An open reply to a self-published author

Posted by Paul Raven @ 17-10-2012 in Writing

Email in my inbox this morning; anonymised and dissected for reply here, because if this is indicative of what’s going on out in the ebook trenches, then we’re gonna need more mustard gas.

Hey, Paul Raven!

Hey.

So what kinds of promotional activities are legal, moral & ethical for the EBook Newbie like myself? I’m asking, because you look like a pro. Maybe you can point me in the right direction.

OK, so if I look like a pro, we’ve unearthed your first problem, which is that you don’t research properly. Pro author? Pro editor? I’m neither. Just a writer, and not even a very successful one yet.

But I can point you in the right direction, I think — that direction is best defined as “diametrically opposite the one you’re currently facing”. Calling yourself an “ebook newbie” (with caps or without) pretty much screams out a warning that you’re trying to run before you can walk. As does asking a lot of in-depth questions about promotion, but not a single one about writing, or a single mention of the presumably a-fucking-mazing ebook you’re trying to flog, here.

(Hence the public reply; usually I delete emails like this, because they’re alarmingly frequent, but yours had enough of an undertone of naivete that I felt you might not be too far gone to save, and that you might serve as a useful exemplar of a particular problem.)

I notice some writers asking for Facebook LIKES, promising to Like-Back-In-Return. Is this OK? I have never tried to LIKE any of my own eBooks on Amazon; afraid I would break some rule and get banned for life. I have LIKED all the books I review, however.

It’s very noble, the Amazon self-pub mutual-backscratch club, and a genuine community. I dare say you could accrue many likes and recommendations and linkbacks and hell knows what else by doing what other marginally more successful (or at least more assertive) self-pubbers suggest you do. Sadly, most of them will be from members of the same community… and speaking for myself, I find members of that community a) easy to spot, and b) well worth avoiding, because all they ever do is promote their own self-pub Kindle pages, or those of people in their network.

Take it from someone who went to boarding school: hanging out in a circlejerk is always an option if you’re low on real friends, but bear in mind that, by default, you will be sitting with wankers and talking about wanking.

Would a large number of LIKES on my Amazon EBook Page make my sales goup?

Maybe.

Are there Facebook rules against the I’ll-Like-You-If-You-Like-Me strategy?

Doubt it.

Why not start a Facebook Group: “The EBook Likers?” Join the group, and you pretty much agree to go around and LIKE all the other Member’s eBooks which are on Amazon. The Power of LIKE! (My guess is that Facebook would shut the group down, but there is no reason the group couldn’t organize off of Facebook; it could be done without even a website, strictly by eMails!) Brings me back to the earlier question: What are the Facebook rules on LIKES? Amazon may have its own rules on reciprocal LIKES.

This is one of the saddest paragraphs I have ever read.

Something like this goes on every day at Twitter. (My background is Twitter – **handle redacted** – it’s where I go to let off steam) The I’ll-star-your-tweets-if-you-star-my-tweets factor. Most tweeps on Twitter rarely, if ever, favorite any tweets at all. But there is an in-bred niche of super-favoriters who go to Favstar to track exactly how many stars and retweets each of their tweets get.

By analyzing the data, it becomes clear that the Favstar Superstars don’t achieve their status with superior content, but with superior networking. Take any Favstar Superstar and examine several of their tweets in detail, and you will find the exact same avatars always at the beginning thirty spots, with just a few odd avatars; the further up the number of stars a tweet gets, the more variety in avatars. But Always The Same Exact Gang At The Start. Favstar defaults to the 50 fav Leaderboard; but there are also 10-fav boards, 30-fav boards, and 100-fav boards. Once a tweet gets on these leaderboards, they glom extra favs from “outsiders” not in a person’s Fave-Back gang. I’m just a bit-part player on Favstar, but I have noticed that if one of my tweets gets more than 10 stars quickly, it ALWAYS gloms several extra stars from avatars I have never seen: usually 3-7. I imagine the 30-fave board gets a 10-15 bump: it explains the variety of avatars I see in the higher numbers when I analyze the Superstars. The 50-fav board seems to be the tipping point. Get to 50 quickly, and you are assured of an avalanche of extra Star-Love from the gazillion extra tweeps who see your tweet when they view the default Favstar Leaderboard. (I have noticed another strategy in operation – Favstar Superstars will delete a tweet if it doesn’t get a lot of stars quickly – so that their Gang-Of-Star-Backers won’t waste their starbacks on a tweet that probably won’t bust into the 50-Leaderboard.)

But that was the very saddest paragraph of all. It’s like watching an earnest young accountant, fresh out of college, trying to work out where all the free money is coming from in the departmental Ponzi scheme he’s just uncovered.

Forgive the digression; but it is in the nature of an analogy. It is an example of how the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine factor operates within Twitter.

It’s also an example of how completely you’ve missed the point.

So, are Review-Backs a thing? I’ll buy & review your book if you buy & review my book?

I fully expect people trade reviews for free, but I’d be surprised if you can get the reviewers to buy their review copies first.

What about a Facebook Group of authors that review each other’s books? Is this more bad EBook Newbie behavior? Or is this a valid networking strategy to help our eBook pages move a few extra sales? Again, if Facebook is not the place to “host” such a group, it could be done on any website, or again, it could be done in stealth mode, by eMail.

As to whether some sort of public behaviour is appropriate or non-jerky, here’s a handy rule of thumb: if you even have to ask, then it’s probably jerky. Corollary: the legality of a course of action is not the first question you should be asking of it (unless, I suppose, one is a career criminal, which I’m assuming you’re not.)

