Sometimes Enough Is Enough

A common mistake that new writers make is over-explaining, particularly with background and backstory. I don’t know if it’s because the writers put so much into the background and feel like it has to be shared (sometimes in excruciating detail), or if they lack confidence in the reader’s ability to follow the story without that information, or some combination of the two (most likely), but there it is. New writers often put in too much stuff that isn’t story.

That was one failing I never had, though I had plenty of others. I’m a pretty minimalist writer. (No, not this kind of minimalism; my desk looks like the site of an illicit intimate encounter between a used bookstore and an electronics shop.) Not only are infodumps anathema, as they should be for all writers of fiction, but I shy away from lavish description as well. Not that there’s anything wrong with lavish description, necessarily; it’s just not my style. I sprinkle in just enough background to (hopefully) keep the reader from getting lost.

This was brought home to me a while back in an amusing way. One of my first reader’s raised some questions about my novel’s background. When I sat down to address this issue, and better explain how magic had influenced the development of technology, the question I asked myself was, “Where can I put in a line about that?”

In a 100,000 word novel, my first reflex was to use no more than a single sentence to fill in this bit of background, and that is exactly what I ended up using.

The preparation and concentration required to work magic made it better suited to the factory and laboratory than the battlefield, but it could be decisive on the battlefield too.
Not out of any sense of minimalism for its own sake, but because it was background, not essential to the plot, and–most importantly–not something that the viewpoint character would dwell on. Exposition works best when it flows naturally from the characters’ perceptions and reactions, rather than interrupting the narrative with a chunk of data.

More significant pieces of background and backstory get whole scenes, but it’s important that those scenes fill other roles as well. Even in a novel, every sentence must serve a purpose, and there should always be a drive to push the plot forward, increase tension, and draw the reader along towards the climax.

When putting in your backstory and exposition, don’t just ask yourself, “Where can I put this?” Also ask yourself, “How little of this can I get away with? Do I even need it at all?”

You might be surprised at how quickly your plot moves along once you jettison the excess baggage.

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Should You Do It?

If you are a new writer, ask yourself these questions before you self-publish your novel:

  1. Has anyone but you read it?

  2. Anyone who doesn’t live with you?

  3. Anyone who has not at any time ever given birth to you?

  4. Did they like it?

If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no,’ you are not ready. Your book is not ready. If you haven’t shown it to anyone, do so. If no one outside your immediate family likes it, it needs work.

(If you can answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions you may be ready, or you may not; this is just the quick cut.)

The point to self-publishing is to take a greater degree of control over the distribution of your work than a traditional publisher gives you. It is not to throw any old shit at the wall and hope it sticks. Write something good, get some honest feedback to confirm that it’s good, then you can proceed. Otherwise, you’re not just making yourself bad, but you make all self-published writers look bad too, and none of us want that.

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Good One

“…you need to keep trying until one of two things happens: you learn to perceive and fix the problems, or it gets really dark and they start throwing dirt over you.” — John Barnes
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Diverse? Really?

It seems that when agents say, “We represent a diverse list of talented, dedicated authors” what many of them really mean is, “We represent a number of different women, who write many types of romance novel.”

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Fact Into Fiction

“The method of which I speak is that which chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief; it leaves out this and changes that; it makes a formal decoration out of such facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author’s temperament, is to a certain extent a portion of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader. If it is a success he accepts it as true.” – W. Somerset Maugham

If there’s a better single sentence on turning real events into fiction, I’ve never seen it.

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The Self-Published Fire Hose of Sewage

A little late to this party, but Chuck makes excellent points. If there is anything that is going to sink the new ebook self-publishing revolution, it is the astonishing volume and poor quality of most self-published books. There is already a reader backlash, and it’s only going to get worse.

The problem isn’t that there are no good self-published book. The problem is that there are so very, very many bad ones that it’s hard for readers to find the good ones, and after they’ve been burned a few times they’re less likely to trust any book that doesn’t come from one of the major houses.

