insecure writers support group
#IWSG: Amazon – Big is Neither Good Nor Bad, It’s Just Big
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.
#IWSG: How to Promote Your Book for Free
It’s that time of the month again—first Wednesday—time for a contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group, a collection of nearly 300 avid bloggers who share ideas, fears—you name it—about writing for fellow writers. If you’d like to become a part of this stellar group, go here and sign up.
This month, I want to address an issue that I know concerns everyone who writes for publication; book promotion, and how to avoid some of the schemes floating around.
Book promotion is like going to the dentist. It’s one of those things that is unpleasant, but necessary for good health, or in the case of a book, getting sales. Social media, as pervasive as it is these days, is a good way to promote your published work, or even create buzz for a work in progress, but the problem is knowing how to use it.
I’ve found Twitter to be a highly effective means to get word out about my books. So, apparently, have thousands—if not millions—of other people. As with any technique that works, it has also spawned a whole new industry of people who offer, for a fee, to help you get your word out to the Twitterverse.
I’m not calling these offers scams, because the majority of them are probably honest offers. But, honest or not, they are unnecessary. Why pay $50 upwards to have tweets posted about your book by someone else, when you could, with a little effort, probably do the same thing yourself? Or, you could find one of the free retweet services, such as CoPromote, to do it. I’ve been using this one for several months now, and during time have reached over 4 million new potential readers, and seen a 25% increase in monthly book sales, both paperback and e-Book. CoPromote is a relatively easy concept. You sign up, link your account to your Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube accounts. You then pick a Twitter, Tumblr or YouTube post to promote and highlight it (the instructions are easy). After you’ve selected a post to promote, you scroll through posts by other members and select up to ten per day. The posts you select are promoted on your accounts, and other members promote your post. My average number of shares during the two week promotion period has been 150,000 to just over 300,000 new shares. That’s a lot of new readers. When I first signed up, Facebook posts could also be linked, but due to technical problems, this is no longer possible. The web masters at CoPromote say they’re working on the problem, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. There is, though, a way around the problem. I have my Facebook and Twitter accounts linked, so that when I tweet, it also does a Facebook post. Helps others more than me, other than the fact that it helps enhance my reputation as someone who promotes others–not a bad thing for a writer.
I use CoPromote primarily to promote published books, but have also used it for other projects, such as my photography. This gives me extended reach to new readers without having to do frequent sales pitches on my own accounts. And, it costs me nothing. Now, you can’t get better advertising than that. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has had experience with CoPromote or any other free book promotion site.
#IWSG: Stop Writing – Get Some Exercise!
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.
#IWSG: PC or not PC – that is the question
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.
#IWSG: How Having an Established Routine Can Help You Be More Creative
Here we are, another first Wednesday, and time for a contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG), a talented (yours truly excepted) group of writers who share tips, advice, fears, and other neat stuff about writing. If you have something you’d like to share, trot over to the IWSG site and join up. In the meantime, this month, I’d like to talk about something that might seem counterintuitive—how having a relatively unvarying routine can help your creativity. That’s right, a dull, boring, same-thing-every day routine can actually be a boon to your creative process, so stop shaking your head and laughing and listen up. If the link above doesn’t work, go to http://insecurewriterssupportgroup.blogspot.com/. This is a temporary link until the insecure Writer Support Group moves to a new domain.
My Daily Routine
Every day, except when I’m sick and have to stay in bed (and, thankfully, my sick days are few and far between), I’m up between 5:30 and 6:30. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. I started life on a farm, where early rising was part of the daily routine, went from there to the army where it was part of the daily routine, and after 37 years of that as a daily routine, it is now hardwired into my system. Since I retired from government service three years ago, my wife has tried to get me to sleep in on occasion, but my body has become so accustomed to the 6 – 8 hour per night sleep, after 7.5 hours, my brain starts urging it to get up, and if I go over 8 hours, I get sore muscles, back aches and headaches. Besides, as you’ll see when I get to my ‘Work Routine,’ having a regular sleep-wake cycle is part of what contributes to my creativity.
