Some motivational speech for us all this morning.
It is a mantra in writing advice that you should never give away your writing for free. Writing as a specialised skillset has become so devalued by the interaction between cheapskate publishers and writers desperate to be published that it’s a race to the bottom to see if they can get us to pay them to publish us (oh, wait…). To try to mitigate this continual erosion of value in the writing field, experienced writers advise newbie writers to never give away their writing for free. This can be as strict as telling them to not keep a blog, write for friends, or write for charity newsletters and the like. It can also include not writing for less than a certain number of cents per word.
This is undoubtably good advice, especially for non-fiction, but also for fiction which is, if anything, even more devalued. But I recently came across something that puts it in a different light. Read the rest of this entry »
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from dabbling in popular science books about cognitive psychology (I have a Bachelor of Science in Psychology back in my murky past, but I never had as much fun studying the subject formally as I have had reading about the results of various specialist areas presented for a general audience), it’s that our minds are out to screw us. Our body is a little more reliable, at least before we outlive our evolutionary usefulness, but there’s a couple of areas where it too will happily sabotage us (and then there’s areas where mind and body together act against us — see research on weight loss and gain). Read the rest of this entry »
I received the following question the other day:
Does a historical fiction novel have to have a murder in the storyline?
No, not at all -– think of the historical timing as the setting. The plot can still be anything that works within the confines of that setting –- romance, family melodrama, spy thriller, mystery (without murder), or indeed murder mystery (or police procedural), or any other plotline you care to use.
Anyone got anything to add?
What happens to book sales when the digital version is given away for free? “The present study indicates that there is a moderate correlation between free digital books being made permanently available and short-term print sales increases. However, free digital books did not always equal increased sales” ie data are non-conclusive.
You can get my latest book for only $1 until mid-August. Check it out.
Here’s a rule all new writers will have heard: start when the story starts. Don’t faff around with a long loving description of the setting or some backstory or a history of the fictional country (ahem, I am looking at you, Three Hands of Scorpio). It is often condensed as ‘start with action’. Start when the heroine knocks on the door of her adventure, not when she’s born.
It’s a good rule – new writers sometimes do write pages of extraneous stuff before we suddenly, on page four or five or lord knows twenty, get to seeing a character take his or her first step on the actual story being told in the pages to follow.
But the ‘open with action’ rule does not literally mean you must open with an action scene (depending on what genre you’re writing in). This particularly applies if you’re writing about relationships and characters and aiming an audience who enjoys reading about relationships and characters, even when they also like lots of action.
Consider these two examples:
“Betsy was born to a poor but genteel family. Her father died when she was nine, her mother when she was thirteen. Surviving on a stipend, she struggled to raise her younger sisters. Eventually she realised she was going to have to marry to support her family. With her typical calm and fortitude, she reviewed the list of eligible bachelors, selected the best of them, and presented herself to him with a placid announcement that he would marry her.”
“Betsy knocked on the door of the fashionable London house and presented her calling card to the sniffy butler who answered. ‘Tell Lord Tallbert his future wife is here,’ she announced.
(Well, it’s not a great example, because, actually, she could very well be his future wife, how would the reader know otherwise from that snippet, but you get the drift – it starts with the moment of action, not the decision-making process).
That’s what the rule means, when it says open with action. Say you take this rule too literally and open in the middle of a dramatic, bloody battle, two sides valiantly grappling to seize victory (lots of action!). You, the writer, know who the heroes and heroines are and which side should win. But why should your reader care? They haven’t had time to get to know anyone, why the fight is happening, who they should cheer for, who they should feel sorrow over. It’s just a battle. Some readers like reading about that kind of thing without emotional investment in the characters. Other readers shut the book and try a different one. Which reader is in your audience?
If you do open with a frenetic action scene, you need to somehow make your characters apparent too. A good example of this is The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Now I didn’t particularly like this book, but the opening is a good example of how, if you start with action-action-action, you can also introduce your character and flesh him/her out at the same time, not incidentally getting your readers’ sympathies on side while you do it. It works well because it follows a single character, told from his point of view, with a dash of humour. This is more or less a perfect application of the ‘open with action’ rule.
I can’t stress how important the choice of character and POV is. You could open with a jewel thief creeping along a tunnel, alarm bells ringing behind him. Sweat drips from his brow; his satchel, slung over one shoulder, is filled with diamonds. Are we rooting for him, or for the security guard dashing to the mouth of his escape tunnel behind him? The POV will tell you.
