One of the many things copyeditors do is check the grammar and usage of your character’s dialog, making sure everything is consistent and correct. And when they make a correction to something (specifically, something said by a character or something in interior monologue—which in a 1st person novel is virtually the whole manuscript) and the correction doesn’t reflect what I want the voice to say, I write “Stet, for voice*” in the comments, and they get it.
[*Stet is a common CE comment—it’s Latin for ‘Let it stand.’ And ‘for voice’ means we’re leaving this as-is because it represents a character’s authentic voice.]
Same with the ubiquitous “friend w/English degree” or your MFA neighbor or whoever you have read your manuscript to make sure everything is “correct”… whatever that means. Except there’s a chance (a good chance, in my experience) they may not fully get the ‘stet, for voice’ concept, and in the desire to make sure everything’s “legal” the aspiring author may likely go along with the ad-hoc recommendations.
Which can be dangerous… because correct is not always best. Especially in fiction.
Strunk & White-style grammar may not be the same as the way your specific character—with their background, age, and education—might really talk. And having your character speak with perfect, college-professor-level diction is probably going to grab the reader’s attention… in the worst way.
Because it doesn’t ring true in most cases. And ‘ringing true’ is a necessity when you want readers to relate to your character as though he/she were a real person. (And you definitely want this, if you want your book to resonate with readers.)
Dialog can be tricky. You generally don’t want to exactly replicate real verbal exchanges—with all the ums and uhs and ahhs and you-knows and incomplete and/or incorrectly structured sentences and run-on verbiage, etc. BUT… you also don’t want your characters to speak perfectly, as though they’d written out everything they were going to say and then did a deep edit on every sentence, making it “perfect” before saying it in what is supposedly realistic, unrehearsed, actual, you know, conversation.
(Let alone having your characters pass on information to the reader disguised as dialog which the other character likely already knows. This type of “As you know, Bob” exchange is clunky in the extreme and there are so many better ways to convey the information, including just having a snippet of dialog and then having the character tell us via internal monologue some of the non-stated information. Or suppress the need to explain everything and let the reader figure it out via context down the road.)
There’s a balance. We want our dialog to feel like real off-the-cuff human speech while not totally replicating the overly-padded content of actual dialog… and we want the dialog to convey something important to the story and help it move forward, whether that’s information or character development (or, ideally, both). But what it very likely won’t be is grammatically perfect. (Keeping in mind the great Elmore Leonard’s dictum: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly,” lest we error on the side of clunky, corny, or outright stereotyping.)
And while the concept of “Stet, for voice” obviously applies to dialog in the micro, it also—in the macro—applies to your writing in general.
We’ve discussed the concept of “voice” before (here) but it’s important to understand that the book’s voice—whether the character’s or the narrator’s, if applicable—might be the single quality that most affects the reader’s pleasure (or lack thereof) on a page-by-page basis.
Yes, the plot takes shape as we move through the book, but the voice is right there in every paragraph, every sentence, every word we read.
And if the voice doesn’t ring true, if it doesn’t compel us to read on, if it doesn’t make us connect with the character on an emotional level, then the plot probably won’t matter… simply because the reader may not make it to the end.
But if the voice grabs us and pulls us into the story and makes us care about the character and what happens to them, we’ll probably follow it no matter what.
SO… don’t give up what makes your book unique (your character with their own specific voice) simply because they don’t always utter the King’s English.
This doesn’t mean anything goes… that you can have your character speak in a wildly inconsistent manner, that the character’s voice can be a total mismatch for their personality, that you can sling slang all over the page and not have it throw readers out of the story.
You still need to be in charge of the character’s voice, and the decisions you make regarding it need to be made with an eye toward the overall effect on the reader. (Developing this sensibility to where you apply it almost unconsciously is a perfect example of the level of craft that comes from practice, and knowing when you’ve overdone it—and are willing to revise it back toward the norm—is yet another level of experiential aptitude. As is a willingness to listen to cognizant feedback about these things… from your editor or elsewhere.)
Ideally, your character’s voice—and how you choose to portray it—is another tool for your creativity to express itself when it comes to crafting something that’ll have a compelling emotional impact on the reader. A powerful tool.
Don’t give up this power in the name of perfection.
These things seem to come in waves. I did a little tour last fall (for 9:09 – maybe three weeks) which—along with a number of in-store signings—included half a dozen school and library type events, so I developed a basic presentation that would work for most of them with a few tweaks.
But then we went out on a larger/longer tour this spring which—as anchor points between in-store events—included things like doing the opening keynote at the awesome Colorado Teen Lit Con, along with some larger school events and a few writing classes, etc.
And a couple of months before we left, I looked at the itinerary, gulped, and said to myself, Holy crap, you’re gonna need some all-new programs… maybe several of them!
This can feel daunting as your brain spins around the questions of: Where do I start, what do I do, and how do I do it…??? However, as with drafting almost any how-to nonfiction piece, it can help to begin with a structure.
And not to get all instructor-geeky on you, but one of the best ways to develop a new program is to use the tools of the Standardized Approach to Training: A.D.D.I.E. (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.)
Don’t shudder and run away. Those are just fancy words describing a common-sense way to decide what to do, how to do it, and how to determine if it’s working. As follows…
Analysis: This initial step is where you determine what sort of presentation you’re going to build and give, based on the needs of your attendees. (Which could be school students, bookstore customers, conference attendees, workshop clients, etc.) These each have different needs. School presentations should be educational and entertaining. Bookstores have a fairly general audience with an obvious bias toward reading. People attending workshops are writing-centered and typically place a higher focus on actionable information and advice than entertainment. (Not that it needs to be bone dry… humor is almost always welcome at the right times.)
Design: Decide on an overall structure and make an outline for your presentation. (Examples: maybe a PowerPoint with lecture for conferences; “Draw and talk” for those of you who both illustrate and write; Storytelling with props for story time type events; a specific how-to lesson with guided exercises for workshops; etc.)
Development: Take your outline and fill in all the details. In other words, add meat to the skeleton by actually building the presentation you outlined above. Just like writing a story, don’t expect to get it perfect the first time. It’s an iterative process… write/revise/write/revise until it feels smooth and tight. (Leaving some room for on-the-fly improvisation, if that’s your vibe.)
Implementation: This is (theoretically) simple: you give the presentation you designed and built. But for many this is the hardest part—getting up in front of a live audience and presenting your material in a way that comes off as smooth and professional, yet personable and entertaining. Everyone is different and there are whole books on dealing with public speaking so we’re not doing a deep dive here, but there is one tactic that seems universally helpful: practice. I’m fine speaking to customers in a bookstore or presenting to kids, but frankly, doing a more formal presentation to a room full of writers or educators can make me a little nervous. What helps me is going somewhere quiet and giving the presentation—aloud—multiple times, well in advance of the event.
Evaluation: How did it go? Any slow spots where the audience seemed bored or antsy? Did the presentation run long… or did you run out of material halfway through? Any pertinent points you failed to make? This is where we close the loop back to ‘Analysis’ and make any possible improvements after the fact. Use your own assessment, but also touch base with a friend or acquaintance who attended, if possible. Sometimes presenters have a form for receiving feedback from attendees, depending on the nature of the event. Whatever the feedback, roll the actionable parts of it back into the ADDIE loop and make the next version even stronger. (But don’t over-think this. Give a few presentations and you’ll start organically making changes/improvements to the material without even thinking about it.)
Some tips from the trenches:
Pay attention to overall time during the dry runs. If you have 60 minutes to present, don’t have a presentation that takes you 60 minutes to get through. You’ll almost certainly lose a few minutes to admin stuff and introductions at the start and other things will crop up, and you’ll either end up rushing to finish it or you’ll have to end in the middle of a section—both less-than-optimum. Instead, plan accordingly and make adjustments as you get close so you end on time. (Sort of like a “two-minute drill,” if your closing segment takes five minutes, segue into it six or seven minutes before the end time so you can stick the landing without zipping through the most important parts.)
If you’re planning on a Q&A section, budget adequate space for it. ‘Adult Education’ is primarily about giving your attendees actionable information (i.e. stuff they can use) as opposed to entertainment or broadly educational content. In longer workshops I’ll often build-in a Q&A break after each section, and sometimes almost half of the overall class can be Q&A.
Get to know your specific audience. I’ll usually do a quick show-of-hands assessment to find out who’s there, their experience level, and what they really want to know. Then you can adjust your presentation accordingly and put a little more focus on their specific needs.
Remember why you’re there. You’re there to give your audience something of value, whether that’s motivating kiddos to read, aiding emerging writers in navigating the publishing industry, or helping workshop clients construct tight dialog. It’s about them, not you. To that end…
Skip the long self-intro. They probably know who you are and why you’re there—no need for the whole ego-boosting CV. A quick “My name is X and I’ve done Y” should suffice. (Or better yet, just jump right in with some interesting/useful information and hook them from the word “go”.)
Try to take video (or at least an audio recording on your phone) of your early presentations or classes and review them with a critical eye. I did, and learned that once I’m wound up and going, I can start talking too fast if I’m not careful. It’s amazing what we can learn by listening after the fact when we’re not caught up in the moment.
Have a “contact” page onscreen at the end of your presentation where appropriate, for any follow-up and/or feedback.
Always thank your host (festival or bookstore or school or conference or library, etc.). It’s a lot of work to put on whatever event you were part of, and people appreciate being appreciated. Plus, one of the best ways to get further offers to present is positive word-of-mouth from previous hosts.
You’ll often see two conflicting pieces of writing advice:
(1) Don’t have an unlikeable main character.
(2) You don’t have to have a likeable main character.
The first is one of those ‘conventional writing wisdom’ things, right up there with “Show, don’t tell” and “Write what you know.” And I think it’s about as misunderstood as those old sayings.
The second is newer (relatively speaking) and often bolstered with references to unlikeable characters in TV and film properties. (House of Cards, anyone?)
So, which is it?
First of all, there are no rules to writing fiction, right? So do whatever works for you and your readers.
And what works for most readers? Having a compelling character. Which isn’t the same as a likeable character, but in the Venn diagram of writing there’s a lot of overlap between them.
There’s also some overlap between a compelling character and a “Can’t take your eyes off her” diabolical villain.
Either can work as long as you keep in mind that readers have a few different ways of finding their way into a story.
Many readers like to identify with the main character. In a well-written 1st person POV novel (or very close 3rd), this character-identification can almost feel to the reader like they are the main character, either going through the story right there with them, or actually as them, depending. Either way, the protagonist has been crafted such that the reader really cares about them and what happens to them, on an emotional level.
This type of connection is the sort of thing that can lead to certain stories attaining the status of “beloved.”
There are also many readers who are entertained by interesting villains. But most of us (thankfully) don’t closely identify with evil people, so the deep emotional connection described above may be lacking.
Ex: Harry Potter is a beloved story, in part because people tend to identify with (and have sympathy for) an underdog character who’s good at heart. Voldemort is a strong villain, but while HP without Harry and Co. might be a fascinating study of evil, it wouldn’t have nearly the “empathy” factor of the same story with Harry and Hermione and Ron, etc.
So the question becomes: Do I want people to be able to identify—on some level—with my main character? If yes, then your character should of course have imperfections and moral complexities (nothing is more boring than perfection), but still come off to some extent as sympathetic and having those human traits which most of us admire and may want to identify with.
And if no, then make your unlikeable character as interesting and compelling in their evilness as possible, in hopes of capturing those readers who don’t need to empathize with a protagonist.
(Or try doing both, via the use of the anti-hero. It’s quite a balancing act, but the morally grey character can be quite compelling while still engendering sympathy if done well.)
All the above is a discussion of the value of purposely unlikeable protagonists.
But in reality, many complaints about ‘an unlikeable main character’ are actually aimed at unintentionally unlikeable characters. We’ve all read books where the protagonists weren’t cruel or evil… but weren’t necessarily people we cheered for either. This can be caused by them coming off as annoying or spoiled or self-centered or thoughtless or any number of similar attributes. Not that characters (and real people) can’t be these things at times, but if they primarily come off as annoying, you’re going to have a hard time getting the reader to even like them, let alone empathize and/or identify with them.
One way to avoid this is the use of a few trusted betas who will be honest enough to tell you, “The story was well written, but I didn’t really love the main character and I didn’t really care what happened to her.” This sort of feedback can be gold to you, because if your readers can’t bond with your main character, they very likely won’t bond with your book. (The external viewpoint is invaluable here because we usually love our protagonists—after all, they came from us—so we may not immediately grasp that they may not be as appealing to other people.)
So, to re-write the above axioms:
(1) No matter what, you want a compelling main character.
(2) And if they’re someone with whom you wish the reader to identify, try to craft them in a way that doesn’t preclude this.
Because some level of emotional connection between your work and your reader is vital if you want the work to resonate long after they turn the last page.
I may be shoveling sand against the tide here but there’s a pervasive paradigm within the writing-centric social media community that does a pretty serious disservice to aspiring writers. In short, there’s a lot of stress, importance, energy, time, and focus being put on things that aren’t primarily writing. When in reality…
The way you get better at writing is by… writing.
The way you create a strong manuscript is via writing.
The way you acquire representation is through your writing.
The way you get acquired and published is through your writing.
What makes readers want to buy and read your work is… the writing.
Man, it’s all about the writing.
All those other things only come from the writing.
That’s the place to put your focus… if you actually want to be a writer.
(I qualified that statement because there’s a subset of people who want to ‘have written,’ and/or want to ‘have had a book published,’ for some imagined perks that have nothing to do with actually loving—and improving at—the craft of writing.)
