The funny thing is, for such a mundane and commonplace object, the novel is fairly poorly defined. It’s one thing to stroll through a library or a bookstore, running your hand along spines, and say “these are novels”. It’s quite another to sit down in front of a computer, fire up a word processor, and start to type.
My journey to digital self-publication is far from original but it almost didn’t occur due to an almost fatal (to my career) ability to procrastinate.
I’d wanted to “be a writer” for almost as long as I can remember, but the proof is in the pudding (to daisy-chain two clichés together). For years, I managed to write a paltry short story or two a year. I’d toss them in the mail with little market research or editorial diligence, then wallow in self-pity when the rejection slips came back. The wallowing was made worse by my firm belief that I, indeed, had “it” and just needed to be “discovered” by a Big Six editor (before I knew what that was) while pausing at a rest-stop on I-95 or by chatting up a NYT best-selling author as I stood in the lunch line at Subway.
And I didn’t bother bolstering whatever natural talent I had with a scrap of education or self-edification. I figured I could always get my MFA (ha!), but why bother? Hemingway hadn’t gone to school for writing, Melville barely left his farm after returning from the sea, Bukowski was a postman for Christ’s sake. I’d eventually get around to the act of writing…and when I did, watch the hell out world, because life would never be the same. They’d make Hallmark calendars centered around the day I published my novel. Animals would come up to me in the forest to sit on my lap and eat out of my hand. Weather patterns would form around my house as the creative power of my brain caused a micro-climate to form in my neighborhood.
Needless to say, actually sitting down and writing something didn’t figure into this equation. Since it was understood that you had to write to be a writer, I glossed over that small fact and thought a lot more about hypothetical acceptance speeches and book signings than I ever did about creating anything. Writers call this irony.
By the time I woke up (mmm…around 30?) I realized I not only had to start writing, I had to start writing–and learning–now. I had serious ground to make up. There were writers my age who had finished two or three novels in college…and considered them “drawer novels”, not fit for anything except propping up a table. And writing had to begin with learning and re-learning all those things I’d ignored or given short shrift to for years: plot, character, pacing, theme, rhythm, voice, point-of-view, continuity.
Long story short, for the past ten or twelve years I’ve been applying myself as much to learning the craft as working towards publication (of any sort). It’s been frustrating watching others catch success along the way while I’m re-reading Elements of Style, but I’m not going to write anything I can’t stand behind and that’s going to take patience and a dedication to the craft.
There are only two important rules in this game: are you writing? And, is what you’ve written the best it could possibly be? The second rule implies immersing yourself in the creative art of writing. But the first requires the act itself.
If you’re not actually writing, you’re not a writer. Please don’t make my mistake. Get in your saddle and ride…now.
I’m far from an expert on the craft of writing, but I do know what’s helped me and what hasn’t. This is a very small group of writing guides, but it’s my “marooned on a desert island” list. It also doesn’t include what I consider the indispensable basics, either, like Elements of Style or Garner’s Usage. These titles are more concerned with the intangibles of writing and its result.
On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft
On Writing is fittingly called “a memoir”, as much of it is made up of autobiographical musings by King. But the narrative style actually works well in putting the reader at ease, standing in stark contrast to other style, grammar, and writing books that can be terse and dry. I found it especially helpful when I began my first novel, as King touches on just about everything you need to get started: approach, commitment, daily word count, the importance of action, when to let yourself off the hook and when to put yourself back on. You won’t find a lot of hard and fast rules about writing or grammar here; as the title says, the book is more about the intangibles of craft. Worth reading in its entirety before you fully commit to a novel-length project. The book ends with a sample chapter of King’s with hand-written proofs and corrections followed by a short list of authors King admires.
On Writing Well
Zinsser’s books are primarily intended for those writing non-fiction, but his tips, guides, and anecdotes are a goldmine for any writer. Zinsser uses his own personal experiences to illuminate his career as a journalist, and result is a homey and comfortable approach to writing. Unlike King’s On Writing, however, he also has a lot of the “bolded-header” type of rules and regulations you might find in a manual: when to drop in an exclamation point, using the right word for the job, avoiding the wrong or hackneyed word, paragraph length, the best place for contractions and so on. He uses quoted examples of his own pieces as well as writers he admires so that you see the lessons in action. There aren’t any exercises, per se, as the whole book is meant to be instructional.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print
Renni Browne and Dave King
Self-Editing is the kind of book that puts a keen edge on the dull knife of your writing. It’s a more business-oriented version of the traditional help manual, pointing out the common errors, trite phrases, and basic mistakes that drive agents and editors crazy–and result in your manuscript being rejected. Browne and King aren’t just mercenaries with a red pen, however; they’re obviously concerned with good writing, just good writing that gets published, too. There are dozens of examples of bad and good attempts–made-up excerpts as well as famous ones–and each chapter has particular exercises meant to strengthen your writing in important areas: point of view, dialogue, tempo, sophistication, voice.
