How to Squeeze Writing Inspiration from Every Experience

This article, by Mary Jaksch, originally appeared on Write To Done on 3/9/09.

Do you have days where you sit in front of  an empty page  – and find nothing, absolutely nothing you could write about? I used to. But now I’ve learned to squeeze inspiration from every experience.

What, every experience? Yes, I know it sounds a tall order. Read on to see how it works.

The secret of creativity

First of all we need to determine what triggers creativity. It’s quite simple:

Creative innovation happens through communication between regions of the brain that are not usually connected. (You can read more about that here).

Let’s imagine that you want to write an article about social media. Your page is empty and your brain is on slow-go. Then you start making a list of points you want to cover:

Twitter
connections
viral news
Stumbleupon

Does this list inspire you? Does is trigger ideas in your brain? Well, not in my brain! At this point I still can’t find any theme connected to social media that I might want to write about.

Now let’s take a different tack in order to kick-start creativity: we’ll choose an unrelated idea and hold it up against our theme ‘social media’. What we’re doing at that moment is to connect two different areas in the brain.

Let’s say that the word we choose to connect with ‘social media’ is ‘potato’. Wacky, eh?

Just pause for a moment and see what your brain comes up with when you connect ‘social media’ and ‘potato’.

Here is what happens in my brain when I connect the two concepts:

  • Potatoes grow underground and you can’t see them from above / You can’t understand social media by looking in from the outside.
     
  • You only get to see the size of the  harvest when you dig up your potatoes/ It takes a time to see the result of ongoing social media cultivation
     
  • Potatoes are a staple diet/ Your communication on social media allows people to get to know the ‘ordinary’ you.
     
  • There are endless recipes to cook potatoes/ Each social media has its own style and you need to adapt to it

Ok – that was just a five minute harvest of ideas to illustrate how creativity works. Even though I didn’t come up with any brilliant mind flashes, what I did get was four different themes for an article. So, if you were to connect ‘social media’ with twenty different unrelated things, such as door handles, cats, rain, hunger, rainforest, or … you name it, you would end up with 100 ideas for articles about social media. That’s better than none, isn’t it?

Read the rest of the article on Write To Done.

Researching Your Book

This post, from BubbleCow, originally appeared on the BubbleCow blog on 5/8/09.

The key to effective research is to know what it is that you need to know!

The first step is to recognise that there are two types of research: general and specific.
General Research
This is all about gathering a wider knowledge of the subject of your novel or book.
  • Read general books: Start with outlines and histories of the period (topic) under study. Get a feel for the key events of the time. Read books at all levels. Children’s history books are often a good place to start since they will give you a nice overview. 
     
  • Read ‘real’ history books: The next stage is to read some serious history books. Find out who the key historians are in the area of your research and read a couple of their books. Good history books will have loads of references to the books that the historians used in their research. You can use these references to find more history books. 
     
  • Beware of the Internet: At this stage you are still probably gathering a deeper knowledge of the subject area. You may find that the Internet is not the most helpful tool at this stage. Wikipedia can be very useful to clarify details but use with caution. [Publetariat Editor’s note: this is because Wikipedia entries are created and edited by members of the general public, and are therefore not always 100% reliable]
      
  • Make notes: This is very important. As you read make notes of the key points and, most importantly, write down questions. 
     

Specific Research

 
Having gathered a general knowledge you will now be ready for specific research. This is all about answering the questions that will help with your writing. However, the key is to be specific.
 
Let’s say you are writing a scene set in London in 1867. You have a young couple walking down a street at night.
 
You could ask:
 
‘In Victorian Britain what did a London street look like at night?’
This would be fine but it is very hard to answer. Where would you begin? You would be very lucky to find a website or book that would give you the description you needed.
 
OK – let’s change the question to:
 
‘In 1867 what did a London street look like at night?’
 
This is a more specific question and therefore easier to research. You might do a google search on ‘London streets 1867’. This might pull up some useful information. An image search did produce this: 

See the image, and read the rest of the post, on the Bubble Cow blog.

Staying On Track For Non-Deadlined Projects

This post, from Devon Ellington, originally appeared on the Procrastinating Writers blog on 5/8/09.

It’s easy to stay on track for a contracted, deadlined project. You know when it has to be finished and to the client/publisher/editor/agent. You have a fixed date, and, whether you break it down into do-able bits or wait until the last moment for that adrenalin rush. It’s out the door on time if you expect to work for that particular person again.

But what about the pieces you write just for you? The novel you always wanted to start and finally “got around to?” How do you stay on track if a project isn’t under someone else’s deadline?