In this sort of environment, is it any wonder it’s easy for emerging writers to get distracted by all the non-writing aspects of the whole ‘being a writer’ thing?
Your attention—your focus—is like the money in your wallet… you only have so much of it, and if you want to make it to the next payday you need to think carefully about where you spend it. I see people spending lots of time/energy/focus (and angst) on non-writing things like…
Becoming ‘agented’… (Pretty sad it’s an adjective these days.)
Doing book signings…
Doing school presentations…
Speaking at conferences…
Making ‘Best of’ lists…
Hitting certain sales numbers…
These are all things a writer might do—on the periphery—but these things aren’t writing, and focusing on them won’t make you a writer.
Only writing will do that.
And—not coincidentally—the people who actually do the above things seem to be people who put the craft of writing above any sort of ego boost they might get from accomplishing those peripheral things.
And, as nice as they are, those things aren’t even close to being the best part of being a writer. Writing is the best part. By far. If you don’t love the craft of writing—without any of the supposed perks—you’re likely to be sorely disappointed if you’re trying to acquire the “writer’s lifestyle.”
So to those distracted/disappointed/depressed by all the current negativity on social around the whole subject of ‘being a writer,’ my best advice is to not waste any energy worrying about that crap and put your laser-sharp focus (and your time and your effort and your love) where it actually matters… on the craft of writing.
The goal over which you have total control (and—in an interesting karmic twist—the one most likely to get you all those peripheral things) is simply to become the best writer you can, and to write the best book you can.
Something worth keeping in mind with any creative endeavor: The thing that represents the work is NOT the work itself.
No one confuses notes on a staff with actual music or thinks that a set of house plans is in fact a building… yet with writing it can be all too easy to conflate the representation* with the actual thing.
[*Have you noticed that most AI-generated stories read like a plot synopsis? A really shitty plot synopsis? Because for the most part, that’s what they are. Reading them, we’re rarely – if ever – actually ‘in scene,’ and virtually never to the point of immersion where we forget we’re reading something and are lost in the story. That’s because they’re basically just a structure… a composite based on an amalgamation of several other story structures, assembled into a single construct by a high-powered algorithm. And of course, most “write your novel now!” sites are all about following this same path. As discussed here. Often with similar results.]
I think part of this comes from us thinking of the story structure (the plot) as the story itself, when the plot is just the framework on which we build the actual story.
Imagine someone wanted to create a wonderful dress. Something unique and beautiful and amazing, which—hopefully—others might love as well. But instead of thinking about a one-of-a-kind design, using flowing fabrics with interesting colors and textures and shapes, they spent their time worrying about getting the perfect mannequin. Maybe one that represented the largest cross-section of people—or maybe one considered the ‘ideal’ size—so that their work might appeal to the largest number of people. All with little thought to the dress itself.
That sounds goofy, yet it’s analogous to what we often see… fealty to the minor god of “subject matter*” over other considerations… like story and character and emotional connection… and the actual craft of the writing itself.
[*You will often see on social media an aspiring writer bemoaning the fact that an agent or editor called out something specific in their #MSWL—for example, “Love to see an MG about a mystery set at summer camp!”—and the writer turned in something they thought fit the bill… and it was summarily rejected. And they don’t get it, because they sent the agent “exactly what she asked for.” I understand the frustration - as far as it goes - but it’s important to understand when an agent or editor mentions something like the above in their wish list, what they’re actually saying is, “I’d like to see a really well-written, emotionally compelling middle grade novel about a group of kids—sort of on their own, away from home—solving a problem together.” With the unstated ‘well-written, compelling’ part the most important criteria, by far. Again, it’s really about the dress itself more than the specifics of the mannequin, right?]
If you gave the same basic plot to a bunch of different writers, you’d get a bunch of very diverse books. Because each writer is unique, with a different voice and life experience and perspective on the world.
Thinking it could be otherwise would be like thinking if you took a dozen different dress designers and gave them all the same mannequin to build a dress upon, you’d get twelve identical dresses.
I’m not saying a mannequin isn’t an important tool to a dress designer. Of course you want a shape to build the dress upon. But the mannequin is in no way the dress itself.
The story--your story—is the singular thing you have. Your voice, your vibe, your viewpoint… your weird take on life that makes your stuff interesting and unique and oddly compelling. That’s what you have. And the journey your character goes through as they transit the events in the story is the thing that shines a light on what makes you and your viewpoint worth reading… not the scaffolding.
Seems like we all get told the same platitudes regarding writing, like “Writing is rewriting,” “Show, don’t tell,” and of course, “Write what you know.”
It’s that last one I was to explore for a minute. I think it’s valid, but maybe not in the reductive way some people mean it.
I was doing a discussion/Q&A with a group of writing students a couple of months ago, and I got a new question. Instead of “Where do you get your ideas?” (discussed here) or “How do you deal with writer’s block?” (discussed here), someone asked, “When did you first know you wanted to be a musician?”
Wow. The last-second switch from the expected “writer” to “musician” sort of threw me. I mentally reviewed my options: I joined my first band around twelve. But I got my first drum set around eleven. But I had a brief fling with electric guitar at ten. But I saw my first band around eight or nine. All of those mattered, but the actual event that started everything—maybe even me becoming a writer—happened even earlier.
When I was a little kid of maybe four, I was with my family at a parade in our hometown… just your basic small-town summer parade. Somewhere amidst the baton twirlers and horseback teams and dignitaries in convertibles there was a marching drum corps. My dad had hoisted me onto his shoulders for a better look, and when they got near us those drummers started playing. Suddenly… all of them at once… at a very high volume. My God, I’d never felt anything like it! The thundering of those drums shook my chest (and in my mind’s eye, blew back my hair), but it also did something to me on the inside. Permanently. The raw power was so attractive… I immediately had the feeling of, Whatever that is… I want it!
And that was that.
After I’d explained this ‘big bang’ inciting incident I realized it was a teachable moment, for both me and the students. I said that yeah, following the adage of “write what you know,” in theory I should write a novel about a kid at a parade who becomes a drummer, blah blah blah… But I’d already written a book about a young drummer and I didn’t want to re-tread similar territory.
But… what if I wanted to write a story about a young race driver? Maybe he started with go-karts and moved up to destruction derbies and stock cars, eventually becoming a pro NASCAR driver. I’m not an expert on motor racing, but what if I took the experience of me at the parade and authentically recast it… maybe the boy was four or five and he was with his dad at the track for the first time… maybe standing next to the outside rail… maybe his dad hoisted him for a better view… maybe when the cars roared around the first corner toward them, the raw power and the deafening noise—and the smell of gas and oil and burning tires—imprinted on the boy, and he knew that whatever the heck that was… he wanted it! And from then on, his heart was permanently betrothed to gasoline alley.
I haven’t been there. But man, I’ve been there!
I don’t need to know the technical specifics to get in touch with the emotions that come with those early peak experiences. And neither do you. We just have to mine those experiences, remember how they felt—viscerally, not intellectually—and do our best to forget the limiting specifics and transfer that authentic emotion to our character.
We’ve all experienced moments of heightened emotion. Ecstatic, terrifying, validating, heart-rending, uplifting, soaring…
We can use these… not by putting our character in the exact same situation we’ve been in, but by putting our character in a new situation while allowing him/her to experience the full emotional rollercoaster that comes with those watershed moments.
Because, even if you don’t know, first-hand, all of the specifics of your character’s situation, you absolutely know how it feels to be in those moments when everything seems more.
Even if you haven’t been there, you’ve been there. And you know.
So… write what you know.
There is “the theory of” and “the planning of,” but sooner or later you’re faced with “the doing of…”
A typical day on book tour might start with packing up* and checking out of the hotel, then traveling to the next stop where (assuming you’re a PB/MG/YA author) you may have a mid-day school visit.
[*We learned early on not to unpack and put clothes in the dressers or closets. Suitcases on suitcase stands are way more efficient and you won’t leave things behind. We prided ourselves on how quickly we could move in or out, humming the “Mission Impossible” theme while doing it.]
These days you should add an extra fifteen minutes when presenting at a school, because you’re almost certainly going to have to visit the admin office first (at many schools, there is no other way to physically access the campus) and sign in, receiving a visitor’s badge. Then they’ll get the librarian or teacher who coordinated your visit to escort you to the auditorium/cafeteria/gym/MPR for your presentation. Go to the venue and prioritize getting the tech up and running before doing too much meet-and-greet. Almost all schools will have someone to help with this, and they range from total tech wizards to flustered/overworked teachers who aren’t familiar with the equipment. Pro tip: have your presentation available on a thumb drive for use and backed up on your computer as well as in one other location, preferably online. (Or vice versa. We try to use their equipment and present off our thumb drives when possible, but more than once the day was saved because we had our computers with us. Multiple cables & adaptors to interface between your computer and their projector/system are worth their weight in gold. I also bring a small USB “pointer/clicker,” because there’s nothing that kills the flow of a presentation more than having to run back to the computer to advance each slide or waving at someone to change slides for you. And finally, be able to give some semblance of your presentation without any technology at all, because sooner or later you’ll have to. Trust me on this…)
You’ll want to have an educational component in your presentation (teachers, librarians, and principals will appreciate this—you’re at a school, after all) but also something entertaining for the kiddos. And while you definitely want to talk about your work at some point, what you don’t want to do is simply show all of your books and give a sales pitch for each. (No one will like this approach, adult or student.) Don’t forget to give credit to the store that selected the school. (My brilliant wife makes a slide for the top of each show that basically says, “Sponsored by XYZ Bookstore” with the store’s logo, and this is up when the students are filing in. Often the store will have a rep at the school, either to watch or to hold a sale afterward. They always appreciate the shoutout.) At the end, also mention you’ll be at the sponsoring store that evening to take questions and sign books.
After the school presentation—and some version of checking in/unpacking/eating—you get to the bookstore. As with a school, it pays to arrive a little early. Greet the owner/coordinator, get the lay of the land, browse the shelves if there’s time, meet some customers if there’s time, grab a coffee if available, and get ready for your presentation…
As mentioned previously, there are a few different types of signings. Your mileage may vary, of course, but here’s how I broadly categorize them…
“Sit & Sign.” This is where the store parks you somewhere (typically near the entrance, or maybe in your genre’s section if it’s a big store) at a table with a stack of your books, and you’re left to try and engage customers as they walk by, hopefully leading to a discussion and maybe even a sale. These are usually not the best experience, and we try to avoid them if there’s another option. You’re engaging with people who aren’t there to see you and likely aren’t even interested in the type of book you’re presenting. There’s no real draw to this sort of signing (unless you have fans/friends/readers in the area who will make the trip to see you) other than the fact that it can lead to signing a fair amount of stock. (Seems like the larger chain stores tend to go for this, so sometimes the stock signing can be significant. When we sign stock we always volunteer to put “signed by author” stickers on the books, because it increases the likelihood that book will sell down the road. Chain stores will have a big roll of these, or you can bring your own to smaller stores.) Also, as there is no actual presentation, it’s harder to give the customers much of value during a sit and sign other than occasionally taking questions one-on-one.
“Read & Sign.” This at least offers customers the ‘value’ of hearing you read from your work. (Usually your latest, which they likely haven’t read yet… like a trailer or teaser for your new book.) I put value in quotes because you’re giving them something they can get simply by picking up the book and perusing a chapter. I’m not a huge fan of readings—either as attendee or presenter—but if the audience consists primarily of fan-ish readers (which it usually doesn’t—see below) then this might work well for you and your attendees. At least you typically have the trappings of a presentation—chairs for them and a place in front for you—and there is some interaction between reader and author. And of course you can do a Q&A afterward, which is even more interactive.
“Presentation w/Q&A.” This is our favorite, because it has something for everyone. As mentioned, a high percentage of people want to write a book. (And of course, some of them are actually writers, actively writing and/or trying to publish. These people are even more interested in speaking with you.) The details regarding how to decide on the specifics of an author presentation might make a good post unto itself, but a few popular topics include “where writers get ideas,” “the journey to publication,” “making the creative life work,” “the writing process,” and “a peek behind the publishing curtain.” A variation of this is the “In conversation with…” presentation, where someone (often another writer, or perhaps one of the store’s staff) will interview you. Either way, a conversation is almost always better than a one-way delivery.
A big key to reaching the audience is knowing who you’re addressing. We sometimes do a quick assessment first (via a show of hands) regarding how many have an interest in writing someday, how many are actively writing, how many have a draft they’re in the process of shopping, how many have no interest in writing but are avid readers, etc. Then we tailor the presentation to them. Another key factor is not making the presentation about you. Ideally, it should focus on them, and give them something that can help them get where they want to go. (There’s nothing more boring than some dude droning on and on about himself and his books, his story, his process, his life, etc.) And of course, the way to make sure you’re giving the attendees what they want is to be as interactive as possible. Sometimes the bulk of the presentation ends up being a lively hour-long Q&A session. (Again, a bunch of concise answers will usually be better than a few long dissertations here. Regardless, we always try to do a “lightning round” near the end where we answer a bunch of questions quickly, because there’s nothing worse than someone sitting through a presentation and not getting a chance to ask their question.)
After you’re done you sign books for the attendees, of course, and always be sure to ask the store if they’d like you to sign stock.
And… always thank the staff profusely for hosting your visit. This is a mutual-aid thing. Yes, you’re taking the time to present, hopefully bringing people into their store, maybe even new customers. But they’re allowing you to present your work in their establishment, which costs them in terms of time/work/money. You want to leave them feeling good about you and your books, and they want you feeling good about their store. Win-win, right?