Hey, I’m asking questions! Cut me some slack! If these behaviors are ”gaming the system” then I will humbly add that many of todays ”Winners” gamed the system to get where they are. I personally believe that if you are going to speed in an automobile, that first there must be no children anywhere near, and second that I don’t want to be the fastest car on the road. I want someone else to be faster, so that they get pulled over instead of me.

Ah, OK – now that’s a genuinely illustrative analogy. What you’re saying is that you’re happy to reap all the benefits of cheating, so long as you can ensure there’s no fall-out or consequences. The good news is that demonstrates you’re not a natural born shit-heel; if you were, you’d just be out there doing it anyway.

The bad news is it demonstrates that you’re in the writing game for the wrongest of reasons.

[As an example of "speeding" I offer this: There are sites which track Twitter Users recent following & follower history. I happened to load up http://twitter.com/Scobleizer one night and the history was interesting. Within a 2 week period he dropped the number of people he was following down to about 20,000 (from something like 90,000). And in the next 2 days, followed about 40,000 more people! The time period was March, April, 2009, something like that. Social Media Whores can't do that anymore on Twitter. Robert's response to this change was to unfollow everyone and continue bitching because he isn't on the Suggested User List.]

I know Scoble’s name and reputation. They’re contributing factors in my ongoing disinterest in his work. Scoble is a tech pundit. You’re trying to be a novelist. This is like a ballet dancer trying to improve by copying a door-to-door salesman.

I don’t know how much LIKES and Reviews even help a purchase, except to give whoever is viewing the eBook page a bit of “trust.” I have found the best predictor of whether I will enjoy an eBook is reading the Free Sample. Screw the reviews, if I like the sample I’m probably going to dig the book.

Amanda Hocking’s success strategy is interesting. She bombarded book bloggers and eBook reviewers and got them working for her! I’ve been wasting the last two decades querying agents and editors about my novels. Should I shift gears and focus on book bloggers & eBook Reviewers? There are online lists of book bloggers and eBook Reviewers. I can bombard them with eMail queries. Hell, with the help of PeekYou and some other services I can get their actual physical snail mail addresses.

Imagine how freaked out they will be when they get my physical promo package!

Yes, that’s the usual effect of an unsolicited package… people can get so uppity, just because you dug their mailing address up out of some service they never even signed up for and sent them something they didn’t want, can’t they?

Any thoughts? Or am I just another irritation?

Hooooo boy.

I’m gonna be totally straight here, my friend. You need to make a decision about what it is you actually want: do you want to be famous, or do you want to be a writer?

Reason I ask is because you’ve sent me close to 500 words here about the mechanics of promoting your self-pubbed books, but you’ve not even mentioned your actual writing so much as once. This means you either consider it worthy of publication already, or that the quality of your work is a secondary consideration to how you promote it.

And I dare say that may be why you’ve been querying for two decades without success.

So I feel safe in saying that if you’re in this because you want to be known, because you want your name in lights, because you want the accolade and glory (and maybe a little bit of income) from Being A Published Author, then it’s time to quit.

Seriously. Two decades of writing and subbing and querying, and these are the best questions you can think of asking another writer? The questions you think will make the difference between fame and obscurity? I can’t begin to explain how badly you’re missing the point here, how much of a rod of misery you’re making for your own back. Quit. Stop wasting your time. Get a new hobby. Develop an alcohol habit, if you don’t have one already. Spend more time with the (grand)kids, I don’t know. Just get the hell away from your computer, if all you can think of doing there is finding ways to corner people into commending your work for any reason other than that they found it and genuinely enjoyed it. Seriously. You’re just adding more noise to the signal, and the signal’s hard enough to tune in on as it is.

Amanda Hocking is, probably quite literally, a one-in-a-million oddity; if you look at the numbers, the odds of visible success as a self-pubbed author are probably just as high as they are for one who followed the old-fashioned agent-editor-publishing-house model. Self-publishing is not a short-cut, not a tradesman’s entrance through which you might slip after being turned away from the front door. Sure, people have made fast money and overnight fame that way. Some of them have even done so with books of staggeringly poor quality. But the odds are spectacularly low, and the field incredibly wide. It’s a crap-shoot; you’ve been at the table twenty years, talking loud and walking proud, with nothing to show for it. Walk away, cash your remaining chips, sit down and enjoy yourself. You’ve played the game, and lost. There’s no shame in having tried and failed. Let it be.

There’s no magic marketing bullet that will make your book sell better. Luck and circumstance might, but if you can influence them, you don’t need my help or anyone else’s.

There’s one thing that might make your book sell better, though — and that’s making it a better book. Or making a new book that’s better than the last, and another one that’s even better than that, and then another and another. And sending them out, whether to agents or editors or straight into the whirlpool of the Kindle store, and letting them speak for themselves, while you wait at home patiently, writing the next one.

I’m no pro writer, my friend, but I’m privileged to know a fair few. And you know what pro writers worry about, ahead and in front of pretty much everything, from marketing and reviews right up to the household finances?

They worry about their writing. How to make it better, stronger, more compelling, more moving. And the worry comes out as work. The response to a book that doesn’t sell is to write another, better book. Rinse and repeat.

Writers write. Everything else is secondary.

So here’s your choice: you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because you haven’t plugged it enough, and as such you can use every channel of desperate huckterdom that the internet provides (and, by heaven, there are dozens more than you’ve yet discovered), you can do anything other than writing more and better in an attempt to shift that product, and you can send more emails like this one hoping for someone to tell you the magic answer to your problem, so long as that answer isn’t “well, you know, maybe your book just wasn’t actually very good?”, and you can spend the rest of your life blaming the unfair world for failing to recognise your genius, despite all the effort you put into telling people that you had it.

Or you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because it’s just not as good as its competition in the market.