I’m not sure what’s to be done about that. I think there has to be (and eventually will be), some mechanism for guiding readers past the shit, but I’m not sure what it would be. My own vague thought would be some sort of standards committee or clearinghouse. This organization (possibly volunteer) would basically just say, “This book meets certain minimum standards of literacy and production values.” That’s it; nothing about the story being enjoyable, no editing services, just, “It doesn’t make me want to gouge out my eyes with a pen, you can use our logo.”

Not perfect, but it would give readers at least some sort of lifeline to cling to when they venture into those murky self-published waters.

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Add To The Pile Of Crap?

A nice discussion of The Precarious Portentous Perils Of Self-Publishing.

via Write for Your life.

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The Island of Misfit Writers

“A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins, but someone who never wins or quits is an idiot.”

A lot of people will tell young writers, “If you keep at it, eventually you’ll get published.” If your current book is being rejected, you just need to keep trying, and make the next book better.

I’m sure they’re (mostly) just trying to be encouraging and helpful, but I have to wonder how much damage this ‘encouragement’ is doing. The problem, you see, is that it isn’t true. There is absolutely no guarantee that a writer will ever get a book published by one of the big houses, no matter how long and hard they try, no matter how good a writer they become. It is quite possible to be really good, stick with it for years and years, and fail completely.

It’s the dirty little secret of the publishing business; quality doesn’t matter. Once a certain minimum standard of literacy has been (more or less) met, a ‘good’ book doesn’t stand a much better chance of being published than a ‘bad’ one. (Dirty little secret to readers and writers; publishers are doubtless astonished that anyone thinks it could be otherwise.) The publishing business is all about selling books, but how good the book is doesn’t really factor into it. We’ve all read books that leave us wondering, “How did this ever get into print?” It got into print because enough people at the publishing house thought they could sell it, no matter that the writing is mediocre at best. Sometimes they’re right, too, and the book becomes a best seller.

Okay, sure, probably 95% of the manuscripts rejected by any publisher are simply bad. Most of these are rejected on the first page; the wooden dialogue, clunky writing, and (often) poor presentation (typos, bad grammar) are immediately apparent and a form rejection is quickly flicked back at the writer.

Of the remaining 5%, though–dozens or hundreds of novels per year–most are adequately well written, and almost none of them will see print. (I’m talking here about unpublished writers, but it happens to established pros too, more often than they like to think about.) Most of these books will be rejected for reasons having little or nothing to do with how good they are. Maybe the intern sifting through the slush pile just didn’t like it. Maybe it got lost. Maybe the editor thinks it’s too similar to another book she just bought. Maybe it’s too similar in appeal to what one of their big name writers does, and they don’t want to threaten that gravy train. Maybe it’s not similar enough to what they already sell and they aren’t sure how to market it. Maybe the editor got interrupted partway through reading it, forgot where she was, and just stuffed a form rejection in the envelope. Maybe it touches some hot-button issue the publisher doesn’t want to touch. Maybe she has a cold and is grumpy and rejecting everything that day. Publishers need new books, and new authors, to stay in business, but reading submissions is only a small part of an over-worked editor’s day (usually done outside office hours, in fact), and rejecting a submission is a lot less work than accepting it.

This can lead to a lot of angst and confusion on the part of new writers. On the one hand, they have people telling them, “If you’re not selling, you just need to keep at it and write a better book.” On the other hand, their best efforts keep being rejected, without any feedback as to why. Probably every writer, at some point, has asked herself, “What’s wrong with this? Why isn’t it good enough? What do I have to do to make it good enough?”

It’s entirely possible that there isn’t anything wrong with it. That there isn’t anything you can do to make it any better. That all there is to do is keep trying and see if you get lucky, because luck counts for about as much as talent. Maybe more.

How do you know when you’re good enough, just not lucky enough? That’s the young writer’s dilemma; you probably don’t. Your writer’s group, if you have one, probably doesn’t have any better insight than you do. If you know an established pro, she can probably tell you, if you can convince her to read your manuscript, but most pros are reluctant to do this even for friends. Especially for friends. There’s that 95% who really aren’t good enough, remember, who also bug established writers for an opinion, and until someone reads your unpublished manuscript there is a natural (and usually justified) tendency for them to think it’s awful.

