Writing and editing have been compared to cooking. Here’s another analogy (from my contrarian side).
Two approaches to diet: forbid yourself all foods high in calories, carbohydrates, and/or fat, OR eat a variety of foods (including ones you like), limiting those highest in fats and carbs.
Which one are you most likely to adopt as a way of life?
Two approaches to writing: follow all the rules and make sure you don’t use forbidden words, OR use whatever goddamn words you like, as long as they bring your story to life in the reader’s mind.
Which one will you regard with zest and enthusiasm?
Eating a variety of healthy, palate-pleasing foods from the entire range of available edibles is a better approach than restrictive regimes that label certain foods as forbidden. Of course, it helps to learn something about nutrition, and what “moderate” really means.
We writers have the entire panoply of words available to us. Words are the writer’s tools. Learning to write is learning how to use them well, all of them. Some words — cliches, maybe? — are analogous to processed foods. Flat, boring prose may be likened to vegetables boiled into a khaki-coloured mush. Well-chosen words skillfully assembled are like magical combinations of juice and crunch and richly blended flavours. A dialogue tag other than “said,” or the occasional adverb, are like touches of spice or a few hot peppers.
I’m not a fan of advice that labels certain words as weak words, crutch words, or filter words. The implication is that if you avoid those words or replace them with other, better, words, your writing will be good. But it’s not really about using some words and avoiding others. Writers must develop the ability to embody their imaginings in words that engage, delight, intrigue, or appall readers and keep them reading to the end.
If it was simply a matter of avoiding adjectives and not using “was,” writing would be a snap. It isn’t.
In writing, as in diet, it’s all about good choices and optimal combinations. Experimentation, mistakes and failures, adjustments, and fresh attempts are part of the process. Too much focus on rules can result in paralysis. Ignorance and total disregard of good writing practices can result in bloated or crippled prose.
When the writer embarks on a journey of creation, the rules should be in the luggage and the editor in the back seat. When the writer’s inspiration and intention have been given shape in the form of words, they may be unpacked and summoned to do their parts.
After nearly 10 years of writing blog posts, reading blog posts, and commenting on blog posts, I have a pretty good idea of what I like in a blog post: an interesting (to me) topic, well-written, and relatively short. Good comments by other bloggers are a definite bonus. They can elevate a post from statement to conversation.
What are good comments? Ones that add something to what the blogger said, even by arguing disagreeing a bit. Remember what we’re always being told about our fiction writing — conflict adds interest. No one likes vitriolic troll-spew, but when every single comment is blandly positive (Great post! Thanks for this! Got to bookmark!), or there are no comments at all, the reading experience falls flat.
For example, a while ago, I read a reblogged post advising writers to use “sensitivity readers.” I knew from elsewhere that this topic is controversial; some writers see it as bordering on self-censorship. Several bloggers “liked” the post, but no one had anything to say about it. I’ve seen this happen often enough to wonder. Did all these readers just think, “Oh, okay,” and move on to the next thing? (And did I put in my 2 cents’ worth? No, actually. Being in the Far West of the world, I’m often among the last bloggers to read a post, and there’s not much point in formulating a comment only the original poster will see.)
Some posts lend themselves better than others to discussion-type comments. If someone is announcing a new book or sharing a milestone of some sort, no discussion is needed. On the other hand, posts offering advice to writers, or strongly worded screeds taking a particular position on an issue, are vastly improved by comments.
I’m not advocating flat condemnations or being argumentative for the sake of it, but sometimes I wish people wouldn’t appear to swallow all advice with a bland affirmation. If you have reservations or questions about advice given or opinions expressed in a post, articulate them! If you’re a published writer with any measure of success, you have a ground from which to comment and question.
Perhaps bloggers are reluctant to differ with or question opinions in a post because they fear being labelled as negative. In the culture of “positivity,” an apparently negative attitude is perceived as a major flaw. I agree that whiny, bitter screeds full of self-pity, or personal attacks are never acceptable, but a bit of civilized discussion can add dimension and interest to a post.
We’ve all heard this piece of advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” I suggest modifying it to: “If you don’t agree with something, turn your disagreement into an opportunity to discuss.”
So, fellow bloggers, what do you think? How do you feel about a bit of civilized quibbling? Feel free to disagree!
A sudden painting project means at least one more retread for the blog. I saw a post about Elmore Leonard’s writing rules recently, which brought to mind this post from February 2012. No grumpiness warning needed.
Recently [in 2012] CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.
Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.