And if you make that decision, and respond to it by sighing deeply, perhaps even railing loudly about the dearth of taste and appreciation in the reading public (ideally in the privacy of your office), before sitting down and starting again, then you are a writer.

But if that’s the last thing that you want to do, if you’re all done with the story-telling and ready for the phase where you sit back and let the accolades and glory and self-belief flood in, then it’s time to realize that you don’t want to be a writer; you want to be famous. The latter can follow from the former, but it’s the former that requires a steady input of work.

If you’re not willing to do that work, honestly, it’s time to quit. Writers write, and keep writing. End of story.

Yours sincerely, &c &c.

No, the *other* sort of solicitation

Posted by Paul Raven @ 28-08-2008 in General

Wise words (as ever) from straight-talkin’ Nick Mamatas, this time on the subject of freelancing:

… at the point we are discussing, someone will ask you first. You’ll be solicited to perform some service or produce some product. This is the correct way to respond to a solicitation, if you are at the point of your first (or first dozen or so) solicitations.

  • Step one: Say yes.
  • Step two: Ask how much the pay is.
  • Step three: Ask for specific details on the project.

Simple, sure; but surprisingly daunting to a person with my particular mindset. Which is why this post on squelching modesty in the name of your career is serendipitous, also.

The writing advice links, they are legion

Posted by Paul Raven @ 28-07-2008 in General

It’s been a hell of a long time since I did one of my writing tip round-ups… but I’ve been collecting links ever since. There are nearly fifty links in the following post, and I culled it down from close to a hundred so we just got the best and most pertinent. So read on – for here be wisdom.

***

We’ll kick off with some tips from rising star and all-round top chap Gareth L Powell. Gareth has some advice on how to start writing a story, and here’s another five useful writing tips

1. Never tell anyone the plot of your story until you’ve finished writing it. Once you’ve told your story, even in outline, some part of you relaxes.

Next, Luc Reid explains the nuts and bolts of plot – if you’ve ever been a little fuzzy on where plot begins and structure or character or worldbuilding ends (yeah, me too), this is an essential read.

“… I’ll suggest a definition of what a plot actually is, and lay out what I’ve learned so far about putting one together. Many thanks to friends who recently posed this question in a clear enough way that I realized I needed to think it out.”

io9 took a brief break from blithering on about Battlestar bloody Galactica and provided a rather useful post titled “How To Bring The Weird In Your Near-Future Stories”:

So how can we, as writers and storytellers, create a believable medium-near-future world?

How, indeed. Go find out.

***

No writing tips round-up would be complete without a healthy dose of Jim Van Pelt, so here’s some highlights:

  • Listen to Your Language: “The poet Lew Welch, whose thoughts about writing have influenced me, said, “The basic tool is speech.” What he meant is that what we write down on the page is a representation of ourselves speaking. But, as he also said, “If you want to write you have to want to build things out of language and in order to do that you have to know, really know in your ear and in your tongue and, later, on the page, that language is speech. But the hard thing is that writing is not talking, so what you have to learn to do is to write as if you were talking, and to do it knowing perfectly well you are not talking, you are writing.”"
  • Who Critiques Your Stuff?: “Imagine this situation: your teacher asked you to bring rough drafts to class for peer editing. You break up into small groups to share your manuscripts. The teacher may have given you pretty specific instructions for what to look for, or you may have been told, “Read your peer’s paper and tell them what you think.”"
  • Writing Rules: “Part I, and I think this is the hardest part, is figuring out what is in your head. What do you want to say? Fortunately, I think writing helps you to figure out what is in your head. Somebody said once, “How do I know what I think until I read what I’ve written.” There’s some truth in that.”
  • Procrastination: “Yesterday I put up a shelf in my eleven-year old’s room, which would be a pretty good thing to have done if I hadn’t have bought the shelf and hardware to do it six months ago. I’m a horrible procrastinator. There’s almost no job that has to be done right now that I can’t figure a reason to put it off until later, and that includes writing.”
  • How to Finish a Novel in Nine Months: the Teacher Edition
  • Why Writing is Good for Us: “Tonight was my last night for the college creative writing class. I end by giving them the “everything I wish other writing teachers had told me but didn’t” lecture.”

And here are some of his “The Day Job” columns for The Fix Online:

  • Making a Writing Group Work: “For most writers, part of their writing process involves seeking feedback. At first that might mean giving the manuscript to a friend or spouse, and sometimes that works out, but you’re darned lucky if someone that close to you can also give you an informed and honest opinion about your work.”
  • The Day Job: Quitting It: “Just like short stories, though, a novelist has to continue to produce novels to continue to produce income. An out of print book generates no income. I know at least three novelists who are doing kick-butt successes in the novel world right now, but none of them feel they have the income to depend on the books for their living.
  • Carpe Penicullus: “Time’s winged chariot pauses for no one, and for writers whose passion almost always takes multiple hours, days, months, or years for the completion of a single project, the clattering of those distant hooves must sound distinctly loud, if we remember to listen to them.”

Uncle Jim is the bomb, kids. Pay attention.

***

SFX (perhaps inspired by io9′s example) also took a break from wanking on about BSG and Doctor Who to do some interviews with some of the Gollancz UK publishing team, which means you can get advice on writing (and submitting) from Gillian Redfearn and Simon Spanton acting in concert, and from the formidable Jo Fletcher, who – ninja-like, perhaps – operates alone.

The SFX peeps also had a chat with genial rogue Paul Cornell to get the perspective from the other side of the editorial desk:

“Don’t tell them everything the character knows. Why is this odd scene happening? You can hold motivations back for as long as you like. Presenting something that’s anti-intuitive and then explaining it through the substance of the story always works. Like with Orwell’s ‘clock that was striking thirteen’ in 1984: it says wrongness.”