You have to apply some of the same tools, but modify them a bit. You have to make the stakes high enough to actually do it. And, most importantly, you have to want it enough.

For the purposes of this piece, let’s use a novel as an example. You want to try something new, it’s not contracted, it’s not deadlined. You might not yet know how long it’s going to be, what genre it’s in, or where it’s headed. That’s fine. You just have to really want to write this novel.

  • Figure out what a comfortable daily pace is for your work. Something that makes you feel that you’ve accomplished something. I prefer to use word count or page count rather than time count. It’s easy to sit and stare at the screen for two hours and say, “Oh, that was my two hour session. Done.” And there’s not a word on the page. With a word count or a page count, you don’t get to end your session until you’ve hit your quota.

    I write my first 1,000 of fiction first thing in the morning, before I am “tainted by the day.” I get up, feed the cats, put on the coffee, do my yoga/meditation, and then write my first 1,000. If it’s going well, I keep going as long as possible. If it’s a slog to get through that first 1,000 words, at least, no matter how frustrating the rest of the day gets, I know I’ve written 1,000 that day. It takes off a huge amount of pressure from the rest of the day. Sometimes, it’s a deadlined project, such as my next Jain Lazarus adventure. Often, it’s a project with which I’m playing, where I’m still unclear as to what it will be when it grows up.

    Carolyn See suggests 1,000 of fiction “every day for the rest of your life” in her wonderful book Making a Literary Life. It’s four pages. Doable in most situations. But if two pages (500 words) makes more sense in the scheme of your life, then that’s your daily quota. What matters is doing them. Every day. If you miss a day because you’re sick or life gets in the way, get back to it as fast as possible. Don’t give up.Also, remember that every novel has its own innate rhythm. Some will have a quicker natural flow than others. It’ll take you a few chapters to figure out the book’s natural rhythm. Once you’ve found it, work with it, not against it.

Read the rest of the post on the Procrastinating Writers blog.

Ten Fingers Pointing

This post, from Jason Weaver, originally appeared on his Paperback Jack site on 3/11/09.

Ten technological resources for writers. I hope you find them useful:

1. The BBC’s writersroom is that rare thing, an advice site and forum that also has the power to commission the work it helps with. They are, as they state, ‘always on the lookout for fresh, new, talented writers for a changing Britain. When we find them, we do everything we can to get their voice heard and their work produced’. All unsolicited material is considered and plenty of examples are offered for comparison. Worth the licence fee alone?

2. Similarly, the Scottish Book Trust is full of useful material. There is a virtual writer in residence, podcasts, interviews and information on funding. Like the BBC site, there is a depth of material here not immediately apparent from the home page. Take time and dig deep.

3. The Scottish Book Trust also has a short series of entertaining videos on YouTube. Keith Gray offers advice, based on his own experience, on taking work from basics through to final draft.

 

4. Universities have recently been opening up their lectures to the general public. Warwick’s acclaimed writing course offers a lively set of podcasts, entitled Writing Challenges, including the sparky ‘Murdering Your Darlings’.

Read the rest of the post on Paperback Jack.

Writing As An Identity

This post, from Nathan Bransford, originally appeared on his blog on 5/5/09.

One of the more unique aspects of writing is the way people associate themselves and their identities with their words on the page. People don’t just spend time in the evening reflecting on the capricious vicissitudes of life and/or zombie killers from another planet. It somehow becomes more than that.

You can see this in the way people talk about writing: some people compare it to oxygen, i.e. something that they can’t live without. They don’t say, "I like to write, it’s fun, I enjoy it." They say, unequivocally, "I am a writer. It’s who I am."

I’m going to be honest here and say that while I don’t judge people when they define themselves as writer, whatever their publication status, I find it a little unsettling when they make it an overly intrinsic part of their identity.

First of all, people just don’t tend to define themselves by what they do in their spare time. You don’t hear anyone shout to the rafters, "I AM STAMP COLLECTOR!" or "I AM A CONNOISSEUR OF REALITY TELEVISION!"

To be sure, there’s something about writing that’s a little different (to say the least) from stamp collecting. It’s more personal, even when it’s not a memoir or something that relates directly to someone’s real life. Putting thoughts on the page, any thoughts, means taking one’s inner life and putting it all out there for the world to see. Normally we’re at great pains to keep our emotions hidden, whether that’s concealing anger or love or nervousness. Writers do the opposite: they take their innermost thoughts and show them to the world. And there’s something scary/thrilling about externalizing what is normally kept hidden.

But an identity?