The Art & Craft of Novel Writing
Hall’s Art & Craft is structured almost like a manual, with sections for dialogue, point of view, plotting, etc., but has always felt a little nebulous to me, with a suggestion here and a guideline there, and no real structure to sink my teeth into. Despite that, it’s the book I return to when I feel “rules” aren’t working anymore and I want to get back in touch with what makes writing, as the title implies, an art. There are many demonstrative examples of good, nuanced writing and many of the chapters are annotated. The book ends with a detailed examination of the entire first chapter of The Columbus Tree by Peter Feibleman, an example of a synopsis of one of Oakley’s own novels, then a lengthy reading list of other authors, focusing on the writing process and craft.
Don’t Murder Your Mystery
This book and it’s less genre-centric big sister, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, should be within arm’s length of all novelists of mid-level experience and onward…that is, those of us that know just enough to be dangerous (mostly to ourselves). Roerden addresses a host of writing mistakes that even veterans are known to perpetrate, from subtly bad POV to poor exposition to bad word choice. This is the book that will buff your writing to a high gloss.
What’s helped you with your writing? Share it here with an explanation of how and why!
An announcement made earlier this week by Amazon sent shock waves throughout the indie author world–and through the publishing world, no doubt. The event was the grand unveiling of KDP Select, a program that was being sold to indie authors as a way of increasing exposure and possibly bumping up royalties as well.
What indie authors agree to
Indie authors that opt-in to the KDP Select program must remove their participating titles from all other electronic distribution channels (Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo, etc.) including their own website for a minimum of 90 days. There is a 3 day grace period to opt out.
What Amazon does
Amazon enrolls the title in the Amazon Prime Lending Program. Amazon Prime customers, in addition to the continuing benefit of free 2-day shipping, get value-added in the form of being allowed to borrow one book per month for free from participating authors. Since Amazon was rebuffed by many Big Six publishers when asked to participate in the Lending program, they turned to indie authors to fill the digital shelves.
What authors get
The sure thing that authors opting-in to the program get is a slice (the size of which is based on the total number of downloads in a month) of a $500,000 pie. It didn’t take long for authors to figure out–when total opt-in titles topped 30k–that those slices would be small indeed. As a result, most indie authors see it as a tool for increased exposure for their titles. Helping with that is the option for authors to make their title free for up to 5 days of the 90 (a common tool for promotion that was unavailable directly through Amazon until now).
What is still unclear
The $500,000 pot is an arbitrary amount chosen by Amazon with no particular reasoning being given for the choice. Numbers such as “$6 million in 2012” have been hinted at for future pots, but–again–this is an arbitrary number seemingly unattached to other factors: downloads, rankings, retail cost of the book, anything. There’s also a conspicuous lack of guarantee behind this number.
The division it’s caused
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that KDP Select is an attempt by Amazon to drive its competitors out of the ebook business, or relegate them to such a minor role that they might as well be gone. For most authors, whether this move by Amazon is ethical or not takes a backseat to the question of whether it benefits that author. For most indies, they have Amazon to thank for creating the independent book space in the first place and many report that the overwhelming majority of sales (often 95% or more out of hundreds or even thousands of downloads) come from Amazon. Amazon is also credited with having the best reporting, financials, search functionality, distribution model, and chance for exposure. They point to Amazon’s competitors’ lack of sophistication in these areas and shrug.
Looking out for Number One is a natural tendency, and especially so among indie authors who have to make hay when (and where) the sun shines. And it’s not often shining anywhere but on Amazon.
The long view
Those that take the longer view fear that the decisions we make today–and the concessions we agree to–will forge the future of all independent authored content, even if Amazon doesn’t become a near or true monopoly. They encourage restraint and caution; if authors send the signal to corporations that they will run to any deal that improves on the last one, they only have to dangle the carrot just enough to get the majority of authors to bite. And if one company does rise to become the dominant player, you can bet those terms (the carrot) will favor the company and not its content providers.
How I see it
The current situation can be divided into two major areas that are not mutually exclusive.
The first (looking out for #1) is “how, as an indie author, do I respond to Amazon’s overtures to tempt me away from their competitors and is the way they’re doing it fair?” And the overwhelming answer is pretty easy and self-evident: if 99% of your sales come from Amazon, competitors aren’t willing to match A’s distribution and exposure successes, and KDP Select is on a 90 trial, there’s no argument
The second and less easily answered question (the “long view”) is: if no competitor can or will respond to Amazon’s moves and it does corner the Ebook/indie market, where does that leave the future of indie publishing? And the uncomfortable truth seems to be that it doesn’t matter, because the only thing an indie author can do at the moment to push back against this possibility would be to refuse to join KDP Select in (a somewhat symbolic and empty) protest. Doing that, however, might signal to Smash, Apple, B&N, that there’s no need to compete or improve, that there are enough indies out there willing to stick it out against Amazon.