***

Another font of writing about writing is the redoubtable Jeff VanderMeer. Sometimes controversial, sometimes (to me at least) impenetrable, he’s quite the philosopher of writing-as-process and writing-as-life:

So mastery actually equals uncertainty. The more mastery you achieve, the less confident you become, although I don’t really mean “confidence” and “uncertainty” in the strict dictionary definitions of the words. This is a good kind of uncertainty, and a bad kind of confidence. Because you are uncertain, despite having mastery, you know that your writing is still alive, that you are not simply doomed to repeat the same path you chose so many times before. Because you feel once again as if you are writing your first book, you know that writing is still meaningful to you.

Whatever you do from now on, don’t feel that it has to always be successful. To be successful, to be as good as you can possibly be in whatever field you choose, you need to have permission to fail. You have to feel like you can bungee jump out to the edge of success and into that space where the ropes might break. If you don’t, you won’t take risks, you won’t get out there, to that area with a night sky full of unfamiliar stars where “success” might become either something extraordinary or utter failure. Because utter failure and extraordinary accomplishment are conjoined twins much of the time.

Or, put another way, the space between a “publishable” story or novel and a “good” story or novel can be a chasm.

I should give myself permission to fail, I think. It would make the, er, failing a little easier.

***

Nick Mamatas is the one person you don’t ask for advice on writing unless you’re prepared for the shocking warts-and-all underbelly of the writer’s lifestyle and mindset, stripped of glamour and cool before being laid out bloody like the flayed flesh of your naive dreams:

You have to stop caring whether you live or die.

This is not just apathy about life, but a more active denial of the social world. You have to get comfortable with the idea of walking around without skin, with not caring at all whether or not your parents ever speak to you again, with not stopping after your lovers all leave in teary huff after teary huff, whether your book sells two thousand copies or two million, whether or not everyone knows exactly what imagery you masturbate to. This doesn’t mean merely being confessional, but simply ready. If your imagination — your imagination — suggests that the best solution to some problem you have is the insertion of your right arm into a wood chipper, you must eliminate the social, personal, and autonomic buffers that would keep you from doing just that.

Eeep.

***

I’m always relieved to find that my dread and hatred of the mechanics of writing – the “actually sitting down and hitting the keys” part – is not something exclusive to me. S C Butler, for example, knows the pain:

You might ask, why do I write at all? The answer? Because the only thing I hate more than writing is not writing.

Nor am I the only person who beats himself up over getting nothing done (because I’ve been, I dunno, procrastinating and doing a gargantuan links post or somesuch). Howard Andrew Jones of Black Gate Books:

It is much easier for me to do this thing called NOT writing than it is to actually write. I imagine it’s easier for all writers to NOT write, except that when we’re NOT writing the NOT part eats away at us. Me, when I’m NOT, I feel more and more like a failure, or simply a wuss. Yet if I sit down and write 500 words I’m not satisfied. I say to myself, well, if I’d actually had two or three hours to write, I could have written a few thousand words, why didn’t I get it together? Wuss.

Hell, even seasoned pros like Elizabeth Moon find themselves saying “It’s not supposed to be this hard, is it?”

Sometimes the story comes roaring out like a flash flood down the creek. Unstoppable, full of energy, exhilarating (even a bit scary, and definitely LOUD.) When a story does this, it’s great fun to write, shooting the rapids and yelling in triumph at the end.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

And that’s the thing you have to fight against, says Justine Larbalestier:

Writing through a crap day is the very hardest part of being a writer. Then getting up the next morning and doing it again. And the next. And repeat until the bloody book is finally finished.

Then again, she points out that not everyone sees writing the same way:

A year earlier I was bitching to this same writer that I had no idea how my book ended. I had nine tenths of the book, but no ending, and I had no idea what to do.

They thought I was insane: “How could you get that far into a book and NOT KNOW THE ENDING?!”

Um. Cause that’s how I write books.

While you’re there, you might want to ask Justine how she finished her first novel.

***

M John Harrison‘s writing advice is multilayered, much like his stories: the advice itself is telling you something, but the way it is written is telling you something yet more. If you can decode it, of course.

Some kind of directness of image which would obviate all that narrative guff. You can find it in Surrealism, traditional ghost stories, 15th Century engravings of witches’ cats, in unwriterly reports of hallucinations, madness, alien abductions.

I feel exactly like Mrs Keilar, one of my alter egos in Nova Swing: “This morning,” she said quietly, “I sat here for an hour without moving. I ache. I’m waiting for something to happen, and I don’t even know what part of my life it will approach from.” Always write what you know. The book will tell you what that is. Eventually.

You have to look at the major transitions of your life with a metaphor that makes aesthetic and emotional sense.

***

Here’s a few thoughts from Paul McAuley:

Ian Fleming claimed to write the James Bond novels at the rate of 2000 words per day. 1000 in the morning, followed by lunch and a swim; 1000 in the afternoon, and then cocktails and the company of beautiful women. It took him six weeks of this regime to finish a novel. Nice work if you can get it.

SF and fantasy novels not only have to provide an ending for their characters; they also have to give an idea of how the world in which they are set has been changed, and whether it will carry on changing, and in which direction.