Here’s where that becomes problematic. Once someone makes the leap from writing as a fun, intense pursuit to something wrapped up in identity, it’s a dangerous road to be walking on. As we all know, the path to material success in the writing world is ridden with obstacles and rejections. And when people begin to wrap up their identity with the publication process, the rejections become personal, and a judgment on a book becomes intertwined, in the writer’s eye, with a judgment of self.
 

Read the rest of the post on Nathan Bransford’s blog.

From Web to Book

Hi!  My name is Pete Porter.  I have published a book of poems cal;led "Suggestion Schemes and Other Things" that is available on Amazon, both as a paperback and in a Kindle version.  This was produced  via BookSurge and has an ISBN of 1-4392-0463-2.  However, since publishing this item I have also found that I can produce my own books by creating them in pdf from pages that I have previously produced on some of my Web Sites.  One of these is an illustrated Autobiography of my father’s career in the Royal Air Force.  This includes sections on his pre-RAF life as well as details of his time in the Great Escape Camp, Stalagluft III.  (Although this is in his own words, I was able to transfer his verbal account to an html version that is currently accessible at http://www.trasksdad.com/PopsProgress)   I was also able to print this on double-sided 5×8 pages and get the finished 220 page compilation bound at OfficeMax for less than $4.00.  I have already sold several copies of this item for $20.00 but would like to get it registered with an official ISBN before I go any further.  "publetariat.com"  looks like it may have a solution to this requirement.  Please let me know how to go about it.

EVOLVE

EVOLVE

by Absolutely*Kate

 

We are given the shadows and the light, both equidistant to themselves. It’s not choosing either. It’s finding out both are of equal sum of significant value. Mirrors and illusion give way to trust and inner-know. As nature abhors vacuum, lessons vortex in – the more we open, the more they flow. Evolve spins eons in a day.

 

PUBLISHED ON SIX SENTENCES

 

~ Absolutely*Kate believes in believers,
befitting a prolifically creative person, vibrantly alive and well.

Writer, Promoter, Publishing-Designer at the confluence of two rivers
in Connecticut’s smallest city of renown, she is director/founder of
Art & Pride’s RiverView Studios where books are underway
and creative collaborations are having their encouraged say.

http://sixsentences.blogspot.com/2009/02/evolve.html

Copyright © 2009 ABSOLUTELY*KATE. All Rights Reserved.

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Read more: "absolutely-kate’s posterous – Home"

Tone Deaf Publishers Need Savvy Writers

This is a cross-posting of a piece that originally appeared on Loudpoet.

Counting on the laziness of the author and their lack of enthusiasm for self-promotion isn’t the best business model. Just look around. Many of today’s self-published books are hard to [distinguish] from their counterpart coming out of a major NYC publishing house. As self-publishing matures and begins to mirror professional publishing, the lines between the two blur and the need for a traditional book publisher becomes less necessary.

–Bill Nienhuis, An Author’s Perspective on the Book Publishing Industry

I attended the first day of The New York Center for Independent Publishing’s New York Round Table Writers’ Conference last Friday, and even before I arrived I was struck by the lack of Twitter chatter leading up to the event and throughout the morning of the first day. It was notable not because Twitter is the new shiny, but because the book publishing industry has definitely embraced it and there are a ton of smart industry professionals, independent pundits, and published and aspiring writers using it to network, share information, and opine about the future of the industry.

I arrived after lunch, in time for Lee Woodruff’s keynote speech, and took a seat at the back of the massive Library of the General Society of the Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York (NYCIP’s parent organization) — a massive, old room lined with bookshelves that is almost literally weighed down by its history. I was immediately struck by the interesting dichotomy as Woodruff mentioned Twitter, marketing and the viability of self-publishing within the first 5 minutes, and later noted the craziness of her first book, ironically titled In An Instant, taking nine months to be published after she’d submitted the finished manuscript.

Following Woodruff’s engaging presentation, I attended the Fiction Editors: Champions of the Story panel, featuring “an inside look and advice from editors of major publishing houses,” and that’s when the wheels completely fell off the thing.

I tweeted some of my gut reactions on the spot:

# 14:21 #nycwc Fiction editors explaining job, seem like an endangered species. Why not become agents or indie pubs? Can’t be job security.
# 14:44 #nycwc Somewhat surprised by the NY-centric, status quo opinions about the publishing process being offered by these editors.
# 15:09 #nycwc Funny: low odds for getting trad. published are the norm, but successful self-pub is dismissed as being rare and magical.