The pressure to open with action happens in subtler ways too. Take, for example, the opening of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies. I really enjoyed this book, but I felt the prologue doesn’t work – it’s a dramatic scene from later in the book, put at the front in an effort, I suppose, to entice readers onward. Either the author or the publisher felt the opening wasn’t ‘action-packed’ enough. But: Is there a fan of the first book in the series who cared about a ‘slow’ opening or needed that scene to want to follow Locke? Is there someone who didn’t read the first book and read that scene and went, gosh, two complete strangers to me are having an argument, I must keep reading to find out why? (well, maybe…curiosity is a powerful driver, as all who have read to the last page of a crappy book just to see how it ends will attest).
Of course you want to start with action. But don’t make the mistake of equating ‘action’ with ‘action movie’. Maybe it would be better to say, start with drama. Start with interest. And start with character.
This entry is part of an occasional series exploring when good writing rules go bad. Previous entries are here:
Adjectives and adverbs II.
Don’t consult your thesaurus
Kill your darlings
Write what you know
Cut 10% in editing
Avoid adjectives and adverbs
Show, don’t tell
Just keep writing
44,000 words. That’s not quite 2000 words a day – I did only 8000 words for the week, not 10,000. It wasn’t that I skipped a day, it was just that on a couple of days I didn’t quite manage 2000, and then couldn’t quite catch up for the rest of the week.
The writing itself began to improve later in the week, as plot lines and character motivations became clearer. Certainly, the instant I got to writing Rana’s first day (Jannin and Rana spend three days doing separate activities in the cursed palace before they reunite), I saw what Jannin was supposed to be doing on his own first day, and had to go back and fix that up.
This is by far the messiest first draft I’ve ever written, with notes to myself everywhere about changing scene order and deleting characters and switching outcomes. But then, I rather suspect I always forget how hard a first draft is, once I’ve done the second and then the last.
I also managed to write 6000 words on a different project. I don’t normally split my attention, but I figured if I wrote out what these other characters wanted to say, they would stop talking to me and let Rana and Jannin have a turn.
And my last writing-related activity for the week was doing the final edits to the first Rana book, to be published soon.
So in all, though I didn’t make my target word count, I had a pretty productive week. Next week, though, I’m looking forward to having a bit of a break.
For the last few weeks, I have been discussing how the art of writing intersects with commercial success. First I said that it’s already hard to write, but even harder when you choose your genre solely based on what you think will sell, rather than what you love. Then I pointed out that most writers don’t make a lot of money from writing anyway. And then I used actor Marcus Graham to prove that you’ll be happier if you moderate your ambitions to something realistic.
In all of this, how do you measure your success as a writer? Using how much money you make, as I’ve tried to make plain, is a poor measure. Using the number of sales is only slightly better, because it’s still directly correlated to how much money you’re making. There’s plenty of writers who have released a decent body of work, with large mainstream publishers, have had sales, and who still cannot give up the day job.
For example, there’s Tony Shilltoe, an Australian fantasy author who has “enjoyed moderate publishing success” with more than a dozen books, and who still cannot give up the day job (though maybe he doesn’t want to). The key point for him is that he has not broken out of Australia into overseas (the giant US and UK markets).
I cannot speak for this writer and how he feels about it; I’m just using him as an example – a writer who has, at least since 2002, produced one to two publishable books a year – and that’s pretty impressive for someone with a fulltime job.
So how would you measure your success? Measuring it by money will only make you unhappy. Choose other measures, and make them correspond to where you are in your writing life.
If you’re just starting out, your measure of success could be twofold: Do you sit down and write every day? And are you able to complete an entire book-length story? Plenty of ‘writers’ undertake lots of stories and never have the willpower to work through the mid-book grind to finish a complete draft, so you can be proud if you have.
If you’re further along, you might make your measure of success whether you write a certain number of words every day, and whether you go back and edit that first draft until it becomes something better.
And again, you might be further along than that, and measure your success in publishing credits – with small publishers or large, with short stories or longer works, with fiction or non-fiction. Or it might by awards and good reviews (though that is relying on external factors and opinion and I would not recommend it – other peoples’ opinions matter in terms of deciding if your work should be published or not, but they should not be used to determine how you feel about it). Your goals depend on you.
My measure of success is simple, but less quantifiable: Am I happy? Do I look forward to my day? Do I go eagerly once more unto the writing breach, dear friends (even when I “close the wall up with our dead English” words; ie when it’s not going well)? Yes. Then I am successful.
I love Elvis…um, Marcus Graham.