I can honestly say we’ve met booksellers and school librarians who’ve become lifelong friends through doing events with them. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, we have a shared love of books.
“If you build it, they will come” doesn’t necessarily apply to book events.
It’s more like “If you build it--and tell them all about it--some of them might come.”
Yes, there is the rare store that has such a strong, loyal customer base that you can just show up and there’ll either be a decent sized crowd waiting or they’ll flock to you from around the store once they see an author presenting, but depending on either of those is a very bad bet.
And unless you’re hovering near the very tippy-top of the NYT bestseller list, it’s also a mistake to think that your name alone will bring in a crowd.
One obvious challenge with a book tour is that you’re not in your hometown. When you do a local book event—assuming you have a new book out and you haven’t done anything local in a while—you can tell all your friends and family and co-workers about it, and get a pretty good turnout from just that.
But that doesn’t apply when you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away, in a different state, where you know virtually no one… and very few of them know of you.
So, you have to ask (and answer) the question: Why would someone come and see you if they didn’t know you, and/or didn’t know your books?
The answer is two-fold: They have to know about the event, and they have to be interested in the event once they learn about it.
Let’s take the second part first. People are generally interested in information that can benefit them. I mentioned this last time, but multiple surveys have shown that something like 85% of all adults want to write a book, typically a novel or perhaps a memoir. (And a smaller but still significant number have started writing.) We can provide value to them (beyond talking about our latest book) by stepping outside our specific genre and addressing this broad area of interest directly, as follows…
When we were calling stores and the event coordinator/owner/manager would find out we wrote MG & YA, she’d often say “We don’t usually have good luck with kids’ events, and worse with teens.” And we’d say, “We agree completely. We have better luck when we position it as: Two published authors are going to talk about reading and writing and the publishing business.” And we’d promote it that way. And it generally worked. Often we’d have a good turnout with lots of engaged people at the event—asking questions and buying books to get signed—and there wouldn’t be a kid in the room.
We’ll talk about presentation specifics more next time, but for now you should come up with a general theme and pitch for your presentation. We call our joint events the “He Said, She Said” presentation and it’s largely based on us riffing back-and-forth on reading, writing, publishing, and living the writing life, and at least half of it is Q&A. (Remember, your goal is to give the attendees something they’ll value, not just find different ways to say “Here’s my book, buy it now!”) And my solo events cover largely the same territory, often focusing on the power of art. Again, with lots of Q&A.
So now that you have something that—hopefully—people will be interested in (and that the store’s event coordinator will feel the same about), you want to help get the word out.
Sure, you should definitely put your tour schedule all over social media because once in a while someone will show up from seeing that. But really, your strongest move is helping the store let their customers know.
Easy things first. Make an electronic poster for each event with all the pertinent date/time/presentation info (as well as graphics of you and your book, of course) and send it to the store. They can print out and place the posters wherever they see fit. Also send them high-res graphics of your book cover & author photo, so they can use them on their website and their social channels and in their email newsletter, etc. When time allows we’ll sometimes send out a turnkey press release—specific to the store, time, and date—for the store to use with their local press outlets and/or social media/newsletter posts.
For our big tour we also made a nice overall tour poster which had all the images & info about us and our presentation, with spaces for each store to fill in their specific date and time, then we printed out a hundred of them at 11x17 and sent one to each store on the tour ahead of time.
We made a fun (okay, some might say corny) little “tour trailer” video which we sent to all the stores as well as posting on our social accounts. This gives the stores an idea about the vibe of our presentation, and lets them post it on their social accounts to let their customers know a little about the event.
Along with this we did a TV interview or two along the route, usually the day of the evening presentation in that market, as well as getting press in some local papers for the same reason.
And finally, make sure the store has your book in stock for the event. (Don’t laugh. It seems obvious, but on our very first out-of-state stop on the big tour—in Arizona—the store had my book but not my wife’s, and then in Minnesota the opposite thing happened.) Your publicist can definitely help here, as they’ll get in touch with their sales rep for that region and make sure the store has your books. Another piece of insurance is to contact each store with a quick message a week or so out saying, “We’re on the road headed your way—can’t wait to see you on June seventeenth!” or whatever. (We had one store cancel on us after we’d already started the tour, but luckily we found out ahead of time due to the above and it saved us driving halfway across Mississippi for a non-event.)
Okay, the pump has been primed: the store knows, the customers know, and the books are in stock. Next, we’ll wrap up with the day-to-day nuts & bolts of in-store events.
Last time we discussed the overall steps in setting up a book tour. Let’s look at some of the important specifics around booking the events as well as scheduling your travel.
1. The Pitch. Believe it or not, not every store you contact will immediately say “Oh my God YES OF COURSE!” when you ask about doing an in-store event. It takes time and effort on the store’s part to put on an event, as well as ordering in your books for it, etc. So the store has to do some quick and dirty ROI calculations to determine if they’re going to have a fighting chance of making a few dollars and/or bringing in some new customers in exchange for their time and effort. All of which boils down to your ability to bring people into the store.
Once you let the store know you share the same goals—bringing people into their store—and it sounds like you have a realistic view of how to do that, they’re more likely to want to have you do an event at their store. (More about this in Part III, but a big clue here is that approx. 85% of all adults want to write a book.)
2. Setting the Time and Date. Stores know their local customers and the best times for presentations (and you’ll want to defer to their experience) but much of this is common sense: weekday visits usually happen in the evenings, after dinner but not too late… like 7:00 PM or so. Sometimes I’d be booking a Tuesday in Georgia and the store would say, “We like to do author signings on weekends,” and I’d have to say, “Well, we’re coming through Atlanta on Tuesday… by Saturday we’ll be in St. Louis,” or whatever.*
[* But be advised, this is NOT “business hardball.” They’re a bookstore and you’re an author. You both love books, and you’re on the same team. While you certainly don’t want to cool your heels in a hotel room for three or four days waiting for the “perfect presentation slot,” we would occasionally defer for a day under special circumstances. (Ex: Apparently NOTHING happens in Nebraska during a Cornhuskers game, so we had a day off in a hotel in Omaha on a Saturday, which is usually a prime day.) But overall the stores were almost universally accommodating to our schedule… we managed to present six-plus days a week for four months during our biggest tour.]
3. School Visits. As opposed to in-store events (which are free), school presentations typically include an honorarium. (See this post on some issues associated with doing free school visits.) But while we were on book tour, when scheduling allowed we would occasionally tell the store that we’d donate one joint presentation—free—to a local school of their choosing, during the day of the store event. There were several reasons this made sense…
4. Booking Lodging. We booked virtually everything online in advance. At first we booked a few weeks ahead, as we traveled, but after a couple of close calls we started booking further in advance, and by the time we did the second leg of the tour we had everything locked down before we even left the house. Logistics matter here, and you can optimize your hotel time with a few little tips regarding how you juggle your presentations and lodging:
We booked in one of three general configurations: the “sign-and-sleep,” the “hit-and-run,” and the “two-fer.” The sign-and-sleep is your basic “Do the evening event, go to your hotel and sleep, then get up and drive to the next stop” routine. And it works fine, especially when you have quite a distance between stops. The downside is you don’t get the best bang for the buck, hotel-wise… you’re either checking in during the afternoon then grabbing dinner and doing the event, or—depending on how far you had to drive—arriving in town then eating, then doing the event, then checking in and hitting the hay before getting up and driving on.
If we didn’t have a super long drive to the next stop and/or if the event was reasonably early in the evening, we’d do a hit-and-run, which meant instead of sleeping in the event town we’d do the signing then immediately drive to the next stop and check in… where we’d usually have a two-fer. (Two nights in the same place.) That way we’d wake up and have the whole morning (or day, if no daytime event) to hang out at the hotel, go for a run or swim or sightsee, and get in some serious writing time down in the lobby with coffee and snacks. Then after the evening event we could just go back to the room and hang. You get more “hotel time” for the same outlay, and of course you only have to load-in, unpack, pack up, and load back out once instead of twice. We did this whenever we could, and it always felt like a luxury when we could have a day to hang out or sightsee without having to pack up and drive. (We presented six or seven days a week, so any little break was welcome!)
Regarding rooms, our basic priority list when booking was:
Next time in Part III we’ll discuss making sure you have people (and books!) in the store during your presentation.
See you there!
We’ve gone on three different book tours within the past year. First for my wife’s newest book (The Peach Rebellion) last May, then for my latest (The 9:09 Project) in Nov/Dec. And since both our books published within 6 months of each other (at different imprints of the same umbrella house), we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go on a “He Said/She Said—Part II*” joint book tour, from which we just returned a couple of weeks ago as I write this.
[*To recap, the original “He Said/She Said” tour was a four-month national book tour covering well over 100 venues. Probably the biggest U.S. book tour of that year. See here for more on it.]
The original post covered the “why” of touring, from a philosophical viewpoint, but I’ve gotten questions about the logistics (aka the nuts & bolts—the who, what, when, where, and how) of setting up and executing a book tour. When I was younger I spent a fair amount of time on the road playing in a few different bands, and many of the logistical lessons I learned on the road still translate well today (and certainly came in handy when we booked that big, crazy tour half a dozen years ago). So let’s dive in…
1. When. The first decision—before you even figure out where you’re going and which stores to visit, is when to tour. Obviously, the best time is when you have a new book out. Throughout the life of most books, the briskest selling period will usually be in the months after release, and you (as well as the Event Coordinators at the stores you’re visiting) will want to capitalize on that. However, if there’s no new release but you have a backlist that sells well, this can also work. Or you could tour with a friend who writes in the same genre who happens to have a book coming out. (Think about how big musical acts tour – their either have a new record out, or they do a “greatest hits” tour, or they do a “package” tour with other like-minded bands who have a similar fan base.)
Then decide how long you want to be out. Realistically, you might average one store an evening, with perhaps one non-store presentation (school, conference, festival, etc.) during the day. (Weekends are different—you can sometimes do stores during the day and evening.) So if you want to present at a minimum of a dozen stores, for example, plan on a couple of weeks. Once you know how long you can be on tour and the rough number of stores you’d like to visit, you can start planning your route.
2. Where. At its most basic, a workable plan looks like this: Pick an efficient route that goes through a number of target-rich environments. (IOW, a major interstate that passes through a bunch of cities and towns that have bookstores.) A loop route is generally better than an out-and-back because you don’t want to hit stores near other stores you’re covering (the stores don’t like it, and you’re drawing from the same well of customers twice) so a circular route gives you twice as much “fresh territory.” (Our overall rule was stores should be at least 20 miles apart, and ideally further. Big cities are an exception, because two stores ten miles apart can have totally different customer bases. This will come up in your conversations with the Event Coordinators at the stores.)
A few factors will help determine the route specifics: where you live, any special places you may have as a goal destination, and desired daily mileage. You can occasionally bang out 500 miles or more in a day when you have to get across a “book desert” to get to another locale, but that’ll wear you out quickly and takes all the fun away. We try not to schedule more than 200 miles for most “normal” tour days. That’s only three or four hours of luxurious sight-seeing per day—broken up by meal stops, etc.—which makes for an easy cruise. (Plus, the goal isn’t to cover the most miles, it’s to visit the most stores, so venues closer together makes for a more efficient tour.)
3. Who. Once you know the basic route, it’s time to look for likely venues along the route. Good sources of info for this: The American Booksellers Association website (click their Find a Bookstore tab, then enter the city you’re currently searching); entering “bookstore” into the Nearby tab on Google Maps when you’re mapping a given location; and word-of-mouth, either from fellow authors, local booksellers (indie stores know each other), or asking for recommendations on social media.
When hunting for likely prospects, you’ll have your own personal criteria. We were looking for indie bookstores which had good connections to their local community, with bonus points for hosting regular book clubs and/or writers’ groups, having a coffee bar, and having a store dog or cat. Number of books in stock might also be a consideration for you… all bookstores are wonderful in their own way, but a store with 5000 books is less likely to carry your titles than one with 50,000 books. Not that this should be a Boolean consideration, however—some of our best (and most successful) visits were at smaller stores.
At first, you’re looking for more initial prospects than you’ll need. (Take the total number of days you’re going to be out and multiply by two or three—ideally two or more in each target city on the route--for reasons we’ll see shortly.) We’ll talk more about the selection process when we get to the “how.”
4. What. This may be the easiest part—deciding what your presentation will consist of. Broadly, there are three categories of signings: the “Sit and Sign,” the “Read and Sign,” and the “Present and Q&A.” We’ll do a deeper dive into these in Part IV, but the critical task here is to come up with a general idea of a presentation that works for you, your books, your audience, and the bookstores you’re visiting. The reason you need to come up with a rough idea now (instead of months down the road when you’ll actually be doing it) is that you have to sell it to the event coordinators at your target venues (more on this in Part II) and if they don’t think you’ll have something of interest to their customers, it’s going to be a much harder sell. My overall advice here is something I’ve reiterated before: the worst way to get people interested in your work is to drone on about it. OTOH, if you come off as interesting or informative, they’ll naturally be inclined to think your book may be likewise, and may check it out. (TL;DR: Do not shout “Buy my book!” at potential readers. It’s bad form… and it never works.)
You don’t need to decide on every detail at this point, just enough to be able to say to the event coordinator, “I have a presentation that covers X, Y, and Z, and I take questions from the attendees. Then I sign for everyone who wants a book, and I’m happy to sign whatever stock you have.”
