The fundamental things apply
As time goes by
I don’t know about you, but as time goes by I forget. Between writing (or fretting because I’m not) and marketing (what little I do) and keeping an eye on sales (it only takes one eye at this point) and the occasional obsession with reviews, I lose sight of fundamentals every author should remember. Maybe I need to print them out and post them on the giant bulletin board above my monitor, alongside the next novel’s murder map and my train ticket to Bordeaux and the yellow button that says, “I may be over the hill, but I can still get back on top when I want to.”
Today, I thought I would post them here, because maybe you’ve forgotten, too. That way, I can remind both of us. So here, for our collective edification, are 5 fundamentals every writer should keep in mind.
- Write for Yourself First. Don’t start out thinking about sales or gold stars or even the reader. Stay true to your story; it’s a world only you can offer. Writing at its best is like giving birth. Your imagination is pregnant with a cast of characters and everything that happens to them. You don’t want to deliver a clone, simply because the kid might be more marketable and people will like you better.
- Improve Your Art. Call me a cockeyed idealist, but I consider writing an art, and frankly, I don’t care whether we’re talking literary coming-of-age novels, romances, or zombie apocalypses. You’re a wordsmith, and practice should make perfect—or as nearly perfect as we can get in this crazy world. Get feedback from fellow authors and editors and proofreaders. Pay attention to what you like about your favorite authors. Go back and (oh, God!) look at your earlier work and pinpoint what you could have done differently (read: better). Always, always be on the lookout for ways to grow as a writer. Which brings us to our next point ….
- Keep It Simple, Silly. In the past few months, I’ve come close to banging my head against the wall any number of times. Why? Because authors who should know better—talking best-sellers here—have suddenly decided more words trump fewer, and the more highfaluting the adjective, the better. WRONG doesn’t quite cover this phenomenon. Imagine your next sentence is your hand. You want your words to deliver a slap or a punch? Keep your writing compact. This advice goes hand in hand with fundamental #4.
- Write Like You Talk. Tattoo this Robertson Davies quote on your forehead (backwards, so you can read it in the mirror): “I think of an author as somebody who goes into the marketplace and puts down his rug and says, ‘I will tell you a story’ ….” When you write, tell the story the way you would tell it to a group of friends sitting around a campfire (S’mores optional). This is what we call your “voice.” This voice is as unique as your DNA, flowing directly from who you are and setting you apart from every other author who ever has or ever will write a word. (This is a good thing.)
- Leave Some Gaps. Want to draw your reader in? Leave room for his/her imagination. By that I mean, give just enough detail. No need to describe every wart, whisker, or button on the armchair. Let your audience fill in the lesser blanks and get on with the action. Instead of getting bored, your reader will unconsciously invest a bit of him- or herself in your story. Plus, you let the reader do some of the work! What’s not to like about that?
Well, there you (we) have them. I’m sure you could name other fundamentals, and I’d be obliged if you would share. Seriously. Post a comment here, or on my Facebook page or just shoot me an e-mail, and I’ll share. I’ll be waiting to hear from you ….
You know what the problem is with the world today? Too many tags.
Think about it.
Tags on mattresses, threatening you with Alcatraz if you tear them off. Tags on shirt collars, sanding the fine hairs off the back of your neck. The tags on your dog’s collar that sound like the chimes on Big Ben every time she shakes her head. The tags on your car that cost you an arm and a leg. Facebook tags: “Hey, Bob, was that really you with a can of Bud in one hand and a can of whipped cream in the other?”
See what I mean?
Tags are seditious, that’s what they are. Especially when you’re writing dialogue. (Slick transition, yes?)
Okay, let’s stop here a second, so I can make one fact very clear: I AM NOT AGAINST ALL TAGS, ALL THE TIME. But IMHO, the only good tag is a vital tag, i.e., one that serves a definite purpose. What, you want examples? Fair enough. Vital tags ….
- identify the speaker, when the flow of dialogue may be confusing without them (e.g., there are more than two speakers or when a block of narrative has interrupted the dialogue),
- contribute emotional data (e.g., reveal excitement, joy, anger, desperation, sadness, etc.),
- help control the rhythm of a conversation,
- add humor,
- and do other stuff I probably can’t think of right now.
When it comes to tags, my first personal rule of thumb is this: If you can avoid using a tag, do it. If there’s any other way to identify the speaker, use it. (This is what we wordsmiths call a Compound Rule.)