This is why some writers keep trying to break into the established publishing houses rather than self-publishing; that contract (and check, small as it may be) is a validation that they are good enough, validation that they can’t get any other way. Let’s face it; your mom or your spouse saying that your book is really nice just isn’t the same as a four or five (hah) digit check from a publisher.

So what do you do if you’re a young writer, trying to break in and not getting anywhere? Simple; keep plugging at it, hoping you’re good enough, trying to get better, and waiting for that lucky break. Or take your case directly to the people by self-publishing, though you need luck there as well. Or bag it; give up and try to find some other passion. (I said simple, not easy.)

Whichever way you go, you can, if you like, hold your head high and tell yourself that it may not be you that’s lacking. Many talented writers over the generations have toiled in obscurity, never getting that break, never getting the recognition they probably deserved. You are in a distinguished, if obscure and often bitter, company.

And the world really does need ditch diggers, too.

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Don’t Forget To Splice Your Commas

A while back I tried hanging around on some of the Internet’s writing forums. Not because I really expected to learn anything myself, though you never know–as I talked about earlier I’ve been at this for a while. Rather, I wanted to see if talking about writing more regularly would help keep me focused, and maybe I could help out some young writers in the process.

I was, I think, able to help a few people, and it was instructive to see how some young writers approach the craft, but overall the experiment did not go well.

A young man (still in high school as it turned out, though that wasn’t immediately apparent) asked for information on getting published. Not how to write, but specifically publication. There was a problem with his post, though; it was semi-literate, with as many or more misspelled words than correct ones, and the idea of punctuation and capitalization seemed quite foreign to him. I, and several other people, suggested that he practice the craft some more before worrying about getting published.

This lad, unfortunately, did not like that advice. He insisted, with rising heat, that he knew how to write very well; he got A’s in English and was always correcting his family’s grammar. He simply couldn’t be bothered to take the time to write properly in a web forum post. (I don’t think he ever did manage even one grammatically correct sentence in any of his posts.) Worse, several other forum denizens jumped in to defend him, calling us all a bunch of big meanies for telling this lad that he should learn how to write before worrying about getting published. His enthusiasm was obviously much more important than any mere skill or craft.

That was when I decided that perhaps my time was best spent elsewhere, and I signed off.

Craft matters, you see. No one cares how excited the writer was when writing a story. An editor is going to take one look at your sloppy manuscript and think, “This person has no idea what they’re doing. Even if the story is good, it’s going to take a ton of work to hammer the text into shape and I’ve got a thousand other manuscripts here on my desk. I bet I can find something at least as good that’s less work.”

You don’t intend to submit your work to traditional publishers? You think your story is so good, so infused energy and enthusiasm, that readers won’t mind a few grammatical errors? Hah. The reader comes alone to the page, and if it is rife with grammatical and spelling errors then your enthusiasm doesn’t matter. She will more likely than not turn away and read something more welcoming. Not only because the sloppy text is unreadable (though certainly that too), but because it makes you, the writer, look bad. When a reader lets a writer into her head to tell her a story, she has to feel confident that he knows what he is doing. Showing the reader up-front that you cannot handle the basics of the language does not inspire that confidence.

This kid’s delusion about knowing how to write grammatically correct English is a common one. I’ve seen numerous people say that they know how to write properly, but don’t have the time to do it for a simple forum post/Facebook comment/blog comment/etc. That is, to be perfectly blunt, bullshit. Everyone makes a typo now and then, but if you consistently make gross errors in spelling, capitalization, and general composition it is simply because you don’t know how to do it right, and if you have any serious interest in becoming a writer you’d better learn.

Here’s the thing: If you really know what you’re doing, it doesn’t take any more effort to do it right.

