It’s time for another posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. This is where you can see posts from a group of writers who share their success, fear, and advice with you on the first Wednesday of each month. This month, I have only a brief message; about a subject I’ve been avoiding, but there has been so much in the media about it the past several months, I’ve decided to be silent no longer.
In American politics, there are a number of topics that arouse intense debate whenever they’re brought up: immigration, gun control, gay marriage, social security, to name a few. In the publishing world, though, among publishers and writers, there seems to be only one subject that does this: Amazon.
The ‘Zon seems to be the third rail of the publishing world—especially when it comes to indie writers and publishers. Everyone has an opinion on it, and all opinions seem to be at one pole or another; Amazon is either a behemoth that is devouring publishing as we know it, or it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Let me give you my view, for what it’s worth. Amazon is big. It’s huge. And, while big is not necessarily better, it’s also not necessarily bad. Sure, Amazon’s a business, and the business of business is to make money. Amazon has become big because it’s been good at doing that. And, it’s made all that money by supplying what customers want. Along with the thousands of other products available for sale on Amazon.com and its other sites around the world, are tons of books in all forms, from hardcover to e-Book (to audiobook), all of them available at the click of a few keys on your computer; available, I might add, often at relatively reasonable prices. Reasonable prices attract more customers, which means more sales, which means more income—or so Amazon’s reasoning seems to be.
Now, one of the arguments against Amazon has been that it is creating a monopoly which will restrict the availability of books, which will hurt authors. Looking at what’s available for sale on Amazon and my own book sales over the past year, I have a hard time believing that argument. Will Amazon help or hurt writers, especially indie writers? I think the answer to that is, it depends. If you have a large backlist and your books are pretty good, I think Amazon’s business model will benefit you. Take my own case, for example. My books are so-so popular (I have a few diehard fans), and I have a backlist of 60+. Amazon’s new model, which pays authors for total pages read, has caused a 25% increase in my monthly revenue. Why? Simple really; the more you have available to be read, the more will be read. For example, if you have four books and readers read 75% of each, you still won’t do as well as I will with 60 and readers only reading 35% of each. Don’t believe me; do the math.
The same can be said of many of Amazon’s other business models, such as KDP Select, where you make a book exclusive to Amazon for a period of time. It’s easier to do that if you have several books, and can chose which ones you want to make exclusive, and which ones you want available on other platforms (and, I’m talking e-Books here, as paperbacks aren’t exclusive).
So, briefly put, Amazon is in the business of making money. If you’re an author, you should be in the business of gaining readers, and you do that by offering a wide audience of readers a wide selection of things to read. Amazon is the platform to do that. Not the only one, by any means, but a good one. So, rather than getting embroiled in the debate, get to writing.
That time of the month again—the time when I make my offering on behalf of Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a bunch of bloggers bent on being the best at helping fellow writers beam bright in the blogosphere and elsewhere in the writing firmament. If you’re interested in sharing your views, pop on over to IWSG and sign up. Each month, we write about something that interests us, and that we hope will be of interest to others; advice, fears, triumphs, etc.
This month, I’m going to depart from the usual advice to writers, to wit, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, and tell you that sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is to STOP!
Given that I’m usually spouting off that the only way to write well is to write often, and my frequent suggestion of having a 1 – 2,000 word per day writing goal, my regular readers are probably scratching their heads in wonder right now. Bear with me, though, and you’ll see the method to my madness.
Everyone has, no doubt, heard or read the old adage, ‘a healthy mind makes a healthy body,’ or something along those lines. The meaning of that is usually, a good mental attitude is important to maintaining physical health. But, scientific studies have shown that the opposite is also true: maintaining good physical health helps to improve brain functioning. Staying physically active, keeping your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy helps ensure adequate oxygen gets to all parts of the body, including brain cells. And, while we’re talking about exercise, which is great for maintaining the physical plant—muscles, bones, vital organs—it’s also great for conditioning the brain. That’s right. Science has discovered that the brain has more plasticity than previously thought, and even in adulthood, can be improved through exercises such as puzzles, learning a new language, or learning to play a musical instrument.
Ideas, and the manipulation of language are a writer’s stock and trade, which means that for us as writers, the brain is one of our most important possessions. It stands to reason, then, that we should keep it in top condition. So, to keep that idea engine humming along like a Mercedes Benz S500, step away from the computer for a short period every day. Get out and walk through the park—briskly. Start every other morning with a nice, heart pumping workout, work the daily crossword—with a ballpoint pen.
You don’t have to sacrifice any of your writing goals to do this. Like writing, exercise can be worked into a 24-hour day if you really want to do it. Turn off the TV for thirty minutes. You’ve seen that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer anyway. Get out and walk around the block
Your writing will be better for it.