After getting up, I do my daily exercise, shower and shave, walk the dog (or when we haven’t had a dog I just walk about half a mile), and fix breakfast. After eating breakfast I check emails, and then write for a few hours unless I have a scheduled activity outside the house.
After a couple hours writing, I take another walk. Then, if the weather is good I sit on my deck for two hours, smoking my pipe and either reading, taking pictures of the birds that visit the feeder, or making notes in one of my journals.
Two to three days each week, when I don’t have scheduled activity away from home, I take a two-hour nap from 2:00 to 4:00. As you get older, you too might find this a refreshing way to recharge and build energy.
In the evening, around 6:00, I feed and walk the dog again, wash up and eat supper, and then watch about two hours of TV. After getting my idiot tube fix, I hit the keyboard again and write until around 10:30, or sometimes 11:00, then I go to bed.
I do this Sunday through Saturday, holidays included. When I travel, it’s much the same except for walking the dog and fixing breakfast—I eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant on the road.
What follows is my writing work routine, and you’ll see how my daily life schedule fits it—and, hopefully, how all this feeds into what little creativity I possess.
My Work (writing, photography, and art) Routine
My focus here is on writing primarily. For starters, I have a daily writing quota of at least 2,000 words per day (I once did 1,000, but now that I no longer have a full-time day job working for someone else, I find it quite easy to make the 2,000 quota, and quite often exceed it by several thousand words. I do this regardless of any other planned activity, writing in portable journals I always carry with me when I travel. I write blog postings, book reviews, and work on whatever book project that is in progress—often having two or three books going at the same time.
I spend at least one hour each day reading. I read everything; books for review in several genres, books for pleasure—also in several genres, but mainly mysteries, thrillers, history, and science fiction—checking current news both local and international. When I’m reading, even for pleasure, I make notes of passages that strike me as exceptionally well done. These become guides or jogs for my own writing.
When I’m working on a book project, I write until I’ve reached a point where the ideas begin to slow, but not before I’ve done 2,000 words. I never stop at the end of a chapter, though, writing at least the first paragraph of the next chapter before closing it out. This makes it easier to pick up the next day.
Before I start on a book project, I do a rough chapter or section outline with main plot themes, characters involved, and the action for each chapter. I make character lists, with names, origins, ages, gender, occupation, and special characteristics of each character listed, and refer to them frequently as I write. I also do a timeline for the whole book, with start and end date, and then research to learn what historical events took place during that period. Sometimes the events will be specifically referred to, and at other times, I’ll have a character react to some historical event. I find this adds authenticity to stories and helps put readers more into what’s going on.
Sometimes I’ll devote most of a day to either photography or art (drawing and painting). For either I’m thematic. For instance, if I’m taking pictures, I’ll focus on birds or landscapes. Same with art, I’ll pick a specific subject and do drawings or paintings of that subject for a few hours.
How my Routine Helps my Creativity
At this point, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with creativity. Well, since I have my day pretty well mapped out, and I’ve been doing it so long I no longer have to think consciously about it—for instance, when I put on my shoes I always put the left shoe on first for some reason. This leaves my mind free to focus on the creative aspects of my work. While I’m cooking my breakfast, for instance, I’ll be thinking about my work in progress. I might, for example, think about how preparing a meal could be worked into my current story, and how it might be used to foreshadow a key event in the story.
Even when I’m out taking pictures, my mind is taking in details of my surroundings. What sounds do I hear? How does the ground feel beneath my feet? What does the forest smell like at certain times of the day, or during different seasons? What color is the sky in the early morning as compared to late afternoon? All of these can add to the depth and richness of what you write.
Even when I’m taking my afternoon nap, my mind is working. I usually fall asleep thinking about my work in progress, and when I wake up, I’m one of a fortunate few people who can vividly remember my dreams. Immediately upon waking up, I go to my journal and jot down the most memorable parts of my dreams.
Now, I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. By having a well-established routine, your mind is free to roam; to go off on those creative tangents that help to enliven your writing. You get more done—sort of two for one, if you will—the day-to-day activities of life get done, and at the same time you are creating what could very well be something a great number of people would enjoy reading or seeing.
#IWSG: Where Story Ideas Come From – 1
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.
#IWSG – What Does it Mean to ‘Write What You Know’?