***

Here’s a mass of wisdom from Elizabeth Moon:

  • Word games… the constraints that your chosen form puts on word choice.
  • Characters I & Characters II: “It’s a principle of logic that statements in the indicative cannot (logically) lead to conclusions in the subjunctive or imperative. That is, factual statements do not lead *logically* to “should” statements….something we observe when we look at current events. Without the intervention of a value system, the existence of a problem does not induce action to correct it. For the fiction writer, this means that dumping a problem on your character’s foot will not ensure any particular action. Your character won’t act unless he or she is motivated to act, and motivation requires more than “just the facts, ma’am.”"
  • Story

***

The rate at which Jay Lake sells stories, you figure the guy’s gotta know what he’s doing. I expect he’d claim otherwise if pressed, but that’s modesty in action, methinks. Observe:

  • On “the plot diamond: “The second act is where you (mostly) stop throwing open new doors and begin to concentrate on what all those choices mean to the characters and their story. This is the waist of the diamond. The famous “muddle in the middle” comes from this shift in both momentum and direction, when the author has to figure out what the heck it all means and drive the story in some direction or another.
  • On reading as a writer: “… it’s dangerous not to read. And unpublished work just isn’t the same. The qualitative experience is different, first off – I’m almost always reading with a pencil in my hand (or the Word comments feature turned on). Which is to say, I’m reading critically, and not staying inside the flow of the story much, if at all. The expectations are different, too. A sheaf of printouts, or .doc file, are simply not the same physical or mental experience as a book.”
  • On description and setting: “I go back and forth on description in my own work. Generally, if I want to I can spray on the adjectives like an air compressor with a busted shut-off valve. Sometimes that works.”

***

Here’s some advice on character-building from David Louis Edelman:

… think of the art of characterization as something akin to the art of additive sculpture. When you build a character, you’re not describing an existing personality so much as building one from the ground up. (Additive sculpture, my Art History major wife informs me, is the type where you pile up stuff to build your object, whereas subtractive sculpture is where you start with an existing hunk of something and chisel away the stuff you don’t need.) Just like with sculpture, when building characters you’ll often throw in materials that you’ve got lying around the shop. And just like with sculpture, your characters don’t have anything that you don’t explicitly put there yourself.

And more elsewhere:

Almost all good stories need conflict – and not the epic battle-style of conflict. The conflicts that bring characters alive are the smaller conflicts that occur between two people, a small group and the internal conflicts we deal with on a daily basis.

***

Via Making Light, some advice from playwright and screenwriter Todd Alcott on writing dialog:

To every extent possible, characters should not tell each other how they feel. Any time a character tells another character how he or she feels, the audience is going to wonder “what the heck is he or she getting at?” Any time a character says “Here’s the truth of a matter:” what should follow the colon is anything other than the truth of the matter. Think of it: any time someone comes to you in your daily goings-about and says “Let me tell you something about myself” or “I have some feelings I want to share with you” or “The fact of the matter is…” you want to turn around and run in the opposite direction. Because the only reason someone would come up to you and offer you some kind of truth is because they want something from you.

***

Let’s not neglect the non-fiction fields, either: here’s 15 Tips on How to Generate Ideas and Write with Ease:

I find that some Zen meditation techniques enhance my writing. Most of the problems that arise in the writing process happen when our mind is at war with itself. At those times our creative energy is scattered, instead of being focused in one steady beam.

Plus 3 Things You Need to Know about Using Dialogue in Non-fiction:

Dialogue works as a hook because it makes a story out of mere information. Open a daily paper at random and observe how journalists use this technique.

And advice that applies equally to both sides of the fence, coming in this instance from a copywriter: How to Lose 30 Pounds of Word Flab Overnight

I always recommend lean copy. And it’s twice as important online. Whipping copy into shape is an important skill for any writer, because all of us start with flabby first drafts.

***

But what to do with that story when it’s finished, hmm? Well, first you check it thoroughly:

One of the best one-sentence pieces of advice about writing professionalism I got from Octavia Butler. She said that you shouldn’t ever send something out that had mistakes in it that you knew of. You were ultimately responsible and a professional didn’t send out something with errors.

Then you can send it out to adorn a slush-pile – but take a tip from Gareth D Jones and try some out-of-the-ordinary targets:

The moral to this tale is: don’t limit your markets.

Indeed – and don’t be so proud as to refuse to edit your piece if the changes mean the editor will take it.

It was funny though, that the publisher actually called me with the acceptance, because she had important news. It went a little like this…

Eventually, though, you may have to accept that no one wants to give your tale a home. Tobias Buckell talks about trunking stories:

I’ve written over 130 short stories and published just over 30 of them, and about 95 of those are now trunked (and for those following along ‘trunked’ means ‘no longer submitting the short story you’ve written to any markets.’)

And we’ll give fellow fictioneer Neil Beynon the last word as regards how you should react to those rejection slips:

… I could wax lyrical about how it’s unprofessional, how it shows a lack of realism around the way both small press and main stream publishing works – I could even tout that really irritating argument that every successful author has been rejected at least once. All this is true. But I fear it misses the heart of the matter.

That being it’s just plain rude to gob off about being rejected.

Amen.

***

Now, I should be writing something that isn’t a big links-list…

Hideously immense writing tips link-dump

Posted by Paul Raven @ 02-04-2008 in General

OK, so I’ve been pretty bloody busy since well before the new year began, and I’ve fallen massively behind with my compiling of writing advice links.

Or rather, I haven’t. I’ve been steadily compiling them in Google Notebook (which is a great tool, especially when used with the Firefox plugin), but the emphasis is on the “piling” … there’s about twenty of the buggers sat in there, taunting me from their position of safety-in-numbers, saying “hah – no time to post us, no time to write, you suck!”

Well, I’m not having that. So let’s offload – call ‘em out by author and/or website, sergeant!

Jim “Justice” Van Pelt

[ Long-time readers will know well my admiration and respect for Uncle Jim; no one tops him for quality friendly writing advice. Most of these are from his LJ feed, but the top one is from the column he does for The Fix.]