It’s July, and the first Wednesday of the month already. Time for another offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, postings by a bunch of great and savvy writers with hints, advice, and stories of how we can all overcome the fear that sometimes gets us down. Want to join in? Go here and check it out. Sign up if you’ve a mind to. This month, I want to talk about political correctness—the bane of many modern writers.
On Fathers’ Day, I got into a conversation with my daughter about writing. We started out talking about some of the ultra-right wing writers who set our teeth on edge, and whose work I can never finish because it’s so biased and . . . well, you get it. Anyway, that segued into political correctness, and how much of it is too much in creative writing. This is a topic of particular interest to me because I write a western/historical series about the Buffalo Soldiers in the west after the Civil War, and given the racial and social dynamics of the time, some of today’s PC restrictions (words, topics, etc.), if followed to the letter, would make it impossible to tell the stories of these valiant men credibly.
In a way, though, the same goes for my mystery series. Although it’s set in the present day, it’s about every day (and sometimes not so every day) people who live in Washington, DC – not the DC of politicians, lobbyists, and spies, but the gas station attendants, drug dealers, grocery clerks – you get my drift – the people who live in the real world.
So, how far should political correctness or sensitivity go? In my writing, I have a few self-imposed rules I follow, not so much to be PC, but so nothing gets in the way of telling a good story.
Sex – Got nothing against it, but I avoid overly graphic sex in my stories, even the gritty mystery. My reason: the act itself does little to advance the story. The seduction and the aftermath might, in which case I leave them in, but the anatomical details of the act itself have nothing to do with the plot., so I leave them out. Besides, I find it more enticing to let people imagine.
Profanity – People swear, and that’s a fact of life. Some people swear more than others, and they can be quite graphic and colorful when they do. I don’t put a swear word on every page, but when it’s appropriate to the scene, I use the word the character would use in the situation in real life. Once or twice to let readers know what kind of character they’re dealing with. Usually that’s enough.
Ethnic, Gender, and National Stereotypes – Again, people do this, and when it’s important to establish this in a character, and it has to do with the story, I let fly. Again, as with profanity, I try not to overdo it—just enough to establish the character.
Handicaps, etc. – Unless it’s essential to the story, I don’t stress handicaps in my stories. There will be cripples, people with emotional or mental problems, etc., usually, though, it’ll play a role in the story. Gratuitous pokes, though, are a strict no-no. An example of what I mean: in a work in progress, a young man is accused of murdering the man he abused his mentally ill younger sister. The girl’s condition is key to the story, as it explains his reaction, and is also used to set up a couple of key scenes.
That’s not a complete list of PC stuff, but I think it’s enough to tell you where I stand on the issue. Political correctness, in moderation, is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t hurt people with our writing—unless, like politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and other scumbags, they deserve to be hurt. But, we should also be fair to our readers. Writing holds up a mirror to the world, and says, ‘Look, this is how it is. Edited a bit for clarity and flow, but baby, it’s not that vanilla world you’d like to live in, so learn to deal with the bits of nut and chocolate chip.’
I was a diplomat for 30 years. I’ll bet you think that made me ultra-PC. Not so. Contrary to what you might believe from popular portrayals of diplomats, we can be quite blunt at times—when it gets the job done. That’s the how your writing should be.
It’s that time again – time for another issue of Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group First Wednesday postings. Despite it being April 1, I’m not treating readers like fools, but I am reissuing a post I did long before becoming a part of IWSG, on where my story ideas come from. Hope you like it, and do suggest you go on over to Alex’s site to check out how you can become part of a great blogging experience.
Ideas for writing come from all kinds of places. My Buffalo Soldier historical series grew out of a combination of inspirations. One day, I was sitting at my computer, surfing the Internet, and I came across a site about the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry on the western frontier, and I realized that not many Americans know a lot about the colorful history of these African-American soldiers and the role they played in the westward expansion of the country.
The germ of an idea was planted. What if I did a series of short stories (more like novelettes actually) that introduced them to readers? The more I thought about it the more it excited me. Several years ago, when I lived in North Carolina, I was a writer and artist for a short-lived magazine, Buffalo that was based in California. I had a regular cartoon feature, did a few historical articles, and did the illustrations for several of the magazine’s covers.
So, I already had a bit of grounding in the subject; it was just a matter of how to kick it off. I decided to center it on a few fictional characters, with the main character, Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Carter, and show the kinds of activities they were engaged in. While I strive to make it historically accurate, I try to avoid long lectures on history. Instead, I insert the historical facts and incidents in through the characters’ dialogue, or short descriptive passages to establish context. My main objective is to tell an interesting story that will keep the reader turning the page.