The editors themselves, each representing a major publisher and primarily focused on literary and/or commercial fiction, were a smart, lively bunch who clearly loved the core of their job — reading, discovering and championing great books — noting that they often did most of that outside of the office, after hours and on weekends. Most of their workday, though, is apparently spent navigating the bureaucracy and red tape of corporate publishing, doing everything but reading and editing manuscripts in service to what all agreed was roughly a two-year process from acceptance to publication of a book.

Each of the editors only read agented manuscripts — one noting she’d received over 500 last year, of which she’d only bought eight — but had little advice to offer the writers in attendance on how to get an agent who is good enough to get their manuscript in front of them. They also had difficulty clearly explaining what the difference was between their own job and an agent’s beyond ensuring their publisher’s contract doesn’t screw them over, noting that agents tend to do a lot of editing themselves these days to get a manuscript in tip-top shape, but that writers shouldn’t pay them for that service nor pay a freelance editor to do the same.

In response to a question about lessons they’d learned from the failure of a book to sell as well as expected — something that was acknowledged several times as being the norm not the exception — one offered an example of an unnamed book that the stars had seemingly all aligned for: it was a great book the editor loved, that their publisher believed was going to be a hit, that got great reviews from all of the major mainstream outlets… and it flopped.

In the final bit of unacknowledged irony, one of them briefly noted that examples of successful self-publishing were rare and magical.

The panel I was participating on — The Technofile: Online Writing and Blogging, “Popular online literary website writers and bloggers come together to discuss the online writing outlet.” — followed theirs after a short break, and offered an interesting contrast as three of us were about as deeply embedded in digital publishing as you can get: Roy Sekoff of the Huffington Post, moderator; Pamela Skillings of About.com; and Rebecca Fox of MediaBistro. I was billed as representing Spindle, which was nice, but I noted that my presence on the panel actually came about from having worked with Writer’s Digest for a year-and-half and being heavily involved in pushing their website forward and getting them to embrace their position of leadership by acknowledging the rise of self-publishing as a viable option and teaching writers how to do it the right way.

# 17:40 #nycwc Blogging panel was fun and lively. Sekoff kept things interesting; Fox and Skillings offered great insights. Lot of fun.
# 17:43 #nycwc Writers need to understand they’re marketing themselves, not their books; publishers won’t do it for them. Take a long-term view.
# 17:59 #nycwc Authors using Twitter article by @mariaschneider I referenced during blog panel: http://bit.ly/13RVz1

Sekoff ran a great, lively panel and we all offered some practical and personal insights into the opportunities the shifts in the industry have opened up for writers who are savvy about marketing themselves and establishing that holy grail of publishers and writers alike: a platform.

After offering our individual takes on a variety of topics and looking into our crystal balls to speculate on where things were going — a unanimous vision of increased disintermediation and the power of writers to control their own careers — we took questions and what was most notable was that the majority in attendance were not terribly marketing savvy and something as simple as setting up a blog struck many of them as being a significant challenge. A few didn’t see the value of it at all, missing the forest for the trees, seemingly still believing that a writer’s only job is to write.

Earlier, Woodruff had been asked how writers without PR experience and media connections — as she’d acknowledged having had and working to her full advantage — can promote themselves, and she noted that social networking had leveled the playing field online and that writers have to get comfortable using it and marketing themselves.

With the continuing deterioration of traditional distribution channels; the shifting of editing and marketing responsibilities to agents and writers; and the availability of numerous resources to empower a writer to reach their audience directly and profitably, Niehuis’ aforementioned point is worth reframing: “Counting on the laziness of major publishing houses and their lack of enthusiasm for marketing isn’t the best business model for writers, aspiring nor established.”

Publishers need writers to stay in business, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

Here’s a handful of key resources for any writer looking to take full control of their careers:

  • There Are No Rules: Savvy advice and information on the business of publishing from Writer’s Digest Publisher & Editorial Director, Jane Friedman
  • Editor Unleashed: More savvy advice and information on the business of publishing and craft of writing from former Writer’s Digest editor, Maria Schneider
  • Get Known Before the Book Deal: Writer Mama Christina Katz offers tips and advice for success in the world of publishing.
  • Publetariat: An online community and news hub built specifically for indie authors and small, independent imprints.
  • GalleyCat: MediaBistro’s publishing industry blog is a daily must-read for all writers.
  • The Reality of a Times Bestseller: NY Times Bestseller Lynn Viehl offers the numbers behind her best-selling book, Twilight Fall.
  • The Fine Print of Self Publishing: The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies Analyzed Ranked & Exposed
  • WordPress.com: Starting a blog takes 5-10 minutes, and WordPress is my preferred platform.