Here we are again – first Wednesday, and time for another session of Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a forum of writing advice, pats on the back, and anecdotes on the writing life to help us all get over those little bumps in the road. You should drop over and take a look at all the great writers who are a part of this group, whose mission is to ‘rock the neurotic world of writing.’
I want to talk this month about an issue that I’ve addressed before, but taking a different tack. If you’ve read any writing advice or instruction books, you’re sure to have seen the commandment, ‘write what you know.’ Unfortunately, too many people take this advice quite literally, and believe they can only write about things they’ve personally experienced. Big mistake – and just plain wrong. Thing about it. If all writers took this advice literally, we’d have no great works of historical fiction. Think, for instance of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Since she wrote of prehistoric times, there’s no way she could have directly experienced it, or even learned about if from direct sources. She studied it intensively, and then used her imagination to create a story that even years later I remember vividly. Her book was even better than the movie.
So, what does it mean, ‘write what you know’? I think it means that you should do what Auel did. Learn as much as you can about your subject, and then let your imagination do the rest. I write a series of novels about the Buffalo Soldiers of the post-Civil War era on the Western frontier. I spent time in the army, so I understand military tactics and protocol, but mainly I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about the era, the weapons, events, etc. And, I try to infuse the color of the time into my stories, all of which are fictional, with a backdrop of historical events for authenticity.
Unless you possess a completely blank brain, you can do the same. Write what you know, but resolve to know something new every day. That way, you’ll never run out of things to write about.
See you next month.
#IWSG: To Write or To Have Written: Which is More Important?
For my second Insecure Writer’s Support Group offering of 2015, I wax a bit philosophical about writing. This is also, by the way, the second year of my participation in Alec Cavanaugh’s blogging effort. Comments are welcome, and if you have anything to contribute, check the IWSG link and sign up.
When I worked in Zimbabwe (2009 – 2012) I wrote occasional opinion pieces that appeared in the independent press which was opposed to the government. Some of the more popular of those pieces were put together in a little book which was provided to schools and youth groups. The book, Where You Come From Matters Less Than Where You’re Going, was quite popular, but aroused the ire of the government even more than the original editorials had, generating weeks of back and forth over, of all things, the title. I defended the title, while the government’s propagandists attacked it vigorously. Looking back, I now realize that a better title might have been The Journey is More Important than the Destination.
I mention that episode as a digression of sorts to introduce a topic that I’ve been thinking about lately – is it more important to write, or to have written? Now, working on book number 52 that might seem like an academic or even moot question for me, but it’s not. The question ‘do I want to be known as a person who writes, or as a person who has written?’ is still a valid one. It’s in fact a question that every writer should ask – and answer.
I think I know the answer for myself. After I’ve finished writing something, except for the unavoidable marketing once it’s published, I pretty much forget about it because I’m already working on the next; and sometimes thinking about the one after that. Having written is nice, but what really drives me is the desire to write, write, write. I wake up in the morning thinking about writing. I go to sleep at night thinking about writing. Most of the hours in between are about writing. Sometimes I even dream about writing.
You see, having written is a destination. Once you’ve arrived, where do you go next, if that was your focus? Writing, though, is a journey; one that is always fascinating to me because I never know what I’ll encounter in that next sentence, paragraph, or page.
So, stop a moment and ask yourself the question: which is more important to me, writing or having written? Answer it honestly. Then, you’ll know if you’re really a writer.
#IWSG: Writing Your Book in 5 Easy Steps
Happy New Year, and welcome to 2015. I think this year will be an interesting one for writers. I imagine most of you have made your resolutions for the year, and I hope, if you’re one of those people who have always been threatening to write a book, finally doing it this year will be one of your resolutions.
This is my first post of the year for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group, a dedicated group of bloggers who offer advice, hints, or just anecdotes about the writing life on the first Wednesday of each month. Another of your resolutions should be to consider adding your voice.
For now, though, to my topic of the month, how to get that book written. Here are the steps I follow. This is not the only way, but I offer it for your consideration.