  • “Sometimes the best bump I can give my writing is to get out of the house. A retreat is great, of course, but packing up my laptop and heading to the bagel shop or library is effective too.”
  • “Is there such a thing as a “great” title, or do titles begin to look great because they’re married to “great” stories?  After a while, we can’t imagine the story being titled anything else.  Which comes first?”
  • “While we walked, I was reminded again of the challenge and importance of writing with the landscape where a story takes place in mind.”
  • Writing the conclusion to a story can be hard!  First off, the whole story has been leading to this last page, so the sense of responsibility to the story and to the reader is huge.”
  • “At any rate, I have a bunch of mini-units to talk about aspects of short story writing.  One that we covered last night was mood or atmosphere.”
  • “I become insanely sensitive to repetitiveness in my sentence patterns, and I’m convinced that every reader will see it too.  I sometimes stare at my prose in despair. So, I go to the literature I love best to wash out my ears and to let me hear the rhythms again.”
  • My stance on all writing rules, from the nuts and bolts of grammar to the other much discussed rules of fiction writing (like staying attached to only one point of view, or “show, don’t tell, which I discussed earlier in Every “Rule” Has Exceptions), is that the only rule that matters to the writer is “Does it work?”"
  • “Fortunately, your body which needs the oxygen doesn’t know if the breath that produced it was made while not thinking, or if it was the result of conscious effort. Your readers won’t be able to tell the difference. You can write crap consciously or unconsciously, just as you can write effective stuff both ways.”

Luc Reid

Jay Lake

Jeff VanderMeer

  • Evil Monkey’s Guide to Creative Writing: Tips for Beginners – “(1) An early sense of entitlement is deadly to development. Don’t posture and preen well before you have any right to do so. (In fact, don’t ever.) Them that do rarely develop as writers, although some of them may become widely published over time. They just never recognize they suck.”

Paolo Bacigalupi

  • “After today, what I really think is that I’m a dogged writer. If I polish the turd long enough, eventually something shines. It’s really my specialty. Going after a story again and again until finally I figure out how to spin crap into gold.”
  • How to write a short story – by throwing away a short story – “I wrote a novelette last week. The interesting thing about it was that I literally had no idea what I was doing.”

Neil Beynon

  • “As has been alluded to a few times recently, I have been experiencing more than my fair share of writer’s block, that all pervading paralysing fear that the ideas will dry up and not a single interesting sentence will be transmitted to the page.”

Write To Done blog

[ Some of these are more focused on non-fiction, but still useful. ]

io9

[ OMG!!!1-post-not-about-Heroes-or-Torchwood shocker! ]

PickTheBrain.com:

  • George Orwell’s Five Rules For Effective Writing – “If you want to be understood, if you want your ideas to spread, using effective language must be your top priority. In the modern world of business and politics this is hardly ever the case.”

WordWise:

  • Verb Your Enthusiasm – “… a brain-imaging study conducted at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, showed that the brain’s motor cortex responds to merely reading action words like active verbs. Verbs, in other words, stimulate readers, kickstart their imagination, draw them in, compel them to think.”

Yes, some of these are hideously old. Doesn’t mean they’re any less useful, though.

Now, I’m off down the road to talk to an H P Lovecraft-inspired band called The Sword. Enjoy!

Massive expungement of writing tips linkage …

Posted by Paul Raven @ 26-02-2008 in General

… because, as I’m sure many of my readers know, only one thing procrastinates better than a writer, and that’s an ill writer with twenty mission-critical deadlines breathing down his neck.

Posting this will, believe it or not, be therapeutic – and it will help me toward clearing the RSS backlog, which is surely trying to tell me something:

Google Reader in league with Beelzebub OMFG

Enough banter – bring on the freakin’ links, I hear you cry! Well, alright.


First of all, if you’re going to write fiction, length is an issue (yes, ladies – even for you). Jay Lake has the low-down on story length, so you can tell your novelette from your novella, and so forth.

***

John “Electric Velocipede” Klima has been involved in some lengthy discussions about the genre short fiction market, and has summarised the initial debate and posted his further thoughts on the matter.

Not so much about the mechanics of writing, but useful for thinking about the markets realistically. The take-away? Don’t get into writing short fiction unless it’s something you love to do, because it’ll never make you a living.

***

If, like me, you find it hard to find the time and focus to write regularly (hah!), perhaps the advice of the Write To Done blog will be of use to you – “write just one thing today, and write it well“.

***

Stuck mid-story in need of a character name? Happens to me all the time – but hopefully this crafty hack from Gareth L Powell will not only cure my fiction of Enid Blyton-style names but give me a reason to love my spam folder.

***

La Gringa supplies a list of attention-getting tricks that will not get an agent to be more sympathetic to your query letter:

  • Using the phrase “This is not representative of my best work” in the query letter will probably not help your cause.
  • A Xerox of your photo from your high school yearbook will not help sell your book. It will, however, live on in infamy on the intern’s refrigerator door, where a steady collection of lunatic query letters has been growing since December.

Bam!

***

Last but not least, the indispensably avuncular Jim Van Pelt has a round-up of pithy quotes and aphorisms about writing accrued from books, real-life meetings and elsewhere.

Sensible useful advice, delivered straight and friendly. This is the van Pelt way. Nuff reshpeck, innit?


OK, mania and panic beckons seductively from the to-do list. As the old joke goes, “tea-break’s over, back on your heads!”

Writing advice round-up: rookie mistakes, slushpile survival and all about endings

Posted by Paul Raven @ 25-10-2007 in General

Hey, look – writing advice from people who know what they’re on about! I need all I can get, that’s for sure – if you do too, read on.