NOTE: This isn’t about traditional publishing vs. self-publishing; that’s a very individual decision that can’t be generalized as each offers advantages and disadvantages that will be perceived differently according to context. No matter which route a writer chooses, though, the ultimate responsibility for their success or failure will fall to them, and to think otherwise increases the odds of failure.

Parting Thoughts: The State Of Publishing

This post, by David Hewson, originally appeared on his blog on 4/18/09.

Sitting here in the comfy Virgin Lounge in SFO with a few hours to spare I thought I’d set down a few thoughts about these last two weeks on the road in the US. Coming to America is always an enjoyable, thought-provoking process, and this trip was both of those, more so than usual if I’m honest. So I’ll try set down my thoughts about what I’ve seen and heard here, and a few things I’ve learned.

Here goes: is publishing doomed?

 

Like most provocative questions this one isn’t as simple as it first appears. Lots of people are feeling pain at the moment. What we sometimes fail to appreciate is that they’re different kinds of pain. Publishers are watching a market that’s been comprehensible and relatively capable of control for decades fragment and fall from their grasp. Big retailers are suffering from falling sales and the dead weight of overhead that comes from running vast operations, as well as competition from lower cost operations on the web, Amazon in particular. Small, individual booksellers find themselves squeezed because they can’t compete on price and they face falling sales and rising costs too.

And authors? Well, to be honest we’re probably in the best – or rather least horrible – position of all. Forget books, I’m a story teller first and foremost and my work appears in a variety of forms, in print, in audio, on ebooks, a few more too maybe in the years to come. The real question is this: is storytelling doomed?

I think we all know the answer to that: clearly not. We have stories coming as us from all angles these days, even as downloads to our iPhones. As a Hollywood producer I talked to put it: the appetite for content is booming, what’s happening is that the 20th century models for meeting it don’t seem to match what a 21st century audience demands. Why should they? The 20th century didn’t have Kindle or Audible or Amazon. It’s different out there.

I’m not qualified to offer advice to publishers or big book companies even if I had something useful to say. So let me focus on whatI know and love: writing. Authors are, I think, on the brink of a new and exciting age. We will no longer be confined by the schedules and norms of the print industry. Those literary forms that once seemed so hard to get published – novellas and short stories – suddenly make sense because they match the instant release of digital. Backlists become resources to be revived, not lost titles that never again see the light of day. And there will, I’m sure, be new types of media and opportunities created in the years to come too.

The bad news? The days of big advances, cushy contracts and big safety nets are gone for good. Writing is back to being the scary, exciting business it always was. If you want to make it a career you’re going to have to work hard, take risks and have a very thick skin. Welcome to the real world. This is not a get-rich-quick business or one that can be judged on sales or financial terms alone. If it were then any number of great writers, from Poe to Herman Melville, would have to be reclassified as failures. Ridiculous, don’t you think? If you want to make money and be a celebrity learn to play guitar. Books aren’t like that.

Read the rest of the post on David Hewson’s blog.

5 reasons having a ‘day job’ helps your writing

 This was originally posted at The Creative Penn blog on 2 May 2009.  

Many writers dream of making a fulltime living from their books. The life of the career author is surely a whirl of book festivals, interviews and closeted months in French literary haunts penning marvellous literature. Who wouldn’t want that!

Some of my (many) bookshelves

Some of my (many) bookshelves

But the reality is that very few authors make a fulltime living from their books. 

It has been said anecdotally that the average Australian author makes AU$3000 per year (less than US$2000).

An American author who sold over 75,000 copies and made the Times Bestseller list shows a net income of $0 from her books.

Most writers make money from other jobs – freelance writing, teaching or a day job completely unrelated to their writing.

Here are 5 reasons why having a day job helps your writing.

1.       Provides (much-needed) income. Let’s face it, we need the money the day job brings! It may not be glamorous but the job is necessary to support ourselves and our families. It is also handy to have enough money to be able to buy the books we need, or to go to the writing conferences or events that help us in our work.

2.       Gives you the urgency to write when you do have time. There is a myth of creativity that if you could only have 6 months off work and write fulltime, then you would write that award-winning novel. It’s not true! When you have all the time in the world, you do far less than if you are under a deadline. The day job squashes your writing time into the hours you can spare – lunch hours, commuting time, hours when you would have watched TV, after the kids have gone to bed. Don’t wait until you have all the time in the world as that time may never come. Take advantage of where you are now and get writing!

