Mad Raving

Don’t Buy The Bullshit

I’ll be brief. PIPA/SOPA isn’t about ‘protecting intellectual property rights.’ It’s about censorship, and giving big media companies (through the efforts of their paid mouthpieces in Congress), the ability to control what people see on the wild Internet.

So, you know, fuck them.

Productivity Writing

Close the Window, Pick Up The Phone

I was writing at the library the other day and for some reason my laptop wouldn’t latch onto the library’s WIFI. When I had to look up something or other, do a quick bit of research, I used my iPhone.

It worked. No Internet on the laptop kept me focused, but I wasn’t completely cut off from whatever facts I thought I needed. The extra step of picking up the phone to get to the Internet (and the low speed and small screen), kept me from lunging for it every time I paused in my writing, the way I might on the computer.

Give it a try. Unplug your computer from the Internet, or turn off your WIFI, do your fact checking on your phone, and write. If you don’t have an Internet-capable phone, go back to the old trick; slap [lookitup] in the text where you need to check something and move on. Go back later and fill in the gaps.


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.


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.


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

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.”


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.


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.


Add To The Pile Of Crap?

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

via Write for Your life.


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.