5. How. Now that we know what we want to do, let’s step through the nuts & bolts of the preliminary actions. Be aware that for a significant tour you’ll want to start this process well in advance of the projected tour dates. Like several months.
1. Buy a big-ass map covering your potential tour area and put it on the wall in your workspace. (We call ours the “war room map,” because that’s what it looks like in the middle of booking a tour.) Get small colored stickers in various colors.
a. We used different stickers for “initial,” “provisional,” and “confirmed.”
b. Don’t highlight your route, because it may (will) change.
2. Start building documents to track all the information discussed below. Use whatever method works best for you, but we ended up with an overall plan and a page for each day of the tour with all pertinent info. (Venue, location, time/date, name of contact, etc.) My wife is brilliant at building informative spreadsheets for this (lucky me!).
3. For each city on your route, look at the list of candidates you compiled in #3 (Who), above, and order them in terms of your preference.
4. Make initial contact with your first choice for each given date/location. (You’re contacting a business with multiple employees, so phone is the best for this.) Introduce yourself, briefly explain you’re setting up tour dates, and obtain/verify Event Coordinator name & contact info (which is the whole purpose of this call).
a. Place an “initial contact” colored sticker at that location.
b. Go to the next target location and do the same. Etc…
5. Contact the Event Coordinator to discuss possible events. (This may happen during the above call, but will usually require a follow-up call or email.) Explain the tour basics and the rough timeframe you’ll be in their area, and get provisional approval. Explain that you’ll circle back to confirm a specific time/date when schedule is finalized.
a. If they pass, go on to your 2nd choice for that location and do the above.
6. Do this for every venue on your route, at every likely city.
a. Again, keep spacing in mind. You don’t want two stores in the same market, but you also don’t want big gaps of several hundred miles if possible.
7. Go back to your first venue and confirm a logical start date/time that works for you and the store. This is your “anchor”--everything will stem from this date. Replace the “provisional” sticker at that location to a “confirmed” one.
a. Gen up and send a ‘confirmation document’ to the event coordinator with all pertinent information.
8. Go to the next store on your route that provisionally approved a visit and book them for the next day.
9. Continue the above, through the rest of your route. Realistically, you’ll still be getting initial approvals for the end of the tour while you’re starting to finalize the early stops. That’s fine, because by that point you can say, “We’re scheduled to come through your area during the middle of the first week of August, so can we pencil in the 3rd or 4th, and we’ll confirm with details in a couple of weeks?”
In Part II we’ll cover some of the details around the scheduling of the signings, booking school visits along the way, and the logistics of booking rooms.
Happy tour planning!
I’ve been thinking about book reviews lately for a number of reasons. Until recently (historically speaking) the vast majority of book reviews were—for lack of a better term—professional reviews. Meaning the critic (frequently a professional journalist herself) had extensive knowledge of not only the author’s previous work but of much of the other works in the genre, and could place the work in question within a broader context, both artistic and historical.
Now the field is more democratic, ranging from the weekly NYTBR to the grumpy bastard on Amazon who gives your book one star because it arrived with a bent cover. And everything in between.
Much of “everything in between” includes reviews written for blogs, book-based websites, and sometimes pieces generated by retailers who wish to give their customers the value-added experience of booksellers, longtime book bloggers, etc. (These can also be in audio or video form—podcasts, FB, YouTube, Insta, BookTok, etc.) And these are often written by book lovers for book lovers.
All to the good. And far be it from me to say what someone can or cannot do. As I always say, you do you.
But somewhere along the way, a disconnect seems to have occurred between the writers of some reviews* and the purpose of the review.
[*Full disclosure: I don’t review books in public. For one, an author reviewing books is like a restaurant owner penning the food column for the local paper… there’s a potential conflict there. For another, I’m too aware of how incredibly hard it is to write even a “bad” novel to stand up in the public square and pontificate about what I think might be “wrong” with one. I occasionally mention recent reads on social—with a brief description of what I liked about them—but I only post about books I feel are worth recommending.]
One common disconnect is some people seem to think a book review is simply a point-by-point re-hashing of the plot, like a book report from a third grader who wants to—understandably—bang out their homework so they can go outside and play. Not even really getting into the actual story itself (separate from the plot in that it concerns the character’s journey), let alone any discussion of the themes contained within. To say nothing the emotional impact the work had on the reviewer. (Which, in the end, is what really matters, right?)
Another fairly recent phenomenon is people using reviews to point out what wasn’t in the book but “should have been.” They’re essentially reading with the book in one hand and a checklist in the other, making sure the book covers all the right issues (in the opinion of the reviewer, of course) and mentions none of the wrong issues. In other words, they’re not reading the book for the story itself, but for any agenda contained within (or missing from) the book. And they’ll be sure to highlight these in their “review” of said work. (As Roger Sutton once said—you need to review the book in front of you, not the one you wish the author had written.) It’s sad that we’ve come to that level of divisiveness, but… well, here we are. All I can say is there are plenty of books expressly on political issues and current policy for those people—on both sides of the aisle—to pontificate upon, instead of turning the act of reviewing a novel into a diatribe on the reviewer’s personal views. (Not to say that politics aren’t necessarily germane to novels… they certainly can be. Just not your politics.)
A close cousin of this is people reviewing books based strictly on their own personal likes and dislikes, with zero consideration as to whether or not the book succeeded as a work within its intended genre and audience. (IOW, the statement, “This book had vampires and I don’t like vampires—one star!” is a content-free proclamation whereby the “reviewer” is just showing his ass.)
[*This is related to the phenomenon of people conflating “I like it” with “it’s good,” and “I don’t like it” with “it’s bad.” See the final point of this post. I try—not always successfully—to keep these things separate in my mind.]
Then there are those who somehow feel the overarching goal of a review is simply to find “problems.”
The job of reviewer is not that of a teacher, grading someone’s homework. The fallacy here is that within a school setting the teacher typically has expertise in the subject they’re teaching, and can tell the students what they did “wrong” (a word that doesn’t really belong in any discussion around art, regardless). But when reviewers apply this reasoning to novels written by experienced, professional authors, there is an implied instructor/student hierarchy at play which rings false. (I could review a concert by The Rolling Stones, but if I listed the places where I thought Steve Jordan’s drumming could have been better, I might need to check my head.)
Along with this we have the “claw sharpeners”… those who seem to exhibit the attitude that finding a problem with someone’s work is equal to creating the work itself. (Pro tip—it’s not.)
And finally, a review of a current or recent book absolutely shouldn’t contain major spoilers. This should go without saying—and you might think it’d be limited to user reviews on Amazon—but I saw this just today on a supposedly legit book blog. It’s hard to say how long a book needs to be available before we can safely assume most people who want to read it have read it, but unless it’s a well-discussed classic, you’re doing any potential readers a disservice by giving away major plot twists. (Duh… but again, apparently some people didn’t get the memo.)
When you boil it all down, the overall question you want to answer in a reader’s mind is: Would I enjoy reading this book? Not: Did the reviewer enjoy it? Because if that’s the only question, you can simply say “Liked it!” or “Didn’t like it!” in your review, and you’re free to go play outside. But it doesn’t help the potential reader make up her mind about whether or not to give the book a try. So we need at least a medium dive into why the reviewer found the book enjoyable, so the reader can decide if those same aspects apply to her, which helps her decide if she might also like the book.
Life is short and there’s probably enough negativity floating around already. If you have a choice between reviewing a book you didn’t care for and one you found enjoyable/valuable/insightful, it might serve your readers better to discuss those books you think might actually be worth their time.
[Haha! I lied to you, as writers do. This is not a tutorial on how to write a query. The floor of the internet is absolutely littered with them. This is a little story about how to successfully land an agent who’s a good fit for you and your work. Which actually has very little to do with your query.]
You are a produce seller, with a stall at the farmer’s market. And a sign, describing your wares. You don’t have a wide variety of products. Probably one. Maybe two. Rarely three. In other words it’s all about quality, not quantity.
An agent is a shopper, going to market with a list. And they also have some sort of sign… maybe a fluorescent sandwich board, maybe just some words scrawled on the back of their t-shirt with a faded purple sharpie. But they all have a sign somewhere, if you look for it. You can read—find it and read it.
Let’s assume they’re looking for peaches. Specifically, peaches that remind them of a warm summer’s evening when they were a kid, hanging on the street corner with other kids and eating farm-fresh peaches with the juice running down their chin. Those kinds of peaches.
Not canned peaches drowning in high fructose corn syrup.
First off, if your sign says “Strawberries!” they’re likely to pass on by, even if your strawberries are exceptional. (Especially if they’re carrying a sign that says “No berries!” and you still try to talk them into your strawberries. Odds of success here are rapidly approaching zero, right?)
However, if your stall has a sign in front saying “Peaches for sale,” they’re very likely to stop and at least take a look. If your sign says “Fresh peaches for sale,” I suppose they might be even more inclined to stop, and if it says “Ripe, juicy, farm-fresh peaches for sale,” they’re almost certainly going to stop.
But peaches are expensive and they only have room for a few of them at the moment, so guess what? They aren’t going to think, “That’s a really well-written sign—I’m just going to buy those peaches.” Are you kidding? They’re going to try a sample.
And at that point, everything depends on that sample. Everything.
You can tell them, “These are the best, juiciest, freshest peaches in the whole market,” and it won’t make one damn bit of difference if they take a bite and disagree. You can talk about your peach-growing degree or the fact that you won the peach pie contest in eighth grade or that all your friends absolutely love your peaches and… Yup. They don’t care. If the sample is less than scrumptious in their opinion, adiós.
But if your little stall has a simple sign that says “Peaches,” and you say, “I see you’re looking for fresh peaches… here’s a sample of mine” and they take a bite and the juice runs down their chin and they’re suddenly transported back to being twelve years old on the street corner on a warm August night, guess what? They’re going to buy a bag and see if the rest are the same. (They will be, if you take your peach-growing seriously.) And once they realize your sweet little sample was telling the truth about your peaches, they’re going to want to be in business with you, helping you sell your peaches all over the world.
You see a lot of posts on social these days from people spending a lot of time and energy trying to put together a pitch and/or query agents and/or land an editor & get a book deal, and a lot of words around how hard this all is*.
[*Fair enough. It is hard, no doubt. But to put some reality around this perception, (a) I heard publishing guru Jane Friedman say on a podcast just this morning that there are more books being acquired today than ever before, and (b) it has always been hard—my wife had ten years of rejection over the course of three or four novels, and pretty much every published author I know (including yours truly) has a not-dissimilar story. So don’t lose sight of this amidst the current pub-doom scrolling.]
But also, you see a lot of musing on whether or not it’s “worth it,” and whether or not they should keep doing it.
On one level, the whole question is a self-correcting issue. I mean, if you want to do it, you’ll do it. If you don’t, you won’t.
But this is simplistic, and avoids the real issue here: What is it you actually want to do? Not as a stepping stone, but as a terminal objective?
Get an agent?
Land an editor?
Get a book deal?
Sell a bunch of books?
Win a big award?
All those things largely depend on the decisions and tastes of someone else.
Now, hypothetically, what if your primary goal was dependent on only you… what if your primary goal was simply to write the very best book you are capable of writing? Period. Not comma.
What would you end up with? There are no guarantees of course, but if you really put your heart and mind to the above goal, there’s a reasonable chance you’d end up with… the very best book you are capable of writing.
There are also no guarantees this would get you an agent and an editor and a published book. But if you were to get those things at some point, which factor would probably be more important… starting with a clever pitch, or starting with the very best book you are capable of writing?
Not that your query doesn’t matter. Of course it does—you have to have that in place to get them to read your manuscript, so you obviously want to make sure it does its job. But even the best query in the world won’t make them sign a mediocre manuscript.
One thing agents and editors say over and over: it needs to be good enough for them to “fall in love with it.” These words mean different things to different people, but one thing we can be fairly certain of—once you get their attention, everything else falls away and it’s all about the writing.
The perfect pitch, the carefully curated mood board, the well-researched comps… they can’t help you at this point. They’re like an Uber driver who’s taken you to a job interview. They’ve done their job, and now it’s all down to the actual words on the page. Once the agent or editor starts reading your pages, all they care about is… does this have “it”?
At this point, what you really want them to have in their hands is (wait for it…) the very best book you are capable of writing.
And in my humble opinion, the way you get that is to focus on that—rather than the whole marketing aspect—until you’ve written and revised and edited and polished your manuscript (and probably beta/rev/beta/rev… and more polish) to the point where it represents the best work you can currently do.
Even then, your agent (probably) and your editor (absolutely) will have multiple suggestions to make it even stronger. But they need to see the potential in your writing before you’ll ever get to that stage.
And you can give that to them, by giving your writing the best chance to succeed.
In light of all this, the “should I quit?” question doesn’t even come up. Quit writing? Why would you quit something you love, something you’re driven to do, something that costs nothing to do, something that no one is stopping you from doing?
I can’t imagine that.
Not if the goal is to write the best you can.
But if the goal is something second-hand, then maybe so. Because when it comes to motivation, intrinsic beats extrinsic every time, hands down.
In my admittedly-finite data collection on this, the ones who want to write… who need to write… are the ones with the best chance of getting published. Because they’re more likely to be doing the thing that editors want… they’re putting something on the page that means something to them… and thus it’s more likely to mean something to the reader.
To put it in mathematical terms:
The more you want Z, the less likely you are to get it (because you’re distracted from what it really takes to get it).
But the more you want X and Y (the precursors to Z, namely: a burning desire to put words on the page and tell your story, and a long-term dedication to the craft of writing) the more likely you are to wake up and find Z pounding on your front door.