I can’t be sure I’ve succeeded. Reader feedback has been limited, but what has been received is encouraging. raise indeed. My friend, Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri (Highway Queen), who has read and reviewed a number of my books, also commended the series, describing them as ‘good writing, and good reading.’
I use a lot of my own military background, as well as my childhood in Texas during the 50s and 60s, to establish the social, cultural, and geographic setting, as well as trying to make the language used by the characters as credible as possible. None of the specific incidents in the stories are real, but they’re all based on historical events of the era after the Civil War when America was opening up the western frontier to settlement and development.
I do research on a continuing basis seeking new story ideas, and to make sure that the equipment, tactics, and events have a ring of credibility. For instance, during my research, I discovered that the US Cavalrymen, contrary to what you might see in the movies, didn’t use repeating rifles during this period. They used the single shot Springfield because the army viewed it as more reliable and durable than the new Winchester repeaters, and it was cheaper. Even in those days, the government was concerned about the bottom line. I also learned that white soldiers received $24 dollars a month pay, and black soldiers $12 – which wasn’t bad money in the 1870s when you consider that when I enlisted in 1962, my pay was $72 per month.
So, you see, ideas for your writing can come from anywhere. You just have to open all the doors and windows in your mind and let the light shine in.
Here is it, the first Wednesday of the month again, and time for another offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group. It also happens to be the last first Wednesday of 2014, and I want to take the opportunity to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this fantastic blogging community, offering advice and commiseration to fellow writers. Go here to join in and to see all the great blogs that are participating. This month, I’d like to offer a little advice on a way to improve your writing that you might not have thought of – writing book reviews.
All good writers are avid readers. I doubt that anyone would seriously disagree with that statement. Reading is a way to see how others do it, and learn new things – all important to a writer. If you seriously want to become an effective writer; one that people want to read; you should read, and read widely. Not just in the genre that you write, but broadly. You’d be surprised at the things you might learn by reading authors of a genre you’d never think of writing in. I, for instance, would never try to write a romance novel, but I find the way many good romance writers handle dialogue quite useful when I’m writing a mystery or western. I also like the way they handle character emotions. I’d never go so far in my own writing, but I do pick up some great ideas.
Back, though, to my main point – book reviews. Going beyond mere reading, and delving into a book in order to review it, is an effective way to improve your own writing techniques. As you read a book for review, pay close attention to the parts that particularly impress you – positively or negatively – and make a note of why that is so. In reviewing a novel once, by a fairly competent wordsmith who was a master at plotting, I found myself irritated that the author used one word – I forget the specific word now – over and over throughout the book. About halfway through, I found myself counting the number of times this particular word appeared. Later, as I was working on one of my own manuscripts, sensitive to what I’d just gone through, I picked up an annoying habit I had – I was obsessed with the word ‘nodded.’ I had characters nodding two or three times per chapter; sometimes more. I then went back through a couple of books I’d already published, and, what do you know – there was that damned ‘nodded’ cropping up over and over again. I have to confess, I haven’t totally eliminated the word from my vocabulary, but I am now more sensitive to its use, and I try to find alternative ways of indicating a characters assent to something. If I hadn’t noticed another author doing it – and if I hadn’t been reviewing the book, I might not have – I’d probably still be peppering my manuscripts with ‘nodded.’
I also get great story ideas from reviewing other books. After all, there are no new ideas; just old ideas dressed up in new clothes. My YA novel Wallace in Underland came to me when I was reading an autobiography of Lewis Carroll.
So, among all the things you’re doing to hone your skill as a writer, don’t ignore the humble book review.
It’s time once again for my contribution to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group, where bloggers weigh in on issues relating to writing – problems or advice on how to improve your writing. If you’re interested in being a part of this select group, go here to join. This month I’d like to talk about voice in writing.
One of the most difficult things for beginning writers of fiction – or any other type of writing for that matter – is finding their unique voice. Writing guides and advice books pour out reams of advice on this aspect of writing. The problem is that most never clearly define what they mean by voice.
After decades of pounding out millions of words, I must confess that I remain in something of a fog myself on this problematic aspect of the writing craft – or art, depending upon your point of view.
My fog, though, is not so dense that I don’t have a vague idea of what is meant by voice in fiction, so I’ll add to the pool of thought on the issue.
Looking at my own writing over time, I’ve come to realize that any work of fiction has multiple voices. First, there’s the individual writer’s voice; the unique way a writer expresses him or herself. It is the author’s style or unique way of expressing personality, character or attitude. It is shown in the choice of words, how sentences or paragraphs are structured that conveys that individual’s uniqueness.
Of equal importance is the voice of the characters in the story. It is the speech and thought patterns, or persona, of a first-person narrator, or the speech patterns and mannerisms of characters in third-person POV. Careful selection and differentiation of speech patterns of characters makes it easier for readers to identify individual characters even in the absence of tags or descriptions, which can help the flow of your writing.