- Outline your book. I’m assuming here that you already know what you want to write about. Whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, having a rough outline will help you develop a coherent structure. Like me, you might not be a person who works from a detailed outline – and, that’s okay. I rough out the number of chapters and briefly describe what happens in each. As I write, I often make changes (add or subtract chapters, move action from one chapter to another, etc.). This is much easier to do if you have it written down than if you’re trying to keep it all in your mind. This is also the point when I develop character lists (names, biographies, etc.), locales, time frames, key events, etc.
- Do your research. Before you start writing, research the information you want to include in your book. You’ll want to dig up more information than you’ll actually use, but don’t get so involved in research you neglect to do the thing that’s most important – write the darn book.
- Develop a writing schedule. Many would-be writers shy away from tackling book length projects because they feel incapable of creating something so vast as a 60,000 word-plus book. If you make a schedule – say, plan to write 1,500 to 2,000 words a day, it is suddenly not so gargantuan. After all, that’s the equivalent of a magazine article a day, and if you write 2,000 words per day you can complete the project in 30 days. That’s right; you can write a full-length book in a month.
- Write it. When you’ve completed steps 1 – 4, the only thing left to do is write. When you begin, let the creative juices flow. Don’t try to edit or proofread as you write. Get the story down on the page – or on the screen. You’ll want to take some time writing that first chapter. That’s the one that most often determines whether or not readers will keep reading. Take some time to get it right. While writing that first chapter, give a lot of thought to the two most important parts – the first sentence and the last. It’s a good practice to end each writing day by writing the first sentence or two, or even a paragraph, of the following chapter. This helps keep you on track when you pick up the following day.
- After you’re finished writing, let it cool, then edit rigorously. When you write that last sentence, put the book away for a few days. Take walks, start making notes of your next project, grab a camera and take pictures – anything to take your mind off the book you just finished writing. Then, after a few days, go back to page one and read it line-by-line, word-by-word for typos, grammatical errors, or formatting glitches, correcting as you go. When that’s done, go back and read it again for plot, flow, dialogue, and the other things that you look for in a good book.
If this sounds simple, it actually is, and the more you do it, the less intimidating writing a book becomes. It’s said that each of us has a novel inside. Some of us have more than one – and maybe a nonfiction book or two as well. These five simple steps can help you get them out where they belong, in the hands of readers.
#IWSG: Writing Book Reviews – A Great Way to Improve Your Own Writing
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.
#IWSG: Finding the right voice in your writing
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.
#IWSG: Plotting versus Pantsing
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?
#IWSG: A Rule about Rules
Really sharp-eyed readers will notice that this is the second installment in two weeks of my offering for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. I did a piece last week on creating fully rounding supporting characters in your stories. One reader caught me on the fact that I was out of sync – I guess everyone else was just too polite. That sharp-eyed reader said (tongue in cheek, perhaps) that I did it deliberately to see if anyone was paying attention. As much as I’d like to go along with that, truth is, I was just so busy with my writing projects and a few other jobs I’m doing right now I misread my calendar and thought June started last week. I broke the rule. And, that’s my real topic this week – writing rules and whether we should feel bound by them.
There are more rules on writing than I can count – so I’ve basically given up on most of them. I’m instantly suspicious of any writing advice that contains the words ‘always’, ‘never’, and ‘must.’ Even the rules of grammar can and should be broken on occasion.
Now, having dropped that controversial little bomb into the conversation let me explain. I don’t think you should necessarily ignore or be ignorant of the rules. I do believe, though, that you should consider junking them when the essence of the story you’re writing demands it. Take grammar for instance. In dialogue, if every character in your story speaks with absolutely ‘by-the-book- grammar, imagine how boring it will sound – and unreal. Real people butcher the language, and within reason, so should some of your characters. Fragmentary sentences, misuse of verbs, the whole ball of wax. Let your characters speak in keeping with their background, etc., and your story will be better for it. Regarding grammar rules, by the way – remember that ditty ‘it’s I before e except after c or when followed by g’? What about rein, ceiling, etc.? These words break the rules, and sometimes – so should you.
There’s more. Rules like start the action on the first few pages, for example. Not a bad idea for a lot of stories, but you can write a chilling tale by holding back on violent physical activity and just building up to it in some other stories.