3.       Provides material to incorporate into your writing. We all write about what is around us. If you write fiction, then your work can provide aspects of characters, snatches of conversation, scenarios, geographical realism. If you write non-fiction, then your work may turn into a book, or you may write to solve the problems of your workplace. Stephen King is a master of the ‘real’ character. His books are full of people that you would recognise at work. Where do you think he got his inspiration? The years of fulltime work to support his family whilst writing at night.

4.       Keeps you grounded in the real world. Writing can be held up as an other-worldly experience. The creative genius works alone in the wooden attic, surrounded by books and little else. Again, this is a myth perpetuated perhaps by literati but is not the real world. Real authors have jobs, families and problems like everyone else. Being a writer doesn’t make you more important than other people. Having a job like everyone else keeps you grounded.

5.       Enables you to write what you want to. If you have a day job that is not related to writing, then you have the freedom to write on your own agenda after your work is done. This creative freedom is liberating! You can write that poetry burning in your heart, or the sci-fi thriller, the business book, the erotica. You can write whatever you want to, so your creativity is focussed on your own writing goals.

The day may come when you are a fulltime author making millions from your words – until then, be grateful for the day job and make the most of the time you have now.  

 

Five (and One Silly) Ideas For Avoiding the Paradox of Choice in Writing

This post, by Jeremiah Tolbert, originally appeared on his site on 4/22/09.

I have often written about a concept pioneered by Barry Schwartz called the paradox of choice.  Basically, the idea is that the more choices you give people, the more likely they are to be paralyzed with indecision.  It’s easier to make up your mind when you have fewer choices.  

In yesterday’s post, C.S. Inman asked the following question:

When I begin a story, I do a good job with characterization, with setting up engaging conflicts, with possibilities for compounded problems and solutions. From what they tell me, people generally want to keep turning pages.

Unfortunately, when I’m writing past the “beginning” I have difficulty choosing which plot options should take up those subsequent pages. The “middles” of my stories are a crossroads where I feel like no matter which path I let the protagonist take, I’m missing something better on one of the other paths. It doesn’t help when I sometimes finish a short story (or a chapter of a novel) and realize I have to delete 2,000 words and go a different direction because it’s totally awesome, and how didn’t I see it before I wasted all that time?

Do you have any ideas about how I can either 1. Stop being a pansy and just pick one and like it or 2. Discover which path is going to be the most satisfying BEFORE I write the wrong one?

1. First of all, keep in mind that there’s no “best” solution. You’ll like one more than another one day, and the next day, you’ll think the opposite. It’s of course all very subjective. So relax about it and just get your first draft out. As other ideas occur to you, keep a parallel document running, and jot down your alternative paths that come to you. After your first or second draft, go back and see if exploring any of those notions will be any better.

2. It can help sometimes to not only have a beginning to a story when you start writing, but to also have an idea of an ending. I used to think this was impossible for me to do, but the more I write now, the more I realize that most stories only have a few satisfying endings available to them once you know the setup. It’s much harder to write a story in which the protagonist fails at succeeding against their central story problem. It’s not impossible, but you need to know you’re going to do that when you set out writing the story, because there has to be some satisfaction to the reader in their failure–they have to succeed at something greater, something they didn’t even necessarily know they wanted–but the reader should have had an inkling along the way even if the protagonist did not. Foreshadowing is much easier to do if you know what you’re foreshadowing. You can always write to the end and then go back and add the foreshadowing in in a later draft, or– 

3. Maybe you shouldn’t think of those 2,000 words you cut as wasted. Some writers (not many) can write a story in a single draft, and make minor edits, then send it off and sell it. Me, I have found that I write anywhere from 3-10 drafts of a story before I get it accepted somewhere. Without fail, the more drafts I put into a story, the more I stand a chance of succeeding in my ultimate goal, which is seeing the story published. The key here is to adjust your expectations and to give yourself room to experiment. The 2,000 words that don’t make it into a final draft of the story can be just as important, if not more important, than the ones that do.
 

Read the rest of the post on Jeremiah Tolbert’s site.

The Perils Of Coincidence

This article, by screenwriter John August, originally appeared on his site on 5/6/07. While he wrote it with an audience of screenwriters in mind, his point about coincidence is equally pertinent to authors of any type of fiction.

Like several million people worldwide, I saw Spider-Man 3 this past weekend. And like a substantial percentage of these viewers, I got frustrated by the number of unlikely coincidences in the movie.

There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, many movies are built around a “premise coincidence.” In Die Hard, John McClane just happens to be in the building when the villains attack. That’s okay. McClane’s being there is part of the premise. Likewise, in the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker just happens to get bitten by the radioactive spider. No problem: it wouldn’t be Spider-Man otherwise.

