How to Use Rules

There is only one ironclad rule in writing: You can do anything you want as long as it works.

However, there are a ton of rules that serve to guide your writing journey. In this post, I listed why I think you’re better off following them than not. I also wrote that a strategy for implementing them is probably a good idea.

That strategy is today’s topic.

Step 1 – Just follow the darn rules.

Show, don’t tell. Avoid adverbs. Be active.

Find a bromide and use it.

You’ll question the effectiveness. You’ll shout, “Why?” and “My way is better!” The truth is that learning to apply the rules will make your writing better, and make it better fast. It’s amazing the difference just a little cleanup of technique will make for you.

Seeing those instant results, and getting much better feedback when you post, provides a lot of motivation to continue your journey.

Step 2 – Seek to understand the rules.

If you want to master the craft, it’s not enough to simply show instead of tell. The fact is that there are times when your best bet is to tell. You have to know when that is.

There’s no help for it but to learn. Understand what showing accomplishes and what telling accomplishes. Understand what the goal for your writing is. If you put all that understanding together, you should be able to discern when to use which technique.

Step 3 – Experiment.

First, deliberately break the rules trying to achieve a certain effect. Second, massage the writing until you think it works. Finally, get feedback from your beta-readers.

You’re trying to develop your ear and your discernment. If you get wide-spread agreement, fantastic. Move one to the next step. If not, go back and try again.

Step 4 – Mastery.

Once you can break a rule and achieve the result you wanted to the satisfaction of your beta readers and your editor, you’ve mastered the rule. Congratulations!

Just a couple of points to remember:

1. It’s almost always a really bad thing if you’re breaking a rule unintentionally. Rule breaking is something that should be done with malice aforethought.
2. Until you’ve mastered the rule, you are absolutely the worst person on the planet who can determine if what you have written works.

Review of The Mythic Guide to Characters

In The Mythic Guide to Characters, Dr. del Drago explains how to create complex characters who fit into your story and who act in a way consistent with who they are.

Why to buy this book: I spent a lot of time in my college days reading psychology books in an attempt to understand how people act. That study helps me greatly as a writer, and that’s the approach that the author brings to this book — to understand characters, you need to understand people. He also goes into detail on how those characters fit into the framework of your story.

Why not to buy this book: My expectation on picking up this book (I think because of the word “guide”) was that it would detail step by step how to make a character relatable, how to present certain character traits, etc. Instead, the book presents how to build characters at a fundamental level. I think that the approach presented is essential for building comprehensive characters, but it’s important for the prospective purchaser to understand that this book takes a different angle than most of the character development books I’ve read.

Bottom Line: Though the book seems written for the plotter instead of a pantser, I think a discovery writer (as one myself) will get just as much out of it. You just have to come at things in the opposite order. While the outliner builds a character sheet and writes the story so that the character’s actions conform to the created personality, the pantser needs to examine his character after the story is finished to make sure the actions are coherent. This book provides the tools to perform those tasks. 5 Stars.

A Message of Hope and of Responsibility

A while back, a guy wrote an article on salon.com about his failed attempts at self publishing. There was a lot of criticism about the piece because it seemed to cast a negative light on self pubbers and the guy didn’t seem to have tried very hard to make his book a success. Hugh Howey recently wrote a counterpoint article. (Links to both at the bottom of this post.)

If you haven’t read these articles, you should. The blogosphere is aflame with posts about the dueling viewpoints — and rightfully so. They express two points of view that I read a lot in my journeys through forums and blogs:

POV 1 – Over 3 million books will be published this year. If yours sells more than a handful, thank the stars for your luck at finding a market.

POV 2 – If your work is good enough and plentiful enough and you market it right, you will find an audience.

Note that I have no idea where I got that number about the quantity of books to be published. I can’t remember and, frankly, have no idea if it’s accurate. I do know that 93.499152168291063% of all statistics are made up.

The voices espousing POV 1 are much more plentiful than those for the counterpoint, and, I must admit, they sometimes give me pause. There are a lot of authors out there who have spent hundreds/thousands of dollars to publish a book and have sold about 50 copies.

Let’s be honest. I’ve read a lot of traditionally published stuff over the years. The majority of it is simply meh. Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of indie and small pub stuff. Overall, I’d say the quality is less than that of the traditional material.