My second personal rule of thumb is this: If you decide to use a tag, don’t get silly with it.
Now lest you think I’m just overly picky, I’m not the only author with strong feelings on the subject. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King comes down hard on excessive tagging. He also claims said is the only tag you need, but I beg to differ. (Pretty gutsy, huh? Arguing with one of the most prolific, best-selling authors of our time?) There’s nothing wrong with a said here or there, but too many saids make me want to beat my head against the wall. Robert B. Parker, one of my favorite authors, is a famous example of what I like to call the Said Syndrome. If saids were pepper, his otherwise marvelous dialogue would give me heartburn. (And that’s not counting the passages where he bounced said around intentionally to evoke humor. Believe it or not, said can be funny, but you want to make sure you’re funny with it on purpose.)
So how can you identify the speaker without resorting to tags? Well, one way is to sandwich some identifying action into the conversation.
I shook my head. “I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I.” Hank washed a hand down his face. “But damn it, I can’t think of any other way.”
If only two people are talking, you can get away without tags and/or description for a long time. Probably not indefinitely, but for a page or two. Straight, unadorned dialogue is a great way to pick up the pace or deliver a lot of back-story/facts in a hurry. Of course, as with any writing technique, too much is too much. Pages and pages of dialogue stripped of tags and/or description can become tedious.
Dialogue involving more than two speakers needs tags. Only way I know of to help the reader keep everybody straight. Okay, I might need tags in this case, but I still like to be stingy with them. Say three people are in the room and two are going back and forth. Maybe I can dispense with a few tags there. Soon as the third guy jumps in with his two cents, I gotta have ’em. (Tags, not his two cents.)
Unlike Brother King, I like to vary tags, but in a natural way. Meaning, I don’t turn contortionist or wear out my thesaurus trying to come up with unusual tags. I always pay attention to context when I pick a tag, making it do as much work as possible. Here are a few I use:
- interjected (I don’t use this often, but I like it when it fits.)
- pointed out
- offered (as a suggestion)
Here are a few tags I have seen in best-selling novels that, to my ear at least, sound stilted and silly:
- proclaimed (unless used humorously)
- cried (I admit, this one seems very popular. Different strokes, as they say.)
- drolled (Really?)
- demanded (I always figure this should be understood from the context.)
- any tag that calls to mind waistcoats and bustles (Unless the characters in question are actually wearing waistcoats or bustles. Period pieces have a voice all their own.)
I reserve final judgment on my tags (or lack of them) until I read the dialogue out loud. If I can hear the give and take, and if I don’t stumble over any of the tags, I figure I’m on the right track. Last test is to let somebody else read it and see if they can follow along.
Writing dialogue can be a real challenge, but it’s also fun. Just keep it natural and don’t start playing tag.
Six months ago, I would have filed the idea under “Desperate Acts.” Or maybe “Last Resort.” Things change.
I’ve gone indie.
By choice, on purpose. (Yes, I know it’s redundant, but work with me here. Emphasis, it’s all about emphasis.)
What I’m trying to say is, I didn’t decide to self-publish (e-publish, actually, but I couldn’t figure out the hyphenation) because I’m afraid. Like, “Golly, what if I don’t have the talent to succeed via the traditional route?” I’ve gone that route before, which leads me, rightly or wrongly, to believe I could—maybe, perhaps, with luck—do it again.
Furthermore, despite a couple (soul-crushing) boilerplate rejection e-mails, I still believe in my book, Amanda’s Eyes.
So why did I do it?
Providence, baby. Providence, followed by hours of arduous research and equally arduous soul-searching.
The last agency I submitted to didn’t reject me. They lost me. Not their fault, of course. Electronic submissions can go astray as easily as the best-laid plans of mice, men, and novelists. But the end result was the same, namely, six months of my life gone, spent in waiting. (As we all know, except in very rare cases, the wheels of traditional publishing do grind exceedingly slowly.) I tried to resubmit, but the submission got kicked back. This unwelcome event triggered a major meltdown (mine). Thank God nobody was here to see it.
Now, pay attention, because this is where Providence stepped in.
As I was moping and shaking my fist at the heavens—”Why me?”—I happened across an article called “How Amazon Saved My Life.” I read it. And said, “Zounds!” (Or something to that effect.)
I shifted into research gear and, what do you know, lo and behold. Even best-selling authors are going indie! Hokey smokes, Bullwinkle! So I started listing pros and cons.