I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood: take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?
So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect. Also, I would add, italics.
But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.
Come to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.
Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such.
As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.
Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions: 1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.
Several years ago I read a lot of spirited discussions on a LinkedIn writers’ group which no longer exists. I suspect it self-immolated. Here’s a post from early 2013. Grumpiness warning!
Since joining LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild last year, I’ve wasted — er, spent a lot of hours reading and occasionally commenting on several discussions. They are all about fiction writing and increasingly about self-published fiction. Inevitably, the topic of editing comes up. Someone opines that of course a self-published work must be substandard if the author has skipped the all-important step of having their work “professionally edited.” In the throes of one of these debates, someone said, “A writer who edits him- or herself has a fool for a client,” echoing a similar opinion about people who represent themselves in a court of law.
I found this statement quite provocative and felt a Rant coming on. Several weeks have passed and now I can offer a few temperate observations.
First of all, I will say that a writer who has contracted with a “traditional” publisher to publish their work has no choice in the matter of being edited. Since the publisher is investing their time and treasure in the work, it is entirely logical that they should shape the product in whatever way they believe is necessary. I’ll say no more about this. This screed is entirely about self-published works.
“Editing” is not a monolithic process. There is structural or developmental editing, in which the editor suggests getting rid of characters or giving specific characters more important roles. Entire scenes or chapters may be cut, or new ones written. The entire novel may be rewritten. This is huge and fundamental stuff. To me it makes sense that structural editing happen[s] early in the writing process. A writer who is having trouble making their story come to life as envisioned may well need a structural edit.
Line and copy editing happen in the final stage of a manuscript’s life, to deal with things such as typos, grammatical problems and continuity.
Freelance editors with connections in the traditional publishing industry may be worth paying for, but I suspect they are in a position to command high prices and be selective as to which writers they take on — just like agents.
So who is a “professional editor?” Anybody. There is no accrediting body or degree-granting authority for editors. Like writers, they create their reputations by pursuing their craft. Success comes in the form of recognition by readers, writers and peers. And as with writers, just because someone calls themselves an editor doesn’t mean they are any good at it. Writers who want to hire an editor to help them structure their work or provide the professional polish are advised to use a process similar to that of hiring a contractor to do renovations on their house — request references and ask to see samples of their work. Someone suggested getting test pieces edited and going with the one you like best, but given some of the opinions expressed on LinkedIn, my suspicious self wondered if the opposite approach wouldn’t be better. We writers are a self-castigating bunch.
Here I’m getting into Rant territory again. Perhaps because the current abundance of self-published fiction includes quite a lot of naive, or unpolished, or — to be quite frank — “bad” writing, some people have decided that all self-published writers are childish, self-indulgent seekers of adulation, brainlessly inflicting half-baked textual travesties on the overburdened reading public. They need to be whipped into shape by Editors.
Like all sweeping condemnations, this bugs me. Which is why I’m writing this.
Back to that “fool for a client” remark. I disagree with that 100%. I think anyone who wants to call themselves a writer should also know how to edit. It’s part of the package.
Another thing to keep in mind is that independent, self-published authors are just that — independent. Unlike editors who work for publishing houses, they are not obliged to create a marketable “product” that will show a return on investment in a limited time. The self-published writer decides how much of their time and treasure they are going to invest in their work, and what constitutes success. Options for editing include critique groups, beta readers and endless rewriting.
In the end, what is the worst consequence of publishing a flawed, unpopular or obscure piece of writing? If it’s an e-book, it will cost the reader no more than a few dollars (less than $5 in many cases) and however much time they are prepared to spend reading until they decide a book isn’t for them. That happens all the time with traditionally published books — even so-called “best-sellers” — bought for considerably more money. And at least an unwanted ebook can be disposed of with the push of a button. It won’t be cluttering up anyone’s shelf or taking up space in the landfill.
The Irascible Indie is back! She’s emerged from her dark and dusty corner (coughing and sneezing), insisting she must opine on that perpetual bugbear: MARKETING
I’ve just reread four blog posts from 2015, written by my grumpy alter ego, the Irascible Indie. They are mild rants about various aspects of being a self-published (aka “indie”) author. I was actually quite impressed with how well-written readable they are. Anyone who’s interested can find them here:
And now, here are the Irascible One’s views on marketing…
Not a day passes without at least one blog post popping into my reader about marketing — lists of tips and tricks, how-to articles, and stern warnings that failure to market means failure as an author. Marketing is the bitter pill you must swallow after the thrill of pressing the “publish” button.