I could go on and on, but the guts of what I’m saying is that you should let your story determine how and what you do. By all means know the rules. But, also know when breaking them is okay.
#IWSG: Putting the People in Your Stories
It’s absolutely amazing how often first Wednesday’s come around – like once a month, and to a busy writer, that’s like light speed. Well, here’s another installment for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a group of bloggers who share hints, fears, tips, and a lot of good dope on the writing life. You should pop over to Alec’s site to get a gander at some of the great blogs in this group. In the meantime, here’s a little piece on what to do about secondary characters in your stories:
You’ve done your book outline, created fully-rounded main characters, given your protagonist(s) daunting challenges, planted clues, and painted scenery that adds to the suspense and mystery, so you think you’re ready to dash off 40 to 50,000 words of deathless prose. Think again. There’s one more thing you need to do to have a story that your readers can really dive into – you need to create a cast of walk-ons – the nameless supporting characters that make your story truly come alive for your readers.
In the movies, the background characters never have names. They’re merely ‘the policeman at the intersection’ or ‘the convenience store clerk,’ but, without them, a story is one dimensional. It’s little more than the main characters talking to each other against a flat backdrop. The same is true of written fiction. Background or supporting characters add the necessary color and authenticity that makes it possible for a reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy your story.
While it’s not necessary to spend a lot of time crafting these characters, care must be taken to keep them from being flat, cardboard stereotypes that can turn a reader off. By flat, I mean characters like ‘the vapid blonde’ or the ‘stingy Scotchman.’ If your protagonist enters a store or fills up at a service station, he or she is likely to interact briefly, or at least notice, the staff. Without using too many words, paint a picture of these characters that adds a touch of realism to the scene. Getting to know the demographics of your setting is the way to do this. Who, for instance, is most likely to be a taxi driver in your area during the time of your story? In Washington, DC, where many of my stories are set, during the 1970s until the late 1990s, most cabbies were African – mainly Nigerian. In the past decade or so, that demographic has altered. Now, many DC cab drivers are from west Asia – Bangladesh or Pakistan. In many of the city’s urban neighborhoods, the convenience stores were once run by Koreans, but that too has changed. Now, your protagonist is likely to buy from an Indian or an Ethiopian.
If you want these characters to be more than cardboard props who make change, study the cultures and even though they remain nameless, have them speak and act in character. This can be done through dialogue. Many Asian languages, for instance, form plurals of nouns by merely adding a number rather than changing the noun. In Korean, for example, the word for man is nam-ja. A man is not ‘a man’, but merely ‘man,’ and more than one man is not ‘men,’ but ‘two man’ or ‘many man’ (tu nam-ja or mani nam-ja) and often a foreigner will, when speaking English, do a direct translation from his or her own language, making these phrases come out ‘two man’ or ‘many man.’ Inserting such a phrase in a bit of the character’s dialogue, along with a description, effectively paints the picture. Be judicious, though, when you do this. Once or twice is enough to let the reader know the character’s background, and if the character speaks again, even if you write it in standard English, the reader will make the translation because you’ve already set it up.
It can also add interest if you turn stereotypes around. The ‘dumb blonde’ for instance, could be a blonde receptionist who is reading a copy of National Geographic or Scientific American. With just that bit of prose, you’ve created a character that will stand out in the reader’s mind.
Creating credible secondary characters can make your story stand out, and is worth the effort you put into it. And, it’s not all that difficult. Keep a journal with you as you travel, and make notes of interesting people you see – how they dress, how they speak, and any peculiar mannerisms. Then, when you have to insert a walk-on character into your story, mix and match your observations. Don’t name them unless they will play a part in the story at a later point. A brief description that makes them unique is enough.
You’ll find that rounding out your supporting cast will make your story come alive.
#IWSG: I Am a Writer – and So Are You
It’s that time again, time for another installment for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. This week, I delve into the deep, dark recesses of the writer’s psyche – addressing the question we probably all ask, but don’t like to admit that we ask: Am I really a writer?
There’s probably not a writer who has not awakened in the middle of the night wondering why even bother – why am I calling myself a writer, exposing my innermost thoughts to total strangers, and opening myself to public criticism?