Which leaves me feeling distinctly like the horseshoe on the anvil. I don’t want to be beholden to Amazon, no matter how good they’ve been to me in the past. Call me a cynic, but as much as I owe to Amazon, I can never forget that our goals right now are aligned, not identical. Indies have proven to be a nice revenue stream for the behemoth, but I can’t help but think that we are also the tool that Amazon has tried to use to bring Big Six publishing to heel. We are the wedge that’s begun to dislodge antiquated business practices from the publishing industry. But a wedge is still a tool.
When that process is done, we will only be a line item on the ledger sheet. And if there are no other competitors around when there’s some accounting to be done (say, the need to impress Wall Street or the majority of shareholders), indie authors will see their presumably inviolate rights mutated, transferred, or taken away as the situation demands.
I also don’t want to be stuck with the other distributors who don’t seem to care about making a sound business model. Each main competitor seems to have one component of the puzzle, but no more: Apple has the money and the reach but not the desire; Smashwords has the desire but not the know-how, clout, or reach; Barnes and Noble has the pedigree and the desire, but can’t seem to keep from tripping over itself. If none of these blind giants gets their act together, Amazon is going to nudge them over–because they’re already stumbling towards–the cliff.
The subversive in me thinks the only solution is an author co-op where writers take control of their own future. Call me crazy, but an online store that is owned and funded by authors would be able to generate higher royalties while benefiting from the synergies of aggregated promotion and distribution. No exclusivity contracts, instant opt-in/opt-out. Advertising abilities that would dwarf any single author’s efforts.
Unfortunately, the idea is so far from reality that it’s hard to even talk about it with a straight face. But the landscape is changing and things we thought impossible yesterday (like independent electronic publishing, for instance) will become commonplace tomorrow.
Sue Grafton once said, “Coincidence can get you into a plot, but it can’t get you out.” I’m going to paraphrase her by adding, “And you can even have coincidence, but you can’t have a vacuum.”
Let me explain. A good thriller writer I enjoy is known for his action scenes, humor, and the complete implausibility of most of his novels’ key premises. His ability to push the reader forward and keep the suspense high is so masterful that most readers shrug at the no-way-in-hell inventions and proceed to the next shootout.
I’m one of those readers. I’m okay with colossal coincidences if the rest is working. What I can’t abide, however, is the middle dropping out of a story.
By that I don’t mean the literal middle of the book—the plotting, the dialogue, the consistency of voice, though all those things are important—I mean the central premise that got us going in the first place. When I get to the end, and there’s no meat, no substance, not even a coincidence, just a vacuum, then I start waving the red flag.
It’s a little tough to explain without actually revealing the plot, the title, or the author, but to summarize, the entire premise of one of his novels is built around discovering a MacGuffin* that, should it be found and exposed, will reveal horrific and damning truths about the several Very Important People connected to it. The world holds its breath as the protagonist races to find the MacGuffin and discover the secrets about the VIPs. Bad guys are mowed down by the dozen, allies are maimed, buildings explode. Finally, the villains are defeated and the MacGuffin falls into the trembling hands of our hero…
…who doesn’t have a clue what’s what it means. Nor does anyone involved, including the Very Important People who are Very High Up in the government that are mentioned in connection to the MacGuffin. And that’s it. Our hero gets tired of thinking about it and moves on. The book ends.
This is a profound disservice to the reader. It can’t have been that hard to think up some reason—any reason, even a bad reason —why dozens of minor characters were willing to sacrifice their lives over this object.
And for anyone who would defend this by saying, in effect, life is messy and sometimes things don’t make sense, let me introduce you to an aphorism that most fiction writers learn in Creative Writing 101: Truth is stranger than fiction.
This bon mot isn’t meant as a guide, it’s a warning: the essence for writers isn’t that they should look at our crazy, mixed-up world and use it as justification for their poorly plotted novels, it’s that no one cares about random events. We all know life has its oddball moments; we turn to tabloid newspapers and internet chain letters to keep us abreast of them. What we want from our fiction writers is to construct things that make sense, not for more of the same crap we see on the news and experience in our daily lives.
It’s not enough when a main premise is just a vehicle for us to experience the shooting, the chases, the love scenes. There has to be some there there. I’ll hang with you and your crazy reasons for getting me to read in the first place. But don’t leave me hanging. As we all know, when the center doesn’t hold, things fall apart.
* A MacGuffin was Alfred Hitchcock’s phrase for the interchangeable “thing”–Maltese Falcon, diamond ring, voodoo doll, etc.–that drives the plot forward.