No one is saying, “If you put something out there, no matter how crappy it is, you’ll sell mega copies.” What POV 2 says is, “If you work on your craft and produce stories that are compelling to your audience and you work hard and smart to find that audience, you will succeed.”

What Hugh says in his article, and what Michael Sullivan preaches all the time, is that there are a lot of people out there earning their living from self publishing. Though you wouldn’t recognize them if you hit them with a truck, they do exist, and they’re plentiful.

This view gives me hope.

This view scares me.

If success absolutely can be achieved, the only person I have to blame if I fail is me.

If POV 2 is correct, there are only 5 reasons for failure:

• I didn’t work hard enough at my craft.
• I didn’t work hard enough producing a sufficient quantity of products.
• I didn’t work smart enough in producing something my audience wants.
• I didn’t work hard enough at reaching my audience.
• I didn’t work smart enough in determining how to reach my audience.

I have hope; I can succeed. But, if I don’t, it’s all my responsibility.

Links:

I’m a Self-Publishing Failure by John Winters

Self-Publishing is the future — and great for writers by Hugh Howey

Sorry, Them’s the Rules

Whenever you mention writing rules, you tend to get a lot of pushback. For example:

• Rules hinder my unique voice – For me, writing is all about the best way to convey the story; the words and techniques are just tools for achieving my ultimate goal. If you feel that the words are an art form unto themselves, more power to you. Understand, however, that creating something “unique” means that there isn’t a lot of help out there for you. Right now, you’re a child making watercolors for the refrigerator. As long as you understand that it’s going to be a while before you’re creating masterworks for the museum, that’s fine with me.

• Rules stifle my creativity – In fact, rules help your creativity — your story — shine through. If you’re more concerned with your words than your story, please see the bullet point above.

• Writing is so subjective that there are no rules – Bull. Like it or not, you’re a part of a huge publishing industry, and, like all other industries, there are standards. The moment you put your work up for sale on Amazon, you’re saying, “I’m a professional who has created something worthy to be purchased.” If you haven’t followed the rules, if you aren’t aware of standards, you have created a substandard work. In my mind, you’re no different than the contractor who cuts corners and leaves their client with a leaky roof.

• Rules are oversimplified – I agree, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. It means they should be further explored. If you want to break a rule, understand it first.

I’ve said it before and will do so again — the rules are there for your benefit. Learning them will only help you. However, a methodology for implementing them would probably be of some benefit. Tune in next week for my views on the subject.

Examining the Essentials

As my planned date of publication for my debut novel draws closer, I find myself thinking a lot about what makes a story worthy. What should an author most pay attention to? I came up with 4 essentials.

Essential 1 – Don’t Make Stupid Choices

So your story takes place in some ancient country that I’ve never heard of. Great. I’m sure it’s a wonderful setting, but do you really have to use authentic names for your characters? The five scholars who make the study of that country’s history their lives’ work will be appreciative, but the rest of your potential audience will give up reading when they lose track of who and where.

I do understand that no problem is too great that it can’t be solved, and a creative writer can make anything work.

The truth is, writing something people will want to read is freaking hard. Becoming competent in the basics is challenging enough. I just don’t need additional hurdles.

Essential 2 – Setting and Events Don’t Matter Without Context

Let’s say I’m writing a story and choose for my setting: late evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans on February 7, 2010.

To the vast majority of people, the time and date will have no relevance. The location might have some. They may remember a drunken Mardi Gras. Perhaps they have a pleasant association involving their appreciation of the city’s architecture. Maybe they have a negative feel for the place because an old girlfriend from there dumped them.

I wasn’t there at the time the story takes place, but I get goose bumps thinking about it. If I expect my audience automatically to feel the same way, I’m an idiot. It takes work to get them to that point.

The story isn’t about a setting or the events; it’s about a guy. If I show him as a long-suffering Saints fan — throwing the TV remote at the end of yet another 3-13 season, his despair at a series of poor decisions and squandered opportunities — when I take the reader to the culmination of Super Bowl XLIV with this guy surrounded by throngs of the faithful, I can make any reader feel the same emotion that I do (well, maybe ANY reader. It requires the capacity for emotion, and I have a hard time ascribing any human attribute to a Falcons fan.).