Okay, I admit it. I have a skeptical attitude toward marketing. As soon as I see certain words — SEO, clickthroughs, keywords, analytics — I get that uh-oh feeling. After reading multiple posts about picking the right keywords and other magic formulas to romance “the algorithms,” I’m left with the feeling that the authors of those posts live in a different universe. Their screenshots (which are hard on my eyeballs) do not resemble anything I see when I try to follow their instructions.
Reading about marketing makes me feel like a kid forced to wear a scratchy woollen sweater — you know, the kind that drives you crazy and makes you want to scream and stomp your feet. It’s itchy! I hate it!
Not good enough? Okay, let’s take a look at my reasons and figure out if there’s anything to them besides a contrarian attitude.
Reason #1I hate advertising. I’ve perfected techniques to ignore ads, both in real life and online. I don’t want to inflict ads on anyone but enemies. Besides, ads cost money. Why should I pay someone to say “Buy my book!” for me?
Reason #2 I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s personal info, especially now. Look how Google and Facebook messed up with that. I’m not going there. And I don’t want to send emails that are disguised “Buy my book!” pleas to people who trusted me with their addresses.
Reason #3 What could I possibly say in a newsletter that I’m not saying right here in my blog? I’d rather spend my time writing stories, novels, and blog posts than trying to manufacture stuff for which someone would be happy to exchange their email address. And too many newsletters are offered via annoying popups. (A popup, by the way, pretty much guarantees that I’ll never sign up for a newsletter.)
Reason #4 Advertising is expensive, and not always effective. We authors (wannabees, aspiring, self-published, and indie) are a huge market for legitimate and bogus services alike. Even with a budget and plan for advertising, you need to sift through all the options, recognize the scams as such, and figure out how to leverage use the legitimate ones optimally. Unless you get it right, your ROI is likely to be poor. (See, I can throw jargon around too!) Don’t get sucked into believing that liberal applications of cash will do the trick.
Reason #5 Getting reviews to improve sales is a tricky business. For one thing, it’s too easy to offend the Mighty ‘Zon. You can’t buy reviews (not that I would), you can’t exchange books for reviews, you can’t do review swaps with other authors, reviews have to include disclaimers, etc. Even an honest mistake can result in reviews being pulled, reviewers losing their privileges, authors losing their Amazon accounts — forever. And then there’s the torturous process of finding reviewers. In my random visits to book bloggers’ Review Policy pages, I inevitably see variations on the “No longer accepting books for review” theme. Natural, organic reviews from real readers are the best, but they can be few and far between, and an author has no direct control over that process.
Reason #6 Marketing isn’t simple. That’s why trad publishers used to have staff for it. For this indie author, there are too many options, too much advice, too many services with cutesy names and acronyms. It’s all a blur, and the prospect of figuring out what might work is dizzying. I’d rather be writing, or reading. (Hell, I’d rather be cleaning the bathroom.) The answer, of course, is to select one or two of the least daunting strategies, take small steps, and refuse to be overwhelmed by the flood of advice. And keep an eye on your expectations.
There’s an idea floating around that authors who don’t embrace marketing aren’t as hard-working and “savvy” as they should be. They don’t treat their writing as a business, so they deserve to fail. I resist these labels. I’ve happily put my energy into writing, editing, book descriptions, formatting, cover design, and presenting information about my books on my blog and elsewhere. Patience is my middle name (well, not really, but you know what I mean). I’ve whittled my expectations into elegantly slender shapes. If that’s not enough, so be it.
And yes, having said all this, I know enough not to whine about my sales!
Thank you, Irascible Indie, for your views on marketing. Now, back to your dusty niche, leaving me with a nice target to wear on my blog. I’ll relay any comments to you, including those that try to change your mind (such as it is). Bring ’em on!
I just finished processing today’s load of solicitations for funds masquerading as personal letters, full of smarmy sentences such as, “We know you’re passionate about [their cause] and want to be a part of making the world a better place,” followed by several more paragraphs of similar verbiage and a separate sheet with suggested dollar amounts to donate. Then there are the employees of call centres who, after interrupting your supper, writing or blog-reading session, inevitably start off their spiel by asking, “How are you?” As if they care.