- No editor. This is a biggie. I had a crackerjack editor at Bantam, and I’m here to tell you, a gifted editor is worth his/her weight in gold. Maybe more, because Joy Abella’s input was priceless. Yes, I know you can hire editors, but that’s assuming you have the means to do so. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t.
- No actual book to hold in your hand and gaze at with pride and awe. This is a bit disappointing. Also, not everyone reads e-books (although sales have doubled in the past year). Heck, some of my friends have already informed me they won’t be reading Amanda’s Eyes, because they don’t read e-books. To that I say, “No comment.”
- No book signings. (Oh, wait. I’m an introvert. I hated books signings. So, this bullet actually belongs under “Pros.”)
- As of this writing, I am 61 years old. (“Yet she sounds so young!” I know. In spirit I haven’t matured much past 25.) As previously noted, the wheels of traditional publishing grind exceedingly slowly. I had to ask myself, “How many 6-month waits can I afford?” Not being morbid, you understand, simply pragmatic. And even if I have 20 or 30 more years, do I want to spend them waiting in 6-month increments? No. Conclusion: Circumvent the system.
- Royalties. I won’t tell you what they were (maybe still are) for beginning authors, but I will say this: Based on my admittedly limited experience, we’re not talking double-digit percentage points. Whereas, on Amazon, the author gets 70%. (Certain conditions do apply, but they’re no kind of straightjacket.)
- Audience. Do you know how many millions of people buy books through Amazon? Or how many of those books are e-books? Look it up sometime and compare it with the print-run usually afforded a novice author’s first books.
- I get to keep the book rights. Period.
- I get to write what I want. Okay, that’s a double-edged sword, because if what I want to write is garbage, I also get to go down in flames. So whoever said freedom was free?
Those aren’t all my reasons for jumping ship, but they’re the important ones. I e-mailed the agency and withdrew my submission. (The one they hadn’t received in the first place, but I wanted to make sure they didn’t waste time on it, if it suddenly showed up. Besides, how many times in your life do you get to tell them, “Forget it!”?)
Amanda’s Eyes will go live on Amazon sometime in the next few hours. The prospect is electric—exciting and slightly terrifying, all at the same time.
I’ve got 5 copies sold, for sure.
Anyway, this blog won’t only be about writing from here on out. I’ll also chronicle my experiences an as indie author. Hopefully, that won’t entail crying in my beer. I hate beer.
Stay tuned for more Adventures in Indie Publishing!
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
Okay, that introductory quote may be a tiny bit misleading. This is not a gardening post. Just this morning I found a wilted leaf on the silk plant in my kitchen. Seriously. Okay, it turns out I got a bit enthusiastic tossing last night’s salad. But given the forlorn, memorial jumble of soil-encrusted clay pots in my garage, you’ll forgive me if I thought, even for a moment, I had managed to kill man-made ivy.
I don’t do plants. Period.
Garden, in this case, is a metaphor for writing. Not that I can speak to how all writing “grows,” but I thought I might share a few tricks and tips—or nuts and bolts … or flotsam and jetsam—about how it grows for me.
(I have imagined responses as varied as, “I knew that,” or, “Say what?” or, “Get real, Crackpot,” or even—in my delusional moments—”Golly gosh, that woman’s a genius!” Might be fun to keep score.)
Anyway, for what they’re worth, here are my favorites.
I read a lot of books in the pursuit of my art, but I’m also a news site junkie. We’re talking human vacuum cleaner, baby. Let’s face it: Now that the news has gone 24/7, they’ll report any- and everything, just to fill the bandwidth. This past week alone I read about the crook who stripped down to his skivvies and greased himself but still got stuck in the chimney; Burger King’s new menu, which apparently happens to bear a strong resemblance to the one at McDonald’s; and Mattel’s latest “socially-conscious” marketing coup, Commander-in-Chief Barbie.
Of course those stories aren’t actual news, they’re filler. Sure, you curl your lip now, but consider this: Filler is where real life happens. Ergo, filler can a veritable gold mine. Especially if you’re looking for ….
- the occasional story idea
- interesting secondary characters
- a nifty turn of phrase
- articles (with photos!) on interior design, fashion, cars, and architecture (Subjects as dear to me as gardening, so I need all the help I can get. You’ve got to put your characters somewhere and dress them up in something, right? Why reinvent the wheel?)