Take the time to hone the fundamentals of your craft. When your understanding of grammar is deep enough to be intuitive, when–barring the odd typo–you get it right most of the time without having to think about it (or pull the style guide down off your shelf, though you should certainly have one there just in case), then you have freed yourself to concentrate on storytelling. And that’s what it’s all about.

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Give ‘Em The Heater

In some ways, writing fiction is like being a baseball pitcher. (And in one very important way it’s completely different, but we’ll get to that.) Sometimes you have to get something by the reader, and you have a variety of tools for doing so.

The unfortunate fact is that no story of any length is completely airtight. Quite often, if the reader stops to think about things, they may spot holes in your plot, or an anachronism, or begin to doubt some character’s motivation, or some other thing you’d just as soon they didn’t. Or perhaps you want to misdirect the reader, to set up a plot twist later; you have to have clues to the impending twist, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when the twist is revealed, but you don’t want her picking up on it too soon.

You might finesse it; throw the reader a curve or change up, that looks like it’s going one way, but ends up going another. Or you might try to just blow it past her, moving events along so quickly that she has no time to stop and reflect. Either way, you have to execute with skill.

Here’s a case where the author didn’t execute properly. In THE PARTNER John Grisham tries to get a few things past the reader. (Spoilers ahead, if that applies to a thirteen-year-old book.) First, he raises the question of who sold out runaway lawyer Patrick Lanigan, leading to his capture, torture, and extradition to the United States to stand trial for a slew of crimes. Grisham drops hints that it was Lanigan’s Brazilian girlfriend, but isn’t very convincing. The reader (most readers, I think, though perhaps I am overestimating the average reader) recognizes the slider coming out of his hand and is not fooled. Only two people could have betrayed Lanigan; the girlfriend and Lanigan himself. We don’t really believe that it was the girlfriend, so it is obvious from fairly early in the book that Lanigan himself must have tipped off his pursuers in exchange for the reward money. And in fact, near the end of the book, it is revealed that that is exactly what happened; after years on the run Lanigan got tired of looking over his shoulder and dropped a dime on himself (in exchange for a couple million dollars).

This exposes a plot hole big enough to sail a carrier battle group through. If Lanigan was tired of running, there was no need for him to arrange for his own capture by unscrupulous private investigators, then return to the US to stand trial. All he had to do was open negotiations with the FBI from the safety of Brazil and, with the improbable masses of documentation he has, settle matters without all the unsightly fuss of torture and arrest. This would have made for a very short book, unfortunately. Grisham tries to finesse this point past the reader, fails, and so fails the book. He hangs the curve ball, and the reader hits it out of the park.

The second place where Grisham really fails in this book is the ending. He tries a surprise twist, but it is completely unconvincing. His curve bounces in the dirt and rolls to the backstop.

(About two-thirds of the way through the book I found myself thinking, “I hope Grisham doesn’t have the girl run off with the money at the end. That would be really stupid.” And it was.)

The opening of the book, though, where Grisham relies on velocity, works pretty well. Perhaps the heater is his best pitch?

Like a pitcher, the writer cannot keep trying the same thing and hope to have success. You might blow something past the reader once, or drop a plot curve in for a strike, but if you probably aren’t going to be able to blow two or three plot holes or dubious character actions past the reader. She will eventually catch on, and once that happens you’ve lost her. Use the same trick over and over and the reader will come to expect it. (I’ve enjoyed several of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, but his persistent gimmick of going to great lengths to disguise a character’s identity, trying to trick the reader into thinking that one character is actually another, finally turned me off.) Mix things up; if you used a sex scene one time to keep the reader from thinking about the clues you just planted, next time use a fight. Or some other entertaining digression. (Royale with cheese?) Keep the reader guessing about what you’re going to throw next, and you will both be happier with the outcome.

That, you see, is the biggest difference between a pitcher and a writer (aside from quibbles about physique, and possibly spitting), is that the pitcher wants to beat the hitter. They are in opposition. The writer wants to delight and entertain the reader. You don’t want to fool the reader to make her look bad, but rather to increase her enjoyment of your work.

Even if, sometimes, you have to just rear back and blow something past ’em.

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