This kind of hypocrisy is extremely irritating — dressing up appeals for funds to make them look like friendly, personal attempts to reach out and befriend. While I’m scribbling out my name and address on the paper junk mail before chucking it in the recycle bin, I can’t help but recall the advice I’ve read in countless blog posts about how authors should present themselves on the internet. Never say, “Buy my book.” Not even, “Please buy my book.” Don’t be annoying — instead, create content readers find so fascinating, they will rush to seek out your books without any appeals from you.
Isn’t this a kind of hypocrisy, though? Let’s face it — most of us indie authors started blogging for one reason: to create an “author platform” from which we could launch our book marketing strategies. After a while some of us figure out that almost all the folks who follow and read our blogs are other authors, and selling books to them works about as well as selling sand to desert dwellers. By that time we may also have found other reasons for blogging — making connections with fellow authors, creating a body of writing in the form of our blog posts, and so on. But in the background is the refrain, even if faint, “Look at my books, check out my books, please buy my books.” Otherwise, why do we display our books’ cover images in our sidebars, complete with links to where they can be bought?
I admit it — I hate advertising of all kinds. That’s one reason I kissed television goodbye decades ago. I’m an expert at avoiding click-bait on websites, and if the first or second thing I see on a website or blog (yes, even fellow writers’ blogs) is a pop-up plea to sign up for a newsletter, I’m gone. When it comes to advertising my own books, I put myself in the place of the recipient of such appeals and imagine them doing what I do when I recognize a sales pitch.
Writing — creating good quality prose or poetry — is a demanding art, with perfection always receding into the distance. Some writers manage to turn themselves into marketers as well. Good for them. I don’t happen to have a natural inclination for that aspect of the book business, so am walking the indie author path in my own fashion.
If you’ve read the other parts of this series, you may be thinking it’s about how not to promote your writing. If it inspired anyone to seek out the many blogs offering positive advice on marketing and promotion, so much the better. I admit my approach to these aspects of being my own publisher is lackadaisical. But does that make me a Bad Writer?
This might be an answer…
Writer = one who writes.
Real writer = one who makes one’s living by writing.
Hobby writer/dilettante/fake = one who writes for one’s own amusement, with something other than writing as a source of income.
Is it really so?
Real writers have to market, promote, make business plans, etc. (unless they have publishers who do those things for them). Hobby writers can just put their books out there and hope for the best.
Real writers have to work social media, make connections with their readers, create and maintain their brand. Some, perhaps many, hobby writers do these things too, but their livelihood doesn’t depend on it.
Hobby writers (unless retired with adequate pensions) need to spend most of their time and energy at their day jobs. That leaves only “spare time” for both writing and marketing. Which one do you suppose gets neglected?
Things all writers have in common:
1. A compulsion to write.
2. A desire to have their writing read and recognized.
So the only difference between real writers and hobby writers is that real writers need to make a living from their craft.
This leads to the big questions:
1. Are real writers better at writing than hobby writers?
2. Does any of this matter to readers?
The writing itself may be bad or good, regardless of what kind of writer produces it. Hobby writers, under less compulsion to keep producing new works and marketing their existing ones, may take more time and so turn out work of greater quality. Without the need to direct all their writing to a target market, hobby writers are free to write from inspiration, possibly creating works of originality (or weirdness). On the other hand, career writers must sharpen their game if they want to succeed, so have to pay attention to quality as well as quantity.
All writer-publishers should be aware of the “ugly truth” about the publishing business.
But does this mean if you don’t want to market and promote, or are a dismal failure at it, you’re not a Real Writer?
Of course not! It’s only a problem if you expect to sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. Most of us began writing because it’s what we love to do, not in order to set ourselves up for failure and guilt. We all have choices and not everyone is looking for the same rewards, as illustrated by this quote from writer SK Nicholls (commenting on another writer’s blog post about trad vs. indie publishing): “I have heard people say hobby writers can’t be taken seriously. Only writers writing for money and those who treat writing like a business can succeed. I suppose that depends on your point of view and your definition of success. It certainly isn’t mine.”
It’s crucial to maintain a balance between your expectations of whatever constitutes success for you (money earned, readers attracted, awards bestowed) and the effort you are willing to put into marketing and promotion. The gap may in rare instances be bridged by good luck or magic (but don’t count on that).
For readers, there’s really no point in worrying about whether the writer of a book you are considering is a real writer or a mere hobbyist. Some readers will not read anything that has not been endorsed by critics or reviewers, but most look at the story first. If the story interests and excites them, then they want to know more about the author.
Who are the Real Writers? All of us — all who write with passion and energy, striving to perfect our art. How good we happen to be at selling our work is another matter. There are professional writers and writers who prosper financially, but those are subsets of the broad category. We are all writers.