What person of sound mind does that – other than politicians, and I’m not at all sure that a person of sound mind choses to be a politician. You have to be a bit crazy to put yourself out there for the public to pick apart, right?
Of course, once I have that thought, I remember that I’ve always had a love affair with the written word. I’m the kind of person who would rather curl up somewhere with a good book, or lock myself away in my office and write than watch a football game. And, the few times I do watch football, I find myself mentally creating stories about football as it would be played in zero gravity, or on a field laced with hidden death traps. For me, the written word has always been the key that opens doors to imaginary worlds, and I have a compulsion to share those worlds with others. Before the invention of writing, people with such a compulsion were known as story tellers, and I imagine many of them were criticized for the stories they created.
After lying there, staring up at the dark ceiling for a few minutes, I realize that the question is moot. I’m calling myself a writer, because that’s what I AM. I can no more resist the urge to tell (write) stories than I can resist breathing. In fact, I can hold my breath longer than I can resist inventing some new story to tell. While I’m staring up at that ceiling – you guessed it – I think of another story, or a twist on an old story.
I do that because that’s what writers do. So, yes, I dare call myself a writer. I’m a writer, not just because I write, but because I MUST write. I’ll bet if you think about it, you feel the same. So, what are you waiting for? Get back to sleep. Let that story percolate in your dreams. Then, when you wake up in the morning, do the necessary, and hit that keyboard.
Do what you must do – WRITE! Because, you are a writer, and don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.
#IWSG: Engaging all a Reader’s Senses
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.”
#ISWG – What to Do When Characters Develop a Mind of Their Own
This is a reblog of a post I did a couple of years ago, which I think is worth sharing again. It’s for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group. If you’re curious about the group, click on the link to see what it’s about and how to participate. I almost missed posting this month because of the last minute snow and ice storm that blanketed the DC area and brought things to a standstill. The caprice of Mother Nature (I mean, sub-zero temperatures in March!) brought this post to mind – how do you cope when you’re writing, and your characters want to go off in directions you hadn’t intended? Hope you’ll find it useful.
The one thing that you can be sure that all writers have in common is that at some point we have read a book or article on the writing craft. One thing that I have encountered a number of times in reading about writing is the statement that it is not true that characters can take over a story.
This is usually accompanied by detailed instructions on outlining a story, whether it’s a short story or novel, before you begin writing. I suppose if you happen to be a WWO, a writer who outlines, this is probably true. I don’t know what applies to WWNO, writers who never outline, because I fall somewhere in between. I usually start with a fairly clear idea in mind as to where I want the story to go, who the characters are, the nature of the conflict, and the setting. I write a concise description of the main plot, make a list of the characters, and even sometimes make a time line.
In most of the stories I write, things go according to plan. But, on occasion, things take a turn that I have not planned for. Because I tend to write serial stories, novels and short stories, I try to carry over the main theme from story to story. Sometimes, though, either readers who have taken a particular liking to a character, and offer compelling justifications for their views, or the characters themselves, turn my nice neat story line on its ear.
About a year ago, for instance, just for fun, I wrote a short story about an urban kid with money problems. He’d borrowed money from a loan shark and couldn’t make his payments. This particularly story had a postal theme, so I gave it the title, “Dead Letter.” The plot was simple; my protagonist was trying to lay low to keep from getting his legs broken, so he changed his name and moved. Unfortunately for him, the Post Office tracked him down by delivering a letter sent to his old name and address to his new digs and, you guessed it, the loan shark found him.
I ended the story with a shotgun blast through the door and him being slammed against the wall. Fortunately, I didn’t specifically say that the shot had killed him; I preferred to allow readers to come to their own conclusion. One perceptive reader, though, had taken a liken to my character, Louis Dumkowski, and sent me an email asking if I could do a follow on story bringing him back to life. While I don’t normally make such drastic changes because of just one reader, her email was so sincere, I decided to take a crack at it.
Since I hadn’t actually killed Louis, in the second story I had him regain consciousness with a chest full of splinters from the door, which had absorbed almost all of the buck shot from the shotgun. Now, of course, I had to give him a new challenge, so I put him on the run. After all, if the loan shark learned that he’d failed, he might try again. Doing the second story got me interested in Louis’s fate, so I did a few more, putting him in one crazy situation after another. Some readers liked it, and kept asking for more.