- a heads-up on developing technologies (always a plus for a gal who writes sci-fi)
- a glimpse of the good, the bad, and the ridiculous in human behavior
- proof positive that truth is stranger than fiction could ever be
There’s so much raw material out there, it’s hard to keep track of it all. Or would be, if it weren’t for Evernote, a free app (desktop and mobile) that’s worth its weight in gold. Whenever I come across a gem I want to preserve for future use, I click the “Clip It” button installed on my browser, and … voila! The information, she is mine! But wait. It gets better! I can (and have) filed the information in notebooks, all the better to retrieve it, my dear. I can (and have) synced my account to my iPhone and my Kindle Fire. So my files go where I go. Handy as a pocket on a shirt, right?
I spent the last four-day weekend (spring break is one of the perks of working for a university) reading a book out loud. My book, to myself. The only drawback was dry mouth. The perks were many and splendid. Awkward phrasing and stilted dialogue stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Meandering strands of adjectives left a bad taste, prompting me to look for ways to describe the same thing in fewer words. Justs, verys, reallys, and the all-too-common cut-and-paste fiasco stood in stark (and audible) relief.
Plus, I got to laugh at my own jokes, which sounded twice as clever in voice-over.
No kidding. Reading your stuff aloud is one of the biggest favors you’ll ever do for your work. If reading to yourself makes you feel silly—although, I can’t imagine why it would … you are, after all, a writer, and nothing is sillier than that—find (or pay) a friend or relative to read to. But do it. DO IT!
Speaking of friends and relatives, it doesn’t hurt to give someone a look at the finished manuscript. Not like an editor—”Are you sure you want to use a semicolon there?”—but like a reader. Are there elements that pull them out of the story and and make them say, “Huh?” This is a great way to identify gaps and glitches and places where additional descriptions or background information are in order.
Finally, my latest discovery. I blush to share this one, but what the heck. We’re all crazy writers here, right? Okay, this is what I did. I emailed my manuscript to my Kindle account, with “Convert” as the subject line. The convert in question was the format, and the format I wound up with was a Kindle book. No, this wasn’t an ego trip. I actually did it because, like all writers, I have copies of my manuscripts squirreled away in various places, because I’m paranoid about losing them. I mean, God forbid the house should burn down on the same day my purse (and the jump drive in it) gets stolen, and I have to start all over again. Anyway, that’s why I did it. But a strange thing happened when I pulled it up to see if the conversion took. The manuscript looked … different.
Eureka! A fresh perspective!
If my own work doesn’t look as familiar to me … and it doesn’t … who knows what I might pick up? Will this help me make Amanda’s Eyes a better novel? Stay tuned to find out.
In the meantime, I showed you mine, so how’s about you show me yours? Got tips?
There’s no greater joy in life than editing someone else’s work.
I read that somewhere, and I have to admit the red-pen high is hard to beat, especially when some unwary friend or colleague asks for it. If there are sweeter words in the English language than, “Will you edit this for me?” I’d be hard pressed to come up with them. Why the poor innocents don’t run screaming from the room when the shark-like grin stretches across my face as I start gleefully rubbing my hands together, I’ll never understand. Maybe it’s only the masochists who ask?
But if editing someone else’s work can be a joy forever, it doesn’t come close to the satisfaction I get from editing my own. I love to slash and burn. I do it with a smile.
We’re talking literary liposuction, people. Sucking the fat out of every bloated paragraph.
I root out the pesky really, very, and/or just. Lop off adjectives like they were heads, and I was the Queen of Hearts with PMS. Kick the passive voice clear into next week and obliterate redundancies.
Not that editing is all take and no give. Once in a while, I realize I have to add some detail. I occasionally skimp on elements like background information or how somebody is dressed or how he/she gets from point A to point B. Did our heroine walk, amble, sprint, or wander … and what was she wearing when she did? I’ve got to tell you, I hate writing that stuff. Dialogue? I’m all over dialogue. Unfortunately, dialogue alone does not a novel make. (Or does it? An interesting concept I may explore sometime.)
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, editing is fun.
The trick is knowing when to stop. I’m fairly sure I could edit my my books indefinitely, which would pretty much turn writing into a never-ending exercise in futility. Or self-gratification. Sooner or later, you have to say, “Enough, already!” and devote your energy to the business side, i.e., getting your story out to readers.
Still, as the Good Book says, “There’s a time for every purpose under heaven.”
And now is the time to slash and burn.