Essential 3 – Tension

If a story is life without the boring parts, tension is what removes the boredom. Truthfully, if you want to find a single area on which to concentrate, pick this one.

A story with the tension done right will keep the reader turning pages even if everything else about it pretty much sucks. The reader will finish the book and say, “That writing was kinda crappy,” but they’ll probably buy your next book.

A Brief Aside…

Not making bad choices is the least important of the essentials. Unfortunately, it’s also the one I’m the best at.

I didn’t come to understand the importance of filtering through your POV character until writing my 3rd draft, and I think it shows. I made a valiant effort in my editing, but I still have work to do.

I don’t think that tension is a weakness of mine, but I also wouldn’t consider it a strength. I’ll try to ramp it up in both the final drafts.

That brings me to:

Essential 4 – Emotion

If you want your reader to love your book, you have to make them feel something. The only way to do that is to get the emotion right, and that’s not an easy proposition. You can’t just tell the reader what the character feels; you have to demonstrate it in a way that makes the reader truly understand. If you go too far, though, it induces eye rolling.

This morning, I used my DVR to catch up on an episode of Grimm. One of the ongoing plot lines is the development of a relationship between two of the supporting characters, and it struck me how well the writers are handling that subplot. They don’t devote a lot of time to it, but, what time they do spend, they use well.

First, the guy is just enough of a loser to be sympathetic. I’m firmly rooting for him to win the girl.

Second, they don’t get sappy. He never pines over her. Instead, they show him doing things that indicate his feelings.

In the episode I watched today, the character, a clock repair man, gives his girlfriend a, wait for it, clock. He doesn’t go on and on about his feelings for her; he goes on and on about how awesome the clock is. The camera cuts to the girl, and her expression indicates her understanding of his meaning. It’s fantastic writing.

Quite simply, the 3rd draft of my novel is not where I want it to be in this respect, but I’m working on it. I found this blog post recently that offers tremendous advice: http://awriterstouch.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/words-concrete-and-stacking-stories-3-tips-for-writing-emotion-in-fiction/

I strongly suggest you check it out.

When Is a Book Ready to be Self Published?

I need your help. I’m confused. Bemused. Befuddled.

I. Just. Don’t. Under. Stand.

(Note to Mark: Not a typo; I separated the single word, “understand,” for effect.)

First, some background info:

I’ve done a lot of work in preparation for self publishing Power of the Mages. I’ve:

• Set a goal of what I want the book to accomplish – Not as much in terms of what the book will bring me as far as money goes but what I want the writing to achieve. I want to immerse my reader and evoke an emotional response.
• Studied writing – I think I know, from a theoretical standpoint at least, what it takes to achieve my goal.
• Taken steps to make sure I’m achieving my goal – I’ve sought feedback from sources that I trust.

Most of all, I continually re-evaluate if the book is ready.

I have an aggressive timeline ahead of me. I’m going to read the 3rd draft in early May, jot down notes, collect beta reader comments, and incorporate all relevant suggestions. By May 8, I want my 4th draft to be in the hands of my editor.

Once I get his analysis, my schedule stays tight — six weeks to get to the finished stage in order to release on August 1.

If I can’t meet that goal or the editor tells me the book needs a lot more work, I’ll push my deadline.

I feel two competing interests warring inside me:

1. The book will never be perfect. I could spend the rest of my life working on it, and, on my deathbed, I’d find something that could be tweaked. At some point, I just have to send it out there and accept that my next book will be better because my skill will be better.
2. If the book isn’t good enough, it does nothing for me. My marketing plan relies on the book compelling readers to recommend it to others. If it’s not at that level, publishing it is pointless.

There are tough decisions to make in my future, and thoughts of that process have me thinking a lot about when and why a book should be self published.

Here’s what I do understand:

Situation 1

An author studies the craft, creates an incredible book, and self publishes it. This situation is the one I want for me. I also want to find these books so that I can recommend them to others.

Situation 2

The author is delusional. Let’s face it, there are many people out there who just don’t get it. They think their book has merit simply because they put in the hard work of writing it. You can usually tell in the first couple of paragraphs that they don’t understand how to construct a simple declarative sentence, much less convey a story. Telling them what they did wrong is pointless; they lack too much basic understanding. While I don’t desire to encounter these books, I, at least, understand what drives the publishing of them. My response is to roll my eyes and move on.