Louis matured a bit, but only a bit, from story to story; mostly with the help of his high school buddy, Cleatus Washington. And I finally wrote a confrontation story, with Cleatus convincing Louis to face the loan shark. That led to some more humorous situations as the loan shark, a superstitious street punk named Vinnie ‘the Enforcer’ Williams, was so freaked that he hadn’t killed Louis, he hired him to collect loans. For good measure, he hired Cleatus as well.
A couple more stories had the two of them encountering customers, and developing a conscience. Well, Cleatus developed a conscience, and drug Louis along, which brought me to the last story in the series – or at the last one that I’ve written.
My plan was for Cleatus to convince Louis that they should stop bleeding the poor people in the neighborhood and get into a more decent line of work. My plan was to have a confrontation with Vinnie, perhaps with a bloody nose or two, but with Louis prevailing in the end. As I wrote, I could see the story in my head like an old black and white B movie, and the dialogue was clear in my head. The problem was, these two reprobates didn’t want to say what I’d planned for them to say. And, when Vinnie appears near the end of the story, the confrontation just didn’t seem the way they wanted to go. He’d been around them so long; well, actually, he’d been spending most of his time soaking up Jack Daniels and coke in the local bar while they did all the work, but his earlier nearly religious superstition, and the fact that he was sponging off his uncle, didn’t make a fight logical. What the characters wanted to do, in fact, was become respectable and liked members of the community. So, I just let the movie play out, and the three of them end up shaking hands and deciding to begin helping the community – for a profit of course; they didn’t totally change their mercenary ways.
The response to “Outside Parcel” was immediate. One reader expressed pleasure that the guys were trying to go straight, and looked forward to their new adventures. As for me, I’m just curious to see what they might get up to the next time I sit down and start typing.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the adventures of Louis and Cleatus, check out “Dead Letter,” “Return to Sender,” “Unclaimed Package,” “Rural Free Delivery,” and “Outside Parcel” at http://www.fictionwritersplatform.net.
Watch Those Assumptions
Hey! It’s Wednesday (first Wednesday) again. That means it’s time for another post for Insecure Writers. I assume that everyone has been waiting excitedly for this? No? Well, that just goes to prove that it’s dangerous to make assumptions, which is the subject of this month’s post – so there.
In the 1970s, when I was in the army and assigned to South Korea, I taught English at night to Koreans who thought my language was far more complicated than the inverted grammar they employ to communicate. That’s neither here nor there really – both languages are hellish for non-native speakers to learn. What that experience reminds me of is the importance of not making the assumption that just because you understand something, everyone around you will also understand it.
I used to begin each term by writing ‘ghoti’ on the chalkboard, and asking the students to pronounce it. I got response like, ‘goatee’, ‘got-tee’, and ‘go-tie,’ and then gape-mouthed astonishment when I informed them that ‘ghoti’ was pronounced ‘fish.’ I then explained that if one took the final sound in ‘enough’, where the ‘gh’ is pronounced as if it was ‘f’, the first ‘o’ in ‘women’, which comes out as a short ‘i’, and the ‘ti’ sound in ‘nation’, which sounds like ‘sh,’ you end up with ‘ghoti’ spelling ‘fish.’ Now, there is no such word, of course, but I used it to make the point that you can’t assume the sound of a word in English by merely looking at it.
And, that brings me to the point of this article. When you’re writing, never assume that just because you understand a passage you’ve written, your readers will share that understanding. Not, mind you, that you should insult their intelligence by explaining every new thing patiently as if to a child, but that you should make sure that you’ve put enough verbal clues in your writing to allow the reader to experience that ‘ah ha!’ moment of, ‘so that’s what that means.’
I’ll give you an example: In my Al Pennyback mystery series, the main character has the ability to tell when people are lying. He uses clues of body language and facial expression. Many people are familiar with the body language of their own culture – moms and school teachers, for instance, seem to be able to tell from body language when you’re about to tell a lie – but many are clueless. I don’t want to alienate any readers, so when I come to a passage involving this talent, I slow down and think about every word I write. Here’s a brief example:
As he answered my question, he avoided making eye contact, and I noticed a twitch under his right eye. I knew then that he was lying.