Funny, isn’t it?
Humans have built-in biases for—and against—certain things:
1. We’re biased toward methods practiced by “successful” people, even if the methods have no actual bearing on their success. (Survivorship bias.)
2. We’re also biased toward methods that agree with ideas we already hold. (Confirmation bias.)
3. We’re biased toward what everyone else seems to be doing, whether or not it it’s actually working. (Fear of missing out).
4. And if presented with two methods, we’re naturally biased toward the one requiring less work on our part. Even if the effort-based methodology has better logic behind it. Because humans. (Least-effort bias.)
Any time you see one of those “Seven Secrets to blah blah blah…” ads, they’re counting on a mixture of Survivorship Bias and FOMO to get you to pull the trigger. They want you to think, Hey, there are secrets, and those successful people are willing to tell them to me! And if not to me, then to someone else!
As we’ve discussed before, the one commonality most successful creators seem to share is persistence. And all that implies. (Not just “hanging in there” and remaining static for months and years. But persisting via constantly improving our craft, our creativity, and our knowledge of the business. Working harder and smarter.)
I see people asking successful authors some variation of these questions almost daily: What are your secrets? What did you do to become a successful author? What steps should I take?
So here it is: The big secret is… the words. The words on the page. It’s all about the words, and very little else.
Want proof? Consider the following: When the vast majority of those author first got signed, the only thing the acquiring editors knew about them were the words they had put on the pages now in front of those editors. The words that made that particular submission—out of hundreds—stand out to the point where the editor said “Yes!” That’s all. Just the words.
Of course things outside our control—like luck and timing—also come into play, but even when we take that into account, we still have to have words on the page. Words that move, that connect, that are unique, that will make someone lean more toward “yes” than “no.” (And there are things we can do to increase our “luck,” as discussed here.)
And the great good news is, those words are totally within our control! So much about the publishing industry is beyond us, and I’ll be the first to admit this can make being an author stressful. But when it all gets a bit much, I remember that the one thing I have absolute control over is the writing… and I tear myself away from the vapid vociferousness of social media and refocus on the writing of my next work-in-progress. The words.
I see aspiring writers on social discussing the vagaries of publishing and having long threads about how to game the system to combat the horrible practices someone’s mentioned upthread. And the funniest/saddest part is, the majority of the things they’re all worried about (a major publisher totally changing your manuscript and publishing it without your buy-in, for example*) have zero relation to the reality of publishing.
[*Seriously. Saw this one on Twitter again, just this morning. Wow.]
So not only are you not getting good answers to the issues within publishing with your pub-doom scrolling, you’re not even getting the straight scoop about what those issues actually are.
It’s the same thing with trying to discern the exact steps an author took to get where they currently are. You can devote as much of your writing time as you want trying to learn the tiniest details of some successful writer’s path… but it won’t really help. You’d be way better off reading their work and trying to discern why it “works,” to the degree you think it does. Because everyone’s path is different, the only real commonality (besides perseverance, of course) being this: They eventually got a sample of their well-crafted, emotionally resonant writing in front of an editor who was looking for what they were offering.
That’s the path, right there.
So maybe we should spend, say, ninety percent of our writing time trying to figure out how to write emotionally connecting, well-crafted work. (And maybe a little of the remaining ten percent on getting it in front of the right agent/editor/reader.)
Instead of letting our survivorship bias tell us we should write using the same methods those authors did, to the same daily schedule, with the same crumpets between chapters. That’s the whole fallacy of survivorship bias—it looks at winners after the fact and then declares, “These easily measured differences are what makes them winners!” When the real reasons they’re winners are much more intangible and less easily measured. (Are there any easily-applied metrics for a piece of writing being “emotionally connecting and well-crafted”…? Not to my knowledge.)
Another oft-quoted axiom—“Do the writing, then send it out into the universe!”—was appealing as hell to me, for years. Because I really enjoyed the initial drafting. And because I didn’t really enjoy revising. And because one of my early writing heroes once said something similar. And—especially—because I was lazy. All of which added up to me pointing at this advice and telling myself, “See? I’m doing the right thing!” But the reality, of course, was that me sending out my early drafts (drafts which had been “edited”—scrubbed for SPG errors and obvious mistakes and continuity issues, but no real story-level revising) rarely led to the results I wanted. My biases at play here (“least effort” and “confirmation”) were biting me in the butt, and it wasn’t until I realized the real value of revision that things started to open up a little. (I still remind myself, “Hard right over easy wrong,” during the writing/revising/re-writing/polishing of every book-length project I do, lest I backslide…)
So, biases be gone!
It’s all about the words.
We’ve all heard the fable of the dry branch breaking while the supple limb flexes and comes back stronger than ever. Nowhere is this more apt than in working with publishers and their creative staff.
Recently I heard someone talking to his friends about his newly-finished book manuscript. Someone asked, “So when’s it coming out?” and the writer replied, “As soon as I find a publisher that won’t make me change anything!” I was there as a friend-of-a-friend so I didn’t say a word, but what I thought was, So… never, then?
Because that’s what publishers do! I don’t mean they alter the meaning of your project or make changes without your approval or anything even remotely nefarious. What they do do is ensure the books they publish are the best versions of those books possible, in the expert opinion of their creative staff (editors, editorial directors, art directors, copy editors, designers, editorial assistants, etc.) who—collectively speaking—have vast amounts of experience in publishing.
They earn this right via the simple fact that they’re paying for the production of your book, from your advance to the editor’s salary to the physical printing of the books (to say nothing of the publicity, sales, marketing, and distribution of said books to various venues all over the world… all of which contribute to your bottom line).
And beyond that, they’re generally pretty damn good at what they do. (Maybe better than you… definitely better than I.) And they generally know what works in any given market… again, maybe even better than we do.
Because of the above, they will actually offer editorial suggestions regarding manuscripts they plan on publishing. And if it becomes clear that you—as the author of said manuscript—aren’t amenable to considering feedback regarding your precious words, you suddenly become much less interesting to the editor in question. On the flip side, if they get the vibe that you’re a talented writer who also plays well with others, that’s a plus. Virtually every story of publishing success I know of involves taking (or at least seriously considering) editorial input at some point.
My very first professionally published piece began as a letter to the editor of a magazine. But the more I worked on it, the more it started to look like an article (at least in my naïve opinion at the time). So I went ahead and wrote the entire piece (around 3000 words, IIRC), complete with charts and graphs and photographs. (Which I developed in our little homemade darkroom, indicating what century this was.) Then I bundled up the whole thing and sent it off to the editor without a word of warning. (Query letter…? What’s that?)
His response upon receipt of my bundle of literary brilliance? “Sorry, but we’ve already done something like this.” Shit. “But…” he suggested, “how about writing an article about this, instead?” And the this he referred to was something I didn’t have a lot of interest in, to be honest. But hey, this door into publishing—even if it was the wrong door, leading somewhere I wasn’t really interested in going—was open. If only a crack. And it was the first door I’d seen up until then that wasn’t bolted tight. So I took his suggestion and wrote the piece (which he bought and published) and that was the beginning of my nonfiction career, leading to two hundred articles in various national publications as well as a couple of nonfiction books.
My first fiction sale went something like this: I submitted a science fiction story to the editor of my favorite SF magazine. (A breathtakingly brilliant story that was absolute perfection in every way, I might add.) His response was basically, “It’s an okay story, but we don’t need to see the protagonist break in and steal his boss’s prize fish. It’s obvious. Just have him leave, and then return with the fish.” Man, I hated that suggestion. Because I loved the fish stealing scene—so clever, so funny, so… superfluous. Yeah, once I removed it (something I never would have done on my own) I saw he was right. So I sent him the revised story, and he bought it and published it. Which was awesome. But even better, I learned an invaluable lesson—just because a scene is “good” (or well-written or funny or clever or whatever adjective strokes your writerly ego) doesn’t mean it helps the story. And the secondary lesson here was that this insight didn’t come from a writer, but an editor. Because that’s what editors do--they make stories better. Not by re-writing them, but by making suggestions to the writer as to how they might re-write them. (Understanding this difference is crucial, lest you fall prey to the goofy-yet-popular “Publishers will totally change your shit and publish it without your approval” myth.)
My wife’s first book deal came about when an editor read her manuscript and returned it with a note on the order of, “I like the voice but it’s way too long for the genre. If you cut it in half, I’ll look at it again.” A lot of writers would have thought, NFW am I ripping this thing apart for a major structural rewrite just because one person might ‘look at it again’…! That’s a ton of work with no commitment on the editor’s part, and my wife obviously thought the book was good as-is or she wouldn’t have shopped it. (No agent at this point.) Yet the door—while not exactly open—was at least unlocked. For now. (That’s another thing about rejections-with-suggestions: they come with an expiration date, which is exactly as long as the editor’s memory of her good feelings about your manuscript. Different for each editor, but generally weeks or months and not years.) So (with my loving support and encouragement… most of which consisted of me saying, Are you freaking crazy? Of course you should do this!) my wife buckled down and did the hard work of making the book significantly shorter while keeping the stuff that made it unique and wonderful in the first place. The editor eventually bought it—which started my wife’s career in children’s literature—and they currently have thirty-plus books together… and counting.
My first book deal (nonfiction) was also based on suggestions, but in this case it was the writer giving suggestions on the editing rather than the other way around. I’d written a fairly lengthy series of how-to articles for a magazine, and when the series was concluded my editor floated the idea of bundling them up into a book, basically re-printing the articles as they’d originally appeared in the pages of the magazine. I’d had similar thoughts, but I didn’t want it to be just a ‘collection of articles,’ so I suggested I write additional material to bridge each section and gen up additional photos and drawings (as well as change the 3-column magazine format of the text to a more “bookish” 2-column layout) which the editor was flexible enough to agree to. The end result was a coherent book the editor and I were both proud of—it became one of the better selling books the publisher had at that time—and I can’t help but think this might not have been the case had we just put out a quickie compilation.
With my first published book-length fiction (a YA novel), there was some editorial back-and-forth between me and the editor before I even got a contract. I recently heard someone opine that you should never do any revisions without a contract (and if your last name is Rowling or King, I might agree) but my thinking is if an established editor at a reputable house is willing to work with me on my manuscript, then I’m goofy not to. Her suggestions were very good—typically more about what to trim than what to write—and I took at least 80% of them. And I ended up with a contract and an advance and an agent and a book I’m proud of. None of which would have happened had I put my foot down in a show of authorial inflexibility.
And finally, with the novel I recently sold (actually, which my amazing agent recently sold, to a Big Five imprint), the editor had some questions before she made an offer. She let it be known that she was interested in the manuscript—loved the main character and his voice—but she needed answers first regarding how I might address certain things. I felt she was basically saying, "This is roughly what I think it needs. If you aren't up for doing the work, let me know before we tie the knot." And I totally understood that viewpoint, and I really appreciated her forthrightness. (See this post on how “a willingness to revise” is one of the main things an editor looks for in an author.) Then I proceeded to reply to her with a couple thousand words on how I might address her comments. And, well, here we are—the book pubs this fall and I couldn’t be more excited.
And to be honest, I think my general willingness to roll up my sleeves and work with her was as germane to selling the manuscript as any specific revision ideas I came up with.
And… now that that manuscript is pretty well buttoned up, we’ve had a conversation about next steps. I said I had ideas in sub-genres A, B, and C, and she said she was more interested in books that fell under B than A or C. Fair enough. So I sent some pages of an idea that came under B, and she let me know what she liked and what she thought needed some tweaks. Again, I’m free to do what I want, but if I want to continue to work with her, the smart move would be to work in an area in which she’s interested and listen to her feedback. So that’s what I’m doing.
Begin to see a pattern here?
So… if you need a publisher that will put out exactly what you write, word-for-word, without suggesting any editorial changes, that’s easy. You just have the wrong P-word. You’re not looking for a publisher, you’re looking for a printer. There are a ton of them who’ll be happy to take your money and print up your draft exactly as-written. And there are lots of sites where you can “just press publish” and your words will be magically available to whoever wants to read them, exactly as you drafted them. And all of that’s perfectly fine.
But if you want to successfully work with a publisher—one who will pay you, as well as pay for the production, printing, publicity, sales, and marketing of your book—then a little creative give-and-take can go a long way. And will very likely make your book even stronger than it would have been on its own. After all, you and the publisher want the same things—for your book to be the best version of your story, and for it to find success, both artistically and commercially.
Don’t be so brittle you break. Sometimes there’s more strength in being agile.
This issue comes up a lot, framed in a lot of ways.
Essentially: “How do we manage chronology in our stories, vis-a-vis the narrative point-of-view?”*
First caveat: I’m no expert. In fact, there are no experts on this. (However, there are people who supposedly know all the “rules”—and have the paperwork to prove it—but in my experience you don’t want to take writing advice from them.) Because…
Second caveat: There are no rules. This is art, not science, right? Whatever works, works.
Third caveat: I can only tell you what works for me, and maybe a few other writers I know. You need to try things out and see what works for you. Your solution may be different than mine, which is wonderful.
[*For me, the only meaningful answer to this question is some version of: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader. That’s all that matters. All else is low-signal and high-noise.]
Let’s look at the most common example: managing flashbacks.