Two top-tens from Jim Van Pelt

A double-whammy of top-ten lists from Jim Van Pelt. First of all, the Top Ten Rookie Writer’s mistakes (a rough draft). I’m terrible for this one:

"3 – Point of view character is passive or pluckless."

Then he revisits the list idea, after realising that there are at least ten top rookie writer mistakes that are behavioural as opposed to literary. This time he nails me with the first point:

"1 – Starting projects but not finishing them."

Ah. Right. Yeah, but, y’know, I’ve been busy, and … [exit, stage left, muttering]

Sharp thoughts from Uncle Nick*

The ever-succinct Nick Mamatas also has two posts of note. Firstly, two bad tendencies he notices in the slushpile:

"1. Being boring, on purpose. It really doesn’t work. One should not attempt to reflect the boredom everyday life by boring the reader with, say, a 700 word description of the process of consuming cereal…especially not within a 1400 word story. Bite. Chew. Swallow."

I’ll admit my writing’s often boring, but I’ve never tried to make it that way.

And secondly, reflecting on a story he had accepted by Nature magazine, a reversal of an established aphorism:

"You know that old saying "Murder your darlings"? One time, try the opposite: keep the darling, murder everything else, and write a new story around that jewel."

I think the important thing to note is his use of the words "one time". I know my poetry has benefited immensely from me learning to cut out the bits I think are really awesome. That’s because my assessment of them is usually very wrong.

Paolo Bacigalupi has a sex change

After someone made some trenchant observations about his characterisations of women, Paolo Bacigalupi decided to word-replace a character from a novel-in-progress from being a guy to being a girl, and discovered something interesting in the process:

"As I read the part of the story where my newly minted female character first appears on stage, I was struck with an almost overwhelming urge to describe her physically. Nowhere in the previous version of the story did I physically describe her male incarnation – no height, no weight, no haircut, no musculature, no eyes, no lips, no nothing — and yet now that her sex had changed, I felt intensely compelled to add markers of physical description. The role of this newly minted female character was to be the same as the earlier male’s role, her function in the story and the scene exactly the same (in the scene where she first shows up, she’s counting money – pretty gender neutral behavior) and yet now I had this intense urge to describe her black bobbed hair. Interesting, no?"

An insight into the actions we undertake when writing without being consciously aware of them.

The endings justify the meanings

Last but by no means least: David Louis Edelman, wearing his DeepGenre hat, discusses endings – more specifically the why and how thereof as opposed to the what – using the Batman Begins movie as a template:

"… we don’t tell stories from a naturalistic perspective. We might try to simulate nature’s point of view or use it as a tool in our own story-telling, but by and large we construct an artificial framework on which to hang our stories. We have a point of view. The protagonist’s experiences are filtered through a set of moral questions or psychological dilemmas. We focus on Batman’s efforts to stop the Joker from poisoning Gotham’s water supply rather than the audit of his 2003 taxes because it’s a convenient metaphor. Can Batman overcome his feelings of despair and hopelessness to face a challenge? Will Batman press ahead against overwhelming odds when it’s very likely he’s going to fail anyway? Does Batman believe that he’s fulfilling his mission to act as an instrument of justice? And so on.

When does the story end? It ends when the moral or ethical or psychological question is answered, whether in the affirmative or in the negative or some combination of both. Bruce Wayne finds the strength to put on the mask one more time. Bruce Wayne chooses to follow his convictions, even though they clash with society’s. Bruce Wayne perseveres when a lesser man would have given up. Whether he actually succeeds in capturing the Joker or not is of secondary concern."

Plenty of food for thought there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to try and avoid breaking Jim Van Pelt’s first rule …


[* I have no idea whether Nick Mamatas would object to me finding his brutally honest writing advice to be avuncular ... but having seen how he tears a new one for people who piss him off, I'm sure I'll find out eventually. It's meant with the greatest of respect, Mr M.]

[tags]writing, advice, tips, fiction, stories[/tags]

Writing tips round-up

Posted by Paul Raven @ 08-10-2007 in General

What with one thing and another, it’s been a donkey’s age since I last did a writing advice round-up. I had a few morsels lying about in the old RSS reader, so I thought I’d take a moment to pitch them out.

Twenty mistakes to avoid

This is the first of two posts from E. E. Knight, a man who manages to educate and entertain at the same time. It’s a list of twenty fiction-writing blunders made by beginning (and not-so-beginning) writers. My personal favourite:

11 – So that’s why you wrote this: I’ve read stories where the most precise language and evocative imagery is saved for the all-important pudenda-shaving scene as the heroine gets ready to go to the library. I’m not knocking your kink, I’m just wondering why so much word-weight is put into a personal hygiene choice in a story about tracking down Shoggoths.

Zing!

Showing not telling – avoiding infodump

Back-story is probably more essential in genre fiction than any other form … but that doesn’t make it any more palatable when served in huge expository lumps. So here’s a snippet of E. E. Knight’s comprehensively lengthy advice on sneaking the back-story under the radar:

You’re doing a disservice to your readers when you present them with the information they need to know to understand your world (or the backgrounds for your characters, or whatever) in a couple of ways when you do this, though. For one thing, it’s absolutely static and therefore boring. For another, the authorial hand is visible, cold on the reader’s throat like a doctor checking your glands.

Indeed. Concludes with plenty of examples, also. If you’re a beginning writer, and you’re not subscribed to his RSS feed, you’re missing out.

Collaboration 101

Another writer whose advice I increasingly find indispensable (and another one by whose actual fiction, to my shame, I’ve never read*) is Luc Reid. While not so much of a didactic piece as Knight’s material above, this post lays out a procedural framework for collaborating on short stories:

6. When we have a completed first draft, one of us does the first round of editing. If one person did more of the original writing, the other should be the one to do the first round of editing. During editing, we discuss any major changes before making them, but other than that we’re ruthless and edit the stories almost as though they were our own. We don’t hesitate to strike out a beautiful phrase or change a character or what have you even if the other person has done the original work. However, we do this using Word’s “track changes” feature, which is very easy to use, so that if something needs to be restored it can be.