MARCUS GRAHAM tells a funny story about the moment, many years ago now, when he gave up on Hollywood. It meant, as for any actor, letting go of a big dream and, like any adult, discovering that the dream wasn’t what you thought it would be. But in that pivotal moment in Graham’s life, he grasped the seeds of something else.
“I’ve learned that the less the ambition, the greater the happiness,” Graham says cheerfully.
And then later: “Letting go of the blind ambition of his 20s and 30s made him happier and calmer.”
Life today creates strange pressures: it’s not admirable anymore to just be quietly good at something that you’ve worked away at for years. You have to be the best! And do it really young! And really quickly! In writing, that’s first-time authors winning the Booker or 16-year-olds writing bestselling fantasy novels that get made into movies and spawn lots of sequels (though, hey, it is fantasy, so there’s got to be at least three books).
It leads to expectations that work against new writers. They expect too much of themselves, too quickly, and too much of the publishing industry, and others expect too much of them too. Something like Harry Potter or Twilight….those are bolts of lightning. Those authors themselves were under pressure to re-create the phenomena with every new book. How can a new author expect to create the next phenomenon when it is unpredictable, crowd-driven, faddish? How can a literary author aim to win the Booker when the judges’ tastes change every year and their decision-making is often obscure and apparently random?
Becoming an A-list movie star in Hollywood is the pinnacle for many actors. Wanting to be the next Rowling appears to be the goal for many fantasy writers. Winning the Booker is the dream for many (British Commonwealth and Irish) literary writers. Those are the sorts of big and glorious ambitions that might set you on your path, whatever it might be.
But to paraphrase the article, the dream is not always what you thought it was going to be. The amount of publicity, pressure, and sheer fan obsession must have given Rowling cold sweats. In this discussion, a Booker prize winner complains of having no time to write because of the touring expected of her since she won. And Marcus Graham woke up in Hollywood one day, and thought:
‘Bloody hell, here I am getting paid all this money to not work, while I wait for a job that I actually don’t want. What the f— am I doing here?’ So I took the $US10,000; they decided I actually was too mysterious [for a show called Mysterious Ways] and I left town.”
But: “despite letting go of ego, he still has the drive to act.” A writer can let go of unrealistic dreams of fame and fortune, and still want to write and be motivated to sit down and write (rather than daydream about having already written and receiving the accolades). It’s about deciding on workable goals, realistic goals.
For me, it’s regular publication for a small, niche audience. I don’t want lots of money, I sure as hell do not want fame, I don’t need critical recognition in the form of awards and prizes. I want to say, here, here’s a fun book, hope you enjoy it (and I want my small audience to say, thanks, I did, when’s the next one coming out? Write faster, lady).
We’ve all been trained to think of sensible, achievable goals as giving up. It’s not. It’s reaching for the happiness, the satisfaction, the contentment within your grasp, not those fabled distant stars that are so far away that their light takes millions of years to reach us. Reach for the Sun instead; its light only takes 8.3 minutes – a star less daunting to reach for.
There’s a greeting card in that, somewhere.
Ah, the best laid plans…last week I blithely decided to do 2000 words a day and knock my first draft off by the end of July. This week, an unexpected technical writing contract popped up. Normally I am well able to fit the paying work into my day along with the fiction writing (which does pay, just not in still-able-to-eat amounts), but 1) it had an urgent deadline so required almost full-time attention, and 2) I had already made other commitments for the week. Therefore, the writing was sacrificed.
This is when my recent blatherings about how you can’t expect lots of money from writing fiction and anyway I don’t really want that for myself personally become a little thin. I’d love to be able to pick and choose my writing contracts, turn down these kind of high-stress but extremely boring jobs (it was more or less copy-and-paste work that had to be done for hours at a stretch to get it done on time) and accept only the ones which challenge me and bring me into researching a new area.
And if I’m dreaming along these lines, then why not say, I’d love to be able to stop the technical writing work altogther and concentrate solely on fiction (though, actually, I like doing technical writing and it gives me a break from fiction when fiction isn’t going well; it’s just these weeks, when the fiction writing gets completely shoved aside, that I dislike)? That’s not the way it works when you’re not an A-list writer – I don’t think it even works if you’re just a mid-list writer – and, hah, I’m not even on the list!
So anyway, I’ll try again next week, 2000 words a day. If something else unexpected pops up, I’ll still try for 500 words a day. I will get this bloody first draft (first! It’s freaking June and I haven’t finished the first!) done.