So endeth the series. The Irascible Indie goes back to reading, mulling, questioning and writing. (And with spring just around the corner, add gardening to that list).
Having read any number of exhortations to writers to “Know your target market,” I ask myself — what is my target market? Haven’t got a clue, except — wait for it — people who really want to read my books, of course!
But really, does every writer start writing with a specific group of people in mind, tailoring their work to please that group? I think not.
Many writers start to write because they’ve been haunted for years by a story plot or a character. Finally, the opportunity arises and they embody the plot or character in words. With luck, the piece of writing takes on a life of its own and compels the writer to keep on writing until all is resolved and an end is reached. Now that it’s so easy to publish, many works are rushed into print (or ebook format) without any thought for a potential market.
This may be naive, foolish even, but surely not evil.
The writer who wants to make a career of writing, or merely to supplement their income in a reliable way — that writer needs to think about a target market, to write within the constraints of a genre, to direct their marketing efforts toward readers of that genre, and to find ways of creating a fruitful relationship with those readers. Those of us who need not depend on our writing for our livelihoods, and have the luxury to write from inspiration alone, need not fret about markets.
But readers, fans, a devoted following? What writer doesn’t want that? The trick is to find these readers and to know who they are.
In the old days of traditional print-on-paper publishing, authors had no way of knowing who bought their books. People went to bookstores, picked up books they found interesting, paid for them and went away. Even when authors held book-signing sessions, they didn’t ask the people who wanted their books signed to leave their names and addresses. Only real “fans” (in the original sense of “fanatics”) who bothered to write to an author’s publisher would impart such information, but they were a minute minority.
Clever authors now use a variety of enticements to obtain readers’ email addresses and build contact lists they can use to inform those who have bought their books when new ones are to be issued. Not so clever (or lazy) authors do not.
Another piece of advice with apparent logic on its side is to think about the interests of potential readers and to frequent online hangouts where those folks gather. All right, so my books were inspired by a story written by H.P. Lovecraft. HPL has a huge number of fans, and there is a multitude of Lovecraft-related blogs and discussion venues to check out. Have I done that? Well, yes. Sort of. But I don’t really have much to say to video gamers and I don’t relate well to tentacles.
Well, how about other elements found in my books? The funeral business, for example. Physicians and surgeons. There are plenty of places where these topics are featured, but somehow I can’t see attempting to insinuate myself into professional discussions of these groups in any credible way, lurking and contributing until one fine day I can let slip the fact that I’ve written novels featuring a doctor who once worked as an undertaker and has an interest in revivifying corpses. Oh, and his best pal is a librarian.
For that matter, I am a librarian — a cataloguer, in fact, just like the narrator of my first book. I belong to a very active discussion list about cataloguing and related matters, but I would never dream of mentioning my books in that venue. It’s simply not done.
This business of targeting a market is yet another of the potential arenas of failure that surround the indie author/self-publisher. Even when making a living from writing isn’t a necessity, being inept at marketing is yet another club we can use to beat ourselves with. Rather than seize it and administer blows to our egos, I suggest we treat ourselves more kindly, administering humour when possible. Let’s be grateful for being able to publish our own work as easily as we now can, recognizing that some of us are better at selling our creations than others. And we’re lucky to have a community of fellow indies online with whom we can share our woes and wisdom.
Until now, I’ve had trouble answering the question, “What kind of books do you write?” As soon as I said, “Well, they’re not really mysteries. Or science fiction. Or thrillers. They’re sort of … different,” I knew I was in trouble. Writers are supposed to be able to tell people about their books in 25 words or less. Waffling around about what they’re not is pretty lame.
The trouble is, my books are in an awkward category. Or rather, they don’t sit squarely in any category. Calling them “literary supernatural” feels right to me. My settings are 98 percent realistic, my characters are fully developed and the plots are built around their interactions and conflicts. There are elements of the magical and the unexplained, but not enough to qualify for the “fantasy” or “paranormal” labels.
And I recently found this in Wikipedia: “Supernatural fiction continues to be popular, but because it is not simple to define and is not popularly understood, it is not used as a marketing category by publishers, booksellers, libraries, etc. When marketed, supernatural fiction is often classed as mainstream fiction, or is subsumed by other subgenres.”