The very first issue to consider: Does the benefit of the flashback outweigh the cost of removing the reader from where she is and flinging her somewhere new, then waiting for her to get acclimated to the new place, then bringing her back to the present? That’s totally up to you, but overall I’d say there seems to be a tendency for newer writers to want to put flashbacks into their early pages because they think the most important thing is that the reader understands everything from the get-go. That’s not really the goal… the goal is to get the reader immersed in the character/scene to the point where they’re invested in the character and the story feels real to them. If you do that, they’ll follow you anywhere. (And of course they’ll expect you to catch them up a bit at a time as you go along, and you should hold up your end of the bargain and do just that, but not at the expense of throwing them out of the story by info-dumping or jerking them back and forth in time just so they have “all the facts.”)
In brief: Information is not nearly as important as interest.
But sooner or later—when the reader knows the character and the time/place in which they reside—you may need to jump back and show them something important that happened before the story started.
In the above sentence, the operative word is “show.” That’s why we use flashbacks… to show a scene instead of just telling us, Six months ago, X happened. If you can simply tell us that and it feels natural and doesn’t interrupt the flow (and we don’t need a high level of detail) then by all means, do that.
But otherwise, the goal of a flashback should be to make it feel like part of the story, not like a separate, non-story event. While still making us aware that it happened before the present story time.
One way to do this is to have the POV character say or think something that relates to previous events; have a scene break; set us clearly where—and when—the back-in-time scene happens. And then…
Then… if you’re going “by the rules,” you would use the past perfect tense to describe everything that happened in the past. (Ex: “I had done this, then she had done that, and then we’d decided to do this other thing…”) Which is 100% correct, except… (and feel free to insert f-bombs for emphasis as you read this) it doesn’t feel like story—it feels like someone telling you what happened. Which is in violation of the ‘how do we do it?’ answer, namely: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader.
So instead, consider tossing the rules and not doing the whole ‘past perfect tense’ thing. Instead, consider completing the three pre-flashback steps above, then starting the body of the flashback with one or two uses of past perfect tense, then segueing into regular past tense for the duration of the flashback scene (assuming the rest of the book is in past tense, of course, otherwise use whatever you’re using), then another mechanical scene break, then bring us back to the present with something (action, dialog) that takes up where the pre-flashback scene left off.
For an example, let’s make up a goofy little origin story which transitions present-past-present (as origin stories are wont to do)…
### ### ###
[story, story, story…]
…and as I crested the hill it occurred to me that riding a blazing unicycle from hell felt as natural to me as riding a bicycle did to most boys, but it sure wasn’t always that way…
I’d wanted a unicycle for as long as I could remember, but I’d never expected Krampus Himself to conjure me up the Flaming Wheel of Fire on Krampusnacht three years ago.
I woke early that morning—well before the sun—expecting the usual oranges and walnuts and such from Saint Nicholas, because I’d been “good.” (Well, except for that episode with Petra in her father’s barn, but we’re not talking about that.) But I guess that horned asshole knew all about it, because he showed up instead of Ol’ Nicky, and instead of treats he had a bundle of birch rods for whipping my bottom, along with a fierce grin... indicating he was going to enjoy said whipping rather more than I.
In a moment of terror-inspired brilliance I held up a finger, quietly reached behind the pantry curtain, and brought out a jug of my father’s favorite schnapps and a couple of stone mugs. “You can whip me and carry me off,” I offered, “or you can have a drink. Your choice, my good sir.”
Well, everyone knows schnapps is Krampus’ second-favorite thing, so pretty soon we were knocking 'em back like two old mates down to the public house.
“So, what do ya really want, my boy?” he rumbled.
Leaving that frighteningly possessive pronoun aside, visions of oranges and chocolates flew in one earhole and out the other. “Well, sir…”
“Drop that sir shit!” he boomed, half in his cups already.
I took a swig. “Well, Krampy… what I really want is a unicycle.”
“A unicycle???” I was certain he’d wake my parents, but you don’t just shush Krampus, now do you? I bobbed my head. He rubbed his hands. “But it’d have to be a… special sort of unicycle, wouldn’t ya think?” No, I did not think. But I just nodded again. What would you have done—argue with him, I s’pose?
He reached into his big black bag—I could just make out the mewling of some of the less-quick-on-their-feet village boys—then pulled out a feathered pinecone and flung it into the fireplace with such force that it cracked a brick. After the smoke cleared and he’d disappeared—precisely as my parents awoke—standing of its own accord in front of the hearth was my singular wish. Already alight.
As I barreled down the backside of the hill, I had to give the devil his due… that fiery rocket of a monocycle has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have fathomed back when he first gifted me—or cursed me—with it.
In fact, waiting for me at the bottom of the hill was…
[story, story, story…]
### ### ###
(1) POV thinks/says something related to the past;
(2) use a mechanical scene break of some kind;
(3) anchor the flashback early in the scene;
(4) maybe use a little past perfect—if at all—then;
(5) dump it and get back into your normal tense (which will feel way better to the reader), then;
(6) use another mechanical scene break, and finally;
(7) anchor us firmly back in the present with a familiar or expected action.
Or… use any other methodology of your choice.
I think the cardinal thing to keep in mind here is that a flashback should be a scene, and the sooner it feels like a scene and not an info-dumpy chunk of exposition, the smoother and more natural it’ll feel to the reader.
And, therefore, the lower the cost of diverting the reader from the present to the past and back again, which is all to the good.
This is an interesting one. And possibly subject to misinterpretation. So let me say right up front that—in my opinion—self-belief (or any other phrase describing how we view ourselves and our place in the world) is important, and can affect how we navigate the world. But not for some mystical reason.
In my view, this stuff works for reality-based reasons. Our brain is basically a machine that programs itself, constantly taking in whatever information is within grasp and using it to add to its programming. You can’t really stop the process, but you can help determine what you program it with. (This is similar to the “read good, write good / read bad, write bad” effect we discussed earlier, where what we put into the process helps determine what comes out. Or, as my dad used to say, “Garbage in, garbage out.”)
Critical to understanding this is grokking that parts of our brain literally can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction. (Here’s the easy proof: Have you ever been scared by a movie? Sure. And yet, in the middle of the film, if someone were to stop the projector and asked you, “How was this created, and is it real?” you’d answer, “Those are actors, on a sound stage, surrounded by a crew of technicians, being filmed as they say lines written by someone else. It’s complete fiction.” And yet… a good horror film can scare the crap out of you. Because that emotional-response part of our brain believes what gets fed into it, and responds accordingly. Without regard for the “truth or fiction” aspect of it… assuming it appears enough like truth to not throw us out of the story.)
So, on some level, parts of our brain tend to believe what we put in front of it. Which is why visualization is now an integral part of virtually every serious athlete’s training… if for no other reason than the pragmatic fact that it just works. Same for self-talk or affirmations or anything else of that nature.
Just recently I heard a best-selling author describe—in a podcast—her little informal writing group’s methodology. In brief: the writers (all novelists) bring a couple of pages from their WIP, they read them before the group, the group responds with positive feedback, and… that’s it.
No “Here’s what’s not working” or “Here’s what I would have done” or “Why did you do this?” or “Instead of doing that, why don’t you…” or critical commentary at all. After describing their method, she laughed and said, “I know it sounds silly, but it works.” It didn’t sound silly to me at all… it sounded brilliant. These aren’t beginning writing students (in need of the fundamentals), these are experienced novelists. Who have figured out that the most pragmatically useful thing to them—in the middle of drafting a novel—is simply holding the belief that they’re doing good work. Period.
Sure, there’s always a time and place for looking at things with a critical eye. But in the middle of the slog, thinking that all this work is worthwhile… that it’s adding up to something good and special and valuable… is critical. Otherwise you’ll likely never finish. Because it’s hard to do good work if you don’t believe that you’re capable of doing good work.
And if you don’t think you can do it… you probably can’t. Because you’ve convinced that part of your brain where emotional decisions are made that you can’t do it.
But what if we did the opposite? What if we fostered an emotional belief, deep inside, that we were capable of good work, if only we applied ourselves to the point of completion? The odds of us finishing at all—let alone producing something good—just went up exponentially!
It’s not some woo-woo mystical thing. Yes, you still have to have the goods (and/or do the hard work of turning the not-so-goods into the goods, which is how virtually all writers do it). But that can come after you’ve finished the initial marathon of getting those 100,000 words onto the page. In the middle of the march, you need to believe that you can do it.
When people talk themselves down, I sometimes say, “Be careful what you say, because someone’s listening… you.”
There’s a fascinating little story around the shirt in the photo (which was given to me back when my first novel was published). I’ll let you deduce your own version of it (and put it in the comments if you like) because (a) you’re a writer and that’s what writers do, and (b) I don’t want the synchronicity of it to detract from the overall message…
To wit: How you think about yourself—and your work—matters.
Don’t stop believing!
Not metaphorically. Literally.
We are trying to re-create an emotional experience—at the cellular level—aided by the selective application of endorphins.
When people fall in love, their brain produces chemicals (dopamine, among others) which contribute to the magical feeling of “finding your soul mate.”
When people are thrilled/scared/excited, the brain produces other chemicals. (Adrenaline, anyone?)
And when people are bonding, yup… more chemicals. (Oxytocin, primarily.)
These are the sorts of events that people like to re-live, especially from the safety and comfort of their favorite reading chair.
But simply writing, “They fell in love,” or “He was scared,” or “She felt a connection with her baby” doesn’t do it… doesn’t provide the high… doesn’t have the mojo… of the real thing.
We’ve talked before about the importance of craft when it comes to writing something that will have the impact of actual lived experience when someone reads it. This goes doubly so when it comes to writing about the ‘big event’ type situations described above.
And the funny thing is, it seems like the more we attempt to describe—at great length—the feeling we’re going for… the less it feels real to the reader. But when we show it, with the small, unique, personal events and details that smell of actual life... if done well… it can feel real to the reader.
Ideally, to the point where the reader’s subconscious can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, and actually produces the same chemicals it would produce were the reader actually experiencing the events IRL.
At that point--boom!—the reader feels as if they were falling in love or fighting off terrorists or rescuing a loved one. And then you have them. They’ve bought into your story on an emotional level, and at that point they’ll forgive pretty much anything (as long as it doesn't throw them out of the story) because you’re giving them the fix—the visceral kick in the heart—they’re craving.
There’s no faking it here. The work either does or does not give them the feeling, on a gut level, of the emotional experience you’ve incorporated into your work.
Like a chemical lie detector test.
In those instances where your work causes the needle to swing to the far right and the buzzers to buzz and the flashing lights to spell out TRUE!!!, there’s a chance you might develop a loyal fan base and perhaps even join the ranks of authors either beloved or reviled as bestsellers. You know who I’m talking about… those authors who some call amazing and some call hacks and some call brilliant and some call commercial… yet who, in all cases, have a loyal readership that’s willing to plunk down their hard-earned money every time a new book comes out from their favorite writer. Because, regardless of how ‘literary’ or ‘writerly’ these authors may or may not be, their work passes the only test that matters to their readers—it’s written in such a way that it convinces some part of the reader’s brain, on an emotional level, that what they’re experiencing is real.
Whatever we’re writing—whether upmarket fiction or poetry or romance or kidlit or literary non-fiction or a multi-book SF/F saga—we could do much worse than to attempt to write in a way that passes the same test.
So, what does it take to get published…?
Timely subject matter?
All of the above, in a unicorn-level confluence???
If you listen to some conventional wisdom, the odds are so far against you that you might as well give up.
But the ones saying that are making a critical mistake in their reasoning… they’re acting like all aspiring authors trying to get published are equal.
They’re not. Not even close.
Look at it like applying for a desirable, high-paying, computer-centric job in the tech sector. The sort of job that might get a hundred-plus applicants for a single position. If your background is as a short order cook and you have zero experience or aptitude regarding computers, then yes, the odds are pretty terrible. But if you have the education/experience/aptitude the position requires, the odds—while not perfect—are much more realistic. Especially if you’re willing to do the research to find a company that might be a good fit… and you’re not stuck on any single company, but are open to a number of them.
When you apply for one of the above positions, there’s typically a multi-step process. (Apply online via form; submit CV; follow-up email; follow-up phone call; HR interview (phone or zoom); technical interview (phone or zoom); lengthy in-person interview/lunch/meet-n-greet to assess if you’re a “good fit” for the team; job offer; salary negotiation; acceptance; hired!) Most of those early steps aren’t actually there to assess your exact aptitude for the specific job at hand… they’re really designed to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. And only then does the employer get down to the serious business of assessing the remaining candidates.
The same with publishing. If you have the writer’s equivalent of the “necessary education/experience/aptitude” (in other words, you can write - and communicate - with a modicum of passion, intellect, and skill) then the odds, while not perfect, are much more realistic.
So don’t worry about the hundreds of emails hitting your would-be agent’s inbox this week. They don’t matter—many of them are from short order cooks looking for a coding job. Just do what you can do to put yourself in the running as one of the “serious candidates,” and you’ll eventually connect with the right agent and editor.
Just like applying for a job. Take it a step at a time, making sure you meet the requirements for each step along the way.
We recently reported where a new agent posted on social that if you can get your stuff together to simply compose a normal, common sense, concise query, you’re automatically ahead of 90% of all querying writers.
Well, you’re a writer, so you can do that.
Then you have to query agents who actually represent works in the same field as yours.
Well, this is a fairly simple research project… you’re certainly smart enough to figure that one out.
Then you have to have a well-enough-written manuscript that makes an emotional connection with the reader. (Character/Voice and Craft, right?) Revision/beta/revision/beta/etc. are good steps here. (In other words, no matter how excited you get, don’t submit before it’s ready.)