Hmmm. I’m thinking you’ll have to be pretty good friends with anyone you do that sort of work with! Good food for thought, though.

Clomping foot redux

It’s a mark of his great talent (and the great esteem in which he is held) that M. John Harrison can set the genre blogosphere alight with a few short paragraphs about the sort of fantasy he is tired of seeing:

Go away & write me a fantasy like that. Wait twenty years before you start. Write it out of some emotion of yours you never understood, or some decision you made you’re not sure if you regret; but never once name that emotion or let me see the decision. I want what’s underneath. Make it short. Remember the world never had a plot, & that there’s no difference between a “myth” & commuting to work, they’re just two really excellent ways of narrating the life out of life.

Tear this one up, & start again with that very good sentence from p50, “I didn’t know what was happening.”

Much like the original “clomping foot” post, I think people will be talking about this one for some time to come.

In fact, it reminds me of some of the things the Mundanistas have been saying, though there are fundamental differences. But that’s a post for another day …


[*Actually, that's not strictly true - I have read some of Luc Reid's super-short pieces over at The Daily Cabal, which is kind of like Friday Flash Fiction every single day, and another fine addition to your web-based diet.]

Career tips for writers, redux

Posted by Paul Raven @ 18-08-2007 in General

The old feed reader is full of useful advice for writers once again, so time to share them with the people.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Evil Monkey delivers the second short sharp installment of his Guide to Creative Writing:

“Alas, market predictions aren’t like assholes, because everyone has two or three, and they usually serve little purpose.”

Luc Reid tries to nail down what it is that makes certain stories rise from “good, but not quite what we’re looking for” to “sold”:

“So what makes a story rise above its fellows, inspire love, stand out? The intuitive response would be that it does the things we talked about better. The characters are stronger, the plot is more compelling, the description is more vivid. But usually standing out is going to mean something else, and it’s going to differ from writer to writer and sometimes from story to story. The stories that rise above are not just more competent than the stories that don’t, although more competent is always better.”

Moving beyond the writing itself and into the territory of promotional work, Charlie Stross explains the dos and don’ts of public readings with his usual dry humour:

“The water jug isn’t an optional extra. I usually take the precaution of bringing along a drink of some sort, simply because my throat dries out after ten or fifteen minutes of speaking and if I’m scheduled late in a day of readings, the folks providing supporting facilities such as jugs of water tend to be getting a bit erratic themselves.”

And finally, David Louis Edelman has some advice on how to self-promote with ethical integrity:

“3. Avoid glaring sins of omission. This is a difficult guideline to follow, because it’s very subjective. Don’t use ellipses to claim that your book is “an absolutely terrific… thriller” when the actual review states that your book is “an absolutely terrific example of what not to do when writing a thriller.” Don’t try to sell to a group of Vietnam vets by claiming that your book has a Vietnam vet in it, while conveniently forgetting to mention that said character gets run over by a truck on page 4.”

Ah! The intarwebs: helping aspiring writers (to avoid writing by supplying them enough advice from genuine writers that they can convince themselves reading it is a more valuable way to spend their time than actually writing) since 1997!

[Cross-posted to Futurismic]

Writing tips round-up redux

Posted by Paul Raven @ 30-07-2007 in General

There seem to be a lot of posts containing advice for writers in my RSS reader at the moment, so I thought it would be nice to share them with everyone. Let’s see …

First up we have Jeff Vandermeer reposting the start of his “Evil Monkey Guide to Creative Writing” at his recently-relocated blog.

My Futurismic co-blogger and rising science fiction novelist Tobias Buckell has links to some extensive notes on plotting that were taken at the Taos Toolbox writer’s workshop.

Finally, Jetse de Vries is e-submissions fiction editor for Interzone, but he’s a writer in his own right, too. He shares with us the lessons he’s learned from reading the slush pile, and discusses the value of “trunking” stories that you just can’t seem to sell.

[Cross-posted to Futurismic]

The ‘tips’ meme

Posted by Paul Raven @ 24-07-2007 in General

OK, so here’s one of those memes that doesn’t involve you answering the sort of personal questions that the population of MySpace seem to find so incredibly important, and it promises to send some links back to you if you complete it.

These things remind me of chain-letters, to be honest, only without the veiled threat of gypsy magic or voodoo curses. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I was tagged by Chip, and he’s been a loyal reader here for ages – despite the fact that I have no idea what it is that he finds worth reading amongst the waffle and sf-nal pontification. Selah. So …

-Start Copy-

It’s very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. ***
-http://www.neonscent.com

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. ***
-http://www.bushmackel.com

3. Don’t let money change ya! ***
-http://www.therandomforest.info

4. Always reply to your comments. **
-http://chattiekat.com

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. *
-http://chipsquips.com

6. Don’t give up – persistence is fertile.
-http://www.velcro-city.co.uk

-End Copy-

OK, so the challenge for me is picking out ten people who I think care enough about blogging as an end in itself to take part in this … so, let’s try Gareth Powell, the SF Signal crew, Tobias Buckell, Jeremy Tolbert, Jason Stoddard, Paul Gilster, Sven Johnson, Jonathan McCalmont, Niall Harrison and Jamais Cascio.

I’ve made a quite deliberate effort to keep that list down to people who I read regularly, and who don’t blog for a living, but who do it because it’s a way of enabling their main job, or engaging with a community around a creative career.

Tally ho!

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