Situation 3

Though the technique and writing may be spotty and editing close to non-existent, there’s something about the story that appeals to the audience. A reader of romance may not care much about story and style as long as the emotional punch is delivered. An action fan might not care about the plot plausibility as long as their pulse is kept pounding. A writer of this type of work has discovered that it’s more profitable to produce the next book than it is to tweak the first one to death. I respect and understand that decision.

Here’s what completely baffles me:

I’m reading a book right now that fits into a fourth situation, and I just don’t understand the concept. If it were an isolated case, I’d simply shrug my shoulders. However, I’ve encountered it many times.

Situation 4

An author is talented enough to create compelling story elements but the work — both from a storytelling and technique standpoint — is unpolished.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 1. It’s not good enough that I can recommend it to others. It feels like a decent second draft.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 2. The author has some skill. He’s not so delusional that he obviously has no idea what makes a book good.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 3. There’s no strong core to the book that’s going to produce an audience.

Simply put, it feels like the author put in a lot of work; got tired before getting to the finish line; said, “Screw it, good enough;” and hit “Publish.”

Don’t let that be you. If you’re that close, please take it the rest of the way. I know it’s a hard road, but making it to the end will be so much more rewarding than collapsing onto the curb.

Push on, writer. Push on.

We Hold These Truths About Self Editing

In my travels around the internet and my adventures critiquing others’ writing, I’ve found two statements about editing that bother me.

“Truth” 1: You can’t edit yourself.

Before you editors in my audience get too worked up, I’m not disagreeing with the premise that a finished, professional product requires the services of a professional editor. I can’t imagine putting a work for sale without, at the very least, a structural edit.

I disagree with an implication I’m getting from the statement, one that I’m not sure was intended but that bothers me a lot — that an author shouldn’t do everything he can to edit himself. After all, if it’s not possible to edit yourself, why should you try?

More indicative of this attitude is a statement I’ve seen too many times to count from those who have been critiqued:

“Truth” 2: I don’t have to (punctuate correctly, understand basic grammar rules, craft a coherent thought, produce more than a jumble of random words, etc.); that’s what editors are for.

That attitude makes my head want to explode.

Here are my truths about editing:

Truth 1 – If you’re going to be a writer, do it right.

You simply must employ the services of an editor before hitting “publish” for your precious manuscript. If you’re not serious enough about producing a quality product that you can’t make that monetary investment, how can you expect anyone to pay for your work?

The most likely results of failure to do so is:

• You embarrass yourself.
• You make the rest of us self-publishers look bad.

If you truly don’t have any money, try crowdsourcing. If your work has any merit, you should be able to generate enough money for at least a manuscript review by a freelance editor. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

Truth 2 – Self edit before the edit.

Three reasons:

• Your editor is a professional, meaning that’s how he makes his livelihood. He’s charging you per word as a way to estimate the amount of time he will spend working on your manuscript. He cannot afford to spend more than that allotted amount of time. Once he hits that limit, he has to move on to the next client. Would you rather he spent his time taking your work from horrible to readable or from good to great?
• Editing is freaking expensive. Unless you have a publisher that’s paying for it or you expect your book to make six figures, it’s simply not cost effective to have an editor fix mistakes that you could have caught.
• An editor can only take your work so far above the starting point. When I critique someone, I can’t do much if I can’t understand what they’re trying to convey. All I can do is point out the confusion. If I can understand but the wording/technique is off, I can suggest a remedy. If the wording/technique is good, I can focus on how that piece fits in with the overall story.

Truth 3 – Sweat the small stuff.

Similar to the attitude that it’s the editor’s responsibility to fix all your wrongs is the attitude that small mistakes don’t matter.

What’s more important — not using adverbs or having a coherent plot?

Obviously the latter.

The big stuff — plot, character, tension, emotion — take your work from useless drivel to readable. If you want to find any audience at all, you must master these elements.

If, however, you want your work to be great, you have to master the small stuff.

No one, beside another writer, is going to read your book and say, “It was awesome. The author didn’t overuse adverbs.”

What’s going to happen is, since you found ways to immerse the reader in lieu of using adverbs, the reader is going to turn page after page until the end and say, “Wow, that was awesome. I couldn’t put it down.”

Each time you make a mistake, you pull the reader out of the story. Enough mistakes, and you lose them.