The premise coincidence is one flavor of what I’ll call a Fundamental Coincidence: an accidental confluence of time, place and motivation which greatly impacts the story.

In a romantic comedy, when The Guy would have proposed to The Girl except that he just happened to overhear a conversation he interpreted the wrong way, that’s a Fundamental Coincidence. In the first Spider-Man, Norman Osborn just happens to be transformed into The Goblin just as Peter is becoming Spider-Man. That’s a Fundamental Coincidence, but we accept it because it feels true to the genre.

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. (Mostly things you’d glean [from] the trailers or ads, but still.)

Let’s look at the Fundamental Coincidences in Spider-Man 3:

  • The asteroid carrying the symbiote (utlimately, Venom) happens to land near Peter Parker. Peter doesn’t hear it, doesn’t investigate.
  • The symbiote happens to attach itself to Peter’s scooter.
  • Flint Marko happens to fall into the sand pit at exactly the moment the scientists test their billion-dollar Dyson vacuum.1
  • Flint Marko happens to have been the man who killed Uncle Ben. (A retcon.)
  • Eddie Brock happens to be the only person in the church at the moment Peter tries to get rid of the black suit.

Any one (or two) of these Fundamental Coincidences would probably go unnoticed, particularly in a superhero movie, where credibility takes a back seat to spectacle. But put together, they make the plot feel rickety, particularly when you factor in the large number of what I’ll call Minor Coincidences — things that don’t fundamentally change the story, but feel convenient all the same.

  1. The police chief decides to tell Peter about Marko now, even though he’s known the details for some time, apparently.
  2. Sandman’s first attack just happens to coincide with Spider-Man getting the key to the city.
  3. Eddie Brock is newly arrived at the Daily Bugle, and wants Peter’s job.
  4. Gwen Stacy happens to be Peter’s lab partner.
  5. Gwen Stacy happens to be in the skyscraper during the crane accident.
  6. And she’s the police chief’s daughter.
  7. And she’s Eddie Brock’s love interest.2 
  8. And Gwen happens to be at the fancy restaurant on the night Peter wants to propose.

Again, you could have several of these coincidences in any movie and no one would mind. It’s largely expected that familiar faces will become imperiled in a summer action movie, so #5 feels right. Likewise, the eventual discovery of Venom’s weakness is accidental, but that plays into the genre. No foul there.

My point is not to rip on Spider-Man 3, but to urge readers to look at their own scripts with an eye towards coincidence. If you’ve written a treatment, search for the following phrases: “at the same time,” “accidentally,” “luckily,” “unfortunately,” and “meanwhile.” They’re often a tip-off that you have events happening by coincidence. There’s almost always a better alternative.

Read the rest of the article on John August’s site.

Footnotes:

  1. It’s never clear what they’re supposedly doing, or why they wouldn’t have, say, a lid on the pit. Or a videocamera to monitor the experiment.
  2. Revealing both of these points of information in one piece of dialogue was a particularly bold choice.

A Publishing Person Self-Publishes

This post, by Kent Anderson, originally appeared on the Self-Publishing Review site on 5/4/09.

I’ve always been a publishing person, from the time I spent studying copyright pages in books around age 8 to creating what still look like sophisticated magazines as an adolescent using only a typewriter, pen and ink drawings, and Scotch tape, then photocopying the resulting layouts. I’ve worked in bookstores, typeset professionally, written for newspapers, compiled indexes (or indices if you so prefer), launched titles, designed and created reference works, redesigned magazines and journals, created web sites, and done a myriad other things in the realm of publishing.

And now, I’ve self-published my first novel.

I didn’t self-publish because the publishing process confuses, baffles, or overwhelms me. I don’t need a publisher to figure out discounting, rights retention, royalties, or the mechanics of publishing. I did it precisely because I understand the traditional publishing process, and I didn’t want it or need it. Not for a work of fiction, at any rate.

I’d been trying to write fiction off and on ever since high school, but university, work, family, and other interests made the efforts sporadic at best. A couple of years ago, I began writing yet another novel. Very quickly, I discovered the characters, plot devices, and time I needed for the work to really flow. Finally, in 2008, I finished my first complete novel, a mystery-thriller entitled, Spam & Eggs: A Johnny Denovo Mystery, which was published in February 2009 under the pen name Andrew Kent.

