to the past and seek out something in your favorite genre among the mountains of books that have been published in the past sixty years or so. You can also seek out a couple of go-to authors. When I do my own reading, and nothing seems to please me, I pick up one of Timothy Hallinan’s fine novels, or an Elmore Leonard book, or start working my way through James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux canon, among others, to shake me out of my doldrums. Reading is good for you. You don’t want to stop.

Whatever you do, whether you are writing or reading or both, please don’t develop the impression that there are too many books. One of the blessings in my life is my association with bookreporter.com. I started reviewing books for Carol Fitzgerald’s website twenty years ago, and one of the many happy results of that relationship is that I receive new books of all sorts on an almost daily basis. Some of them are outside of my interest or demographic or whatever you wish to call it, as was one which I recently received entitled Greek Gods #squadgoals by Courtney Carbone, a children’s book editor and author. I thumbed through it and was totally lost — I don’t get the whole ‘#’ thing, or tweeting, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest,  and probably never will — but the premise of the book was interesting, if incomprehensible to me in execution. It tells the stories of Greek Mythology from the point of view of the participants while assuming that they had smartphones and could text one another. I passed the book onto Samantha,  our (almost) eleven granddaughter. Samantha lives in the same city as we do, and as a result — another blessing — we get to see her frequently. I left Greek Gods at her place at the kitchen table. She came over for a visit, picked it up, and was entranced. She put her phone down, ignored the computer, turned off the flat screen, and started reading it from beginning to end, laughing all the way and sharing passages with us. Samantha is no stranger to books. She is working her way through that wonderful Warriors series by Erin Hunter and the likes of R. L. Stine, Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello books, and a host of others. This doesn’t happen by accident. Her father —my son — is a reader himself, and makes sure that she gets to the library and a local children’s bookstore pretty much on demand. I was happiest, however, about Samantha devoting full focus to Greek Gods. Whether she will at some point down the road pour over Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the subject, in the same manner in which those wonderful Classics Illustrated comics led me to H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and yes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,  remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that from Samantha’s perception there won’t be too many books, or not enough interesting ones. There simply won’t be enough time to read them all.

Back to you. What book or series would you want to read right now, time and availability permitting? For me, it would be Richard Prather’s Shell Scott series, in the original paperback editions. You?

 

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