Calling your book mainstream fiction is the kiss of death, I’m told. The advice is to pick a category (on Amazon, this is) not shared by thousands or tens of thousands of other books. Get specific. The trouble is, as noted in the Wikipedia entry quoted above, there is no category called Literary Supernatural. And of course “literary” comes with its own burden of perceptions — elitist, complicated and (worst of all) boring.
In fact the topic of book categories, especially on Amazon, is a popular one in the blogosphere, as authors try to figure out the optimal categories to maximize sales. Advice abounds, but somehow I’ve never managed to find the magic bullet (assuming one exists). After going through the available categories I settled on Literature and Fiction > Action & Adventure and Literature and Fiction > Literary > Psychological. I have no idea if different choices would have better results in terms of sales.
Which, of course, is a problem in itself.
I also have a small swarm of tags buzzing around the books, which do approximate their content, Here they are, in alpahbetical order (the most important ones in bold and/or UPPER CASE:
Acadians, alchemy, Arkham, artists, boys, Cape Cod, corpses, doctors,first person narrator, first world war, gay men, Gulf Islands, HERBERT WEST, journalists, librarians, miracles, Miskatonic University, Providence Rhode Island, psychological novels, raising the dead, reanimator, secrets, supernatural novels, tramp steamers, widows
And at least I’ve come up with the requisite 25-word description of my books: psychological fiction about a man who can raise the dead — after a fashion. Why does he do it and where does it get him?
As I read blog posts and discussions by writers, both indie and trad, I notice recurring topics: It’s not enough to write your book and put it out there. Your book will not sell itself. Writing is a business. You must know your market. You must position your book in the correct category. You must use social media. And so on.
While I recognize the value of this advice, inevitably, I consider, mull over and often question. I thought I would turn my musings into blog fodder. The result is a series of posts about “writing right.” Not so much the writing, but the presentation — of both the writer and the written works. I admit I often have a contrarian reaction to advice. Maybe it’s just a reflex reaction; maybe it’s because I’m sort of lazy (I considered calling this series The Indolent Indie). Does that mean I’m a (gulp) Bad Writer?
So here goes —
Part 1: Writing By Feel.
Confession: I have never taken any courses in “creative writing.” But I have written all my life — essays in school, term papers in university, memos, reports and documentation at work, a journal for many years, hundreds of blog posts and five (soon to be six, I hope) novels, four of which I have published.
I often end up arguing with the advice given by “how to write” books and falling into “angry child” mode (kicking and screaming — metaphorically, of course). It’s possible I secretly fear that my writing won’t be good enough, that I won’t be able to incorporate all the advice, and therefore FAIL.
Selling one’s writing may be a business, but creating it should not become an arena of failure. Writing should flow, not jerk along with the writer consulting a handbook between paragraphs and questioning the correctness of every sentence. (All right, it may help to bring the book out at the editing/rewriting stage, but first drafting goes best when it’s unfettered).
I also resist a formulaic approach to writing, given the huge element of subjectivity in how it’s judged by any individual reader. (Readers vary tremendously; consider the difference between a casual reader, a critique group member, an editor, reviewer or writing teacher. Each of them reads for a different reason, which colours their evaluation of a piece.)
Consider too that reading books about writing may be a great way to avoid doing any writing yourself. There are so many of these books you can’t hope to read them all, which means you may never set pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keys).
But then there’s Stephen King’s On Writing. I did read that. Unlike many of King’s novels, it’s a slender little book. Far from provoking my usual cranky reaction, it inspired me to start writing. It was magical — suddenly this thing I thought was impossible was the only thing to do. But then, I’ve been a fan of King’s writing for decades. In fact, reading and re-reading his novels (and those of other authors) helped me learn how to write.
That’s the thing: I believe the best way to make yourself into a good writer is to read — read A LOT — feel intensely, fall in love with an idea, a plot, a character, and WRITE. Then find a group of people (maybe writers) you trust, who will read your work and tell you what they think. Then rewrite (or not!). Keep doing all this stuff long enough, and you will probably produce at least something worthwhile. But don’t rush to publish prematurely. It’s better to take longer and produce a really good piece of writing than to quickly crank out a bunch of mediocre efforts. Setting a manuscript aside for a few months is a good idea too; you will return to it with the sort of objectivity that leads to improvement.
Time for writing is so precious, I hate to waste any of it reading “how to write” books. Okay, maybe if I was between writing projects, with time to spare, a book about writing written in a style I find engaging might be worth reading. Not as a paint-by-numbers manual, but as something that could be stashed in the brain attic to mingle with all the other stuff up there, possibly to improve my next writing effort without my even realizing it.