Because I liked the book so much, I decided to try the traditional publishing route for a few weeks to see if I could make a quick score, all the while lining everything up to begin self-publishing. It only took a little more evidence for me to decide to self-publish exclusively:

  1. There’s not much money in traditional publishing. Traditional publishing inserts layers of people between you and the customer, and each layer wants a cut. By the time you get your share, it’s a percentage of a percentage. And as far as having a bestseller or blockbuster goes, publishing through a major publisher increases your chances only slightly, by as little as 2%.

     

  2. Wanting a traditional publisher’s acceptance is probably even more vanity-driven than self-publishing (“Look at me! Harcourt accepted my manuscript!”). In fact, after separating the author from the commercial realities, vanity is largely the only thing left. Self-publishing is about really engaging the audience. There’s less vanity when you have skin in the game.

     

  3. Email has accelerated the submission and rejection game so much that neither agents nor authors are getting a true read on commercial opportunities this way. And, too often they’re looking for “the next [fill in the blank].”

     

  4. Even with a faster query process, it takes too long to get published through a traditional publisher. Authors have to wait anywhere from 2-7 years from an agent accepting them as a client to the publication of a first book — assuming a book emerges at all.

     

  5. New authors in this economy are low on the totem pole, especially for fiction titles. Agents and publishers want to bet on thoroughbreds. Few want to raise ponies.

     

  6. Old-fashioned consignment publishing is struggling. The economy has everyone in big, highly leveraged businesses (like consignment publishers) running scared.

     

  7. Amazon.com is the 700-pound gorilla in book sales these days. If it isn’t on Amazon, it has no commercial potential. Bookstores are only a piece of the puzzle.

     

  8. Even if a commercial publisher picks up your book, you’re still a small fish in a vast ocean, and the chances of success rest largely with you, yet with little chance of commensurate reward. And you close off important options a self-published author retains.

     

Read the rest of the post on the Self-Publishing Review.

Kent Anderson works in scholarly publishing, runs the blog The Scholarly Kitchen, and writes the Johnny Denovo Mysteries under the pen name Andrew Kent.

Putting My Money Where My Values Are

This post, by Christine Duncan, originally appeared on the Rule of Three blog on 4/27/09.

There are elitists in every area of life, and the mystery writing field is no exception. I thought I knew them all. I did know about the folks who thought you weren’t writing a real mystery unless it was (insert one) noir, a private detective novel or written in the style of the late great Agatha.

 

I didn’t think the people who were supposed to be my support system would turn out to be elitists–all under the guise of helping me. By now many of you know of some of the turmoil of the last year or so in some of the mystery groups to exclude from certain privileges those of us who are published by publishers who use print on demand print processes, or who do not give advances.

First we were told that our publishers had to be on some list of “accepted publishers.” To be truthful, I didn’t pay much attention then. My publisher is a legitimate royalty paying small press. They vet subs–taking only a small percentage, edit, use Baker and Taylor, take returns, the whole nine yards. And they were on the accepted list. I could have fought for the self-pubbed and excluded presses–but I didn’t. And now I’m sorry.

Then authors from print on demand presses were told we would not be on panels at certain conferences. When authors protested on the organization’s list, we were told that this wasn’t their decision, it was up to the organizers of the conferences.

When we pointed out the organization sponsored some of those conferences, they came up with a different excuse. This was done, or so they said, because people need to be wary of some publishers or even (Horror of Horrors!) self-publishing. The organization mustn’t seem to endorse these folks. There were other reasons, of course, but this is the one that stuck in my craw.

Apparently the organization doesn’t know that we’re all adults and can make our own decisions whether that be N Y press, small press or self-pubbing. Neither did they acknowledge that it used to be honorable to self-publish. Jane Austen, (see Michelle’s post last week) Mark Twain and Virginia Wolf all did and never suffered a stigma.

Then any discussion of the problem was banned from the organization’s listserv. It served no purpose they said. As my children would say with a roll of their eyes, “Whatever!” Many of us decided there and then not to attend [their] conferences and hope that our small (monetary) contributions would be missed.

Read the rest of the post on the Rule of Three blog. 

From The Editor: A Correction

In The Truth About CreateSpace’s Free ISBNs, it was stated that if an author who has accepted a free ISBN from CreateSpace subsequently removes his book from CreateSpace, CreateSpace might reassign the ISBN that was assigned to his book (aka, "recycle" the ISBN). This is not true. 

According to Amanda Wilson, CreateSpace’s Public Relations Manager, CreateSpace does not, and never has, reassigned its ISBNs. If an author accepts the free ISBN and subsequently removes her book from CreateSpace, the ISBN assigned to her book will go out of circulation.