When an agent asks for a partial or full and starts reading, they’re looking for reasons to put it down and get on to the next one. (Like everyone, they’re busy and overworked.) So don’t give them one! Especially early on. Really spend time crafting and re-crafting your first pages. (No info-dumps here. Start in scene, and stay in scene. Keep it moving, feeding any back-story in bite-sized pieces that don’t throw them out of the story.)
If/when they finish your ms, you want them to think about it after they’ve closed the file. So, again, take the time to make sure your ending resonates and somehow ties back—in an emotional way—to the thematic underpinnings of the story.
If they like all the above and think there’s something here, they’ll probably call you. (If so, treat it just like if you got a call-back from a place where you applied for work. No need to freak or fangirl… although we all get excited when this happens.) They like your work or they wouldn’t have called. They’re just looking to see if (a) the work is still available, and (b) you’re a normal-ish human being with normal-ish business behaviors. (i.e. a basic sanity check before going into business with you—this is the “meet-and-greet” part of it.) And this is definitely a two-way deal, so don’t be afraid to ask questions of your own. Everyone’s different, but for me, two important areas would be (1) communication style and frequency (I hate to be left in the dark for long periods) and (2) their industry contacts (gone are the days where a successful agent has to be in Midtown—though many still are and it sure doesn’t hurt—but it’s pretty important that they have working relationships with the sort of editors you’d like to be published by.)
And then, they may want to ask for revisions and/or do some other sort of editorial work on the ms before they start submitting. This is like an employer offering you a job, and then saying, “Oh, by the way, all new employees go through our orientation training before starting work.” And of course, the only smart move here is to say yes. (I mean, changes are never non-retractable, and on the off chance you hate their input you can always revert to the previous version.)
So now you’ve been “hired” for the initial position (agented author) and your agent is trying her very best to get you promoted to the next level (published author).
This process is pretty similar to the original “application process,” except now you have professional help from an expert. So listen to her and take her advice… she’s highly unlikely to steer you wrong—the overriding goal in her work life is to help her authors get the best deals possible, and she only gets paid when you get paid.
And when an editor is interested, all of the above will once again apply but by now you’re an old hand at the hiring process. (In other words: apply; communicate with those who seem interested; put forward the best version of your story and yourself. Be open to feedback, willing to revise, and easy to work with.)
If you do all the above—and you have a strong manuscript and a modest amount of business sense—you’re not one in a thousand looking for the gold ring. You’re one of a small group of qualified candidates, and with effort and persistence you’ll find someone who’s a good fit for you and your work.
Happy job hunting!
As part of our continuing deep dive into different areas of novel writing, we’re taking a look at a specific aspect of point-of-view, namely when to—or maybe more important, when not to—switch between POV characters.
At first glance the whole discussion might seem silly. I mean, this is art and there are no rules, so we—as writers—can switch between characters whenever we want, right?
The issue—as always—is that the writer knows more (generally much more) about the story at any given place within the text than the reader does. And unless we’re purposely being vague for specific effect (which can certainly be valid at times), we generally want readers to feel at least somewhat grounded regarding where we are and in whose head we’re residing.
And more important, how they feel about said character at any given time.
We’ve discussed the importance of reader connection—especially with your main character(s)—and it can hurt the emotional bond we wish to build between reader and character to jump from character to character without some sort of framework or boundary between these transitions.
To move from one POV character to another without following these conventions is sometimes referred to as “head hopping.” (Generally in a less-than-complimentary way.) A typical case might be where the author moves from one person’s POV to another… within the same scene.
Although it can happen in 1st or 3rd person, past or present tense, it seems most common in close 3rd. We’re in one character’s head, then bang, we’re in another’s. With no scene break. When this happens, the author is actually switching (either intentionally or unintentionally) from close 3rd to omni 3rd. Oops! (If unintentional, which it generally seems to be.)
With 1st person, of course, it can only really happen with multiple POV characters. This can be even more egregious than with 3rd person, because in 1st the narrator doesn’t name the POV character (because they’re one and the same). There’s no, “Hi, this is Fred talking to you now. So as I was saying…” Many authors writing in 1st with multiple POV characters use chapter headings with the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter, just to keep the reader grounded as to who’s head we’re currently in.
Because this is important.
Not the heading, but the understanding of which car we’re currently driving. We want (strike that—we need) the reader to have understanding/empathy/connection with the POV character, and that clearly can’t happen until the reader is comfortably seated behind the wheel.
There’s something I call Cost of Transition. It implies that with any instance of transitioning from one time to another, one setting to another, one character to another, there will be a cost in reader attention. It’s in our best interest to keep this cost as low as possible for the reader, while still transporting them to another location, scene, day, or character. (If the cost is deemed too high—especially after a few of these in a row—this is where the reader is likely to put the book down. For an hour, for a day… or maybe forever.)
The cost goes up, not down, if the transition comes at an unexpected place… a place where the reader was thinking, “Hmm… I like it here. I’m interested in this place. I want to stay here for a while…” Then, just when the reader thought they were going to stay there until the end of the chapter… wham. You yank the rug out and throw them into another character… where they have to go through the whole ‘getting comfortable in this new place’ routine again.
This is generally not a good thing. Unless handled with skill, it can feel clunky… jerky… uncertain and uneven… like there’s a student driver piloting the bus.
Part of the reason is that it can feel more like telling than showing. We’ve probably all seen scenes in a manuscript similar to this:
Dick looked at Jane and thought, She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen… I bet there’s no way she’d ever go out with me.
Jane tried to guess what was going through Dick’s mind, and wondered, Hmm… is he ever going to ask me out?
Pretty tell-y, right? Instead of showing us, via actions and mood and dialog, etc. This sort of character-hopping within the same scene can come off as the polar opposite of “Paint a nuanced picture where we discern the dynamics of the relationship from dialog, tone, body language, etc.”
Maybe one of the reasons it can feel unnatural and clunky is that in real life, we are always in the head of the same person, and the only interior monologue we ever get is our own. So… maybe we’re willing to visit more than one person’s interiority, but only if we get closure before moving on to the next. (Sort of a “literary serial monogamy,” I guess…)
Regardless, I’d generally say: Consider not head hopping unless you have a very good reason (and the chops to actually pull it off without the downsides described above) because—as mentioned—there’s a cost to it. I’m sure some really talented and successful authors have used it to good effect, but when I see it in the wild, it frequently comes across as the opposite.
But as always, you do you.
In the ongoing quest for improvement (school never really ends, does it?) I’ve been doing a deep dive into different aspects of writing fiction. Lately I’ve been fellowshipping with the concept of voice.
We hear it all the time… Voice is one of those things that really matters when it comes to a book succeeding (whether that’s getting an agent, getting an editor, getting published, getting good reviews, selling well, or—most important—getting love and recommendations from engaged readers).
In fact, “voicey” has become the publishing adjective of the year. Maybe of the decade.
(Followed by “pacey,” which we’ll talk about in a later post. Not to be confused with “plotty.”)
Voice… Before we can begin to talk about how to develop it or implement it or improve it, we need to consider something that seems to be occasionally misunderstood: what is it?
And this is where things can get confusing, because there are a couple different ways people talk about voice, and conflating these can really hurt reader engagement. (Which is ironic, as engagement is the primary goal of voice.)
These different aspects actually exist on a continuum, but for the moment let’s call them “authorial voice” and “character voice.” The first helps define who you (the writer) are, as a person. The second adds depth to who the character is, as a person.
In the starkest example, think of a nonfiction how-to book. (i.e. a book that has nothing in the way of characters, inner monolog, or dialog). This book is entirely in the author’s voice. If you’re the writer, you decide the tone(s) you want to set (formal and scholarly; casual and matter-of-factly; humorous and personable; etc.) and how far you may wish to range between them, then you get to work.
At the other end of the scale, think of a novel written in first person POV. Except for dialog from secondary characters and the like, the book is written entirely in the character’s voice. Not yours. (This is critical—we’ll revisit in a minute.)
An in-between case, of course, is third person POV. And even this is on a continuum, with ‘omniscient third’ being mostly the author’s voice, and ‘close third’ being in (or near) the character’s head at times. Overall, think of this as “narrative voice.”
A couple things to keep in mind…
When writing in third person (esp. close 3rd), we need to be aware of the difference between the narrative voice and the character’s voice. The latter comes to the front when we see/hear the character’s interior monolog, but also—not quite as obvious—when we’re looking at the world around them through their eyes, yet their views are being transported to us via the narration. It can be a nuanced balance, more distant than the constant “I, I, I” of in-the-head first person, yet clearly closer than 3rd omni or non-fiction narrative.
The other thing to keep in mind—and perhaps the main point here, as many of us working in fiction are working in 1st, especially those of us working in kidlit—has to do with writing from the direct point of view of someone who is not you. They may look like you… same age, gender, race, religion, etc. Or not. But regardless—if this is truly a work of fiction--they are not you.
So we should keep our voice out of their mouth.
By getting out of our own heads and into theirs.
What “voice” primarily means—when used by agents and editors discussing fiction—is the character’s voice, as evidenced in their interior monolog. And of course, if written in 1st person, virtually the entire book—minus any dialog—is interior monolog. (Or narrative description/exposition by the viewpoint character, which is close enough to interior monolog for these purposes.)
So the entire book is in “voice.” But not your voice. Your character’s voice.
Which means we need to really know them. To the point where we’ve internalized their personality, so we can wear it like a comfortable old sweater when we sit down to write. I’m going to suggest that if we have to think, “Hmm… what might someone like my character say in this situation, and how might they say it?” then maybe we don’t yet know them well enough to be writing in their voice.
Have you ever read something featuring a young character who seems to have the intellect/education/experience of a thirty-something college graduate? This can happen when we conflate our voice with our character’s voice. (I’ve had writers ask if they should add more metaphors, etc., to their fiction in an effort to have a more “writerly voice.” This is art, not science, so I hate to give yes or no answers to these things. Plus it's subjective as hell. But generally, in terms of reader engagement, I would say probably not. It would take us further from our character… and our readers. Which is exactly the opposite effect we generally wish to have with fiction.)
One good mitigation strategy here is to ask ourselves (and others who are conversant on the topic), “Is this the way a 13-year-old would talk?” And more important, “Is this the way a 13-year-old would think?” Not how we might want them to talk and think and act (because one of the very worst things we can do is write fiction that’s either prescriptive or proscriptive, telling kids what to think and do… or not think and do). But how they might really think and act. Then spend some quality time with your characters until you’ve absorbed their personalities to the point where you no longer have to ask the question.
Having said that, we’re not looking for some sort of “Jane/Joe Average 13-Year-Old” here. Your characters are probably different in some regard… maybe a lot different. (Which generally makes for a more compelling story, regardless.) But even a complete genius of a 13-year-old is still a 13-year-old, and doesn’t have the perspective of someone who’s been walking the planet for an additional 20 or 30 or 40 years.
So… we want to create characters who feel real to us… so real that we actually care about them, and what happens to them. (This, of course, is the big fat secret to getting readers—including agents and editors—to care about them. And connection to your characters may be the most important factor in getting a positive response from gatekeepers and readers, along with sentence-level craft.) For a deeper dive into caring about your characters, see this.
And finally, “voicey” (when used as a complimentary adjective by agents/editors) means having a character with an interesting, unique, accessible voice… readily identifiable and engaging in some way (humorous, snarky, poetic, wryly observant, geekily sincere, etc.) such that their voice itself adds significantly to the enjoyment of—and engagement with—the work. (In short: Is it fun to spend time in your character’s head?)
And—along with everything above—it should feel real. All this is not necessarily as simple as placing your inciting incident 37% of the way through Act 1, but perhaps more likely to grab—and hold—the attention of the person at the other end of your manuscript.
As always, when discussing writing we need to remember that this is an art, not a science. So rule #1 here is: Do what works for you. Period.
Which means my thoughts on the matter are exactly that—just my thoughts. Not a prescription for you or anyone else. (IOW, I’m saying “This worked for me and some people I know, it might work for you,” as opposed to “This is the one true way!”)
So with that out of the way, the first thing to consider regarding betas (before even selecting them) is: Do I want to use beta readers? If you follow any writing groups on social it seems like using betas is widely considered an automatic must-do, but it's really more of a personal choice than a requirement—I know authors who use them and authors who don't.
Which sort of begs the question—what do we expect to get out of a beta reader?
Here’s what not to expect: someone who will read the book and tell you how to make the story stronger, better, tighter, more resonant. The person who can do that is a professional editor, and even then, expect to do most of the heavy lifting yourself once they shine a light on some areas where you might improve it.
A beta reader is exactly that… someone who can read the manuscript and tell you how they felt about it… as a reader. That’s it. They can tell you where something didn’t work for them. But not how to fix it. (That’s your job.)
I’ve heard the different levels of feedback described as symptom/diagnosis/cure. You might mention your symptoms to a non-medical-professional friend, but you probably wouldn’t depend on your friend providing a scientific diagnosis. And you probably wouldn’t take their advice regarding which meds to take w/o consulting a doctor first, either.
With a beta, you want them to tell you what didn’t work for them. But if you simply get “I didn’t like it,” that’s not much value unless you can dig a little deeper (without getting into the whole diagnosis/cure aspect). Try not to lead the witness, but attempt to at least get some generalities about why they didn’t like it. (“Too much dialog” is a far cry from “too violent,” right?) And if they can’t tell you in a short declarative sentence what they didn’t like about the scene in question, you need a different beta. (The two most common comments when friends/family read something--“I loved it” or “It wasn’t really my cup of tea”—are equally lacking in constructive value.)