Finding Your Voices
The best way to find your own voice in your writing is to let it find you. Know your story and where you want it to go – what impression you want it to make on a reader, and then write the words you hear in your mind as you mentally map out the story. What word selections or sentence structures do you find natural when you write? Let them flow and your voice will emerge. What do you want your reader to feel or think about your writing? Select the words and sentences that convey that. That is you communicating to your reader in your unique voice.
As for character voices, what image of the character do you want the reader to have? Chose words and mannerisms that convey that image, being careful not to have every character act or speak in the same way. Presto! Your character’s voice will emerge, and the character will come alive for the reader.
You’ll notice I haven’t made any specific suggestions – short versus long sentences, long versus short paragraphs, colorful metaphors, etc. For your own voice, pick the ones that are you, and for your characters, pick the ones that convey the image you want the reader to have.
Finding an appropriate voice in writing is like learning to ride a bike. You keep getting back up and pedaling every time you fall down, and one day you’ll discover that you’re no longer falling.
You will have found that elusive voice.
It’s time again for a blog for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group. If you’re interested in adding your voice, pop over and join. This month, I’d like to address the issue of how much plotting is necessary (or not) before you write that magnum opus.
When you write, are you the type who just sits down to the blank page and start letting the words flow, or do you need a detailed roadmap before you can move? There are those who write best ‘by the seat of the pants,’ and those whose creative juices don’t flow without detailed charts and timelines to guide them. The war between the pantsers and plotters has all the implacability of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
That, however, is really not necessary, because there is a third way – the middle way. Maybe it’s because I’m Buddhist, but I find the middle ground far more comfortable and comforting than hanging about the extremes. I find that especially so in my writing.
I don’t start with a totally blank sheet, with no idea where my characters are going – but, I also don’t start with a detailed, hour-by-hour timeline. Generally, I begin with an idea of the story’s main theme, work out a rough chapter breakdown, a character list, and the time frame of the story. Then, I begin to write. The character list and time frame keep me focused, but as I write, other directions pop up, and if interesting, I take them. The aforementioned guides, along with the rough breakdown, helps me to know where I made the turn and help me to get back to my main track. I’ve done this with every book (over 40 now), and it works for me.
My only problem – I can’t think of a label to describe what I do. Any suggestions?
It’s another first Wednesday, which means it’s time for another Insecure Writer Support Group post. Hope this bit on engaging readers’ senses will help all you up and coming scribes out there.
PUT YOUR READER FULLY IN THE PICTURE
If you want readers to identify with – and hopefully love – what you write, you have to engage them in the story. This of course means having characters with whom readers can identify and snappy dialogue that moves the story along. Another element of the story, though, that should not be overlooked is the setting. Giving readers a good sense of time and place puts the characters and their witty dialogue in a frame that will help with a reader’s effort to become a part of the story. Every tale takes place somewhere, and how you describe that ‘somewhere’ is important.
Setting can be described in detail – as some authors do – or sketchily. I tend to the latter. Which road you take is up to you, but if you engage all the reader’s senses, she’ll go along for the ride.
A room, a house, a town, whatever; what does it look like? Is it neat or messy? Gloomy or well-lit? You can use visual descriptions of the setting to help set the mood for your story, or even foreshadow events in the story. By letting your character(s) react to what the scene looks like, you can use it to give the reader clues to them as well.
Do the floorboards creak? What about the sound of wood settling in the cool of the evening air? The sounds of traffic or birds singing? You don’t need to go into excessive detail. A few words about the sounds in a particular setting tell the reader where they are.
This sense is often overlooked in describing settings, but used properly it can do a lot to help establish the setting in a reader’s mind. The smooth hardness of a metal door knob or the silkiness of a linen bedspread can evoke memories for some readers – or, more importantly, for your character as he or she navigates the setting.
Think back to your childhood. Remember the smell of bacon frying early in the morning, the pungent, sweet smell of the trees in a pine forest? How about the dusty smell of a closet, or the talcum that your favorite aunt sprinkled on her ample bosom? Everything has an odor, and describing a few of the main smells of a place will help to make it unique.
You probably think this is reaching, but think again. Think about how your mother’s cooking tasted as compared to the same dish at the local greasy spoon. How does your food taste when you’re angry or upset? I’ll wager not the same as when you’re happy. While description of taste is character-specific, when done in conjunction with a particular setting it can be extremely effective in establishing mood or motivation.
If you want to see how setting is used effectively in fiction, check out the works of some of the masters. George Orwell in 1984, for instance, opened with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Another excellent example of describing setting is from William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” As a final example, here is Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt, “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.”