People familiar with body language and expressions will recognize the averted eyes and nervous tic as possible signs of evasion, and those for whom it’s unfamiliar will make the connection. It becomes a bit trickier when the characters I’m writing about come from a different culture, as in the following example:
“Did you kill her?” I asked.
He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “No,” he said quietly. “I did not.”
If he’d been anyone else I would have pegged him for a liar. But, the Korean gardener came from a culture where it was rude to look directly into someone’s eyes. Trying to read him was like trying to get meaning from a blank page.
So, there you have it. No assumptions about what a reader knows or doesn’t know. I make an effort to explain, through character action or speech, anything that happens in my story. You should too. Remember the old saying, to ‘assume’ makes an a– out of you (u) and me.
How Long is Long Enough?
The first Wednesday in 2014 was a holiday, so the first Wednesday Blog For Insecure Writers is being done on the second Wednesday. If that doesn’t confuse you enough, read on – I guarantee that my offering on how many words you should write will send you screaming to the liquor cabinet.
There’s this joke; a priest, a nun, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The punch line is ‘it’s not long enough.’ Now, for the life of me, I can never remember what comes between the opening line and the punch line – but, that really doesn’t matter, because thinking of that joke, I started thinking about another ‘joke’ – how long should your book be? Well, that’s not really a joke, is it? I mean, we writers have to think about such things.
Browsing my social media sites for writers, I’ve seen this question come up from time to time, and back in the days before I decided to self-publish, length was a big issue, whether it was writing a book or an article for a magazine.
So, let’s talk about that, shall we? How long should your written work be? The answer is, it depends. If you’re writing an article for a journal, print or online, the publisher will have specified lengths, and if you wish to be published you’re well advised to comply with those specifications. When writing your novel, on the other hand, you’re sailing in completely different waters.
If you research it, you’ll find a number of different views on the appropriate length for fiction (nonfiction as well). Novels, it is maintained, should be anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 words. Some say a novel is 50,000 or more, and others insist that a real novel is 60,000 to 80,000 words. Less than that, and they maintain that it becomes a novella or even (shudder) a novelette.
I have a different view. I hew to the answer to the question, ‘how long should a man’s legs be?’ The answer is credited to either Abraham Lincoln or J.D. Salinger – it really doesn’t matter which said it, but it was ‘long enough to reach the ground.’ And that, my friends, is the answer to how long your story should be – ‘long enough to get from opening to conclusion in a rational manner.’
The length conventions, established by the traditional print publishers, were often based on economic considerations more than anything else. For a print publisher, it is more economical to print a book that ranges from 200 – 300 pages because of the amount and size of the paper used. Of course, for authors with an established track record and audience, exceptions have always been made. Another belief is that readers will feel cheated by a book that is too thin – say under 200 pages.
My own experience has been different. I’ve written books of just under 40,000 words (call them novellas if you wish, I just call them stories) which have done as well as those I’ve done that were over 50,000 – in the case of my historical fiction/western books about the Buffalo Soldiers, better in fact. I just map out the story, beginning with how I want it to end, going back and coming up with an opening scene, and then writing until I get to a logical stopping point. My Buffalo Soldier books come in normally at 45,000 – 55,000 words. I have a mystery series which tends to average 50,000 – 65,000 because of all the plot twists. Using print-on-demand, I don’t have the problem of having to economize on printing costs as much as a traditional publisher who has to establish a print run for each edition, and each book is also available in e-book format where length and thickness isn’t an issue – well, thickness isn’t.
What I’ve concluded, though, is that if the story is well constructed and well told, if readers can identify with the characters, and the storyline is credible, no one complains about how long it is. It’ll be a long time until we’re no longer guided by the conventions of the past, but I’ve noticed more and more independent authors who are following the new rule – make it long enough to reach the ground. Who knows; when the next technological advance once again changes the publishing industry, maybe we’ll be the ones out of step. In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing from the beginning to the end, and stopping.