So the first realization is: the right beta (for your work) is going to take some work to find.
And the second realization: the wrong beta is worse than no beta.
Right off the top, they should be very conversant with the genre you’re working in or it’s just general advice with no deep connection to the work at hand.
Because what you’re looking for is: a representative member of the likely group of readers for your work… who can also clearly articulate their feelings about the manuscript in question.
An SF fan who doesn’t really grok what you’re trying to do is of little value to your emotionally-driven science fiction novel, even though he knows the genre. And a longtime reader who has no experience with young adult literature since “The Outsiders” probably isn’t going to provide actionable feedback on your contemporary YA novel, even though she’s highly literate outside the genre.
You need both qualities, although the “able to articulate their feelings about the manuscript” is probably the more important aspect.
And finally, they need to understand that a discouraged writer is a bad writer. Which is why you don’t want someone who will tell you ‘the unvarnished truth.’
First, there isn’t much objective truth in art. It’s subjective. It’s emotion. It’s opinion. (If you revise your work in a panic every time someone gives you a differing opinion of it, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining the steady authorial vision required to finish a cohesive work.)
Second, you want a little varnish. If your beta can’t find something motivating or validating or inspiring to say about your work, you have to wonder about their mindset, right? I mean, nowhere in the job description of a beta reader does it say: “Find and report every possible flaw you can discover within this piece of writing. Period.” People who look at reading a manuscript as this kind of challenge—and their name is legion—aren’t people you want looking at your early work, believe me.
Third, they should already have an affinity for the type of work in question*, or why have them read it? I mean, “a representative member of likely readers” sort of implies they like the genre. If someone says, “I just can’t get behind mysteries,” I might say, “That’s fine—read what you like.” But inside I’m also thinking, …but no freaking way am I letting you read my mystery!
[*Remember, the goal isn’t: “Let’s see what a random member of the public thinks of this manuscript.” Who cares? We want to know what a likely reader might think of it.]
All of which means, when you find an intelligent, genre-conversant, empathetic beta reader… treat them right! I’m talking ‘chocolates and wine’ right. Because they’re a rare and wonderful thing.
This came up in conversation with a good friend who wanted to read a draft of the book I’m currently putting the final touches on (and/or the one after that, which hasn’t been seen by an editor yet but is in pretty good shape).
My take on the issue is that I generally don’t want people* reading something that’s going to be a “real book,” because the final iteration is almost certainly the strongest, and people don’t usually want to read something twice.
[*Beta readers, which I use very sparingly, are a somewhat different issue.]
He and I had an interesting/informative discussion around this, and after trying to explain my thoughts, what I boiled it down to was this: No matter how hard you try or how well intentioned you are, you really can’t read the same book twice.
Not that you can’t read the same actual pages twice. To very good effect, even.
But… will it be the same story—to you, and to your reader-brain—the second time? With the same amount of resonance?
I’m going to posit that no, in some ways it may not be.
An obvious reason is the “aha! factor” will be largely missing. The big reveal, the who-dunnit, the shrewd turn of the screw, the unexpected reversal… none of these will have the impact they originally did upon the reader. Even if they forgot the details in the intervening months between reads, it’ll come flooding back as soon as they get one small bit of what should be foreshadowing (which becomes a full-on spoiler to someone who’s read the book before).
Also… the reader changes with the passage of time.
And… the story also changes in relation to contemporary norms.
And… in some way, the story changes the reader.
As writers, it’s important to realize that all of this really applies to our own work.
Which is why we want to choose carefully when it comes to betas. Not who the betas are (also an important topic we’ll dive into in another post) but when—in the story process—you involve them. Too late in the process (after everything is drafted and revised and re-written and polished and has one foot in the mail) and they almost can’t help you, except to say “I liked it,” or maybe “not my cup of tea.” Like asking for architectural input after the foundation is poured and the walls are up, right?
But there’s also a cost to bringing them in too early. Once they know the story—the surprises and plot twists—sure, they can comment on them. But when they read a more finalized iteration down the road, the work won’t have the same impact as the first time they read it. After a while—and after enough reads—a work seems to attain a certain inevitability about it, which makes it harder to imagine things being different than they already are.
One answer is to not bring them in until you feel the work is somewhat “readable,” as a whole, but not totally buttoned up. That way they can comment on how it works as a story. Realizing that their later reads will be more about the actual writing—including any new revs, of course—without as much information about how the story as a whole affected them. (Because they’ve already been inoculated against plot impact, as discussed.)
Another option is to use more than one beta, but only use each one once. Maybe get input from someone who’s good with story development early on and someone with more of a copy editor mindset for later versions, etc. (Really, this is a personal decision based on what you want from betas. Some writers want input regarding where the story should go, and others mostly just want to know if there were any sections that “didn’t work,” so they know where to focus revising.)
But the main thing to keep in mind—as a writer—is that this effect will impact your view of the book also. (For one thing, by the time it’s ready for primetime you’ll have been through it so many times that if you’re not careful, your brain will auto-correct any mistakes as you read.) But beyond that, when you know a story this well, you’ve built up a mental model of it that contains much more than is actually on the page. (Everything currently in the ms plus everything you’ve written then cut plus everything in your internal backstory plus everything you’ve ever thought about it.) It’s all there, in your mind… but it’s not all there on the page.
The nearly-impossible task is to read exactly what’s on the page and then make editorial decisions based only on that, ignoring all the other story-related stuff in your brain. Time away from the story can help here. As can relying on outside input for a more objective view. Which brings us full circle, to an awareness that because we can only read a story “for the first time” once, we should shepherd our early readers carefully.
Having said all this, I want to reinforce that re-reading a book is often really rewarding and valuable. (A worthy topic we’ll dig into later.) We have a librarian friend who has taught us the huge benefits of deep re-reading, and I have to say that yes, I really can get something new from each re-read of the same book.
But perhaps it’s not really the same book…
Or more to the point, perhaps I’m not the same reader…
There’s a belief floating out there in the wild that the thing that really matters when it comes to writing a book is… a great idea.
And the complement to that is: Once you have the ‘great idea,’ the hard part is done and you’re home free. I mean, to this very day you’ll see books and films where either a lost writer gets the “aha” moment of a great idea and everything is roses from then on, or maybe someone steals the brilliant idea and then of course they have a runaway bestseller from it. Because of course it’s all about the great idea.
Don’t get me wrong. Having a great idea is a good thing. But even if it’s one of those one-in-a-hundred ideas that actually sticks around for a while after popping into your head—to the point where it’s a potential story-starter—it’s just the very beginning of the job.
Because the idea is the easy part.
Because the idea is where the work starts, not ends.
Because a good idea without equally good execution isn’t worth the napkin it’s scrawled on.
Sort of like how thinking of a cool destination (Aha! I’ll go to Bora Bora!) isn’t the trip in itself… there’s all the planning and preparation and travel and then—once you’ve arrived—you still need to get out there and make the most of your time in the new location if you want to have an adventure worth remembering. Or how thinking of a college major (Aha! I’ll get a degree in computer engineering!) isn’t exactly the same as actually going to a university and doing the hard work of earning a degree.
The idea for a book is not the book.
Not even close.
In a workshop I gave, we were discussing this. I said, “So let’s think of a basic story idea. Maybe there’s a boy and a girl. Or any two people of your choosing. And maybe they annoy the hell out of each other, so they avoid each other. Then they get thrown together and they have to actually, like, work together… and talk to each other… and spend time with each other. And both of them find themselves maybe… actually… liking the other? No way! But it can’t be denied—there’s something there. But then events conspire to tear them apart. And they’re both miserable but they try to hide it, because of course they officially don’t like each other. Life totally sucks for both of them until they admit it—they want to be together. Then they have to go through a very challenging situation to finally get back together—and maybe resolve the problem they were originally thrown together to work on, in some creative way—but when they finally do admit their truth and get together… ta-da! It’s so worth it.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s the basic plot for maybe half the books ever written. But if we each wrote a book based on it, we’d end up with a bunch of very different books. Because we’re different people, and different writers. And what we bring to the table… our personal choices… our unique voices… all our thought and work and craft in the actual writing of it… is what makes the book special, not just the germ of an idea that sparked it.”
And as important as idea generation is, I think part of what bothers me about the paradigm that the idea itself is the special/creative/magical part of being a writer is that it takes away from all the other things it takes to write a book. Almost like someone is implying, “Oh, of course you wrote that book, because you had that idea. That was the hard part. Maybe if I’d had that idea, I could have written it too.” (Maybe. Maybe not. But see above—we’re all different, and we’d almost certainly write different books even if we started from the same idea.)
As any writer knows, the most common question people ask you is, “Where do you get your ideas?” We went into this in detail in an earlier post, but—assuming the asker is an adult—it’s feels sort of like someone standing next to you in the middle of a massive food court and turning to you with, “Where do you get food?” (You might be tempted to say, “Like, dude… it’s literally all around you.” But that’s not helpful, because if they knew that, they wouldn’t be asking.)
[We can talk about idea generation in another post, but in my opinion it’s often a combo of (a) making a regular habit of playing “What if?” in your head, and (b) taking two seemingly disparate things—panda bears and peanut butter?—and finding some interesting commonality or mash-up involving them, in a unique and/or thoughtful and/or entertaining way.]
So yes, absolutely spend some time daydreaming and coming up with story ideas. And when you get a “keeper” idea you think is worth developing, go ahead and write a book from it, using that idea as the initial spark. And when you’re all done and the manuscript is written, revised, edited, and polished to the best of your abilities, go back and compare the relative weight of the initial idea with that of all the time and work and emotion and craft you put into writing it. I think you’ll likely find that the initial idea, as important as it is, isn’t nearly as significant as the actual writing of it.
What do these books have in common…?
The Scorpio Races
The Fault in our Stars
The Running Dream
100 Sideways Miles
The Queen’s Gambit
Even Road Rash, not that I’m placing it with the above. Heck, even my new YA novel which will pub in the fall of next year. And the one after that, which I’m currently polishing…
These books have lots of struggles, lots of challenges, lots of setbacks and victories and defeats and triumphs. All done differently. But what they have in common is… no bad guy. Not that they don’t have unlikeable secondary characters, even some downright jerks and full-on asshats. But…
No arch enemy.
No mortal opponent.
No “antagonist” in “direct conflict” with the “hero” as she/he is “set into action” by the “inciting incident” and struggles to achieve their “hidden desire.”
To be clear, I’m NOT saying that having an antagonist (or even an old-fashioned villain) is a bad thing. Many stories have one, including some great works. (Where would Harry be without Voldemort? Or Luke without Darth? Or Frodo without Sauron?)
Bad guys can be great—they can add danger, action, and conflict, and there’s wonderful satisfaction in seeing a bad guy get his comeuppance in a story’s climactic scene (whether that’s an embarrassing defeat or full-on death and destruction).
So… Yay, bad guys!
My point is that novel writing is far less formulaic and far more open-ended and organic than some would have us believe. Of course, one benefit of having specific, Boolean rules is that it’s pretty easy to bundle them all up and say, “Apply these to achieve success!” And then simply list all the mechanical attributes that supposedly go into a work of great fiction.
On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to sell a book (or program or system or webinar) that says: “This is art. There are no rules. No formula. Do what you want. The challenge is to do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and recommend it. Work hard. Don’t shop it until it’s absolutely as good as it can be. Never stop improving, never stop working on your craft. Maintain a positive attitude, and for God’s sake, persevere. Good luck.”
(There. My goofy little take on how to succeed as a writer. Free of charge.)
As you’ve likely guessed, this post actually has nothing to do with antagonists. It has more to do with the fact that if a foundational aspect of the conventional wisdom on “How to write a novel!” can be completely missing from many novels—including some beloved, critically acclaimed, bestselling books—then maybe all the other CW* around “how to write a novel” is suspect as well…?
[*As I’ve alluded to before, I think the reason for much of this—the paint-by-numbers CW we often see online around writing novels—can be attributed to the fact that although they seem similar, in reality a screenplay and a novel are about as alike as a song and a poem. In other words, not very. It may make for an easier sales pitch to pretend they’re the same, but IMO it makes for less engaging novels. And of course, if you want to sell a manuscript the primary goal is to engage the buyer… whether agent, editor, or reader.]
All of which makes you wonder if disrupting some of the other foundational aspects of writing CW can lead to interesting stories. Like, what about a story that starts so ‘in medias res’ that there literally is no inciting incident? (Maybe we’re fully in when we join the story. ‘And We Stay’ by Jenny Hubbard had some of this vibe about it, to great effect IMO.) Or instead of none, maybe a story that has two or more inciting incidents, perhaps one pushing the protagonist toward the cliff and the other completely over it? (My book-after-next has a whiff of this.) Or maybe a book where the climax of the story is truncated because it turns out that the protagonist simply showing up for the big battle IS the climax, not whether he actually wins or loses? (‘We Are the Goldens’ by Dana Reinhardt had something sort of similar, where the story ended at what might have been the inciting incident in a more typical story.)
And so on…
My point being there is a lot of fertile creative ground out there—much of it relatively untouched—and the novel might be the perfect vehicle to use in exploring it. Because with a book, if you can think it, it can happen. Period. No extra budget needed for special effects, no two-hour runtime limit, no three-minute song length needed to get airplay. It’s wide open. And if the world you need to set your story in doesn’t exist… you simple build the damn thing.
The sky’s the limit, as long as you follow the dictum listed earlier:
Do whatever you want… as long as you do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and enjoy it.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.